Friday, October 17, 2008

How To Make a Fortune From Killing Bees

Supposing that someone set you a challenge: your mission is to wipe out all honeybees on the planet, while simultaneously showing a profit running into billions of dollars.

The following is a fictitious interview with an uncharacteristically honest representative of the biotech industry, conducted some years ago.

Interviewer: Why would you want to wipe out bees?

Biotech executive: Because we want to introduce a range of genetically engineered crops, which do not require bees for pollination. We want to ensure that food demand moves towards the range of crops that we can engineer most easily - and most profitably - and away from those that are more technically difficult to manipulate and that actually don't need any form of GM. When large populations run short of their traditional crops, they will clamour for anything that can feed them - even our GM crops.

Interviewer: How would you achieve this aim without conservationists and farmers attacking you?

Biotech executive: Clearly, we will have to do it by stealth. Make it look like a 'natural disaster'.

Interviewer: What about making a profit - how would you do that?

Biotech executive: Easy. While managing the 'natural disaster', we make and sell an antidote for it - nothing too effective, of course - and make sure it is one that will not actually cure the problem, but exacerbate it over time.

Biotech executive: So, for example, we could enable and quietly encourage the spread of a parasitic mite to which honeybees will have no natural resistance. The mite is known to be susceptible to the widely available natural pesticide pyrethrum, which is derived from dried chrysanthemum flowers. Organic gardeners have long used crysanthemums as companion plants to keep nuisance insects away from certain crops, but it is far more profitable to synthesize the active ingredient and manufacture a 'hive treatment' that can be sold to beekeepers, supposedly to kill the mites.

At first, of course, it will do that, but farmers and beekeepers rarely follow instructions on labels, so we know ahead of time that many of them will leave the medication in the hive for months instead of weeks, resulting in extended, low-level doses that will inevitably result in the mites becoming immune to treatment over time. As it is lipophilic, the synthetic pyrethroid will be absorbed into the beeswax, ensuring another source of low-level exposure - and let's not forget that we are selling a lot of pyrethroid insecticides in spray form, that will further enhance the effect as bees bring traces of it back to their hives.

Over a period of years, we will be able to sell millions of dollars-worth of pyrethroid treatments to beekeepers at huge margins, as this stuff costs very little to manufacture. They will queue up to buy it at almost any price, as we will make sure that researchers who show an interest in different types of treatment are allocated to other projects. By the time they realize that, far from curing the problem, they have just been selecting for weak bees and pyrethroid-resistant mites, it will be almost too late.

Interviewer: Almost?

Biotech executive: We suspect that some bee strains may still be vigorous enough to overcome mite infestation, and we don't want to risk them becoming standard breeding stock, so we need another line of attack as well. We will engineer a virus - possibly several - that can be spread unwittingly by the big bee-breeders who supply most of the package bees sold to commercial beekeepers, especially in the USA. The effort to identify and find a treatment for these viruses will occupy most of the available resources for bee research - which, of course, we largely control through grants and subsidies. It will take them years to find an effective treatment. We have one ready of course, for when we need to offer them a 'final solution'.

Interviewer: And if that is not enough?

Biotech executive: Then we have our parallel plan: we use our influence over the governmental pesticide regulatory authorities to introduce our new range of pesticides, based on another naturally occurring - and cheap - ingredient: nicotine. We have them ready to go - we call them neonicotinoids - and they are really deadly. You would hardly believe what a microscopic amount of this stuff you need to kill insects! And the great thing about them is that they can be applied to seeds before planting, and they are taken up into the plant and any bug that so much as tastes the sap is dead within minutes. So we can correctly claim that we are reducing the application of sprayed insecticides - which makes us look 'greener' to the ignorant (and, by the way, our PR department has made us look greener than Greenpeace - those guys are so sneaky!) - while we wipe out several dozen species of insects right under their noses. Of course, a few bird species will have to go too, but we can blame that on 'global warming' or somesuch nonsense.

Interviewer: What plants will the neonicotinoids be used on?

Biotech executive: Well, of course, we will focus on the ones that bees go for - sunflowers, oilseed rape - and the ones with the biggest profits - maize, sugar beet and so on. I know bees don't really go for maize, but the neat thing is that it is planted in spring, just when bees are most focused on foraging, and we can make the seed coating in various colours that are attractive to bees. At a distance, they look just like flowers! And the coating is quite loose, so it reverts to dust, which they think is pollen. So any seed that doesn't get drilled properly - and there is always plenty - stays on the surface and goes on working for us!

Oh yes, I almost forgot - we know that vine weevil is quite a pest to gardeners, so we are putting neonicotinoids right into commercial compost and calling it 'vine weevil treatment' - without mentioning that it will also kill earthworms and just about everything else in the soil. And, of course, it will make its contribution to wiping out bees, too - especially in towns with public parks, golf courses and other places where local authorities want a cheap and easy way to manage pests.

Interviewer: How will you deal with protestors and detractors, who will see what you are really doing?

Biotech executive: We will do exactly as we have always done: ignore them! Do you know the history of this company? We have been doing exactly as we please for half a century. We own the best lawyers in town - they are easy pickings, we just pay them and they do as we say - and they can scare the bejeezuz out of any troublesome petty officials, pressure groups or whoever gets in our way. Every now and then we lose a case, but we are worth more in net terms than several small countries - compensation is just a tax-deductible expense, after all.


Of course, the above is just paranoid fantasy, and any resemblance to any biotech executive, living or dead, is entirely unlikely.

More on Neonicotinoids

Several people have asked me for more information about neonicotinoid pesticides and how to avoid them. Google will reveal extensive information on this topic, and to save you some time, I have compiled some of the more useful-looking material into a library - feel free to download anything from here.

A number of people have asked if they should use organically grown sugar. As a supporter of organic farming, I would love to say an unequivocal 'yes', but apart from the considerable extra cost, I have yet to see any really 'white' organic sugar - it always seems to have a slightly brown tinge, which may indicate the presence of residues that may cause digestive problems to the bees. I don't know the answer to this one, but when considering feed, we have to remember that we are trying to mimic nectar, which essentially comprises sucrose, glucose and fructose in varied proportions, plus a sprinkling of trace minerals. Refined, white cane sugar may be as close as we can get at reasonable cost.

Finally, consider this warning from a German beekeeper, in a statement to the Apimondia gathering in Freiburg. (Clothianidin is another neonicotinoid, closely related to Imidacloprid):

"In Germany clothianidin is used since 2004. It is used as seed protection for sugar beets and corn. As well as for fumigation of barns and stables. It accrues as decomposition product of other pesticides.

Already in some regions the concentration in the soil is that high, that bee­keeping is not possible any more in such regions. It's alarming that butter­flies, hoverflies, chrysopids and many other beneficial insects are eliminated or respectively almost eliminated."

Read the full text here.

There is a growing movement to have the neonicotinoids banned in the UK, as is the case in several other European countries. They are extremely dangerous to bees and all other insects, and thus the birds and other animals that rely on insects for food. I urge you to take this threat seriously: only by acting in unison can we counteract the massive financial vested interests behind the promotion of these poisons.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


I recently circulated a warning about possible Imidacloprid contamination in sugar beet, which many beekeepers feed to their bees. Since this has caused some discussion, I thought you may like to hear some facts that I discovered while checking the original story.

1. Imidacloprid is a neonicotinoid pesticide (i.e. similar in chemical structure to nicotine) now routinely used as a seed dressing on sugar beet - for up to two years in the UK, considerably longer in the USA and elsewhere.

2. Imidacloprid is a systemic insecticide, meaning that it permeates every cell of the plant, even if only used as a seed dressing. That means it WILL be present in the sugar, as processing does not affect it.

3. Imidacloprid is a powerful neurotoxin, lethal to bees in doses as small as five parts per billion, and has serious sub-lethal effects - including disorientation - at much lower doses. To put that in context, if you took ONE THOUSAND METRIC TONNES of 1:1 syrup made with beet sugar, and stirred in just ONE TEASPOONFUL of Imidacloprid, you would have a mixture capable of killing bees. Please read that last sentence again and think about it.

4. Imidacloprid is persistent in plant cells and in the soil (half-life in soil under aerobic conditions of up to 997 days), where it kills ALL insects - including beneficial ones - and it accumulates, season on season, until it reaches a 'stable' level, assumed by some authorities to be something like 10 parts per billion. It is also likely to contaminate ground water.

5. The US 'Environmental Protection Agency' has approved permitted levels of Imidacloprid in sugar beet of 0.05 parts per million - that is at least TEN TIMES the lethal dose for bees.

Do you still think it is safe to feed sugar beet syrup to your bees?

And where is the British Bee Keepers Association in all this? Still taking money from Bayer in return for endorsing some of their pesticides (not, so far, including neonicotinoids) as 'Bee Friendly'. Has the BBKA come out with a statement condemning the use of Imidacloprid, or the closely related Clothianidin, which killed nearly half a billion bees in Germany in May this year? Have they ever issued a statement supporting the German and French beekeepers' call for a ban on neonicotinoids? Has the BBKA ever criticised ANY of Bayer's products? All I have seen is a series of half-hearted, limp statements that defend the status quo.

However, please do not imagine that I am 'anti-BBKA'. I want the BBKA to be a strong campaigning body on behalf of bees and beekeepers, not a puppet of Bayer's marketing department. They should be free and independent of all commercial interests and should represent beekeepers, NOT chemical corporations that have no interest in the health of bees, other than the profit they may make from selling medications like Bayvarol (that ultimately make the Varroa problem worse by selecting for pyrethroid-resistant mites).

I urge all UK beekeepers to lobby the BBKA through their local branch to abandon their mute acceptance of 'cash for chemicals' from Bayer, Syngenta or any other company, and to to request that they make a clear statement supporting organic farming, which is the only safe option for bees.

Philip Chandler


1. The facts about Imidacloprid in this message have been checked by a microbiologist.

2. You can read more about Imidacloprid here:

3. You can read the EPA's document on Imidacloprid here: