By Terry Daynard, Ottawa Citizen November 18, 2013 2:26 PM
Some bee-keeping and environmental groups want to ban the usage of neonicotinoid (“neonic”) insecticides. Neonics are used to protect food crops from insect damage, for controlling fleas on pets and for protecting ash trees. As a farmer using neonic seed treatments during springtime planting to protect my corn plants, I decided to dig deeper — talking to bee professionals and researchers, and reading the underlying science. There are sure two sides to this story — with only one being told.
Public claims about a neonic-induced honey bee “Armageddon” seem much exaggerated. Statistics show that bee colony numbers are increasing, climbing almost 50 per cent in Ontario since neonic seed treatments were introduced in 2004. Ontario fruit and vegetable farmers report no problems in securing honey bee colonies for crop pollination. Ontario even sends thousands of hives for pollination to Atlantic Canada.
In France, the number of bee colonies dropped by 25 per cent after a neonic ban was imposed in 1999.
While some beekeepers have experienced sizable losses, many others have not, even when locating hives right next to corn fields. The bee-keeper with hives on my corn farm reports no unusual losses. Some Ontario beekeepers have spoken out, opposing the claims of their provincial bee association and anti-pesticide groups.
Bee-keeper associations in Western Canada, where about 80 per cent of Canadian honey is produced and 80 per cent of Canadian neonic seed treatment occurs, say neonics aren’t a problem. This is even though neonic seed treatments are used there for canola, a crop which bees forage aggressively during flowering because of its ample nectar supply. Prairie bee-keeper organizations oppose a ban.
Anti-neonic campaigners say neonics caused a 37 per cent bee loss in Ontario last winter. But the Ontario bee loss was only 12 per cent the previous winter, and crop neonic usage was essentially the same in both preceding seasons. Manitoba had a 46 per cent bee colony loss last winter. Bee experts there say that was due to poor weather conditions before and during winter, and during the wet, cool early spring that followed. Losses are usually made up quickly in springtime by bee multiplication. Queen bees can lay 1,500 or more eggs per day.
Nevertheless, some beekeepers are experiencing large losses. From my perspective, there are at least three reasons.
One major problem is new diseases and bee pests, including the devastating varroa mite. While beekeepers often say these parasites are “under control,” varroa mites are carriers for devastating virus that are poorly understood and rarely monitored. In fact, the only commercially available Canadian lab for measuring bee virus levels is in Northern Alberta and it only opened recently. Researchers say that because of viruses, only three mites per 100 bees ensure overwinter colony death. Chemicals used by bee keepers to combat the mites and bee diseases can also cause bee deaths.
A second problem is that corn and soybean crops produce little or no nectar — especially problematic for beekeepers with many hives. Malnourished bees living nearby are especially vulnerable to death.
A third factor can be untended neonic exposure. Certain types of corn seeders can expel seed-treatment dust into the air during planting. This dust can cause bee deaths if the wind is blowing the wrong way. Short-term losses may be large, though bee numbers can normally recover quite quickly.
Some claim that seeding-time exposure causes massive overwinter mortality many months later. But that’s highly unlikely. Living bees break down neonics within hours. Neonics also break down quickly when exposed to daylight.
Advocates claim bees die later in the season because of neonic residues in soil and surface water, and in the pollen of plants grown from treated seed. But experts say amounts detected are far too minute to harm bees. Health Canada detected none in most soil and water samples it collected near corn fields in 2013.
Farmers, seed and corn planter companies and governments are all working actively to eliminate planter dust emissions, and it is important that this be done quickly. Fortunately, there are likely to be good options available soon for doing so.
Those demanding a ban on neonics ignore the realities facing farmers: Insects can severely damage seedling corn plants and crop yield. Corn is an important source of Canadian food and feed. Farmers need to protect their crops.
A neonic ban would drive many farmers to use other compounds (yes, including organic ones) more hazardous to health and environment. What’s perhaps most ironic of all is that neonics were introduced about 10 years ago because of their safety to people and most wildlife species (animals, fish, birds) — and as a means of avoiding the use of more hazardous compounds to which farmers could now be forced to return.
Terry Daynard is a corn farmer, and former associate dean for research and innovation, Ontario Agricultural College, University of Guelph.