Bee Mystery Unsolved? Lead Investigator Had Connections to Pesticide Maker

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Photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday's New York Times featured a heartwarming ending to the years-long murder mystery of what was causing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) among honeybees. Experts suspected pesticides or genetically modified foods, but the article reported that the University of Montana's Bee Alert Team, working alongside the Army, found the cause: the combined effects of a virus and fungus. Data sharing! Chance discoveries! Honeybees live on to sting another day! But according to Fortune, there were a couple of details left out of the front-page story. The team's lead investigator, Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, may have previously dropped out of testifying in a class-action lawsuit after he received a significant research grant from the pharmaceutical giant Bayer. For years, beekeepers have tried to pursue legal action against Bayer Crop Science over their pesticides, in particular a type of neurotoxin that gets rids of insects by attacking their nervous systems. The beekeepers allege that the pesticides disoriented and killed their hives. One of the markers of CCD is a bee's tendency to fly off in a random direction before it dies.

Fortune contributor Katherine Eban came across this information working on a story about the pesticides connection for Portfolio, but the magazine folded before she finished her reporting. Print media's poison cup runneth over! Eban says that during the course of her research, Bromenshenk also acknowledged that his company, Bee Alert Technology, would benefit more if CCD was caused by a disease, not pesticides, since the company is developing handheld acoustic scanners to detect bee ailments. Eban cites Bayer's funding for the grant as the reason Bromenshenk dropped out as an expert witness in the class-action lawsuit against Bayer. But Bromenshenk denies that Bayer was a factor in either dropping out or the current study.


Bromenshenk defends the [new] study and emphasized that it did not examine the impact of pesticides. "It wasn't on the table because others are funded to do that," he says, noting that no Bayer funds were used on the new study. Bromenshenk vociferously denies that receiving funding from Bayer (to study bee pollination of onions) had anything to do with his decision to withdraw from the plaintiff's side in the litigation against Bayer. "We got no money from Bayer," he says. "We did no work for Bayer; Bayer was sending us warning letters by lawyers."

When Eban contacted Times reporter Kirk Johnson, he told Eban that Bromenshenk never mentioned the connection, adding that he "tried to convey that caution in my story." He also noted that Bromenshenk's study never said that pesticides couldn't be the underlying cause of one of the uncertainties that remain, namely how the virus and fungus, which separately aren't fatal, combine to interact. Other scientists conjecture that they might leave the bees' immune systems weakened. In 1999 France banned the neurotoxin Imidacloprid after a third of its honeybees died. The EPA has approved that type of pesticide, called a neonicotinoid. After suing the EPA in 2008, the NRDC is currently shifting through Bayer's studies on neonicontinoids.

What a scientist didn't tell the New York Times about his study on bee deaths [Fortune]
Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery [NYT]
Related: They Figured Out What Was Killing the Bees!