The new Ontario neonicotinoid regulations took effect on July 1, with both the Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA) and the provincial government heralding the changes as being vital to ensuring the survival of honeybees in that province. Glen Murray, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) has been boasting about how these new regulations will save pollinators from certain doom as it will hold farmers and the seed manufacturers accountable on how they impact the environment. What he fails to acknowledge is the work that these groups have undertaken to protect the environment in general, and pollinators specifically, in recent decades and years.
With respect to pollinator protection specifically, farmers had successfully taken steps to improve their practices and equipment over the past 3 years (i.e., without the need of regulations) and ensured that excess dust released during the seeding of corn and soy was controlled. In addition to this, the seed manufacturers improved the coatings used on corn and soy seed to ensure that the chemical treatments being used adhered better and introduced a new fluency agent to reduce the amount of dust released during seeding. Collectively, these efforts led to a drastic reduction in the number of bee incidents being reported during planting in Ontario since 2012. Now farmers are being told that this is not good enough, and they will effectively lose access to neonicotinoid products by 2017 unless they can prove it is needed. The problem with this is that the tools available to predict when the treatments are needed prior to seeding have never been rigorously field tested and only cover a handful of the pests that farmers need to protect their crops against. As a result, farmers in Ontario predict it will result in reduced yields and lost income.
What is forgotten in all of this is the fact that the same people claiming to hold farmers and manufacturers accountable for their practices have yet to do the same to the OBA board and its supporters. Farmers have been ordered to change their management practices or face steep fines if they do not comply, yet not a single management change has been enforced on beekeepers in Ontario. The OBA board of directors consistently claim that they know what they are doing and that there were no issues prior to the introduction of neonic’s, even though the self-reported management practices documented in the CAPA report prove otherwise. The main problem with this stance by the OBA is that neonics had been used in Ontario long before 2012 (on crops that bees rarely if ever forage on). In addition to this, 80% of all Canadian hives are located on the prairies with the primary floral source these bees forage on being canola. For those that don’t know, canola seed, much like corn and soy seed, is treated with neonics. If neonics were the primary cause of bee deaths, then the Canadian prairies would’ve seen losses far in excess of what Ontario has due to the fact the exposure level is drastically higher.
Then again evidence is not actually needed for a beekeeper to make a claim that pesticides caused bee deaths. According to the PMRA, all that is required is the following:
Definition of a bee incident: A bee incident is defined as atypical effects observed in a honey bee colony reported by a beekeeper, and suspected by the beekeeper to be related to pesticide exposure. These incidents are characterized by mortality or sub-lethal effects on colonies that are thought to be related to pesticide exposure. Generally, each bee yard is considered a single incident, and each bee yard may vary in the number of affected colonies.
Even when using this inaccurate method of reporting, incidents in Ontario dropped by 70% from 2014 to 2013 and 80% from 2015 to 2013. When you dig deeper into the PMRA findings, it turns out that the majority of incidents in 2014 and 2015 were classified as being “very low to low severity”. The very low indicator describes colonies with fewer than 100 dead bees, and the low indicator is applied to colonies with between 100-500 dead bees. Considering that there can be between 30,000-50,000 bees per colony in the spring, these numbers are minimal and well within a completely normal range for a healthy hive. When you add in that there is no scientific evidence proving that these bees were killed by pesticides, it really makes you start to question the integrity of both the reporting system and the beekeepers doing the reporting. But, when you have a $450 million dollar lawsuit seeking certification and a provincial compensation program for dead colonies, it’s not hard to figure out why this continues in Ontario.
To further weaken the OBA’s claims, the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists released their honeybee wintering loss report on July 16th.
This report verified that the Canadian honeybee industry is indeed thriving, with reported national winter losses of just 15.9% in 2014/2015 (which is around the traditional average loss level). One humorous element of this report is that OMAFRA could not even get the number of colonies in Ontario correct, as they reported a total of 96,000 hives when Stats Canada reported that there were 112,800 colonies going into last winter. That little discrepancy lowers the provincial loss average from 37.8% to 32%,.
On page 5 of the report it lists the possible causes of bee losses as reported by the beekeeper. In Ontario, the top 4 answers were “starvation”, “weak colonies”, “poor queens”, and “don’t know”. The first 2 answers are nothing more than beekeeper management errors, as anyone trying to winter underfed or weak colonies was either cheap, lazy, or inept. Poor queens can be a management issue for those that raise their own queens, but if beekeepers buy them from others it can be harder to control the quality of queen they are purchasing. And the final answer of “don’t know” can’t be vilified too much, as every beekeeper has said the same thing at times when hives die. This only emphasizes the importance of the “National Bee Health Roundtable”, as no other form of modern agriculture would lose a large number of its livestock and accept “I don’t know why” as an explanation. What is mysteriously missing from the list of reasons is “pesticide exposure”. Considering that the new neonic regulations were based on suspected pesticide exposure and the OBA has been adamant that it’s the cause of all their problems, why didn’t any beekeepers report it as the primary cause?
Then we come to what management practices beekeepers used to control the numerous bee health issues in Canada. Generally most beekeepers seemed to be diligent in treating for varroa mites in both the spring and fall, which was refreshing to see. Of great concern to me, however, is the almost non-existent number of beekeepers in Ontario treating their bees for nosema, with less than 30% of beekeepers treating their bees for it in both the spring and fall. Nosema thrives on bees that endure long and hard winters, which is exactly what Ontario has faced the past 2 years. In Alberta we’ve had similar issues with nosema and continue to struggle with it at times. but we learned very quickly that active monitoring and treatments for it was vital to the survival of our bees. Once again, the correlation between nosema treatments (or lack of), the hard winters, and the number of hives dying in Ontario is completely ignored by the MOECC and OBA.
You really can’t fault the MOECC for being ignorant to all of this as they have absolutely no knowledge about bees and what is required to be a successful beekeeper in Canada. Glen Murray claims to meet with beekeepers regularly in order to educate himself, but it’s curious how he only seems to meet with beekeepers that support his agenda and not ones that dispute his beliefs. You can fault the OBA board of directors for misleading the government and public on what’s happening with their bees though, and they have yet to be held accountable for their actions. Until beekeepers voluntarily improve their understanding of bees and incorporate that knowledge into enhancing their management, bees will keep on dying no matter what restrictions are placed on growers. The Ontario government appears to have no interest in holding the OBA board accountable but, then again, why would they since they are telling Mr. Murray exactly what he wants to hear. Maybe it’s time for OMAFRA to do its job and draft regulations for proper beekeeper management, but I guess that would only happen if Mr. Murray told them to do it. Quite the double standard, and farmers have every right to hold the MOECC and the OBA board liable for this. It’s unfortunate that the good beekeepers in Ontario will suffer for it.