Lead Researcher and Bayer
Exposed in Biased Study on Bee Colony Collapse Disorder
Few ecological disasters have been as confounding
as the massive and devastating die-off of the world's
honeybees. The phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder
(CCD) -- in which disoriented honeybees die far from
their hives -- has kept scientists, beekeepers, and
regulators desperately seeking the cause. After all,
the honeybee, nature's ultimate utility player, pollinates
a third of all the food we eat and contributes an
estimated $15 billion in annual agriculture revenue
to the U.S. economy.
The long list of possible suspects has included
pests, viruses, fungi, and also pesticides, particularly
so-called neonicotinoids, a class of neurotoxins
that kills insects by attacking their nervous systems.
For years, their leading manufacturer, Bayer Crop
Science, a subsidiary of the German pharmaceutical
giant Bayer AG, has tangled with regulators and
fended off lawsuits from angry beekeepers who allege
that the pesticides have disoriented and ultimately
killed their bees. The company has countered that,
when used correctly, the pesticides pose little
A cheer must have gone up at Bayer last 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.
Indeed, before receiving the Bayer funding, Bromenshenk
was lined up on the opposite side: He had signed
on to serve as an expert witness for beekeepers
who brought a class-action lawsuit against Bayer
in 2003. He then dropped out and received the grant.
Reporter: scientist "did not volunteer"
Bromenshenk's company, Bee Alert Technology, which
is developing hand-held acoustic scanners that use
sound to detect various bee ailments, will profit
more from a finding that disease, and not pesticides,
is harming bees. Two years ago Bromenshenk acknowledged
as much to me when I was reporting on the possible
neonicotinoid/CCD connection for Conde Nast Portfolio
magazine, which folded before I completed my reporting.
Bromenshenk defends the study and emphasized that
it did not examine the impact of pesticides. "It
wasn't on the table because others are funded to
do that," he says, noting that no Bayer funds
were used on the new study. Bromenshenk vociferously
denies that receiving funding from Bayer (to study
bee pollination of onions) had anything to do with
his decision to withdraw from the plaintiff's side
in the litigation against Bayer. "We got no
money from Bayer," he says. "We did no
work for Bayer; Bayer was sending us warning letters
A Bayer publicist reached last night said she was
not authorized to comment on the topic but was trying
to reach an official company spokesperson.
The Times reporter who authored the recent article,
Kirk Johnson, responded in an e-mail that Dr. Bromenshenk
"did not volunteer his funding sources."
Johnson's e-mail notes that he found the peer-reviewed
scientific paper cautious and that he "tried
to convey that caution in my story." Adds Johnson:
The study "doesn't say pesticides aren't a
cause of the underlying vulnerability that the virus-fungus
combo then exploits...."
At least one scientist questions the new study.
Dr. James Frazier, professor of entomology at Penn
State University, who is currently researching the
sublethal impact of pesticides on bees, said that
while Bromenshenk's study generated some useful
data, Bromenshenk has a conflict of interest as
CEO of a company developing scanners to diagnose
bee diseases. "He could benefit financially
from that if this thing gets popularized,"
Frazier says, "so it's a difficult situation
to deal with." He adds that his own research
has shown that pesticides affect bees "absolutely,
in multiple ways."
Underlying cause of bee deaths still unclear
Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the
health group at the Natural Resources Defense Council,
says that while the Bromenshenk/Army study is interesting,
it fails to ask the underlying question "Why
are colonies dying? Is it because they're getting
weak? People who have HIV don't die of HIV. They
die of other diseases they get because their immune
systems are knocked off, making them more susceptible."
In other words, pesticides could weaken the bees
-- and then the virus/fungus combination finishes
them off. That notion, however, is not explored
in the new study.
In 2008 the NRDC sued the Environmental Protection
Agency after it failed to release Bayer's underlying
studies on the safety of its neonicotinoids. The
federal agency has since changed course, and NRDC
researchers are being allowed to sift through the
Bayer studies, an NRDC spokesman says.
The EPA has based its approval of neonicotinoids
on the fact that the amounts found in pollen and
nectar were low enough to not be lethal to the bees
-- the only metric they have to measure whether
to approve a pesticide or not. But studies have
shown that at low doses, the neonicotinoids have
sublethal effects that impair bees' learning and
memory. The USDA's chief researcher, Jeff Pettis,
told me in 2008 that pesticides were definitely
"on the list" as a primary stressor that
could make bees more vulnerable to other factors,
like pests and bacteria.
In 1999, France banned Imidacloprid after the death
of a third of its honeybees. A subsequent report
prepared for the French agricultural ministry found
that even tiny sublethal amounts could disorient
bees, diminish their foraging activities, and thus
endanger the entire colony. Other countries, including
Italy, have banned certain neonicotinoids.
Bayer v. beekeepers
As for the Bayer-Bromenshenk connection, in 2003
a group of 13 North Dakota beekeepers brought a
class-action lawsuit against Bayer, alleging that
the company's neonicotinoid, Imidacloprid, which
had been used in nearby fields, was responsible
for the loss of more than 60% of their hives. "My
bees were getting drunk," Chris Charles, a
beekeeper in Carrington, N.D., and a plaintiff in
the lawsuit, told me in 2008. "They couldn't
walk a white line anymore -- they just hung around
outside the hive. They couldn't work."
Charles and the other North Dakota beekeepers hired
Bromenshenk as an expert witness. Bayer did not
dispute that Imidacloprid was found among the bees
and their hives. The company simply argued that
the amount had not been enough to kill them.
As the North Dakota lawsuit moved forward, an expert
witness for the beekeepers, Dr. Daniel Mayer, a
now retired bee expert from Washington State University,
traveled to 17 different bee yards in North Dakota
and observed dead bees and bees in the throes of
what looked like Imidacloprid poisoning, he told
me in 2008. He theorized that after foraging in
planted fields where the seeds had been treated
with Imidacloprid, the bees then brought the pesticide
back to the hive, where it built up in the wax combs.
The beekeepers tried to enlist more expert witnesses,
but others declined, according to two of the beekeeper
plaintiffs, in large part because they had taken
research money from Bayer and did not want to testify
against the company. One who agreed -- Bromenshenk
-- subsequently backed out and got a research grant
from Bayer. Bromenshenk insists the two actions
were unrelated. "It was a personal decision,"
he says. "I, in good conscience, couldn't charge
beekeepers for services when I couldn't help them."
He adds, "Eventually, the lawyers stopped calling.
I didn't quit. They just stopped calling."
In June 2008 a district court judge in Pennsylvania
defanged the beekeepers' lawsuit by siding with
Bayer to exclude Mayer's testimony and the initial
test results from a laboratory in Jacksonville,
Fla., that had found significant amounts of Imidacloprid
in the honeybee samples.
That same year Bromenshenk brokered a meeting between
Bayer and beekeepers. When I interviewed Bromenshenk
that year, he said that increasing frustration with
the accusations against Bayer, which he described
as a "runaway train," led him to contact
the company in an effort to create a dialogue between
Bayer and the beekeepers. Because of his efforts,
in November 2008, Bayer scientists sat down in Lake
Tahoe, Nev., with a small group of American beekeepers
to establish a dialogue. The issues discussed were
"trust and transparency," Bromenshenk
told me. "How did Bayer do its testing, and
do we trust the results?" Generally beekeepers
and scientists have been highly critical of the
design of Bayer's studies and deeply suspicious
over who is or isn't on Bayer's payroll.
After the meeting, Bayer tentatively agreed to
appoint a beekeeper advisory board to help redesign
studies so that beekeepers could trust the results.
But many beekeepers see the advisory board and grant
money as a ruse on Bayer's part to silence its enemies
by holding them close. "They have the bee industry
so un-united," says Jim Doan, once New York
State's busiest beekeeper until CCD decimated his
business. "Even the researchers are off working
on anything but the pesticide issue."
Bromenshenk's study acknowledges that the research
does not "clearly define" whether the
concurrent virus and fungus, which were found in
all the afflicted bee samples, is "a marker,
a cause, or a consequence of CCD." It also
notes uncertainty as to how, exactly, the combination
kills the bees, and whether other factors like weather
and bee digestion play a role. Scientists like Sass
at NRDC believe the mystery is far from resolved:
"We're even concerned that based on this, beekeepers
will use more pesticides trying to treat these viruses,"