Assoc Prof Peter K. Dearden
To humans, the most important insect on earth is the honeybee. Honeybees provide honey, wax, venom and royal jelly for human consumption, but through pollination, are also vital to food production. It is often quoted- but difficult to source- that the USDA sates that bees are required for 1/3 of the food we eat. We do know that 75% of crops require animal pollination and 35% of the value of crops depends on pollination.
Bees in New Zealand and elsewhere are under threat. In New Zealand our beekeepers are struggling with the Varroa mite, which has decimated feral bee colonies throughout the country. This loss probably has left a deficit of pollinators for clover, a key plant that enriches pasture.
In the US, the big bee killer is colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD has decimated managed beehives throughout the US. These authors estimate that between fall 2007- spring 2008 36% of managed bee colonies were lost to CCD, perhaps 1 million hives. Such losses have continued in subsequent years. CCD is a difficult disease as bees appear to abscond from the hive, or never make it back from foraging. This doesn’t leave a lot of useful corpses for bee pathologists to study. It also reflects what might happen if insecticides were sprayed in fields bees were foraging from. So actually diagnosing a hive with CCD is difficult.
Despite the difficulties with the disease, a great deal of credible (and some non-credible)research has been undertaken to discover what is going on, and a few potential causes identified. In 2007 researchers published a paper where they had used modern sequencing techniques to identify all pathogens living in CCD affected and non-affected hives. They identified lots of things that were infecting bee, but a strong association between CCD and a virus called Israeli acute paralysis virus. Next a microsporidian infection, Nosema ceranae, was convincingly shown to be involved. Then a paper, using microarray analysis, suggested that picorna-like viruses, including Israeli acute paralysis virus might be involved.
You might be left thinking that this indicates complete chaos, but it really doesn’t. CCD is probably quite a complex disease. We know that many of the pathogens identified as playing a role have been in bee populations for some time without causing CCD. It may be that combinations of these factors, or indeed these linked to insecticide use, or such viruses and varroa mite, or even stress and all these factors, lead to CCD. As the byline to this blog states, ‘for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.
In the last few week another paper has arrived that was briefly heralded as the solution, and then quickly denounced. This time a large consortium of researchers, including some from the US Army, published a paper implying two factors, an iridovirus and Nosema infection, as being responsible for CCD. These guys used a mass spectrometry approach to identify proteins from affected and non-affected colonies, and showed that CCD colonies had these pathogens. Caged bees given both these pathogens died faster that those given only one. The authors, and the popular press (including ours) heralded this as a breakthrough. But, it very soon turned sour.
What broke was the news that the lead researcher on the paper, Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, has received funding from Bayer Crop Science, a company that markets a class of insecticides, neonicotinoids, that some have suggested are a contributor to, or a cause of CCD. The implication is that Dr Bromenshenk’s paper cannot be trusted because its results are convenient for Bayer. This is key because Bayer is being sued by Beekeepers for losses claimed to be due to neonicotinoids; now they can point to infections as the culprit. Dr Bromenshenk is also CEO and co-owner of Bee-Alert technologies, a company that is developing tests to diagnose infections such as Nosema. If CCD is caused by these infections, his company stands to gain. Dr Bromenshenk’s independence and integrity are now being slammed in the media.
And this is where it gets hard. Dr Bromenshenk is a good bee researcher. His papers are well thought of. This paper is excellent. The research is clear, the findings consistent with the experimental data, and it does move our knowledge of CCD forward. The paper does not claim that these two infections are the cause of CCD, but that they are linked to it. Dr Bromenshenk has received funding from Bayer, he claims for a study of onion pollination, does that make these findings fraudulent, wrong or misleading? The press clearly think so.
The problem is one of independence. The view from the press is that Bromenshenk, by receiving funds from Bayer, is no longer independent and we cannot trust him on CCD. His association with the company has damaged his ability to be an independent voice. While his research is fine, and useful, it will never be accepted publicly because he took the company’s money.
I am willing to bet, however, that Bromenshenk’s employer, the University of Montana, encouraged him to get funding from Bayer, and probably rewarded him for setting up Bee-Alert technologies. Indeed, here in New Zealand, researchers are strongly encouraged to get involved in contract research for companies, and to spin off companies from their research. Major grants from the government often demand that the research is carried out with matching funds from industry. Indeed the paucity of grants from public institutions pushes many researchers down this avenue. What is the effect then on the perception of independence of our researchers? Are we damaging the ability of our researchers to have an independent voice, to give independent advice, and to be effective translators of their research?
The case of Dr Bromenshenk is a sad one. The journal he published in has a section where the authors list their ‘competing interests’. Bee-Alert is listed, Bayer is not. We desperately need to be able to manage independence of researchers and commercial funding if we are not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. What is the best way to ensure we have excellent researchers with independent voices on matters that affect all of us?
Declaration of interests.
I am an independent director of a honeybee research company Betta Bees Research Ltd. I once was a finalist in the Bayer NBR innovator awards. I have not received funding from Bayer and I do not work on CCD (yet!).