Science continues quest to save bees

Ontario government first in the country to question the use of a pesticide linked to the survival of bees

By Dale Bass

Kamloops This Week

The Ontario government has become the first in the country to question the use of a pesticide linked to the survival of bees — and B.C. is watching.

Ontario was responding to recent scientific publications linking neonicotinoids (neonics) to bees dying, acknowledging it is going to study if the use should be restricted.

Dave Townshend, a communications officer with the provincial ministry of agriculture said B.C. is “keenly interested” in the results of a review of the pesticide, which is governed federally through Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency.

The review is expected next year.

One study involved a group of European scientists who reviewed existing literature while a second, which included University of Guelph scientist Nigel Raine, put tags on bumblebees to track their ability to gather pollen.

“Although pesticide exposure has been implicated as a possible cause for bee decline, until now we had limited understanding of the risk these chemicals pose, especially how it affects natural foraging behaviour,” said Raine.

However, Bayer CropScience Canada (BCSC) — which has a genetically modified canola farm outside Kamloops — has taken issue with the linkage.

Derrick Rozdeba, communications manager for the crop-production subsidiary of the chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer, said the European study misleading because it was based on a review of research done in labs dousing bees with pesticides, rather than researching the insects in their natural environment.

BCSC, which also has an office in Kamloops, uses neonics on seed to protect them from pests that can damage seedlings as they grow.

Rozdeba called the work done in Kamloops the company’s first line of seed development, when it takes the male and female of canola plants and modifies them through biotechnology — seed genetics — looking for a better crop.

Rozdeba suggested there are other reasons why bees aren’t surviving, pointing to studies by the Canadian Association of Profession Apiculturists (CAPA).

CAPA does regular reports from its member beekeepers, including annual winter-loss reports, which have shown about 27 per cent of bees don’t make it through that season, he said.

CAPA’s review showed B.C. had one of its lowest loss rate in recent years in 2013, with 18 per cent of bees dying, an improvement from earlier rates as high as 26 per cent.

Losses were higher on the Mainland than elsewhere in the province.

CAPA identifies other causes of bee deaths, including a parasitic fungus that affects adult bees and a bacteria that infects bee larvae.

The pest-management agency, however, in 2012 found 70 per cent of dead bee samples taken from across the country tested positive for neonic residue.

It established new measures to be taken to address bee exposure to neonic-treated corn and soybean and is monitoring this year’s planting to see if more action is required.

Raine said his tags used on the bumblebees are similar to those used by courier companies to track parcels.

The tags helped researchers follow the bees in and out of their colonies and as they approached flowers and collected pollen.

Raine said bees need to learn how to collect pollen from flowers and exposure to neonics appears to prevent them from doing so.

The report said bees exposed to neonics became less successful each time they go out to collect pollen — to the point colonies send out even more bees to make up for the lack of pollen.