Why would one of the largest purveyors of pesticides, genetically engineered seeds and agrochemicals want to buy a company which has been seeking solutions to the escalating threats to the world bee population?
Monsanto spokeswomen Kelly Powers says it is to give the fledgling company a helping hand. Beeologics has developed a product called Remembee, an anti-viral agent which its boosters claim will help stem the tide of Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious plague which has led to the disappearance of the bees in up to a third of the commercial colonies located in the U.S. during the last decade.
The root of the problem, however, may not be the virus targeted by Remembee, a chemical agent which utilizes RNA interference, a mechanism that blocks gene expression, but the herbicides and insecticides that agro-chemical giants like Monsanto, Dow and Bayer have themselves been hawking to farmers around the world.
This is the conclusion of three recent studies which implicate a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or "neonics" for short, which coat a massive 142 million acres of corn, wheat, soy and cotton seeds in the U.S. alone. They are also a common ingredient in a wide variety of home gardening products. As I detail in an article which was published by Reuters last month, neonics are absorbed by the plants' vascular system and contaminate the pollen and nectar that bees encounter on their rounds. Neonics are a nerve poison that disorient their insect victims and appear to damage the homing ability of bees, which may help to account for their mysterious failure to make it back to the hive.
This was the conclusion of research which came out in the prestigious Journal Science during March. In another study conducted by entomologists at Purdue University the scientists found that neonic-containing dust released into the air at planting time had "lethal effects compatible with colony losses phenomena observed by beekeepers." A third study by the Harvard School of Public Health actually re-created colony collapse disorder in several honeybee hives simply by administering small doses of a popular neonic, imidacloprid.
While these studies strongly suggest that herbicides are a culprit, scientists caution that colony collapse disorder is a complex phenomenon with multiple causes, ranging from the loss of wild bee habitats to the weakening of bee immune systems as a result of poor diet (commercial bees are frequently fed pesticide-laced corn syrup instead of their own honey) and also the techniques of modern beekeeping, which include the artificial insemination of queens, and the resulting loss of genetic diversity in the bee population.
Some have also pointed the finger at the pollen from genetically modified Roundup Ready corn which bees ingest, and which contains a powerful insecticide within its genetic structure. Roundup seeds are manufactured by Monsanto, and are currently planted across wide swaths of the American Midwest and elsewhere.
So with Monsanto products themselves amongst the key suspects in Colony Collapse Disorder, one might ask: Why has the multinational bought a company which has been a key player in researching this disorder as well as Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, another scourge of bees?
"We're absolutely committed to Beeologics' existing work," said Monsanto spokesperson Kelly Powers. Yet one has to wonder if owning a firm dedicated to shedding light on the trouble with bees might not serve Monsanto's interest in allowing it to further cover up their own corporate complicity in the problem.
Let us hope that Monsanto is as good as its word and uses this newly acquired company to boldly get to the bottom of the mystery of the disappearing bees. But if history is any guide, there is little cause for optimism. The health watchdog group "Natural Society" rated Monsanto "the worst in 2011 for its ongoing work to threaten human health and the environment."
With its acquisition of Beeologic, the multinational has a chance to start improving its record -- right? My advice, however, is don't hold your breath!