I’m beginning to wonder if we’re watching the steady and painful (for bees and beekeepers) death of Canada’s once flourishing honey industry, as honey-bee colonies “collapse” with many millions of bees dying at an alarming annual rate, especially in Ontario.
The Ontario Beekeepers Association says the loss rate in Ontario during the winter of 2013-14 was 58 percent, three times the national rate, and much higher than the average annual rate of 15 to 18 percent before 2007. The association says that corresponds to the large increase in corn and soybean field crops planted in Ontario and the widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides.
There are concerns about the high rate of collapse of honey bee colonies in the U.S. as well. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State of California are cooperating with Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency in a “re-evaluation” of the approvals for the use of neonicotinoids, sometimes called simply “neonics,” to kill insect pests that might otherwise do costly damage to cash crops.
Initially, when first approved and put into use, primarily in the late 1990s, neonics like imidacloprid, now the most used pesticide in the world, were thought to be less toxic to birds and animals than previous pesticides. But neonics have become increasingly controversial in recent years as a growing body of research finds evidence of the deadly threat they pose to bees and other beneficial insect pollinators.
The honey bee colony collapse disorder, as it’s called, is a global problem. A recent seven-year study done by a team of researchers at the National Taiwan University found imidacloprid can harm the central nervous system of bees and may be the cause of the disorder.
The Taiwan researchers discovered imidacloprid can cause worker bees to lose their way back to their hives. They found that even low levels of the pesticide, 10 parts per billion, interfered with the ability of bees in their larva stage to form and retain memories. That’s a big issue for bee colonies that depend on the remarkable ability of worker bees to find their way back to the hive after locating a good source of nectar or pollen. In the best of all possible bee worlds, they communicate that information to other bees in the colony by means of actions that resemble a “dance.” The failure to do that, either because the bees can’t find their way back to the hive, or can’t remember the vital information about the location of the food source, contributes to the eventual collapse of the colony.
The use of imidacloprid on certain crops was banned by the European Union in 2013, but it was still being used in Taiwan, a major honey producer ($2.3 billion per year) when the results of the study were announced in April, 2014. The researchers called on the Taiwanese government to look at limiting the use of imidacloprid, and other neonics.
I find the results of that study particularly interesting because imidacloprid is the first neonic subjected to the joint re-evaluation currently being carried out by Canada and the U.S. It’s supposed to be finalized by the end of this year. Both federal regulatory agencies released preliminary reports last week and invited public comment.
The American, EPA, report did indeed find evidence that imidacloprid is “a threat to some pollinators . . . that (it) potentially poses a risk to hives when the pesticide comes in contact with certain crops that attract pollinators,” an on-line AP radio news article reported. The crops cited as risky for bees when treated with the pesticide were cotton and citrus, but not corn.
The EPA “found a clear level of concentration of the pesticide . . . in which things start to go awry. If nectar brought back to the hive from worker bees had more than 25 parts per billion of the chemical, ‘there’s a significant effect,’ namely fewer bees, less honey and ‘a less robust hive,’ said Jim Jones, EPA’s assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention.
“But if the nectar chemical level was below 25 parts per billion,” there were no effects at all, he said. Well, the Tawainese researchers wouldn’t agree. And so it goes, around and around.
Meanwhile, Health Canada’s preliminary report was equally non-committal about where this country might be heading with the regulatory future of imidacloprid, and three other neonics being re-evaluated.
But I for one don’t mind saying here and now that much of the information in the Health Canada report about how imidacloprid works certainly raised my eyebrows. Like this, for example:
“Imidacloprid moves upward inside the plant. Pollen and nectar may contain imidacloprid a result of this upwards movement.”
And this: “Imidacloprid is persistent in the environment. In treated fields, (it) can leach through the soil profile and has been detected in groundwater. Imidacloprid is routinely found in surface water, including puddles which are known drinking water sources for pollinators.”
I note, by the way, Health Canada announced its intention to re-evaluate neonics in 2012. The joint re-evaluation with the U.S. was announced last May. That process, a re-evaluation of a total of four neonics, isn’t scheduled to be finished until the end of 2017.
Meanwhile, Canada’s honey bees are dying by the multi-millions, and around the world by the multi-billions, no doubt.
It’s a crisis, now. However much grain farmers are benefiting financially because of neonics, isn’t worth the potentially much bigger risk to bees and other pollinators, a huge portion of the world’s food supply that depends on them, and the natural environment.
There are better ways to farm.
The sooner neonics are banned, everywhere, the better.
Originally published in The Sun Times in January, 2016