By Tom Collins and Patrick Meagher
OTTAWA — Neonicotinoids — an insecticide coating applied on seeds before planting — are not affecting bees as some groups would want us to believe, says the president of CropLife Canada, a seed industry supporter.
Ontario beekeepers lose bees every winter — typically about 34 per cent of their bees — but following this winter, the losses based on beekeeper self-reporting found that Ontario beekeepers lost only 17.93 per cent of bees, the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists reported. That’s much lower than last year’s 37.8 per cent and 2014’s 58 per cent.
Beekeepers were asked to rank the reasons for winterloss numbers. The top four reasons in Ontario were “poor queens,” “starvation,” “weak colonies in the fall” and “don’t know.”
The Canadian average for winter losses in 2016 was 16.8 per cent.
CropLife Canada’s president Ted Menzies said fluctuations occur consistently in the bee industry, pointing out Ontario’s winterkill number was 12 per cent in 2012, the lowest in Canada at the time.
“These fluctuations all happened while farmers’ use of neonicotinoid-treated seeds remained relatively consistent,” he said. “So while certain politically motivated groups point to neonics as the primary cause of bee health issues in Ontario, the facts simply don’t support it.
“Unfortunately, the Ontario government bowed to pressure from activist groups and introduced regulations to severely limit farmers’ use of neonic-treated seeds. The government’s stated goal with these regulations was to get overwintering losses down to 15 per cent. The numbers in Ontario this year are close to that level even before the new regulations took effect. The question then is why are farmers being handicapped with these restrictions when there is no apparent impact on honeybee overwintering success?”
While there are lab studies that show neonics are bad when fed to bees, critics have long argued that they are unrealistic and that the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Rural Affairs have not brought to the debate a single in-field study that shows neonics are causing bee deaths.
The only other indicator that neonics were harming bees was neonic dust during planting. In 2013, Health Canada ruled that farmers must attach dust-deflectors on planters and add fluency agents to neonic-coated seeds to keep neonic dust down. A Health Canada study found that bee death incidents during planting were down 84 per cent in 2015 compared to 2013.
Grain Farmers of Ontario chair Mark Brock said farmers are frustrated they weren’t given more time to see how changes they made would reflect in bee numbers before the province put in new neonic regulations.
“There are so many different factors and influences (on bee health), so we’re always frustrated when every single problem seems to be blamed on neonics,” he said.
Former Canadian Honey Council vice-chair and Alberta beekeeper Lee Townsend said the biggest problem is new beekeepers that unfairly blame neonics for bee losses and the media buying into the story. Townsend pointed to a news article about a beekeeper in Sharon, north of Toronto, who lost 17 of his 80 beehives this winter and blamed neonics without any analysis done.
But bee losses can vary greatly each winter, said Townsend. Some beekeepers say 20 to 30 per cent winterloss is unsustainable and they cannot handle that economically. “There is no data out there proving either one of those stances,” said Townsend. “There is nothing to say that you can’t overcome a 30 to 40 per cent loss and still be profitable. It means more work, but it is possible.”
Townsend speaks from experience. His overwinter losses this year were 36 per cent.
“That was my fault,” he said. “That was my version of poor beekeeping. I did not do as much treating for nosema as I should have in the spring and fall and I got caught for it. I replaced all those losses and am still going to have an excellent crop this year.”
Townsend said there was some concern that Alberta farmers were painting all beekeepers in a bad light because of Ontario beekeepers blaming neonics on bee losses.
“Beekeepers are committed within the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association to ensure this anti-neonic-stance stays in place, so that doesn’t really help anybody,” he said. “It’s real easy to blame neonics and go crying to the government for assistance, right?”