Ontario offers New York a lesson on honey bee deaths, neonicotinoids.


Ontario officials are concerned enough about a controversial crop pesticide linked to the mysterious honeybee malady colony collapse disorder that they restricted usage dramatically, an adviser to the Ontario government told a New York bee health panel Friday.

Emma Mullen just started work for Cornell University in Ithaca, as its honeybee extension associate, but earlier this year, as a researcher at University of Guelph, she helped the Ontario government examine hundreds of scientific studies of the bee disorder, also called CCD, which has been decimating hives across both the U.S. and Canada.

Speaking to the state Pollinator Protection Task Force, Mullen described an emerging scientific consensus linking pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are chemically similar to nicotine, to CCD. In use since the 1990s, the pesticide has been banned in Europe since 2013 over concerns on honeybee die-offs.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo created the task force on Earth Day in April to study health threats to honeybees and other pollinating insects that are critical to important state crops like apples, grapes and strawberries. The crops contribute about $500 million a year to the economy.

This summer, Ontario officials moved to restrict neonicotinoids on crops because of "too many environmental risks," said Mullen. The province aims to reduce the number of acres planted with neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed by 80 percent by 2017.

Currently, nearly 100 percent of the province's corn and 60 percent of its soybeans are grown with neonicotinoid-treated seeds. Treated seeds carry the pesticide through the body of the plant, and into the pollen, which is used by bees as their food.

Ontario has about 3,000 registered beekeepers operating 100,000 honeybee colonies, which pollinate about $900 million worth of crops. Under new rules, before farmers there can use the pesticide, they must prove other pest control measures failed, and that they suffered serious crop losses to pests as a result.

CCD has claimed tens of millions of bees in the U.S. since surfacing in commercial beehives in 2007. Last summer, the loss rate for the first time topped 40 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Annual hive losses above 18 percent are "economically unacceptable" for beekeepers, according to USDA.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which first approved neonicotinoids in the late 1980s, is now re-examining the chemicals' potential impact on honeybees, and is also looking at other potential causes, including parasites, diseases, habitat loss and poor diet.

In Ontario, said Mullen, research on dead bees in 2012 and 2013 found that 70 percent died from exposure to neonicotinoids. The chemical was also found in most of the pollen taken from afflicted hives, she said.

Some of that pesticide exposure likely came from "contaminated dust" kicked up during planting of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed. That dust likely contaminated the flowers of other plants where bees later gathered pollen.

However, said Mullen, honeybees are also under pressure from other causes, including parasitic mites, fungus, lack of suitable habitat, and even climate change. "There are many other interacting factors, not just neonicotinoids," she said.

Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball, who heads the task force, said CCD is a "comprehensive problem" that needs solutions across multiple areas, including how the state uses pesticides on its own property, and how that property could be managed to provide better bee habitat.

His office has set a fast-paced schedule for the committee to issue draft recommendations by Oct. 19 and a final report to Cuomo by November, in time for state budget preparations.

A produce farmer, Ball since 1993 has owned Schoharie Valley Farm, where he also keeps commercial beehives for pollination. He does not apply neonicotinoids to his crops, but has said his actions should not be seen as a rejection of the chemical's safety.

Deputy Environmental Conservation Commissioner Eugene Leff questioned where "knowledge gaps" might be regarding the health of bees and other pollinators, like moths, bats and birds. "Research is the key," he said, adding that the state should be "mindful" of federal efforts begun in mid-2014 to study CCD.

Christopher Logue, head of the Division of Plant Industry for Agriculture and Markets, said the state employs three inspectors to monitor more than 35,600 hives across the state. 

As part of a federal research project, the state collects pollen from 10 different hive colonies each year.

Logue called the pollen sample "small," but noted that results were positive for neonicotinoids, as well as other pesticides, fungicides, miticides and herbicides.

Nationally, concerns that pesticides may be driving CCD have prompted major retailers like Home Depot and Lowes to either stop selling neonicotinoid-treated plants or require explicit labels so consumers who choose to do so can avoid buying those plants.

bnearing@timesunion.com • 518-454-5094 • @Bnearing10

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