by Terry Daynard

Every Canadian likely knows that honey bee numbers are plunging, we’re likely to starve without bees to pollinate crops, and there’s such an easy solution: Ban the usage of those insecticides called neonicotinoids (neonics).

The campaign for a ban has been very effective, starting with the Sierra Club’s expansion of its U.S. campaign into Ontario. An Ontario Bee Association initial news release calling for a neonic ban was posted first on the Sierra web site.

A Toronto subway ad showed a child mourning a dead bee. No mention that about 1500 bees per hive die naturally every summer day. CBC National featured a hobbyist beekeeper from inner Toronto with containers of dead bees, “killed by farm neonics.” There were no farmers for miles around her hives. Largely ignored was the Canadian Honey Council, representing most Canadian beekeepers, which opposed the ban.

There are thousands of conflicting research studies on neonics and bees. Some media-savvy, (mostly) European scientists devised a plan in 2010 to eliminate all usage. They picked 800 papers, interpreted the findings, wrote review articles and promoted their anti-neonic message. The “800 studies” are referenced endlessly by journalists who have not read one. A larger, impartial review of 1500 studies from 2012 by Tjeerd Blacquière, a researcher in the Netherland's University of Wageningen, was ignored. Different review, different conclusions.

So what’s the truth? What does the science really say?

First, there is no bee Armageddon. Honey bee numbers are up almost everywhere: Ontario by about  five per cent per year, up across Canada, up globally according to UN statistics.

There’s no shortage of pollinator hives, say Ontario fruit growers.

Ontario does have an over-winter bee mortality problem. Though serious doubts exist about the credibility of the 58 per cent over-wintering loss reported in spring 2014 – far above other provinces – death percentages are high.

I’ve investigated causes in a report at In brief, here’s what I’ve found:

Cold weather is a huge factor – bitterly cold in December-March 2013/14  vs. mild in 2011/12 when Ontario deaths were only 12 per cent. But it’s colder in Western Canada and bees there fared better. Why?

The shipment of one-quarter of Ontario bee hives eastward for Maritime and Quebec blueberry pollination is another huge factor. Shipment alone causes 10-15 per cent death, diseases spread among bees in shipping, and blueberry flowers provide poor nutrition. Some beekeepers rest, nourish and strengthen their bees after their return (no honey collection). Others don’t and have higher winter losses.

The biggest factor is Varroa mites which spread widely in the 1990s. They are like giant blood suckers, comparable to vampire bats attached permanently to humans. They attack bee eggs, larvae and adults. Miticides used for control kill many bees, and mites mutate quickly, meaning a constant search for new chemicals. Worse, Varroa mites spread many serious bee diseases (think mosquitoes and malaria).

At the University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre, Professor Ernesto Guzman says that 85 per cent of overwinter bee deaths are attributable to Varroa.

What about neonics?

Neonics are applied to corn and other crop seeds to protect young plants from insects. The application rate is very low – equivalent to three teaspoons per football field of land – on seed to be buried – but there’s a problem with some corn/soybean planters which release neonic-containing dust into the air. This causes bee deaths if they’re near and wind blows the wrong way.

Health Canada’s Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) identified this problem in 2012 and mandated changes in planting procedures. In late 2014, they reported deaths were down substantially at seeding time. Most deaths occurred after planting was over with no obvious linkage to neonics.

Globally, many published studies show ‘sub-lethal’ effects of neonics on bees in lab studies – but not in real-world conditions where average exposure levels are much lower.

About 80 per cent of Canadian neonics are used on canola seed with field application rates similar to corn. Bee exposure to neonics through flowers is much higher with canola than corn, say European regulators; yet bees thrive in canola fields.  The one difference is planter design, not neonic treatment.

So what’s different between Ontario and prairie bees? Alberta beekeepers say they had Ontario’s problem a few years back – high losses attributable to disease/management. Big changes in management improved survivability. (High bee losses are common on Vancouver Island too, and virtually no neonic-treated corn there.)

Because neonics are long-lasting (good for pest control) they’re found in most fields at minute levels, and effects on soil organisms have been reported.  That’s expected because almost all other agricultural practices (fertilizer, other pesticides including organic) cause soil changes. Tillage is devastating for earthworms.

But those who say this is intolerable ignore the alternative. Neonics were introduced initially to replace pesticides more damaging to the environment. Reversion is a bad choice.

Sadly, nature is not always kind: insects destroy crops, even organic ones, and pests must be controlled.

That brings us to the Ontario government’s recent attack on neonic seed treatments and its high-profile document which is, frankly, pathetic. It reads as if written by the Sierra Club. It features the “800 studies” referenced above, but not the 1500 or other good material available through national regulatory agencies. The document doesn’t merit further comment here, though interested readers can find it here and my detailed critique here .

Disappointing have been statements by Ontario’s environment minister Glen Murray. He’s openly disdainful of Ontario grain farmers and farm input providers, preferring Toronto-based ‘agricultural advisors.’ Personal statements by Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner Gordon Miller have been more bizarre – “worst ecological disaster I’ve ever seen”– in contrast to a quite reasonable report from his own staff.

Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) just announced two credible strategies – one for greenhouse gas emission reductions and one on Great Lakes quality. Farmers can help with both. But why would they trust anything the ministry/minister says?

Murray, Miller and the MOECC have said not a word about neonics used on city pets for fleas—and farmers know that.

This is not to say that farmers and their agricultural partners cannot reduce neonic usage. The industry (farmers, advisers, researchers) is now assessing opportunities. Farmers fear being forced back into usage of older, more dangerous insecticides, such as is now occurring in Europe – a direction which actions by Queen’s Park could ensure.


This blog was  first posted in the National Post (March 5, 2015). Republished with permission of the author.

For information including links to supporting documents, visit


Table showing 2013/14 bee losses for Canadian provinces 

Source of data in preceding table

Table showing increases in Canadian and Ontario bee colony numbers from 2005-2014  (Source: Stats Canada CANSIM Table 001-0007)




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