As explained by the Alliance of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Societies, “neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides in the world.”1If you were to visit a conventional farm, you’d likely see evidence of their use in the form of brightly colored red corn seeds and blue soybean seeds, which are color-coded to denote treatment with neonicotinoids.
The majority of such seeds come pretreated with the chemicals to ward off insect pests, but in so doing they’re harming pollinators like bees at alarming rates.
To get an idea of just how widespread their usage is, a report published in Agricultural & Environmental Letters noted that in the U.S. neonicotinoids were used on “79% to 100% of corn acres” by 2011, but despite this, application of the pesticide still doubled between 2011 and 2014.2
“Because the increased use on corn cannot be explained by expanding treated acres, it must correspond to increasing per-seed application rates. Notably, this increase has come as concerns about nontarget effects and resistance have mounted,” the researchers noted.3
This statement is noteworthy, especially as it’s been revealed that “a sophisticated information war” kept neonicotinoids on the market despite scientists expressing grave concerns.4
An exposé by The Intercept, which obtained lobbying documents and emails, revealed an extensive playbook used by the pesticide industry to downplay the pesticides’ harms by influencing beekeepers, regulators and academia. Meanwhile, bees and other pollinators are still in decline and the pesticide industry has gotten richer:
“The global neonic market generated $4.42 billion in revenue in 2018, roughly doubling over the previous decade, according to new figures provided to The Intercept from Agranova, a research firm that tracks the industry.”
US Embraces Neonicotinoids as Other Countries Ban Them
Entomologists Dennis vanEngelsdorp, now a chief apiary inspector in Pennsylvania, and Jeffrey Pettis, a former USDA government scientist, were among the first to suggest a link between neonicotinoids and bee deaths.
They exposed bees to very small, sublethal doses of imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid, then exposed them to the gut parasite Nosema. The findings were clear that exposure to the pesticide, even at very low levels, increased the bees’ susceptibility to the parasite.
The researchers explained, “We clearly demonstrate an increase in pathogen growth within individual bees reared in colonies exposed to one of the most widely-used pesticides worldwide, imidacloprid, at below levels considered harmful to bees.”5
About six months later, their immune systems fail, and they end up contracting secondary infections from parasites, mites, viruses, fungi and bacteria. The chemicals have also been shown to trigger immunosuppression in the queen bee, possibly leading to an impaired ability to resist diseases.7
The European Union temporarily banned the use of neonicotinoids in 2013, and banned neonicotinoids for outdoor use for good in 2018 due to environmental concerns, specifically the chemicals’ impact on the bee population.8 The chemicals are still widely used in the U.S., however, and this is largely due to concerted efforts by the pesticide industry. The Intercept reported:9
“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.”
Entomologist Exposing Neonicotinoids’ Risks Changed His Tune
Initially, vanEngelsdorp made numerous media appearances suggesting that pesticides were among the likely culprits in bee deaths, but then did an about-face, in which he started to downplay their role or brush them off as a risk entirely.
“In the following years, vanEngelsdorp used his voice to dismiss concerns with neonics in the media. His shift in rhetoric coincided with a push by the pesticide industry, in response to rising calls for pesticide restrictions to stem bee losses, began a push to rebrand itself as bee-friendly,” according to The Intercept.10
He joined Monsanto’s Honey Bee Advisory Council around that time, and received at least $700,000 in funding from Project Apis m., a Bayer-funded foundation, for his nonprofit, the Bee Informed Project. In 2013, vanEngelsdorp also went on to edit a study used by Syngenta to claim no link between neonicotinoids and poor bee health.11
A group of entomologists later called out the study, saying it had “a number of major deficiencies regarding the study design, the protocol and the evaluation of results,”12 as did a group of scientists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, who wrote:13
“Conclusions derived from inspection of the data were not just misleading in this case but are unacceptable in principle, for if data are inadequate for a formal analysis (or only good enough to provide estimates with wide confidence intervals) then they are bound to be inadequate as a basis for reaching any sound conclusions.
Given that the data in this case are largely uninformative with respect to the treatment effect, any conclusions reached from such informal approaches can do little more than reflect the prior beliefs of those involved.”
The Intercept revealed a number of other questionable actions by vanEngelsdorp over the years, including:14
- Lending his name to advocacy efforts on behalf of the pesticide industry
- Engaging with executives of Bayer’s Bee Care Center to suggest ways to minimize annual hive loss calculations when speaking to reporters
- Avoiding the mention of pesticides as a factor in bee deaths in a mini-documentary series called “Fight to Save the Mighty Honeybee”
- Citing Varroa mites, not pesticides, as a driver of bee deaths, in part to attempt to defeat legislation to ban neonic-based products for consumers in the state of Maryland