Company defends pesticide blamed for bee deaths

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CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) — The debate over neonicotinoids came to Corvallis on Tuesday when the Bayer CropScience Bee Care Tour made a stop at Oregon State University.

A unit of the German chemical and pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG, Bayer CropScience is a major manufacturer of "neonics," a widely used class of pesticides that has been implicated in some high-profile bee die-offs, including one that killed thousands of bumblebees in Wilsonville last year.

The Bee Care Tour — which made stops at Washington State University and the University of California-Davis before rolling into OSU this week — presents Bayer as an environmentally sensitive company with a "commitment to bee health" that includes developing a treatment for parasitic mites and advocating for responsible neonicotinoid use.

On Tuesday, the tour's elaborate traveling display was set up in the main ballroom of OSU's CH2M Hill Alumni Center, highlighting the importance of bees in pollinating crops, offering honey samples and providing information on Bayer's Bee Care Program.

Ecotoxicologist David Fischer, the director of pollinator safety for Bayer CropScience, spoke to an audience of nearly 75 people about bee colony collapse disorder and other threats to bees.

"What are the factors affecting bee health? I think the consensus is there's a lot of factors," Fischer said, citing poor nutrition, disease, parasites, genetic weakness, queen failures and pesticides.

But he denied that neonicotinoids pose a significant threat to bees.

"All studies on neonicotinoids do not show any link to widespread colony losses," he told his audience. "They all say the same thing: Colony losses do not correlate to neonicotinoid use or pesticide residue in hives."

Outside, however, a small group of rain-soaked protesters were telling a different story. Nine people, many of them in black and yellow bee costumes, crouched under umbrellas and held signs that said "Bayer kills bees," ''Ban bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides" and "Bee smart: Stop using garden chemicals."

Several organizations were represented, including Occupy Corvallis, the Pacific Green Party and Beyond Toxics, a Eugene-based anti-pesticide group.

Protester Phil Smith, a member of Oregon Sustainable Beekeepers, called Bayer's traveling bee health exhibition "a greenwashing tour."

While it's true that there are multiple causes contributing to honeybee declines, he said, the purpose of the tour is to divert attention from the dangers of neonicotinoids, which make enormous profits for Bayer.

"It's all PR," Smith said. "There's a host of peer-reviewed studies now that clearly show they're killing bees wherever they're used."

In an interview after his talk, Fischer denied that claim.

He argued that neonics are far safer for humans, domestic animals and wildlife than earlier generations of pesticides and insisted they are not hazardous to bees if used properly.

"Most problems affecting honeybee health are not related to pesticides," he asserted. "It's very important for homeowners and landscapers to follow the directions. In the Wilsonville incident, they just didn't follow the label."

OSU honeybee expert Ramesh Sagili said it's true that there are multiple factors involved in the decline of honeybee populations and that there's no conclusive evidence connecting neonicotinoids to colony collapse or honeybee declines.

But he also said it's disingenuous for manufacturers to pretend that pesticides don't play a role in the problem.

"We don't have a number to put on them, but everybody agrees they are part of the problem," Sagili said.

Even in cases where neonics don't kill pollinators outright, he added, there is evidence of troubling sublethal effects such as interference with bees' ability to navigate.

Above all else, he said, there needs to be much clearer labeling of neonicotinoids, especially for people who are not certified pesticide applicators.

"The labels should be very clear for home use," Sagili said. "People have to understand that neonics are toxic to bees and are to be applied only when there is no other choice."

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Information from: Gazette-Times, http://www.gtconnect.com

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