With the federal regulator set to release a report next year on a controversial seed coating beekeepers believe is causing widespread bee deaths, much is riding on the crop being planted this summer and changes that have been made to prevent dust containing the pesticide from escaping the seed.
Debora Van Brenk reports on the implications for beekeepers and farmers.
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They mistrust each other’s science. They couldn’t be more different in strategies or budgets.
But beekeepers, farmers and seed-sellers alike agree on this one thing: this could be the do-or-die year for a controversial corn-seed coating that’s been banned in Europe and is under close scrutiny by Canadian regulators.
Apiarists say neonicotinoids — a class of pesticides similar to nicotine applied to seeds to keep specific insects from destroying key crops — are poisoning bees.
The seed and chemical companies (the ownership of both is intertwined) say neonics are stringently tested and it’s not their products killing bees.
The only thin strand connecting the two sides is the conviction that any repeat of last year’s bee deaths in Ontario could lead to runaway public backlash and a federal crackdown on neonics.
Federal regulator Pest Management Regulatory Agency has already mandated tougher rules for this planting season in an effort to stanch bee losses. It’s also planning an interim report for 2015, even as the European Union has already banned use of neonics.
“This is a critical year. We understand that there’s a lot of public concern,” says Paul Thiel, vice-president in charge of innovation and public affairs at Bayer CropScience Canada that produces both the seed treatment and a new lubricant to keep neonic dust from getting into the air and soil.
“It’s an important year that we can demonstrate that modern agriculture and modern beekeeping can co-exist without one having undue impact on the other,” Thiel said.
That might already be too late because hives near cornfields have already been damaged, says Albert DeVries, whose beekeeping partner is Chris Hiemstra and co-owner of about 1,500 hives (about 4.5 million bees) near Aylmer.
Neither beekeepers nor chemical companies are keen on hearing the other group’s advice about how to manage their businesses, DeVries says.
“We are David up against Goliath,” DeVries notes. “But David did win.”
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WE ASKED THEIR RESPONSE TO THE KEY ISSUES?
Do neonics cause acute bee poisoning?
Point: “You can find residue of (chemicals) often in live healthy bees as well as dead bees,” says Bayer CropScience’s Paul Thiel, and bee health also depends on other factors such as parasites, disease, weather and environment.
Counterpoint: “We didn’t have lots of dead bees showing up until they started planting corn,” says Aylmer-area beekeeper Albert DeVries. When 70% of dead bees test positive for neonicotinoids, and when the hives are otherwise healthy, “then this (seed) issue is what I look for.”
Are Ontario beekeepers over-stating the impact?
Point: If this were a universal problem, bees near neonic-treated canola in the Prairie provinces would show the effects, says Murray Belyk, manager, scientific affairs at Bayer CropScience. But bees there, often under contract by Bayer to pollinate the crop, are healthy enough to produce most of Canada’s honey. By contrast, reported bee deaths appear limited to a relatively small area of Ontario.
Counterpoint: Canola seed is treated at lower percentages than corn and those hives are placed near fields long after canola planting time, DeVries counters. A growing volume of international research shows how neonics are having both dramatic and subtle impacts on pollinators and that’s why they’re in the sights of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency and the European Union, he says.
Why not just plant untreated seeds?
Point: Large quantities of untreated seed are available to farmers for the first time this year and Bayer “supports fully” farmers’ choices, Thiel said. Because it can be difficult to detect an insect issue until it affects emerged plants, seed coatings are an important tool. Grain Farmers of Ontario estimates banning neonics could cost $600 million in lost yield and calls the insecticide “critical to the success of crops in Ontario.”
Counterpoint: A Ridgetown College study shows treated seed might be needed for just 10% of the hectarage, and the cost might outweigh the benefit to use all treated seed for all fields. The Ontario Beekeepers’ Association is seeking special-use permits to govern seed treatments. “Pre-treating has got to go,” Davidson says.
WHAT'S NEW THIS SPRING