Today's Farmer: No Answer to Bee Deaths

No definitive answer yet to mysterious bee deaths

Authorities still won't say what killed thousands of Ontario honeybees last spring, but admit that a pesticide was found on 70 per cent of the 104 bee samples submitted to the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) for laboratory analysis.

Clothianidin is used to kill insects by attacking their central nervous system, and is used by farmers for various purposes in Canada, as approved by the PMRA. In particular, the chemical is used as a treatment on seed corn.

Farmers who attended the Southwest Agricultural Conference in Ridgetown on Thursday were told that an investigation is continuing into the death of so many bees, but that no conclusive explanation has yet been found. They hope to know more later this year.

Tom Cowan of the Ontario Ministry of Environment said the ministry received calls from 35 beekeepers last April and May about a series of "abnormal bee deaths" at 200 different sites. The first calls came April 8 from sites in Huron and Middlesex counties, but calls also came from beekeepers in Eastern Ontario. The bee deaths were recorded until May 18.

Cowan said the situation "was different" from calls about bee deaths received in previous years. Officials who visited the sites "observed a number of impacts... the bees that were still alive showed symptons of neurological distress. Bees carrying pollen were also impacted."

Cowan added there was immediate speculation that the deaths were related to the use of chemically treated seed corn, which was being planted at the same time in Ontario. But other possible factors have since been considered, including the talc dust farmers use when planting corn, along with the warm weather the province experienced late last winter.

"Corn seeding was occurring at the same time as the dead bees were found," Cowan said. "And there was no other insecticide application taking place at that time."

He said the provincial ministry has been working closely with the PMRA. The federal agency has since examined 104 samples of the dead bees, testing for a variety of insecticides, including clothianidin. Seventy per cent of the bees tested were found to be carrying clothianidin.

The ministry and PMRA's investigation is continuing, Cowan told farmers.

He emphasized that the ministry hasn't found any proof of non-compliance in the use of the seed treatment.

"Growers weren't doing anything wrong," said Cowan.

He was joined by Keith Ardiel of Bayer CropScience Canada, whose parent company in Germany developed clothianidin and markets a seed treatment containing the pesticide. Ardiel said there are other factors that may have contributed to the death of so many bees, but allowed that the pesticide may have contributed to the series of incidences.

He said Bayer is taking the situation seriously and has since announced plans to develop two "bee care centres", one at the company's headquarters in Germany, and one at its North American headquarters in North Carolina. The corporation has also set up a hotline for concerned beekeepers.

But Ardiel said there remains mystery surrounding the death of so many bees in Ontario last spring. He said far more corn is grown in the U.S. and Europe, and yet there were no comparable reports of bee deaths in those jurisdictions. He said 94 per cent of the corn planted in North America contains a pesticide treatment, provided by either Bayer or its competitors.

"The United States hasn't reported incidents on this scale, so that's why we're scratching our heads," he said.

Ardiel said Bayer is the largest provider of neonciotinoids (clothianidin) in Canada, and remains the country's "largest single consumer of pollinator services." He said the bee deaths in Ontario last spring was the "first time we've ever heard of any incident this widespread in Canada."

Ardiel noted that the PMRA is charged with evaluating and re-evaluating all agricultural chemicals before they are permitted for use in Canada. He said companies like Bayer are also required to report any incident they receive about their products.

Ardiel said although the seed treatment on the corn is being investigated by the MOE and the PMRA, the technology is preferable to pesticide spraying.

He also noted that studies have shown that most honeybee deaths in Canada are attributed to the varroa mite, and not pesticides.

"The bee losses (last spring) were actually small in the context of how many acres are seeded in this province every year," Ardiel said.

See also OBA's position statement on pesticide poisoning.