Cut Down On Bee-Killing Pesticides? Ontario Finds It's Easier Said Than Done

Oct 18, 2016

Nobody loves pesticides, exactly. But one kind of pesticide, called neonicotinoids, is provoking a particularly bitter debate right now between environmentalists and farmers. The chemicals are highly toxic to bees. Some scientists think they are partly to blame for the decline in pollinators.

For the past year, the province of Ontario, in Canada, has responded to the controversy with a novel experiment. Ontario's government is asking farmers to prove that they actually need neonicotinoids, often called neonics. It turns out that "need" is a word that's hard to define.

The experiment has its roots in a mass killing of bees in 2012.

"It was a very early spring," recalls Tibor Szabo, a beekeeper who lives near the city of Guelph. Warm days meant early blossoms on trees, and as a result, honeybees were out collecting pollen while farmers planted their corn and soybeans nearby.

Szabo started hearing reports from beekeepers in the southeastern corner of the province that their bees were getting killed by dust that came from farmers' planting equipment. He heard that "there was a chemical that was on the seeds." It was some sort of pesticide.

Then disaster struck a few of his hives.

"It looked like the hive itself had thrown up a bunch of dead bees," Szabo says. "There was a huge pile out in front of the hive, a huge pile right at the entrance, and a few bees wiggling in between the dead ones to get in and out of their entrance hole in the bottom of the hive."

At that point, Szabo hadn't heard of neonicotinoids. But he soon learned that most of the corn and soybean seeds that farmers plant, all over North America, are coated with these chemicals. The newest, most modern planting equipment uses air pressure to move seeds around, and as a result, some of the seed coating is blown into the air. Scientists found traces of neonics in beehives.

Bayer, the primary manufacturer of neonicotinoid seed coatings, argues that they pose only a minor threat to bees, because the insects rarely encounter enough of these chemicals to do any harm. The company also has come up with technologies that are supposed to minimize the release of neonics from planters.

But scientists are finding evidence that even tiny doses, too small to kill bees, can weaken them and decrease their numbers over time.

In Ontario, the bee deaths led to a political movement. "The public really found sympathy with our cause," Szabo says.

In 2015, Ontario's government passed a law that aims to cut the use of neonics by 80 percent. Under this law, farmers cannot use neonic-coated seeds unless those pesticides are truly needed to protect a farmer's crop.

It sounds sensible. There's just one problem. Need is hard to define.

The main pests that these chemicals fend off — wireworms and grubs — live underground. Farmers don't know if they're there, or how many there are, or how much damage they'll do.

So Ontario came up with a test. If farmers want to use neonic-treated seeds, they first have to go out to each of their fields, dig some holes, and drop in some insect bait — typically grain or rolled oats that have been soaked in water.

It's meant to attract the pests. If they can find just one insect for every hole they dig, they can order neonic treated seed.

This leads to a paradoxical situation. Most farmers are hoping to find the pests, because they really want neonics on their seed. Greg Hannam, for instance: "I hope that I find enough wireworms and grubs that demonstrates the need, so I can use [the seed treatments]," he says.

Stephen Denys takes me out into a corn field. Denys is also an executive at a small seed company — Maizex Seeds.

This field is an experiment. Half of the seeds he planted here were coated with neonics, half were not.

This row here, Denys says, probably did not have the insecticide. "If you look in here, you see lots of gaps," he says. There's just bare dirt where stalks of corn should be.

"Something was going on down there. It could have been [that] wireworms had a chance to eat the seedling before it had a chance to emerge."

The rows with neonic-treated seed, he says, don't have so many gaps.

Field trials conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph show that, on average, farmers lose only 1 or 2 percent of their corn crop if they don't use neonic-coated seeds. But they can, in some cases, lose up to 15 percent. And farmers like Denys don't want to take that risk.

According to the farmers and seed dealers I interviewed, farmers in Ontario are reporting that their bait traps show they need neonics in most of their fields. No one is checking up on farmers to make sure that they are reporting these results accurately. Dale Cowan, with the company Agris, a seed dealer in Ontario, says that "probably this year, between 75 and 85 percent of corn seed went out the door with neonic seed treatment on it."

That's nowhere close to the dramatic neonic reduction that the law promised.

The government will release official data on this later this fall. Some environmental advocates who support the law believe that in the future, farmers will realize that in many cases, the neonic treatments simply aren't necessary.

Beekeeper Tibor Szabo, for his part, says that if the law isn't delivering major cuts in the use of neonics, beekeepers will demand new regulations that are even stricter.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A group of pesticides that are very popular among farmers is at the center of a bitter controversy. They are highly toxic to bees, and some scientists think that they're part of the reason bee populations have declined. Regulators in the U.S. are still studying the risks of these pesticides. But in Canada, the province of Ontario is trying to cut their use dramatically. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Ontario's battle over neonicotinoids began in the spring of 2012.

TIBOR SZABO: You know, it was a very early spring.

CHARLES: This is Tibor Szabo, a beekeeper who lives near the city of Guelph.

SZABO: And the hives were really developed well. They came through a mild winter.

CHARLES: Because they were out early, bees were collecting pollen while farmers planted crops nearby. And Szabo started hearing reports from beekeepers to the south that hives were dying. Then one day, disaster struck a few of his hives.

SZABO: It looked like the hive itself had thrown up a bunch of dead bees because there was a huge pile out in front of the hive, a huge pile right at the entrance and a few bees wiggling in between the dead ones to get in and out of their entrance hole in the bottom of the hive.

CHARLES: At that point, Szabo hadn't heard of neonicotinoids. But he soon learned that they're used to coat most of the corn and soybean seeds in North America. And equipment that farmers use to plant the seed scatter some of the pesticide coating into the air. Scientists were finding traces of neonics in beehives. The companies that sell neonics say these chemicals are not a significant problem for bees. They say this kind of mass poisoning happens rarely, and they've developed new technology since 2012 to make it even less likely. But scientists are finding evidence that even tiny doses too small to kill bees can weaken them and decrease their numbers over time. Not just honeybees, but also many kinds of wild bees, like bumblebees. In Ontario, the bee deaths led to a political movement, Szabo says.

SZABO: The public really found sympathy with our cause.

CHARLES: In 2015, Ontario's government passed a law that aims to cut the use of neonics by 80 percent. The law says farmers cannot use seed coated with neonics unless it's really necessary, which sounds sensible. The problem is it's hard to know if it's necessary. The main pests that these chemicals fend off - wireworms and grubs - live underground. Farmers don't know if they're there or how much damage they'll do. So Ontario came up with a test - before a farmer like Greg Hannam orders his seeds, he has to go out to each field, dig holes and drop in some bags of insect bait.

GREG HANNAM: Grain that we've soaked overnight or some cut-up potatoes or rolled oats.

CHARLES: It's meant to attract the pests. If he can find just one insect for every hole he digs, he can order the neonic coating on his seed.

HANNAM: So I hope that I find enough wireworms and grubs that demonstrates I need - that I can use it.

CHARLES: He really wants to use the neonics. Most farmers here do. To show me why, another farmer, Stephen Denys, takes me out to a corn field. Denys is also an executive at a small seed company, Maizex Seeds. This field is an experiment. Half of the seed he planted here was coated with neonics. Half was not. And here's a row, he says, that did not have the insecticide.

STEPHEN DENYS: If you look in here, you see a lot of gaps.

CHARLES: There's just bare dirt where stalks of corn should be.

DENYS: And so that tells me that there's something going on down there with the seed. So it could be that the insects - in this case, wireworms - were actually eating the seeds before they had a chance to germinate and emerge.

CHARLES: This doesn't happen as often with neonic-treated seed, he says. Now, field trials conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph show that on average, farmers lose only 1 or 2 percent of their corn crop if they don't use neonic-treated seeds. But they can lose up to 15 percent, and farmers like Denys don't want to take that risk. So far in Ontario, farmers are saying that their bait traps show they need neonics in most of their fields. Here's Dale Cowan from the company Agris, a seed dealer in Ontario.

DALE COWAN: I can tell you that probably this year, between 75 and 85 percent of corn seed went out the door with neonic seed treatment on it.

CHARLES: That's nowhere close to the dramatic neonic reduction that the law promised. The government will release official data on this later this fall. The people who pushed for the law, such as beekeepers, say if it's not accomplishing what it promised they'll demand new regulations that are even stricter. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.