Surge in bee deaths has made colony collapse disorder a political issue

The humble honeybee has Ottawa and Washington abuzz these days thanks to some controversial dust.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has released a protection protocol for honeybee populations, the Commons agriculture committee has launched a study of threats to bees, the Green Party and Sierra Club want an immediate ban of a controversial class of insecticides, and U.S. officials are trying to sort through a host of factors that might be contributing to colony collapse disorder.

Canadian beekeepers have been struggling for more than a decade with mites and other problems devastating their hives. In the spring of 2012, they were pounded with what John Cowan, vice-president of Grain Farmers of Ontario, calls a perfect storm that decimated bee populations in major corn-growing areas.

It was linked to an unusually warm and dry spring, and the use of corn seed coated in neonicotinoid insecticide. Some of the insecticide floats in the dust created when corn is planted, thereby reaching — and possibly — killing bees.

While most of the 2013 corn crop in Ontario and Quebec has been planted this year under new government guidelines for reducing dust, it’s too soon to get much of a read on how the bee population has fared, Cowan says.

Ironically the neonicotinoid insecticide replaced lindane, a really nasty product ordered off the market in Canada because of its devastating impact on bees, birds and other wildlife.

Cowan says there’s no silver bullet to fixing the bee health issue but farmers understand the importance the insects play in the development in their crops. Doing without them would cost the average Ontario corn grower $50,000 in lost income, he estimates.

While the Green Party and Sierra Club want Ottawa to follow Europe’s lead and ban neonicotinoid insecticides, Cowan argues farming practices in Europe and Ontario are so different that they can’t be compared.

Nor is it clear how much blame the insecticides deserve. Many in the U.S. honey sector say the varroa mite is the main culprit, and poor nutrition and exposure to other pesticides are factors.

Cowan told the MPs that more study is needed.

We need to “understand bee health, bee colony foraging, and all the interactions that exist with farmers and the environment that they work in,” he said.

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