Monsanto is an unlikely hero in the colony collapse disorder situation. Since 2006, a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder—where bees mysteriously disappear from their hives—has slashed the U.S. honeybee population. Last year, almost a third of honeybee colonies were lost to the colony collapse, which most scientists think is the result of a number of factors, including varroa mite infestations, viruses, poor, immune system-weakening nutrition, and pesticides. A class of pesticides called neonicotinoids that disrupt the central nervous system of pest insects, are some the most concerning. And Monsanto puts them on some of its seeds.
So you can see why Grist posted an article about Monsanto’s recent Honey Bee Health Summit with the headline "Bee-killing pesticide companies are pretending to save bees." The reality is a little more complicated than that.
Monsanto’s Honey Bee Health Summit, held in mid-June at the company’s headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri, was held in partnership with Project Apis M, a honey bee research organization, and the Honey Bee Advisory Council, a new organization made up of honey bee researchers and beekeepers. The multi-day summit was filled with talks on topics like nutrition and habitat loss, pesticides (yes, pesticides), varroa mites, and viruses. It was attended by commercial beekeepers, hobby beekeepers, and researchers among others.
"Hundreds of these types of meetings have gone on, but the one difference is that in the summit that we sponsored and Project Apis and the Honeybee Advisory Council hosted and led—the one difference is the ability to bring traditional agriculture to the table," says Maureen Mazurek, the stakeholder engagement lead at Monsanto. "We have agreed that focusing on solutions and creating bridges between the beekeeping community and the traditional agricultural community will make those possible solutions come to fruition."
One of the ringleaders of Monsanto’s colony collapse efforts is Jerry Hayes, who heads up Monsanto’s bee industry efforts as the commercial lead for Beeologics, a company bought by Monsanto in 2011. Beeologics creates biological tools to address some of the pests and diseases that contribute to colony collapse. The company’s first product, Remembee, prevents bees from developing something called Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV).
Hayes believes that the biggest contributor to colony collapse is the varroa mite, a parasitic mite that attacks honeybees, leaving them susceptible to a host of infection like IAPV. "If we could control varroa mites, we could improve honeybee health by 70% to 80%," he says.
The problem isn’t just the mites themselves. It’s the pesticides that beekeepers use to treat the mites. In a study released this month in the journal PLOS One, researchers found that honeybees exposed to pollen containing certain fungicides (often sprayed on crops) and insecticides used by beekeepers to control mite infestations were less able to fight off infections from a deadly parasite called Nosema ceranae—suspected to contribute to colony collapse—than those who weren’t.
During their research, the scientists found 35 pesticides in bee pollen taken from bees that pollinate food crops. Neonicotinoids were only found in pollen taken from one apple orchard. And unsurprisingly, they weren’t the focus at Monsanto’s bee conference.
The pesticides panel at the event did discuss commercial pesticides, says Hayes. "There were some terrific presentations on that and the research that’s ongoing to see what’s happening in those cases. The data is so sketchy about what those are. Honeybees can forage in a two, two and a half mile radius of their colonies and they get into all sorts of things, like environmental toxins. You add in varroa mites, vectoring viruses, poor nutrition, and it’s kind of a potpourri of things."
But neonicotinoids shouldn’t be counted out. While the PLOS One study reminds us that colony collapse is the result of a number of factors, other studies suggest that the pesticides also play a part.
Nonetheless, Monsanto has the money and resources to make a big dent in the bee die-off problem. "I’m optimistic that we need to give Monsanto a shot at this," says Hayes. "There are so many smart people here, they have so much expensive equipment and they have the knowledge, skills, and ability for testing and trials. It’s something that’s never been available to the beekeeping industry in one location."
Some beekeepers went into Monsanto’s conference with a healthy dose of skepticism about both Monsanto and Beeologics’ solutions. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
One beekeeper told the audience that he was worried a new product would put him on another "treadmill."
"I’d have to continue to supply it," he said. "As soon as I stop, that varroa mite is going to come back in my hive."
Another worried about the company’s plans to create a genetically engineered "super bee."
To that, Hayes said: "Monsanto has no intention of genetically modifying a bee, or having a bee that pollinates Monsanto-only crops. Our goal is to protect bee health."
The Pesticide Action Network believes that Monsanto is just trying to distract everyone from the real problem:
Unfortunately for Monsanto & Co, and as most beekeepers and academics will say, the varroa mite has been around a long time, predating dramatic bee declines in U.S. that started in 2006. While mites no doubt affect bee colonies, they are unlikely the primary driver of population declines.
There is a correlation, however, between the introduction of neonicotinoid pesticides (or neonics) on the market and bee die-offs. Independent studies show — and beekeepers corroborate from hands-on experience — that these pesticides weaken bees’ immune systems, likely damaging their resistance to common challenges like the varroa mite.
In the end, at least one beekeeper came away from the event convinced that Monsanto was really making an effort. "They were really trying to get people who represent a cross-section of the industry exchanging information to kind of develop a broad understanding as to what were the main factors that needed to be addressed if there was to be a successful initiative to help the honeybees," says Robert Sears, the president of the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association. "It will be interesting to see what has developed. They certainly seem to have a lot of people working on it."
Monsanto won’t solve the colony collapse mystery by itself. Chances are, the solutions—if they come—will be derived from a variety from researchers. But every effort deserves our attention, even if it comes from an unlikely source, and even if it ultimately fails.