Associated Press reporter Emery P. Dalesidio has written a long feature article about how Bayer CropSciences and Syngenta are trying to defend neonicitinoid seed treatments from accusations that they are responsible for killng bees.
The story that is circulating globally includes a quote from extension worker who says neonicitinoids do kill bees, but says the company doesn’t know how many.
"I think the final verdict is still out there" on how large a role neonics play in bee deaths, said Dominic Reisig of North Carolina State University.
"I would say clearly there's something there, but is it one percent? Ten percent? Ninety percent? We don't know."
But the United States Department of Agriculture recently released its research report that finds that the more than three dozen “neonics produced by Bayer CropScience and Syngenta (are) among the chemicals most toxic to bees,” reports Dalesidio.
“Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto - which coats its seeds with neonics - are encouraging nonprofits, landowners and governments to plant more flowers and other plants bees need to feed., reports Delesidio.
“Their representatives are speaking at beekeepers' conferences and visiting agricultural research universities.”
Besides inviting visitors to bee centers on its corporate campuses outside Raleigh, North Carolina, and Monheim, Germany, Bayer offers teachers a downloadable digital science lesson about bees. A company Twitter feed promotes the benefits of neonics and studies that refute their link to bee deaths, often using the hashtag #FeedABee.
A global agro-chemical trade magazine recently honored Bayer's pro-bees campaign for what judges said was its effort "to broaden understanding and shift conversation from blaming solely pesticides towards a multiplicity of factors."
Critics say the pesticide companies claim their products aren’t the only problem, so therefore it isn't a problem," said Massachusetts beekeeper Dick Callahan, a retired executive with a doctorate in entomology who co-authored a Harvard study on the effects of neonics on honeybees.
Callahan said that mites may be the greatest adversary of his honeybees, yet that doesn't explain why mite-free bumble bees are also disappearing.
Neonics were a breakthrough because they can be used to coat seeds rather than sprayed.
Bayer produces three of the world's top five neonic pesticides in a worldwide market estimated to be worth about $3 billion, with Bayer's two top-selling products taking about half the market, said Sanjiv Rana, editor-in-chief of Agrow, a trade publication for the agricultural chemicals industry. Syngenta's best-selling neonic is worth about $1 billion in annual sales, Rana said.
Becky Langer, the Bayer CropScience manager for U.S. bee health, denied the company's four-year-old campaign is related to the company's neonic sales. It grew out of decades of research on the interaction of chemicals and the crucial pollinators, she said.
"One didn't pop up because of the other," said Langer, whose center oversees bee field research locations in North Carolina, California and Ontario.
She said: "Bee numbers are actually not declining."
But that depends how you count. On the one hand, figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the U.S. Department of Agriculture show there are more bee colonies now than 30 years ago.
But those numbers can be deceiving since beekeepers routinely separate a healthy hive into two, a practice that helps overcome accepted annual losses of about 18 percent.
Losses in the U.S. the past five years have been especially acute, with reported annual losses of 30 percent to 45 percent, according to a study authored by researchers including the University of Maryland's Dennis vanEngelsdorp.
The heavy death toll continues through the spring and summer, when bee populations are collecting pollen and should be their healthiest, the study said.
Across Europe and nearby countries such as Algeria, beekeepers reported 17 percent of colonies lost last winter, twice that of the previous year.
That has regulators and retailers zeroing in on neonics. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working on new risk assessments, and the European Union is reviewing a two-year-old ban on the biggest-selling neonics from crops during their flowering stage.
"We're going to push with every ounce of our energy to get this thing reversed," former Syngenta Chief Executive Officer Michael Mack told stock analysts in February.
Meanwhile, Bayer and Syngenta are working on new bee-saving products. Syngenta is testing biological and chemical agents to fight mites and parasites.
Bayer is working on repellants to keep bees away from pollinating plants until pesticides lose their killing power, remote sensors for monitoring hive health, and the latest in a 30-year series of mite-killing treatments.
Work to develop a new miticide is worthwhile even though the parasites will likely develop a resistance before long, Bayer CropScience North America CEO Jim Blome said.
"It's very difficult to get your investment back that way. In fact, you won't," Blome said. "We believe in expanding bee populations."