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Editorial: Bee issue all the buzz

October 29, 2013  By Marg Land

Concern has been growing across Canada this summer about the future of the honeybee.

I first reported on the problem of the steep rise in bee mortalities back in the March 2013 issue of Fruit and Vegetable Magazine in an editorial entitled “The buzz about bees and neonicotinoids.” I described what actions were being taken in the European Union regarding the use of neonicotinoids and highlighted a conference presentation made by B.C.’s provincial apiculturist on the issue.

Over the summer, more action has been taken to protect bees.

Back in July, the Ontario government announced the formation of an industry working group with a mandate of providing advice on how to prevent bee mortalities. The group comprises beekeepers, farmers, agri-business representatives plus federal and government officials.

At the time of the group’s formation, the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association spoke in favour of the move but
stressed that a ban on neonicotinoid use needed to be put in place before the 2014 planting season.

“Our industry simply cannot sustain these losses,” said Dan Davidson, president of the OBA, in a press release. “Allowing the status quo to remain would spell tragedy for the bees that pollinate our fruits and vegetables.”

In early September, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) of Health Canada released a Notice of Intent – Action to Protect Bees from Exposure to Neonicotinoid Pesticides – and invited interested parties to comment on it over the next 90 days. The deadline for written comments is Dec. 12, 2013.

“Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency has determined that current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed are affecting the environment due to their impacts on bees and other pollinators,” the document states.

According to the PMRA, a “significant” number of reports involving the death of bees were received in 2012 from corn growing regions in Ontario and Quebec. When tested, about 70 per cent of the dead bees tested positive for residues of neonicotinoid insecticides. That “significant” number of reports continued in 2013.

“Consequently, we have concluded that current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable.”

The PMRA recommends for the 2014 planting season that the following protective measures for corn and soybean production be put in place:

  • the use of safer, dust-reducing seed flow lubricants
  • adherence to safer seed planting practices
  • new pesticide and seed package labels with enhanced warnings
  • the provision of updated value information to support the continued need for neonicotinoid treatment on up to 100 per cent of the corn seed and 50 per cent of the soybean seed

Some beekeepers don’t think this goes far enough, according to media reports.Meanwhile, Ontario Premier and Minister of Agriculture and Food Kathleen Wynne released a statement on the progress being made by the province’s bee health working group.

“Based on the group’s early discussions, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food is working with seed trade and grain farmer organizations to raise farmers’ awareness of their options to plant non-insecticide treated corn and soybean seed,” she said, adding, “We need the federal government to take definitive action and make bee health and pesticide use a top priority.”

To help address the issues facing bees, Bayer CropScience has opened a North American Bee Care Center in North Carolina to complement the company’s existing bee centre in Germany.

“Our scientists are working to help solve some of the most pressing honeybee health problems, as their importance to the global food supply cannot be overstated,” said Jim Blome, president and CEO of Bayer CropScience.

Muddying the issue even more are recent research findings from a study out of the University of California showing that selenium – which can occur naturally in plants – can also be toxic to bees.

The value of honeybees to the pollination of crops is estimated at $2 billion annually.

It is reassuring to see the numerous actions being taken by industry, science and government to address the health of Canada’s bee population. It’s a complicated and contentious issue but all continue to work together to find a solution, a reflection of its importance.

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