The London Free Press: Neonicotinoids the real sting for bee populations

Regarding Terry Daynard’s column Proposed insecticide ban buzzes industry (Nov. 23), I make the following notes:

Daynard states, “. . . bee colony numbers are increasing, climbing almost 50% . . .” Increases are due to beekeepers replacing what they’re losing. A more relevant indicator is Ontario’s honey production, which declined by 8.3% since 2011 despite the colony increase, according to Statistics Canada.

When neonicotinoids coat seeds, the seeding machine kicks 0.5% to 2% of the toxin into the air as dust. Bees that contact dust or rogue unplanted seeds are exposed to lethal levels of the insecticide. One corn kernel treated with 0.5 milligrams of clothianidin has enough active ingredient to kill 80,000 bees. Bees drinking from field puddles following planting, or from droplets on the growing crop may also be poisoned.

Two percent of the seed’s neonicotinoid enters the plant as it grows, killing any pests that eat it. Neonicotinoids are present in pollen and nectar at sublethal levels, but bees only eat pollen for protein and nectar for carbohydrates. About 96% of the pesticide enters both the soil, where it can persist up to 19 years, and groundwater. Neonicotinoids enter non-targeted plants growing in the margins. You are eating it in corn (plus myriad products), soybean or canola grown from treated seed.

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that bee declines continued in France, as Daynard highlighted, because neonicotinoids persist in the landscape. Since 2003, France’s honeybees have partially recovered, and high summer mortality incidents have not been reported in intensive agricultural areas in recent years.

Italy banned neonicotinoids five years ago. Bee kill incidents have been reduced, and yields have been maintained, avoiding any economic hardship for farmers.

Daynard claims that western beekeepers oppose a ban. Quite simply, not much corn is planted out west. In 2011, Ontario grew over two million acres of corn, whereas the four western provinces combined grew less than 500,000 acres. Moreover, corn seed typically exhibits neonicotinoid concentrations four times higher than canola seed. Western provinces will likely see cumulative neonicotinoid effects, as Manitoba just posted a record loss of 46% of its honeybee colonies for winter 2012-13.

Daynard downplayed the time lag between seeding-time and winter mortality, and dismissed small neonicotinoid residues — they’re called “sublethal levels” — not enough pesticide to kill outright, but cumulatively lead to death. Sublethal neonicotinoid levels impair bee navigation and task-learning, reduce pollen collection (especially needed for young) and weaken their immune systems, making them more susceptible to disease, predation and pests, ultimately leading to death — just at a slower rate than lethal exposures.

Daynard’s statement that “living bees break down neonics within hours” is similar to saying “humans break down alcohol within hours.” Whether they are metabolized within hours or not, the toxic substance still does harm.

The rallying cry against a proposed ban is that used by Daynard: If you ban neonicotinoids, you remove a crop protection tool and farmers will resort to using more toxic chemicals. But not all farmers use treated seed.

Sean McGivern is one such farmer, who grows grains, including soybean and corn, on nearly 2,000 acres in Ontario. Sean explains that he sprays for weeds only when absolutely necessary. That kind of spraying adheres to principles of integrated pest management, termed the judicious use of chemicals. The prophylactic use of neonicotinoids prevalent in Canadian agriculture violates these principles.

Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) sampled dead bees in both 2012 and 2013, concluding “ . . . that current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable.” As Dave Goulson says: “Shouldn’t the onus have been on industry to conduct a convincing field test of the safety of their compounds before they were ever allowed to sell them?” A coalition in Ontario is petitioning Premier Kathleen Wynne, also Ontario’s minister of agriculture, to ban neonicotinoids before the spring 2014 planting season. We hope a moratorium allows the Ontario government to support farmer-to-farmer agencies that use principles of integrated pest management and agroecology. Due to cost-saving measures in the late 1980s, many field extension offices closed in rural centres, so farmers like McGivern are likely to receive expertise coming from one source: the agrochemical companies.

Kimberley Fellows is pollination outreach co-ordinator for Seeds of Diversity – Pollination Canada in Waterloo.

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