09/13/2013 08:13 EDT | Updated 11/13/2013 05:12 EST

Pesticide linked to bee deaths to get tighter regulation

The federal government is trying to quell growing worries about pesticide dust killing millions of bees by introducing changes for crop farmers, but some beekeepers call it a “Band-Aid” solution.

Health Canada’s agency responsible for pesticide regulation on Friday released a list of actions it plans to take next spring to try to mitigate troubling losses at apiaries from insecticides used at nearby farms.

Among the planned measures are forcing corn and soybean farmers to follow certain seed-planting practices, improving labels on pesticide and seed packages and requiring seeds to have “dust-reducing” lubricants.

“We have concluded that current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable,” a press release from Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency states.

Ontario beekeeper Dave Schuit, who lost millions of bees and more than half of his 2,000 hives, said the planned measures are not enough and called for an outright ban of the pesticide.

“Basically I see it as a Band-Aid,” said Schuit, who owns Saugeen Country Honey Inc. located in Elmwood, Ont. “[The Pest Management Regulatory Agency] should’ve done their study before they approved this pesticide.”

Since 2009, Quebec beekeepers have suffered pesticide-related issues with their colonies, but concern around the issue heightened after an unusual number of bee deaths near corn fields were reported across Ontario last spring.

Seventy per cent of the dead bees tested came up positive for neonicotinoids, a pesticide used to coat many seeds before planting.

More evidence of pesticide poisoning

At first, abnormally windy and dry conditions last spring were pinpointed as a contributing factor.

However, the federal government notes it has continued to receive a significant number of mortality reports in corn and soybean growing regions this spring, when there was more normal spring weather. Reports came not only from Ontario and Quebec, but also Manitoba.

Apiarists, like Schuit, describe millions of their bees dying with their tongues sticking out, wings flared and bodies trembling — signs of acute pesticide poisoning.

As it works now, crop farmers plant their seeds using a device called an air seeder that blows the seed into the ground down a tube. Talcum powder is used to lubricate the seeder, but use of the powder is believed to cause insecticide from the coated seed to get blown into the air and get picked up by foraging bees.

Some research suggests planting on dry, windy days causes the insecticide dust to disperse and that bees can come into contact with it while flying over the field or when the dust settles on nearby flowers or water where they forage.

“They are looking at changing the lubricant to one that would be less likely to produce drift from dust spreading around,” says University of Manitoba entomologist Rob Currie of the government proposal.

But Schuit describes the seed lubricant as an attempt to provide a “reflector” protecting bees from the deadly dust, but the problem lies in the chemical itself.

“When the plant grows up, it sucks up the water and the pesticide [on the seed],” said Schuit. “So, the whole plant is toxic. When the bees take the pollen, they die. The bees are dying because of the pollen.”

“It doesn’t matter how hard they try to control the dust. It’s in the plant, it’s in the pollen. And when it’s in the pollen, it gets into the hives.”

Losses doubled last winter

The Canadian Honey Council, which represents 7,000 beekeepers across the country, called Health Canada’s announcement a “positive step.”

“We know neonicotinoids kill bees. Insecticides kill bees. That’s what they are designed to do,” said the council’s executive director, Rod Scarlett. “But it’s trying to mitigate the risks and making sure that the science behind any decisions that are made is clear science and is irrefutable.”

Late last year, a two-year ban across the European Union on some neonicotinoid chemicals linked to bee deaths came into effect. However, earlier this week, the U.K. government opposed the ban, saying there’s not enough evidence of the risks to pollinators to justify the ban.

Around the world, beekeepers are struggling with unacceptably high deaths of the pollinators, hurting an industry relied on not only by consumers for honey but also by crop farmers for pollination.

Canada’s losses last winter reached nearly 29 per cent of the colonies across the country, a death of more than 200,000 colonies. That’s double the percentage of losses in the previous year.

Manitoba saw the largest losses, with 46.4 per cent of colonies dying, while Ontario had the second highest rate of loss at 37.9 per cent.