It’s Good to Be a Bee, When You’ve Got Plenty to Eat

Photo credit: Andrew Campbell, 2015

I’ve often wondered what would happen if I moved my dairy farm to Toronto’s Yonge and Eglinton.

I’d take some floor space out in a nearby building and then open the doors to let the cows come and go as the please. Free-range is all the rage, anyway. I wouldn’t feed them myself though, I’d let them find their own — there are plenty of yards in the city. Of course, when the cows started to perform poorly because they weren’t getting the proper nutrition, I’d blame the asphalt industry. Or maybe a condo architect for my cow’s misery.

No one would listen, of course, because I deliberately put my livestock in harms way by not giving them adequate access to the food, water and shelter that they actually require. Why then do we blame grain farmers when a bee hive performs poorly next to a corn field? Research continues to show that corn and soybean crops aren’t what a bee is interested in, so shouldn’t we either invest in habitat that bees prefer, or move those hives to established areas they’ll actually thrive on – like canola, or fruit and flower crops?

The popular issue of saving bee populations (that don’t seem to be as desperate as we once thought) is one of great consternation. Here in Ontario, the province is creating new regulations to restrict insecticides as the only means of protecting bees. That’s a slippery slope. I’d hate to see the government worry about dandelion populations and find that herbicides may hurt those, too.

The American means of protecting pollinator health, however, is bringing back my hope that government can have real impacts when they think with the help of science, rather than with the help of well-funded, agenda driven activists. The U.S. president is signing an executive order that appears to drive different federal agencies to work together, to find a way to feed the bees.  The first concept of working together with different agencies is one that is hard for many other governments to comprehend. Ministries and agencies seems to think more about protecting their own turf, and therefore can be found in a silo – not wanting someone else to take away their positive press.

The other even more encouraging piece to this, is the idea that Ontario’s own government research has found but chose to ignore — bees are hungry for an environment in which they can actually have a positive pollinating impact.

For example, here in Ontario we worry about the seed treatment neonicotinoid on corn and soybean seed. But what we see is that bees don’t particularly like corn and soybeans as a pollinating source, and therefore we must wonder if starving the bees by having them in the wrong environment is actually a major cause as well.

Related: Moving the yardsticks — the million acre pollinator maneuver

It has to be considered, given that more acres of neonic seeds are planted in Western Canada compared to Ontario four-fold, thanks in big part to the canola fields. But bee populations are strong in Western Canada. Could it be that the canola plant, a plant that bees thrive on, is helping? The evidence would suggest that Ontario’s bee hives either need to be better placed around proper habitats, or Ontario needs to follow the lead of the American government and invest in strengthening areas to help bees thrive.

Of course, American environmental activists are crying foul, because neonic seed treatments weren’t the target they wanted. It is a sure sign that this isn’t actually about saving the bees, but instead about targeting pesticide use, simply because fundraising engines are far more effective when the donor is scared or guilted, than when the donor feels that things are going well.

I want to be optimistic that the Ontario government will admit the plan as it stands today, isn’t going to have the effect they were hoping for. To date, science and logic hasn’t been an argument that can be used in the government’s debates about classroom curriculums, labour negotiating and public asset sales because the data doesn’t exist. Therefore emotion and projections are all that can be used. For farmers though, the data is there. Let’s hope together that the government does start to see that maybe they were making some rushed decisions and that more can be done by making investments, rather than red-tape.

Related: Buzzing Gardens set to adorn Canadian landscapes

I’d offer up a program that was tested a number of years ago known as the “Alternative Land Use Service”. It offered funding to farmers to take land out of grain production and replace it with a habitat that could help bees thrive. While still around, it lacks the permanent & sufficient funds it needs to be properly successful. What if the ALUS program also acted as the liaison between other municipalities and ministries to strengthen habitats on crown land, roadways, parks and more?

For some of the major organizations leading the charge against neonic use, I wonder when they will come to the support of genetic engineering as a solution? Using transgenic crops could further reduce the need for pesticide use. It is likely a little too optimistic to think that day is coming for groups like the Sierra Club or David Suzuki Foundation. Their key donors are against using that technology as well – a technology that has a real shot at saving bees if neonics are an issue. But let’s not forget that fear and nostalgia fund environmental activism, not promising solutions.

If Ontario is still concerned about neonics, let’s put on hold the planned restrictions and have the Ministry of Agriculture continue their research into what soils need neonic seeds, and which ones don’t. The government will have the support of the grain industry when their decisions are clearly based on sound science.

After all, it appears that it may be a good time to be a bee, south of the border.

 

Andrew Campbell

Andrew is a dairy farmer in southern Ontario who also specializes in helping farmers learn about social media and advocacy. Once broadcasting farm news reports on the radio, he still likes to keep a close eye on news and issues relating to agriculture. Andrew is the owner of Fresh Air Media (http://www.thefreshair.ca), has a mild addiction to Twitter and believes the Brier & Scotties are the most important sporting events in the country. @FreshAirFarmer

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