CATCH THE BUZZ – Beekeepers vs. beekeepers: Ontario group too focused on neonics?

By Connor Lynch

FEVERSHAM — The issue of neonicotinoid-treated seed use and honeybee health is pitting beekeeper against beekeeper. Or, more pointedly, pitting hobby beekeepers against commercial beekeepers.

The Ontario Beekeepers’ Association (OBA), whose members are mostly hobbyists and part-time beekeepers, has called for the Canadian Honey Council (CHC) president, Kevin Nixon, to resign because the association believes he goes too easy on the neonic insecticide.

Nixon, on the other hand, thinks the OBA should consider whether or not it should be a member of the National Honey Council that represents operators across the country. And a newly formed commercial beekeepers’ organization in Ontario nearly morphed into an anti-OBA group.

In an article in a bee industry publication, Nixon said that money is being wasted by fingering neonicotinoids when there are a number of other threats to bees.

“We are seeing so many resources wasted on a single item when so many other important topics are being overlooked,” he wrote. “We believe that there’s many factors that affect bee health, not one single factor.” But OBA president Tibor Szabo told Farmers Forum: “Neonics are of special importance. It’s an immediate, real issue that’s killing our bees. We can’t have someone with those kinds of ideas properly representing Canadian beekeepers.”

Szabo also said that Nixon was incapable of being unbiased on the issue of neonicotinoids, because one of his largest customers for his commercial hive production is a company that produces neonicotinoids. “It does affect his ability to assess this issue properly.”

Unfortunately for Szabo, the science is in Nixon’s favour. Nixon pointed to “some 19 million acres of canola,” in Western Canada that are being treated with neonicotinoids, “and no beekeepers see a problem with bee health in and around canola.”

He added that “neonics seem to be being used responsibly.”

Szabo said that the Western Canada comparison made no sense, because “the agro-ecosystem is so totally different here in Ontario.” He added, “If they aren’t experiencing it out there they’re very lucky, because it’s disastrous for any farmer, including beekeepers.”

The OBA claims on its website that Nixon had called on it to quit the national council.

“I’m not necessarily saying that,” Nixon told Farmers Forum. “I’m throwing the question out there. If our mandates are not the same, why would the OBA continue membership?” Nixon added that some of his comments were directed at the national board as well. “Why does CHC allow an organization to maintain membership when our values don’t align? If your values aren’t the same, why try to work together?”

Szabo said that although there’s “quite a bit of sentiment in Ontario to leave and start our own representation,” the OBA currently has no intention of doing so. “We don’t want to leave; we want to fix the issues.”

Commercial beekeeper and former OBA board member Hugh Simpson, who has commercial hives in Feversham, in Grey County, said “the subject of bee health over the last 3 to 4 years has been completely overwhelmed by the neonic discussion,” and that “the OBA’s approach on this has driven a wedge between them and others.”

Simpson pointed to the bee death event of 2012  — when 58 per cent of Ontario’s bees died over a harsh winter — as the time when anti-pesticide activists saw an opportunity to “start a campaign against the use of pesticides generally.”

The OBA in turn, said Simpson, “saw this as an opportunity to expand its agenda and membership.

“I think what the OBA missed in this is their traditional and important relationship with the farm community. In their zeal to expand awareness of their agenda that includes bee health, they jumped on a bandwagon that put them in a position of opposition to farms and farmers.

“At the moment some of what’s happening is more reactionary and emotionally driven.”

Part of the division between the national and provincial organizations, said Simpson, has to do with the different scales of operations in Ontario and Western Canada. Around the fields of canola out west, “it’s not uncommon to have well over 1,000 hives,” said Simpson. Ontario’s threshold for commercial apiarists is 50 hives. Simpson figured that about 80 per cent of beekeepers in Ontario are hobbyists.

“Ontario has a very high population of hobby beekeepers, and hobby beekeepers are passionate people who want to do something but aren’t necessarily the best trained, or know it’s important to practice beekeeping in a way that keeps bees the most healthy.”

Simpson added that lack of management experience, particularly around the varroa mite which he said organic beekeepers don’t treat for, can be disastrous for bees. “If you see you have a poor winter survival, sometimes you need to look in the mirror instead of point fingers.”

Simpson, who founded in Ontario the Independent Commercial Beekeepers Association in 2014, said that he had to dial back his new organization into more of a club because of the anti-OBA sentiment brewing in it. “It began to feel like it was taking on an identity of opposition to the OBA.” He added that most of the members of the new commercial association have anywhere from 250 to 3,000 hives.

The province identifies at least six different bee stressors, including pesticides, disease, genetics, habitat loss, climate change, and beekeeper management. Commercial beekeepers frequently say the biggest problem among hobbyists is the hobbyists themselves due to poor management.