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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

MARGARET WENTE

Good news: There is no honeybee crisis Add to ...

I have great news for honey lovers everywhere. The Canadian honeybee industry is thriving. Despite those headlines about mass die-offs and and killer pesticides, the number of honeybee colonies is at a record high. Last year, according to Statistics Canada, nearly 700,000 honeybee colonies produced $200-million worth of honey. Bee survival rates have rebounded even in Ontario, which was hard hit by unusually high winter die-offs.

But great news for some is lousy news for others. Environmental lobby groups, for example, depend for their survival on tales of epic disaster. Not long ago, the drowning polar bear was the iconic animal of choice. Today, it’s the noble honeybee, without whose diligent efforts we would starve to death.

“Is it impossible to overstate the importance of these tiny social creatures?” asks the Sierra Club of Canada, whose Save the Bees drive is currently the top of its agenda. “We don’t think so.” The group claims that pesticides are “decimating” bee populations, especially in Ontario and Quebec.

This year the environmental lobby scored a major coup by persuading the Ontario government to sharply restrict the use of a class of insecticide known as neonicotinoids (neonics), which have been widely blamed for the recent bee collapse. Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, who have a long record of misguided green initiatives, took their cue from the European Union, which in 2013 banned three types of neonics. Farmers, who are beside themselves, say that government consultations were perfunctory.

Neonics are a big improvement in crop management because they are applied directly to seeds. They are a far less toxic form of pest control than mass spraying of organophosphates, the method they replaced, which can kill both bees and wildlife. They also increase crop yields. While activists have cherry-picked research that claims neonics are harmful to honeybees, most research shows little to no impact. The biggest threats to bees appear to be natural pathogens and varroa mites. Nonetheless, the environmental lobby insists that neonics are Public Bee Enemy No. 1.

In Europe, the consequences of the ban, which is up for review this year, have not been good. Canola crops in Britain and Germany – which were especially dependent on neonics – have been devastated by flea beetles. Farmers are moving away from canola, which is an important food source for bees.

Stephen Denys is head of sales and marketing for a small Ontario company called Pride Seeds and he’s also a farmer. “Some well-meaning people have used the bees as a lightning rod to start a longer-term attack on modern agriculture,” he says. Ontario’s restrictions on neonics ignores a growing pile of credible science. He predicts the curb on neonics use will make things worse for the environment, not better, because farmers will have to apply several rounds of pesticides instead of none. “I’ll have to start working my ground more. That means my carbon footprint goes through the roof,” Mr. Denys says.

Many beekeepers aren’t happy, either. Although a lot of Ontario’s small-time beekeepers support the reduced use of neonics (and have been seeking compensation for their losses), many big commercial beekeepers oppose it.

Lee Townsend is a commercial beekeeper from Stony Plain, Alta., with more than 3,000 hives. He is sick of the “beepocalypse” and the incessant demonization of the biotech industry. “Beekeepers also depend on biotechnology for many of the hive health products we use to defend our bees from the multitude of pests and disease our bees suffer from,” he wrote recently.

Mr. Denys thinks part of the problem is that city dwellers, the kind of folks who eat organic foods and support the Sierra Club, have no idea how technology has improved crop yields, food quality, food safety – and the environment. Without technology, many of us would still be living on the farm, growing our own food. As he points out, farmers are environmentalists, too: “We’ve all got the same goal, which is to leave this place in better shape than we found it.”

So no, there is no bee crisis. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, worldwide bee populations have rebounded to a record high. The real crisis is the crisis of ideologically driven policy making – and for that there is, as yet, no cure.

Eds Note: An earlier digital version of this story said Ontario farmers were not consulted. This digital version has been clarified.

 

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