There’s a bunch of crap circulating about a new PLoS ONE study linking Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) to a pair of bee pathogens. It’s got me worked up to full rant mode.
As far as I can tell the PLoS study is solid, at least in demonstrating a correlation between CCD and the pathogens, and it fits with results from other researchers. The commentary on the internet, though, is largely shameful.
The crap stems from abysmal journalism in the pages of CNN by one Katherin Eban, who rather than take the proper approach of examining the study’s methods and data, leaps instead into full blown black-helicopter-and-tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory:
A cheer must have gone up at Bayer on Thursday when a front-page New York Times article, under the headline “Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery,” described how a newly released study pinpoints a different cause for the die-off: “a fungus tag-teaming with a virus.” The study, written in collaboration with Army scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center outside Baltimore, analyzed the proteins of afflicted bees using a new Army software system. The Bayer pesticides, however, go unmentioned.
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.
The article is little more than a hit piece. The research- carried out by many people at several institutions- was not funded by Bayer. There’s no reason for this particular study to include pesticides. And some of the scare quotes come from people who don’t even do bee or pathogen research. It’s a flimsy narrative in support of a preexisting agenda.
The pesticide trail went cold early on in studies of CCD. Especially problematic for pesticide hypotheses were the patterns of bee disappearance: heavy in some places without much pesticide use, while absent in others that are practically drowning in agrochemicals. In 2009, a high-profile study emerged showing CCD bee symptoms were indicative of disease, rather than poisoning. And the pesticides in question had been in use well before CCD arrived, anyway.
This isn’t to say that pesticides don’t cause problems for bees. A long, sad history of mass bee kills is testimony to the misuse of agricultural chemicals. But whether pesticides are bad for bees generally (=yes!) is a separate question as to whether they are behind colony collapse, specifically. While researchers are right to consider insecticides as a potential factor, the reality is that the data have been lining up behind pathogens for a while now.
Why the rancor against the PLoS study?
Environmental activists bringing the good fight against polluters thought they’d received a godsend in colony collapse: evil corporations harming the industrious honey bees. As such, bees are useful pawns. For winning public opinion, they are unbeatable: cute, productive, and responsible for our food. The result is an awful lot of people- especially people who don’t know much about bees- wanting CCD to be a pesticide problem. Wanting it so bad that when evidence for an alternate hypothesis emerges, they ignore it and attack the authors.
Now, I hates me an evil corporation as much as the next guy. I even lost some bees to pesticides this summer. But evidence is evidence. Writing vicious character attacks against scientists when the data don’t fit one’s inner narrative isn’t, in the long run, going to help either bees or beekeepers.