Cape Breton bees

Health Canada will be phasing out a pesticide that sickens bees over the next couple of years.
Cape Breton bees are asleep for the winter, curled in barely-moving balls around their queens, keeping the winged royals warm so that when they wake in the spring they’ll be strong enough to start a new generation.

They may awaken to a friendlier environment.

Over the next three to five years, Health Canada is phasing out imidacloprid, a pesticide widely available to farmers and homeowners. A member of the neonicotinoid family, imidacloprid kills insects such as aphids on numerous crops, including soy, corn, and blueberries.

But it also sickens the bees that pollinate the crops, and the damage doesn’t stop there.

“In Canada, imidacloprid is being measured at levels that are harmful to aquatic insects,” states Health Canada on its website.

“These insects are an important part of the ecosystem, including as a food source for fish, birds, and other animals. Based on the currently available information, the continued high volume use of imidacloprid in agricultural areas is not sustainable.”

Bayer, the German crop chemical company that took over American seed company Monsanto in September, sells imidacloprid to farmers and to homeowners in yard-care products.

Last month, the company bought breakfast for the annual general meeting of the Wild Blueberry Producers Association of Nova Scotia.

Meanwhile, Health Canada is also conducting urgent reviews of clothianidin and thiamethoxam, which are also neonicotinoids.

Some scientists believe that neonicotinoids stress bees, making them more vulnerable to varroa mites, which are associated with ‘colony collapse disorder.’ That began in Japan and Eastern Europe in the 1960s and has since spread to the U.S.

In Canada, where the numbers are not as dire, scientists instead talk of “colony loss.”

In Cape Breton, one of the last places on the planet to fall victim to varroa mites, Health Canada’s ban and reviews are a small step in the right direction, says beekeeper Micheal Magnini.

“Approximately four or five years ago, the mites were introduced to the island and they’re here now, just like they are pretty much everywhere in the world,” Magnini said.

“The neonicotinoids are a large family of pesticides, and the imidacloprid that they are going to ban is only one of about 20 or 30 different chemicals in the same family, so it’s a very small, almost imperceptible, change.

“I would take it more seriously if they were going to place a ban on the entire family of neonicotinoids.

“In Cape Breton luckily, to my knowledge, there is little use of neonicotinoids and so, pretty much in Cape Breton, there is no colony collapse disorder.  The bees’ worst problem is the weather, much more than pesticides.”

Magnini prefers to plant mint to control varroa mites in his bees, though that is not promoted by the provincial department of agriculture.

“I notice that beekeepers who use the chemical treatments are always complaining about the bees being stressed and having other problems,” he said. “The mint family is the best group of plants for keeping bees healthy and keeping pathogens out.”

Cape Breton has about 25 beekeepers, Magnini estimated. In Nova Scotia, there are around 400, according to an industry association.

Last summer was “a very good season for bees,” Magnini said. “Cape Breton beekeepers had excellent honey crops, so going into the winter, the bees are in good shape.”

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