FARMING FOR POLLINATORS

‘BEE’ ING ORGANIC

Last year was an exciting year when we launched our assisted tree migration program and expanded our Ontario seed sourcing. It was a big step and now we are letting this ‘ simmer ‘ with the plant industry and the general public.

This year, we want to move our honey farm forward by taking well known agricultural ideas and crops and use them in a more unconventional way. We want to, ‘ Farm for Pollinators ‘. By farming for all pollinators, native and honeybee, the honey business and nursery will benefit. We are going to launch a series of articles named, ‘ Farming for Pollinators ‘, to take you with us on our journey to become Bee Certified as a nursery and honey company. Hopefully, you will be inspired to create your own friendly bee patch from the information you receive.

One of the biggest impacts you can have concerning helping our pollinator populations is to stop spraying. It is probably the most asked question and the most muddled answered. So let’s dive in and discuss declines in pollinator populations and links to chemicals.

Initially, reports started to flood in from the United States and Canadian beekeepers of unusually high winter losses for honeybees in the winter of 2006. It seemed like the majority of the worker bees did not return to the hive although there was brood and food. Colonies had died even though there was no food shortage. Even earlier, Europe had seen this strange occurrence in the lavender and sunflower fields of France. The new phrase became CCD – Colony Collapse Disorder.

After all these years, what have we learned? Bottom line – CCD is a syndrome caused by multiple factors including pesticides, pathogens, parasites, climate change and a lack of biodiversity. Pesticide exposure may interact with other factors to weaken colonies health and increase their susceptibility to CCD and colony failure. Pesticides, including neonicitinoides, are a contributing factor to already stressed colonies. Don’t forget, that our native bees are affected by the same factors.

So how are native and honeybees exposed to neonicitinoides (neonics)? I am going to open this discussion to a world wide platform. This is a highly used chemical class used both agriculturally and ornamental. These chemicals have been available since the mid 1990’s and are now the most widely used group of insecticides in the world, capturing 25% of the market. They were developed as an alternative for the organophosphates and carbonates insecticides. Neonics are a systemic chemical which is absorbed into the plant.

This is where we need to break down the answer of bee exposure to neonics because of the nature of the chemical and the plant reaction to it.

DIRECT CONTACT

All pollinators can come into direct contact with neonics when foliar spraying of the chemical occurs while pollinators are actively foraging on flowers or nesting in the ground within the spray and drift zone.

CONTAMINATED POLLEN AND NECTAR

As mentioned, exposed plants absorb the chemical, systemically and slowly metabolize the compound. Neonics can be present in both the nectar and pollen of treated plants. Even though plants may have been sprayed several weeks prior to bloom time the neonics are still persistent within the plant. Even as the plant slowly metabolizes this chemical, the resulting break down products are also toxic to pollinators.

Repeated scientific sampling and testing has shown neonics in stored pollen and honey within bee hives. Exposure risks from contaminated pollen and nectar are greater for our native bees compared to the European honeybee. This is because of different rearing practices of bees. The European honeybee feed their larva by nurse bees that excrete food to the young. Therefore, the nurse bees act as a chemical filter and dilute the chemicals and contaminates being fed to the young. Our native bees direct feed their young. There is no filtering – young are fed raw pollen and contaminated nectar which makes them far more vulnerable.

PESTICIDES RELEASED DURING PLANTING

Talc is added to planters to help the flow of sticky, neonic coated seeds, during the planting process. Excess talc is either shed onto the ground or becomes air borne. Talc is highly mobile and can contaminate flowers on nearby fields. Millions of acres, across North America, are planted each year.

NESTING AREAS

When neonics drift onto bare ground, they may contaminate potential nesting sites for ground nesting bees. Many native bees, in North America, may nest directly in field. For example, the squash bee frequently constructs its nest at the base of squash and pumpkins in the field.

CONTAMINATED NESTING MATERIAL

Many solitary bees may be exposed to neonics when the nesting material they use to construct their nests are contaminated. Both contaminated mud and plant material could be used. Neonics can persist in soil for very long periods of time. For months, or years, after 1 application untreated plants have been found to absorb the residues of some neonics that have persisted in the soil.

CONTAMINATED WATER

Neonics are water soluble at varying levels and have been found in rivers, wetlands and ground water. For example in Saskatchewan, up to 91% of wetland water sampled, showed the presence of neonics, depending upon the season. There is also another type of water contamination – guttation fluid. This is the water secreted by plants. It is the typical dew drops you view in the early morning hanging on plant leaves. This guttation fluid, when contaminated, is highly toxic to bees.

Let’s muddy up the water even further. There are huge discrepancies between the agricultural and ornamental sectors concerning application rates. For the ornamental sector, they are allowed to spray at 12 – 16X more product than approved for agricultural use. A good example of what we are discussing are golf courses. The Oregon department of agriculture reported 7 severe bee kills when neonics were applied as a ground drench around Basswood trees, prior to blooming, to control aphid infestation.

Do we need to use as much neonics as we do? The use of neonics treated seeds on annual field crops has dramatically increased in the last decade. Various studies are starting to cause doubts on these preventative seed treatments. Field results are demonstrating that seed treatments are not consistently resulting in yield benefits and can be less effective than other control measures. There has been a fundamental shift away from Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Now here is a radical idea. Do we abandon the usage of neonics and look for new chemicals? Actually, I am not so radical, and industry already has found alternatives. There are new systemic insecticides on the horizon. They are chemically very similar to neonics, called flupyradifurones and sulfoxaflor that are being used that are not classified as neonics.

So what is the answer? The answers are there but we can’t see them since industry is too busy arguing, denying and reproaching each other. Same old, same old is no longer working. We need to change the way we do business…for the bee’s sake, and ours.