Most people know intuitively the importance of pollinators to the food chain. Pollinators include bats, birds, and primarily a variety of insects such as bees and butterflies: without them, about one third of our food would disappear. Bees in particular play a very important role, ensuring pollination of food crops and plants in the wild.
The past few weeks have highlighted the importance of pollinators. On November 24th, Plight of the Pollinators: making London pollinator friendly took place at the Central Library and attendees packed the Wolf Performance Hall. Experts in the field told the audience how bee populations are suffering, mostly from the advent of the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on food crops and even in plants at garden centres.
The next day, the provincial government released a discussion paper entitled Pollinator Health: a proposal for enhancing pollinator health and reducing the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in Ontario. It calls for a reduction in over-winter the mortality rate of honey bees to 15% by 2020, and reducing the number of acres of corn and soybean treated by neonicotinoids by 80% by 2017.
On December 9 (last Tuesday), two Ontario ministries held a public forum to have input on the discussion paper. I sat at a rather insightful table with three farmers and three local-food activists.
The representative from the agriculture ministry told us that in 2014, honey bees experienced a 58% mortality rate. In 2012 and 2013, 70% and 75% (respectively) of the dead honey bees had neonicotinoid residue.
One of the farmers at the table tends to just under 100 acres, and she claimed that reducing the use of neonicotinoids would just mean farmers would have to find other pesticides, possibly reverting to older products that potentially pose more harm. While she doesn't use neonicotinoids on all of her crops, she believed in the necessity for her sweet corn and snap peas. Luckily for her, sweet corn currently falls under the exception list for the proposed ban.
The other two farmers had a larger operation, planting soybean for many seasons. They claimed that they saw very little difference in pest control between the untreated seeds and the seeds treated with neonicotinoids, and in fact that the treated seeds grew with more difficulty. The only problem now: they can't purchase untreated seeds.
Applying neonicotinoids has the goal of killing insects that eat the plants; however, it has a detrimental effect on the good insects doing the pollinating. The substances are derived from nicotine and gets used on almost 100% of corn crops and about 60% of soybeans - which, according to the representative from the environment ministry, gives little to no benefit for the latter.
In all, the proposed ban focusses on where the pesticides are needed and eliminate needless application. The way the neonicotinoids attack the nervous system of bees leads to the question of the effects on human health: we eat the very food treated with these pesticides.
Pollinator garden at Church of the Transfiguration
I have had the great opportunity to visit some pollinator gardens in London, three of them located at churches in the city (Church of the Transfiguration, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Andrew Memorial). I encourage you to visit them and learn more.
There are some easy ways to help your local pollinators, including planting a pollinator-friendly garden (check out the University of Guelph's Honey Bee Research Centre), ensuring that the plants you purchase at the garden centre are free of neonicotinoids, and pull those weeds instead of using any chemical pesticides. Make sure those plants are native species, too!
If we take good care of the bees, the bees will take good care of us.