Canada Moves to Restrict Pesticide Linked to Bee Deaths

Ontario will cut use of neonicotinoids 80 percent by 2017.
(Photo: Darlyne A. Murawski/Getty)
Nov 25, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Hannah Hoag reports on the environment, global health, science, and science policy for Nature, Discover, Wired, and others.

A class of pesticides that harms honeybees and other pollinators may be on the way out in parts of Canada.

Ontario could become the first province or state in North America to regulate the use of neonicotinoid-coated seeds. In a move announced on Tuesday, the number of acres planted with corn and soybean treated with neonicotinoids—neonics—could be sharply curbed as early as next year as the province works toward an 80 percent reduction in the pesticides’ use by 2017.

Introduced in the 1990s, neonics are among the world’s most widely used pesticides. Most of the canola and corn seeds, and much of the soy seed used in North America, are coated with neonics to control crop pests.

But several studies have implicated neonics in startling die-offs of honeybees and in sublethal effects that disorient bees, leaving beekeepers and environmentalists to call for bans of the chemicals to protect agricultural and native pollinators.

Bees are responsible for about 80 percent of insect pollination, and close to a third of the United States’ food supply is linked to pollination. Without pollinators there would be no apples, berries, or almonds—or many other fruits and vegetables.

“Anything that limits the unintelligent use of pesticide is a good move,” said Amro Zayed, a biologist at York University in Toronto who studies honeybees. “Food is important, but there is no good reason to use these pesticides all the time on our big cash crops when there might not be a need for them. They are costly to bees.”

The new initiative aims to reduce the use of neonics in Ontario and boost honeybee survival. An annual survey measuring bee survival found that a record 58 percent of Ontario bee colonies perished last winter. Beekeepers normally expect to lose a portion of their colonies to cold weather, starvation, and disease over the winter. But most consider a 15 percent loss acceptable.

The proposed regulations are strongly supported by beekeepers. The goal “will support a thriving, sustainable beekeeping industry going forward,” Tibor Szabo, vice president of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, said in a statement.

Scientists have evidence that neonics weaken bees’ immune systems and make them more susceptible to parasites, including the varroa mite. The pesticides also affect bumblebees’ foraging ability.

“They have trouble finding their homes and associating odors—like the smell of lavender—with the reward of nectar,” said Zayed.

During seed planting, dust containing neonics can sweep across a field into a nearby bee colony. When a plant absorbs the chemicals, they are distributed throughout its tissues, including the nectar and pollen, which bees bring back to the colony to feed their young. Neonics are water soluble and persistent—they can be found in nearby flowers and crops, such as clover, that are planted in fields previously exposed to neonics.

In the U.S., neonics are used in most corn and canola crops; in cotton, sorghum, sugar beet, and soybean crops; and in fruit and vegetable crops.

In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report that found that treating soybean seeds with neonics offered little benefit to soybean production. The EPA expects to wrap up a review of the impacts of neonics by 2019.

Eugene, Oregon, passed a resolution banning the use of neonic-containing products within city limits earlier this year, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that it would phase out the use of neonics in the National Wildlife Refuge system by 2016. Some states, including Minnesota, are also considering bans.

Last year, the European Commission issued a two-year ban on three neonic pesticides after a report identified high risks to bees exposed to contaminated dust from corn, sunflower, and cereal crops and to residues found in the pollen and nectar of canola and sunflower crops.

“Honeybees are only the tip of the iceberg,” said Zayed. “I’m worried that these might have a worse impact on the native pollinators that we’re not studying and testing. We know next to nothing about how pesticides affect the native bee fauna.”