Honey bees as pawns

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.

28 thoughts on “Honey bees as pawns”

  1. We were just talked about this paper Monday before the seminar started! It is the same feeling, bayer and the first author are difinitely together…Only by this paper, they can not make the conclusion “Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery”!! I was surprised it was PLoS as well…

  2. *tips king over*

    Alex, thank you for writing this. Now you mean to tell me there’s a study out there that basically proves/suggests pesticides are not the cause of CCD and companies like Monsantos and Bayer are NOT propagandizing the hell out of it?! Do they like being thought of as the bad guy all the time?

  3. When it comes to CCD (global warming), I’ll take your expert word for it, but anything that reduces pesticide (fossil fuel) use is probably a good thing, even if based on lies.

  4. what makes you expect that a left-leaning, anti-big biz, muckraking journalist would change her spots ? she has gone from attacking warmongers, the torturing bush admin, big pharma, big pesticide.

    the fact remains that the cause of CCD is still not definitively known and until it is, opportunists of all stripes will descend, rape and pillage with the usual collateral damage.

  5. James.C. Trager

    My conclusions (or rather, a statement of my established narrative, supported by this circumstance, plus a peripheral and not very meaningful thought)

    – People don’t like science or scientists.
    – Honeybees don’t care.

    The unwillingness to honestly examine one’s own, or others’, thinking on issues is a HUGE problem in our national dialog, fouling our politics and just about everything else.

    1. I wouldn’t have thought so ten years ago, but the internet is part of the problem. It’s just so easy for like-minded folks close in on each other to the exclusion of other viewpoints.

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  7. There is no doubt that pesticides are bad for honey bees. However, some of the worst offenders are not made by Bayer–nor are they in the much-maligned neonicotinoid family. But all that is irrelevant because, as Alex points out, the PLoS ONE study isn’t about pesticides–it’s about pathogens.

    So how is it that everyone makes conclusions about pesticides from reading it? If a study showed evidence that fish was good for you, could you conclude that beef was bad? Huh?

    Most scientific advancement comes from bits and pieces of research from many people in many countries and many institutions. The PLoS ONE paper provides another piece of the CCD puzzle, and that is a very good thing.

    It is childish to fling it around as a weapon to attack pesticides just because you happen to not like big business, pesticides, or Bayer. To do so gives good science a bad name. Answers will not come unless we view research with an open mind.

  8. Well, but we wouldn’t be in such a big evil mess were it not for those evil corporations evilly killing all the native pollinators with their evilly evil pesticides. Oh the evil…

  9. The question of “pesticides being bad for bees” is one that clearly resonates with people having a wide range of education and intelligence.

    But it needs to be asked to beekeepers with more than a few years of experience in the field. The newer systemic pesticides (the exact ones being demonized by NGOs who raise so much money for use on their own agendas on the plight of beekeepers and bees in their “Pollinator Protection Racket”) are far less toxic than the ones they replace, and can be said to be metabolized by bees at the trace levels that EPA and the manufacturers cite as “expected” in nectar and pollen.

    But the seed coatings are not sprayed.
    And the pesticide you don’t spray is orders of magnitude better for bees than the one you do spray, black-helicopter conspiracy theories and tabloid-smear journalism aside.

  10. Interesting set of responses to what seems to me to be business as usual journalism. What intrigues me is how journalists and journalism ever became confused with sources of the truth. The entire history of journalism is one of muckracking, political shilling, and sensationalism. That is what journalists do.

    There was a great movie on the tube the other night, His Girl Friday (1940), a remake of an even older film (The Front Page) that makes no bones about what reporters do (I think it was based on a play written by a former journalist). Also, this is the week of the rescue of the Chilean miners – which reminds me of another film, Ace in the Hole, with a spot-on take on ‘news reporting’. It seems to me that people used to understand the function of journalism a lot better once and somehow we have been hoodwinked into thinking it should be something else.

    As an Australian, and a North American, I like Ted’s point the best – isn’t Apis mellifera an evil invasive species? Well, I guess not in this particular narrative.

  11. I’ve just shared this post with friends in science journalism/communication AND in environment/activism – thanks for laying down the facts, and pointing out clearly which are relevant to this article, and which are not (and for stressing the instances where *no* facts were in play, apparently).
    I wouldn’t be as bleak as Dave, though: I confess I haven’t read the PLoS paper, but it seemed to me that the NY Times article got the facts (and their relevance) right, as did The Telegraph (UK) – although at some points the latter was probably a bit hard to follow for many lay readers…

  12. Nail Head, meet Hammer.

    Nice job Alex.

    I’m really bothered by all the talk about scientific conspiracies. After all these years since I got my PhD, I still haven’t had anyone come by to teach me the secret handshake! 😛 Come on already. I won’t show it to anybody. Really!

  13. Good post and good reminder that if people want to see something, they will oftentimes eventually see it, regardless of the reality or facts. Then again, what is this “people” or “them” having prejudices and reacting without thinkin? Isn’t this behavior pattern within us all, you can’t really escape it even if you are a scientist or a bum or whatever. I even remember reading some blog post *somewhere* that was pretty quick to condemn certain picture where ant looked like a beetle…

  14. So when you are driving down the road and your dashboard warning light goes off do you go to a mechanic and have him take out the warning light?

    Here is the direct quote from the Conclusions/Significance section of the PLos Study:

    “These findings implicate co-infection by IIV and Nosema with honey bee colony decline, giving credence to older research pointing to IIV, interacting with Nosema and mites, as probable cause of bee losses in the USA”

    Cause or Result? Both the articles below are excellent in that they honor the political context in which facts are utilized and science is conducted; a little more systemic thinking and a little less reductionism would benefit the bees as well as the rest of us:



    1. I read those articles, Brian, and they’re dishonest crap.

      To follow your warning light analogy, what they’ve done is fired the mechanic for diagnosing the problem with an answer they didn’t like.

      1. Thanks for reading the articles Alex. Here is the issue as I see it. The PLos Study is good solid science. It is not the problem. The problem is that we find different journalists offensive. I see the NYT article as dishonest in that it uses honest science in a dishonest way. Here is a quote from the article you don’t like:

        “The study itself makes no conclusive claims about the causes of colony collapse disorder. Eban quotes from the paper that the research does not “clearly define” that the virus/fungus combination is “a marker, a cause, or a consequence of CCD.” A scientist interviewed by Eban very helpfully offers the metaphor of HIV to describe what’s going on with bees. HIV doesn’t kill you–it’s the opportunistic infections and diseases that follow HIV’s dismantling of a sufferer’s immune system that do. In the case of bees, the virus/fungus combo are most likely the follow-on infections that kill off an already weakened hive.”

        The tone of the NYT piece as evidenced by the article summary on the NYT site is:

        “A fungus and a virus apparently caused the honeybee Colony collapse.”

        Bad science writing and dishonest which is how a PR piece tends to read. If we can’t agree on that I will leave you alone. If we can agree that the NYT misrepresented the study then there is a context for discussing the politics of how good research is reported and how it was spun in this particular case.

        And if you find it hard to believe that the NYT runs PR as news then I would direct you to their coverage of the Gulf Oil Disaster or their phony drum beating in the run-up to the Iraq War.

        1. I didn’t much like the the NYTimes piece either, for some of the same reasons you describe. But then, I don’t rely on newspapers for news about science. I can read the relevant journal articles myself.

          Eban’s journalism is worse, though. The NY Times is guilty of overconfidence, but Eban actively attacks the integrity of real people. Based on nothing but innuendo. It’s a smear piece. She interviewed people with zero relevant expertise to string together a narrative that- to scientists who’ve been working on CCD- is just plain silly. It’s tin-foil hat territory, and deeply irresponsible.

          The trouble for pesticide hypotheses is that there isn’t even a pesticide correlation with CCD. The pathogen hypotheses at least show correlations. Those who express extreme skepticism of the pathogen study are exercising an amazing double-standard in how they treat evidence.

  15. I assume what you meant to say is that you don’t rely on newspapers for science research. Yes, Journals are for that. But what else are newspapers and popular media for, if not for “news about science.”

    And that is where this conversation veers off. We are talking about two very different things: Science and the Politics of Science. You are defending the PloS study. I’m not attacking it and I do not see Eban as attacking the “science” per se. The study is sound.

    While the research is sound, to imply that it demonstrates that CCD is CAUSED by a virus and a fungus, which the Conclusions/Significance section of the PLoS study did and which the NYT was a little too eager to amplify, becomes more of a political issue.

    Egan is an investigative journalist and the rules of investigative journalism are different from scientific research which brings us back to the warning light on the dashboard. The bees are clearly dying of disease but to focus on which diseases (and eventually their treatment) is to treat the symptoms and become less interested in the systemic nature of the problem. All the research to date shows that CCD is a constellation of factors, a systemic problem, not a linear problem. Which aspects of that constellation get chosen for research is informed by politics, access to funding and social standing among peers (think paradigm). Also think, who benefits? Not as in “conspiracy”, as in common sense.

    Back to Egan: I find it useful to know that Bromenshenk received a grant from Bayer after relinquishing his role as expert witness for the plaintiffs against Bayer. Does this implicate him? No, but it perks my interest. Does it in any way imply that the research he is doing is invalid? No, but it gives me a context for other research that is not being done (and amplified in the press).

    I appreciate your blog Alex but sometimes it seems like you are too invested in carrying the banner of Science to see the context in which it takes place.

    1. Fair enough. Even though I disagree with your perspective I appreciate your comments.

      I do try to carry the banner of science because I think science is the most reliable way to get at the reality of how the universe works. Yes, the context in which science is done is important, but it’s also easy to use that as an excuse for data denial. Journalism in comparison is far less transparent about its sources and biases.

      I’d urge you to apply the same consideration of context to the Eban article and subsequent commentary on environmental sites that you do to the science. Most of those outlets aren’t fundamentally concerned with bees. They have an obvious pre-existing political agenda- one I tend to agree with more often than not- that’s driving their coverage in a particular direction.

      I think you’re applying a double standard to how you evaluate claims from the scientists relative to how you’re evaluating claims from the journalists. PLoS at least reported its data. Eban (And NYTimes, too) only reported selected snippets of their interviews.

  16. Hi Alex,

    you wrote ‘As far as I can tell the PLoS study is solid, at least in demonstrating a correlation between CCD and the pathogens …’.

    Have you seen this new paper?

    Leonard Foster (2011)
    Interpretation of Data Underlying the Link Between Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and an Invertebrate Iridescent Virus

    It seems there are some technical flaws in the Bromenshenk et al. study. So regardless of the question which role pesticides play, one should be sceptical about the reported results.

  17. Excellent new book by David Healy, Professor of Psychiatry at Cardiff University in Britain and former Secretary of the British Association for Psychopharmacology. The book, just published this month, is being compared to “Silent Spring” in its exposure of the pharmaceutical industry:


    The same arguments the book so thoroughly makes can be made as to why it has been so difficult to link pesticides to Bee declines.

    Whether you like it or not Alex, science is political.

    The latest in the public press:


  18. EPA Urged to Take Action as EU Proposes Partial Ban on Pesticides Linked to Bee Die-Offs

    Environmentalists and pesticide opponents have suspected for years that the three pesticides – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam – are responsible for declining bee populations and massive bee die-offs in the United States and abroad.
    Environmental and food safety groups in the US are now urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to follow the European example and suspend the most dangerous uses of the pesticides while speeding up reviews of their safety.
    Clothianidin and imidacloprid, manufactured by Bayer CropScience, and thiamethoxam, manufactured by Swiss agrichemical giant Syngenta, are neonicotinoid insecticides related to nicotine that attack the central nervous system of insects, causing paralysis or death. A number of recent studies have suggested that sub-lethal doses of neonicotinoids can harm bees and their colonies.
    In April 2012, a Harvard study concluded that one of the main neonicotinoids now facing new restrictions in Europe, Bayer’s imidacloprid, is the likely culprit behind CCD and declining bee populations worldwide.


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