The Buzz on Neonicotinoids: It’s About the Honey Blends

Corn planter 510     I plant bin run soybean seed.   Even though that is not news to me, it might be news to some people.  Sure, I had my share of certified seed through the years but I’ve always resisted treating that seed with any type of insecticide.  So when I see the debate going on regarding neonicotinoid insecticides and the bees I recoil.  This is 2013 and the bees are dying and it’s not really a secret anymore.

I have great respect for Canada’s honey producers.  Back in the day, I had not so much.  I thought that honey producers were on the fringe of agriculture.  That was more a comment on me than on the important role that honey producers play in Canadian agriculture.  Without our pollinators, society wouldn’t have much to eat.  I came to respect our honey producers so much more with maturity.  I also respected them so much more during the farm rally days of 2006.

It was at that time when Canadian farmers were pushed against the wall that I saw many honey producers in front of me when I was making speeches to rally the troops.  Those were tough days and almost at every stop there were beekeepers in front of me.  Little did I realize until then that honey from Australia and Argentina was blended together and sold on my local store shelves.  Of course it was sold at the lowest cost, denominator.  How do the bees get together to do that?

Of course the point is they don’t.  Simply put some of that delicious honey on our store shelves is a-least cost mixture from around the world.  To me it is one of the best ultimate examples of the Canadian food policy.  The honey on our shelves is kept cheap and if that takes out Canadian honey producers, it has our government’s blessing.  That logic drove me crazy then and it continues to drive me crazy now.

The only problem now is we are picking farmer against farmer.  Over time seed treatments on corn and soybeans have improved to the point where we are now. Commercial neonicotinoid insecticides came along with commercial names like Cruiser, Poncho and Gaucho, which really improved crop yields.  Even the laggard like myself who always opted out not to have the seed treatments, was left with no choice when seed corn was all treated with these insecticides.  In fact, it is said without these insecticides on our seed we would be getting 3 to 20 bushels less per acre of corn.  The only problem is honeybee populations have been declining since the introduction of these insecticides worldwide.  Ontario is no different.

The question is what to do?  Simply put, it is almost like spray drift into another farmer’s field.  Dust from the seed treatment at a time of year when planting is done is highly correlated with bee deaths.   Something has to be done.  I don’t know what it is.  I do know that Canadian grain farmers are quite concerned about it and hope to find a proactive solution, which stops the bee carnage.

It just so happens that I did take an apiculture course back in the day at the University of Guelph.  So not only do I have respect for honey producers, sometimes I think I even know a few things about bees.  To me, the issue is very real and it must be dealt with before government legislates changes.

It also shouldn’t be lost on the public that this is also a story about big agricultural corporations throwing their weight around.  When we’re talking about big corporate profits against the bees, guess who wins?  The bottom line is the big Ag corporates have big communication budgets so sometimes the message can be skewed.  The bottom line is grain farmers don’t want to lose 3 to 20 bushels per acre corn and honey producers do not want to lose their bees.

There surely are other issues.  Bees can die from freezing temperatures, bad parasites and other toxic chemicals.   A 35% annual average loss of honeybee colonies in Canada during the last 3 years doesn’t lie.   At the same time we don’t want politicians making an emotional reaction with legislation that will hurt both sides of the debate.  With new crop grain prices going down significantly, Canadian grain producers want to stay competitive against other jurisdictions.  Of course our beekeepers want the same thing.  Keep that in mind when you see those honey blends on store shelves.

So it is a long and winding road.  Where at one time grain producers may have thought the “bee” problem might go away, those days are gone.  This thing has to be solved.  Big corporate Ag needs to be part of this solution.  Science needs to be too.  So we move ahead, and at the end of the day, buy Canadian honey, not some blend from 15000 miles away.  That, more than ever, would go a long way to putting this thing to rest.