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Ban neonicotinoids? Not if you’re concerned about the facts

The Ontario Bee Association and the Sierra Club of Canada is seeking a ban on treating seeds with neonicotinoid insecticides.

But science and statistics do not support their position.

Consider the following:

Statistics Canada data show that the number of honey bee colonies was up, not down, in both Ontario and Canada in 2012. While some beekeepers have experienced excessive losses in recent years, most have not, including many with hives immediately adjacent to fields where neonicotinoid-treated corn has been planted. On the Prairies, home to 80 per cent of honey production and usage of neonicotinoids (also used to treat canola) is much higher than in Ontario, there has been no linkage between neonics and bee deaths.

Despite claims to the contrary, there has been no shortage of pollinator bees for horticultural crop producers across Ontario, and the province continues to send many thousands of hives to Atlantic Canada each year for blueberry pollination.

Bees are always dying in large numbers and while the percentages vary widely from year to year, recent Ontario numbers are not that different from historical patterns.

The real cause of increased bee mortality for some beekeepers in recent years is the arrival of varroa mites, which like malaria-carrying mosquitoes, suck blood (or its insect counterpart) and also inject deadly viruses into the host. Their arrival also means chemical controls must be applied just right. Casual bee management practices, which worked well before varroa arrived, mean excessive bee mortality now.

Varroa management keeps changing as the mite develops resistance to formerly effective miticides. Part of the problem in Ontario could be a new miticide called Mite Away Quick Strips, derived from toxic formic acid. Widely used in Ontario but not in Western Canada, it is not recommended at higher temperatures. Ontario had many days with higher temperatures in May 2012 when some Ontario beekeepers reported high losses.

Ontario bees have also been affected by a recently arrived strain/species of a serious fungal disease, nosema. Other stresses also weaken bees, such as when the nectar and pollen supply is inadequate or is far away from hives.

Dust from corn seed treatments may be a factor, but efforts are underway in the corn industry to alter the seed treatments and planter design (or the choice of equipment purchased).

The Canadian Honey Council, representing beekeepers all across Canada, actively opposes the ban requested by the board of the Ontario Beekeepers Association, arguing the harm to other farmers would be substantial, with no notable change in bee mortality.

A neonic ban could lead to a situation where the bee-death problem is just as bad as before, but with corn farmers experiencing serious losses due to damage caused by insects now controlled by neonic seed treatments. If that happens, there’s a high probability many corn farmers would switch to other insecticides much more harmful to themselves and the environment.

Finally, the demand for a neonic ban could extend to horticultural farmers who are highly dependent on foliar spray applications of neonics for insect control.

Successful, careful beekeepers in Ontario say that skilled bee and varroa management coupled with quality hygiene (the same principles which apply for livestock and poultry producers) is what is needed to ensure hive survival and productivity.

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