With growing evidence that commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides are linked to bee deaths, creating increased vulnerability to parasites even in minute doses, it's little wonder that calls have been mounting for a ban on neonicotinoids until they are conclusively proven as safe.
It's also little wonder that pesticide manufacturer Bayer CropScience has been on the charm offensive. Their announcement that they were launching two "bee care centers" to promote further research was welcomed with caution by some, but others have noted that Bayer has a history of pushing faulty science to promote its own agenda.
The long battle to gain access to the results of Bayer's safety testing of clothianaidin pesticides from the EPA, for example, eventually revealed that the studies were conducted on a tiny patch of neonicotinoid treated canola that bore no relation to bee's foraging area.
Beekeeper Tom Theobald wrote about the problems with Bayer's research in Bee Culture back in 2010:
Here’s what the life cycle study of bees and canola consisted of: four colonies of bees were set in the middle of one hectare (2½ acres) of canola planted from treated seed, with the bees free to forage over thousands of surrounding acres in bloom with untreated canola, which they most surely did. What do you think the results were?
They were exactly what Bayer wanted of course.
So it's in this context that I was interested to hear from a disgruntled beekeeper friend that one of Bayer's bee researchers was doing the rounds of the local beekeeping associations. He was ostensibly invited to our local chapter to talk about bee foraging, although my friend reports that the first 50 minutes were a sales pitch for the new bee care centers.
Among the tidbits of information gleaned from his talk was an assertion that powdered sugar shakes—a popular organic treatment and/or test method for varroa mites which involves dusting hives with sugar, and causing varroa mites to fall to the floor—do not work. There is, I should note, a valid controversy here—many beekeeping experts do assert that powdered sugar shakes are a means to test for varroa, not an effective control method. But in order to come up with a valid answer to that controversy, you need to do some valid science. And that's where my friend took issue:
He said in his "research" sugar shakes do not work and are not effective. When prodded and asked multiple times it came to lite he was doing a 3 way test/study. He was comparing sugar to 2 other chemicals, one of which Bayer was making. He came out and said, or slipped, that he had done the doses in 20 grams because that is the same dosage as the other chemicals....so he also did 20 grams of the powered sugar shake. That's less that one ounce...right? He only did 2 treatments, 2 weeks apart, and then called sugar shakes ineffective in helping bees!
As you'll see from the video below, most beekeepers who are using sugar shakes as an actual treatment are likely to be using considerably more sugar and at more frequent intervals. (My friend recommends using a cup of sugar—about 28 grams—every week for at least 4 weeks.)
When the topic of bee foraging eventually did come up, the bee expert shared his knowledge of bee foraging habits, noting that bees can forage between 2 and 6 miles depending on the quality and quantity of food available which can be divided into 3 zones or rings. My friend tells me that the research shared a slide showing the first, inner zone alone covers over 3,000 acres—which of course conflicts more than a little with the research conducted on 2.5 acres that Bayer has been pushing to defend neonicotinoids.
This is, of course, a second hand account of a talk I did not attend. There are valid controversies and discussions over whether chemical treatment of bees is necessary for controlling pests and diseases, or whether we have coddled our bees too much and a focus on "tough love" beekeeping and survivor genes would create a stronger population of pollinators. But we must assess the evidence being presented in the context of the interests of those presenting it.
I do not pretend to have all the answers. But it's clear from my friend's response to this talk that Bayer may have a hard time convincing many in the beekeeping community that their intentions are altruistic. Given that neonicotinoid bans elsewhere have resulted in significant growth of bee populations, there's a strong case to be made for applying the precautionary principle. I have a feeling that Bayer CropScience will not be the ones making that case.