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The Playbook for Poisoning the Earth

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At Le Corum, a conference center and opera house, the pair discussed their findings. They had fed bees with extremely small amounts of neonicotinoids, or neonics, the most commonly used class of insecticides in the world. Neonics are, of course, meant to kill insects, but they are marketed as safe for insects that aren’t being directly targeted. VanEngelsdorp and Pettis found that even at nonlethal doses, the bees in the trial became much more vulnerable to fungal infection. Bees carrying an infection will often fly off to die, a virtuous form of suicide designed to protect the larger hive from contagion.

“We exposed whole colonies to very low levels of neonicotinoids in this case, and then challenged bees from those colonies with Nosema, a pathogen, a gut pathogen,” said Pettis, speaking to filmmaker Mark Daniels in his documentary, “The Strange Disappearance of the Bees,” at Apimondia. “And we saw an increase, even if we fed the pesticide at very low levels — an increase in Nosema levels — in direct response to the low-level feeding of neonicotinoids.”

The dosages of the pesticide were so miniscule, said vanEngelsdorp, that it was “below the limit of detection.” The only reason they knew the bees had consumed the neonicotinoids, he added, was “because we exposed them.”

Bee health depends on a variety of synergistic factors, the scientists were careful to note. But in this study, Pettis said, they were able to isolate “one pesticide and one pathogen and we clearly see the interaction.”

The evidence was mounting. Shortly after vanEngelsdorp and Pettis revealed their findings, a number of French researchers produced a nearly identical study, feeding minute amounts of the same pesticide to bees, along with a control group. The study produced results that echoed what the Americans had found.

Drifting clouds of neonicotinoid dust from planting operations caused a series of massive bee die-offs in northern Italy and the Baden-Württemberg region of Germany. Studies have shown neonicotinoids impaired bees’ ability to navigate and forage for food, weakened bee colonies, and made them prone to infestation by parasitic mites.

In 2013, the European Union called for a temporary suspension of the most commonly used neonicotinoid-based products on flowering plants, citing the danger posed to bees — an effort that resulted in a permanent ban in 2018.

In the U.S., however, industry dug in, seeking not only to discredit the research but to cast pesticide companies as a solution to the problem. Lobbying documents and emails, many of which were obtained through open records requests, show a sophisticated effort over the last decade by the pesticide industry to obstruct any effort to restrict the use of neonicotinoids. Bayer and Syngenta, the largest manufacturers of neonics, and Monsanto, one of the leading producers of seeds pretreated with neonics, cultivated ties with prominent academics, including vanEngelsdorp, and other scientists who had once called for a greater focus on the threat posed by pesticides.

Syngenta AG’s headquarters in Basel, Switzerland, on Feb. 4, 2015.

Photo: Philipp Schmidli/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The companies also sought influence with beekeepers and regulators, and went to great lengths to shape public opinion. Pesticide firms launched new coalitions and seeded foundations with cash to focus on nonpesticide factors in pollinator decline.

“Position the industry as an active promoter of bee health, and advance best management practices which emphasize bee safety,” noted an internal planning memo from CropLife America, the lobby group for the largest pesticide companies in America, including Bayer and Syngenta. The ultimate goal of the bee health project, the document noted, was to ensure that member companies maintained market access for neonic products and other systemic pesticides.

The planning memo, helmed in part by Syngenta regulatory official John Abbott, charts a variety of strategies for advancing the pesticide industry’s interests, such as, “Challenge EPA on the size and breadth of the pollinator testing program.” CropLife America officials were also tapped to “proactively shape the conversation in the new media realm with respect to pollinators” and “minimize negative association of crop protection products with effects on pollinators.” The document, dated June 2014, calls for “outreach to university researchers who could be independent validators.”

The pesticide companies have used a variety of strategies to shift the public discourse.

“America’s Heartland,” a PBS series shown on affiliates throughout the country and underwritten by CropLife America, portrayed the pollinator declines as a mystery. One segment from early 2013 on the crisis made no mention of pesticides, with the host simply declaring that “experts aren’t sure why” bees and butterflies were disappearing.

Another segment, released in January 2015, quickly mentions pesticides as one of many possible factors for honeybee deaths. A representative of the “North American Bee Care Program,” Becky Langer, appeared on the program to discuss the “exotic pests that can affect the bees.” The program does not mention Langer’s position as a spokesperson for Bayer focused on managing fallout from the bee controversy.

Michael Sanford, a spokesperson for PBS KVIE, which produces “America’s Heartland,” wrote in an email to The Intercept that “consistent with strict PBS editorial standards and our own,” sponsors of the show provided no editorial input.

Bayer’s advocacy, designed to position the firm as a leader in protecting bee health, included a roadshow around the country, in which Bayer officials handed out oversized ceremonial checks to local beekeepers and students. The firm hosts splashy websites touting its leadership in promoting bee health and sponsors a number of beekeeping associations.

Meanwhile, Bayer has financed a series of online advertisements that depict individuals who fear that its pesticide products harm nontarget insects as deranged conspiracy theorists.

Honeybees have captured almost all the attention for the dangers of neonics, but they are hardly the only species in decline because of the chemical.

Other forms of influence have been far more covert.

Communications staff with CropLife America compiled a list of terms to shape on search engine results, including “neonicotinoid,” “pollinators,” and “neonics.” One of the consulting firms tapped to coordinate the industry effort, Paradigm Communications, a subsidiary of the public relations giant Porter Novelli, helped lead the effort to shift how the industry was portrayed in search engine results.

A slide prepared by Paradigm Communications showcases efforts to decouple Google search results for bee decline with neonic pesticides.

The greatest public relations coup has been the effort to reframe the debate around bee decline to focus only on the threat of Varroa mites, a parasite native to Asia that began spreading to the U.S. in the 1980s. The mite is known to rapidly infest bee hives and carry a range of infectious diseases.

CropLife America, among other groups backed by pesticide companies, has financed research and advocacy around the mite — an effort designed to muddy the conversation around pesticide use. Meanwhile, research suggests the issues are interrelated; neonics make bees far more susceptible to mite infestations and attendant diseases.

Bayer even constructed a sculpture of the Varroa mite at its “Bee Care Center” in North Carolina and at its research center in Germany, hyping its role as the primary force fueling the decline of pollinators.

A model of honeybee with a Varroa mite on its back at Bayer’s Bee Care Center in Monheim am Rhein, Germany, on Nov. 19, 2013.

Photo: Joanna Nottebrock/The New York Times via Redux


© The Intercept