The federal government has proposed tighter restrictions around two insecticides that are harmful to bees, but stopped short of an all-out ban.

Health Canada announced new mitigation measures today on the neonicotinoids​ clothianidin and thiamethoxam, pesticides which are sold as seed treatment or sprays to protect agricultural crops from various insects.

Under proposed changes, the product will be banned from some uses such as orchard trees or strawberry patches.

Restrictions are on the way for other uses such as on berries and legumes.

New measures will also require new labelling for seed treatments, which will still be permitted.

"Scientific evidence shows that with the proposed restrictions applied, the use of clothianidin and thiamethoxam does not present an unacceptable risk to bees," said Margherita Conti, an official with Health  Canada's pest management regulatory agency.

But environmental groups say the new measures fall short of what's needed to protect pollinators and ecosystems.

'Half-pregnant' approach

Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada, said pressure from pesticide manufacturers and users led to the government's "gutless" and "inadequate" response.

"That's not addressing the long-term issues we have with these pesticides building up in the soil, building up in the wildflowers, in the vegetation," she told CBC News. "It's like a half-pregnant approach. It's impossible, what they're doing, in terms of having a positive impact."

A coalition of environmental and health groups including Équiterre, the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) and the Canadian Environmental Law Association issued a news release urging Canada to follow the lead of other countries with stronger measures against neonicotinoids, also called neonics.

"Italy banned neonic seed treatments on corn in 2008; France will phase out all neonics to protect pollinators starting next year. Parallel comprehensive action is needed in Canada to protect pollinators, ecosystems and food security," it reads.

Mass bee deaths

After beekeepers started reporting mass deaths of honeybees, scientists began to zero in on neonics as one of the causes.

Bees were consuming pollen contaminated with neonics and were also flying through clouds of dust filled with the chemicals in farm fields.

Stakeholders and the public will have 90 days to weigh in on the proposed regulations. Consultations close March 19.

Deborah Conlon, a representative of the Grain Growers of Ontario, said measures already implemented, including labelling changes, have led to a decrease in bee mortality.

She called it "good news" that growers will be able to use the products to protect their crops because an all-out ban could have a big financial impact on farmers.

"Insects cause damage, and that impacts yield," she said. 


A bee gathers nectar from an orange blossom. After beekeepers started reporting mass deaths of honeybees, scientists began to zero in on neonics as one of the causes. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

A statement from the Grain Growers of Canada said modern grain farmers "utilize a diverse and innovative toolbox of crop protection products, including neonicotinoids."  

The statement says clothianidin and thiamethoxam "are not expected to affect bees," when used as a seed treatment — a view many environmental organizations dispute.

"Grain Growers of Canada and our members support a strong science-based regulatory system to provide ongoing reviews of crop protection products. It is crucial that the Pest Management Regulatory Agency is well resourced to maintain its standing as one of the top regulatory agencies in the world," the statement reads.