Beekeeper contends pesticides killing off honey business in Ontario

by Kris Svela

FERGUS - Third generation beekeeper Jim Coneybeare is fighting an uphill battle that is killing off his family’s livelihood.


The former vice president of the Ontario Beekeepers Association and past president of the Wellington County Beekeepers Association is singling out crop insecticides known as neonicitinoids (neonics) for honey bee deaths that can result in colony-collapse-disorder-like symptoms. The insecticides used in corn and soybean production, according to Coneybeare, are impacting honey bee colonies across the province and he is blaming large pharmaceutical companies for its use.

It’s a message he has sent to Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne who recently established a task force to look into the issue.  Professor Ernesto Gutzman, head of the Honey Bee Research Centre at the University of Guelph who has studied honey bees for the past 30 years, has been named to a task force looking into mass die-offs of honeybees also known as colony collapse disorder (CCD).

Gutzman is joined by professor Peter Kavan, an environmental science professor who specializes in pollinator conservation. The group is also comprised of representatives from agri-business, beekeepers, industry stakeholders and government officials.

Coneybeare is convinced neonics are the cause for growing numbers of honeybees dying off.

Gutzman said honeybees, like other pollinators such as bumblebees, face a number of dangers that can contribute to CCD, including pesticides, stress from being transported to different sites, and parasite mites. The professor said farmers using pesticides spread it like a “talc that is released into the air.” It can then be picked up by honeybees who migrate up to four kilometers from their hives.

“This is a complex problem. Nature is not a simple thing,” Gutzman said. “The die-out of colonies is linked to different causes, not one factor. In some regions some factors have more weight.”

Before he singles out neonics, Gutzman said, “I’m leaning towards what scientific information is telling me.”

“This spring our honey bees once again are experiencing fatalities due to what appear to be unintended exposure to our agricultural environment,” Coneybeare said in his letter to premier Wynne.

Coneybeare said the insecticide acts like a “neuro toxin” that leaves honeybees unable to find their way back to the hive. A certain sign is when honeybees are unable to fly and are found crawling around a site.

“Honeybees fly, they don’t crawl,” he said.

Coneybeare has some 850 beehives at 30 locations in Wellington and Grey counties. Each hive should have between 60,000 to 65,000 honeybees.

The die-off has left the beekeeper wondering about the future of his family business. He’s equally concerned about pollen containing insecticides and infecting hives when the honeybees return. Declining hive populations place stress on the colonies where honeybees have to maintain a temperature of about 92 degrees Fahrenheit to survive.

“If they don’t have enough to maintain themselves, they can’t keep it (the hive) warm,” he said. “This year my winter losses were 30 per cent. Two hundred and fifty hives were dead.”

Ashley Harrop, who was born and raised on a farm close to Coneybeare’s honey house on Highway 6 just north of here and has worked for the beekeeper for the past eight years, is alarmed by the losses she has seen.

“It’s seriously decreased the population,” she said of the impact of neonics on Coneybeare’s hives.

Harrop has seen hives early in the season that seemed to be thriving and are going “backwards” as the die-off takes over.

Harrop said farmers use insecticides to ensure their crops weather the season.

“It’s just to make sure their crops make it all the way,” she said. “It’s insurance.”

Coneybeare singles out the pharmaceutical companies and not individual farmers for its use. He maintains neonics are compromising rivers and streams and the environment as a whole.

“It’s in our environment,” Harrop added.

Coneybeare recently had tests done on dead honeybees found in a hive he has near Drayton. However, the results of the testing probably won’t be known until the end of the year, another problem beekeepers face.

Another employee Emily Mills, who has worked for Coneybeare for the almost two years, is also alarmed by the losses.

“They’re not producing enough honey,” she said of the impact on honey production reduced by declining populations. “We should be extracting right now, but we’re not close.”

According to Coneybeare neonics gained widespread use by 2006, but its use has increased since that time and today neonics “has become the most widely-used class of insecticides with a global market share of more than 25%,” according to the Environmental Sustainability website.

Coneybeare said the use has generated billions of dollars in profits for pharmaceutical companies which in turn has made the issue of whether they should be banned or not “political.”

A 2012 study by Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency of dead honeybees found 70% tested positive for neonics.

The European Union has decided to ban neonics for two years starting this fall in a bid to determine its impact on honey bees.

Coneybeare estimates his honey production is down about 25% to 30% and anticipates it will continue to drop.

“I’m faced with going out of business,” he said. “That’s the stark reality of this.”