Toronto Star Editorial: Hard-working honey bees need a boost

It’s not easy, being a honey bee. Across Canada they’re dying in droves, especially in Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick where huge numbers of dead or unproductive bee colonies were reported this spring. That’s bad news, not just for honey lovers, but more importantly for Canada’s agricultural industry, which relies on the humble insect to pollinate roughly $2 billion worth of fruit and vegetables every year.

Indeed, a national survey from the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists has recorded 205,385 lost colonies this spring, out of 719,000. It’s further alarming news that should compel the federal government to ramp up its study on the agricultural insecticides that many beekeepers say play a huge role in their decline, especially those in Ontario where 36,529 colonies (out of 96,000) perished over the winter. In Manitoba it was even worse. Some 46 per cent of its colonies died.

Many Ontario beekeepers have vociferously complained that their bees, already stressed due to widespread parasites and bacteria, are overwhelmed by exposure to insecticides, most of which are used in corn seeds. As the association’s paper notes, documentation of colony damage in both Ontario and Quebec between 2009 and 2013 has “contributed to these concerns.”

The pollinators are getting a bit of a boost from Ontario’s Bee Health Working Group. Created over the summer, it promises some protections, although its diverse membership — from beekeepers to pesticide companies — could make finding agreement a challenge.

And while no one suggests there should be fewer cornfields in Ontario, the bees certainly deserve the protections that an insecticide ban or even a gentler product could offer. While it’s important to farmers that their crops grow healthy and strong, the evaluation being done under federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose should explore alternative options to the hard core insecticides called neonicotinoids.

Ambrose should keep a close watch on her department’s review and, wherever possible, speed up the results. Canada’s hard-working bees need all the help they can get.