Bobcaygeon beekeeper lauds new provincial plan to crack down on buzz-killing insecticides

Kawartha Lakes This Week

(BOBCAYGEON) About seven or eight years ago, Jerry Jerrard said his business was “on the verge of being great.”

The Bobcaygeon beekeeper had grown his hobby into a full-time business. He had hives throughout the Kawartha Lakes and, in some kitchens, Kawartha Lakes Honey had some name recognition.

That was before neonicotinoids.

Neonics, as they are sometimes called, are insecticides used in agriculture to control a variety of pests such as aphids and root-feeding grubs. They make up roughly 40 per cent of the insecticide market, with global sales nearing $3 billion in 2011. And in recent years, many beekeepers have blamed them for a drastic decline in honeybees in Ontario.

This week, however, the provincial agricultural ministry announced new steps that indicate the province is working toward reducing the number of acres planted with neonicotinoid-coated corn and soybean seeds by 80 per cent by 2017. The hope is to have the new regulations in place by this coming summer so that reduction measures can begin in time for the following planting season.

“We know that there is more that can be done, and we will work with farmers,” Peterborough MPP Jeff Leal, the province’s agricultural minister, said in a statement.

Mr. Jerrard says it is a good step, but hopes the province will indeed take it further.

There’s been a huge change in the industry over the past decade, he says.

“Before neonicotinoids, you might lose four to six per cent of your bees over the winter.” Now that figure is closer to 50 per cent each year, he says. “It wasn’t that long ago that 15 per cent would have been considered a really bad year.”

But it’s more than the loss. He says the surviving bees are affected. Their foraging abilities become impaired and their homing abilities are disrupted. “The bees don’t act like the way bees should act. It’s hard to get a good honey crop from them.”

Like many others, Mr. Jerrard says he has too much invested in his career to walk away from beekeeping now. 

“Maybe if I was suited for something else it might be an option, but for a lot of us, we’re at the age where it’s too late to jump. Besides, you get into it because it’s something you love doing.”

He’s heard of others, however, who chose to pack it in. He says one Dunsford beekeeper, with more than 70 years in the business, recently made the decision to retire rather than face staggering annual bee losses.

Mr. Jerrard feels it’s just too big a coincidence that the impact on the honeybee business started just as neonicotinoids hit the market.

Earlier this year, he became one of more than 100 Ontario beekeepers to join a $450-million class-action lawsuit against two pesticide manufacturers, alleging their products have caused widespread deaths in bee colonies. As he understands it, that list will grow. It will be up to beekeepers to sign documentation if they don’t want to be a part of the suit.

For those who have followed the bee issue closely, he says Mr. Leal’s announcement was expected. He had hinted at it. 

“Still, it’s encouraging to hear he is doing what he said he would do.” 

He’s also encouraged to hear the environment ministry and the environment commission have spoken out against neonicotinoids, as have doctors and nurses.

“We’ve got a lot of science on our side.” 

Ontario’s Prince Edward County has banned neonics on municipal land, he says, and there is a movement to get more municipalities to follow suit.

As well, he says, some farmers seem to be getting the message.

“I keep bees in 15 different locations in the Kawartha Lakes area and a lot are on farm properties,” he says. “Some of these farmers, once they learn what the neonics are doing, are outraged. Other farmers say we can’t live without them... too bad for the bees.”

But Mr. Jerrard point them to studies that have shown more than 70 to 80 per cent of the crops out there don’t have infestations that require such a strong pesticide. And with steps, such as those announced by the province this week, he feels progress is being made.

“Gradually, it looks like things are going our way.”