London Free Press: Beekeepers stung by pesticide study

An unprecedented Ontario field study of honeybees — and its preliminary finding that bee deaths aren’t linked to a specific pesticide used to coat major crop seeds — is creating international buzz even before it’s finished. The field study is funded with almost $1 million from Bayer, one of two major producers of a seed coating commonly used to protect crops from insect damage. It comes as several European Union countries are about to vote on banning the group of insecticides, called neonicotinoids, for fear it’s causing massive deaths of honeybee colonies.

The study that took place last summer near Waterloo suggests no such connection, said University of Guelph researcher Cynthia Scott-Dupree. Hives were placed in the middle of 10 fields of flowering canola for the insect pollinators: five fields with seeds treated with Bayer’s proprietary neonicotinoids and five with untreated seeds.

Honey production was equivalent in both sets and the relatively low number of bee deaths in each was also similar. Colony weight gain and bee deaths were virtually identical. “What we are not seeing is mass bee kills that would be associated with insecticide exposure. We’re not seeing any difference between the control (untreated seeds) and the treated,” Scott-Dupree said.

Some already aren’t buying it.

“There’s going to be major pushback on this study, I’m sure,” said Dan Davidson, president of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association and operator of Supersweet Honey near Watford. He said the study suffers from its unanswered questions, including the long-term effect of neonicotinoids on bees. He said Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency is sifting through hundreds of reports of dead bees from last year alone and most of those bees have tested positive for the pesticide. He also questioned the study because it was paid for by the pesticide’s maker, which stands to lose billions of dollars if its product is banned or restricted.

The pesticide makers vigorously oppose any ban and say if bees are dying, it’s from causes unrelated to their products.Scott-Dupree bristles at any suggestion her research has been tainted by its funding source.

She said Bayer commissioned her team to do the research because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Pest Management Regulatory Agency had demanded the company do a thorough and independent study.

She said every step of each process — right down to how garbage is collected and disposed of — was proscribed to ensure its integrity. And all data collection and analysis are supervised and verified by an independent quality assurance team. Beyond that, the nectar, pollen and beeswax collected is being analyzed independently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: a further safeguard, she said. “(Bayer) do not pay my salary and they do not pay (co-researcher) Chris Cutler’s salary. We are independent researchers,” she said.

Even so, as word of initial findings published in The Western Producer this week spread quickly through the Ontario beekeeping community and European environmental communities, she has started receiving heated messages on what she acknowledges is “a hot-button issue.”

One overseas message critic accused her of trying to affect the upcoming EU votes. “Please believe me, I don’t have time to worry about impending votes in the EU . . . that’s the farthest from my mind,” she said.

The study has not been published yet because there is work yet to be done — including examining the same hives again this spring to determine whether the bees suffered any longer-term issues from last summer’s pesticide exposure — but she expects full reports will go to Bayer and then to the regulatory agencies this summer.

She and Cutler plan to present their report in a peer-reviewed journal as well.

She said the study’s scope did not include the possible effect of neonicotinoids some farmers spray on leafy crops, but only on the impact of coated seeds as they matured into flowering plants pollinated by the bees. “The bigger problem is when people try to take the data and use it to try to answer questions we never set out to explain (in the study),” she said.

Critics have said some forms of neonicotinoids have led to die-offs of foragers that couldn’t find their way back to the hives or have disabled colonies’ ability to produce as many queen bees. Davidson said the beekeepers’ association is calling for an all-out ban on neonicotinoids.

He doesn’t object to farmers using chemical treatments to improve their corn, wheat and soybeans, but said some growers have become “spray happy” as a solution to every issue. “We don’t need to get rid of insecticides, but they need to have a short residual.”