Opinions, studies on neonicotinoids contradictory

Farmers, apiculturists and ag researchers say many studies citing harm to bee populations don’t hold up

Ontario’s plan to restrict neonicotinoid use is on track now that a request to appeal the new regulations was denied, but the debate is far from over.

Ontario farmers cannot use the seed treatments on 50 percent of their crops this year and on any of them next year unless they submit crop and soil assessments that prove their crops are significantly infected.

Agrologists say the new regulations could come at a cost because some pests can devour a crop in a few days.

Grain Farmers of Ontario asked for an appeal of the regulations in March, but the Court of Appeal of Ontario denied the request in April.

“The decision is both frustrating and disheartening for myself, our farmer-members and the grain industry,” said GFO chair Mark Brock.

The big question continues to be whether neonics are a significant threat to bee health and if bee populations are declining.

The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists doesn’t think so.

“Overall, the reported national colony loss is one of the lowest losses since 2006-07 and represents a decrease of 34.4 per cent from 2013-14 winter losses,” it said in its latest Annual Colony Loss Report.

Shelley Hoover, a research scientist with Alberta Agriculture, agreed.

“The honeybee population in Canada, we actually have more now than we’ve ever had.”

Hoover said detrimental effects depend significantly on how the bees are exposed to pesticides and the level of exposure.

“There’s a couple things going on: one is that different species have different sensitivities, so you can’t expect a leaf cutter bee or a bumblebee to behave the same in terms of toxicity levels as a honeybee,” she said.

“(And) it really depends what else is in the landscape, so there’s contradictory studies because you can’t easily make a honeybee only forage on the field that you’ve treated. They’ll fly a five kilometre radius around.”

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project and senior fellow at the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy in California, recently documented the back and forth of neonicotinoid approval in an article called, Bee health update: latest field studies conclude neonicotinoids not key problem.

“Studies that focused on the effects of supposedly field-realistic neonic exposure on individual bees — on life spans and foraging abilities — end up confirming few or no observable differences in the health of bee colonies or in the agriculturally meaningful measures of their pollinating activities,” he wrote.

“Three recent studies that confirm and reinforce the results of all other large-scale field studies to date — field-realistic exposure of bees to neonic pesticides does not harm bee colonies — have gone largely unreported.”

Mikael Henry, a researcher with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, has also found that the media has reported on his studies in pieces rather than collectively.

He said the evidence showed that individual bees may have trouble coping with neonics, but the colonies would compensate by increasing brood production.

Hoover doesn’t see the use of neonics ending.

“Here in Alberta, we have a lot of neonics used on our fields, but over the last few years, we’ve had relatively low levels of mortality, even though we are using these products,” she said.

“I think we need to start talking about healthier agro-eco systems, not just pointing fingers.”

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