Science - March 24, 2011

Zembla and the murder of bees

The television programme Zembla put Wageningen bee research in a bad light last week. Is Wageningen UR really an accessory to bee murder?

Things are not going well for the world's bees. Bees are dying in droves and there has to be a reason for that. Reason enough, at any rate, for the makers of Zembla to take a good hard look at the issue. With results. The investigative journalists soon had a juicy story: this was not death, this was murder. 'Bees are being murdered' accordingly became the documentary's exciting title.
And where there is a murder, there must be a perpetrator. In this case it is imidacloprid, a pesticide belonging to the class of neonicotinoids. At least that is the opinion of Zembla. On the other hand, the Wageningen bee experts headed by Tjeerd Blacquiere reckon the varroa mite to be the most important cause of the deaths. Zembla thinks this is suspicious because Wageningen has links with large pesticide manufacturers like Bayer and BASF. Zembla took the tried and tested conspiracy-theory approach of pulling out all the stops to present evidence for their assertions: half-truths, misinterpreted facts and some professional cut-and-pasting.
Zembla's investigation was a mishmash of insinuations and suggestive remarks. It should be course material for journalism schools and it can also serve as a useful example for PR officers and spin doctors. It is clear that this is denting Wageningen UR's image, but that does not mean the matter is closed. The underlying question is: does Zembla have a point? Is Wageningen betting on the wrong horse with its research into the varroa mite? No, says the United Nations. A recent report about bee deaths has no doubts about the varroa mite being the prime suspect. Pesticides are at the bottom of the list, mainly because there is still too little known about their role.
European research also focuses primarily on combating the varroa mite. The anti-pesticide crowd is very unhappy with this one-sided approach. The question is whether this is the fault of Wageningen. The anti-pesticide crowd, led by the Utrecht geochemist Jeroen van der Sluijs, wants to ban imidacloprid as soon as possible as a preventative measure. After all, prevention is better than cure. But that is primarily a political choice, not one Wageningen can make. Zembla did get its hands on a murder case - a character assassination in broad daylight.

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