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Protecting bee populations

Declining bee populations are a concern for more than just beekeepers and those who appreciate honey. The problem has implications for much of the agricultural industry and well beyond, as bees are nature’s great pollinators, say those trying to protect the insects.

Jane and Jerry Dietrich of BeeHaven Apiaries in Alma are seeing half-empty hives. They suspect this year’s poor honey crop could be attributed in part to neonicotinoid insecticides that are toxic to bees. [Elena Maystruk / The Observer]
Jane and Jerry Dietrich of BeeHaven Apiaries in Alma are seeing half-empty hives. They suspect this year’s poor honey crop could be attributed in part to neonicotinoid insecticides that are toxic to bees. [Elena Maystruk / The Observer]
Much of the focus has been on neonicotinoids, a nicotine-like insecticide used to coat certain crop seeds, fuelled by last month’s report from Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) that the chemical can indeed kill pollinators.

“Beekeepers need farmers and farmers need bees,” said Jerry Dietrich of BeeHaven Apiaries in Alma, who stresses it’s important not to point fingers at farmers while noting the companies that produce neonicotinoids have worked to muddy the waters in the scientific debate.

“Farmers are only using the tools that they are given. I do think the pesticide companies are trying to create diversions off the real issue and trying to pit farmers against beekeepers.”

In its recent report, the PMRA came down on this side of caution when it comes to the use of the chemical.

“Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency has determined that current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoids on corn and soybean seed are affecting the environment due to their impacts on bees and other pollinators.”

Neonicotinoid insecticides used as coating on corn and soybean seeds become airborne as dust during planting, subsequently penetrating plants and blossoms and reportedly contributing to pollinator population declines.

“The important thing with this issue is that it affects all of the farming, all of agriculture and all of the food supply in Canada,’ said Taarini Chopra, co-chair of the Waterloo Food Systems Roundtable, who has studied the issue.

Most recent data collected by PMRA in late August from corn-growing areas, mainly in Ontario and Quebec where bee populations are lowest, show neonicotinoid residue in about 70 per cent of examined dead bees.

Extracting honey this week, Dietrich will be lucky to collect 15 pounds of the stuff where in a good season his hives would yield more than 100 pounds. Part of the loss may be due to high mite populations in 2012 (mites feed on bee blood) and a difficult winter.

“We’ve experienced about the highest loss we’ve ever experienced this past winter and spring. What it was attributed to is kind of a grey area. I lost about 70 per cent of my [bee] colonies,” he said.

In light of those losses, Dietrich argues all beekeepers need to “groom their beekeeping skills.” Further education and options for farmers and beekeepers, he believes, are also needed.

“The provincial government has put together quite a balanced advisory group,” said Bob Wildfong, of Waterloo’s Seeds of Diversity Canada, which advocates for pollinator conservation and organic seed use.

The bee health workgroup includes Grain Farmers of Ontario, the Ontario Beekeepers Association, scientists, and government officials, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. About $700,000 has been put towards 2013 research initiatives.

“A few seed companies have started to provide corn seed that will not have insecticide coatings; they will be available next year,” Wildfong noted.

“We’re on the front line seeing what’s happening to the bees. We need [neonicotinoids] taken off the market: they are too dangerous for our livelihoods,” said association president Dan Davidson, who wants to see more action taken.

The most recent move against neonicotinoids saw Sierra Club Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Wilderness Committee (British Columbia) and Equiterre (Quebec) file a legal objection to PMRA’s decision to re-license Clothianidin — a neonicotinoid made by Bayer AG.

After the European Union announced a two-year ban on the substances last April, organizations like the Sierra Club took a great interest the long-running concerns of Canadian beekeepers.

“We asked the federal government to ban them [and] opened discussions with the Ontario Beekeeping Association, which had been working on it quietly in the background to make this a national issue,” said John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada.

This year there are reports of dead bees in Manitoba and data out of Quebec that show contamination of the province’s waters, he said. Bennett urges the public to speak out.

“The most important thing for people to do now, if they are concerned, is to take advantage of the offer by the PMRA to accept comment from the public about the future of neonicotinoids.”

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