Manitoulin bees dodge Ontario die-off

MANITOULIN—The news on the bee front has not been uplifting in recent years, with the invasion of various mites and the still largely unexplained (or at least hotly debated) incidence of colony collapse disorder (CCD) devastating thousands of hives across the province, but Manitoulin apiaries have largely been spared the worst of the impact of the calamities sweeping through the continent’s pollinators.

“I think it was a pretty good season,” said apiarist Paul Salanka of Little Current’s LoonSong Garden. Mr. Salanka has been raising bees for nigh onto a quarter of a century and he describes this year’s honey production as “pretty decent” despite the late start and generally wet and dismal conditions prevalent through much of the honey-gathering season.

“Our hives came out of the winter quite well,” said Mr. Salanka. But the Island’s bee population has been a bit of an anomaly in the province. “The bee kills in southern Ontario have been awful, but up here they weren’t hit as hard.”

Veronika Bingaman of Honora Bay agrees, noting that her losses over the winter were not nearly as bad as has sometimes been the case. “I only lost two hives and one of those was very weak going into the winter,” she said. “So I did not expect that one to make it anyway.”

She said that the wet and less than ideal conditions over the month of August has also had a dilatory impact on honey production.

“It was a late start to the season but the bees seemed to make up for it over July,” she said. “August was bad because we didn’t have much sunny weather.” Unable to go out and gather nectar and pollen, the bees have found themselves holed up in their hives where they wound up consuming some of July’s bounty as they waited out the rain.

One of the side effects of the cool and damp weather has been positive, of sorts. “There hasn’t seemed to be as much swarming this year,” said Ms. Bingaman. Swarming usually takes place when hives are stressed, usually through crowding, and the bees decide to create new queens, sending out portions of their hive’s population to establish new colonies.

Both apiarists surmise that the crop mix on Manitoulin is likely to have played a part in the low winterkills as a class of pesticides that have been fingered as a possible contributing cause of bee deaths are not prevalent on Manitoulin Island.

“The neonics (neonicotinoids) are not common here,” said Ms. Bingaman. “There are pockets of good farmland on Manitoulin, but there are not the hundreds of acres of land with good soil here that you find in southern Ontario, just little spots.”

Before Ms. Bingaman and her late husband Dan moved to the Island to establish their honey business on Manitoulin (eventually growing to over 500 hives), Mr. Bingaman did a lot research on the land and its environs. “The man at the ministry was not very positive,” she recalled. “One of the things they told him was about the shallow soil and that the area was not known for its ‘super production’.”

Ontario has been considering a ban on the use of neonicotinoids in response to strong lobbying by the apiary industry and the law firm of Siskinds LLP is representing the province’s beekeepers in a class action lawsuit against pesticide manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta. A class action suit brings individuals or small companies together to bring greater economies of scale when taking on large and well-resourced corporations in the courts.

The Statement of Claim brought before the court by the law firm on behalf of beekeepers alleges, among other things, that Bayer (CropScience) and Syngenta were negligent in their manufacture, sale and distribution of neonicotinoids in Ontario causing beekeepers to suffer significant losses and damage. These losses include “killed or weakened bees; non-productive queens and bee colonies; breeding stock; contaminated wax, combs and hives; reduced honey production and lost profits; costs incurred to meet honey and pollination contracts; and increased labour, equipment and supply expenses.” The class action seeks to recover those alleged losses.

The Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA) has been active in encouraging their members to join the suit if they believe they have been impacted by the issue.

“While the OBA is not directly involved in this action, we support any effort that could help beekeepers recover losses caused by the overuse of neonicotinoids,” said OBA vice-president Tibor Szabo, leaving no doubt as to where the OBA stands on the issue. “This action puts the blame where it belongs—on the pesticide manufacturers.” Mr. Szabo himself has lost 1,000 hives over the past year in his operation.

The Ontario government has also instituted a compensation program for beekeepers who have “experienced massive losses over the past harsh winter.” The compensation package, which pays out $105 per lost hive and applies to operations with 10 or more hives who have lost 40 percent or more of their operation over the winter, has been decried by the OBA as inadequate, but “at least a start,” according to a statement by OBA president Dan Davidson earlier this year. “At least the government is recognizing there is a problem out there.” The OBA believes compensation should be set closer to $500 per hive due to neonicotinoids.

Mr. Salanka also believes that the pesticides will prove to be the main cause of bee losses. He points to the positive impact that a European Union ban on the pesticides has had on bee populations on that continent.

“The EU was having the same issue 10 years ago over there,” he said. “When they brought in a ban, bee losses dropped off. Chemical manufacturers were losing market, so they came over here to sell their products. All of a sudden we were experiencing CCD here.” The evidence may seem anecdotal, but Mr. Salanka points out that it is a suspicious coincidence, a clear “smoking gun.”

The beekeeping community is not completely united in the battle against the pesticides, however. Walter Zimmermann, a former Environment Canada scientist who operates Little Wolf Apiaries, challenges the assumptions behind the causes of the die-off, citing the lack of standardization in beekeeping practices and the rise of beekeeping hobbyists as confounding variables.

Mr. Salanka takes strong exception to the suggestion his father, with whom Mr. Salanka began keeping bees more than a quarter of a century ago and who has experienced huge losses in southern Ontario, are ‘inexperienced’ apiarists or that their practices are behind the losses. “We have been keeping bees since 1980, about 35 years,” said Mr. Salanka, who described his father’s operation as “semi-commercial. We are not talking amateur hour here.”

The Alberta beekeepers, who account for 50 percent of Canada’s production, also do not accept the assertion that the pesticides are to blame. The Alberta crew, where corn and soybean production is a huge part of the agricultural mix, say that the neonicotinoids are much better and less threatening than the less effective classes of pesticides they have replaced.

Meanwhile, farmers are caught between the warring factions. Neonicotinoids, which are generally applied to the seed and which travel through the plant systemically, have proven highly effective in combating devastating pests and have dramatically improved crop yields. Until a definitive set of studies confirm whether there is fire behind the alleged smoke, farmers, who are critically aware of the important role played by pollinators like honeybees and their wild varieties, will be left wondering if their baby will be tossed out with the bathwater of political expediency.

Beekeepers or companies in the business of honey production, queen bee rearing and/or pollination services who are interested in participating in the class action suit should contact Siskinds LLP directly via Paula Lombardi at paula.lombardi@siskinds.com or 1-877-672-2121 ext. 7878.