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Editorial: The buzz around bees, neonics and the ‘big picture’

In our business, getting the facts right and keeping them in context is a constant challenge.

Such is the case with the materials circulated as part of the Buzzing Gardens campaign rolled out last week by Bees Matter, an industry group formed to present information on bee health. It offers free flower seeds to gardeners who want to do their part protecting pollinators.

The campaign material notes that Statistics Canada reports that Canadian honeybee colony numbers have increased, and it says most experts agree that there is no single factor affecting bee health. “Instead, parasites like the deadly varroa mite, diseases, harsh weather, incorrect use of pesticides and inadequate nutrition all affect honeybee colonies.”

The problem with the Statistics Canada data is that it tells us more about producer management decisions than it does about honeybee health. The data cited by the Bees Matter campaign and others tracks decisions made by honeybee producers to replace or expand the number of hives they manage. It doesn’t reflect the excessively high losses of bees in those hives, their causes or the extra costs in dealing with them.

This was noted in the U.S. government’s recently released “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees.” That report notes that although the number of managed honeybee colonies in that country has remained consistent since 1996, “the level of effort by the beekeeping industry to maintain those numbers has increased.”

“When overwintering colony losses are high, beekeepers must compensate for these losses by ‘splitting’ one colony into two, supplying the second colony with a new queen bee and supplemental food in order to quickly build up colony strength to fulfil almond pollination contracts. This practice results in increased maintenance costs to both the beekeeper and the orchard grower renting the hives, with hive rental fees for almond pollination rising from approximately $76 per hive in 2005 to over $150 per hive in 2009.”

The Buzzing Gardens announcement, and Syngenta’s “Proud to Bee a 4-H’er” program, which also combines free seed with educational efforts, are worthwhile initiatives. They raise awareness in such a way that people feel empowered to make a difference. But these campaigns shouldn’t be used to confuse, even though neonicotinoids may be getting more than their fair share of the blame for this complex problem. The plight of pollinators and the mystery around colony collapse disorder (CCD) have been around for a while, but were hardly on the public’s radar until neonicotinoids were implicated.

Farmers and manufacturers see these products as an important class of insecticides and they justifiably fear losing them — as have farmers in the EU. In addition to helping control potentially yield-robbing pests, neonics support reduced-tillage seeding, which is an important consideration for soil health.

But just as it is important to ensure regulatory changes aren’t made as a knee-jerk reaction, it is equally important not to dodge the available evidence.

The Canadian Senate, after eight months of hearings, concluded weather and climate change, transportation of bees, diseases and parasites, disease and parasite treatments, a lack of floral diversity and neonic pesticides are all part of the picture. It’s important to continue research to further understand how those dynamics interact.

But there is also confusion around the degree of impact removing neonics from the environment would have on the agricultural sector.

The PMRA’s preliminary estimate of value, as contained in the draft report leaked to the media, said neonics bring a benefit of about $81.6 million or 3.6 per cent of the national farm gate value for corn. It suggests the effect of these products on soybean returns is relatively minor at 0.4 per cent, similar to a USDA analysis that suggested neonic use in soybeans is largely “prophylactic.” The PMRA study said in Manitoba, neonic use prevents economic loss in corn. But in soybeans, the cost of the seed treatment exceeds the estimated return.

Meanwhile, a report prepared for CropLife Canada said loss of neonics would reduce the value of the corn and soybean sector in Ontario alone by $345 million — more than four times PMRA’s estimate. So which is it?

When defending the safety of crop protection products, farmers and industry often point to Canada’s pesticide regulatory system as a reason why consumers need not worry. As that system does its job in this situation, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind.

About the author

Editorial Director

Laura Rance is the Editorial Director for Glacier FarmMedia. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered agriculture and rural issues for more than 30 years.

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