A Look into Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and the Use of Neonicotinoids: A View from two Extremes, part 2

A bee working the large inflorescence of a Heptacodium miconoides.

A bee working the large inflorescence of a Heptacodium miconoides.

This is the second and last installment of my look at Jon Entine’s articles and the strategies he employs.  Here is a link to the first of my postings on this.

Part II: Bee Deaths And CCD – Flawed Chensheng Lu Harvard Studies Endanger Bees

By Jon Entine | November 24th 2014

Last week, in Part I of this two part series, “Bee Deaths Mystery Solved? Neonicotinoids (Neonics) May Actually Help Bee Health”, we explored the claims by Harvard School of Public Health researcher Chensheng Lu, heralded by anti-pesticide and anti-GMO advocacy groups, for his research that purportedly proves that the class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids are killing bees and endangering humans. And we saw how many journalists, our of ignorance or for ideological reason,s promote dicey science. 

(Some advocacy groups have latched on to Lu’s work looking for legitimacy and support. There has been a growing community of resistance to much that has been going on in the agro-chem-gentec industry that pre-dates Lu and his research. They have been challenging the multi-billion dollar industry on multiple fronts. On the other hand, it only takes a little checking to discover that Lu is often viewed as a ‘liability’ within the scientific community and a hinderence to their efforts by many in the community who have been advocating for good science in the political process that regulates these industries. They did not choose Lu nor do they now claim him as their champion. Entine, in his previous article strategically chose Lu as a ‘straw dog’ to represent his opposition, the “anti-pesticide and anti-GMO advocacy groups”, a target that he could then ‘tear down’ and then apply to the opposition groups as a whole, as if Lu, with his biases and ‘sloppy science’ were truly representative of them. In these articles, at least, Entine gets to choose. This strategy is becoming increasingly common when ‘industry’ and their front men, under attack, seek to ‘confuse’ the public thus reducing political pressure that might seek to limit them and their ability to conduct ‘business as usual’.

In the next portion of his article Entine takes a more serious look at Lu’s science itself. He hopes the reader will then transfer his criticism, one shared by many scientists in the field, to all of the science that supports the claims of those in opposition to much of what has been going on in the agro-chem-gentec industry. While he does not make any such overt claims such an assumption by the reader is a common outcome when this kind of strategy is employed. Communication, we have all experienced is layered and ‘nuanced’. The message being sent is often ‘indirect’, emotional, lying within the subtext, in the words chosen and the ‘path’ taken if you will. For example, my own choice of words, i.e., ‘lying’ above, can affect a reader one way while it fulfills the more direct needs of the sentence. It maybe accurate and misleading…manipulative.)

In Part II, we examine the specific claim that neonics are responsible for Colony Collapse Disorder—the centerpiece of Lu’s assertions. We again see how influential media manipulate quotes and selectively present information to ideologically influence trusting readers.

And we look at what might happen if neonics are banned, as well as their real impact in agriculture—including intriguing, but incomplete evidence, that when used appropriately the controversial pesticide may actually improve bee health. (Entine sets the agenda.  He included what he chooses to. He did not, for example, look into the actual work of the Xerces Society or other groups professionally involved. He name dropped and provided little support that Neonics are ‘good’ for bees, humans, agriculture or the environment in the long run. This would be like saying polyvinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen, is good for us because while we have been using it widely in industry producing construction materials and consumer products, human populations have increased. The one may not be related to the other at all.)

Note that every quote from an entomologist or beekeeper was submitted to them for review, as was the entire piece, and changes were made in the few cases the author wanted to tweak their responses to ensure their views were represented accurately and in context. (Black, of the Xerces Society, as I mentioned previously, wrote to me that he never met Entine, nor had he seen the article before I brought it to his attention. This leads me to suspect any claims Entine has made. He appears to be playing fast and loose with both the science and with the ethics of journalism and is in fact functioning more as a propagandist.

A week does not go by without one advocacy group or government official or activist scientist making sensational claims about the supposed catastrophic dangers that neonics supposedly present. Entine’s use of the words sensational, supposed and supposedly is a diminishment, an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of those who have doubts and concerns about neonics and the complex interactions they are a part of in the world today, of oppositional advocacy groups, government officials and activist scientists, in short anyone who might be in a position to have a professional opinion or an official position contrary to those held by the industry supporting neonics.

Just last week, for example, advertisements began appearing across Ontario in Canada warning, “neonic pesticides hurt our bees and us,” accompanied by a young boy gazing sadly at a dead bee. They were placed by a fringe advocacy group, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE); its primary funder is David Suzuki, a once prominent but now long retired geneticist who more recently has become known for rants against GMO foods. (Labeling! labeling! Everywhere! So, now doctors, who have a direct interest in the health of their patients, are suspect too. CAPE has called for the province of Ontario, CA, to ban the use of neonics and they provide a link to “Conclusions of the Worldwide Integrated Assessment on the risks of neonicotinoids and fipronil to biodiversity and ecosystem functioning”. The ‘Assessment’ does not focus on bees and CCD, but the threat that neonics pose to the wider environment. It is also an editorial presented by representatives of the European scientific community. The undersigned state, upfront, that the problem of these chemicals in the environment, and their variable interactions, are so complex that science has not been able to unravel them yet, but their pervasiveness in our soils and water systems demands attention and action.

“Although the market authorization of these systemic insecticides did undergo routine ecological risk assessments, the regulatory framework has failed to assess the individual and joint ecological risks resulting from the widespread and simultaneous use of multiple products with multiple formulations and multiple modes of action. These applications co-occur across hundreds of cropping systems including all of our major agricultural commodities worldwide and on numerous cattle species, companion animals, etc. Also, the ecological risk assessment did not consider the various interactions with other environmental stressors. Once a market authorization is granted, the authorization poses limits to the dose and frequency per allowed application, but no limits are set to the total scale of use of the active ingredients leading to a reduced potential for the recovery of impacted ecosystems from effects. In addition, there has been no assessment of successive neonicotinoid exposure typical in watersheds and resulting in culmination of exposure and effects over time (Liess et al. 2013). The potential interactions between neonicotinoids and fipronil and other pesticide active substances have not been considered either, although additivity and synergisms of toxic mechanisms of action have been documented (Satchivi and Schmitzer 2011; Gewehr 2012; Iwasa et al. 2004).”

I’m sure Entine and the industry don’t want to go there. They’d rather keep the discussion limited to Lu and CCD.

Another thing to remember is that the political environment within which all of this is occurring today is the result, in no small part, of the actions of the agro-chem-gentec industry itself.  While they may rail against or, wax indignant, when confronted by these advocacy groups that keep ‘dogging’ them they themselves are responsible for much of the suspicion and distrust that permeates the public and these groups.  It has been their marketing and political programs that have pressed so hard for so many years to make their ‘products’ ‘essential’ to modern life and that we have little if anything to worry about.  Flash a few years forward and serious studies come out about problems with their chemical products, sometimes problems that were covered up or, at minimum, were determined through their own controlled risk analysis, to be acceptable.  Today when one of these corporate giants claim ‘foul’ they should not be surprised when public opinion opposes them.  The waters have been fouled in significant part by their own attempts to get their product to market and safeguard their market share.  The chickens, as they say are coming home to roost.

That kind of hyperbole, scientists say, (Kettle black) obscures the complex story of what’s really happening to bees and why—and the risks of advocacy groups and activist journalists (Entine is the definition of an activist journalist!) driving science and agricultural regulations into a policy ditch. (Spin, spin, spin!)

Which brings us back to the curious case of Alex Lu.

Although Lu’s most recent paper, published last spring, was not clear on this point, the nutritionist has publicly maintained that neonic seed treatments are the driving cause of CCD. Let’s be clear. Neonics are an appropriate subject for serious research. They are neurotoxic pesticides. Because they rely on a complex set of behaviors, bees exposed to high volumes could conceivably become drunk and ill (Drunk?). Scientists are and should continue to examine this chemical and all agricultural chemicals.

But the emphasis of many popular articles, and Lu’s study, is way out of whack with the potential dangers that scientists believe are presented by neonics. The pesticide is applied to seeds sparingly—only about 1-3 ppb is commonly found in pollen or nectar after application, levels way below safety concerns. Plants grown from a treated seed often need no further insecticidal treatment, unlike many competing chemicals. And in contrast to earlier generation insecticides that required multiple applications, when infestations are severe a single additional spraying generally suffices. (Refer back to the ‘Assessment’ above. Entine should not be allowed to make simplistic generalizations here with regard to the actual use of these and other chemicals here in the field. If he demands accountability of Lu and the advocacy groups, and he should, we do of him as well. We/he does not want sloppy science to be a factor here.)

Lu steadfastly claims that bees that died in his studies were fed field realistic levels doses—statements echoed by reporters without, it turns out, cross checking with beekeepers or entomologists. “Chensheng Lu and his team treated 12 colonies with tiny levels of neonics,” Mother Jones maintained.

Tiny?

As beekeeper Randy Oliver wrote on his Scientific Beekeeping blog, Lu fed his test colonies a pesticide brew of about 135 parts per billion (ppb). That’s 100 times higher then the 1-3 ppb commonly found in pollen or nectar, a level far below safety concerns. Rather than citing the chemicals’ ppb, some reporters touted the physical size of the dose, a worthless measurement. Lu also fed bees every week for 13 straight weeks when the real world application is just a few weeks at most.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone even reviewed this paper,” Oliver concluded.

What’s remarkable, numerous scientists and beekeepers told me, is that Lu’s bees didn’t just keel over in the first few weeks after sucking down what amounted to a lethal cocktail every day.

“It’s surprising those colonies lasted so long given the stratospheric quantities of insecticide [Lu] pumped into them for 13 weeks,” wrote Jonathan Getty on Bee-L Chat, a discussion forum for bee experts. “Lu has convincingly demonstrated, again, as in his previous study … that a high dose of an insecticide will kill an insect. Has anyone learned anything from all this? Looks like junk science at its worst.”FullSizeRender-1

There was also scant evidence to back up Lu’s central claim that he had solved the mystery of CCD. “His description of the hives just didn’t show that,” University of Maryland entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp told me. Bee die offs, he said, have occurred mysteriously and periodically since at least the mid-19th century but became the focus of widespread public concern only in 2006. It’s clear that what Lu observed—bee deaths—“was not CCD. Looks like a typical bee colony death over the winter—which often includes bees abandoning the hive—but it’s a slow dwindle not a sudden collapse.”

Joe Ballenger, an entomologist writing for the independent sustainability site Biology Fortified, outlined how little Lu appears to know about CCD. “There are very important differences between the colonies Lu poisoned with insecticide and those which have been affected by CCD,” Ballenger wrote. “Despite these differences, Lu claims he has replicated CCD. However, his data demonstrates that he did not replicate CCD.”

Ballenger drew up a chart of his mistakes.

Are there any prominent entomologists who endorse Lu’s findings? I couldn’t find any. Mother Jones quoted Jeffrey Pettis, an entomologist and research leader at USDA’s Beltsville’s Bee Laboratory, as appearing to be supportive. “Pettis told me that he thought Lu’s study ‘adds to the list’ of studies showing that pesticides pose a significant threat to honeybees,” Tom Philpott wrote.

I emailed Pettis about that quote:

‘I was trying to be diplomatic when I talked to Philpott but the Lu study should not have been published. It is not good science. I was trying to say that it adds to the list that pesticides and bees don’t mix but it is not a paper that shows that neonics cause problems simply because it was poorly replicated with high dosages used.’

So what was going on in the hives that Lu monitored? The bee deaths that Lu found suggest a quite different cause, said vanEngelsdorp; the bees appear to have been killed by Lu himself—entirely expected if hives are overdosed during a frigid winter. (I will not attempt to defend Lu and his sloppy science. Again, Entine is using Lu, consciously and deliberately as a straw dog that can be easily knocked down to discourage others from speaking up and to provide a lesson for the public. He is also working to undermine the legitimacy of positions counter to his own, and presumably, the agro-chem-gentec industry.)

Are there potential advantages to using neonics to control pest infestations?

A telling fact emerges when you view the landscape of studies about neonics: on the whole, those done in a laboratory or that use unrealistic high doses (e.g. Lu’s studies) raise precautionary concerns. In contrast, field observations show few if any serious problems. (Again, as the Assessment above points out, the problems that are there are disavowed. Regulatory agencies have decided not to look into these issues. They have not studied them and concluded that they are not of concern.)

The latest example? Four Canadian scientists led by Cynthia D. Scott Dupree, an environmental biologist at the University of Guelph, undertook a large-scale study of honey bee exposure to one neonic, clothianidin, which is applied as a seed treatment. The study was centered in southern Ontario, which advocacy groups have contended has been particularly hard hit by neonic-related bee deaths.

Designed in cooperation with the US Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada, it was industry funded, but executed under Good Laboratory Practice Standards.

The scientists observed bees foraging heavily on the canola. As numerous other studies have suggested, they found, “Although various laboratory studies have reported sub-lethal effects in individual honey bees exposed to low doses of neonicotinoid insecticides, the results of the present study suggest that foraging on clothianidin seed-treated crops, under realistic conditions, poses low risk to honey bee colonies.”

Assertions by entomologists that neonics play a limited role in bee health infuriates some environmentalists convinced this mystery is solved: Let’s just ban neonics, they say, and move on.

“For its part, the pesticide industry is doing its best to shroud the phenomenon in uncertainty,” Mother Jones wrote in its article hyping the Lu study, “promoting a ‘multifactorial’ explanation that points the finger at mites, viruses, and ‘many other factors, but not…the use of insecticides,’ as neonic producer Bayer puts it in its ‘Honey Bee Health’ pamphlet.

But it’s not Bayer making those claims, as Philpott seemed to suggest; it’s independent and government scientists. Noting the complexity of the phenomenon, the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency took a cautious, science-based approach to the emerging controversy three years ago, commissioning a broad-based assessment of the evidence. This panel, reflecting views by most commercial beekeeping and academic experts, concluded that neonics were unlikely to be the major driver of bee deaths.  (But they may be a minor driver. Of the identified threats to bees, mites, climate, disease and the possible stress of their physical management, is it not unreasonable to do what you can to protect them from threats? There is little we can do to protect them from most of these, but insecticides are within our abilities to control. I must also bring up the issue of the ‘revolving door’ between regulators and industry, as is evidenced by Monsanto and their relationship with its regulators. Too often the industry is viewed as the expert and is relied on when creating the regulations under which they will work. See, The World According to Monsanto,)

Rather, the experts identified instead a complex set of causes likely linked to a surge in pathogens, such as Varroa mites that feed on the bodily fluids of bees and which first surfaced in the US in the 1980s and began infesting beehives in California in 1993; and Nosema, a common parasite that invades their intestinal tracts; and the use and perhaps misuse of miticides to control them. Other issues include the stress put on bees by large commercial beekeepers, particularly to service the agri-business demand for bees needed for the California almond crop in late winter before bees normally repopulate, as well as climate change and breeding issues.

Few experts or practitioners believe banning neonics or GMOs would improve bee health and could in fact result in farmers going back to spraying insecticides known to harm pollinators and humans. (First, the beliefs of any particular group should not drive our decision making process. Entine, is here ‘suggesting’ that those who would ban their use are acting out of ‘belief’ while he is purely science motivated. We know too little about him to trust that. He is also bringing in the GMO card to play, which is largely irrelevant to this issue, because it will play to his intended audience who would lump all of these environmental whackos together…and dismiss them. He also, here, completely ignores the possible practice of organic agriculture. Moving away from neonics does not mean automatically that we should or will return to the highly toxic chemistries of the past or their spray schedules. By and large organic agriculture, practiced widely, would lead to the decline, and possible end, of the agro-chem industry if they refuse to scale back and adapt their goals. They are a highly motivated ‘player’ in this game’s outcome.)

“If we took pesticides out of the equation tomorrow, I think there’s no doubt we would have reduced colony losses,” vanEngelsdorp told me. “But even without pesticides, we’d still be seeing significant losses—losses that are unsustainable.”

Neonics present in corn dust at planting have been shown definitively to contribute to bee mortality, but that’s a result of faulty formulation, scientists have concluded. When used properly, there is intriguing evidence that neonics may actually improved bee health in some circumstances. (When used improperly, as all things sometimes are, because we are human, non-target species die. I would add, even as a licensed applicator myself, non-target deaths occur regularly, even with careful use. Pesticides, to date, have never been created, that are so specific that non-target species are immune. Their use presents an inherent risk to other species. What, is being asked for by many advocacy groups, and scientists, is that they have something to say about the risks being taken by regulators and industry on their behalf. I would also take Entine to task when he says, there is evidence that neonics may actually improve bee health. There is ‘evidence’ of lots of things in this life. What specifically is he claiming? He is making this statement to reinforce those who already support him. “See”, they can say, “ Not only does it not kill bees, it’s good for them!” More manipulation.) Hints can be found, ironically, in Alex Lu’s own data, of all places.

Lu’s 2012 paper raises red flags because he used two separate dosing regimens as the experiment progressed, noted Richard Cowles, a prominent entomologist with the state of Connecticut, in an email to me. During the first four weeks, the bees were fed concentrations of imidacloprid that, as it turns out, were in fact field realistic. At three weeks into testing using these concentrations, the health of the bee colonies was positively correlated with exposure to imidacloprid, as measured by the number of capped brood cells. The bees appeared healthier. “Rather than continue the experiment with these concentrations, Dr. Lu inexplicably increased the dosages for the last nine weeks of feeding–by 40 times,” Cowles told me. (As I said before, I will not defend Lu and his bad science. We need to remember that this issue is not about Lu. It is about our wide use of neonics on farms. Entine wants to reduce the argument to one that he can better control.)

Why?

Cowles couldn’t get an answer from Lu and neither could I. This is one of the many questions that I had hoped to put to Lu in an interview. He at first agreed but then stopped communicating. I contacted him again after the posting of Part I of this series, and also reached out to the Harvard School of Public Health, but got no reply.

Entomologists have volunteered as to what they thought might have been going on when Lu changed feeding tactics. “Dr. Lu probably was trying to hide the fact that he observed an unexpected result contrary to his expectations, which led to him increase the dosages to poison the bees,” Cowles, emailed me. “Whether this sub-lethal effect is actually therapeutic to honey bees is a very interesting question, and one that I’d like to investigate.” (Who is this Richard Cowles? It is important to understand who is ‘speaking’, not just their name and title. According to his biography page with the Conecticutt State Ag Extension, he is a Phd. Entomologist:

Current research efforts are directed toward improved management of armored scales in Christmas tree plantations through basal bark sprays of systemic insecticides; improving the genetics of fir trees grown as Christmas trees; and finding alternative and more effective options for managing strawberry sap beetles and spotted wing drosophila, especially by including behavioral manipulation.

He has no research history with bees. He is speculating on Lu’s motivation and commenting on the structure of Lu’s experiments…. No knowledgeable person would defend what Lu did. Cowles is used here by Entine to add legitimacy to his own pronouncements. I don’t know Cowles but it is interesting that Entine builds him up as a ‘prominent’ entomologist, when, not to take anything away from Cowles, he is working at a satellite research facility and farm in management of the exotic hemlock woolly adelgid. Entine is ‘using’ him to dress up his argument.)

In other words, Lu’s data suggests the opposite of his stated conclusion—bees appear to do fine when exposed to field realistic doses and even increasingly higher amounts of neonics, but ultimately succumb to astronomical levels. (If it is unfounded for Lu to make such claims on his work it is at least as unfair for Entine to say that Lu’s work actually supports the opposite!)

This is not the first time a neonic study has shown that bee health might improve when crops are treated with new generation insecticides. In a 2013 PLOS ONE study, a team led by vanEngelsdorp and Jeffrey Pettis studied the real world impact of 35 pesticides including three neonics—acetamiprid, imidacloprid and thiacloprid—by examining hives from seven major crops. Intriguingly, bee health improved although the results would need to be confirmed with follow up research. This study remains the only lab research to date that has evaluated how real world pollen-pesticide blends affect honey bee health.

The researchers found a striking reduction in the risk from Nosema infection when neonics were used–bee health improved. Why would that be? It seems neonics may suppress the parasite associated with the disease. vanEngelsdorp and Pettis are not yet sure this is a real effect; good science requires that results be confirmed in multiple studies. That said, the intriguing but startling finding directly challenges the belief that neonics pose an unusually unique danger to bees. (Entine practices a focused ‘hunt and peck’ gleaning of this study. Read it for yourself. The study notes the presence of 9.1 pesticides per pollen sample from a hive. Yes, neonics seem to be associated with a reduced levels of Nosema infection, but they are finding more ‘sub-lethal’ effects with hindered immune functioning. They also reference another study that says, ‘Exposure to sub-lethal doses of fipronil and thiacloprid, two neonicotinoids, highly increases mortality of honeybees previously infected by Nosema ceranae’. They go on to say that there is a large need for research in to the ‘blends’ of pesticides found inside of the hives from the collected pollen. This hardly exonerates the Neonics, but, here again, Entine, manipulates bonafied research to meet his goal.)

What is the future for bees, neonics and agriculture?

Are there replacement insecticides if neonics should be banned? Sure. Those based on pyrethroids and organophosphates some of which are more toxic to bees and humans, are not as effective as neonics for many uses—and are not in the political crosshairs.

That’s not slowed demands for an immediate ban. Advocacy groups recently widened the scope of their concerns, claiming neonics could have an unknown environmental impact, and waterways are being polluted. But evidence for that is scant. (As is the research needed. Various organizations and scientists are calling for more dollars, but where does research money come from, private industry, in a large part and governments, who are subjected to the pressures of lobbyists and/or are in a close relationship with each other.) US Geological Society study published in July found the highest levels detected were at least 40 times lower than benchmarks established by EPA to be protective of aquatic life, and most were up to 1,000 times below that level. (Again, many entomologists are concerned about the ‘blend’ of chemicals in field and hive.  Controlled lab studies of one chemical at a time, they say, are not giving us a complete picture.)

What would happen if US officials do institute sharp restrictions, as the White House may be contemplating?

Neonics are not only important to major row crops such as corn, soy and canola, they also remain the most effective weapon against Asian psyllid, an insect that spreads the deadly virus that threatens America’s citrus crop. They are the key pesticide keeping in check whitefly infestations, which could otherwise devastate winter vegetables. They are the primary insecticide used to counter leafhoppers in the grape-growing Northwest as well as thrips in cotton and water weevil in rice. They’ve been hugely successful in combating aphids and beetles in potatoes.

I found scant support among entomologists for the two-year precautionary moratorium adopted by European politicians in the wake of near hysterical media reports in 2012 and 2013, many generated by coverage of Lu’s research. (Who did he ask? Again he can’t make unsubstantiated statements.) That ban looks like a textbook case of “shooting before you aim,” resulting in unintended but predictable consequences. As Matt Ridley reported earlier this month in The Times of London:

All across southeast Britain this autumn, crops of oilseed rape are dying because of infestation by flea beetles. The direct cause of the problem is the two-year ban on pesticides called neonicotinoids brought in by the EU over British objections at the tail end of last year. … Farmers in Germany, the EU’s largest producer of rape, are also reporting widespread damage. Since rape is one of the main flower crops, providing huge amounts of pollen and nectar for bees, this will hurt wild bee numbers as well as farmers’ livelihoods.

There are now growing concerns that Lu’s studies will carry weight with politicians facing pressure to “do something”. In September, a coalition of environmental groups co-wrote a letter signed by 60 Congressional Democrats urging the EPA to restrict neonicotinoid use citing Lu’s work in arguing that “native pollinators” have “suffered alarming declines.”

Those calls send chills down the back of entomologists concerned that Lu’s claims that he has solved the mystery of the beemageddon that doesn’t actually exist will have a chilling impact on public policy.

“Lu’s work is clearly biased, sensational,” said Richard Cowles. “It is horrendously incompetent. This is just hogwash. We will all pay a price for bad research.” (I would add here that when bad science is paraded in public and then torn apart by those still hiding their own motives, all of science suffers. The lay public, especially those without any scientific education will view all ‘them’ as suspect, making it easier for profiteers and the politicians who support them. The reader should be aware that this strategy, these attacks, are happening on a number of different fronts today, including climate change, GMO’s and against those attempting to address the innumerable cases of industrial and automobile air and water pollution.)

May Berenbaum was appointed this past summer to chair a major National Academy of Sciences study on the health of pollinators ordered by the White House. I asked her if there is anything of value in Lu’s study to guide scientists and regulators? Do neonicotinoids threaten the health of this beleaguered arthropod? (Again, he pulls out Lu. The issue of Lu’s science is a given. It is sloppy. No one, as Berenbaum says will cite Lu’s work. It would cast a shadow across whatever they’ve done. Her statements here, corroborate the obvious…they do not support Entine’s attempt here to derail the so called ‘bee-huggers’ by confusing the public and releasing pressure from politicians. Obvious to me was his omission to ask her, and note it in his article, if there was anything to date the study could say about the health of pollinators. Why would that be? Because it would not serve his purpose here?)

Berenbaum paused. A dedicated environmentalist, she is known for her understated fairness.

“I’m no fan of pesticides and they are overused in agriculture, but you won’t find any confirmation of that in this study.”

Science is not a set of results; it is a method. If the method is wrong, the results are useless. (Entine and his readers should keep this statement in mind. Bad science is a political means to a desired end.) The uncomfortably high number of bee deaths eludes the kind of definitive but potentially reckless conclusion that could result in precipitous regulations.

“This is a really complex issue with no quick and easy solutions,” Berenbaum said. “I can’t imagine a situation in which I would cite the findings of this paper as rigorous and reliable. This is just not good science.”

A Bumble Bee, another pollinator, visiting the inflorescence of an ornamental Sea Holly.

A Bumble Bee, another pollinator, visiting the inflorescence of an ornamental Giant Sea Holly.

Xerces Society – This link is included for the reader who wants to know what at least one of these ‘whacko’ ‘bee-hugger’ groups has been saying about the topic, in its own words. Highly recommended and from a respected organization.

This ‘Straw Dog’ strategy is an increasingly common one today…because it works!  There are essential elements to such a strategy that these advocacy groups follow and there success tends depend on how well they have addressed these.  As a lay person, a reader or member of the audience it will benefit us to understand this strategy, the tactics they commonly use and being clear about what our own tendencies and values are so that we can see how and when we are being ‘played’.

  • Know your audience! This strategy must be crafted for each usage. Your audience, what will play with them, will vary.
  • Pick a vulnerable person/expert and set him/her up as the target. Focus your campaign on them and always refer back to their ‘errors’/weakness.
  • Utilize ‘trigger words’ and labels that carry with them emotions that will help lead your audience/listener to your position.
  • Find others from amongst your opponents who have commented on the target’s weakness/errors and use it to diminish/attack the target…only use what you need.
  • Then choose from your opponents’ own science/policies or statements what seems to corroborate your own.
  • Always maintain control of the ‘discussion’, define the agenda and terms yourself. Limit the discussion to your ‘strength’ and generalize.

This is a strategy with a very specific goal. It is not an honest and open communication such as you may have studied in a ‘Small Group Communications’ class. It is a manipulation of language. It is a propaganda campaign. Honesty and truth are used only in so far as they get the ‘speaker’ to their goal. Honesty, truth, ‘good’ science is used just enough to lend them credibility in their audience’s minds…or when it serves the goal.  It is paramount that the audience is understood so that the ‘correct’ choices are made. The audience already has a position. It may be strongly held. It may be emotional. It may be one they have assumed as a member of a particular family, community or the culture within which they are immersed. We all ‘swim’ in our own ‘pools’ and none of us are aware of it all of the time. We are all then subject to such manipulations. The audience, in a very real sense, is being played.

All human communication is imperfect…incomplete. It requires a ‘speaker’ and a ‘listener’. Communication is an attempt by an individual to be understood by others, to transfer knowledge or information, get others to do what we want or to simply acknowledge us. Communication is goal oriented. It may be honest and sincere or calculated and manipulative. We have all experienced being manipulated…none of us generally like to be played this way…but it happens all of the time, sometimes we willingly go along…other times, we are unaware of it until much later, if at all.

There is an intimacy, a familiarity, we experience with those we communicate with. We allow them in. There is always a certain degree of trust that we extend them especially if they are understood to be part of the ‘community’ we identify with. As I said earlier, communication is imperfect. It relies on this trust. As social beings we make conscious and unconscious links to those we identify with. We share some part of our identity with our ‘communities’. In this sense, we lower our guard or our standard for ‘proof’. We trust, that what we hear is truly spoken, that we are ‘included’, not being manipulated or deceived. In these instances each of us ‘accept’ what we are told, what we read from our chosen communities. As you move outside that circle though, groups, organizations, institutions and countries become less familiar, less trustworthy. As members of families and various communities we haven’t got the time, or energy, to ‘check’ everything ‘said’ to us. We may find it expeditious to reject those things from outside our ‘circle’. The world is comprised of billions of people. We make these associations out of necessity. We have our lives to live. Yet by doing so we become susceptible to this ‘Straw Dog’ strategy.  

So, what do we do as individuals do, so that we aren’t played in this way? Just as we cannot be ‘expert’ on every issue, none of us have the time or energy to ‘vett’ everything said to us, everything we read. At the same time many thousands may be communicating with us in attempts to get us to buy, provide our political support or sway us in some way. If you feel pressured into something, step back. Give yourself some time to think. If you keep getting approached, if they don’t relent, ask yourself why? What do they want of me? And, remember, you don’t have to choose if it’s not a legal obligation or in what you have thoughtfully determined to be in your own best interest.

Think about the words they use. Are they using labels that are emotionally laden for you? Is the topic of interest to you or are they just playing on your emotions? What if instead of emotional labels they used neutral or positive ones? How would you feel about their topic?

Do they back up their statements or do they just leave them unsupported? And, when they do, does their evidence actually support their assertions?

Are their standards consistent through out their ‘message’? Would they themselves meet the standard that they have set for their opponent? When they draw from a source, or cite it, have they only picked what they wanted that supports them, while ignoring whatever may undermine them?

The only way to ‘defend’ oneself from this kind of attack is to learn to be critical listeners. Those who employ this strategy need us. They need our support or compliance. Failing that they need us to be ‘confused’, to doubt our own understanding and to yield to the ‘experts’, to be quiet. Or, thirdly, to be emotionally charged and respond in like manner, to present a public face that is readily identifiable as ‘fringe’, ‘whacko’ or, in this case, a ‘bee-hugger’. We are expected to take on one of these roles: supporter, passive observer or enemy. They do not want us to become thoughtful and skeptical, to call them out on their use of their strategy.

For many of us on the ‘political left’, which has become an increasingly easy place to find oneself these days, we have largely yielded the political floor. We are unwilling to ‘stoop’ to such blatant manipulations and want only for the truth, the facts, to speak for itself. True, many on the left are engaging in a similar strategy these days, but most aren’t. We choose not to engage them on this. We do the work that we believe to be important…and it is! But, they also need to be revealed, to have their strategies laid bare, to have their proclamations put to the test. Otherwise science is slipping into being just another ‘belief’ system, that can be crushed or ignored and rational thought may become something one is persecuted for, not unlike the ‘Dark Ages’ of Europe.

Our world today is on an edge and it hinges on communication. Today public discourse is very limited and narrowly defined by the political powers that be, which includes the wealthy (Remember, courts have decided that money cannot be limited as they have legally attached it to freedom of speech.) Media has been corporatized, newspapers, television and radio, have been losing their relevance and their audiences are diminished in terms of news and public discourse. Plays are being made for more control of the internet which has been notorious for its use as an instrument to spread inaccurate and out-right misinformation, but it is also a way to spread ‘unpopular’ or alternative points of view, for people to meet and discuss current issues. If it is to become a more effective societal and political tool the public will need to develop their own critical listening skills, to winnow the wheat from the mere noise and distraction.

We are the citizens in this world and as such are an integral part of any political system. We have the ability to take a more active role or to remain in a passive one, reactive and subject to the machinations of others who define the terms of engagement and limit the agenda, for us. Jon Entine is not being honest with his readers. He has an agenda. It is up to us to accept our role and responsibilities. Have we chosen well?

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