International travel is a great way to get a better understanding about a lot of things and every trip I take I learn something new (beyond how uncomfortable flying coach can really be). Last week I was in Germany for the annual Bayer CropScience press conference. It's a chance for journalists from around the world to get some insight into an important division of this multinational company and we got good news. We even had a mini-farm tour.
Bayer CropScience is going to invest in new plant capacity in one of its biggest expansions in corporate history - the result for farmers is more Liberty herbicide. The company has often struggled to meet demand for the product but with the rise of new Liberty Link crops and the promise of Balance GT soybeans they're going to need more glufosinate for the market. The new $500 million plant will be built in Alabama.
Perhaps the bigger thing I learned was about something I hadn't heard of before - a bee hotel. Yep it's a place where wild bees can take a rest on their journeys. Usually they're placed near flowering plants where bees would forage. Why is this important?
Bayer CropScience is undertaking an international effort to talk about bee health and bee care. This key pollinator has been under stress lately and while you may have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder, that's just one issue - though it gets a lot of blame. Turns out the threat of CCD means there's more research money going into bee health than ever before and what do we find - new pests and diseases that have long plagued the working honeybee.
Varroa mites are the key challenge, the little critters will infest a bee hive and while it won't always bring things down it can hurt overall bee condition and if there is a problem -s ay severe heat or drought - the mites can exacerbate the problem. That's just one example.
Of course, many groups are quick to point to neonicotinoids as a cause. The systemic insecticide is widely used and Bayer CropScience points out that used according to directions it won't harm bees. But European regulators don't see it that way.
Interestingly, France has long banned neonicotinoids and yet they have the same bee health problems - it can't possibly be that those bees are foraging in a nearby country. So obviously something else is going on.
Bayer CropScience has made this part of its culture. The company campus in Monheim is filled with flower beds and strategically placed bee hotels to promote pollinator health. The challenge for bees is lack of available food - even commercial bees whose hives are moved from place to place - can benefit from more flowers being available.
The company has a Bee Center on its campus and is building one in North Carolina - we'll tell you more in an upcoming report about the center and what they're learning. And we're looking forward to visiting that new facility in 2014. After this trip I'm not going to think about bees the same way again.