Pollen-carrying honey bee

More bee death in Ontario blamed on neonicotinoid pesticides

There’s been another rash of bee deaths in Ontario, where commercial beekeepers are on the ropes with losses of upwards of 85 per cent.

The presence of neonicotinoid pesticides in dead bees collected from last year’s die-off triggered both a review by Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency and a more recent bee deaths investigation committee struck by the province of Ontario.

But despite this new level of scrutiny and new PMRA cautions to farmers on how to keep down the level of talc dust when applying these poisons, the destruction of bee colonies appears not to have abated.

Here’s two stories, including one in The Globe and Mail, that are the latest word on how badly Ontario beekeepers are faring. CTV notes that this latest die-off occurred in the last 24 hours. The Globe story also rightly identifies the varroa mite as another significant problem for beekeepers. And as most of us beekeepers know, it may not be a single problem that is causing this die-off but rather several stressors of which pesticides is just the last hammer-blow on the head.

Here in British Columbia the use of neonics is not as prevalent and we haven’t had any reports of suspicious colony poisonings, as far as I know. In Europe neonics for commercial crops have been banned for at least two years and public campaigns to have them permanently banned  are much more robust than here in North America, where the industrial farm lobby is much stronger.

This is not a “lets beat up the farmers and pesticide makers” column. We are all going to need to figure out a solution to this problem. The Grain Farmers of Ontario last month mailed out lobbying campaign for its members to pressure the province not to ban neonics. They argue that depriving them of an effective pest control agent would result in a loss of up to 13 per cent of their grain production.

Of course, that’s somewhat of a specious argument when you happen to be killing the neighbours’ livestock, in this case bees. Were these cows or pigs being poisoned, you can bet your bottom dollar the government would step in, and farmers would halt what they are doing. It should not matter the size of the animal being poisoned. But as long as you can point to some other potentially contributing factor, such as varroa mites, it’s easy to not have to say you’re part of the problem.

The size of that problem is beginning to show on the food chemical industry. In recent weeks Lorne Hepworth, the president of CropLife Canada, the industry association “representing the manufacturers, developers and distributors of plant science technologies, including pest control products and plant biotechnology”, has been busy sending out letters to editors arguing that pesticide-using farmers aren’t the sole reason for the growing rash of bee deaths.

He recently had a long editorial position posted in The Vancouver Sun in which he suggested that bee colonies in neonic-treated canola fields of Alberta are “flourishing” – ergo, the problems in Ontario aren’t really related to neonic poisonings. Of course, that runs counter to the fact PMRA found neonic residues in 70 per cent of the 240 bee yard deaths investigated last year.

Hepworth rightly makes the point we need to take a more holistic approach to bee health. But time, it seems, is running out. There is also a certain amount of mistrust among beekeepers who don’t believe the chemical industry should be involved in determining whether their products are responsible for the problems. How long will beekeepers be able to withstand these kinds of losses while Rome fiddles?

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