Italy's ban on neonicotinoids effective, UofG conference told

But bees and other pollinators are critical to agriculture and as such they contribute to the economy. With their numbers in alarming decline, scientists around the world are working on the problem.

Four of them were at the University of Guelph Wednesday evening for a panel discussion on the research they are doing and the implications for beekeepers and farmers. And the common result of their separate research is that the practice of treating seeds with neonicotinoids to make them pest-resistant is killing the bee population.

The session was part of the annual beekeeping conference organized by the U of G, the Ontario Beekeepers' Association and the Eastern Apicultural Society.

The panel included: Ernesto Guzman, director of the Honey Bee Research Centre at U of G; Nigel Raine, the Rebanks Family Chair in Pollinator Conservation at U of G; Franco Mutinelli, professor at Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie, Italy; and Christian Krupke, professor of entomology at Purdue University.

Kelly McAslan, with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs' animal health division, gave a brief overview of the state of the bee industry in Ontario. She said honey and honey products are a $30-million business in Ontario and pollination is a $395-million industry. And Ontario pollinators contribute $993 million to the national economy.

She said Ontario is tightening its regulations around neonicotinoids and is seeking feedback.

There are lots of stressors that threaten bee populations including habitat loss and the loss in diversity of bee food sources. There are also viruses, widespread use of insecticides in agriculture and climate change.

"The evidence is clear that pollinators are in decline. So think how we can preserve existing habitats and reduce those environmental stressors," Raine said.

Mutinelli said Italy instituted a partial ban on neonicotinoids in 2008 and it has been extended each year since. No active substances are allowed in seed coatings and the use of neonicotinoids is restricted to specific cases.

It's been effective, he said.

"After the ban there has been strong improvement," Mutinelli said. "The effect of the ban was immediate."

He said corn producers were worried about losing crop yield to disease, "but that didn't happen," he said. "The ban has been now seven years and crop yield is within the expected range."

Krupke's research indicates that the benefit of neonicotinoid treatment to corn seeds only lasts two weeks. Then it washes away with the water and seeps into the soil.

Further, he said the pests the neonicotinoids are supposed to fend off are not present in the majority of farms. But they are really toxic to honey bees, he said.

"The benefit of the seed treatments is hard to justify," he said. "We know the status quo just doesn't work."

One woman in the audience said she gets frustrated when scientists do good research and find good information, but wind up saying nothing can be done.

"It really bothers me when these talks end by saying we can't do much about it. I think we could do cross-country bans and I think we should. The evidence is taking us there," she said.