What's killing Ontario's bees?

By Tim Alamenciak - Published on Jul 23, 2015
Last winter, more honeybees died in Ontario than in any other province.

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Ontario’s agricultural heroes are in serious trouble.

A pair of recent events doesn’t bode well for the province’s pollinators. A survey by the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists found that Ontario had the highest rate of winter honeybee deaths in the country at 38 per cent. Nationally, an average of 16.4 per cent of bees died last winter.

And honeybees aren’t the only species suffering. A recent study out of the University of Ottawa found the range of bumble bees is shrinking due to climate change, meaning areas that had plenty of the fuzzy pollinators a hundred years ago are now bereft.

Despite the fact that one-third of the province’s pollinator species are in decline, the level of public awareness is surprisingly low.

“If you lost one-third of your bird species, people would be up in arms, but if you lose one-third of your pollinators, people don't care,” says Victoria MacPhail, a biologist with Wildlife Preservation Canada. “If you start losing the pollinators, you start losing anything that relies on them. You start losing the plants that rely on them, and that affects the whole food chain.”

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Honeybees are only responsible for a portion of pollination on Ontario farms, but wild bees, who shoulder a significant share of total pollination, are also under attack. The two species are facing many of the same threats.

The difference is wild bees are more difficult to count. As a result, the research is less conclusive. One site – Bumble Bee Watch – is crowdsourcing bumble bee sightings in an attempt to accurately catalogue the populations and species. Users can upload photos and experts will identify the species of bee and plot it on a map.

“We have really good data for the bumble bees, which are 20 of the 400 species that occur in Ontario. Of the bumble bees that we have data for, about one-third to one-quarter show risk of extinction. In some cases that decline has been over 90 per cent,” says Sheila Colla, assistant professor at York University.

Colla says there isn’t a single cause for the decline. The diversity of species, as well as broad range of bumble bees, means multiple factors are likely leading to the decline – from climate change to pesticides to disease.

“I don't want to discount the fact that pesticides aren't good for bees – because they're not – but it's much more complicated than that,” says Colla.

This year, the province took steps to restrict the amount of neonicotinoid pesticides, which can be harmful to bees. The measures prohibit farmers from using neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seeds except where there’s a demonstrated pest problem. Ontario’s goal is to reduce use by 80 per cent by 2017.

Ontario’s honeybee losses are far greater than Quebec, where 18.7 per cent of bees died during the winter. In the London Free Press, Tibor Szabo, president of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, blames Ontario’s comparatively high rate of corn and soybean growth and the increased pesticides that come with it.

Meanwhile, communities and companies are expanding their efforts to help pollinators beyond just adding more honeybee hives. As of June 2015, Fairmont hotels have installed 20 bee hotels – wooden structures with holes bored in them for solitary wild bees to nest in.

But, according to Laurence Packer, a professor and bee expert at York University, this might not be the best approach. The hotels cluster types of bees together, providing a convenient buffet for predators.

“It's similar to putting 40 nest boxes in a single patio. You can imagine if there are 40 nest boxes of songbirds on your patio, the raccoons are going to have a field day,” says Packer.

Many species of ground-dwelling bee find their natural habitats in gardens, among detritus or plant stems once the plant has died.

“People are used to cutting down every little piece of old plant stem on their property so they'll have everything nice and tidy for winter. But they're probably killing lots of wintering pollinators,” says MacPhail. “Even gardening experts often don't realize how much of the ecosystem is hiding. These are the unseen heroes of the world.”

Image credit: Dann Thombs/flickr

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