The German chemicals giant Bayer AG is again coming under fire for releasing chemicals onto the market with highly alarming apparent side effects. Earlier US and German authorities investigated whether Bayer CropScience brand, Poncho, their best selling pesticide, played a role in the alarming and mysterious death of entire bee colonies. Now scientists in Holland are examining what is causing the sudden decline of bird population in Europe. The prime suspect is a revolutionary new form of pesticide containing a “systemic” insect killer called neonicotinoid. The leading maker is Bayer AG’s subsidiary, Bayer CropScience, which is also the GMO division of Bayer.

Studies being done at the Experimental Toxicology Services in Zutphen, the Netherlands, indicate that a relatively new class of insecticide, known as the neonicotinoids, may be causing the widespread death of birds as well as of insects, especially bees, which if so, is catastrophic and not just for lovers of the birds and bees.

Across Europe in recent years there has been observed a dramatic decline in bird populations. Many species of bird have suffered a population crash including house sparrow, common swift or starlings. Since 1977, Britain’s house-sparrow population has fallen by 68 per cent. The common swift has suffered a 41 per cent fall in numbers since 1994, and the starling 26 per cent. The story is similar for woodland birds and farmland birds. [1]

The Zutphen study is being led by Henk Tennekes who has just published a book, The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making. Tennekes draws all available scientific evidence to conclude that neonicotinoids are causing a catastrophe in the insect world, which is having a deadly effect for many sorts of birds.

Even in China?

Tennekes says, "The evidence shows that the bird species suffering massive decline since the 1990s rely on insects for their diet," he says. He believes that the insect world is no longer thriving, and that birds that feed on insects are short on food. In the 1990’s Bayer AG and other pesticide manufacturers introduced a revolutionary new class of insecticide chemical – the neonicotinoids. Beekeepers were the first people to notice a problem, as their bees began to desert their hives and die, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

The first cases were in France in 1994, but the bee death epidemic quickly fanned out across Europe, and by 2006 CCD reached the US too. In China reportedly the lack of bees has become so serious that farmers in some regions are already resorting to pollinating their crops by hand. Are pesticide chemicals like those of Bayer AG’s systemic neonicotinoids to blame?

Between 2006 and 2009 one third of American beekeepers reported cases of colony collapse. Aside from the loss of revenue in honey sales, this is worrying news because honey bees are one of the world’s most important pollinators, and 35 per cent of agricultural crops rely on pollinators. [2]

All the science money can buy…

Controversy has surrounded the issue, with everything from mobile phones to GM crops being blamed. The key suspects include parasites, viral and fungal infections, and insecticides.

Now a new study just released in the USA claims that the bee death phenomenon CCD was caused by the interaction between a virus called the invertebrate iridescent virus, and a fungus known as Nosema apis. If so that would take the heat off of Bayer AG whose product Poncho, a billion dollar sales pesticide, has come under heavy attack as the cause of bee colony deaths or CCD.

As I wrote in an article in 2009, clothianidin, the active chemical in Bayer’s Poncho pesticide is used to coat corn, sugar beet and sorghum seeds and protect them from pests. A nerve toxin that has the potential to be toxic for bees, it gets into all parts of the plant that grow from the coated seeds. In 1999, French regulators banned an older relative of Poncho and subsequently declined approval for clothianidin. French researchers found that bees were a lot more sensitive to the pesticides than Bayer CropScience own studies had shown.

University of Montana professor and bee researcher Jerry Bromenshenk is under scrutiny by some who claim he failed to investigate pesticides as a possible cause of Colony Collapse Disorder because of his relationship with a subsidiary of the German company Bayer AG.
Photo by Michael Gallacher/Missoulian

Now since the US study apparently clearing Bayer’s Poncho and other systemic pesticides of blame was released, and naturally with great fanfare celebrated on the Bayer CropScience website as a vindication, it has been discovered that the leader of the study, Jerry Bromenshenk, received a research grant from Bayer CropScience, one of the leading manufacturers of neonicotinoid insecticides, to study bee pollination.

According to Jeroen van der Sluijs, of the Netherlands’ Utrecht University, the Bromenshenk study also did not address the right issue: "Previous research has shown that exposure to neonicotinoids makes colonies more prone to the Nosema fungus and virus infections." [3]

According to Tennekes, "Neonicotinoids are revolutionary because they are put inside seeds and permeate the whole plant because they are water-soluble (which is why they are called systemic insecticides). Any insect that feeds on the crop dies." [4]

Even small doses can kill. Recent research, carried out on honey bees in the lab, showed that these insecticides build up in the central nervous system of the insect, so that very small doses over a long time period can have a fatal effect. The reason that neonicotinoids can have such a powerful long-term effect is because they bind irreversibly to receptors in the central nervous systems of insects.

Even more alarming according to Tennekes is the fact that neonicotinoids can travel far beyond the crops they were used on. "Neonicotinoids are water-soluble and mobile in soil. They can be washed out of soils and into surface and groundwater – as we’ve seen in the Netherlands since 2004. As a result, neonicotinoids are probably readily taken up by wild plants as well, and in this way spread throughout nature, causing irreversible damage to non-target insects," Tennekes states. [5]

Italian agronomy tests

Similarly, in Italy a team of nine agronomists conducted tests with plants sprayed with neonicootinoids. Under certain conditions water drop condensate forms on the blades of corn treated with the pesticide. The researchers discovered that the “guttation” drops of corn that had been treated with seed dressings of neonicotinoid pesticides contained enough pesticide to damage bees. The researchers used corn seed treated with three different systemic neonicotinoids (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, and clothianidan) and one non-systemic pesticide (fipronil). The seeds were purchased from the manufacturer with the pesticide already applied and ready for commercial distribution. [6]

Bayer markets a line of products containing the imidacloprid neonicotinoid under the trade name Secur System. [7]

The bees were monitored constantly and timed from the beginning of drinking until they began to show symptoms. The two symptoms monitored were arching of the abdomen and paralysis of the wings. Earlier research has shown that wing paralysis is irreversible, so once that happened it was assumed those bees would die. Results showed that there was easily enough of all three of the systemic pesticides in the drops to cause wing paralysis and death. [8]

The non-systemic fipronil on the other hand was not found present in the guttation drops. More alarming, the researchers also found that doses of the pesticide low enough that they don’t kill the forager may be carried home and fed to the developing young–a result that could have serious effects on the survival of the entire bee colony. Doses of poison that don’t kill an adult bee may have developmental effects on the young larvae, the researchers reported. [9]

In 2008 Germany, Italy and Slovenia all banned use of two types of neonicotinoid insecticides on maize. France has had a ban in place since 1999 on a neonicotinoid insecticide used to dress sunflower seeds. Tennekes claims that the only solution is a global ban: "Neonicotinoids act like chemical carcinogens, for which there are no safe levels of exposure. The message is that we must act quickly and ban these compounds, to avoid a catastrophe," he says. [10]

Monsanto’s best-selling pesticide Roundup with glyphosate and other proprietary chemicals has been shown to damage foetal cells in humans even in low doses. Now Bayer systemic insecticides containing neonicotinoid are found to kill not only bees but most likely also indirectly birds in large numbers.

Before we find ourselves living in a barren wasteland perhaps it is time for radical and entirely independent long-term testing of these effects before further such poisons are allowed. Independent means that no industry monies finance the studies or the scientists, if such a thing is even possible nowadays with the pervasive presence of corporate money in university and government research.

[1Kate Ravilious, "None flew over the cuckoo’s nest: A world without birds", The Independent, 15 November 2010.





[6Girolami, V., L. Mazzon, A. Squartini, N. Mori, M. Marzaro, A. Di Bernardo, M. Greatti, C. Giorio, A. Tapparo. 2009. "Translocation of neonicotinoid insecticides from coated seeds to seedling guttation drops: A novel way of intoxication for bees". Journal of Economic Entomology 102(5): 1808-1815.

[7Bayer Crop Sciences website.

[8Girolami et al.; op. cit.


[10Kate Ravilious, op. cit.