Canadian study shows bee deaths linked to neonicotinoid pesticides

GUELPH—Environmental groups and beekeepers have joined forces in Ontario to call on the federal and provincial governments to take steps to outlaw neonicotinoid pesticides in light of a new study linking that class of pesticides to recent massive die-offs of honeybee populations across the province.

The link found in the study from the University of Guelph had already been foreshadowed when the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) recently confirmed fears of a link in their report ‘Evaluation of Canadian Bee Mortalities that coincided with Corn Planting in Spring 2012.’ “The information evaluated suggests that planting of corn seeds treated with the nitroguanidine insecticides clothianidin and/or thiamethoxam contributed to the majority of the bee mortalities that occurred in corn growing regions of Ontario and Quebec in Spring 2012,” the report noted.

In May of this year, the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association (OBA) congratulated the European Union for its decision to ban the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) which have also been tied to the devastation of thousands of bee colonies in Ontario. “The EU vote clearly shows there is scientific and public support around the globe for policies which protect honeybees and other pollinators and recognize their essential role in food production and healthy ecosystems,’ said Dan Davidson, president of the OBA.

The OBA itself has been calling for a moratorium on the use of the pesticides linked to bee mortality events.

“The OBA believes that the health of Ontario’s food production system is at stake,” declares the association’s official statement. “Ontario’s fruit and vegetable farmers depend on adequate pollination by honeybees, bumblebees and wild bees,” it pointed out. “We encourage the Government of Ontario to reassess the bee safety of all neonicotinoid pesticide products and suspend all conditional registrations until we understand how to manage the risks posed by these products to honeybees and other pollinators,” said Mr. Davidson.

The OBA notes that neonicotinoids are “systemic pesticides that are absorbed into plant tissues. They are highly soluble in water and will leach into our ground water supply and contaminate the soil. They are routinely applied to corn and soybeans and a variety of agricultural crops with sprays, seed coatings, soil drenches and granules. Neonicotinoids are highly toxic to bees. They migrate through soil and the entire plant all the way to the flowers. This causes toxic, lethal and chronic exposure to multiple species, including pollinators, earthworms, birds and fish.”

According to the OBA Ontario’s bees are particularly vulnerable due to the makeup of agriculture in the province. “Corn and soybeans make up more than 50 percent of Ontario’s field crops, both of which are heavy users of neonicotinoid pesticides” they note. “In fact, corn uses at least four times as much neonicotinoid pesticides per acre than canola, Alberta’s main crop. We also know that neonicotinoid pesticides accumulate in the soil, increasing in intensification every year. Even untreated plants may take up residues of neonicotinoids still present in the soil from previous applications. Add to that the significant increase in use of neonicotinoids—a US study showed a nearly six-fold increase within six years—and what you have is a ‘perfect storm’ for bee decline in Ontario.”

The OBA plans to deliver a massive petition to Premier Kathleen Wynne calling for a ban on neonicotinoid insecticides in time for spring planting. According to OBA president Davidson, the petition currently has 65,000 signatures, including more than 50,000 obtained online and 12,000 to 15,000 hand-written ones. The OBA plans to deliver it to Premier Wynne before the Ontario Legislature ends its fall session on December 12.

Although the province is trying to duck the issue by laying it at the feet of the federal government as the regulator of pesticides, Mr. Davidson says Ontario does have the authority “to ban a specific class of insecticides.” He points out that the province has done just that in the past. “They’ve done that with the cosmetic pesticide ban and they’ve done it on a couple of other pesticides throughout history,” he said.

The premier has in fact recognized the connection between coated seeds and bee deaths, producing a release saying that the province is attempting to raise awareness of the issue amongst farmers.

But the OBA insists it isn’t simply a matter of being more careful in the application of the offending chemicals or the method of planting seeds and Best Management Practices (BMP). “Neonicotinoids are systemic, water-soluble pesticides applied to seeds. While the dust generated from planting coated seeds can cause direct mortality of bees, only two percent of the active ingredients are released through the dust, the remainder is found in pollen, water and soil, creating acute and sub-lethal exposure throughout the season and for years to come,” the OBA notes, calling into question suggestions that Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) recommendation might be enough to protect the bee population. “PMRA’s original registration was based on research that measured impact on one-year application on virgin ground, they didn’t take into consideration the cumulative impact of year-after-year applications,” explains an OBA fact sheet. “Neonicotinoids aren’t reducing other pesticide applications, since many farmers apply foliar applications later in the summer, on aphids for example. Finally, stronger BMPs were developed by Health Canada this year, but we continued to see acute bee kills associated with the planting of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybeans. This would indicate that either the BMPs aren’t working or that compliance is an issue.”

The National Farmers Union’s (NFU) Ontario branch has called for a five-year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids.

“The problem is, bees and other pollenating insects critically important to Ontario’s economy and food supply are also among the victims,” said Nathan Carey, a member of the board of directors of the National Farmers Union-Ontario Grey County Local 344. “While the impact of honeybees extends far beyond the pollination of commercial agricultural crops, the monetary value of this service alone is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars globally each year.”

For its part the Ontario Federation of Agriculture also recognizes the concerns, and the importance of the revaluation currently underway. “With the re-evaluation ongoing, and this year’s corn planting season fast approaching, the Ontario Beekeepers Association, Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, and Grain Farmers of Ontario are working together to address the concerns of all our farmer-members in relation to this issue,” notes the organization, but its condemnation of the class of pesticides is less enthusiastic than the NFU. “The four organizations agree there is much more work to be done to clarify the relationship between neonicotinoid insecticides and the spring 2012 bee kills,” continues the OFA statement. “It is our goal to ensure farmers have access to all crop protection products as they deem necessary for a successful growing season.”

The OFA goes on to say, “we recognize the important role honeybees play in pollinating crops and are dedicated to ensuring a healthy bee population in Ontario. The Ontario Beekeepers Association, Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, and Grain Farmers of Ontario are encouraging the continued investigation into the cause of the bee kills, and support existing and ongoing objective research into new products and technology that have the potential to reduce pesticide exposure. We are calling for an open dialogue between farmers, beekeepers, government agencies, the crop protection industry, and equipment manufacturers. All stakeholders need to work together to protect pollinators and ensure profitable growth for farmers.”

Farmers are caught in an environmental Catch 22 in regards to the neonicotinoid pesticides, recognizing the important role that honeybees play in the pollination of food crops and wanting to protect that role, yet keenly aware of the effectiveness of the products in keeping yields from key crops in the black margin of the profits ledger.

Links to the OBA petition can be found at ontariobee.com.

Michael Erskine