Competing Doomsdays

By: Mark Winston

It’s long-term exposure to what were previously considered non-toxic doses of multiple pesticides that has become ground zero in assessing why pollinators are dying.

There is a remarkable story unfolding in Ontario and Quebec around pesticides and bees, rooted in two competing doomsday scenarios. Grain farmers claim pests will destroy their crops unless they are allowed to use neonicitinoid pesticides, while beekeepers point to an epidemic of honey bee colony mortality that reached 58% last year, which they blame on the bee-toxic neonics.

Honey bees and wild bees have been declining globally for well over a decade due to a perfect storm of harmful factors, including agricultural pesticides, massive single-cropped fields cleared by weed killers of the diverse nectar and pollen producing plants critical for bee nutrition, and a dramatic increase in diseases and pests.

Many beekeepers and environmental groups specifically blame the neonicitinoids, so named because of their chemical similarity to nicotine, as the primary cause of diminished pollinator populations. Not surprisingly, pesticide companies claim little or no impact. Most non-industry experts agree that the neonicitinoids are harmful to pollinators, although the severity of their impact on managed honey bees and wild bees remains a topic of debate.

Neonicitinoids are just one of many pesticides contributing to pollinator declines, alongside the non- pesticide issues. The issue with neonics, as with most pesticides, is generally not immediate, catastrophic mortality of honey bee colonies, although those directly toxic events do still occur.

Rather, concerns have shifted to pesticide toxicity on under-studied wild bees as well as long-term, slower acting pesticide effects on all bees. There are over 800 species of wild bees in Canada, many of which could be important crop pollinators, but most agricultural fields have insufficient wild bee populations due to heavy insecticide use, weed killers and disrupted nesting sites in large managed acreages.

But it’s long-term exposure to what were previously considered non-toxic doses of multiple pesticides that has become ground zero in assessing why pollinators are dying. Insecticides (including neonicitinoids), some fungicides, and the miticides and antibiotics used by beekeepers themselves against mite pests and bacterial diseases have insidious interactive effects at low doses that over time wear down honey bee colonies and weaken wild bees.

It’s a perfect catastrophic chemical storm when interwoven with agricultural practices. Low doses of neonicitinoids and other pesticides impact pollinators’ immune systems so that bees are less effective at resisting diseases and pests. Many pesticides also interfere with the ability of bees to navigate to and from their nests as well as diminishing their overall activity level. And ironically, pesticide exposure also decreases the capacity of bees to detoxify pesticides, thereby increasing their susceptibility.


All of these impacts are occurring in the context of contemporary agriculture, in which pollinators are already weakened by poor nutrition and a growing array of diseases and pests. In this nutrition-poor, disease-rich and chemically intensive farming environment, multiple pesticides formerly considered by regulators to be bee-safe at low doses now appear to be contributing singly and in combination to the gradual decline and mortality of managed honey bees and unmanaged wild bees.

Still, in Ontario and Quebec the recent impact of neonicitinoids applied to grains was more immediately and directly toxic due to the application method. The pesticide was applied in a talcum-like dust used to affix the pesticide onto seeds, but which also disperses aerially on crops and into nearby habitats during planting. The dust was lethal to significant numbers of nearby honey bee colonies and likely wild bees as well.

What is remarkable about the neonicitinoid controversy is not the conflict between farmers and beekeepers over pesticide use; that’s been going on for over a century. What’s unusual is that provincial governments have sided with the beekeepers, whose lobbying capacity is subdued compared to groups like the 28,000 member Grain Farmers of Ontario.

Both Ontario and Quebec have implemented restrictions on neonicitinoids unusual in North American pesticide regulation, targeting an 80 per cent reduction in neonic use. Farmers can now only use neonicitinoid-treated seeds when they have a serious and independently verified pest problem that can not be managed by any other means, and then only with the approval of a registered pest management advisor, essentially mandating the desirable but largely unenforced principles of integrated pest management.

As fascinating as this story is on its own, it’s just a microcosm of the much larger issue of how pesticides and farming are regulated. The mantra of contemporary super-sized agriculture has been that high chemical inputs and vast single-crop acreages are required if we are to feed the world. This assumption is based primarily on self-assured comments by lobbyists representing the corporate agricultural interests that benefit from weak pesticide regulations and strong government subsidies encouraging industrial farming.

Until recently data to confirm or deny these claims has been sparse, although the feed-the-world refrain has become a pervasive mantra driving policy in North America. But recent studies have provided science-based rather than lobbyist-spun information, and the results are clear: organic and sustainable “organic-lite” agriculture are close to or as productive as conventional farming, with greater economic returns to the farmer and considerably less environmental impact.

The question no longer is whether organic and sustainable agriculture are viable from a yield or profit perspective. They are. The questions we should be asking revolve around what levers governments should use to shift farming practices in progressive directions.

Loose regulations around pesticides as well as vast subsidies that favor conventional farming have left us awash in annual global chemical use, about 243 million pounds of pesticides in Canada, 1.3 billion pounds in the United States and six billion pounds world-wide.

Stricter pesticide regulations, such as the small but positive step taken by Ontario and Quebec to limit neonicitinoid applications, as well as modifying subsidies to favor a transition towards organic/sustainable practices, would improve farm economics and environmental integrity while maintaining high yields.

Pollinator declines are important in themselves, but more significantly are a symptom of outmoded agricultural practices. Pollinator protection could be the thin edge of the wedge driving agricultural policy towards a sweeter spot where crop yields, farming practices and environmental protection are in better balance. BC

Mark L. Winston is a Professor and Senior Fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue. His recent book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive” won the 2015 Governor Generals Literary Award for Nonfiction. Mark Winston’s website can be found at