Mother Jones, Yet Again, Rushes To Judgment (This Time Over Bees)

» May 24th, 2014

If you care about honeybees, you probably know about colony collapse disorder (CCD). The disappearance of the world’s greatest living pollinators evokes an especially uneasy kind of ecological discomfort. After all, honeybee pollination brings us much of our food.

It would therefore seem especially critical—if only in a self-interested way— to understand the causes of honeybee collapse. And quickly. A wide range and combination of circumstances have been proposed over the years as factors contributing to the disorder. So diverse are the causal possibilities that the complexity of this problem has become legion to entomologists worldwide. It’s therefore not at all surprising that what’s missing from the CCD debate is a smoking gun. THE answer.

But if you read Mother Jones (May 23), you’d be forgiven for thinking that the ever elusive smoking gun was, at long last, discovered.”Did Scientists Just Solve the Bee Collapse Mystery,?” ran the headline. It’s a thoroughly Mother Jones-ish tactic. Strongly suggests a clear answer to a multifaceted problem—that smoking gun—but stay aware that the issue is really a lot more complex than the article will make it seem. Then add a question mark to cover everyone’s ass while still allowing the reader to feel the satisfaction of a clear and singular answer, not to mention righteous outrage at the dastardly menaces behind this ecological tragedy.

This is good guys/bad guys journalism.

The MJ article breezily relies on a single study, one that happens to have a Harvard imprimatur on it (along with that of a beekeeping association) to argue that the “key driver” of colony collapse disorder has once and for all been identified: a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. The study identifying neonicontinoids as the cause of CCD is praised by MJ for its clarity (The experiment couldn’t have been simpler”), it’s brilliance (“What makes the new Harvard study remarkable . . .”), and it’s conclusiveness (“the CCD mystery has been solved.”) The author of the MJ article, Tom Philpott, effectively blames CCD on Bayer, the manufacturer of the pesticides in question.

Outrage: stoked.

But then, as always happens with MJ’s coverage of agriculture—coverage driven first and foremost by an inveterate hatred of industrial structures (Bayer in this case)—the other shoe drops with a thud. It happens a lot at MJ. I’ve noted as much in the past with respect to GMOs and an eventually retracted French study on rats. In the CCD case, the backlash against the “Harvard study” fingering neoniotinoids was unusually swift.  The more you learn about the study used to play the role of the smoking gun, the harder it is to believe that it was given so much weight in a major magazine to explain one of the most mysterious ecological phenomenon on earth.

The best critique of the “Harvard study” that MJ placed on a pedestal is here. Suspicions begin with the journal in which the paper was published—an obscure Italian publication called The Bulletin of Insectology. Critics note that the study’s author Chensheng Lu, “ has had trouble getting his work on honeybees past peer review in many US journals.” The study’s sample included only 18 honeybee colonies, all located in central Massachusetts. The researcher “had exposed his bees to an unrealistically high dose of pesticides,” a level that bayer itself agrees would be lethal for bees. ”This study is a total distraction,”  said an entomologist at the University of Maryland. “It’s not surprising that those bees died — those doses weren’t field realistic. The only surprise was that the bees didn’t all die right away.”

But a distraction is what Philpott and MJ are all about. They will shamelessly deploy the flimsiest science to bash industrial agriculture. Which is sad because industrial agriculture is so thoroughly flawed on its own terms, and its flaws are so readily obvious, that nobody should have to rely on questionable science to expose those problems. I’m all for sticking it to Big Ag—which is why I advocate for veganism—but let’s not resort to deception to do it. Follow the money, for sure. But follow the science as well.

14 Responses to Mother Jones, Yet Again, Rushes To Judgment (This Time Over Bees)

  1. Taylor says:

    The Harvard study is not the only source of concern about neonicotinoid pesticides. The following recent CBC piece seems like a fairly impartial overview of the issue:

    • steves says:

      As a beekeeper for over 50 years, I am more concerned with the influx of weekend warrior beekeepers that want to cry and moan about their bees dying than find out the LEGITIMATE reasons are based around the beekeeper him/her self. Clean up your own backyard and other people will follow. Lu is looking for notoriety, and getting it

  2. James says:

    Yes. There’s a great deal of “red flag” material out there, and no one is saying that insecticides aren’t implicated in CCD, but MJ was arguing that neonicotinoids were the “key driver,” which is what this Harvard study concluded. It’s not deception so much as it is skewing the available evidence to advance an agenda.

    I can’t find it at the moment, but I’ve actually seen a study that showed how eliminating the neoncontinoids led to a fungal outbreak on tobacco that contributed to CCD. So this is issue is simply shrouded in much more mystery than the article allowed.

    • Sailesh Rao says:

      What were they spraying on tobacco before neonicotinoids came on the market to combat the fungus?

      But surely you are not advancing the theory that neonicotinoid use is necessary to “save the bees”? That would be like the Vietnam-era “burning the village in order to save it”.

  3. Sailesh Rao says:

    Neonicotinoids are the first new class of insecticides developed over the last 50 years and their introduction coincided with the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) of bee colonies. Therefore, suspicions are rife on this linkage. According to Wikipedia:

    “In January 2013, the European Food Safety Authority stated that neonicotinoids pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, and that the industry-sponsored science upon which regulatory agencies’ claims of safety have relied may be flawed.”

    Industry’s corruption of our regulatory processes is now becoming standard operating procedure. As Edward Snowden proved through his disclosures, conspiracy theories can also be tame compared to the actual reality.

    The precautionary principle dictates that neonicotinoids should be taken off the market if we are really concerned about the bees. They are banned in the EU, but not in the US.

    This story repeats, in sector after sector.

    When we have already killed so much of the biodiversity of the planet, isn’t it time to embrace European, old-world caution over American frontiersman hubris?

    • Mountain says:

      “Industry’s corruption of our regulatory processes…”

      I’ve been banging this drum hard lately, but industry leaders having tremendous influence/control over the agency that nominally regulates them is so standard that there’s no point in even calling it corruption. It is the normal and expected result, just as the death of a pig is the normal and expected outcome of eating bacon. And as with pigs & bacon, doing the same thing will produce the same results.

  4. Cin An says:

    IN fact neonics’ introduction does not correlate at all to CCD which has been around well before this product came to market, and few in the beekeeping or entomology world today link the two. Also, CCD exists in many places where there is no and never been any neonic use.

    It’s quite clear and no surprise that neonics will kill bees if they are exposed at sufficient levels. This can happen when plants are sprayed with neonics during pollination (an illegal off label practice) or as a result of improper planting techniques and timing where dust from seeds treated with neonic coatings can harm nearby bees (which can be largely avoided with communications between farmers and educated beekeepers).

    However, most neonic use is via seed coatings, which negates the need to spray the plants as the pest control is already present. This has significantly lowered accidental or unintentional loss of a wider range of pollinators and beneficial insects by lowering or eliminating the need to spray. Banning neonics will force farmers to return to using older chemicals, increased spraying and other practices much more toxic (to bees and everything else).

    • Sailesh Rao says:

      While CCD has always existed, incidences of CCD took a major uptick in 2006 and the alarm over the disappearance of the bee followed from thereon.

      Neonicotinoids were introduced in the early 2000s and the application of Neonicotinoids ramped up from thereon.

  5. John Maher says:

    The meta considerations here are how political beings shape what humans choose science and technology to mean and how human society makes decisions, oftentimes by preordaining what the science should be. Everyone should recall the relevance of the double slit experiment in considering the relationship of the agency of the society behind the scientific observer and the phenomena observed. The writing of Bruno Latour, Karen Barad and Sheila Jasanoff are relevant here. Giving a talk on this Thursday so this discussion weighs on my mind. For the bees, and their society (see Mary Kosut), the appearance of neonicitoids in their necropsies may hardly be (pun) said to constitute an acausal mortality event in an age of overwhelming environmental despair and non grieving. I grieve the bees and what their absence reflects.

    • Mountain says:

      Instead of (or in addition to) grieving the bee, build it a non-toxic habitat. We haven’t brought in any beehives, but we’ve made our land much more bee-friendly since we got it, and the numbers of bees attracted to it keeps climbing.

      • John Maher says:

        I am on this already. The problem is the “ring fence” thing does not work and fails to address the biome wide environmental problem from which all bees suffer. If you have any specific bee friendly advice please contact me off list as I would actuate it and be grateful. The grieving might continue though.

  6. Mountain says:

    “as always happens with MJ’s coverage of agriculture…”

    And any other topic. It’s kinda like “good guys/bad guys” journalism is their entire gig. Complaining about it is like complaining that Fox News appeals to simple-minded patriotism & fear of change.

    Also, maybe it’s time to let go of that Philpott rage. As a certain eagle once put it: “you keep carrying that anger/ it’ll eat you up inside.”

    • James says:

      It’s more bemusement than rage, but yeah, I hear ya.

      • Sailesh Rao says:

        Is there a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal that critiques the published work of Dr. Lu, and to which he has responded? The critique that you cited does not seem to be one.

        Personally, I consider American scientific journals to be susceptible to industry pressures on sensitive topics while European journals are less so. Therefore, I don’t automatically dismiss his work on the basis that it was not published in the US.

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