The Costly Lobbying War Over America’s Dying Honeybees

TOKYO, JAPAN - JUNE 17: bees are seen on a frame at the rooftop bee hives of the Ginza Honey Bee Project on June 17, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. The Ginza Honey Bee Project is situated on the rooftop of a high rise office building in the heart of Tokyo's famous Ginza district. The non-profit organization aims to raise awareness for the sustainable living in Ginza's urban setting via honeybee farming and honey harvesting. 
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
July 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

The in­sect world’s biggest murder mys­tery is mov­ing to K Street.

Hon­ey­bees—pol­lin­at­ors that serve as the match­makers of the flor­al king­dom—are dy­ing off in droves, fright­en­ing en­vir­on­ment­al­ists and sci­ent­ists who fear the un­filled nat­ur­al niche that col­lapsing bee colon­ies leave be­hind. Those con­cerns hit the na­tion­al stage last month when Pres­id­ent Obama launched a fed­er­al in­vest­ig­a­tion to find out what is driv­ing the de­cline.

All of that has made the pesti­cide in­dustry nervous. En­vir­on­ment­al­ists have long ar­gued that a widely used class of pesti­cides known as neonicotin­oids, or neonics for short, are a ma­jor cause of bee die-offs. And green groups are hop­ing that White House at­ten­tion—com­bined with a grow­ing body of sci­entif­ic evid­ence that points the fin­ger at chem­ic­al crop treat­ments—will lead to an all-out ban on the pesti­cides.

For the in­dustry, that would be a ma­jor dent in sales. In 2009, neonics ac­coun­ted for $2.6 bil­lion in profits in­dustry-wide.

In an ef­fort to pro­tect their product, pesti­cide makers are load­ing up on high-powered lob­by­ists. Bay­er, the largest man­u­fac­turer of neonics, has signed former House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Dick Geph­ardt’s firm to lobby on the is­sue, ac­cord­ing to dis­clos­ure re­cords filed at the end of June. Geph­ardt him­self is lis­ted as a lob­by­ist for the com­pany, along with his former chief of staff, Thomas O’Don­nell, and aide Shar­on Daniels.

Bay­er also signed a con­tract in April with Corner­stone Gov­ern­ment Af­fairs as part of its hon­ey­bee lob­by­ing push.

A Bay­er spokes­per­son de­clined to com­ment on the mes­sage its lob­by­ists plan to push. But the com­pany con­firmed that it re­cently hired both lob­by­ing firms, and its line on pesti­cides has been well-pub­li­cized.

“Some crit­ics con­tend that neonicotin­oids may be in­volved in hon­ey­bee losses,” Bay­er’s web­site pro­claims. “However, there has been no demon­strated ef­fect on colony health as­so­ci­ated with neonicotin­oid-based in­sect­icides.”

In ad­di­tion to its hon­ey­bee lob­by­ing, Bay­er has launched a pub­lic-re­la­tions of­fens­ive. The chem­ic­al gi­ant opened the doors to its North Amer­ic­an Bee Care Cen­ter in North Car­o­lina in April. And last month, Bay­er hos­ted a re­cep­tion for mem­bers of Con­gress in Wash­ing­ton to talk about its ef­forts to help hon­ey­bees dur­ing Na­tion­al Pol­lin­at­or Week.

Bay­er isn’t the only pesti­cides maker fix­ing for a fight. Syn­genta, the second-largest neonic man­u­fac­turer, is re­gistered to lobby on pesti­cides. A Syn­genta spokes­per­son said the com­pany act­ively dis­cusses “the pol­lin­at­or is­sue” with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

The lob­by­ing push is backed by deep pock­ets. Bay­er ponied up more than $2 mil­lion for all of its lob­by­ing ef­forts in the first quarter of the year, ac­cord­ing to lob­by­ing dis­clos­ure re­cords. Syn­genta, mean­while, paid out $350,000 in the same in­ter­val for total lob­by­ing ex­pendit­ures.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists and pub­lic-health and food-safety ad­voc­ates are also shelling out to make the case that pesti­cides are killing hon­ey­bees, but have spent con­sid­er­ably less cash. The Cen­ter for Food Safety, which lob­bies against neonics, spent only $10,000 total on lob­by­ing ef­forts in the first quarter of the year. Friends of the Earth, an en­vir­on­ment­al group, which con­tends neonics are the lead­ing cause of bee deaths, spent just un­der $13,000 in the fourth quarter of last year.

As long as the cause of the de­clines re­mains in ques­tion, both sides will con­tin­ue to make their case to the ad­min­is­tra­tion and on Cap­it­ol Hill. “This is­sue isn’t go­ing away, and what we’re start­ing to see now is lob­by­ing ef­forts really ramp up,” Larissa Walk­er, the policy and cam­paign co­ordin­at­or with the Cen­ter for Food Safety said.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, which is re­view­ing neonics, has in­dic­ated that it views the link between pesti­cides and hon­ey­bee deaths as far from settled sci­ence.

A five-year sci­entif­ic re­view of the aca­dem­ic lit­er­at­ure re­leased last month re­por­ted that pol­lin­at­ors are “highly vul­ner­able” to neonics. En­vir­on­ment­al­ists seized on the study as the latest evid­ence that the chem­ic­als are killing bees.

Pesti­cide man­u­fac­tur­ers, however, say that’s simply not true, point­ing in­stead to a host of oth­er factors as likely reas­ons for a re­cent de­cline in nat­ive bee pop­u­la­tions. One of those factors is the var­roa mite, a para­site that preys on bees by drink­ing their blood.

Demo­crat­ic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Ore­gon has put for­ward le­gis­la­tion that would re­quire EPA to halt use of the pesti­cides un­til a con­clus­ive de­term­in­a­tion over the link between pesti­cides and bee health has been either es­tab­lished or dis­proved. The le­gis­la­tion has little chance of passing, but the European Uni­on has already in­sti­tuted a tem­por­ary, two-year ban on the use of the pesti­cides, and green groups are hop­ing the U.S. will do the same.

Mean­while, bee de­clines con­tin­ue at an alarm­ing rate.

Start­ing in 2006, com­mer­cial bee­keep­ers in the U.S. began re­port­ing a loss of nearly one-third of their hives dur­ing the winter. Losses last winter were lower than they have been on av­er­age dur­ing the past eight years. But sci­ent­ists, bee­keep­ers, and green groups say the rate of de­cline re­mains alarm­ingly high.

Re­search­ers have struggled to ex­plain the in­sect epi­dem­ic, but gen­er­ally cite stressors—in­clud­ing pesti­cides, para­sites, poor nu­tri­tion, and ge­net­ics—as likely reas­ons for the de­cline.

Pol­lin­a­tion is es­sen­tial to the sur­viv­al of crops such as apples, avo­ca­dos, and lem­ons. Last month, the White House said bee pol­lin­a­tion pro­duces $15 bil­lion worth of ag­ri­cul­tur­al yields an­nu­ally.

“We’re at a crisis point here,” said Lisa Arch­er, the food and tech­no­logy pro­gram dir­ect­or for Friends of the Earth. “The ques­tion now is wheth­er we’re go­ing to listen to the alarm bells that are go­ing off.”

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