Late corn planting sees more bees flying

Keeping bees at bay when it comes to corn planting isn’t always possible, 
but good communication goes a long way

Manitoba corn growers and beekeepers have been meeting to talk about how to communicate better for the benefit of bees.

The Manitoba Corn Growers Association invited members of the Manitoba Beekeeper’s Association to a spring board meeting, to discuss how to best protect honeybees from the pesticides used to coat corn seeds.

“Both sides need to be aware that it’s not just corn growers who have to adjust… there are lots of things that beekeepers can do as well to keep their bees safer — such as feed them in the hive early on when this is happening, because (the seed coating) is a pesticide,” said Theresa Bergsma, general manager of the Manitoba Corn Growers Association. “It is about communication, ‘I’m gonna start planting, so you have your bees contained’… there are certain times of the year that it is best to keep your bees at home.”

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But Allan Campbell, president of the Manitoba Beekeepers’ Association, takes issue with the notion that honey producers should contain their bees during corn planting.

“That is not at all realistic, bees are not something you can cage or can, they’re out there flying. That’s kind of an irresponsible way of looking at things really,” he said.

However, lessening the chance bees will be exposed to treated corn seeds can be done.

“Ideally you would keep your bees away from areas where corn is being planted, but that’s not always possible,” Campbell said. “One of the things that corn growers can really do, is to make sure they clean up any spilled seed, oftentimes when they are unloading a truck or loading a seeder, they’ll spill a pile of seeds, which is attractive to bees and it’s got the coating right on it. So making sure things are covered and not laying around would sure go a long ways.”

Apiarist Jim Campbell said bees are hungry when they emerge in the spring and if food isn’t readily available, they may mistake some forms of dust for pollen, including the dust that comes off of treated corn as it is being planted.

“They’re looking for pollen so they’ll even pick up dust from leaves and stuff like that. There’s no food value, but they find that out when they’re back at the hive,” he said.

Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency began a detailed look at bee deaths in 2012 and found that 70 per cent of dead bee samples submitted to them contained pesticide residue from coated seed treatments on corn and soybeans. In 2013, that percentage rose to 75 per cent.

Although the largest impact has been in corn- and soybean-growing regions of Ontario, four beekeepers in Manitoba reported bee deaths they believed to be linked to the seed coating used on corn in 2013. At least two of those cases were confirmed.

Bergsma expects the number of reports of pesticide-related bee mortality will increase in the coming years, but said that doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in the actual number of bee deaths related to seed coatings.

“We’re not surprised if we see that number rise, because as everybody becomes more aware of it, you’re going to get more reported cases, that’s just the way it is,” she said. “So I think we just all need to work together to try to keep it as minimal as we can and just remember that all these tools need to be used in the best and safest fashion they can be.”

A late spring has delayed corn planting in most areas of the province this year, meaning that more bees will be out of the hives and foraging as seeds are being planted. However, changes to lubricants used in seed drills are helping to minimize the amount of dust coming off of coated corn seeds, which should reduce contact.

“If it’s meant to kill bugs, it’s going to kill bees,” Bergsma said. “It’s just a case of let’s try to see what we can do to get it in the ground as quick as possible and as safely as possible, so the bees aren’t as affected.”

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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