10/9/10

Looking under the hood of a much-reported study

A recently released study from the University of Montana, Missoula and Army scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center finds that the widely reported "colony collapse disorder" among commercial honeybees is due to the tag-team effect of a previously unknown virus and a well-known fungus called Nosema ceranae.

The New York Times picked up the story (and ran it under the breathless headline "Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery"). It has lots of juicy elements, including a high-tech new tool that can analyze samples of dead bees for the presence of viruses. At last—technology and improved chemical treatments are riding in to save the day for bees, right?

Not so fast, writes Katherine Eban at Fortune:

What the Times article did not explore -- nor did the study disclose -- was the relationship between the study's lead author, Montana bee researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, and Bayer Crop Science. In recent years Bromenshenk has received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination. Indeed, before receiving the Bayer funding, Bromenshenk was lined up on the opposite side: He had signed on to serve as an expert witness for beekeepers who brought a class-action lawsuit against Bayer in 2003. He then dropped out and received the grant.

Bromenshenk's company, Bee Alert Technology, which is developing hand-held acoustic scanners that use sound to detect various bee ailments, will profit more from a finding that disease, and not pesticides, is harming bees...

As for the Bayer-Bromenshenk connection, in 2003 a group of 13 North Dakota beekeepers brought a class-action lawsuit against Bayer, alleging that the company's neonicotinoid, Imidacloprid, which had been used in nearby fields, was responsible for the loss of more than 60% of their hives. "My bees were getting drunk," Chris Charles, a beekeeper in Carrington, N.D., and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told me in 2008. "They couldn't walk a white line anymore -- they just hung around outside the hive. They couldn't work."

...The beekeepers tried to enlist more expert witnesses, but others declined, according to two of the beekeeper plaintiffs, in large part because they had taken research money from Bayer and did not want to testify against the company. One who agreed -- Bromenshenk -- subsequently backed out and got a research grant from Bayer. Bromenshenk insists the two actions were unrelated. "It was a personal decision," he says. "I, in good conscience, couldn't charge beekeepers for services when I couldn't help them." He adds, "Eventually, the lawyers stopped calling. I didn't quit. They just stopped calling."


Homegrown Evolution analyzes:

I think what's missing in bee research, in general, is a whole systems approach to the problem. Not only are commercial beekeepers trucking their bees thousands of miles, but they are using miticides, not allowing the bees to form their own comb, limiting the numbers of drones, breeding weak stock and exposing the bees to pesticides such as imidacloprid (manufactured by Bayer!) to name just a few questionable practices. All of this bad beekeeping promulgates bees with weakened immune systems. The researchers may find a "solution," but with weak bees some other problem will come along in a few years and we'll be right back where we started. Meanwhile the big commercial beekeepers cling to pesticides as the cause of CCD since this thesis allows them to carry on without addressing all of the aforementioned practices.

CCD is nothing new--it's happened before and will happen again until we start keeping bees in a more natural manner. To "solve" CCD with some kind of treatment regimen or a hand held detection gadget is a bit like the government propping up those "too big to fail" banks. Everything works fine until the next bubble comes along.


Meanwhile, as before, feral bees are thriving. Backwards is the new forwards.

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