Does This Study Prove Monsanto Company is Killing Our Honey Bees?

Are we on the verge of losing nature's pollinators? Source: Muhammad Mahdi Karim/ Wikimedia Commons.

A new Harvard study claims to have found a link between neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that disrupts the neural function of various types of insects, and the declining populations of honey bees. Long suspected of being responsible for colony collapse disorder, neonics may have finally been proven as the smoking gun activists have been looking for. Of course, as is often the case, many headlines seized on the emotional opportunity presented by the conclusions of the study rather than remaining critical of the research methods used.

There are some major red flags being thrown up by beekeepers about the methodology employed in the study. And no, they aren't being paid off by companies such as Bayer (NASDAQOTH: BAYRY  ) , Syngenta (NYSE: SYT  ) , and Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) . They simply know their craft and want to nudge the discussion back to the facts. What do investors and consumers need to know about the study?

Important background information
It's critical to go over a few things before we dig into the study. First, Monsanto doesn't produce a single neonicotinoid, although it is developing a new portfolio of products that could save honey bees. Bayer CropScience and Syngenta combine to produce four of the eight neonicotinoids on the market today, which account for roughly 85% of sales for the class of pesticides.

Second, honey bee populations face a host of challenges each year, but the notion that we're witnessing a catastrophic decline simply isn't true. The United States Department of Agriculture compiles an annual report on the estimated number of honey bee colonies in the U.S., as reported by beekeepers. The data don't paint an apocalyptic picture.

Third, you may want to think twice about protesting neonicotinoids under the guise that they somehow harm mammals. That is, without sufficient data to back up such claims. The truth is, if you own a cat or dog and protect it against fleas or ticks with Advantage products, then you're applying Bayer's imidacloprid -- the world's most successful neonic and the active ingredient of the Advantage product line -- directly to your beloved family pet.

I'll bet Fido is doing just fine. Besides, neonics are much less toxic than the classes of insecticides they replaced (that's why the market shifted to the class of molecules in the first place).

Beekeepers take on the study
The beef with the leading researcher of the study, Dr. Chensheng Lu, actually dates back to a flawed study from 2012 that claimed the cause of colony collapse disorder was simply the application of imidacloprid to corn, which then ended up in the high fructose corn syrup being fed to honey bees. Few beekeepers or scientists supported the study. The uproar made Dr. Lu attempt to replicate similar results in the recent study by feeding honey bees high fructose corn syrup laced with the same neonic. Unfortunately, prominent beekeepers are once again questioning the results from the latest research (link opens PDF).

Biologist and beekeeper Randy Oliver is one of the loudest critics. It's important to remember that insecticides can certainly harm bee colonies, so it's in Oliver's interest to stay current on best practices and reduce the damage caused to his colonies and livelihood. You can read some of the flaws in Lu's approach on ScientificBeekeeping.com, but the most noteworthy stem from the fact that the researchers did not test for nosema parasites -- pretty important when tallying population declines. Additionally, the paper was reported in an obscure Italian journal (Bulletin of Insectology) rather than a prominent peer-reviewed publication. That does, unfortunately, carry some weight for the validity of the results.

Foolish takeaway
After reading through Randy Oliver's argument discussing the numerous flaws with Lu's study and the study itself, I don't think the researchers found anything of value. At this point, we cannot say that neonics alone are the leading contributor to honey bee population declines. That doesn't necessarily let Bayer and Syngenta off the hook for their use of neonics, or Monsanto for its use of pesticides that could have unintended effects on honey bees, but investors and consumers need to remember that multiple factors play a role in fluctuating bee populations. Parasitic fungi, parasitic mites, pesticides, temperature, and more likely combine to put pressure on honey bee colonies -- so it's irresponsible to focus on any one culprit in this case. For now, it appears that neonics are as risky as their current labels suggest. Nothing more, and nothing less.

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Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2014, at 1:45 PM, 18RC wrote:

    This article has horrific errors. Monsanto does not make ANY neonicotinoid insecticides! And Dr. Chensheng Lu works for Harvard School of Public Heath, not MIT, so MIT did not "claim to have found a link between neonicotinoids! These errors just reaffirm that investors who think they can obtain credible information from Motley Fool are indeed fools.

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2014, at 3:07 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @18RC

    Correct, Monsanto doesn't make any neonicotinoid compounds. That's stated in the article:

    "It's critical to go over a few things before we dig into the study. First, Monsanto doesn't produce a single neonicotinoid, although it is developing a new portfolio of products that could save honey bees. "

    And thanks for correcting the MIT error, I wrote another article about an MIT startup at the same time, so it must have been on my mind. It has been corrected.

    -Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2014, at 3:57 PM, jamesSeattle wrote:

    @TMFBlacknGold

    Wait a second. What are you defending? The title of the article is "Does This Study Prove Monsanto Company is Killing Our Honey Bees?". Something is wrong here. Monsanto shouldn't even be mentioned.

    Is this a click-bait tactic? I'm no fan of Monsanto, not by a long-shot, but I hope that MF's editorial guidelines would prevent this sort of thing. "Is Hillary Clinton a Murderer?", by your logic that would be a fine title to an article if somewhere therein you declared "No, she is not a murderer." and talked about other murderers throughout.

    I guess what I'm saying is that your tactic is really quite lame. Far below the bar I expect when I click through a link to an MF article.

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2014, at 5:29 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @jamesSeattle

    I believe the content provided within the article corrects much of the widespread misinformation swirling around Monsanto relating to it's alleged role in the decline of honey bee populations, which itself is quite overblown. My point is exactly the same as yours:

    "Something is wrong here. Monsanto shouldn't even be mentioned."

    Unfortunately, you have to explain that quite often to get the point across.

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2014, at 6:07 PM, mbee1 wrote:

    Aside from the numerous errors as pointed out by another poster notice the graph. The number of bee colonies is essentially flat since 1996 so the idea bee colonies will disappear before our eyes is a lie at worst and just bad writing at best.

  • Report this Comment On May 20, 2014, at 11:53 PM, tawster wrote:

    "First, Monsanto doesn't produce a single neonicotinoid"

    But it does produce a pile of products that harm honey bees. Not sure what the point is that you are making.

    "Second, honey bee populations face a host of challenges each year, but the notion that we're witnessing a catastrophic decline simply isn't true."

    Incorrect. The bees are dieing faster and faster. The numbers are made up with more intense breeding programs. The graph you want to make is one that shows the fatality rate of honey bees coming out of winter from year to year. Used to be about 5%. Now we are seeing 30% to 50% death rates. It's unsustainable. Talk to some bee scientists before you post articles like this. It shows that you did no research. Trivially easy research. Who edited/reviewed this article? It really makes Motley Fool look... foolish. But then again... why are you writing an article about a subject for which you have zero expertise.

    "Third, you may want to think twice about protesting neonicotinoids under the guise that they somehow harm mammals. That is, without sufficient data to back up such claims."

    That is trivial to flip on it's head:

    "You may want to think twice about claiming neonicotinoids do not harm mammals[1]. That is, without sufficient data to back up such claims."

    [1] Or other non-target animals, or plants, or the environment in general.

    The testing of pesticides and their effects on the environment is abysmal. We long ago blithely blew a goodbye kiss towards the precautionary principle as we heartily embraced pesticide after pesticide.

    This study you are referencing surely has valid criticisms to be made towards it... But none were presented in this article. Want an example of poor research? This article is an example.

  • Report this Comment On May 21, 2014, at 6:53 PM, wholeysmoke wrote:

    This isn't the first time Maxxwell has put "Monsanto" in the title of his MF article, when the content has nothing to do with that company. It's clearly his tactic for attracting page views. Too bad Motley Fool allows this. Beyond being annoying, it makes MF seem less credible as a source of useful information.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 10:02 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    Looks like everyone is upset that they cannot use Monsanto as a punching bag for once, so they're taking it out on me. I guess that means I got through =)

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On September 21, 2014, at 5:21 PM, njls wrote:

    You state that Monsanto doesn't produce a single neonictinoid. Is it not true that they purchase neonictinoids from Bayer and then coat Monsanto seeds with them? You're splitting hairs & being deceptive.

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