There's one item that's moved closer to the top of farmers' to-do lists as they head for their fields this summer -- be nice to bees.
Protecting pollinators now ranks up there with protecting crops as new protocols known as best-management practices come into play for making sure insect- or disease-control products don't contribute to declining bee populations.
The state of pollinators is getting a lot of attention these days. Due to a host of reasons, of which insecticide exposure appears to be one, bee colonies have been dying off at unprecedented rates.
The role of neonicotinoids, an insecticide group used to protect corn, soybean and canola seed from insect damage, remains controversial. Some claim this is another trumped-up scare to discredit modern farming, while others are calling for an outright ban on these insecticides, similar to how the European regulators handled the situation.
Caught in the middle are farmers and honey producers, neither of whom wants to be responsible for the others' losses, and both of whom do better when there are a lot of bees. The Canola Council of Canada says 80 per cent of the honey produced in Canada comes from canola flowers. A healthy pollinator population can boost canola yields by as much as 15 per cent.
The evidence these insecticides are a factor in bee losses is hard to refute. When it started looking into the matter, Health Canada's pest management regulatory agency found neonicotinoid residues in approximately 70 per cent of the dead bees tested, while the pesticides were detected in unaffected bees in one sample and at very low levels. That was in 2012, a particularly dry windy spring in Ontario and Quebec, where most of the bee deaths were reported. Similar losses were reported in those provinces and Manitoba the following year under more typical weather patterns.
"Consequently, we have concluded that current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable," it said last fall in a notice of intent to impose new rules on their use and to expedite a review of whether the benefits of these products outweighs the risks.
Studies indicate bees aren't necessarily getting toxic levels of the insecticide in the fields, but enough exposure that it compromises their resistance to other stressors. One of the latest studies, this one from the Harvard School of Public Health, found exposure to two widely used neonicotinoids compromised bees' ability to handle the cold, which is characteristic of Canadian winters.
In two replicated trials, bee populations in test hives treated with neonicotinoids showed significantly higher rates of mortality than untreated hives, particularly when it was cold.
Industry representatives have been quick to point out there are a host of factors implicated in the worrisome decline in pollinator populations in recent years, ranging from mite infestations to lack of dietary diversity.
Companies are pouring millions of dollars into research, establishing bee-care centres and implementing changes in the nature of their products and how farmers use them, in a bid to keep them on the market.
It's believed one of the issues was insecticide-laced dust created by the talc- or graphite-based lubricants used to keep the treated seed, which tends to be sticky, from plugging up seeding equipment.
Farmers are being encouraged to only use these products when soil pests are a clear threat and to consider other strategies, such as crop rotation, to keep pest levels low. If they do use treated seed, they are advised to control flowering weeds prior to planting and to provide a pollinator-friendly habitat away from treated fields. They also need to clean up seed bags and spilled seeds promptly.
These bee-friendly changes and responsible product management will likely be enough to save neonicotinoids, but it may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to saving the bees.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org