Ottawa Citizen: Buzz kill: why no one is happy with Ontario's plan

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‘Neonic’ pesticides help farmers battle bugs, but are toxic to already-beleaguered bees. Ontario tried to fix the problem, Tom Spears explains, but now both parties are feeling stung.

You can wrap up all the troubles surrounding bees in the stories of two families, both nervous, watching from opposite sides as the issue spins out of their control.

Guy and Gail Anderson have been keeping bees for decades near Kincardine, a town on the shore of Lake Huron, hoping to pass on the family business to their 34-year-old son.

It’s a big business: Nearly 1,500 hives scattered around 54 farms (rent free, but they give the farmers honey) producing 120,000 pounds of honey a year. They export to China.

But in 2013, 62 per cent of their bees died — 795 lifeless hives — soon after the farmers planted corn and soybeans treated with a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids. Bees are vulnerable to tiny amounts of the substance.

The Andersons bought new bees, but more than 40 per cent died the following spring, and 32 per cent after this spring’s planting, Guy Anderson says. The drop in mortality followed changes in the way the insecticide coating is applied to seeds.

Now the Ontario government has ordered farmers to reduce “neonic” use by 80 per cent by 2017.

That in turn scares Mark Brock, who farms 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans and winter wheat near Hensall, north of London. He’s wondering whether wireworm, aphids and other insects will now destroy a large part of his crop.

Brock is president of Grain Farmers of Ontario, which represents 28,000 corn, soybean and wheat farmers.

He has done “strip trials” on his land “where I evaluated treated versus untreated seed. It always came out where it (pesticide) brought value to my farm,” he said in an interview.

Insect damage can easily wipe out 20 per cent of the crop, he says. And the typical profit margin for corn is only five to 15 per cent to start with.

On a farm near Listowel, Ont. a ‘strip trial’ shows the difference between a corn crop treated with insecticide, top, and not. ROGER DRUDGE /  OTTAWA CITIZEN

Two types of agriculture — bees, fruits and vegetables on one hand, grain on the other — have two conflicting sets of worries. But it seemed that Ontario had settled the issue when it became, in June, the first province or state in North America to limit neonic use.

Then the lawyers got involved. A lawyer representing Grain Farmers of Ontario has been warning farmers that beekeepers might now sue them for damage to hives. The warning suggests that “grain farmers may have to end these co-operative arrangements,” and urges farmers not to let hives on their land without legal advice in advance.

Anderson was in British Columbia one day in June when an employee called him with bad news. Farmers who had hosted hives for years were phoning, telling him to move his hives off their land.

These are the Andersons’ neighbours, people they have known for years and always been friendly with.

“They (seed companies) are really trying to put pressure on beekeepers through the farmers,” Anderson says.

“What they are trying to do is intimidation. I’ve had phone calls from seed companies. The pressure is coming downhill. They have found out who owns bee yards (land where hives are placed) and are contacting the farmer who owns the bee yards, telling them they are going to get sued … by beekeepers.

“I’m getting calls from farmers now, telling me to move my bees.”

Summer is busy season for bees, a bad time to move hives.

On his side, Mark Brock says the Ontario government offered consultation with grain farmers during an equally bad time — planting season this spring. “The government felt this was a good time to reach out and ask producers what they thought about it. And a lot of producers didn’t have time to bring comments forward.”

While Anderson worries about having nowhere to put hives, Brock worries about the requirement under new regulations to prove there’s “pest pressure,” or the threat of insect damage, before he is allowed to use neonic-treated seeds.

“Within my own farm I can have 16 different soil types — minute variations but enough that it might affect the pest population,” he said. “It’s so hard to determine where (we need) and where we don’t need these products.” Soil temperature, density, humidity and plant cover all affect insects.

This is a big-money issue. Ontario bees pollinate about $897 million worth of crops in Ontario each year and a further $71 million of berries in Atlantic Canada, where they are taken by truck. They pollinate apples, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, cherries, blueberries, onions and more.

Meanwhile, Ontario farmers produced almost $2 billion worth of soybeans in 2014, and another $1.4 billion in corn. (All figures are from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.)

CropLife Canada, which represents the seed companies, says it has improved its neonic technology. It says that without neonics, farmers will lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Just as wind turbines continue to tear apart rural communities, the neonic problem is making everyone unhappy.

How did it get this way?

Bees are under stress from many factors — neonics are just the latest. WAYNE CUDDINGTON /  OTTAWA CITIZEN

Many factors combined to stress the lives of bees long before neonics came along. Well before 2000, beekeepers wondered why increasing numbers of hives died during the winter. Some called it “colony collapse disorder.”

If bees didn’t make honey, their lives would be much easier.

Picture a hive. Warm, even in winter, thanks to heat churned out by thousands of worker bees. Windproof, rainproof, snowproof. And filled with honey, a high-calorie, nutritious food that bees store away in huge amounts.

The beehive is like Beckta for many intruders, but they don’t have a reservation. Their solution: Kill the bees, eat their food.

A lot of species target bees: parasitic mites, wasps, bears (which eat the honey and the bees too), bacteria. The bee’s life is not a carefree time of tiptoeing through the tulips.

Then along come humans to add to their troubles.

“There are different things that stress our bees. You can’t just sort of cherry pick one, or say ‘What’s the flavour of the week?’” says Graham Thompson, who studies bees at Western University in London.

Varroa mites suck the fluids from a bee; tracheal mites burrow into its airways and choke it. A bacterial disease called American foulbrood infects a hive so badly that the even the frames that support the bees must be burned. There are fungal diseases and other parasites, many of them drawn by the hive environment, which is warm, dry and full of sugary food.

“That’s probably why they’re so defensive in the first place.” Thompson said.

“I think they (honeybees) are in serious trouble. The reality is they are going through a hard time, and probably the way we manage bees is a contributing factor.

“If you take away their habitat, if you feed them poison, if you stress them out by working them really hard, and giving them all these drugs and selecting (breeding) them for certain characters … it’s easy to imagine that, hey, we’ve pushed them a little too far.”

Even the variety of flowers that they feed on may be changing. It certainly changes for commercial bees that are trucked from province to province to pollinate whatever crop needs them at precise times of year. They get steady diets of whatever the farmer needs pollinated, which is like giving humans a diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and nothing else for a while, then shifting to nothing but eggs.

“If the bees have evolved to feed on a whole variety of things and now they are forced to feed on a monoculture (single crop), and also they have to ride on the back of an 18-wheeler … you don’t need too many degrees to appreciate how that would be stressing out the little insects,” Thompson said.

Neonics are the latest problem, as their use as a pesticide has become common in the past 10 years.

Neonicotinoids are chemicals with a molecular structure similar to nicotine and they kill insects. They are usually applied to the seed and designed to be systemic (a plant soaks them up) and kill bugs that feed on grain crops. They are lethal to bees in minuscule amounts.

Danger No. 1: The bees can be exposed during planting, as traces of the chemical go airborne.

Danger No. 2: The chemical travels all through a plant and enters the pollen that bees carry to the hive.

“The thing about bees is they’re not just feeding on a single plant,” Thompson says.

An amount almost too small to measure from one plant adds up as a worker bee visits tens of thousands of flowers during her lifetime of two or three weeks. She packs it all in, carries it home, and feeds it to the queen’s offspring.

Thompson calls Ontario’s new regulation “reasonable.” He notes that it would have been cheaper to ban the product, because monitoring will be an expensive job for government, “and the manufacturer should take some solace in this.”

Chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, wrote in a recent column that neonics don’t seem to cause problems in all countries. Australia, he writes, uses neonics without apparent harm — perhaps because its bees are less stressed. (They don’t have varroa mites.).

Hobby beekeeper Graham Thurston gets a little help from his son Gord, 6, to tend to his beehives in Kinburn.WAYNE CUDDINGTON /  OTTAWA CITIZEN

And what about other types of bee? There are about 800 species of native bees in Canada. About 60 of those are bumblebees, and Sheila Colla thinks we should think of these native bees first.

Colla is the co-ordinator for a group within the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that is assessing all the bumblebees of the world.

“We know that about one-third of the bumblebees in North America are experiencing a decline” of 30 per cent or more, she says. “You hear a lot about bee decline, and that all the bees are dying. But the reality is … two-thirds of our species are doing well.”

Adapting to urban areas seems to be key to survival.

“It’s a philosophical thing. People say we need our honeybees for food. Well I care more about preserving the diversity of our Canadian bees,” she said.

Colla suspects the honeybee crisis hits the little insects from several directions at once, and one of these is the Canadian winter. Honeybees are European transplants. She suspects the cold becomes too much for them if they are sick or infested with parasites.