News coverage of honeybee numbers questioned

The opening line of an article posted on CBC News’s website last May summarized a commonly held belief about honeybees:

“The collapse of bee colonies nationwide (in Canada) is well-established and beyond dispute.”

A provocative lead, but not true.

Statistics Canada data shows that honeybee colony numbers have increased steadily from 637,920 colonies in 2011 to 667,397 in 2013 and 721,106 in 2015.

Yet many media outlets use words such as “endangered,” “at risk” and “near extinction” to characterize the plight of honeybees.

Jim Coneybeare, vice-president of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, said media rhetoric can be excessive.

“I don’t think ‘endangered’ is the right terminology,” he said.

“(But) within Ontario I think it would be correct in saying that the situation puts a great stress on honeybees and the beekeepers.”

Coneybeare said bee colony health declined in Ontario after neonicotinoid seed treatments became standard practice for corn and soybean growers, but Ontario isn’t Canada.

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“I think things need to be clarified,” said Coneybeare, who represents the OBA on the Canadian Honey Council.

“It’s important that people realize that the West hasn’t seen Ontario’s situation…. We’re a big country and there are huge differences between East and West.”

Honey council chair Kevin Nixon said journalists have been reluctant to report that Canada’s beekeeping industry is prospering.

“Over the last couple of years there have been times where we tried getting that message out … but it didn’t seem to get picked up,” said Nixon, a beekeeper from Innisfail, Alta.

“The general public isn’t made aware of these good news stories. The industry is growing and is thriving.”

Honey council executive director Rod Scarlett was more direct in his criticism. He’s seen dozens of reports on Canada’s “bee apocalypse,” and the stories are irritating.

“Ultimately I think it’s the press’s responsibility to get the facts right…. In general, they have done an awful job of getting factual information,” he said.

“If they don’t do the work to follow up and make sure the articles they’re presenting are correct, we don’t have the time or manpower to go out and correct everybody’s article.”

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The media coverage has convinced many Canadians that bees are in serious trouble. Most articles say neonicotinoids, an insecticide applied to canola, corn and soybean seed, are responsible for honeybee deaths and colony losses and are putting pollinators in jeopardy.

Nixon said the reports stoke conflict between beekeepers and crop producers, harming what should be a positive relationship between the two sectors.

It can be argued that the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association has provoked some of the friction between honey producers and farmers. It lobbied against neonicotinoids, and its efforts may have helped convince the Ontario government to impose neonic restrictions. By 2017, corn and soybean growers will have to prove they need neonics to control crop pests. If not, they cannot use neonic seed treatments.

Coneybeare said the OBA’s position on neonics is a source of disagreement within the national honey council, but neonics are just one of many issues facing the beekeeping sector.

“There are many, many things … that are common across the country,” he said.

“It’s definitely important that we maintain a national membership…. Sometimes certain issues get painted with a broad paintbrush and that’s where we run into problems.”

The CBC story from May can be viewed at www.cbc.ca/news/canada/bee-killing-pesticides-the-fight-ramps-up-1.3075620

National honey production hit a low in the late 2000s but has rebounded over the last seven years:
Honey (millions of lb.)
2008            64.9
2010            81.7
2012            90.8
2014            85.5
2015            95.3*
* Second highest total in last 15 years
Source: Statistics Canada

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robert.arnason@producer.com

  • Kaslo

    “The collapse of bee colonies nationwide (in Canada) is well-established and beyond dispute.

    A provocative lead, but not true.”

    You say collapse of “bee colonies” and then proceed to write about the findings around honeybees. Neonics impair bumblebees, that’s very well established: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature16167.html?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20151119&spMailingID=50048505&spUserID=MjA1NzQ5NzY0NgS2&spJobID=802503317&spReportId=ODAyNTAzMzE3S0

  • Lorri Nelson

    Welcome to the new reality of “journalism”. Now since you have managed to point out this mis-reported story, do you think you could do the same for that gong show in Ontario about the “stolen” sheep and the CFIA quarantine breach? That one-sided story has been mis-reported even worse than this one. Unfortunately, in our world of instant news and citizen journalism, it appears that badly reported stories are the new normal.

  • stoneyridge3

    Unfortunately, news reported by CBC tends to lean toward the “radical left”, rather than realistic. Is it possible that CBC will now come clean on their lie? Not a chance, truth is totally unexciting news!

  • ed

    Holding up the domesticated honey production numbers as the proof of good bee health or anything is about as disingenuous as you could get. It is the same as saying that the increase in the amount of bottled water proves the fact that we have vast amounts of good safe water now and will have well into the future, so don’t worry about rinsing your sprayer too near the river or flushing your high volume toilet that extra several times. It is all good right! This really brings into question the substance, credibility and intent of this article. Calming possible discontent between honey producers and those who produce crops is a great goal, but letting the rich and powerful “crop protection” chemical lobby win the day because of the tensions that they have created and continue to incubate, is by no means the way to go about it. It just keeps feeding into the polarized disinformation campaign until everybody tires of it and moves on. The unstated intent of this particular piece most likely.

  • Denise

    The wild pollinators, like the bumble bees, and many butterflies ,like the Monarch butterflies, are rare sights on the prairies, nowadays. Haven’t you noticed their absence? I have lived on the prairies, all my life, and I have never seen anything like this. This is very alarming!
    Sure, you can replace the honeybees missing from your hives. That’s monoculture. But we need the diversity of wild NATIVE pollinators and other insects which keeps the balance of nature in order and sustains and guarantees the survival of other species, including us.
    Check out: Heavy Costs: Weighing the Value of Neonicotinoid Insecticides in Agriculture. – Center for Food Safety March 2014.