by SUSAN MANN
May might be one of the busiest times of the year in Ontario agriculture, but even a mountain of field work cannot distract the farm community from the ongoing dispute within its ranks about neonicotidoid use.
Last week, the Ontario Beekeepers Association alerted the Ontario agricultural community to estimates of a greater than average bee loss this spring.
Tibor Szabo, Ontario Beekeepers’ Association president, attributes the bee deaths to neonicotinoid dust “that’s blown off the fields when the seeds go in.
“Right now it’s an acute exposure,” he says.
Mark Brock, chair of Grain Farmers of Ontario, says he can’t confirm whether the spring bee deaths are higher than in other years.
“I haven’t seen anything from OMAFRA (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs) that gives that report. It’s just some numbers that OBA are coming up with, and I don’t know what they’re backed up by other than just their membership,” he says.
Bianca Jamieson, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson, also says by email that “it is difficult to attribute these bee mortality incidents to one cause.
“We know bee health is a complex issue and that is why the government is working on a Pollinator Health Action Plan to strengthen pollinator health,” she writes.
She also called the in-season bee loss numbers preliminary. The results have not been analyzed to determine the reasons behind the numbers.
“In-season losses vary from year to year and must be studied over a period of time before drawing conclusions,” she notes.
Meanwhile, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency is sending mixed messages about whether this year’s bee losses could be caused by neonicotinoid poisoning.
In an email, André Gagnon, Health Canada spokesperson, notes that the agency has found that in the past four years mortalities at this time of year were caused by neonicotinoid poisoning.
But Gagnon did not respond directly to a question of whether this year’s bee losses had to do with the pesticide.
Instead, Gagnon notes in his email that this year the agency, with the help of various provincial ministries, will only collect bee samples for incidents that differ from “what was observed in previous years.”
A large amount of data has been collected in previous years and collecting more data for incidents that are similar to ones reported in other years “would not be expected to enhance PMRA’s understanding of the incidents,” he explains.
Gagnon says 43 bee yards have reported mortalities to Health Canada during planting this year so far. That’s about the same as last year.
This is the first full growing season under Ontario’s new regulations on the sales and use of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seeds. The government introduced the regulations on July 1, 2015 and is phasing them in over two years. The aim is to cut the acreage of corn and soybean planted with neonicotinoid-treated seeds by 80 per cent by next year.
Jamieson says by email the government doesn’t have numbers yet on the acreage planted with neonicotinoid treated seeds. However, starting this year, licensed seed vendors must report treated seed sales to the Ontario environment ministry by Oct. 31 annually.
One industry insider, however, says neonicotinoid-treated seed use is down in both corn and soybeans. Stephen Denys, Maizex Seeds director of business development, says the reduction of neonicotinoid use on corn seed treaments is “noticeable” and, on soybeans, “sizeable.” He didn’t have numbers for the reduction.
On corn, growers have switched to using seeds treated with a fungicide only or treated with a new product that isn’t governed by the regulations and that has “a lower risk portfolio,” he says. Producers switched to soybean seeds treated with fungicide only.
The Ontario Beekeepers’ Association (OBA) issued a press release May 24 linking the spring’s bee deaths with neonicotinoid pesticide exposure and noted there has been more bees killed this year than in the past two years.
Szabo asserts that while the number of incidents might be the same as in previous years, each incident could include millions or billions of dead bees.
He points to a higher percentage of winter survival for bees this year compared to previous years. Because more bees have survived, there are more bees that “could potentially be exposed,” he explains.
The most recent report from provincial apiarist Paul Kozak estimated the overwintering rate loss at 38 per cent for 2014/15, which is significantly lower than the rate of 58 per cent reported during the winter of 2013/14. Kozak’s report does not include loss rates for the 2015/2016.
Jamieson says anecdotal reports from beekeepers on overwintering honeybee losses during 2015/16 were that deaths were lower than in previous years. Updated official numbers will be released in July as part of the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists report.
The ministry sent beekeepers surveys in early May as part of that survey, she says.
Szabo says the new Ontario regulations don’t govern the amount of neonicotinoid pesticide that can be applied to individual seeds in seed treatments. “We could have more insecticide going into Ontario, just on less fields,” he notes.
Pierre Petelle, vice-president of chemistry for CropLife Canada, says by email every pest control product, including neonicotinoids is regulated by Health Canada, including the “amount of product that can be applied as a seed treatment.”
CropLife Canada represents pesticide and plant biotechnology manufacturers.
Petelle disagrees with Szabo’s assessment on the cause of the spring’s bee deaths, and, like Szabo, uses the drop in bee losses over the winter to back his point.
“The drop in overwintering losses comes before Ontario-mandated restrictions on neonicotinoids has even taken effect,” he asserts. BF
UPDATE: June 1, 2016
It seems Health Canada isn’t attributing Ontario’s 43 bee incidents this year so far to neonicotinoids after all.
Spokesperson André Gagnon says in a June 1 email the analysis of the data for the 2016 incident reports is not finished yet.
“A final decision on the contribution of neonicotinoids cannot be made until the data is complied and analyzed,” he writes in response to questions asking him to clarify his earlier comments. END OF UPDATE