News outlets are adept at grabbing our attention with shock and awe, but what we need are thoughtful solutions.
One afternoon on my way home from the lab, I stopped to check on the colonies at our small apiary in Southlands, Vancouver. My jaw dropped at what I found. Thousands of our bees were on the ground outside their hives, writhing and trembling in piles. It was heartbreaking and sudden – it was the first and only time I witnessed a pesticide kill.
We never tested for pesticide residues, but it’s the most likely explanation for such acute symptoms. Southlands is an affluent neighbourhood where $5 million mansions are the norm, with fancy dressage horses in the yard. There is little agriculture, but a lot of landscaping. Our best guess is that someone in the vicinity sprayed pesticides on a decorative, attractive forage source, at a concentration too high, at the wrong time of day.
Thankfully, acute kills such as this are rare in an agricultural setting today. We have less risky application methods, better education, and a better understanding of when, where, and how a pesticide should be applied to minimize risk to pollinators. We are learning from past mistakes, like the previously unappreciated risk of pesticide exposure through residues on drifting seed dust. Now, the problems we’re grappling with are subtler – the chronic, sublethal effects we are only beginning to understand. But the way these subtle effects are announced in the media is typically through overstated, sweeping, fear-generating headlines. And those headlines stimulate equally sweeping, simplistic solutions, if any.
I can understand why news stories covering bee health and agrochemicals take on an alarmist tone. It’s an issue that tugs at our heartstrings and makes us mad – I was certainly upset when my colonies were the ones suffering. The collective alarm makes us feel like we, the public, have a common cause to band around. Bees are always the victims. Agrochemicals or their producers (like Bayer or Syngenta) are always the villains. We are usually the implicit heroes, energized to fight for change. But I think this simple story construction is doing us a disservice. So often, it means the story stops there, the facts are likely to be misconstrued, and the path forward is left up in the clouds.
Take, for example, the recent work from Dr. Nancy Moran’s lab, which detailed their new finding that glyphosate (the active ingredient in the herbicide, Roundup) can have indirect effects on honey bee health through perturbing their gut bacteria. If you aren’t familiar with the research, head over to Scott McArt’s column, Notes from the Lab, where he discusses the paper in this issue. Very briefly, glyphosate was not thought to be harmful to animals; rather, it kills plants and bacteria by inhibiting an essential enzyme. Honey bees have a core bacterial community in their gut, as I have written about previously, which is important for immune stimulation and nutrient digestion. Thus, Moran and her colleagues logically showed that glyphosate could have unexpected consequences for honey bees, not by harming the bees themselves, but by disrupting their gut microbes. They showed that feeding bees with sugar syrup spiked with 5-10 mg/L of glyphosate for several days changed the bees’ gut microbial community, and made the bees more susceptible to an emerging opportunistic pathogen, Serratia marcescens.
Some scary headlines followed this article. “Roundup weed killer may play role in widespread bee deaths, study finds” (CBS News). “Study: Roundup Weed Killer Could be Linked to Widespread Bee Deaths” (NPR). “Common weed killer—believed harmless to animals—may be harming bees worldwide” (Science). Sure, the headlines include qualifiers like “may” and “could,” but the phrases are not sending a message of doubt, nor is that how we tend to interpret them. The titles are far removed from real-world context, and don’t reflect the results that the researchers actually found.
Consider swapping “Roundup” with “fumagillin,” and swapping “weed killer” with “fungicide,” and you have a headline that would be just as accurate. Fumagillin, a fungicidal agent widely used to treat Nosema, increases honey bee mortality in cage trials, as Johan van den Heever has shown. Yet many beekeepers continued to apply annual, prophylactic fumagillin treatments to their colonies. It is widely viewed that the benefits of prophylactic treatment outweigh the risk of nosemosis, so it’s not something most beekeepers bat an eye at. It’s also not best practice, but my point is, we have no more evidence of glyphosate being responsible for “widespread bee deaths” than fumagillin.
Aside from being outright misleading, the fear-generating headlines tend to stimulate equally reactionary solutions. Reasonable readers might deduce that the offending agrochemical should be banned: problem solved. Of course, it is not that simple. Banning particular agrochemicals is a conceptually simple fix, but a grossly incomplete plan.
Glyphosate isn’t the only agrochemical which has been scrutinized. Neonicotinoid pesticides, such as clothianidin, imidacloprid, and acetamiprid, have taken a lot of heat as well. As Dr. Ben Woodcock, author of a prominent Science article on neonicotinoids, succinctly stated in an interview for Horticulture Week, “It’s easy to say ‘ban neonics,’ but you’ve got to take into account what the alternatives are.” He continues to describe how “there needs to be a sensible acknowledgment [by Bayer and Syngenta] that there is a problem so we can work out a solution that best serves society and the natural environment.” The very same sentiment applies to glyphosate, too, if it’s shown to cause substantial harm.
In a press release from the University of Texas, Austin, Erick Motta (the lead author on the glyphosate study) touched on what is probably the most important point of all, but which is overshadowed by the headlines. Motta says, “We need better guidelines for glyphosate use, especially regarding bee exposure, because right now the guidelines assume bees are not harmed by the herbicide.” Moran echoes this in one of her interviews: “There really is a lot of [glyphosate] in both agricultural and urban areas. At the moment, there are no guidelines that you should avoid spraying glyphosate on or near bees, since it’s considered completely innocuous.” This is the right perspective to have, although before any guidelines are instated, we first need to show that glyphosate poses a real risk to bees in the field.
Moran herself was quick to point out that their work does not prove that glyphosate is causing bee colony declines, nor does it prove that the microbiota disruption they observed is a substantial problem for bees in the field. She and her research team hope to investigate that in the future (indeed, they have already begun) and they encourage others to do so, too. This is very different than the tone set by many media reports, where the villain-victim construct leaves little room for the bigger picture.
Contrast the media coverage of this glyphosate study with the stories about lithium chloride that made their rounds almost a year ago. In January 2018, Bettina Ziegelmann et al. published research showing that an unexpected compound, lithium chloride, could kill Varroa destructor mites while causing minimal mortality for honey bees (this paper was also covered by McArt in an earlier issue). The research showed that short-term (1 d) lithium chloride exposure was sufficient to kill varroa, and had no measurable effect on worker bee mortality.
This story could have easily taken on the classic construction of “the underdog to the rescue,” but beekeepers almost across the board recognized that, while interesting and perhaps exciting, this research was in its infancy and a better understanding would be needed before treating their colonies like cute rodents from the Andes (i.e., the guinea pig). Some writers pointed out that while short term lithium chloride exposure was not harmful, long-term (35 d) exposure killed significantly more honey bees than the control treatment, indicating that the treatment is not entirely innocuous. Sublethal effects, like whether lithium chloride interferes with social immunity behaviours or workers’ ability to navigate, have not yet been investigated, which are precisely the kinds of things that neonics take heat for.
Clearly, most beekeepers wanted more evidence before making sweeping changes to their own operations (even when that change had the potential to be highly beneficial). Understandably, farmers that rely on glyphosate probably also want more evidence before changing their operations. When more studies produce such evidence, glyphosate stakeholders may or may not be fond of the results, but at least then we can move forward with the weight of evidence backing our solutions.
And solutions are what we should focus on. Things like editing the rulebooks for responsible use of glyphosate, or altering the agrochemical approval process to include sublethal indicators, rather than just acute toxicity. There will no doubt be attempts to discredit the research done by Moran and her colleagues; probably, by the time this article is published, there already will be. And it’s true that the research isn’t perfect – it rarely is. Maybe it’s being too idealistic, but I hope that the conversation rises above the argument and becomes a constructive dialogue which, as Woodcock suggests, yields a “sensible acknowledgment that there is a problem so we can work out a solution.” True, it is not yet clear that there is a problem – at least, not until field trials are conducted. But there is enough suggestive evidence that, as responsible researchers, we should at least find out.
If the bees’ gut microbes are perturbed in realistic field trials, and if that disturbance causes a decrease in fitness, some changes to the glyphosate status quo may very well be needed. But we should not be at war with the agrochemicals; rather, a better understanding of the system through incremental research will help us improve application methods, guidelines, and education, so that those agrochemicals can be used as responsibly as possible. It’s possible that in some cases, responsible use could mean not using that chemical at all. But such extreme cases should also come with viable, improved alternatives which are well-researched and promoted in their place, lest the food producers who depend on the banned chemicals are left hanging.
The way the media frames stories has a profound influence on policy, attitudes, and public opinion, not only regarding pollinators and pesticides, but virtually every other hot-button issue. Unfortunately, the way the media frames stories is itself influenced by what best grabs people’s attention. But we can change. Beekeepers and bee-bloggers did a fantastic job, in my opinion, of diffusing premature enthusiasm over lithium chloride treatments and effectively reframed the story of “the underdog” with a respectful, cautionary recommendation. Those recommendations illuminated the real context of the situation, exposing the sea of uncertainty, benefits, and trade-offs that live behind every punchy headline. The more we can illuminate, via any platform we can, the more we can augment the snappy news cycle with solutions that “best [serve] society and the natural environment.”
This article appeared in the January 2019 issue of American Bee Journal.