York Region: Ontario honeybee plan sweet news to some in King Township

Ontario’s beekeepers got some sweet news Tuesday.

The province announced a three-pronged plan to reduce the overall honeybee mortality rate to 15 per cent by 2020 while reducing the amount of acres planted with neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed by 80 per cent by 2017. 

It will also develop what it calls a comprehensive Pollinator Health Action Plan, the third part of its bee health initiative.

The province said that, if the plan is approved, the new rules on neonics will be in place by July 1, 2015 in time for the 2016 agricultural planting season.

The buzz around the plan was just what Nobleton beekeeper Andre Flys was waiting to hear.

“We would like to have had it in place for next growing season (2015), but with farmers ordering their seeds a year in advance, it would have been a nightmare to get it in place,” admitted Flys, who operates Pioneer Honey off Hwy. 27 and 15th Sideroad.

However, the Grain Farmers of Ontario, which represents 28,000 corn, soybean and wheat farmers across the province, said it was stung by the government’s announcement. In a news release, they called it “unfounded, impractical and unrealistic”.

“With this announcement, agriculture and rural Ontario has been put on notice — the popular vote trumps science and practicality,” said Henry Van Ankum, chairperson of Grain Farmers of Ontario.

And Barry Senft, CEO of Grain Farmers of Ontario, said he believed the new measures would put “farmers at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the country and the rest of North America.

“It will mean smaller margins for grain farmers and could signal the transition away from family farms to large multinational farming operations that can sustain lower margins,” said Senft.

Flys said he has seen his bee colonies dwindle from a high of 500 several years ago to 200 this past year and blames the use of neonics as the prime culprit.

Ontario government statistics reveal that 58 per cent of the bee colonies in Ontario did not survive the winter of 2013-14, the worst year on record.

Flys said he was encouraged when he and his colleagues at the Ontario Beekeepers Association met last Thursday with Jeff Leal, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

“He showed a lot of concern for our issues, but the proof is still in the pudding,” said Flys.

“We have to make sure there is follow-through. But I’m encouraged by what I’ve heard today. It’s a good step in the right direction.”

Neonicotinoids, which are nicotine-based synthetic pesticides added to corn and soybean seeds at time of planting, are used on millions of acres in southern Ontario. 

They have been added to 100 per cent of corn and 60 per cent of soybean crops in Ontario.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study recently showed that “in most cases there is no difference in soybean yield when soybean seed was treated with neonicotinoids versus not receiving any insect-control treatment.”

Neonicotinoids can be exposed to bees from various sources including from spraying, dust from seeds, residue on plants and through contaminated pollen.

While neonics are halfway through a two-year ban in Europe due to concerns over their impact, in part, on honeybee health, Ontario would be the first province or state in North America to regulate use of the pesticides.

Leal said Ontario farmers have reduced pesticide use by about 45 per cent in the past three decades. 

“We know there is more that can be done,” he said. “We will work with farmers to protect the environment and grow the agricultural sector.”

Glen Murray, the Ontario Minister of Environment and Climate Change, made the case for protection of bee health.

“Improving pollinator health is not a luxury, but a necessity,” he said. “Pollinators play a key role in our ecosystem and without them, much of the food we eat would not be here.”

Friends of the Earth Canada also welcomed the news.

“We congratulate Ontario for its decision to control these systemic neurotoxin pesticides. Ontario is reading the science and has decided it’s time to act to protect our pollinators,” said Beatrice Olivastri, chief executive officer, Friends of the Earth Canada.

“Scientific evidence shows that neonicotinoids harm bees by disrupting their ability to feed, navigate and reproduce, making them more susceptible to bacterium, virus, or other microorganisms that can cause disease,” she added.

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