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All Creatures Great and Small (PCN Spring 2014) MAY 5 2014 | Consumers and Producers | Pulse Crop News

This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Pulse Crop News.

Pollinator politics – what is happening to all the bees? There are 7000 bee keepers in Canada operating 600,000 colonies of honeybees. The Prairie Provinces are responsible for between 80 and 85% of Canadian honey production with approximately 475,000 colonies residing in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

In recent months honeybees have flown into the spot light. Widespread issues of an overall reduction of bee health and in many cases colony collapse has resulted in a concentrated effort by scientists to understand the underlying cause.

In April of 2013, the European Commission banned three insecticides used as seed treatments on corn, soybeans and canola because of a suspected link to bee health and potential link to colony collapse disorder. The banned products contain neonicotinoids, which are neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine. This class of chemicals was developed primarily because they showed reduced toxicity compared to preciously used insecticides. They are the first new class on insecticides introduced in the last 50 years and are the most widely used across the world.

This action by the European Commission came as a result of research that demonstrated an apparent connection between the uses of neonicotinoid insecticides causing a weakening of the immune system, resulting in higher susceptibility to viral infections.

Following the release of the decision by the European Commission, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a comprehensive report in May 2013. The report indicated that while the sub-lethal use of pesticides on honey bees are of great concern, they are only one factor in a larger equation.

According to Paul Thiel, Vice-President of Innovation and Public Affairs with Bayer CropScience, it is important to make the distinction between acute and chronic health issues when it comes to honey bees.

Recently in a Southern Ontario, an isolated group of bee keepers have been reported to have significant losses of bees due to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in corn and soybeans. The mortality associated with this has been linked to dust created by moving treated seeds through precision planters. The resulting abrasion of the seeds creates a dust which, comprised of the pesticide, can then be lethal to insects that it comes in contact with.

This acute issue has been addressed by the formulation of new fluency agent, developed by Bayer CropScience which contains waxes to reduce the dust. PMRA has now regulated the use of this fluency agent for corn and soybeans treated with neonicotinoids, posting on their website that: “When using a seed flow lubricant for planting corn and soybean seed treated with neonicotinoid insecticides (containing the active ingredients clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam):

  • Use only the Fluency Agent by Bayer CropScience.
  • Talc and graphite are not permitted.”

Colony losses that have been attributed directly to the use of neonicotinoids, through exposure to contaminated dust, have been confirmed only in a small region of Ontario and according to Derrick Rozdeba, Bayer CropScience, affects only 2% of colonies which live in close proximity to land planted with vacuum precision planters.

The buzz surrounding this issue has generated enough concern that the standing senate committee has been authorized to examine the topic of bee health as it relates to the production of food, crop and honey production. Over the last number of weeks, the standing committee has had candid discussions with an extensive number of groups that are impacted directly and indirectly by pollinators and the use of neonicotinoids. Senate meetings have included beekepers from across the country as well as representatives from various crop commissions, horticulturalists, scientists, lifesciences companies, and environmental organizations in an effort to include all stakeholders.

D’Arcy Hilgartner, APG commissioner and a director on the Grain Growers of Canada, had an opportunity to present before the standing committee. Hilgartner stated “Farmers and crops need pollinators, pollinators need farmers and crops.” He detailed the importance of bees and hives in relation to his own farming operation, located near Camrose, Alberta. “Science is showing us that having pollinators present increases the yields of some crops, such as canola.”

While the acute issues in bee health due to the use of seed treatment that Ontario bee keepers are experiencing are not occurring in the Western Provinces, bee health is still of concern.

There are several factors that play into maintaining healthy colonies of honey bees. Hilgartner paralleled the need for beekeepers to protect bees from invasive insects, such as the Varroa mite which can decimate a colony, to himself as a producer of crops needing to protect them from invasive insects as well. A key point was to have that constant communication between farmers and beekeepers. Knowing what will be applied and when on a field helps beekeepers minimize the pollinators risk of exposure.

As producers the introduction of neoticotinoid products provided huge advances in the safety and effectiveness of seed treatment products. The issues of bee mortality directly due to the use of these products do not exist in the western provinces. Most crops are planted using air drills and any dust which may be generated due to seed abrasion is pushed into the soil and contact with pollinators is averted.

There are some claims that pollinators and other insects are exposed to these chemicals through the plant themselves. Science has not been able to make a connection however, between use of neonicotinoid seed treatment products, transfer into plant cells, and ingestion by foraging insects resulting in a reduction in health. Because of the complex interaction between disease, winter conditions, and overall bee health it is difficult to attribute an increase in bee mortality to any one factor.

As pulse producers, seed treatments are recommended as part of best management practices. The options for seed treatments are limited in many cases, dry beans for example are treated with Cruiser, a product containing neonicotinoids, and there are no other options. The benefits to plant health and protection by using these products are significant and often eliminate the need to apply chemicals to the foliage later in the season. An aerial application of pesticide has far greater risk of negatively impacting pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Bee health and the recent decline in the numbers of colonies are a concern for many stakeholders. Collaborative efforts to support solid scientific answers and solutions to this complex issue are of high priority for crop producers and beekeepers alike.