By Magpie Group
In 2012-2013, vast numbers of bees in Ontario and Quebec began to die. Canadians across the country were understandably concerned. It was a mystery until entomologists (scientists who study insects), government officials and beekeepers made some observations.
Beekeepers noticed that bee deaths seemed to coincide with seeding time when farmers would plant neonicotinoid coated seeds in their fields. Researchers did indeed find that dead bees had neonic residues on their bodies. One Laval university researcher even found elevated levels of neonicotinoids in some ditches and marshlands from fields with neonic-treated corn. The implications were huge, not just for the bees, but for agriculture and the environment.
What are neonics? Health Canada explains neonicotinoids (neonics) as a group of pesticides used in agriculture to protect crops from various insects. There are three main neonics currently approved for use in Canada: imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam. Neonics are used across Canada on a variety of crops, from corn and soybeans, to many different vegetables such as potatoes and herbs. They can be applied to seeds, soil or plants, and can also be used to control insects in homes and fleas on pets, as well as to protect trees from invasive insects.
Bee deaths were not just happening in Canada; other countries noticed similar population losses. As the world struggled with declining bee populations and the European Union issued a moratorium on neonic use, it seemed possible that there would be a complete ban of neonicotinoid insecticides. Yet here we are ten plus years later and neonics are still being used by farmers across Canada. How is that possible?
After numerous scientific reviews, and some new requirements for application, the government determined neonics were safe for continued use in Canada. Read on for the whole story!
Bees: Essential to food production
Food grown worldwide depends on pollinators, like insects, birds and bats that move pollen from the male part of the flower (anther) to the female part of the flower (stigma). The transfer of pollen leads to fertilization, resulting in seed and fruit production in plants.
In Canada, fruits, vegetables, and crops like canola, corn and soybeans all rely on pollination. In fact, as much as 50% of canola production is directly attributed to honeybee pollination.1 In turn, beekeepers need plants for their bees to pollinate in order to make honey.
Keeping the land and surrounding environment healthy is the responsibility and goal of all farmers. So when bee deaths became an issue, not just Canadians but the farming community as a whole were concerned because pollinators are vital to their businesses and a keystone of sustainable ecosystems.
Neonics: Providing better plant protection with lower risk to the ecosystem
Both organic and conventional farmers need to fight off weeds and other pests that can devastate crops. Insects can be particularly damaging by eating crops completely or damaging them and making them susceptible to disease. Insecticides are one tool that can be used to control those insects. Researchers all over the world are continually working to develop new insecticides that are more effective in controlling pests while protecting beneficial insects and safeguarding the environment and human health.
Read about how Farmer Greg protects his seeds from insects.
Although they can be sprayed, neonics are more often applied to seeds prior to planting as a seed treatment. Here’s why they’ve made such a difference:
- Only small quantities are needed to coat the seed, reducing human and environmental exposure as well as risk to non-target insects like bees.
- They are effective at low concentrations and can be used to control a wide range of insects.
- Applying a pesticide to protect a seed during its earliest stages of growth can help farmers to spray less during the growing season; this can reduce, soil compaction, overall pesticide use and GHG emissions.
The Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) of Health Canada regulates every pesticide sold in Canada. It takes more than 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars for a new pesticide to be developed, tested, reviewed to confirm its safety and finally registered for sale.
The first neonicotinoids, approved for use in Canada in the 1990s, were considered a real breakthrough for modern agriculture in that they are much safer for humans, livestock, the environment, birds and pollinators than other older insecticides. Extensive scientific research indicated no issues for pollinators, so the connection between neonics and bee deaths was confusing and disturbing for everyone.
The rest of the story
The evidence connecting neonics to bee deaths was undeniable. Health Canada responded by conducting a thorough investigation. The Pest Management Regulatory Agency found that in Ontario and Quebec, the cause of these bee deaths was linked to dust during a dryer-than-normal spring, released while planting neonic-treated corn and soybean seeds.
To address the dust-related issues and prevent further bee deaths, crop farmers and beekeepers worked with the government and scientists to come up with ways to reduce the amount of dust coming from planting equipment. As of 2014, dust-reducing agents must now be used when planting neonicotinoid-treated seed. And it worked. In 2014-2016, bee deaths in Canada declined by 70-80%.3
Yet neonics still had a lot to prove. The outcry against the use of neonics in Canada led to public consultations to discuss banning neonics, which given its benefits for dealing with pests, greatly alarmed farmers. More than 100,000 comments were received.
In addition, a series of scientific reviews in every major food producing region took place from 2014 to 2020 involving more than 500 studies on bees, other pollinators and aquatic insects. Not only did Health Canada review the risk of neonics to pollinators; they also conducted a series of thorough reviews of their human health and environmental risks.
- As a result of the reviews, changes were made, including the rate of application, the number of crops that can be treated with neonics, and measures to mitigate spray drift and protect applicators.
With these changes, the government determined neonics were safe for continued use in Canada. You can read more from the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which adds new information on this issue as it comes available.
Follow the Label!
Neonics, like all pesticides, must be applied responsibly. Every pesticide has rules for handling, application and storage that must be clearly outlined on the product label.
When used according to the label, neonics are not detrimental to bee health. In Western Canada, for example, although the majority of canola seed grown is treated with neonics, beekeepers in this region have not reported declines in population as a result of neonic use.
DYK? Pesticide labels are a legal document that all farmers must follow. Any user (including farmers, commercial applicators or consumers for household use) found to not be doing so can be fined or prosecuted.
Stewards of the land
Farmers know that the future of farming depends on their ability to continue to produce nutritious and high-quality food in a sustainable way. This includes ensuring the continued health of pollinators, maintaining viable water systems and overall environmental sustainability. Farmers depend on it – and so do all of us.
Canadian agriculture has created sustainability and farm stewardships initiatives to guide production and management practices in almost every sector. Learn more about these programs here:
- Protecting Biodiversity: Environmental Farm Plans
- Encouraging Responsible Use Of Pesticides: Pesticide Applicator Licence
- Recycling on the farm: Cleanfarms
- Healthy Soil For Today And The Future: 4R Nutrient Stewardship
- https://agriculture.canada.ca/en/sector/horticulture/reports/statistical-overview-canadian-honey-and-bee-industry-2021 ↩︎
- https://croplife.ca/food-prices-are-going-up-but-theyd-be-even-higher-without-tools-like-pesticides-and-plant-breeding/ ↩︎
- https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/consumer-product-safety/reports-publications/pesticides-pest-management/fact-sheets-other-resources/neonicotinoids-in-canada.html ↩︎