Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Farm and the Apiary

"[I have done] strip trials where I evaluated treated versus untreated seed. It always came out where it [pesticide] brought value to my farm."
"The government felt this was a good time to reach out and ask producers what they thought about it. And a lot of producers didn't have time to bring comments forward."
"Within my own farm I can have 16 different soil types -- minute variations but enough that it might affect the pest population. It's so hard to determine where [we need] and where we don't need these products."
Mark Brock, Hensall, Ontario farmer
On a farm near Listowel, Ont. a 'strip trial' shows the difference between a corn crop treated with insecticide, top, and not.
On a farm near Listowel, Ont. a ‘strip trial’ shows the difference between a corn crop 
treated with insecticide, top, and not. Roger Drudge / Ottawa Citizen
"They [seed companies] are really trying to put pressure on beekeepers through the farmers. What they are trying to do is intimidation. I've had phone calls from seed companies. The pressure is coming downhill."
"They have found out who owns bee yards [land where hives are placed] and are contacting the farmer who owns the bee yards, telling them they are going to get sued ... by beekeepers."
"I'm getting calls from farmers now, telling me to move my bees."
Guy Anderson, beekeeper, Kincardine, Ontario
Bees are under stress from many factors — neonics are just the latest. Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen
Bees are under stress from many factors — neonics are just the latest.  
Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen
"If you take away their habitat, if you feed them [bees] poison, if you stress them out by working them really hard, and giving them all these drugs and selecting [breeding] them for certain characteristics ... it's easy to imagine that, hey, we've pushed them a little too far." 
"If the bees have evolved to feed on a whole variety of things and now they are forced to feed on a monoculture [single crop], and also they have to ride on the back of an 18-wheeler ... you don't need too many degrees to appreciate how that would be stressing out the little insects."
Graham Thompson, entomologist, Western University, London

There are about 800 species of native bees in Canada. Roughly 60 of those are bumblebees.  Their well-being has been impacted in a number of ways. One of which is the pesticides that farmers spray on their fields. Fields where bees are exposed to those pesticides. Even if they're not directly fertilizing fields of grain, wind carries residue from the pesticides over a wide range of territory and exposure is almost guaranteed.

The latest problem to surface for the overall bee population which is in decline for a variety of reasons, pesticide contamination being one of the more serious ones, the exposure to neonics used as a pesticide has grown over the decade just passed. Neonicotinoids are chemicals whose molecular structure is matched to that of nicotine, and its purpose is to kill insects. The pesticide is applied to seed, designed to be a systemic and to kill bugs feeding on grain crops.

In minuscule amounts they are lethal to bees. Traces of the chemical, airborne, infect bees. Since the chemical makes its way throughout a plant's structure and enters the pollen that bees carry to the hive, the extent of bee loss to a hive is catastrophic. "The thing about bees is they're not just feeding on a single plant", points out Graham Thompson who specializes in bees at Western University in London.

There are other issues; Varroa mites suck fluids from bees, tracheal mites burrow into a bee's airways to choke it. A bacterial disease, American foulbrood, can infect a hive badly enough that the very frames supporting the bees must be burned. There are other parasites and there are fungal diseases drawn to the warm dry, sugary hive environment. "That's probably why they're so defensive in the first place" ventured Dr. Thompson.

Worker bees land on tens of thousands of flowers during their two- or three-week lifetime. The infected pollen is carried home to the hive, and fed to the offspring of the queen bee. Commercial bees are taken by truck from province to province to pollinate field crops. They are like migrant workers, going where the labour is needed; for the bees it is being hauled off to pollinate whatever any given farmer needs to be fertilized through pollination. There is stress in the travel for the bees, and stress in being exposed to a single cultivar.

Guy and Gail Anderson have been keeping bees for decades. They tend to almost 1,500 hives which they place at 54 farms, with permission from the farmers who take their rent in honey. The business produces 120,000 pounds of honey annually. And then along came the neonics and 62 percent of their bees perished in 2013 leaving 795 hives without bees. Honeybees are not native to Canada, they are imported from Europe. So they ordered more bees, and again lost the bulk of them.

Mark Brock farms 1,5000 acres of corn, soybeans and winter wheat. His concern is whether wireworms, aphids and other insect pests will destroy a large part of his crop because the Government of Ontario has ordered farmers to reduce their neonic use by 80 percent by the year 2017. Insect damage, points out Mr. Brock, can destroy 20 percent of a crop where the profit margin is already low.

And there it is, a new antagonism between bees, fruits and vegetables, and grain; fruits and vegetables require the pollinating action of bees and grains do not; they require protection from insect pests. And then the lawyers for Grain Farmers of Ontario began warning farmers that beekeepers could sue them for damage to hives. "Grain farmers may have to end these co-operative arrangements", went the warning.

Ontario farmers produced up to $2-billion in value of soybeans in 2014, another $1.4-billion in corn. Ontario bees pollinate about $897-million worth of crops each year in Ontario, and an additional $71-million of berries in Atlantic Canada, taken there by truck. They pollinate apples, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, cherries, blueberries, onions and more.

The principals struggle to find a mutually-useful solution.

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