Bee health has been the subject of much media attention over the last year, and rightly so. Bees are a critical part of the agricultural system and they are largely responsible for one in every three bites of food we eat.
There are few who are more concerned about this issue than the manufacturers of pest control products, who depend heavily on bees to pollinate the crops their products are designed to protect. Quite simply put, we as an industry absolutely need bees to thrive.
I’m concerned that we’re losing an opportunity to address bee health in a fulsome and meaningful way as many groups focus the bee death conversation solely on pesticides.
Here’s what we know. International researchers widely agree that bee health is affected by a combination of factors, the primary one being the varroa mite.
In Western Canada, farmers plant more than 20 million acres of canola, the majority of which is treated with a neonicotinoid, and bee health remains strong. And canola, unlike corn, is a crop on which bees feed heavily.
If we look at the rest of the world, regions that use no neonicotinoids are experiencing major bee losses while others that make widespread use of these tools have healthy, thriving bee populations.
For example, bee populations are flourishing in Australia, where farmers rely heavily on neonicotinoids. It is also worth noting that there are no varroa mites in Australia.
Groups such as the Sierra Club, with no known expertise in bee health or agriculture, have been recklessly calling for a ban on neonicotinoids, saying they are to blame for bee population declines.
While isolated incidents of bee mortalities certainly need to be addressed, the reality is that managed honey bee colony numbers in this country have been on the rise for the last 20 years, according to Statistic Canada.
A ban on neonicotinoids wouldn’t solve bee health issues, but it would threaten the economic viability of our farmers by removing an important tool from growers’ tool boxes. Without neonicotinoids, farmers would be forced to return to older technologies, lose more of their crop to insect damage and maybe be unable to grow certain crops.
One only need look at research from the University of Guelph that shows infestations of wireworms and European chafer grubs in corn crops can cause a three to 20 bushel per acre yield loss to see the potential consequences of not having access to neonicotinoids.
This means someone who farms 500 acres could see a reduction in their revenues of $65,000 a year.
The benefit of insecticide-treated seeds is that the insecticide is applied directly to the seed, which is then planted in the ground. This limits not only the quantity of pesticides used but also the potential exposure of non-target organisms, such as bees, to the insecticide.
Neonicotinoid seed treatments have been used in Canada for a decade with few incidents. The plant science industry has invested heavily in research and development to limit any potential exposure of bees to dust from treated seeds.
Our industry has also reached out to other groups in the agricultural sector to find long-term solutions to bee health issues. Through these partnerships, we’ve been able to develop and widely distribute a comprehensive set of best management practices for planting insecticide-treated corn.
We’re making significant progress by working with grower groups, governments and the Canadian Honey Council, but there are others who refuse to join the larger dialogue around this issue.
Everyone in the agricultural sector has an interest in bee health. We’d be all much better served by working together and taking a holistic, science-based approach to addressing bee health challenges, which will enable the agricultural system as a whole to thrive.
Lorne Hepworth is president of CropLife Canada, which represents biotechnology companies and agricultural chemical manufacturers and distributors.