Modern Farmer: Are these nicotine-like insecticides killing bees?

Four hundred miles away, Brighton, England’s Stanmer Park — a nature reserve reached by a narrow, dirt road not far from the University of Sussex — is a study in contrast. Just past a large mansion built in 1722 (and once home to King George IV’s mistress) sits a collection of small, overgrown organic farming plots, beautifully unkempt meadows and the occasional large-scale sculpture. This is where Dave Goulson, University of Sussex biology professor and one of the world’s foremost bumblebee experts, studies the effects of neonicotinoids, a kind of pesticide, on pollinators.

These two facilities neatly represent two sides of a raging debate over the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the phenomenon of bee colonies dying off at an alarming rate. Many blame the neonicotinoids for the scourge. Research has poured in largely from two sectors: universities and private companies. Often, those private companies are the same companies that manufacture the pesticides. Scientists like Goulson see a glaring conflict of interest; companies like Bayer see a need for more research and have the dollars to back it.

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Over the course of a tightly-scheduled business day, Bayer allowed me access not only to the Bee Care Center, but to a massive storage facility housing 2.5 million chemical compound samples in 16 racks stretching 22 feet high and nearly 50 feet deep. The facility adds up to 150,000 new compounds each year and fields as many as 2,000 requests a day from Bayer crop scientists.

A five-minute walk from the climate-controlled comfort of the Bee Care Center are ten honeybee hives set in a small meadow kept by Peter Trodtfeld, Bayer’s Bee Health Expert, a thoughtful and talkative man with whom I would spend the better part of an eight-hour day.

Trodtfeld drove me to a nearly-300-acre trial farm in nearby Burscheid where white tents, called tunnels, are used to test the effects of insecticide-treated flowers and crops on honeybees. Along the 17-mile route from Monheim, we passed Bayer Leverkusen, a 30,000-capacity arena emblazoned with the company’s logo.

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In Brighton, Goulson drives me in his black Renault van to a fenced-off plot deep in Stanmer’s reserve where he and his research assistants maintain bumblebee nests.

Bumblebees, along with other wild pollinators like butterflies and beetles, tend to get short shrift when it comes to doomsday headlines and research funding. One, bumblebees do not produce honey; two, they can be harder to study given the manner in which they nest.

“It’s not especially beautiful,” Goulson joked. “The bumblebees are in the outdoor phase of the research.”

“They’re all just foraging. They’ve been dosed with pesticides or parasites. We’ve basically exposed them to a disease and different mixtures of pesticides, in different combinations.”  Read full article