Update April 28, 2018
The European Union has decided to ban bee-killing pesticides
This post is about bees since they are also victims of science abuse by environmental activists, aided and abetted by the media. The full story is told by Jon Entine at Slate Do Neonics Hurt Bees? Researchers and the Media Say Yes. The Data Do Not.
A new, landmark study provides plenty of useful information. If only we could interpret it accurately. Synopsis below.
Futuristic Nightmare Scenarios
“Neonicotinoid Pesticides Are Slowly Killing Bees.”
No, there is no consensus evidence that neonics are “slowly killing bees.” No, this study did not add to the evidence that neonics are driving bee health problems. And yet . . .
Unfortunately, and predictably, the overheated mainstream news headlines also generated a slew of even more exaggerated stories on activist and quack websites where undermining agricultural chemicals is a top priority (e.g., Greenpeace, End Times Headlines, and Friends of the Earth). The takeaway: The “beepocalypse” is accelerating. A few news outlets, such as Reuters (“Field Studies Fuel Dispute Over Whether Banned Pesticides Harm Bees”) and the Washington Post (“Controversial Pesticides May Threaten Queen Bees. Alternatives Could Be Worse.”), got the contradictory findings of the study and the headline right.
But based on the study’s data, the headline could just as easily have read: “Landmark Study Shows Neonic Pesticides Improve Bee Health”—and it would have been equally correct. So how did so many people get this so wrong?
Using Data as a Trampoline rather than Mining for Understanding
This much-anticipated two year, $3.6 million study is particularly interesting because it was primarily funded by two major producers of neonicotinoids, Bayer Crop Science and Syngenta. They had no involvement with the analysis of the data. The three-country study was led by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, or CEH, in the U.K.—a group known for its skepticism of pesticides in general and neonics in particular.
The raw data—more than 1,000 pages of it (only a tiny fraction is reproduced in the study)—are solid. It’s a reservoir of important information for entomologists and ecologists trying to figure out the challenges facing bees. It’s particularly important because to date, the problem with much of the research on neonicotinoids has been the wide gulf between the findings from laboratory-based studies and field studies.
Some, but not all, results from lab research have claimed neonics cause health problems in honeybees and wild bees, endangering the world food supply. This has been widely and often breathlessly echoed in the popular media—remember the execrably reported Time cover story on “A World Without Bees.” But the doses and time of exposure have varied dramatically from lab study to lab study, so many entomologists remain skeptical of these sweeping conclusions. Field studies have consistently shown a different result—in the field, neonics seem to pose little or no harm. The overwhelming threat to bee health, entomologists now agree, is a combination of factors led by the deadly Varroa destructor mite, the miticides used to control them, and bee practices. Relative to these factors, neonics are seen as relatively inconsequential.
Disparity between Field and Lab Research (sound familiar?)
Jon Entine addressed this disparity between field and lab research in a series of articles at the Genetic Literacy Project, and specifically summarized two dozen key field studies, many of which were independently funded and executed. This study was designed in part to bridge that gulf. And the devil is in the interpretation.
Overall, the data collected from 33 different fields covered 42 analyses and 258 endpoints—a staggering number. The paper only presented a sliver of that data—a selective glimpse of what the research, in its entirety showed.
What patterns emerged when examining the entire data set? . . . In sum, of 258 endpoints, 238—92 percent—showed no effects. (Four endpoints didn’t yield data.) Only 16 showed effects. Negative effects showed up 9 times—3.5 percent of all outcomes; 7 showed a benefit from using neonics—2.7 percent.
As one scientist pointed out, in statistics there is a widely accepted standard that random results are generated about 5 percent of the time—which means by chance alone we would expect 13 results meaninglessly showing up positive or negative.
Norman Carreck, science director of the International Bee Research Association, who was not part of either study, noted, the small number of significant effects “makes it difficult to draw any reliable conclusions.”
Moreover, Bees Are Not in Decline
The broader context of the bee health controversy is also important to understand; bees are not in sharp decline—not in North America nor in Europe, where neonics are under a temporary ban that shows signs of becoming permanent, nor worldwide. Earlier this week, Canada reported that its honeybee colonies grew 10 percent year over year and now stand at about 800,000. That’s a new record, and the growth tracks the increased use of neonics, which are critical to canola crops in Western Canada, where 80 percent of the nation’s honey originates.
Managed beehives in the U.S. had been in steady decline since the 1940s, as farm land disappeared to urbanization, but began stabilizing in the mid-1990s, coinciding with the introduction of neonicotinoids. They hit a 22-year high in the last count.
Global hive numbers have steadily increased since the 1960s except for two brief periods—the emergence of the Varroa mite in the late 1980s and the brief outbreak of colony collapse disorder, mostly in the U.S., in the mid-2000s.
So the bees, contrary to widespread popular belief, are actually doing all right in terms of numbers, although the Varroa mite remains a dangerous challenge. But still, a cadre of scientists well known for their vocal opposition to and lobbying against neonics have already begun trying to leverage the misinterpretation of the data. Within hours of the release of the study, advocacy groups opposed to intensive agricultural techniques had already begun weaponizing the misreported headlines.
But viewing the data from the European study in context makes it even more obvious that sweeping statements about the continuing beepocalypse and the deadly dangers to bees from pesticides, and neonicotinoids in particular, are irresponsible. That’s on both the scientists, and the media.
The comparison with climate alarmism is obvious. The data is equivocal and subject to interpretation. Lab studies can not be replicated in the real world. Activists make mountains out of molehills. Reasonable balanced analysts are ignored or silenced. Media outlets proclaim the end of life as we know it to capture ears and eyeballs for advertisers, and to build their audiences (CNN: All the fear all the time”). Business as usual for Crisis Inc.
Update April 29
Entine posted regarding the just announced full EU ban: Global consensus finds neonicotinoids not driving honeybee health problems—Why is Europe so determined to ban them?
The whole article is enlightening, and especially this part describing the research protocols:
“The BRGD (Bee Research Guidance Document) insists that, in order to be considered valid, field experiments must demonstrate that 90 percent of the hive has been exposed to the neonic. The biggest problem with this is that there are generally no neonic residues detectable in crops by the time bees are foraging on them, and if there are residues, the amount is miniscule.”
“The authors of the 2017 CEH study (cited by innumerable reporters as condemning neonics) noted that neonic “residues were detected infrequently and rarely exceeded [1.5 parts per billion].” (To put 1.5 parts per billion in context, the EPA has determined that levels below 25 parts per billion have no effect at all on bees.)”
“At the same time, the bee-hive is a dynamic community and has a considerable capacity to detoxify itself from contaminants. So even the vanishingly small quantities brought into the hives by foragers might very well be wholly or partially eliminated before researchers could test for them.”
“The BRGD thus presents those researchers with a Catch 22: In order to meet the 90th percent exposure requirement they would have to massively over-treat their crops with neonics, creating a foraging environment that simply would not occur in real life. But this defeats the entire purpose of a Tier III field trial, which is to recreate realistic, controlled conditions to see how bees are affected—or not—in the real world. The BRGD requirement has the effect of ‘forcing’ certain pesticides to fail or the studies that don’t comply are invalidated.”