Proposed ban of suspected bee killer sets off massive fight in rural Ontario

WATCH: 16×9’s “Season of Change”

As Jim Coneybeare drives up the Bruce Peninsula in central Ontario on a crisp early April morning, he is quietly hoping.

A wiry middle-aged man with greying hair, Jim’s a third generation beekeeper. He is driving north to check whether the hives he moved to the Bruce Peninsula survived the winter. “The Bruce,” as locals call it, is a remote and rugged bit of country with small towns and beaches that jut into Lake Huron, far from intensive agriculture.

Hundreds of Jim’s hives died in the last few years so he decided to try things in this new area. “I would work on my bees down in Wellington County. I would get so discouraged that I would feel like I was going to quit keeping bees.”

Wellington County, where Jim used to keep all his bees, is in southern Ontario’s corn belt, near Guelph.

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Jim blames a new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids for playing a key role in his bee losses. 16×9 first met Jim Coneybeare almost two years ago when we looked at the science behind how one of the biggest selling neonics was approved.

READ MORE: 16×9 investigation into the use of a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids

Jim blames a new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids for playing a key role in his bee losses. 16x9

Neonics are directly applied to 99 per cent of corn and 60 per cent of soy seeds planted, a total area of almost four million acres in Ontario alone. Bees can be exposed to these chemicals throughout the growing season.

“We’ve got residue levels in pollens, it’s a sublethal amount, bees are hauling that back to the hive,” Jim says. “But whatever pollinator feeds on the pollen or nectar of that plant, they’re going to get a mouthful of neonics as well.”

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Jim says he has seen his bees act very strangely when they are exposed to neonics. “They’re walking in circles, they’re disoriented… they’ll climb up grass and fall off it. They’ll lay on their sides and backs, kicking and squirming,” Jim says. “It’s like they’re drunk.”

Jim, who has experienced losses as high as 75 per cent, is not the only beekeeper to experience big fatalities. Now the government of Ontario has decided to act.

READ MORE: Getting the facts on honey production

“We’re already into eight years of significant high bee death accumulating last year with a 58 per cent loss of bee population,” says Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change. “At this point we’re seeing catastrophic loss.”

WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Glen Murray

Murray is spearheading regulations that will reduce neonic use by 80 per cent in the next few years.

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“A beekeeper who after eight years had a nearly a 60 per cent loss,” Murray says. “You could imagine that if a soy farmer had experienced the same 60 per cent loss they’d be knocking on our door saying do something.”

Murray told 16×9 there are several factors affecting bee declines, including climate change, loss of habitat and diseases. But “there is a preponderant amount of research…that suggest that [neonics are] certainly a significant factor in the cause of extraordinary levels of decline in bee populations and bee deaths…the body of research out there…is kind of extraordinary.”

But the pushback has been very loud from at least one group, the pesticide industry.

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“There are hundreds of studies that show that field conditions where bees are being exposed to these products…are at such low levels that they are not having impacts on colonies,” says Pierre Petelle, a vice president of CropLife, the industry group that represents the pesticide industry. That sector stands to lose billions if this partial ban is adopted by other jurisdictions.

The federal government has yet to draw any conclusions from research that found long-term effects on pollinators from very small exposures to neonics. Health Canada, the agency in charge of regulating pesticides, says the existing science is inconclusive as to whether neonics affect pollinators in the actual environment and has also called for more research.

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WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Pierre Petelle

But dithering at the federal level won’t stop Murray. “When you’ve had not one year but you’ve had eight years in Ontario of extraordinarily high levels of bee death you have to act on it, you can’t wait another 10 years until everything is beyond any doubt at all.” Murray says Ontario is “doing something that is really the basis of environmental law…something called the precautionary principle.”

Ontario’s position mirrors those of a number of other jurisdictions, including the European Union which enacted a two year moratorium on neonics at the beginning of last year.

“There is an increasing body of evidence that the widespread prophylactic use of neonicotinoids has severe negative effects,” a study by the European Academies Science Advisory Council concluded in April 2015. The EASAC is an independent organization made of representatives from European Union member states’ national academies of science. They added that “there is clear scientific evidence for sublethal effects of very low levels of neonicotinoids over extended periods on non-target beneficial organisms.”

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Though some farm groups in Canada have called for restrictions on neonics, the Grain Farmers of Ontario also “firmly oppose” the partial ban which they say “will be highly detrimental” to farmers who have grown reliant on neonics and who could lose some of their crop.

“At the end of the day, this is my means to provide income for my family,” says third generation farmer Henry Van Ankum whose farm is just down the road from Jim Coneybeare’s.

Van Ankum, who has been farming his land for 15 years, is preparing his machinery and unloading seeds, getting them ready for the spring planting. He says that neonics have been useful in helping keep his fields pest free.

“We get one chance a year to get a good corn crop started, plant it early, and it’s important that when I plant my 32,000 seeds an acre I am relying on getting most of those germinated and growing and if I lose some of those seeds…I can lose a lot of yield potential.”

“Who takes that risk? The farmers, some farmers would have significant loss,” says Petelle.

Petelle says that, without neonics, farmers are taking a chance with their crops. “So the problem is that you may get farmers where… there will be very little impact. But you may get other farmers where their losses will be quite significant. And the ability to predict where and when those soil pests will cause those damaging levels is what’s lacking right now.”

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Petelle says that since the EU banned neonics, crop yields have been disastrous in certain areas.

“There are countries, including UK and Finland for example, that have asked for exemptions to the ban in order to continue to plant neonic treated canola because they saw significant impacts.”

16×9 reviewed European crop yields and what we found surprised us. While there were some localized losses in canola, overall, yields actually went up for major crops like corn and sunflowers after the ban was passed.

Murray looked at his own set of studies. He says that yield losses in other papers showed minimal impact. “You’re seeing losses of a couple of percentage points, or if you look at the study in the United States which saw neonicotinoids… had really no benefit to soy, there was no major yield benefit.”

What effects the partial ban will have in Ontario will become clearer over the next few years. But scientists and government officials are worried about much more than yield losses. Neonics are water soluble pesticides which leach into the soil and water. They have been widely found, by scientists, in rivers and streams. And, with their spread, neonics could be having a big effect on the wider ecology.

WATCH BELOW: An extended interview with Gord Miller

“It is a neurotoxin designed to kill insects. That is what it is. So we should not be surprised that it kills bees and butterflies and other insects. That is what it’s designed to do,” says Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, the province’s independent environmental watchdog who is appointed by the Legislative Assembly. He has reviewed the science on neonics and says they could be affecting other creatures, including butterflies, fish, aquatic insects and birds.

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“So there’s a whole range of insects all of which are sensitive to neonicotinoids,” Miller says. “You know they’re out there [and] are performing subtle little things in the ecosystem that are so essential for the continuation of our biodiversity.”

The EASAC stated in their report that “there is an increasing body of evidence that the widespread prophylactic use of neonicotinoids has severe negative effects on non-target organisms that provide ecosystem services including pollination and natural pest control.” Insects that could be harmed include parasitic wasps and ladybugs, as well as birds that provide billions of dollars in pest control. Neonics could also be hurting earthworms which keep soils healthy and are also worth billions to the agricultural sector.

Though the scientists and politicians are increasingly worried about what this could be doing to the ecosystem, for beekeeper Jim Coneybeare the concerns are very immediate and personal. He wants to know how his bees in the Bruce Peninsula, in hives far away from heavy neonic use, survived the winter.

He walks through his beeyard with the confidence of a man who has been working around bees most his life. The yard is still covered in snow as Jim opens dozens of his northern hives. The results motivate him to keep working. His northern hives are thriving, with five times less winter loss up north than in the south.

“We’ve been through all these hives now,” Jim says pointing to his 36 hives in the yard. “Everyone is alive,” he says beaming. “If I didn’t have this I would be leaving the business, unquestionably…This is why I’m staying in the business.”

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16×9’s “Season of Change” airs this Saturday at 7pm.

BEHIND THE STORY: Producer Gil Shochat talks to 16×9’s Laurie Few about Ontario’s new rules meant to curb bee deaths

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