Not-so-sweet death: Critics call on Canada to ban pesticide linked to dwindling bee populations

imageFood production and bees: Believe it or not, the two go hand-in-hand … like milk and honey.

Bees serve an all-important role in transferring pollen and seeds from one flower to another – a practice that supports at least 30 per cent of the world’s food crops and 90 per cent of our wild plants, according to the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

But despite a bee’s integral role in cross-pollination, news that their population is on the decline is unlikely to come up at the dinner table.

But it is catching the attention of governments around the world, including in Europe, the U.S, as well as here at home, in Canada.

In 2012, more than 200 bee yards in southern Ontario and Quebec reported an “unusually high number” of losses, according to a recent Health Canada report. An analysis of the dead bees found that approximately 70 per cent of their bodies contained residue of the commonly-used neoncotinoid class of pesticides. According to evidence from the European Food Safety Authority, neoncotinoid pesticides attack a bee’s nervous system, potentially reducing its chances of survival.

Following the Health Canada report, the federal government launched a re-evaluation of the rules around use of these popular pesticides. The Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) is currently conducting a review of three pesticides in the neonicotinoid class to determine if they pose an environmental risk to bees.

“The 2012 bee incidents will be considered as part of the re-evaluation…. If warranted, regulatory action will be taken at any time to further protect pollinators,” Mary Mitchell, the co-chair of Health Canada’s PMRA, said in a statement.

In the meantime, farmers and chemical producers are being encouraged to adopt such practices as avoiding pesticide use in areas where beehives are known to be located.

That nonchalant approach has the Sierra Club of Canada shaking its head.

“I think Health Canada has got it wrong,” executive director John Bennett told CTV’s Canada AM this week. “The government has chosen to protect the companies that produce the pesticides, not Canadians.”

He believes the government needs to take immediate action by banning such pesticides, which are commonly used on tree fruit, corn and soy crops. Neoncotinoid pesticides are intended to protect crops often attacked by other insects, but Bennett says bees are getting caught in the crossfire.

“They’re not the target insect,” he said.

Bennett suggests Ottawa take a page from the European Union, which decided this week to restrict the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in order to protect the quickly-declining bee population.

A two-year moratorium – to be applied to plants and crops that attract bees — will come into effect on Dec. 1, 2013.

The ban is being applauded by environmentalists who say it will throw a “vital lifeline” to Europe’s dwindling bee population.

“Europe is taking science seriously and must now put the full ban in place to give bees the breathing space they need,” Iain Keith, of the Avaaz environmental organization, told The Associated Press.

But not everyone agrees.

In the EU, for example, the decision to restrict the pesticide was made without the consensus of all of the bloc’s 27 members. While 15 EU countries voted in favour of the moratorium, eight were against it, and another four abstained.

Many of the nations that voted against the ban, including the U.K., pointed to inconclusive science linking the use of the pesticides to documented hive deaths. Even the EU’s parliamentary environmental committee admits “precise data is still lacking.”

Globally, researchers have suggested there are multiple culprits behind the collapse of the honeybees, and say focusing on pesticides alone is a mistake. In a report published in October 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranked pesticides at the bottom of the list of potential causes, saying the decline of the bee population is a “complex problem.”

“It is not clear, based on current research, whether pesticide exposure is a major factor associated with the U.S. honeybee health declines in general, or specifically affects production of honey or delivery or pollination services,” the report explains.

However, researchers did say “in some instances” severely high doses of pesticides can harm honeybee colonies. The report ultimately concludes more research is needed to determine the effect of pesticide exposure.

But according to the Sierra Club and other bee activists, waiting would be a mistake.

While Bennett recognizes that the rapid drop of the bee population cannot be solely attributed to the use of pesticides, he says bees currently endure a “tremendous amount of stress.”

Here at home, he says the Canadian government needs to be proactive, before it’s too late.

“(Pesticide use) is just one of the causes of the overall decline of bees, but it’s one of the causes that we can actually control,” he said.

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