The Star: Ontario beekeepers want pesticide ban as hive populations decline

Dan Davidson’s bees are dying, and by the thousands.

“I was hoping this wouldn’t happen again this year,” said Davidson, a farmer near London, Ont. “But it is and we can’t do anything. The pesticide is so widespread … the bees can’t escape it.”

The “it” he’s talking about is a group of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. These insect neurotoxins are wide used in agriculture — and have been linked to the decline of honey bees.

Last spring, more than 240 bee yards in Ontario and Quebec reported an “unusually high number” of losses. An analysis by Health Canada found about 70 per cent of their bodies contained residue of neonicotinoids. (These insecticides are widely used as a seed treatment for corn.)

There are about 80,000 bee hives in Ontario, operated by some 250 professional beekeepers and another 4,000 hobbyists. Last year, over 6 per cent of their populations were lost, and beekeepers and environmentalists are now calling for a ban on neonicotinoids, much like the one just introduced in Europe.

Last week the European Union voted for a two-year moratorium that will allow experts to re-examine scientific studies submitted to obtain approval for the neonicotinoids. Its decision followed a statement in January by the European Food Safety Authority that said these insecticides potentially reduce bees’ chances of survival.

Health Canada is not banning the pesticides, not right now. An emailed statement from Mary Mitchell, director general with the department’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency, says it “is currently re-evaluating neonicotinoid insecticides,” a position similar to that in the U.S.

A report released last week by the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency blamed the decline of honey bees since 2006 only in part on the insecticides, citing poor nutrition, genetics, bacteria and a parasitic mite as other factors.

Health Canada’s decision has environmentalists and beekeepers up in arms.

“These dangerous chemicals must be removed from the market now,” says John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada. “We need to protect bees.”

Bees transfer pollen and seeds from one flower to another: a crucial natural role that sustains at least 30 per cent of the world’s food crops and 90 per cent of our wild plants.

“They are the building blocks of our life system,” said beekeeper Tibor Szabo, vice-president of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association.

Szabo said reports of bees dying and their health declining started coming in about four years ago from bee farmers in Ontario and Quebec, two provinces where corn is widely grown. “We had no clue what was going on.”

Last year’s losses were so dramatic that they led to tests and “we found what had been happening for the past few years.”

Szabo now feels Health Canada must ban neonicotinoids: “It’s like a game of roulette now … nothing stops bees from being in contact with pesticides.”

Beekeepers across Ontario and Quebec are watching nervously as corn planting starts this spring. Reg Lumley, a corn farmer and beekeeper near Sarnia, lost thousands of his bees last year. “We planted corn one day and the bees in hives close by started dying the next. It was unbelievable.”

Lumley said those bee yards that were far from cornfields did well. But those near corn “kept dying all summer.”

This year, he has moved most of his hives away from cornfields and has spoken to farmers who plan to plant corn near his hives.

“They will plant when the wind is blowing away so that the effect is minimal,” said Lumley, whose hives are being monitored by Health Canada.

But this is needlessly time-consuming, he said. “What we need is a ban. We can’t keep losing bees.”