In May 2013, hundreds of thousands of people in more than 300 cities participated in a March Against Monsanto. “We recognized that our reputation can’t get any worse,” Monsanto’s Brennan says. That summer, the company revamped its communications efforts. Where once executives carefully vetted everything their rank and file said in public, they now encourage staff to be less closed off and to share personal stories. I heard a few (remarkably similar) about farmers in India and Africa who were able to send their kids to school because of Monsanto-engineered crops. Employees engage on social media, talk to local skeptics’ groups, do AMAs on Reddit and panels at conferences like SXSW. The company also created a “corporate engagement team” with nearly 200 people, bearing titles like “moms and food-minded manager” and “millennial outreach coordinator.”
Hayes joined the team as “honeybee health lead.” Several times a month, he travels around the country speaking to bee clubs and conferences about Monsanto’s work on varroa mites.
Hayes has made Monsanto a little bit more bee-friendly too. The company now has a beekeeping club. Hayes also helped set up a Honeybee Health Coalition of beekeepers, scientists, farmers, and farm-chemical companies, like Bayer and Syngenta. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Hayes’ entomologist pal, was one of the first to sign on. Even the American Beekeeping Federation joined.
“To have some value,” Hayes says, “you have to do some things that are uncomfortable.”
The coalition does not include some of the most vocal anti-pesticide organizations, but Hayes did invite the insect-advocacy group Xerces Society. It dropped out, however, on the grounds that the coalition wasn’t serious about addressing the role of pesticides in honeybee losses. And that’s Hayes’ conundrum. He wants to talk about mites and disappearing forage and the vast and confounding spectrum of other threats to honeybees. Environmentalists mostly want to talk about neonicotinoid pesticides.
It’s true, of course, that neonics can harm not only honeybees but also other living things. They are widely used in farms and gardens, flea collars, and extermination products, and they can persist in the environment for months or years. But neonics aren’t the only chemical honeybees contend with—not even close. One study found traces of 118 different pesticides in pollen, beeswax, and bees.
Yet bees endure. When a colony dies—collapses quickly or succumbs slowly—beekeepers divide their remaining colonies, buy new queens, and grow populations back to full strength. Despite unremitting losses, the number of bee colonies globally has held steady.
There’s also this stubborn fact: While neonic use continues in the US, the particular symptoms of colony collapse disorder have not. “I haven’t seen CCD in five years,” says vanEngelsdorp, who surveys the nation’s bee losses twice a year. He now believes what he saw back in 2006 was some sort of emerging viral infection. Indeed, vanEngelsdorp and Hayes have come to regret coining the terrifying name colony collapse disorder. What kills bees? Pesticides, yes, but also pathogens, poor nutrition, and varroa mites. Especially varroa mites. That’s why Hayes stays at Monsanto. “To have some value,” he says, “you have to do some things that are uncomfortable.”
It has, indeed, been uncomfortable. Beekeepers have accused Hayes of poisoning the earth, contaminating the honeybee gene pool, and hawking genetically engineered “robobees.” Environmentalists have walked out of his talks; beekeeping clubs have feuded over his presence. “I have more scar tissue than I thought,” Hayes says.
Hayes used to consider himself an environmentalist. He belonged to the Sierra Club. But he quit. “I saw how they were using terms like Monsanto and Bayer as fund-raising mechanisms,” he says. “But if you believe in science, if you take a hard look at the science and data of some of these groups, they’re cooking the books in order to make themselves look better and others look evil. So they can raise money. To be successful.”
These are culture wars. Honeybees have become as political as GMOs or vaccines. Anti-corporate environmentalists battle from one redoubt, Big Ag technologists from the other. Hayes stands in the middle, taking fire from both sides. “We’re a competitive species,” Hayes says.