Influence Campaigns: Pesticides and Possible Harms

28 minutes read Jun 17, 2022

Neonics and Pollinators





Promote friendly narratives

  • Other factors cause or contribute to bee death such as “parasites, diseases, habitat and nutrition, weather and hive management practices”.
    • Varroa Mite primary cause of bee decline.
      • Bayer put FiveThirtyEight documentary “Fight to Save the Mighty Honeybee” which “traces vanEngelsdorp in his lab and in the field, exclusively discussing the Varroa mite”, on their site [1]
  • Causes are unknown.
    • CropLife America sponsored PBS episode which stated that causes of bee death are unknown. [1]
  • Research studies are flawed.
    • Studies use unrealistic pesticide exposure levels.

      “Research claims that have been made questioning neonic safety all share common flaws, such as exposure levels that far exceed real-world scenarios, and the flawed idea that exposure to substances in the environment necessarily means harm,” adds [Susan Luke, a spokesperson for Bayer Crop Science North America]. “It does not, otherwise no one would go swimming in chlorine or drink caffeinated coffee.” [1]

  • Pesticide companies are supporters of honey bee health.
    • Fund research on honey bee health and create the Bayer “Bee Care Center”. [1]
    • CropLife America, Bayer, and Syngenta created the Honey Bee Health Coalition. [1]
    • Monsanto created the Honey Bee Advisory Council. [1]
    • Bayer, as part of its Healthy Hives 2020 initiative, has dedicated at least $1.3 million to the project in collaboration with Project Apis m., which counts Bayer as one of its largest donors, though the company does not break down individual donor amounts. [1]

    • The largest sponsor of the [2020 American Beekeeping Federation convention] was Bayer, which showcased a series of talks at the conference to tout the company’s commitment to bee health. [1]

    • Jerry Hayes, the former Florida apiary inspector, joined Monsanto and became the company’s representative at beekeeper conferences around the country and helped pitch Monsanto’s research into genetic solutions for bees to skeptical beekeepers. [1]

    • Committed to solving the honey bee decline issue.
      • Mentioned repeatedly in interviews.
      • Promote pesticide to combat varroa mite.
  • Harm caused by misapplication of pesticides and not proper use of pesticides (aka individual behavior is responsible / an education problem).

    “Neonicotinoid products are critically important tools for farmers, and are approved for use in more than 100 countries due to their strong safety profile when used according to label,” said Susan Luke, a spokesperson for Bayer Crop Science North America… [1]

  • The industry also recruited bee industry voices to be the face of the new rebranding. Richard Rogers, an academic consultant and former adjunct professor at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, produced Bayer-backed research in Canada in the early 2000s discounting the dangers posed to bees by neonics applied to potato plants on Prince Edward Island. Rogers was brought on to help lead the Bayer Bee Care initiative when the center was opened in 2012. Dr. Helen Thompson, a leading official environmental official in the United Kingdom who had opposed the E.U.’s directive to suspend the use of neonics, joined Syngenta.

    Washington State University entomologist Sheppard was also among the other prominent bee scientists to accept the pesticide industry’s outreach. The same year of the launch of the Honey Bee Health Coalition, Sheppard joined Bayer for a roadshow the company sponsored called the Bee Care Tour. He later joined the company steering committee for its “Healthy Hives 2020” initiative. [1]

Use outside groups to advance cause

  • Syngenta and Monsanto maintain a list of “third party stakeholders,” including free market think tanks and scientists the industry could turn to for messaging support. Many of the think tanks and individuals included in the roster now play a prominent role in the neonic debate. The American Council on Health and Science, which has relied on corporate funding from Monsanto, Bayer, and Syngenta, has published over a dozen articles disputing the dangers posed by neonics. [1]

  • CropLife America, Bayer, and Syngenta launched the Honey Bee Health Coalition, a new group focused on research into the Varroa mite and other nonpesticide-related causes of bee decline. The group was officially coordinated by the Keystone Policy Center, a supposedly independent third party, in conjunction with beekeeper associations and environmentalists. Records show, however, that the Keystone Policy Center is largely funded by major corporations, including Bayer and Syngenta. And internal documents from the Honey Bee Health Coalition show that its communications to beekeepers were reviewed by its bloc of growers and pesticide company members, including DuPont, CropLife America, Syngenta, and the Agricultural Retailers Association. Farmers and beekeepers paid as little as $500 to join the organization while corporate members paid as high as $100,000 in dues. [1]

  • CropLife America sponsored PBS episode which stated that causes of bee death are unknown.
  • Bee Informed Partnership started by Dennis vanEngelsdorp to “formalize the [beekeepers] survey and continue research into possible factors for the [colony collapse] disorder.” [1]
    • That same year, Project Apis m., a foundation heavily funded by Bayer, donated to vanEngelsdorp’s nonprofit, the Bee Informed Project, and has since provided at least $700,000 to the lab, according to public tax filings. [1]

    • Other corporate interests, including the Almond Board of California and the General Mills Foundation, have also directly funded the Bee Informed Project. [1]

  • Jerry Hayes retired two years ago from Monsanto after the project he was hired to promote “just didn’t work out.” He now works as an editor at Bee Culture magazine.

    In an interview, Hayes said that he was proud of the work the Honey Bee Health Coalition achieved, including the development of guides for beekeepers to manage Varroa infestations. And he views the effort to bring various stakeholders together in one coalition as a unique accomplishment. But he said that pesticide corporations were largely in the drivers’ seat.

    “I think they were using this group as a PR advantage, but by the same token we have no money in the beekeeping industry,” said Hayes.

    “These guys were funding the organization, they were funding meetings, all of us knew there were perhaps ulterior motives,” he noted. “Without those resources, we wouldn’t be down the road a little bit to making honeybees a little less endangered.”

    Hayes said he had followed the controversies around neonics and was concerned about the growing number of studies showing the threat to nontarget insects. Though he’s concerned that restricting the chemical could reintroduce older pesticides with a greater risk to mammals, he added that the drive for profits have fueled the overuse of neonics.

    “But,” Hayes added, when “chemical companies want to support Dennis [vanEngelsdorp] because if he can come up with solutions to honey bee health, it takes pressure off of them, doesn’t it?” [1]

Use authoritative institutions to advance cause

  • “What tends to happen with industry-sponsored research is not fraud, it’s not misconduct, it’s nothing that would be retractable,” says NYU’s Oransky, who’s also the co-founder of Retraction Watch. “It’s that they pick questions, and they pick studies, and they pick study designs that are likely to give them the answer they want.” [2]

  • In another exchange, Rogers, the former adjunct Acadia University professor and now official with Bayer’s Bee Care Center, wrote in 2015 to Sheppard and Jamie Ellis, an associate professor at the University of Florida, to publish a “paper on the definition of a healthy honey bee colony.” Rogers noted that he had worked on a draft but suggested that, “for the best optics, maybe you or Steve, or someone other than a Bayer staff member should be the lead author.” Ellis agreed and wrote back that he “understood your concern about Bayer staff taking the lead.” [1]

  • Professor Cynthia Scott-Dupree and Clothianidin study. [1]
  • In January 2016, the University of Maryland, College Park campus held a summit bringing corporate representatives and researchers together to talk about solutions to the bee crisis. State officials tapped the Keystone Policy Center — the same chemical industry-funded nonprofit in charge of CropLife America’s Honey Bee Health Coalition — to manage the process. Maryland, California, Massachusetts, and other states were considering restrictions on neonic products. The Obama administration had encouraged an approach that brought together a wide array of stakeholders, known as the Managed Pollinator Protection Plan, or MP3, method of resolving the issue. VanEngelsdorp, addressing the summit, presided over a PowerPoint that listed a Monsanto affiliation in small type at the bottom, according to Luke Goembel, an official with the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association.

    The presentation, said Goembel, made the case that “Varroa mites, not pesticides, were the primary cause of hive losses” and included “an image of a vampire baby to represent a Varroa mite.” VanEngelsdorp, he said, made a mocking comparison, showing a graph with a chart showing the rise of pirate next to a chart showing the increasing loss of hives over time, an “attempt to present the concept ‘correlation does not prove causation,’” and to “ridicule the concern over increasing pesticide use.” “I was shocked,” Goembel said, “because the journals are full of research that describes many avenues by which pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, almost certainly lead to hive losses.”

    The summit included a broad range of speakers, but beekeeper activists complained the discussion was dominated by pesticide makers.

    Speaker after speaker claimed that hive loss was only “due to Varroa mites, not pesticides,” according to Bonnie Raindrop, another official with the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association, who attended the event. Only a small percentage of the attendees, Raindrop said, were beekeepers, and those who did make it were separated from one another. The rest, she said, “were people who knew nothing about bees,” including lobbyists, lawn care professionals, and representatives of agribusiness.

    “They had a very controlled format,” said Raindrop, “with one beekeeper at each table, the rest industry people, and we were asked to make recommendations for what the MP3 policy should look like.”

    Both Raindrop and Goembel brought up the role of neonicotinoids and other systemic pesticides killing bees, but said other participants at the summit shot them down.

    The Keystone Policy Center moderators kept the conversation focused largely on mites, “and said beekeepers weren’t doing their due diligence to control mites using chemicals,” she added.

    Asked about the beekeeper’s criticism of the Maryland summit, the Keystone Policy Center’s spokesperson, Chavez, said in a statement that the event “involved outreach to a wide variety of stakeholders” and encouraged the public to view the final report produced from the event. [1]

The results of this event were then used as evidence against the bill in Maryland which would ban consumer neonics.

Disincentivize or discredit promoters of counter narratives

  • The lawyers who filed Lundgren’s suit allege that nine additional USDA scientists have been ordered to retract studies and water-down findings, or have faced discipline in retaliation for their work. They further allege that three of those scientists, beyond Lundgren, were also working on pollinator-related research. The USDA’s inspector general just announced an audit, to take place later this year, in response to the “significant volume” of complaints they’ve had on their office’s hotline, alleging scientific censorship on pesticides and other issues. [3]

    USDA Scientist Jonathan Lundgren who spoke publicly about pesticides effecting pollinators was suspended for non-research related misconduct. [1]

  • 2014 House Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture chaired by Austin Scott:

    “Under questioning from Scott, the committee chair, Pettis reiterated that even without mites, bees would still be in decline, and pesticides raise concern “to a new level.” After the hearing, Pettis told the Washington Post that he spoke privately with Scott, who criticized him for failing to follow “the script”. [1]

    But, Pettis said, the USDA’s congressional liaison told him that the Agriculture Committee wanted him to restrict his testimony to the varroa mite. “In my naivete,” he said, “I thought there were going to be other people addressing different parts of the pie. I felt used by the whole process, used by Congress.”

    The hearing was “heavily weighted toward industry,” he said, “and they tried to use me as a scientist, as a way of saying, ‘See, it’s the varroa mite,’ when that’s not how I see it.” [3]

    Two months later Pettis was demoted at the Department of Agriculture. [1]

Influence public policy

  • CropLife America donated $3.5K after 2014 House Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture hearing to Austin Scott who sponsored varroa mite pesticide exception legislation. [1]
  • A paper written by “current or former employees of Syngenta” was cited in an exemption application for “the EU’s newly imposed moratorium on neonic products” by Syngenta.

    … a controversial paper authored by a group of consultants that claimed that thiamethoxam, a neonic produced by Syngenta, posed “a low risk to honey bees” when applied to oilseed rape and maize. In a section of its website titled “Bee Decline,” Syngenta cites the study to claim that “there is no direct correlation between neonicotinoid use and poor bee health.” Another group of scientists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland also eviscerated the vanEngelsdorp-edited paper, noting that it used no formal statistical analysis and came to its conclusion by vaguely inspecting the data. They mocked the method as simply reflecting “the prior beliefs of those involved.” The House of Commons Library, in a briefing paper on neonics, noted that the thiamethoxam study faced criticism for lacking rigor, and that all five of authors of the study “were current or former employees of Syngenta or had been paid by Syngenta for their work.” [1]

  • One month after the [2016 University of Maryland summit managed by “the Keystone Policy Center — the same chemical industry-funded nonprofit in charge of CropLife America’s Honey Bee Health Coalition”], legislators in Annapolis, Maryland, took up a bill to ban consumer neonics. During the House of Delegates debate over the legislation, a panel of opponents — including representatives from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration, pesticide industry representatives, and the owner of commercial nursery — repeatedly cited the survey taken by the Keystone Policy Center at the summit as evidence that researchers did not think pesticides were a problem. Several cited vanEngelsdorp by name, claiming the University of Maryland professor had provided research showing that neonicotinoids did not pose a threat to Maryland hives. [1]

  • 2014 House Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture hearing
    • Three out of four panel members represent industry: David Fischer a Bayer official, Jeff Stone a lobbyist for commercial nurseries, Dan Cummings a representative for the Almond Board, and Jeffrey Pettis a researcher from the Department of Agriculture.
      • Dan Cummings focused on varroa mites as the primary cause
      • Jeffrey Pettis, the sole researcher, was expected by the committee chair Austin Scott to follow “the script” [1].

Bias public discourse

Counter evidence

  • Field testing shows that exposure is systemic in soil and water.

    In the U.S., nearly all field-planted corn and two-thirds of soybean use neonic-coated seeds. The chemical is found in soil samples from coast to coast, in waterways and in drinking water. Neonics, which are water soluble, have been detected in the American River in California, the River Waveney in England, tap water in Iowa City, and hundreds of other streams and rivers across the world. In Brazil last year, after President Jair Bolsonaro’s government approved dozens of new pesticides, the use of neonics caused the death of more than 500 million bees across the country. [1]

  • Bees have higher exposure to pesticide since it is found in the pollen.

    [In the 2014 House Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture hearing] a fourth witness, the Department of Agriculture researcher Jeffrey Pettis — the scientist who had collaborated with vanEngelsdorp — noted that unlike traditional pesticides, neonics are found in pollen, increasing exposure to bees. Under questioning from Scott, the committee chair, Pettis reiterated that even without mites, bees would still be in decline, and pesticides raise concern “to a new level.” [1]

  • A study shows that very low exposure to neonics, below the limit of testing, significantly impacts a bee’s behavior and survivability when exposed to a fungal infection compared to a control hive.

    U.S. Department of Agriculture had commissioned two of the world’s most well-known entomologists — Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a chief apiary inspector in Pennsylvania, then studying at Penn State University, and Jeffrey Pettis, then working as a government scientist — to study the mysterious decline. They posited that there must be an underlying factor weakening bees’ immune systems. … VanEngelsdorp and Pettis found that even at nonlethal doses, the bees in the trial became much more vulnerable to fungal infection. … The dosages of the pesticide were so miniscule, said vanEngelsdorp, that it was “below the limit of detection.” The only reason they knew the bees had consumed the neonicotinoids, he added, was “because we exposed them.” … [A] number of French researchers produced a nearly identical study… The study produced results that echoed what the Americans had found. [1]

  • Many peer reviewed research shows neonics are likely causing off target harms.
  • BBC - Why 500 million bees have died in Brazil in three months (2019)
  • Science - A neonicotinoid insecticide reduces fueling and delays migration in songbirds (2019)
  • Purdue University - Corn seed treatment insecticides pose risks to honey bees, yield benefits elusive (2017)
  • Bug Life - The impact of neonicotinoid insecticides on bumblebees, Honey bees and other non-target invertebrates (2009)

Astrazine, Environmental and Human Health



Promote friendly narratives

  • Research studies are flawed

    [Syngenta, the maker of atrazine,] contends that Hayes’ frog studies are flawed, and that its own research has not replicated his findings. Other scientists, however, are showing that atrazine disturbs the sexual development of other amphibians as well. [1]

Use outside groups to advance cause

  • [Syngenta Crop Protection, the maker of atrazine,] also secretly paid a stable of seemingly independent academics and other “experts” to extol the economic benefits of atrazine and downplay its environmental and health risks, without disclosing their financial ties to the company, according to memos and emails between Syngenta and the public relations firms it hired. At the same time, the company provided strict parameters for what these experts would say.

    Don Coursey, Ameritech Professor of Public Policy at the University of Chicago collected $500 an hour from Syngenta to write economic analyses touting the necessity of atrazine, according to an April 25, 2006, email from Coursey to Ford. Syngenta supplied Coursey with the data he was to cite, edited his work and paid him to speak with newspapers, television and radio broadcasters about his reports, without revealing the nature of his arrangement with the corporation, according to Ford’s deposition. Coursey’s work, presented in 2010 at the National Press Club, was widely picked up as independent analysis by newspapers across the country. Coursey also is affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a libertarian nonprofit focused on environmental regulations. [1]

  • In an Oct. 17, 2009, memo to Syngenta’s Ford, Jayne Thompson warned that some of the language in four Op-Eds penned by the White House Writers Group is suggestive of their source, which “should be avoided at all costs.”

    Court documents include an email dated Oct. 28, 2009, from a Syngenta employee asking her boss how to pay these third-party allies who write in support of atrazine. There are consistent warnings to be sure supporters appear independent, with no links to the corporation.

    In one case, Syngenta paid $100,000 to the nonprofit American Council on Science and Health for support that included an Op-Ed piece criticizing the work of journalist Charles Duhigg of the New York Times, who wrote a story on atrazine as part of its Toxic Waters series in 2009. Without disclosing this financial support from Syngenta, president and founder Elizabeth Whelan derided the New York Times article on atrazine as, “All the news that’s fit to scare.” [1]

  • In an email to Syngenta’s head of communications, Thompson praises an essay that ran in the Belleville News Democrat, an Illinois newspaper based about 20 miles from Edwardsville, the community that initiated the lawsuit.

    The 2006 essay was signed by Jay Lehr of the Heartland Institute. The essay claimed the Holiday Shores lawsuit could, if successful, shrink the nation’s food supply.

    “These are great clips for us because they get out some of our messages from someone (Lehr) who comes off sounding like an unbiased expert. Another strength is that the messages do not sound like they came from Syngenta,” Thompson wrote.

    The Heartland Institute fought a subpoena all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2012 that would have forced it to disclose any financial relationship with Syngenta and the source of its articles supporting atrazine. The Heartland Institute argued disclosure would violate its First Amendment rights. The case settled before a ruling was issued, so the relationship remains undisclosed. [1]

Disincentivize or discredit promoters of counter narratives

  • Syngenta became infamous after its tactics against University of California, Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes were reported. Hayes’s research showed that the company’s signature herbicide, atrazine, appeared to disrupt the sexual development of frogs. The company dispatched people to follow and record Hayes at public speaking events, commissioned a psychological profile of the professor, and worked with a variety of writers to smear Hayes as “non-credible” and a liability to academics who considered working with him. The effort to sideline Hayes and his research, which included coordination with industry-friendly academics, was revealed in a series of court documents that were disclosed over litigation involving claims that Syngenta had polluted local water sources with atrazine. [2]

  • Hayes began his atrazine research in 1997 with a study funded by Novartis Agribusiness, one of two corporations that would later form Syngenta. Hayes said that when he got results Novartis did not expect or want, the corporation refused to allow him to publish them. He secured other funding, replicated his work and released the results: exposure to atrazine creates hermaphroditic frogs. That started an epic feud between the scientist and the corporation.

    Syngenta tracked Hayes’ speaking engagements and arranged for trained critics to attend each event, sometimes videotaping his remarks, according to a strategy proposed in 2006 memos by Jayne Thompson and later confirmed by Hayes. … The corporation filed an ethics complaint with the University of California, Berkeley, and publicly released the emails in 2010. The ethics complaint was judged to be without merit. … In one memo, the company denied pressuring Duke University not to hire Hayes, but in her deposition on June 9, 2011, Ford, Syngenta’s former spokeswoman, said that Gary Dickson, a Syngenta employee, contacted a dean at Duke to inform him of the contentious relationship between Hayes and Syngenta. Another document, from Jayne Thompson & Associates, suggested why: “Duke, located in Durham, is close to Syngenta Crop Protection headquarters in Greensboro and to our research facility in RTP [Research Triangle Park], and we wanted to protect our reputation in our community and among our employees.” [1]

  • Ford also said Syngenta gave financial support to the Hudson Institute and had asked Alex Avery, at the institute’s Center for Global Food Issues, to write reports critical of Hayes. She later said that unlike Hayes, Avery has not published in any peer-reviewed journals that she knew of and he did not disclose payments from Syngenta.

    The Hudson Institute is a conservative nonprofit focused on shaping public policy on issues ranging from international relations to technology and health care.

    In one document, Ford noted that a principal with the White House Writers Group taped a phone call with Hayes and “set him up.” Hayes was baited through emails from Syngenta’s army of allies. The scientist’s emails were posted on the Syngenta web site as part of the campaign to discredit him.

    “If TH [Tyrone Hayes] is involved in scandal, the enviros will drop him,” Ford wrote. “Can prevent citing of TH data by revealing him as non-credible,” she added. [1]

Influence public policy

  • In her deposition, Ford read from a memo emailed to her colleagues indicating that Syngenta had hired a detective agency to investigate members of an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel [SAP] examining atrazine. “I don’t think it would be helpful if it were generally known that we research SAP members, “Ford read. “The real good stuff I have kept for myself … It [sic.] protection for Janis on atrazine.” (Janis E. McFarland is a Syngenta employee involved with the public relations campaign.)

    Syngenta did not respond to questions about its use of a detective agency to investigate scientists on an EPA advisory panel or why it looked into the personal life of a judge. [1]

  • In one document dated 2005, Ford noted areas of vulnerabilities of a Madison County judge the corporation thought might be assigned to the case: “Not showing up for work. Personal conduct. Skybox from Tillery. Dating websites ‘pic in robes.’“

    Stephen Tillery, whose firm, Korein Tillery, represented plaintiffs in the suit, said his firm had never given the judge a skybox. “I was never with the judge in a skybox,” Tillery said, adding, “He was not the judge in the case. They thought he might be, and they were looking for ways to disqualify him.”

    The allegation over the skybox was the basis of a formal complaint Syngenta filed against Tillery with the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission. The complaint was dismissed as without merit. [1]

Bias public discourse

  • Syngenta paid for Op-Eds written by friendly sources in news papers which did not disclose the financial support. The company actively worked to mask the source of the narratives in the articles. [1]


  • The Atlantic - Public Universities Get an Education in Private Industry (2017)
    • Corporate funding is often not disclosed
    • Researchers often sign NDAs
  • “What tends to happen with industry-sponsored research is not fraud, it’s not misconduct, it’s nothing that would be retractable,” says NYU’s Oransky, who’s also the co-founder of Retraction Watch. “It’s that they pick questions, and they pick studies, and they pick study designs that are likely to give them the answer they want.” [2]

  • “Generally, we see the U.S. waiting longer than the EU to take action on a variety of pesticides and other chemicals,” said Childress, the organizer with Pesticide Action Network North America. Part of the divergence, Childress continued, stems from a regulatory system in the U.S. that assumes chemical products are generally safe until proven hazardous. In contrast, the EU tends to use the “precautionary principle,” removing products that may cause harm, and requiring proof of safety before allowing them to return to market.

    Another major factor, Childress noted, is the widespread corporate capture of American regulatory institutions. The EPA, for instance, employs 11 former lobbyists — including its administrator, Andrew Wheeler, who previously worked for coal interests in opposition to climate regulations — in senior positions. [1]

  • “As companies are increasingly threatened by scientific findings, they search for ways to blunt any independent science that may detract from profits,” [Gary Ruskin, the co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a watchdog group following pesticide industry influence] said. “One great way to do this is to co-opt scientists from public universities, who typically enjoy the public’s trust.” [1]


Monsanto’s Roundup (Glycphosates) and Cancer Risk

References (Unchecked)



  • Emails released through ongoing litigation in California last year showed that the firm used its lobbyists to orchestrate a campaign in Congress to criticize and defund scientists with the World Health Organization’s cancer research affiliate, after that body had declared that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is a “probable carcinogen.” Many of the documents detailing Monsanto’s role in shaping the public discourse around glyphosate were released during the course of class-action lawsuits filed by cancer victims who blame the company for their illnesses. [1]

  • The USDA’s inspector general just announced an audit, to take place later this year, in response to the “significant volume” of complaints they’ve had on their office’s hotline, alleging scientific censorship on pesticides and other issues. [3]