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Follow the Honey: 7 Ways Pesticide Companies Are Spinning the Bee Crisis

Like the repulsive 'Think. Don't Smoke' ads from Philip Morris, the pesticide industry now lauds 'saving bees' campaign.

Photo Credit: Planet Natural; Screenshot /


If you like to eat, then you should care about what’s happening to bees. Did you know that two-thirds of our food crops require pollination — the very  foods that we rely on for healthy eating — such as apples, berries and almonds, just to name a few. That’s why the serious declines in bee populations are getting more attention, with entire  campaigns devoted to saving bees.

A strong and growing body of evidence points to exposure to a class of neurotoxic pesticides called neonicotinoids — the fastest-growing and most widely used class of synthetic pesticides — as a key contributing factor to bee declines.

The European Union banned the three most widely used neonicotinoids, based on strong science indicating that neonics can kill bees outright and make them more vulnerable to pests, pathogens and other stressors.

Enter the corporate spin doctors. As my  new report with Friends of the Earth details, three of the leading pesticide corporations — Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto — are engaged in a massive public relations disinformation campaign to distract the public and policymakers from thinking that pesticides might have something to do with bee death and destruction.

Big Tobacco honed these strategies for decades, stalling action that resulted in millions of preventable deaths. As  Bayer stockholders meet in Germany this week, this report shines a critical light on these destructive corporate practices.

Here are the seven tactics pesticide companies are using to spin the bee crisis:

1. Pretending to care – PR blitz

Big Tobacco perfected the art of self-serving public relations, to appear to care about the very problems your products cause and offer alleged solutions.

A key element of the pesticide industry’s PR strategy is to go on the offensive by creating an elaborate appearance of being “out in front” and taking a lead role in “saving bees”. For example, last year, Bayer launched its mobile “Bee Care Tour” at the Ag Issues Forum and Commodity Classic in Orlando, Florida. The  tour continues in 2014, with stops at Oregon State University, Washington State University, University of California, Davis, South Dakota State University and Purdue University. In June, the Bee Care Tour will be on hand for National Pollinator Week in Washington, DC.

2. Creating distractions: Blame anything but pesticides

Big Tobacco was a master at inventing diversions, to ensure the public wouldn’t place blame where it belonged. The idea is to create uncertainty; as one tobacco industry executive  famously put it: “Doubt is our product.”

Similarly, Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto have deployed a mix of PR tactics to divert attention away from neonicotinoids as a key contributor to bee declines. They have typically promoted a “multiple factors” argument that downplays and manufactures doubt about pesticides’ role, while emphasizing varroa mites, pathogens and bee forage as primary forces threatening bees.

For example, Helmut Schramm, head of Bayer CropScience Germany,  explained: “It’s generally known that the varroa mite is the main enemy of the bee.” To further distract attention, Bayer has even erected a  giant sculpture of the varroa mite on a bee at its “Bee Care” Center in Germany. As the New York Times  notes, “Conveniently, Bayer markets products to kill the mites too”.

3. Spinning science

Big Tobacco was so intent on twisting the science of smoking that they created “The Tobacco Institute” for the purpose of funding industry-friendly science.

All three companies — Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto — are strengthening their reach into the scientific community to enhance the credibility of their case that anything but pesticides are to blame for the honeybee collapse. Companies are funding scientific studies, cultivating alliances and strategic partnerships with farmers, beekeepers and agricultural organizations in order to bolster the legitimacy of their arguments and position themselves as “friends of the bees”.