Scientists say restrictions on neonic pesticides aren't enough to save bees - we need a ban

Bees pollinate crops and contribute to a third of the food we consume, but a dangerous group of pesticides is threatening their survival.
Bees pollinate crops and contribute to a third of the food we consume, but a dangerous group of pesticides is threatening their survival. (AFP/Getty Images)
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Concerns over the widely used agricultural pesticides known as neonicotinoids — or neonics — have reached a peak when 242 scientists from around the world called for an urgent ban.

The case has become quite clear that these chemicals are causing harm and their use is largely unjustifiable.- Jeremy Kerr

That's what happened a little more than a week ago when, in an open letter addressed to international governments, the scientists wrote: "the balance of evidence strongly suggests that these chemicals are harming beneficial insects and contributing to the current massive loss of biodiversity."

"As such, there is an immediate need for national and international agreements to greatly restrict their use," the letter read.

In April, countries in the European Union came together to ban the three main neonicotinoids — a victory for scientists. But now they want to make the ban global.

In April, countries in the European Union came together to ban the three main neonicotinoids, a victory for beekeepers and scientists. (AFP/Getty Images)

The pesticides were found to ravage aquatic insects and pollinators like butterflies. But some of the biggest victims are bees, whose populations are already in trouble.

Jim Coneybeare is a beekeeper from Wellington, Ont., and president at the Ontario Beekeeper's Association. He says when he opened his hives this spring, his bees kept near the pesticide-treated fields were devastated.

"We had pretty much historic winter survival rates in non-neonic treated areas. And in neonic treated areas, probably about 65 percent of hives have died," said Coneybeare.

Beekeepers have been seeing bees disappearing from their hives due to heavy neonic use. (AFP/Getty Images)

Dr. Jeremy Kerr from the University of Ottawa has been diving deep into the scientific literature on the subject of neonics and bees. He is a professor in the department of biology and one of the people who signed that open letter calling for a ban.

"The case has become quite clear that these chemicals are causing harm and their use is largely unjustifiable," says Kerr. "There's something like 1,500 different studies that have been conducted and reviewed that basically say that every single neonicotinoid pesticide is demonstrated to harm bee populations."

Pushing them to the brink of extinction means we will lose the services that they provide. This is not something we want to play with.- Jeremy Kerr

Two extensive studies from Europe and Canada have shown conclusively that neonics hurt a variety of bees' abilities to reproduce, and reduce their lifespans. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also found that the pesticides offered no yield benefits to soy crops that are typically treated with the chemicals.

Neonics are largely used to treat soy and corn crops. (Getty Images)

On the other hand, the stakes are high to save these pollinators seeing they contribute to a third of the food we consume. "Pushing them to the brink of extinction means we will lose the services that they provide," says Kerr. "This is not something we want to play with."

Back in 2015, the Ontario government put some restrictions on the use of neonics. Health Canada also announced in April their plan to phase out imidacloprid, one of the three main neonicotinoids, while they review the other two. But despite the progress Canada has made on this issue, Kerr thinks there's still more to be done.

If we're going to move neonicotinoids out, then let's find the next product that's going to ensure that we have the safest, best food system in place. But don't take the tools out of my tool box without replacing them with the next better tool.- Don McCabe

"We are a little behind the Europeans who have banned all three of the big neonics," says Kerr, "so I would argue that the evidence is actually pretty clear that the ban should apply more broadly."

Talks of an expanded ban undoubtedly elicit negative reactions from the farming community.

"If we're going to move neonicotinoids out, then let's find the next product that's going to ensure that we have the safest, best food system in place," says Don McCabe, a corn and soy farmer based in Inwood, Ont., and director at the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. "But don't take the tools out of my tool box without replacing them with the next better tool."

In his defence, Kerr alludes to the positive changes seen in the U.S. and U.K. after they banned neonics — changes that defied the gloomy predictions of a sector collapse. Instead, he says farmers started using more targeted pesticides that were less harmful to the environment, which actually led to an increase in yield.

"There are other practices out there that have proven to be quite efficacious and I think we can sharply reduce the use of pesticides without creating any sort of chaos in agricultural production," says Kerr. "The proof is kind of in the pudding on this and may probably even increase the yields and profitability in instances where pesticide uses turn out to have no benefits."