GUELPH — As corn planting season approaches, some beekeepers in southwestern Ontario may be holding their breath.
In late April last year, thousands of beehives at honeybee yards throughout the province suffered a massive die off. There were 230 incidents of “bee kills” reported to Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency. Dan Davidson, president of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, said beekeepers were coming across “piles of dead bees in front of their beehives.”
The event has triggered a re-evaluation of insecticide use by growers and has brought together officials from both ends of the spectrum. Members of the beekeeping community and the farming community have been holding meetings since autumn to discuss how to protect the pollinators and ensure what happened last year doesn’t happen again.
The groups attending these meetings include the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario and Grain Farmers of Ontario.
Davidson said beekeepers in Ontario have seen bee kills in the past, but not to this magnitude. Beekeepers never understood why this type of thing happened, he said, but now they understand the deaths to be caused by dust from the insecticide used to treat corn seed.
The Pest Management Regulatory Agency looking into the incident has not confirmed the neonicotinoid insecticides to be a cause of the bee kills. This is just what is suspected from both beekeepers and grain farmers. Davidson said the agency is expected to put out a report at the end of the month explaining what happened in 2012.
John Cowan, vice-president with the Grain Farmers of Ontario, said last year was a unique year. There was warm weather early in the spring and then there was a frost in May. While he said the dust from the seed likely played a role in killing the honeybees, he said it was probably not the sole cause of their deaths.
The four groups have been meeting since the fall and have been discussing how farmers can go about their business in such a way that protects the bees as much as possible.
Cowan said corn seed is coated with insecticide so when it is dropped in the soil, it will be protected from “a multitude of insects.” When the seed is roughed up during the planting process, a dust can come off it and be blown into the air.
He said farmers have to treat their seed with insecticide because “virtually every field is going to have some insects. I can’t recall fields where there wasn’t insects, so it’s almost a necessity.”
Cowan said while seeds are coated, and the insecticide goes into the soil, it does not show up in the food.
Although the same insecticides will be used on fields again this year, Cowan said he will be reminding his members about best management practices when handling the seed. Specifically, he said farmers will be reminded how to properly pour seed into their planting boxes and to ensure the correct lubrication is used in the seed planters.
Davidson said he understands corn growers need to use the insecticide to protect the corn from the bugs in the soil. Beekeepers also use various tools to protect bees from harmful mites.
“(Farmers) do have the problems with the bugs in the first place, and they do need some way of treating them,” Davidson said. “It’s unfortunate that one of the tools they need affects our industry poorly.
“Honeybees are very susceptible to insecticide,” he said. “Very, very low levels are toxic to bees.”
Davidson said the increased communication between beekeepers and farmers has been a good thing so far.
In 2014, he said he would like to see farmers testing their fields to see if they actually contain the pests they are targeting. The seed for this year is likely already treated. He said he hopes the meetings will bring further education to farmers to ensure the insecticide is being used in a correct way.
One day, he said, he would like to see these types of chemicals removed completely and replaced with something else.