Bee populations are rebounding four years after the province imposed restrictions on a specific class of pesticide.
Kelly Moodie of Walsingham, president of the Haldimand-Norfolk Beekeepers’ Association, says bees and other pollinators have responded well in Ontario to the reduced use of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed.
However, Moodie adds this class of pesticide persists in the environment and could take a number of years to degrade. Bees and other beneficial insects continue to feel the effects, Moodie said at the Norfolk County Fair.
“They’re slowly making a return,” Moodie said at the association’s exhibit at the Lloyd S. Culver Memorial Grandstand.
“You noticed a difference when they restricted neonicotinoids. But there is residue in the soil. They’re also finding it in the silt once it gets into rivers.
“I’ve heard it could take as long as 15 years to break down. I’ve also heard 10 years and I’ve heard five years. They’re finding it’s taking longer for neonicotinoids to dissipate.”
Neonicotinoids were an all-purpose treatment for corn and soybean seed in Ontario until the Wynne government announced restrictions in 2015.
The nicotine-based toxin protects seeds from insects while they await germination. Target pests include wire worms, corn seed maggot, chafers and Japanese beetle grubs.
One of the conditions for their use today includes proving that insect predation is a problem in fields to be seeded. However, Larry Davis, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s representative in Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk, says the conditions proved so onerous that most farmers have adopted alternative strategies.
“They came up with hoops for farmers to jump through,” Davis said. “The restrictions are still in place. However, farmers have come up with other methods. Farmers in Ontario have largely moved on from neonics.”
OFA remains unconvinced that neonicotinoids are the villain in this narrative. Pollinator populations out west are strong, Davis said, even though neonicotinoids are used extensively on canola.
“The effect there seems to be minimal,” he aid. “Yet canola is a flowering plant that pollinators are attracted to. Something doesn’t make sense here.”
There is no definitive explanation for what exactly neonicotinoids do to bees.
The pesticide was suspected 10 years ago when bee colony collapse became a serious problem in parts of Ontario. Beekeepers believe neonicotinoids impair a bee’s ability to navigate back to a hive after gathering pollen and nectar.
OFA challenged the province on its restrictions.
OFA cited Statistics Canada data saying the number of bee hives in Ontario has risen since 2003 – the year neonicotinoid seed treatment was introduced.
OFA maintains that parasites, disease, malnutrition, bad weather and hive management have a bigger impact on bee populations than pesticides.
For their part, the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association says wild flowers will continue to poison pollinators until neonicotinoids disappear from the environment. Moodie says wild plants draw the pesticide from the soil into their flowers. Bees that stop by, she said, are contaminated.
“It’s in the leaves,” Moodie said. “It’s in the flowers. The higher the neonicotinoids go in a plant the less concentrated it is. But it’s still there. They’re finding that golden rod is the worst because it grows from a bulb.”
Moodie added neonicotinoid residue isn’t confined to farmland.
Beet sugar is a major ingredient in anti-icing brine sprayed on municipal and provincial roads. Moodie says beet sugar contains neonicotinoid residue which washes into ditches. As a result, bees and other pollinators that visit wild flowers along roadways are exposed to neonicotinoids.
The beekeeping community has noticed other signs that beneficial insects are doing better now that neonicotinoid residue is easing.
“There are more bugs on your windshield when you are driving down the road,” Moodie said. “We’ve also noticed there are more bugs on the windshield in Haldimand than in Norfolk.
“We don’t know why that is. It could have something to do with different soil types.”