Celebration of a major scientific breakthrough on a possible cause for the country’s devastating collapse of bee populations was recently tainted by allegations of questionable ethical conduct.
For University of Montana bee researcher Jerry Bromenshenk, who led a team of academic and military scientists, the allegations in Fortune magazine were bothersome, but not nearly as irritating as the hate mail and crank calls that followed.
“When they started calling my wife at home, they crossed the line,” Bromenshenk wrote in an e-mail to the Missoulian as he left for Canada, where he’s attending bee conferences. “I’ve now a block on my home phone.”
Since 2006, somewhere between 20 percent and 40 percent of the nation’s honeybees have died. What’s killed them has been an entomological mystery, and one worth solving, as bees pollinate a third of the nation’s crops.
The die-off has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder, and has been thought of more as a syndrome than a disease in the past. Previous research had indicated that a particular fungus might be involved in CCD, but Bromenshenk and his team of scientists found a virus at work with the fungus.
“A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have apparently interacted to cause the problem,” the New York Times said in an Oct. 6 story.
The Bromenshenk team’s findings were published in the peer-reviewed, online scientific journal PLoS ONE, then made national headlines, including the front page of the New York Times.
That headline, “Scientists and Soldiers Solve Bee Mystery,” apparently piqued the interest of investigative reporter Katherine Eban.
Eban’s subsequent Fortune magazine story suggested that Bromenshenk’s relationship with a subsidiary of the German company Bayer AG – best known for making aspirin – was a reason his team didn’t investigate the possible role of pesticides in colony collapse. She also alleged that Bromenshenk failed to disclose that relationship to the Times.
Eban alleged Bromenshenk received research dollars from Bayer for work on the pollination of onions, and also dropped out of a class-action lawsuit brought by beekeepers against Bayer.
One of the company’s divisions makes a pesticide that some beekeepers claim might be a cause of Colony Collapse Disorder.
Finally, Eban asserted that Bee Alert Technology, Bromenshenk’s company, might generate larger profits if CCD is caused by a disease and not pesticides.
Eban’s story was notable for what it left out about Bromenshenk’s onion study. For one thing, the money didn’t go to Bromenshenk’s company; it went to the University of Montana.
The story also didn’t note the date of the study, which took place in 2003, three years before Colony Collapse Disorder was even reported.
Eban’s piece also failed to note that the study was initiated by a grant from a company called Sun Seeds, which was subsequently bought by a Dutch seed company that is a subsidiary of Bayer’s crop production division.
No one else in the current research project, Bromenshenk noted, had any affiliation with Bayer or its pesticide division.
“We had 18 authors on our PLoS ONE paper,” Bromenshenk wrote to the Missoulian. “To imply that I somehow persuaded our co-authors from the U.S. Army, three other universities, and two other companies to report a link of a virus and a fungus to CCD, so as to – as implied – exonerate pesticides as a potential contributor to CCD, is preposterous.”
UM research officials found the Fortune piece disingenuous.
“I thought it was a pretty cheap shot and a complete misrepresentation of the facts,” said Dan Dwyer, UM vice president of research. “Dr. Bromenshenk published in a peer-reviewed journal and that’s where we like to see science discussed. If someone has issues with Dr. Bromenshenk’s work, they need to carry out that dialogue through peer- reviewed publications and not the popular press.”
In his e-mail, Bromenshenk listed what he saw as the infirmities in the Fortune article, beginning with the allegation that he failed to disclose a perceived conflict of interest to the Times.
Disclosure information, he noted, is included in the study itself, which Bromenshenk assumes Eban didn’t read.
“There was no reason for me to repeat this information to the New York Times, nor for them to report it,” Bromenshenk wrote.
It’s true that his company, Bee Alert Technology, is developing a scanner to detect diseases in bees, but there’s hardly a market to make any significant profit, he said. There are approximately 1,600 large commercial beekeepers in the United States. Assuming every bee operation purchased a scanner, that’s 1,600 sales, which is hardly a sustainable business model, he said.
In fact, Bromenshenk is working on contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop the scanner. Without that contract, “we would probably never recover the research and development costs and the beekeepers couldn’t afford it if we did,” he said.
Bee Alert Technology’s scanner was initially developed to detect toxic chemicals, including pesticides, and “that market – detection of biochemical warfare agents, could be large – although no one is beating down our doors at the moment.”
Finally, Bromenshenk noted that other researchers are funded to look at the possible relationship between pesticides and Colony Collapse Disorder.
That wasn’t what his study was supposed to do. His team was funded to look at two pathogens’ possible role in colony collapse.
With that role in mind, the UM researcher is attending bee conferences in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, encouraging beekeepers to keep colonies away from cold, wet areas and make sure they have plenty of ventilation, as it appears possible that cold, damp conditions may spur the pathogens.
There’s no current way to treat the virus identified by Bromenshenk and his team of researchers, but he’s traveling the country with the best advice science can offer to beekeepers.
“Maybe we can spare them some losses,” he said.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.