Last spring, beekeeper Dan Davidson of Watford, Ontario, went out to check on his honeybee hives, which house 1500 colonies. Instead of healthy hives, he found a large number of bees on the ground, either twitching or already dead.
“I didn’t think much of it at that time,” Davidson, president of the Ontario Beekeepers Association said. “But then a large amount of other beekeepers reported the same.”
It was these widespread reports that got the industry buzzing.
There wasn’t any real cause that they could point to. Beekeepers had battled back varroa mites in the 1990s and had that threat to their bees under control. The one common factor, however, was corn.
Each year in the spring, corn fields in Ontario are sprayed with neonicotinoids (NNI), an insecticide produced by manufacturers like Bayer CropScience and Syngenta. The insecticide is widely used across Canada. In the case of Davidson and other Ontario beekeepers, the insecticide was being used on nearby corn fields.
Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency went out and collected samples of the bees. What they found was that 70 per cent tested positive for NNIs.
“Last year is when we put the pieces together,” Davidson said, referring to the increased loss in hives. Davidson, whose family has been beekeeping for almost 100 years, believes that it is these insecticides that are causing major damage to hives in Ontario. And what’s worse is the threat of prolonged use.
How these NNIs affect bees varies. Studies have found that it has multiple effects including disorienting bees, reducing disease resistance and making them less effective while foraging. Bees are integral to farmers: they contribute to 35 per cent of world crop pollination.
On Tuesday, the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food (AGRI) heard from witnesses in the NNI debate, including farmers from Alberta, as well as John Cowan from the Ontario Grain Farmers Association and Pierre Patelle of CropLife, an organization that represents developers, manufacturers and distributors of pesticides and bio-chemistry products.
Tibor Szabo, vice-president of the Ontario Beekeepers Association was also at the hearing. His organization is calling for the ban of NNIs. “In the U.S. they call this loss ‘shrinkage.’ We call it chronic poisoning. Because that’s what it is.”
Other farmers across Canada aren’t reporting the same kinds of losses as those in Ontario and Quebec. Szabo believes the reason for this is two-fold: one, Alberta farmers don’t farm corn, but rather canola, and the way the insecticide is used is different. As well, more than 100,000 hives are rented by CropLife. “It’s a conflict of interest,” said Szabo.
Patelle believes that it’s not right to blame the bee deaths solely on NNIs. “The products have been used for about 10 years before we saw any incidents,” he says.
However, he does acknowledge that the NNI dust can be a contributing factor, just not the sole one. “Yes, for some acute incidents last year, dust from seeds was a factor… we’ll accept that. But we don’t accept that it’s contributing to a long-term decline in bee health.
“Any bee demise we’re seeing… everyone decides to draw a straight line to pesticides without seeing other causes to bee health.” Patelle sites the varroa mites, nutrition and disease as other factors.
But Szabo doesn’t buy into that kind of thinking. He says that the industry failed to conduct acceptable testing on how NNIs would affect bees. “The research should have been done before it was put into use,” he said. “Why was it released to begin with? Now they’re wanting all this research, which is great, but the bees are dying now.”
Patelle defends the use of insecticides. “Growers we speak to here in Ontario saw an improvemnt [in their crops],” he said.
“We have a vested interest to protect the environment,” he continued. “Without proper pollination, our [crops] don’t exist.”
Other countries seem to be taking issue with NNIs. Italy, France, Germany and Slovenia have all temporarily banned the use of NNIs on many of their seeds. On April 29, the European Union implemented a ban on the insecticide, which will take effect on December 1.
And some of the NNIs are causing concerns for people as well. Recently, the pesticide imidacloprid was found in drinking water in Long Island, New York. The concentration was as high as 407 parts per billion — far above the allowed 50 parts per billion. Although the pesticide is specifically targeted to work only on insects, its presence in water is making people uneasy.
Szabo says that the problem lies with the way the pesticides are applied. The chemical is highly water soluble and can remain in the water and soil for up to three years. That is how beekeepers think the bees are getting poisoned. “Orally, 3.68 parts per billion can kill 250 million bees,” Szabo says. ”Once we have certain levels, we won’t have bee life.
“This is a disaster in the making.”