Bee experts shred ‘Harvard’ neonics-Colony Collapse Disorder study, upbraid journalists for ‘activist science’

| | December 19, 2014

Chensheng Lu was in his element last month, delivering an impassioned speech before a green group at Harvard Law School. The School of Public Health professor was lecturing on his favorite topic–his only subject these days, as it has become his obsession: why he believes bees around the world are in crisis.

[Editor’s note: This report originally appeared in the Huffington Post]

Lu is convinced, unequivocally, that a popular pesticide hailed by many scientists as a less toxic replacement for farm chemicals proven to be far more dangerous to humans and the environment is actually a killer in its own right.

“We demonstrated that neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering Colony Collapse Disorder in bee hives,” claimed Lu. The future of our food system and public health, he said, hangs in the balance.

Lu is the Dr. Doom of bees. According to the nutritionist — but not clear to most other experts in the field — colony collapse disorder (CCD), which first emerged in 2006, can be directly linked to “neonics,” as the now controversial class of pesticides is often called, and also to genetically modified crops. Phased in during the 1990s, neonics are most often used by farmers to control unwanted crop pests. They are coated on seeds, which then produce plants that systemically fight pests.

To many environmental activists, the pesticide does more harm than good, and they’ve found their champion in Chensheng Lu. It’s been a busy fall for the professor, jetting back and forth between Boston and Washington, with forays around the United States to talk to adoring audiences. He presents himself as the defender of bees, and this fiery message has transformed a once obscure academic into a global “green” rock star, feted at events like last month’s lunch talk at Harvard.

The sudden abandoning of hives by honey bees known as Colony Collapse Disorder has emerged as one of the hottest science mysteries in recent years. Lu has authored two extremely controversial papers on CCD: one in 2012 and a second published this past spring. He and his two beekeeper colleagues – there were no entomologists on his tiny research team – contend that neonicotinoids present a mortal threat to bees. Not only that, Lu claims, neonics endanger humans as well, accelerating Parkinson’s Disease.

Lu reached folk hero status among environmentalists last May when the Harvard School of Public Health launched a promotional campaign touting his latest, controversial research: “Study strengthens link between neonicotinoids and collapse of honey bee colonies,” the press release claimed. Before the study was even circulated, stories in some mainstream publications including Forbes ran the release with only a pretense of a rewrite.

The story exploded on the Internet. Many environmental and tabloid journalists painted an alarmist picture based on Lu’s research: “New Harvard Study Proves Why The Bees Are All Disappearing,” “Harvard University scientists have proved that two widely used neonicotinoids harm honeybee colonies,” and “Neonicotinoid Insecticide Impairs Winterization Leading to Bee Colony Collapse: Harvard Study” are three of hundreds of blog posts and articles.

Behind the headlines

Although public opinion has coalesced around the belief that the bee death mystery is settled, the vast majority of scientists who study bees for a living disagree–vehemently.

How could a “Harvard study” and a sizable slice of the nation’s press get this story so wrong?.

The buzz that followed the publication of Lu’s latest study is a classic example of how dicey science can combine with sloppy reporting to create a ‘false narrative’–a storyline with a strong bias that is compelling, but wrong. It’s how simplistic ideas get rooted in the public consciousness. And it’s how ideology-driven science threatens to wreak public policy havoc.

Bees are important to our food supply. They help pollinate roughly one-third of crop species in the US, including many fruits, vegetables, nuts and livestock feed such as alfalfa and clover. That’s why the mystery of CCD is so troubling.

One of the central problems with Lu’s central conclusion–and much of the reporting–is that despite the colony problems that erupted in 2006, the global bee population has remained remarkably stable since the widespread adoption of neonics in the late 1990s. The United Nations reports that the number of hives has actually risen over the past 15 years, to more than 80 million colonies, a record, as neonics usage has soared.

Country by country statistics are even more revealing. Beehives are up over the past two decades in Europe, where advocacy campaigns against neonics prompted the EU to impose a two-year moratorium beginning this year on the use of three neonics. 2014-12-14-european_union_beehive_totals.jpg

Last February, the government of Australia, where neonics are used extensively, reaffirmed that “honeybee populations are not in decline despite the increased use of [neonicotinoids] in agriculture and horticulture since the mid-1990s.” Its central finding was just the opposite of what many in the media have reported: The APVMA (Australian equivalent of the EPA) concluded, “[T]he introduction of the neonicotinoids has led to an overall reduction in the risks to the agricultural environment from the application of insecticides.”

According to statistics Canada honey bee colonies have increased from 521,000 in 1995 to 672,000 in 2013, a record. North American managed beehive numbers have held stable over the last two decades. 2014-12-14-NA.pngSources: USDA and Statistics Canada

So how did the narrative that the world faces a beepocalypse become settled wisdom? The media have widely conflated two parallel but different phenomena: Bee deaths related to CCD and bees dying from other causes.

Bee health took a sharp hit in the 1980s and has been struggling during the winter months for decades coinciding with the global spread of the parasitical Varroa destructor mite and the sub-lethal effects of miticides used to control the parasite. But these overwinter losses, while troubling, haven’t translated into declines in the overall bee population because bees reproduce rapidly in warmer months.

The bee health issue erupted into the public consciousness in 2006, when bee die-offs mysteriously spiked–in California to as high as 80%.

GMOs and cell Phones did it?

The event was dubbed CCD by a team of entomologists because of the unique characteristics of the deaths: the unusual abandonment of hives by the oldest bees leaving behind larvae, the queen and food stores.

Advocacy groups originally pointed to cell phones and genetically modified crops as the likely culprits, and some fringe organizations, like the fringe activist group the Organic Consumers Association, still do. But CCD gradually subsided.

Dennis van Engelsdorp, a University of Maryland entomologist who was part of the research team that named CCD, has written to me that there has not been a single field CCD incident in the last three years, except cases linked to the Nosema fungus. Confusing the picture, overwinter bee deaths also increased in the years after the CCD scare, reaching 30% or more in the US and in some European countries. Confounding doomsayers, losses plummeted to 21.9% over the winter of 2011-2012, jumped again during the following year’s frigid weather, then settled back into the low 20s.

In some states, like North Dakota, which is the largest honey producer in the US, the number of bee colonies has hit an all-time high.

The recent trend in Europe is also encouraging. In April, the EU released a report called Epilobee that surveyed bee health in 2012-2013. Seventy-five percent of bees suffered overwinter losses of 15% or less, a level considered well within the acceptable range in the US. Only countries in Europe’s far north, home to 5% of the bee population, and which suffered through a bitter winter, experienced losses of more than 20%.

In short, most entomologists scoff at media references to a beemageddon.

But that’s exactly what Lu claims.

Hyping the “Harvard” studies

Mother Jones, in its coverage led by food reporter Tom Philpott, has been particularly myopic in its promotion of Lu’s controversial views and the scientifically dubious claim that neonics is the prime driver of bee deaths. It’s run more than a dozen articles about the alleged mortal threat posed by neonics. Upon the release of Lu’s most recent study, Philpott titled his article, “Did Scientists Just Solve the Bee Collapse Mystery?”

There were no “scientists” behind the Lu study, of course–only Lu himself. But rather than seeking out views of established experts in the field, he had Lu and only Lu answer the question he posed.

“[C]oming on the heels of a similar [study] he published in 2012, the CCD mystery has been solved,” he wrote. Philpott now unqualifiedly, and incorrectly say mainstream entomologists, refers to neonics as “bee killer chemicals.”

Who is Chensheng (Alex) Lu, the Dr. Doom of honey bees? He is an environmental researcher with the Harvard School of Public Health with no formal training in entomology. His two bee papers are “Harvard studies” only in the sense that the only scientist who conducted the studies has a Harvard faculty appointment; his co-authors are local beekeepers. Both studies appeared in one of the most obscure science journals in the world, a marginal Italian journal.

Lu emerged out of academic obscurity two years ago with the publication of his first study on bee deaths. He promoted a simple explanation, the kind that energizes activists: A new class of pesticides, promoted by large chemical companies as a safer alternative to older chemicals, was a hidden killer.

“I kind of ask myself,” Lu told Wired in 2012. “Is this the repeat of Silent Spring? What else do we need to prove that it’s the pesticides causing Colony Collapse Disorder?”

The second coming of Silent Spring? Almost from the day his first study was published, Lu was making grandiose claims. By his own admission, he is the definition of an activist scientist. He is on the board of The Organic Center, an arm of the multi-million dollar Organic Trade Association, a lobby group with strong financial interest in disparaging conventional agriculture, synthetic pesticides and neonics in particular–a conflict of interest that Lu never acknowledges and to my knowledge no other journalist has reported.

Earlier this month, OTA announced it is partnering with Lu to tout the benefits of organics, including promoting the dangers of neonics.

Many of the world’s top scientists have challenged his research. Dennis vanEngelsdorp called Lu’s first study “an embarrassment” while Scott Black, executive director of the bee-hugging Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, characterized it as fatally flawed, both in its design and conclusions.

University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences 2007 National Research council study on the Status of Pollinators in North America called it “effectively worthless” to serious researchers. “The experimental design and statistical analysis are just not reliable,” she said.

Beekeepers have been skeptical as well. Lu’s findings contradicted what they witnessed in the fields. If neonics were a mystery killer, then not using them should translate into healthier bee stocks; but that’s not what has happened.

“In places where neonicotinoid pesticides have been banned, such as France and Italy, there’s no evidence that honeybee populations have rebounded,” noted Hannah Nordhaus, beekeeper and author of the bestseller The Beekeepers’ Lament.

Lu has been defiant since the stinging expert rejection of his first paper. He sees the fingerprints of a Big Ag conspiracy of chemical companies, USDA and entomologists who he believes are ignoring the dangers to bees. Those are damning charges if true, but Lu had yet to present any evidence to back them up–until the publication of his newest paper last May.

Lu monitored 18 hives, a small number for such a complex study, comparing two different pesticides in different locations. He fed bees high fructose corn syrup laced with two neonics, imidacloprid and clothianidin, for 13 weeks. It was an odd choice because bees in fields usually only feed for as few as two weeks. Six of the 12 colonies fed neonics eventually ended up showing substantial deaths over the winter, as did one of the six control colonies.

According to Lu and his beekeeper co-authors, this proved that neonics cause CCD.

To seasoned observers of the bee controversy, the “new” study looked like more of the same. “Lu’s sample sizes are astonishingly small,” May Berenbaum told me, ticking off a litany of problems. “He never tested for the presence of pathogens, so his conclusions dismissing other likely causes don’t follow from his data. The whole study just doesn’t hold together. And I’m not being a fusspot here. It’s unfortunate this was presented as a Harvard paper because it gives this credibility that it doesn’t deserve.”

Twitter lit up with critical comments, starting with Nordhaus: 2014-12-14-Nordhaus.png

Many other critical posts followed, including by Brian Ames, a prominent apple grower, artisanal honeymaker and beekeeper: 2014-12-14-Ames.png

Even rudimentary digging by reporters would have turned up the revealing fact, unreported by the adulatory environmental press, that first study was rejected by Nature, as Lu himself has acknowledged, before ending up in the Bulletin of Insectology, a marginal “pay for play” publication that is known to publish research often rejected by mainstream peer-reviewed journals.

(The Bulletin of Insectology has an “impact factor” (IF) of 0.375, which means that the average paper from that journal is cited by another journal approximately once every three years; in contrast, Nature, which rejected Lu’s first paper, has an IF of 51).

The second study faced the same fate. Unable to get his work published by credible journals, Lu returned to the same publication that put out his first piece–perhaps the only journal in the world that would publish it.

“Anyone at this point in time who wishes to make a contribution to the study of potential effects of neonicotinoids on honey bees–or any other aspect of honey bee health–and publishes this data in the extremely obscure journal Bulletin of Insectology is very hard to take seriously,” Colorado State University entomologist Whitney Cranshaw emailed me.

A week does not go by without one advocacy group or government official or activist scientist making sensational claims about the supposed catastrophic dangers that neonics supposedly present.

In November, for example, advertisements began appearing across Ontario in Canada warning, “neonic pesticides hurt our bees and us,” one of them accompanied by a young boy gazing sadly at a dead bee. 2014-12-14-ontario_2.jpg

They were placed by a fringe advocacy group, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment; its primary funder is David Suzuki, a once prominent but now long retired geneticist who more recently has become known for rants against GMO foods.

That kind of hyperbole, scientists say, obscures the complex story of what’s really happening to bees and why–and the risks of advocacy groups and activist journalists driving science and agricultural regulations into a policy ditch.

Which brings us back to the curious case of Alex Lu.

Although Lu’s most recent paper, published last spring, was not clear on this point, the nutritionist has publicly maintained that neonic seed treatments are the driving cause of CCD. Let’s be clear. Neonics are an appropriate subject for serious research. They are neurotoxic pesticides. Because they rely on a complex set of behaviors, bees exposed to high volumes could conceivably become drunk and ill. Scientists are and should continue to examine this chemical and all agricultural chemicals.

Related article:  'Inextricably linked' anti-vaccine and anti-GMO movements cause preventable suffering

But the emphasis of many popular articles, and Lu’s study, is way out of whack with the potential dangers that scientists believe are presented by neonics. The pesticide is applied to seeds sparingly — only about 1-3 ppb is commonly found in pollen or nectar after application, levels way below safety concerns. Plants grown from a treated seed often need no further insecticidal treatment, unlike many competing chemicals. And in contrast to earlier generation insecticides that required multiple applications, when infestations are severe a single additional spraying generally suffices.

Lu steadfastly claims that bees that died in his studies were fed field realistic levels doses–statements echoed uncritically by reporters without, it turns out, cross checking with beekeepers or entomologists. “Chensheng Lu and his team treated 12 colonies with tiny levels of neonics,” Mother Jones maintained.


As Randy Oliver, a well known beekeeper, wrote on his Scientific Beekeeping blog, Lu fed his test colonies a pesticide brew of about 135 parts per billion (ppb). That’s 100 times higher then the 1-3 ppb commonly found in pollen or nectar, a level far below safety concerns. Rather than citing the chemicals’ ppb, some reporters touted the physical size of the dose, a worthless measurement. Lu also fed bees every week for 13 straight weeks when the real world application is just a few weeks at most.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone even reviewed this paper,” Oliver concluded.

What’s remarkable, numerous scientists and beekeepers told me, is that Lu’s bees didn’t just keel over in the first few weeks after sucking down what amounted to a lethal cocktail every day.

“It’s surprising those colonies lasted so long given the stratospheric quantities of insecticide [Lu] pumped into them for 13 weeks,” wrote Jonathan Getty on Bee-L Chat, a discussion forum for bee experts. “Lu has convincingly demonstrated, again, as in his previous study … that a high dose of an insecticide will kill an insect. Has anyone learned anything from all this? Looks like junk science at its worst.”

There was also scant evidence to back up Lu’s central claim that he had solved the mystery of CCD. “His description of the hives just didn’t show that,” University of Maryland entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp told me. Bee die offs, he said, have occurred mysteriously and periodically since at least the mid-19th century but became the focus of widespread public concern only in 2006. It’s clear that what Lu observed–bee deaths–“was not CCD. Looks like a typical bee colony death over the winter–which often includes bees abandoning the hive–but it’s a slow dwindle not a sudden collapse.”

Joe Ballenger, an entomologist writing for the independent sustainability site Biology Fortified, outlined how little Lu appears to know about CCD. “There are very important differences between the colonies Lu poisoned with insecticide and those which have been affected by CCD,” Ballenger wrote. “Despite these differences, Lu claims he has replicated CCD. However, his data demonstrates that he did not replicate CCD.”

Ballenger drew up a chart of Lu’s mistakes: 2014-12-14-neonics_donts_cause_ccd.jpg

Are there any prominent entomologists who endorse Lu’s findings? I couldn’t find any. Mother Jones quoted Jeffrey Pettis, an entomologist and research leader at USDA’s Beltsville’s Bee Laboratory, as appearing to be supportive. “Pettis told me that he thought Lu’s study ‘adds to the list’ of studies showing that pesticides pose a significant threat to honeybees,” Tom Philpott wrote.

I emailed Pettis about that quote:

I was trying to be diplomatic when I talked to Philpott but the Lu study should not have been published. It is not good science. I was trying to say that it adds to the list that pesticides and bees don’t mix but it is not a paper that shows that neonics cause problems simply because it was poorly replicated with high dosages used.

So what was going on in the hives that Lu monitored? The bee deaths that Lu found suggest a quite different cause, said vanEngelsdorp; the bees appear to have been killed by Lu himself–entirely expected if hives are overdosed during a frigid winter.

Are there potential advantages to using neonics to control pest infestations?

A telling fact emerges when you view the landscape of studies on neonics: on the whole, those done in a laboratory or that use unrealistic high doses (e.g. Lu’s studies) raise precautionary concerns. In contrast, field observations show few if any serious problems.

The latest example? Four Canadian scientists led by Cynthia D. Scott Dupree, an environmental biologist at the University of Guelph, undertook a large-scale study of honey bee exposure to one neonic, clothianidin, which is applied as a seed treatment. The study was centered in southern Ontario, which advocacy groups have contended has been particularly hard hit by neonic-related bee deaths.

Designed in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada, it was industry funded, but executed under Good Laboratory Practice Standards.

The scientists observed bees foraging heavily on the canola. As numerous other studies have suggested, they found, “Although various laboratory studies have reported sublethal effects in individual honey bees exposed to low doses of neonicotinoid insecticides, the results of the present study suggest that foraging on clothianidin seed-treated crops, under realistic conditions, poses low risk to honey bee colonies.”

Assertions by entomologists that neonics play a limited role in bee health infuriates some environmentalists convinced this mystery is solved: Let’s just ban neonics, they say, and move on.

“For its part, the pesticide industry is doing its best to shroud the phenomenon in uncertainty,” Mother Jones wrote in its article hyping the Lu study, “promoting a ‘multifactorial’ explanation that points the finger at mites, viruses, and ‘many other factors, but not…the use of insecticides,’ as neonic producer Bayer puts it in its ‘Honey Bee Health’ pamphlet.”

But it’s not Bayer making those claims, as Philpott seemed to suggest; it’s independent and government scientists. Noting the complexity of the phenomenon, the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency took a cautious, science-based approach to the emerging controversy three years ago, commissioning a broad-based assessment of the evidence. This panel, reflecting views by most beekeepers and academic expertsconcluded that neonics were unlikely to be the major driver of bee deaths.

Rather, the experts identified a complex set of causes likely linked to a surge in pathogens, such as Varroa mites that feed on the bodily fluids of bees and which first surfaced in the U.S. in the 1980s and began infesting beehives in California in 1993; and Nosema, a common parasite that invades their intestinal tracts; and the use and perhaps misuse of miticides to control them. Other issues include the stress put on bees by large commercial beekeepers, particularly to service the agri-business demand for bees needed for the California almond crop in late winter before bees normally repopulate, as well as climate change and breeding issues.

Few experts or practitioners believe banning neonics or GMOs would improve bee health and could in fact result in farmers going back to spraying insecticides known to harm pollinators and humans.

“If we took pesticides out of the equation tomorrow, I think there’s no doubt we would have reduced colony losses,” vanEngelsdorp told me. “But even without pesticides, we’d still be seeing significant losses–losses that are unsustainable.”

Neonics present in corn dust at planting have been shown definitively to contribute to bee mortality, but that’s a result of faulty formulation, scientists have concluded. When used properly, there is intriguing evidence that neonics may actually improved bee health in some circumstances. Hints can be found, ironically, in Alex Lu’s own data, of all places.

Lu’s 2012 paper raises red flags because he used two separate dosing regimens as the experiment progressed, noted Richard Cowles, a prominent entomologist with the state of Connecticut, in an email to me. During the first four weeks of his study, the bees were fed concentrations of imidacloprid that, as it turns out, were in fact field realistic. At three weeks into testing using these concentrations, the health of the bee colonies was positively correlated with exposure to imidacloprid, as measured by the number of capped brood cells. In other words, the bees appeared healthier.

“Rather than continue the experiment with these concentrations, Dr. Lu inexplicably increased the dosages for the last nine weeks of feeding-by 40 times,” Cowles told me.


Cowles couldn’t get an answer from Lu and neither could I. This is one of the many questions that I had hoped to put to Lu in an interview. He at first agreed by email but then stopped communicating. I contacted him again and also reached out to the Harvard School of Public Health, but got no reply. Entomologists have volunteered as to what they thought might have been going on when Lu changed feeding tactics.

“Dr. Lu probably was trying to hide the fact that he observed an unexpected result contrary to his expectations, which led to him increase the dosages to poison the bees,” Cowles, emailed me. “Whether this sub-lethal effect is actually therapeutic to honey bees is a very interesting question, and one that I’d like to investigate.”

In other words, Lu’s data suggests the opposite of his stated conclusion–bees appear to do fine when exposed to field realistic doses and even increasingly higher amounts of neonics, but ultimately succumb to astronomical levels.

This is not the first time a neonic study has shown that bee health might improve when crops are treated with new generation insecticides. In a 2013 PLOS ONE study, a team led by vanEngelsdorp and Jeffrey Pettis studied the real world impact of 35 pesticides including three neonics–acetamiprid, imidacloprid and thiacloprid–by examining hives from seven major crops. Intriguingly, bee health improved although the results would need to be confirmed with follow up research. This study remains the only lab research to date that has evaluated how real world pollen-pesticide blends affect honey bee health.

The researchers found a striking reduction in the risk from Nosema infection when neonics were used, bee health improved. Why would that be? It seems neonics may suppress the parasite associated with the disease. vanEngelsdorp and Pettis are not yet sure this is a real effect; good science requires that results be confirmed in multiple studies. That said, the intriguing but startling finding directly challenges the belief that neonics pose an unusually unique danger to bees.

What is the future for bees, neonics and agriculture?

Are there replacement insecticides if neonics should be banned? Sure. Those based on pyrethroids and organophosphates some of which are more toxic to bees and humans, are not as effective as neonics for many uses–and are not in the political crosshairs.

That’s not slowed demands for an immediate ban. Advocacy groups recently widened the scope of their concerns, claiming neonics could have an unknown environmental impact, and waterways are being polluted. But evidence for that is scant. A US Geological Society study published in July found the highest levels detected were at least 40 times lower than benchmarks established by EPA to be protective of aquatic life, and most were up to 1,000 times below that level.

What would happen if U.S. officials do institute sharp restrictions, as the White House may be contemplating?

Neonics are not only important to major row crops such as corn, soy and canola, they also remain the most effective weapon against Asian psyllid, an insect that spreads the deadly virus that threatens America’s citrus crop. They are the key pesticide keeping in check whitefly infestations, which could otherwise devastate winter vegetables. They are the primary insecticide used to counter leafhoppers in the grape-growing Northwest as well as thrips in cotton and water weevil in rice. They’ve been hugely successful in combating aphids and beetles in potatoes.

I found scant support among entomologists for the two-year precautionary moratorium adopted by European politicians in the wake of near hysterical media reports in 2012 and 2013, many generated by coverage of Lu’s research. That ban looks like a textbook case of “shooting before you aim,” resulting in unintended but predictable consequences. As Matt Ridley reported in November in The Times of London:

All across southeast Britain this autumn, crops of oilseed rape are dying because of infestation by flea beetles. The direct cause of the problem is the two-year ban on pesticides called neonicotinoids brought in by the EU over British objections at the tail end of last year. … Farmers in Germany, the EU’s largest producer of rape, are also reporting widespread damage. Since rape is one of the main flower crops, providing huge amounts of pollen and nectar for bees, this will hurt wild bee numbers as well as farmers’ livelihoods.

There are now growing concerns that Lu’s studies will carry weight with politicians facing pressure to “do something”. That’s what happened in late November in Ontario, where the government has proposed to restrict the sale of corn and soybean seeds treated with neonics to farmers by 80 percent over the next two years.

The very same week, Health Canada issued a report after a long investigation that found bee mortality, which was not an issue until 2012, dropped 70 percent over last winter.

Activists are trying to jack up political pressure in the United States, perhaps concerned as signs that a temporary global surge in bee deaths appears over, undercutting their campaign. In September, a coalition of environmental groups co-wrote a letter signed by 60 Congressional Democrats urging the EPA to restrict neonicotinoid use citing Lu’s work in arguing that “native pollinators” have “suffered alarming declines.”

Those calls send chills down the back of entomologists concerned that Lu’s claims that he has solved the mystery of the beemageddon that doesn’t actually exist will have a bullying impact on public policy.

“Lu’s work is clearly biased, sensational,” said Richard Cowles. “It is horrendously incompetent. This is just hogwash. We will all pay a price for bad research.”

May Berenbaum was appointed this past summer to chair a National Academy of Sciences study on the health of pollinators ordered by the White House. I asked her if there is anything of value in Lu’s study to guide scientists and regulators? Do neonicotinoids threaten the health of this beleaguered arthropod?

Berenbaum paused. A dedicated environmentalist, she is known for her understated fairness.

“I’m no fan of pesticides and they are overused in agriculture, but you won’t find any confirmation of that in this study.”

Science is not a set of results; it is a method. If the method is wrong, the results are useless. The uncomfortably high number of bee deaths eludes the kind of definitive but potentially reckless conclusion that could result in precipitous regulations.

“This is a really complex issue with no quick and easy solutions,” Berenbaum said. “I can’t imagine a situation in which I would cite the findings of this paper as rigorous and reliable. This is just not good science.”

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a Senior Fellow at the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis and at the Center for Health and Risk Communication, George Mason University. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter.

40 thoughts on “Bee experts shred ‘Harvard’ neonics-Colony Collapse Disorder study, upbraid journalists for ‘activist science’”

  1. Excellent expose of the junk science behind the neonic ban. I wouldn’t care except with all the wasted money on anti-neonics we are not going after the major culprits in the CCD. That is a huge mistake.

  2. Someone needs to get Dr. Lu’s lecture tour schedule and follow him around, distributing this article or at least a condensed version. It could be entitled “Chensheng Lu Kills Bees.”

  3. Here is an article with fewer emotionally loaded terms, those terms which should bring about suspicion about the strength of the actual argument.

    Effects of neonicotinoids and fipronil on non-target invertebrates Environ Sci Pollut Res
    DOI 10.1007/s11356-014-3471-x

    • Brian, the article you site may appear to be a dry academic article, but it’s actually a well known polemic by a group of scientists whose ideological views are well known, and well outside of mainstream etymological circles. The ringleader so to speak is Goulson, who has been on an activist campaign against neon’s well before any evidence had come out. He’s a key member of the discredited IUCN study group: If you are truly looking for independent and non-ideological research, instead of cherry picking from precautionary scientists, read the USDA/EPA review from 2012, which is linked in the piece, and comments by truly independent scientists like May Berenbaum and Dennis vanEnglesdorp.

      • I don’t think an article with nearly 400 referenced papers can be put aside in so few words. How many papers can you cite? And do you also reject the article in the journal Pest Management Science?

        • Brian, Just because a paper sites a lot of other papers does not make it conclusive. It’s one study. The overwhelming number of citations do not support the authors claims. The authors predetermined ideological views are well known. Independent studies–the mass of them–contradict this. No one suggests that neonics, or any pesticide, do not have potential negative consequences–they are designed to protect crops against insects and other pests. The fact is that neonics are less of an ecological and bee health issue than alternatives by a sizable magnitude, and their link to bee health is extremely limited according to independent entomologists. Replacing them with more harmful pesticides would hurt bees. You will always be able to cite Article X or Article Y to support your ideological convictions. That’s what climate change deniers do all the time. The keys are “weight of evidence”, cost vs. benefits and cost trade offers. That’s good science.

          • >Just because a paper sites a lot of
            >other papers does not make it
            >conclusive. It’s one study. The

            not a scientific term.

            >number of
            >citations do not support the
            >authors claims.

            leaves how many?

            >The authors
            >predetermined ideological views
            >are well known. Independent
            >studies–the mass of them-
            ->contradict this.

            “Independent” where they are funded by public good money, not industry money?

            >No one suggests
            >that neonics, or any pesticide, do
            >not have potential negative
            >consequences–they are designed
            >to protect crops against insects
            >and other pests. The fact is that
            >neonics are less of an ecological
            >and bee health issue than
            >alternatives by a sizable

            are basing that on your statement that bee health has not improved in
            areas where neonics have been stopped. I have challenged that and you
            have replied by saying they are not persistent, I have challenged
            that, too.

            >and their link to bee
            >health is extremely limited
            >according to independent

            Once again based on the unsubstantiated claim of no persistence.

            >Replacing them
            >with more harmful pesticides
            >would hurt bees.

            Are you familiar with integrated pest management? Just do what is needed.
            Every time a pesticide is applied that causes selection pressure, so
            pest resistance development is possible or probable. I guess that the
            technique being applied to avoid that is use of a heavy dose. That
            would be same as for GMO Bt crops to try to avoid the need for
            non-GMO refuges without the selection pressure: strong Bt expression
            has been engineered, and continuously present. That is in contrast to
            the organic farm where Bt is applied when needed, and is much better
            management. I think 3 out of 6 engineered Bt gene insertions have
            lost effectiveness already in some areas.

            I have to put forward for examination the concept that the 3 main GMO
            crops, soy, corn, cotton can all self-pollinate. Those crops are
            easier to trace for patent purposes. If bees are reduced there will
            be more market for self-pollinators, so more money going to the GMO
            companies. I do feel that needs addressing.

            >You will always
            >be able to cite Article X or
            >Article Y to support your
            >ideological convictions. That’s
            >what climate change deniers do
            >all the time.

            deniers have pretty much gone. They have been seen through.
            Rockefeller is getting out of fossil fuels.

            >The keys are
            >”weight of evidence”, cost vs.
            >benefits and cost trade offers.
            >That’s good science.

            business science versus good public good science is a big topic. Even
            Bill Gates is acknowledging that people need work. Just to give aid
            from subsidised low labour farms which local farmers cannot compete
            with is not the answer.

            Peak phosphorus is not too far off. Spreading compost would be useful
            employment as well as recycling the phosphorus. It would also nourish
            the soil so as it can hold more CO2, and the micro-organisms growing
            in it can be used by plants to buld their own defenses.

            A big plan is needed. And a better one than new feudalism: hand pollination if you are still trying to grow crops which do not self -pollinate.

          • Brian, your post is obviously pagiarized from someone else’s writings, evidenced by all the specious indents and > symbols. It also rambles way off-topic, which is the fraudulent publication by Harvard’s Lu. Cutting & pasting of others’ writings is typical of people who can’t come up with original thought. I can’t really subscribe to your unoriginal and uncritical thought processes long enough to understand what you are driving at, but it does seem to counter the scientific publications and the regulatory decisions on the neonicotinoids that have been made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

            As a sideline note, I don’t really look to Harvard for any credibility in the sciences. They’re better at the soft, touchy-feely realms of sociology, literature, art history, and musicology. For credible work on the hard sciences such as biology, chemistry, physics, and the technological fields that stem from them, I look more to the land grant agricultural universities in the U.S. And Canada. They are much less “contaminated” with the airy-fairy stuff than are Harvard and Berkeley.

          • Sorry, I meant to type ‘plagiarized’, Brian. Your post is plagiarized, meaning that you copied it from somewhere else. Definitely not an original in any sense. Plagiarism is about as reprehensible as anything in today’s highly charged political environment.

          • I need an answer to my
            question, now stated several times on this thread: Why do some
            researchers find neonics to be persistent and others deny that? If
            there are still some neonics around after stopping use, then it is
            going to be several years before a recovery of bees can appear. The
            fact bees do not recover straight away cannot be used to claim that
            neonics had not caused the trouble.

            To my knowledge I have
            not plagiarised that question from anyone else.

            Note at the top of my
            article it says I was replying to Jim, (the same as this one is to
            you as it says). So when I used the > sign, which one of the
            20-and-more-year-old conventions for quoting someone you are replying
            to, I omitted t say “Jim Entine wrote: >” Sorry. I presumed it
            would be obvious. And I was quoting Jim’s words to try to focus my
            points so none were missed.

            I do not think I was
            off topic. Jim remarked on alternatives to neonics being worse. So I
            elaborated on that. He seems to think of other alternatives to
            neonics just as other pesticides and not the way in which they are

            Sorry about the varying line lengths if that is what you mean by “indents” indicating plagiasrism.. They are because I have written this in Openoffice and copied and pasted it iin here.

          • Right, I now understand why your posts have specious indents & symbols. In any case, the topic of this article is on the fraudulence of Lu. My comments were directed to that topic alone. Harvard is not a good place from which to secure facts about entomology, which is the science that is most closely related to apiculture (beekeeping). I believe in the integrity of the entomologists who have published their findings, and the regulatory agency that is responsible for human safety and the integrity of the environment, the U.S. EPA. So far, the science supports continued use of the neonicotinoids, particularly as seed treatments and root zone drenches.

            As for the question about “persistence” that you have raised, I do not have the answer for you. I would recommend that you consult the published regulatory decisions by the U.S. EPA on each of the neonics. They are public documents.

          • Good4U: Technology can be put
            to uses beneficial to economies of nations, or to corporates who may
            have different objectives. Unfortunately sometimes corporates do not
            become environmentally/socially conscious until the outcomes of their
            technology begin to threaten their own survival. The example is the
            wake up of vehicle manufacturers moving away from fossil fuels which
            threaten the whole planet. But that has been a slow process and is
            getting too late. More of the stuff you call “touchy feely” would have been beneficial earlier on. Do you call Vermont and New York States “touchy feely” in that they have stopped the high technology process of fracking? I suppose you will want to call that comment “off topic.” The “off topic” call is a common ploy to avoid discussing an illustration of a point.

          • Huma, the website that you linked is authored by David Just, who is a “behavioral economics” professor in Cornell’s Department of Economics. It’s essentially an opinionated blog. It’s not an extension publication containing recommendations about agriculture or food production technology. Whereas portions of Cornell University do constitute a land grant institution, their agricultural research is conducted by scientists in departments within the College of Agriculture, such as the Departments of Entomology, Plant Breeding, Animal Science, etc., many of whom are located at the several agricultural experiment stations that operate separately from the main campus at Ithaca. They publish annual recommendations about the use of just about every technology that growers and livestock managers use today to generate our food supply, including the use of transgenic crops. Those recommendations are not necessarily reflected in Dr. Just’s blog. Also, whereas agriculture is important to the state of New York, it might be worthwhile to look into the agricultural extension publications from other land grant institutions such as Michigan State University, the University of Illinois, Iowa State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Florida, the University of California (Davis and Riverside), and many, many others within more agriculturally based states.
            As for your snarky comment about from where I get my scientific opinions, no, I do not obtain them from any internet site, or from TV, or the movies, or from any media generated for the purpose of titillating people’s attention in order to sell advertising space. I get my scientific understanding from reading papers published in peer reviewed journals, and from regulatory decisions published by the key agencies that are charged with protection of human health and the integrity of the environment.

        • The number of other papers a paper cites really doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean the paper has an scientific credibility as you don’t need anyone’s permission to cite another paper. What matters is how many other papers cite the original paper. For example, if I write a paper and cite 400 other papers yet not a single other author cites my paper that tells you that my ideas probably aren’t all that compelling.

          Also, and I’m not saying it’s happening here, when you see hundreds of citations in a paper the author is often trying to confuse the reader and steal a sense of authority. It’s also pretty common when you have people writing outside of their field of expertise. They often don’t know how to distinguish between valuable citations and useless ones so they just include *everything*.

          As a note, I’m a published scientist in the field of CS so I am familiar with how that aspect of it works.

          • @rapier1, It has been cited average twice per month since being published.

            If you talk about indirect soil effects &C. who will pay any attention if you go not cite?

            Even if speaking against an article do you prefer it not cited?

          • What matters in the quality of the citations used in a paper. Just throwing a shovelful of citations on a paper doesn’t make it any better. So the fact that they have 400 citations doesn’t mean its a good paper.

            Also, with citations, who cites the paper also matters. I’ve found many authors have cited the Seralini rat study even *after* it was withdrawn (with prejudice) by the journal. The majority of papers making use of this citation were published in pay for play or non-peer reviewed online only ‘journals’.

            Again, I’m not saying that the paper is a bad paper. What I am saying is that you can’t go by the number of citations in the paper as some sort of yardstick. There are ways to game the citation process that can serve to inflate the perceived value of a paper. One way to do it is to trade citations (I’ll cite your paper if you cite mine. wink wink). Citations do matter but you have to view them with a critical eye.

  4. If you want to see how imadacloprid is persisting since the EU moratorium, see the Netherlands’ Atlas of Pesticides, taken from water authority data, at where you can see the levels, over recent years, of a disturbing array of compounds.

    CCD is an unhelpful red herring. As, up to a point, are honeybees. The experience in Europe is more that pollinating insects, together with lots of other invertebrates, are in general decline. Some of that may be down to land-use or climate-change or competition issues, but a correlation has been found ( between imadacloprid levels in water and declining bird populations (adjusting for land-use changes, and taking population data from before and after the introduction of neonics) which strongly suggests they have a persistent and widespread effect on insect populations. The main point isn’t that neonics kill insects – they’re meant to do that – but that they persist in soil and water, and we don’t know the long-term effects. The partial EU moratorium doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of increasing understanding, but as neonics were approved by the EU regulators partly on the grounds that they didn’t persist, it’s entirely justified. Although some claim that pyrethroids (what farmers seem to be using instead) are ‘worse’ than neonics, we don’t know that. Although pyrethroids are more acutely toxic, they generally have much shorter half-lives, so there may not be much difference overall. As ever, more research is needed.

    • You cannot be serious. have no idea what Nature study you are referring to as your link just goes to a general page at Nature. That said, you do not seem to understand key aspects of neon’s. Today they are mostly applied to the seed. There is almost no ecological impact in soil and water and they are not persistent. What they replaced, and what is now replacing them with the ban, are much more toxic and ecological persistent chemicals–a true travesty for bees and the environment. Organophophates are an ecological disaster and a human carcinogen. And unlike neonics, pyrethoids are acutely toxic to bees–a true disaster in the making.

      • Sorry, here’s the full link.

        Sure, neonics are mostly applied as seed coatings, but that doesn’t mean they stay there – the pneumatic seed drills that are now being used tend to aerosolize the coatings. In addition, they’ve been sold as pesticides for groundskeepers, domestic gardeners and local authorities for the cosmetic treatment of lawns etc. Either or both of these may explain their persistence in water found in the Netherlands data. Given the negative correlation between their presence in water and bird populations, over and above that due to other causes, it’s cause for concern.

        As for pyrethroids, they’re not noticeably more toxic to bees than neonics and some of them, fluvalinate, for example, are used inside hives by beekeepers as miticides. They’re not good for aquatic creatures, though, or mammals, and that (along with developing resistance by target insects) has discouraged their use, but they break down more quickly than neonics. Organophosphates could be a worse problem than either, but they are not all equal, varying significantly in action. Some, being highly toxic nerve agents, have been banned outright, some are in the process of being banned and some, like glyphosate, are widely used with no immediate prospect of further controls.

        • Lots of mistakes in your comment. There is no migration of neonics from seed coatings into ground water. You just made that up. About 80% or more (and the percentage is growing) of neonic use is via seed coatings. Home usage as a percentage of overall usage is minimal. Ecological pollution is just not a serious issue…and regardless, it’s far less an issue than any possible substitute. You are absolutely wrong when you write that pyrethroids are not noticeably more toxic to bees than neonics–that’s absurd. They are demonstrated killers to bees at low exposure while that’s not true for neonics. Organophasphates as a class are far far worse than any known pesticide being used today…exponentially worse than neonics, and no one dispute thats. You also appear not to understand the basic chemistry of herbicides. You call glyphosate an organophosphate. Absolutely wrong. glyphosate is not an organophosphate ester but a phosphanoglycine, and it does not inhibit cholinesterase activity. It’s an organophosphorus compound, but that does make it an organophosphate. Its LD 50 is less than salt. Bottom line: all pesticides pose potential harm to insects–they are pesticides! Based on the science, neonics remains the best of the lot for what it is used for. Banning it on shoddy science would be a blow to bees and farming. That’s the conclusion of independent (versus activist) scientists, including the top independent entomologists in the world.

          • If you have a problem with believing the evidence for neonics in water (surface water in the case I cited), then I suggest you take it up with the Dutch authorities and explain what’s wrong with their monitoring.

            I’ll put my own hands up for the glyphosate blunder – I meant malathion. But unless you can provide some references to back up your claims of what ‘independent’ scientists have concluded, I hope you won’t mind my taking your slightly hyperbolic words with a pinch of salt. Although this particular article does much to discredit the specific approach of a somewhat unorthodox activist scientist, it does little to suggest that the EU reviewers were wrong to highlight areas of concern, nor that studies into the effects of neonics in water courses should be dismissed in advance of them being done.

          • “nor that studies into the effects of neonics in water courses should be dismissed in advance of them being done.”
            Perhaps I shouldn’t dismiss your reply if any to this as absurd and stupid before you even type it?

          • Burbage –

            I would also like to add that when planting seeds it isn’t the pneumatic drills, it’s the way the seeds are lubricated that are problematic, not the planting system.
            Bayer has become aware of that and is changing or already changed that ending that line of argument. But we still need to understand that pesticide poisonings and CCD are entirely two different and distinct issues. Once our logical foundation is built on that fundamental fact the correct understanding of CCD flows. And neonics are not part of the CCD problem.

            I would also like to add that the word “banned” is overused and used incorrectly most of the time. Most pesticides were forced off the market through chicanery via EPA regulations that become so expensive for the manufacturers who are the primary registrants they simply pull their registration. That’s not banning – it’s economics – and that’s the way EPA, with the help of their allies in the green movement, create de-facto bans without going through the messy legal and scientific processes the law requires to actually “ban” a pesticide.
            A process where-in they would lose!

      • Jon you wrote: “they are not persistent”. I think you are out of date. “Instead of being sprayed on growing or full-grown crops,
        neonicotinoids can be applied to the seed before planting. The use of
        treated seeds in the United States has increased to the point where most
        corn and soybeans planted in the United States have a seed treatment
        (i.e., coating), many of which include neonicotinoid insecticides.

        “We noticed higher levels of these insecticides after rain storms
        during crop planting, which is similar to the spring flushing of
        herbicides that has been documented in Midwestern U.S. rivers and
        streams,” said USGS scientist Michelle Hladik, the report’s lead author.
        “In fact, the insecticides also were detected prior to their first use
        during the growing season, which indicates that they can persist from
        applications in prior years.””


    Professor Robert Wager has once again effectively spoken out against anti-pesticide activists. He SPEAKS THE TRUTH ― and deserves CONGRATULATION. Professor Wager is among several LEADING EXPERTS who have recognized expertise, training and background in matters concerning pest control products. He is
    a Master’s-level expert, commentator, and policy expert on the subject of regulatory affairs. Professor Wager is also a member of the Biology Department, researcher, and laboratory demonstrator at Vancouver Island University. He has earned a Master’s Degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and also earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Microbiology, from the University of British Columbia. Consequently, Professor Wager has been entered on the LIST OF REAL EXPERTS who speak out against the conspiracy to impose reckless and arbitrary prohibition against conventional pest control products. He is one of the nation’s MOST PROMINENT AND KNOWLEDGEABLE SPOKESMEN on this subject. For more information about Professor Wager and other REAL EXPERTS, go to The Pesticide Truths Web-Site … We are the National Organization Responding Against HUJE that seek to destroy the Green space and other industries ( NORAH
    G ). We are dedicated to reporting PESTICIDE FREE FAILURES, as well as the work of RESPECTED and HIGHLY RATED

  6. You did not disprove the study. You did not provide a more comprehensive study that would show what causes CCD. GMO PRO liar john Entine again point out how you are qualified to question this Harvard school of public health professor? Your a writer and have been paid by Monsanto in the past. poison is poison you know.

    • Huma, what about the fact that there are more honeybee colonies now and that fewer people are reporting CCD dieoffs? That clearly indicates that honeybee populations are *not* declining in the US and we are not on the verge of the beepocalypse. Yes, it means that hive owners are starting new hives but that’s *fine* as honeybees are *not* native to the Americas. They were imported from the old world in order to provide honey and pollinate old world fruits. Honey bees *have* escaped these apiaries and they have exploited niches in the ecosystem of the Americas (usually at the expense if not extirpation) of native species. I’m not aware of the statistics on these wild colonies but the primary concern regarding honeybees is their ability as pollinators for commercial crops. They’re doing pretty well in that regard.

    • No one is “ignoring any proof of damages”. That’s a four year old non peer reviewed article. There have been more than 60 studies since then, and state of the art research that was just not available to those researchers. They seem well intentioned, but it’s clear they had no data to work with and reached no definitive conclusions. They also did not do a risk analysis–comparing neonics vs. organic pesticides (awful/dangerous) and the more dangerous chemicals that have been given new life since the ban in Europe. The article on this site draws from the best of the most recent research, and the meta-data. If you honestly believe that any of these entomologists–among the best in the world–are “ignoring” the data, then approach them directly. All the article did was cite/interview the best bee experts in the world–all of them interviewed reviewed the article as well.

  7. The beauty of some poisons is that they just open the door and disable the guards. You are looking for the enabler, not the ultimate killer. Look at glyphosate a bit more.

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