Buzzkill: Pollinator Science and Policy in Ontario

Thursday, November 26, 2015

  • Photo courtesy of University of Guelph Apiculture Studies

    Photo courtesy of University of Guelph Apiculture Studies

  • Photo courtesy of University of Guelph Apiculture Studies

    Photo courtesy of University of Guelph Apiculture Studies

Written by Noel Mano

Bees have been making scientific and popular headlines across the world for much of the past year, and for good reason. In one of the bigger triumphs of natural and scientific communication, the public at large is both aware and engaged in the issue of bee colony collapses across Europe and North America. But public awareness is a fickle thing, and when the science does not quite align with it, legislation and politics can get messy. Into that void, steps the University of Guelph.

Nigel Raine is a well-known name in bee pollinator circles. As the Rebanks Family Chair in Pollinator Conservation, Dr. Raine (and his research group) has been immensely instrumental in helping to raise the alarm around the decline in bee populations. Most recently, he was involved in writing an update to a review published last year. Through laboratory studies, exposure measurements and field studies, the review and its update take a look at how the often cited bugbear, neonicotinoid pesticides (or neonics), are impacting wild, honey and bumble bee populations across the world.

Environmentalists and toxicologists often spar over what exposure means for man-made hazards to life, and the review is unlikely to shift that much. It notes that where information is available, most neonic exposure at sub-lethal levels, except for dust contamination from neonic-treated seeds at planting season. That said, laboratory studies continue to show that even these levels of exposure affect the behavior and physiology of honey and bumble bees.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then the proof of the pollinators dying is in the field. One study noted that while bumblebee foraging efficiency usually improves with experience, this does not happen in those individuals exposed to imidacloprid. Another study, in honeybees, showed that while the neonic clothianidin turned up in higher concentrations in pollen from hives in treated fields, there was no effect of the neonic on honeybee colony growth or ability to overwinter. Across multiple paragraphs, the data go back and forth in this manner, and the authors sum up with a diplomatic ‘more information is needed to say for sure’ statement on the impacts of neonics on bee populations. ‘There is still a limited evidence base to guide policymakers,’ the authors conclude.

The limited evidence base has not stopped policymakers from stepping in, however, and across Europe, laws now restrict the sale and use of neonics in farming. Farmers have always been opposed to these policies, because neonics are one of the more effective classes of pesticides on the market now. (We can talk about organic or alternative farming another time, please don’t flood my inbox). When the Ontario provincial government brought in restrictions on the use of seed coated with neonics, on July 1 2015, the Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) pushed back. After their request for a stay of the policy was denied by the Ontario Superior Court in late October, the GFO this week initiated court action, submitting another motion to the Ontario Divisional court to review the request for a stay of the regulation. The GFO will also submit an appeal to the Ontario Court of Appeal regarding the dismissal of the main request, which will also go over the interpretation of the Ontario government’s regulation.

At its heart, the GFO says on its Protecting Pollinators webpage, is a misunderstanding over the true effects of neonic pesticides, and an underestimation of the usefulness of neonics to modern agriculture. One story, by Rachel Telford, tracked the impact of the EU neonic ban on crops in England. The UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board surveyed oilseed rape crops in 30 counties across England and Scotland in September 2014, and found that overall, 2.7% of the crop had already been lost, which rose as high as 30% in certain southern counties. Stories like these, and the fact that the new regulation came out July 1, too soon for farmers to come up with alternative pest management strategies, illustrate a lack of cohesive science and agricultural thinking on the part of Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, say the GFO.

Ultimately, it is likely that declines in bee populations are a complex, multifactorial issue. A new paper, involving Dr. Peter Kevan of the School of Environmental Sciences at the U of G, could point to a role for climate change. In Colorado mountain ranges, bumblebee tongues have grown shorter over time, while co-occurring flowers have not developed shorter tubes, nor have shorter-tubed flowers become more frequent. The authors’ suggestion is that in a warming world, floral resources decline, favouring shorter tongued bees which exhibit generalist (as opposed to specialist) flower preferences.

With any luck, the science will soon become clear enough to provide a more robust evidence base for public policy. I would say this is possible; Dr. Raine’s update to the original review was prompted by the publication of 80 new papers in the year after. Ontario’s grain farmers will surely be anxious for more new information. 

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