“Getting the facts straight on honey bees”
Last week a new website called “Beesmatter” was launched, and with it came an open letter to Ontarians titled “Getting the Facts Straight on Honey Bees”. This was developed and released by Ontario farmers and the agricultural industry that supports them, and I think it is a great concept. My understanding is that this will be a national awareness campaign meant to draw attention to the importance of honey bees.
I’d love to say that the beesmatter project is very similar to collaborations between beekeepers/farmers/agricultural industry that have taken place on the Canadian prairies, but sadly the Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA) was not involved in this instance. That is not due to Ontario farmers excluding the OBA, it’s due to the OBA board of directors being far too ignorant to work with the farmers and agricultural industry in Ontario.
Later in the week, the OBA released its response to the #beesmatter letter. I’ve taken the time to read both letters and while both make valid points, both also omit facts in order to prove their points (more so the OBA). I have a much bigger problem with the OBA’s response, as it is the prototypical environmental activist jargon that we’ve come to expect from that organization these days.
I’ll start with the #beesmatter letter. I fully understand the purpose of the letter, and overall it was well done and well intentioned. On the Canadian prairies, this kind of project would have been fully supported by the beekeeping industry. As the beekeeping industry is quite small and very much an unknown commodity to most people, this is the kind of PR we dream of. It is unfortunate though that certain media outlets and the OBA have labelled it “chemical company propaganda”, as I and most others realize that’s not the case. There was a great deal of good information in it, but there were also important points left out of it.
“Statistics Canada data demonstrates that in Ontario, honey bee colony numbers are up almost 60 per cent since 2003, when the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments were introduced. Honey production has increased by 29 per cent in the past year, and Ontario has a successful honey beekeeping industry which earned $30 million in 2014.”
This statement is true because Ontario beekeepers did an exceptional job of not only replacing their winter dead outs but also increasing the number of colonies in that province. In 2014 Ontario recorded the most colonies its ever had, which is something beekeepers there should be commended for. What was left out though is that Ontario claimed losses of 58% in the spring of 2014 (which is up for debate, which I’ll go into more later). A loss of that magnitude is difficult to recover from. An increase in honey production/profits was also mentioned. This may be true, as we noticed the same thing in Alberta, but like any form of Agriculture our production varies on a yearly basis. We are also seeing some of the highest honey prices in our history.
“Health Canada recently released a report indicating that, in 2014, the number of honey bee incidents reported during planting was down 70 per cent from 2013. And, of the late season issues reported, 72 per cent were made by only three beekeepers out of 3,262.”
This statement is a direct reflection of the PMRA report that was released on November 25, 2014. Honestly, all anyone can go on is what the report states. It does appear that the new dust-reducing seed flow lubricant as well as updated best management practices by the farmers during seeding accomplished what was intended. There have been claims by the OBA board that this is indeed not the case, but there is little fact to back up their claims.
“85 per cent of Canadian honey is produced in western Canada where there are no known honey bee colony health issues resulting from neonicotinoid seed treatment use.”
This statement is true. Bees on the Canadian prairies forage primarily on canola, which is treated with neonicotinoids. Considering that 21 million acres (from what I understand) of canola was grown out west in 2014, if neonics were the issue that Ontario makes it out to be we should be seeing the ill-effects from it in our bees as well. We aren’t.
“Other countries, including England and Australia, that rely on science-based regulatory systems have concluded that any risk to honey bee populations from neonicotinoids is low and manageable.”
I do not fully understand how the regulatory systems in other countries works, but there has been a ban on neonics in the EU since late 2013. After this ban was implemented the EU released this report on the status of bee health in the EU. According to it, bee populations have increased by 13% since 2008 and the main causes of overwintering losses were attributed to harsh weather and disease/pests. It appears the neonic ban there was based on anecdotal evidence, but it will be interesting to see further data on this in 2015
“Here in Ontario, real-world field level research consistently demonstrates that responsible use of neonicotinoid seed treatments does not result in honey bee colony health issues.”
There has been some excellent work done by Cynthia Scott-Dupree from the University of Guelph on this subject in recent years (here and here and here). You can read them for yourself, and I feel they were very well done.
“The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs changed the criteria for reporting colony mortality in the province, resulting in inflated reports of overwinter mortality losses in Ontario.”
This has yet to be explained by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). According to OMAFRA, the overwintering losses in Ontario were determined by a voluntary survey sent out to the provinces 247 registered commercial beekeepers. Out of that 247, only 97 responded to the survey (39% completion rate). Out of these 97 producers, 50 reported losses of higher than 50%. These producers that claimed losses of over 50% only represent 20% of the commercial beekeepers in Ontario. How OMAFRA extrapolated that data to read as a 58% loss province wide is still uncertain. It is also important to note that these beekeepers “suspected” chronic pesticide damage contributed to their losses. There have been few to no official lab reports released by these beekeepers to back up that claim to date.
The claim of a 58% winter loss in Ontario has also been questioned by the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists (CAPA). In their 2014 “Wintering Loss” report, they noted that the preliminary analysis of mortality in Ontario indicates that a proportion of beekeepers had a much lower level of mortality (9 to 22%) compared to the provincial average. To date the OBA nor OMAFRA have explained this discrepancy.
Something else that OMAFRA does differently is how they define a dead colony. For the rest of Canada, a colony with 3 or less frames of bees and brood is considered dead. But in Ontario, 4 frames or less of bees and brood is used to define a dead colony. Considering that there are many beekeepers using 4 frame nucs (small colonies used for queen production, colony replacement, etc.), it becomes unclear as to just how many of the hives that were declared dead by OMAFRA and the beekeepers were indeed dead. And beekeepers are masters at saving small and/or weak colonies. Generally a colony with 3 frames or less is culled by the beekeeper, but one with 4 frames can be saved and built into a producing colony that year.
One explanation for this though could be due to OMAFRA’s “Beekeeper Compensation Plan“. This program was launched in 2014 and was recently extended for the 2015 season. The program works by paying the beekeeper $105/hive once their losses exceed 40%. This payment doesn’t cover the first 40% of losses, just losses after that. One concern with this program is that there is a suspicion that some beekeepers increased their colony numbers in late 2014 with 4 frame nucs in order to trigger more overwintering loss claims this spring.
Now, lets look at the OBA response. Like all press releases put out by the OBA in recent years, it is full of half-truths.
“Last winter Ontario beekeepers lost 58% of their hives. The number of honey bee colonies (measured in mid summer) does not reflect the large number of colonies lost each winter, nor does it reflect the 30,000 queens or nearly 20,000 bee packages that beekeepers had to purchase to replace the unusually high number of colonies that failed in the winter and spring. We also want to stress that although honey bee colonies can be managed by beekeepers to sustain their numbers, reports indicate serious declines among wild bees and other pollinators.”
I’m not sure what point the OBA is trying to make here. Buying large numbers of packages and queens is nothing new to most beekeepers in Canada, and our industry is highly reliant on these imports in order to replace our overwintering losses and yearly colony number increases. The OBA is making it sound like this is something new, and while they did have to buy more bee stock in 2014 than ever before, they’ve been doing it for a very long time. They used to deny it, but it has always been easy to see through that. And they not only used these bee imports to replace their losses, but they also increased their colony numbers in 2014 by 15,300 from 2013. For comparisons sake, Alberta only increased the number of colonies it had by 4,100 from 2013 to 2014. I really have an issue with the OBA using “wild bees and other pollinators” in their reasoning. Last I checked the OBA was representing the honeybee industry in Ontario, and were not experts on other pollinators.
“Fact: Honey production on a per colony basis is actually down by 40% since 2003. We’d also like to point out that ‘earnings’ are not the same as ‘profits’. Every spring Ontario beekeepers work diligently, and at great cost, to recover their winter losses and respond to the high demand for bees for blueberry pollination. Ontario’s beekeepers are producing less honey while incurring significant costs to restore their colony numbers. As well, although Canada is a net exporter of honey, Ontario experiences a honey trade deficit of nearly $15 million due to the lack of safe bee pasture and the inability of pesticide weakened colonies to meet current demand.”
This is a very misleading statement. While it’s true that the honey production per hive is down from 121 lbs/hive in 2003 to 73 lbs/hive in 2014, the OBA fails to mention how many colonies were used primarily for pollination services in 2014 compared to 2003. Colonies used primarily for pollination services are still included in the honey production statistics, which will lower the production per colony. Ontario has never been a large honey production province though, and a great deal of their income has depended on the pollination services they offer. In fact, Ontario sent more hives into pollination in 2014 than ever before. Also, Ontario had one of their harshest winters in history and that poor weather continued into the spring/summer. Weather has a huge impact on honey production, and it can also be directly attributed to their 2014 production.
The OBA’s claim that a lack of bee safe pasture is a main cause of their losses is misleading as well . What they fail to mention is that there are ways to find more suitable forage for bees, which is something that prairie beekeepers have done for decades. But it requires a change in management practices by the beekeeper, which seems to be something the anti-pesticide group in Ontario refuses to consider. There is a great deal of forage in western Ontario (clover, alfalfa, etc.), so all I’m hearing from the OBA is excuses instead of solutions.
“Another misleading statement. The Health Canada report cited was an interim report. In fact, Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Farming and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) reported (see link to PA report below) that pesticide poisoning incidents were actually higher in 2014 (345) compared to 2013 (320) and 2012 (240). It’s also important to note that with 58% of colonies dying over the winter there were fewer colonies exposed to pesticides and, as well, due to the late planting.”
This statement, while backed by Ontario’s provincial apiculturist (PA), is vague. It is common knowledge that the less progressive/modern beekeepers in Ontario now blame pesticides for all their bee losses. Without evidence to back up the statement that (visual observations do not count), I put more stock in the PMRA report than the PA’s report. Also, the claim that there were fewer colonies exposed to pesticides due to later seeding is not accurate. Unless the beekeepers waited until June to replace their losses, a great deal of their 2014 colonies were exposed to crop planting.
“Another misleading statement. Beekeepers have been able to manage mites, disease and pests for decades. Unfortunately, however, we are unable to avoid pesticide exposure. In Ontario, neonics are used to treat over 5 million acres of soy and corn, when even our own provincial crop specialists say that they are only needed on 10% – 20% of these acres. In addition to killing bees outright, neonicotinoids compromise bees’ immune systems, making them more vulnerable to viruses and making it more difficult to fight off varroa. It reduces their navigation skills, affecting the bees’ capacity to forage and communicate forage opportunities; and it compromise nutrition by reducing the availability of a diversity of uncontaminated plants.”
This is by far the most comical of all the statements in the OBA’s response. No beekeeper in Canada can claim to have mites/disease/pests under control to the degree the OBA leads you to believe. Yes we all work diligently to control these problems, but we are limited in the number of tools we have to protect our bees against them. You also have a great deal of beekeepers (hobby/small scale primarily) that have no clue how as to what proper “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM) practices are. There are even “prominent” commercial beekeepers in Ontario that are lacking in proper IPM practices. This statement is proven by this video the OBA released on YouTube last year. You can clearly see a commercial beekeeper incorrectly treating his hives for the varroa mite. He is using both formic acid and oxalic acid on his bees at the same time, in the late fall, and on hives that are quite small in size. For any informed beekeeper, we fully understand that this is a great way to kill your hives. The fact that the OBA board actively uses this video as an example of “proper” IPM, I really have to question their knowledge base. The OBA also fails to mention how many incidents are reported to PMRA in Ontario each year by beekeepers due to bee kills from using formic acid. But for those of you that are inquisitive, these formic acid bee kills can be found on the PMRA website.
As for the comment of “neonicotinoids” kill bees outright, that is not true. As I stated above, honeybees on the prairies are exposed to a much higher volume of neonics than those in Ontario with no adverse effects being seen. From our experience, healthy honeybees are highly resilient to this kind of chemical exposure. There have been instances where bees have been sprayed directly with products such as Matador® during canola bloom, and the effects have been devastating. But with chemical treatments like neonics, there seem to be little to no adverse effects on healthy bees. If the bees are already suffering from malnutrition, mites, diseases, pests, etc., neonics can become lethal. Bees do not do well with multiple stresses, the never have.
“We disagree. Ontario has taken a bold step to protect honey bees by setting targets to reduce the use of neonicotinoid pesticides by 80% by 2017. This step, alone, will help honey bees. In the past three years we have seen excessive colony losses and an increase in the number of Ontario beekeepers reporting incidents of pesticide poisoning, leading to Health Canada to conclude in their 2013 report: ‘the current use of neonicotinoid pesticides on corn and soy is not sustainable’. “
The main issue with the “Pollinator Health” document released by OMAFRA in 2014 is the fact that there is ZERO mention of what beekeepers need to do in order to better their management practices so that these losses do not keep occurring. The document lays all the responsibility for Ontario’s bee/pollinator health on the farmer and seed manufacturers. As I explained earlier, there are many things the beekeepers can do in order to correct this problem as well. And from our experiences in western Canada, reducing overwintering losses to 15% is an almost unrealistic goal. The biggest reason for that is the weather, we can’t control it and it is the difference between a 10% loss and a 40% loss. When you start talking about losses of 50% or higher, there is a beekeeper management problem at play.
As I read more of the comments between farmers and the eco-activists (OBA falls under that category) in Ontario, the more I realize the chance of a common solution being found that benefits both sides is virtually impossible. That is disappointing due to the fact there was great potential for everyone to work together in order to fix this problem. The farmers/seed manufacturers have been doing a very good job in finding ways to reduce neonic exposure to Ontario’s bees, but sadly the same can’t be said about the OBA board of directors. That unwillingness to work together on a COMMON solution is working against the good beekeepers in that province, and their association fails to realize that.
What’s also been lost is the efforts of the Canadian Honey Council (CHC) during this debacle. CHC formed a “Bee Incident Committee” in 2012 to deal with the problems in Ontario, but the OBA refused to work with them unless CHC demanded a neonic ban as well. Then in early 2014, CHC helped spearhead the “National Bee Health Action Plan”. Again the OBA thumbed its nose at the efforts of the CHC, and only recently begged to be included in the roundtable. And in December of 2014 CHC and the Canadian Seed Trade Association announced plans to greatly reduce the application rate of seed applied insecticides over the next two years. Of course, the OBA scoffed at this announcement. Are you noticing a common theme here?
There isn’t anyone in Canadian agriculture that disagrees with reducing the amount of pesticides used during crop production. Whether it be neonics or the miticides used by beekeepers, chemical dependence is not desirable. The truth of the matter though is that these products will always be a part of modern agriculture, and all we can do as good stewards is find ways to reduce our usage of them. But at the same time, we have to look in the mirror and admit our faults. Many beekeepers have done that and learned from it, just as many farmers have done the same. But until the OBA board and it’s followers do it, nothing will change. Their bees will still die and they will blame everything but themselves.