Did Farmers Just Save the Bees Before Glen Murray Could?

The Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) has tallied up the in-season bee death numbers for both 2014 and 2015 (planting only), and the numbers are nothing short of staggering.

The PMRA recently reported to the federal bee health roundtable that during the planting period there was roughly a 70% decrease in the number of reported bee yards affected in 2014 compared to 2013, and, in 2015, the reduction was about 80% compared to 2013.

Let that sink in for a moment. Bee hive death incidents in 2014 were reduced 70% from 2013; 2015 saw an 80% reduction.

Yes, it’s true, and, much to the detriment of the Ontario government’s carefully crafted we’re-the-only-ones-who-can-save-the-bees platform, these numbers occurred without a near-ban on neonicotinoid soy and corn seed treatments.

What then could have possibly happened in 2014 and 2015? Did farmers suddenly stop using neonics — you know, that one and only thing that’s responsible for bee health, according to Glen Murray, the head of Ontario’s ministry of environment and climate change? I can tell you that no, they did not, though there may have been a reduction in use.

We don’t have the full answers, of course, so let’s use some common sense on that whole correlation does not equal causation thing (these are survey numbers, not an in-depth study), but I can tell you a few differences between 2013 and 2014/15, and we can use that as a leaping off point for more discussion and perhaps even research.

See PMRA’s Numbers here (downloads as a PDF)

Here’s what we do know: Beginning in 2014, farmers climbed on the backs of their planters, whittled-down hockey sticks in hand, and stirred in Fluency agent — a product to keep seeds flowing freely, thus reducing dust — whenever they used neonic-treated seed. Farmers also, using their own money and sometimes even by building the things in their own shops, attached dust deflectors on to their planters, sending any neonic-laced dust down and into the ground and out of bees’ path. Farmers and beekeepers alike were also more aware of the risks of bee exposure to pesticide, and while I don’t have proof of this, I would surmise that more communication happened, and extra care and attention was taken during planting to minimize exposure to bees.

In short, I reckon that at least part of that significant reduction in bee deaths rests squarely on the shoulders of farmers and their partner beekeepers. What happened was that farmers were alerted to a problem, were provided with management tools and knowledge, and expected to follow new on-label requirements for using a product. Which they did.

I’m only half-serious when I suggest this is all farmers’ and beekeepers’ doing, of course. As we know, pesticide exposure is only one factor of bee hive health. As stated in the Senate Ag Committee’s report on bee health and by the National Bee Health Roundtable, honeybee hive health hinges on the interplay of freedom from pathogens and pests, an abundant food source, the weather and climate, and more.

But that’s exactly the point that Ontario’s government is completely glossing over as it goes after pesticide use in conventional agriculture. Yes, I know, we’re told we’ll see a more robust “pollinator health” action plan after consultations this winter, but I venture that if Ontario really wanted to make an immediate impact on honeybee (and maybe even native pollinators’) health, we’ve already got a real-world example of how working WITH farmers can make that happen in a jiffy.

Your move, Murray.

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Lyndsey Smith

Lyndsey Smith is a field editor for RealAgriculture. A self-proclaimed agnerd, Lyndsey is passionate about all things farming but is especially thrilled by agronomy and livestock production.

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3 Comments

OBA

This blog tells only half the story. It reports on only one of the charts, the one that focusses solely on the immediate planting period, avoiding the data that post-plant reports went up 71% in 2014. The reduction at planting time reflects the improvements in planting, but also the reality that there are fewer bee colonies at planting time due to winter losses as well as beekeepers moving their hives temporarily for safety or pollination. The post planting stat is in some ways more relevant as beekeepers may not notice the effects of planting for a while if the bees are dying in the field and not in front of the hive. As well, as the science supports, the sublethal effects of neonics are worse than the acute kills as they contaminate the comb, and weaken the queen and the colony as a whole. As research shows, neonics can persist in the soil and water for months or years. To view the chart: http://www.ontariobee.com/sites/ontariobee.com/files/2015-06-18%20PMRA%20Incident%20Update.pdf
For more information: http://www.ontariobee.com/neonics

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Lyndsey Smith

Julie: this column posts the full details twice (it is a) not a report and b) a column)), so that any and all are free to analyze the full numbers supplied by PMRA. Also of note, one beekeeper reported 70% of those post-plant losses, which requires its own research and post.

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