Evidence of meeting #44 for Agriculture and Agri-Food in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was corn.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

3:30 p.m.


The Chair Larry Miller

I'll call our meeting to order.

We'd like to thank our witnesses for being here. We have some in person, and we have Mr. Rod Scarlett joining us by video conference.

To the committee, with reference to today's witnesses, we have a small budget to pass. I'm waiting for your guidance on whether you want to deal with that right now—it's just housekeeping—or we can deal with it at the end.

3:30 p.m.


Pierre Lemieux Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Let's deal with it at the end.

3:30 p.m.


The Chair Larry Miller

That's good with everybody.

Mr. Scarlett, we'll start with you, just in case we experience any technical problems. You have ten minutes or less, please.

3:30 p.m.

Rod Scarlett Executive Director, Canadian Honey Council

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I want to begin by thanking the committee members for allowing the Canadian Honey Council the opportunity to address you this afternoon.

The CHC is truly a national organization, representing all beekeeping organizations from British Columbia to the Maritimes. Our membership is made up of the provincial beekeeping associations.

In 2010-11, there were approximately 7,200 beekeepers in Canada, wintering 641,990 colonies. Approximately 75% of those colonies are located in western Canada. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has indicated that our sector provides direct and indirect economic benefits of nearly $2.7 billion to the economy a year.

The honeybee, honey production, and the pollination industry play an important and growing role in Canada and the world. Worldwide attention to the health of the honeybee has helped focus public attention on the industry itself.

In 2011, the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturalists devised a new survey procedure that facilitated the direct comparison of key winter loss data across regions in Canada. In a statement on honeybee losses in Canada in 2011, based on the results from nine provinces, “29.3% of the colonies that were wintered during 2010-11 died or were deemed [to be] too weak to be commercially productive.” This ranged from a high of 43% in Ontario to a low of 22% in Saskatchewan. This represents twice the long-term winter loss rate for Canada and a substantial increase over the loss rate for 2009-10, which was 21%. This loss is greater than the 2009-10 mortality figure of 21.0%, and is similar to the three winters previous, where the mortality rates were 33.9%, 35%, and 29%.

There is good news, however, this year, in that it appears the winter losses have dropped dramatically, with the exception of some individual and regional variances. Regarding the long-term trend of winter losses, according to CAPA, a number of common reasons were reported by extension professionals in Canada. These include higher numbers of weak colonies in the fall months while preparing for winter, ineffective varroa control leading to higher mite populations on bees over the wintering period, higher than normal rates of queen loss, and high levels of nosema. Varroa is a pest; nosema is a spore. In addition, weather, environmental factors, pesticides, pests, pathogens, and management all contribute to the declining bee population, and according to CAPA, further research is needed to establish conclusive links to ongoing patterns of colony death.

I want to stress that this pertains to ongoing patterns of winter losses and not the acute event of bee deaths that occurred in Ontario earlier this spring.

In January, the Canadian Honey Council held a national symposium to discuss the state of the industry. Representatives from all provinces attended, and for these purposes two recommendations were put forward. First, we need to develop a national strategy addressing stock replacement and hive health, focusing on domestic self-sufficiency. Second, we need to develop a national baseline on the state of health of our bees. The U.S. has done this, and it's my understanding, with the support of the U.S. government, that it's time we do the same.

Despite the importance of honeybee pollination and the honey sectors, it's important to point out that much of the responsibility for the sector lies in the hands of the provinces. Provincial apiarists do an outstanding job looking after the sector.

Recently, the National Bee Diagnostic Centre, which is located in Beaverlodge and is funded by the federal government, has been a positive step by the federal government in the right direction. But Canada still lags far behind other countries. And until recently, only one researcher-scientist, on AAFC staff was there to study honeybees.

There are no federal bee programs in Canada. Much needs to be done. Whether this year's low winter losses represent the start of a promising trend or are an aberration remains to be seen. I would assume that the good fortune many beekeepers are experiencing this year does not address the underlying factors that have impacted beekeepers over the last five years. We need to be diligent in ensuring that beekeepers have options for success.

Thank you.

3:35 p.m.


The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you very much.

We'll now move to Mr. Bill Ferguson, from Ferguson Apiaries, for 10 minutes or less, please.

3:35 p.m.

Bill Ferguson Owner, Ferguson Apiaries

Thanks for the opportunity to appear before you. Thanks to Mr. Miller in particular, and to Dave Schuit, who got the ball rolling.

I suppose the first question I'd like to ask is, how many of you like pie? Without bees, we aren't going to have any.

3:35 p.m.


Oh, oh!

3:35 p.m.

Owner, Ferguson Apiaries

Bill Ferguson

As for who we are, I'm a commercial beekeeper. I have 50 years of experience in the industry, so among us witnesses today, we have over a hundred years of experience. We do have an idea what's going on in the grassroots.

My situation for my bee losses this year was unique, in that they started planting corn in our area on April 8. At that time, on the Sunday—

No, they started on April 6, but on April 8 I got called by a neighbouring beekeeper within four miles of us who said his bees were coming out of the hives and dying. He asked if that was happening to me. I said that I'd have to go out and check my yard, because we have over 100 hives sitting behind our house and behind our honey house that we use for breeding operations.

I went and checked mine. There was nothing going on. I went and looked at his, and sure enough, they were dying. There was hardly any flying going on because it was just above freezing, and there was a cold wind. They had just planted corn about 600 feet north of him. They had planted 200 acres of corn. The bees had been coming out of there. From talking to him before I came down here, they were still dying, and that's just about two months ago.

As for what happened to me then, it was on the 12th that we were hit with the corn problem. I had talked to the farmer before then and asked him about what was in the corn and what was going on. He didn't have any idea of what was on the corn. He said he just buys it by the bag. They tell him to pay an extra $50 and they call it “fully loaded”. They don't know what's on it for seeding.

I was able to get hold of a label from some of the corn bags. I had heard all the information about what had been going on in the U.S. with the losses, and it looked like it was more of a chemical problem that was killing off the bees than some of the other things they were talking about.

He was getting ready to plant the field around us. It rained and he couldn't plant it for a day, so when he got around to planting it, which was on the 12th, there was frost that morning. The ground was wet, so I thought we were in good shape and we weren't going to have any problems.

Well, he planted it, and within an hour and a half we had bees coming out the front of our hives. I don't know how many of you are beekeepers and understand it, but bees can't maintain flight if they can't maintain a body temperature of 58 degrees. At freezing, they don't even bother coming out of the hive.

The bees started dying and the only thing that made sense was that the poison that was on the corn became airborne and floated across the bee yard. Floating across it.... We have to realize that bees are living organisms and they're giving off carbon dioxide and using oxygen at all times. Inside the middle of a cluster, where the bees are.... And they were super strong bees at that time. We'd fed them three pounds of pollen and they'd had two feedings of syrup because we were trying to get them in shape for our queen-breeding operation.

Well, after that, they started dying off that day and that has continued to this day. As we looked at it on the first two days, we were getting 200 bees dying a day. Now, I realize that it doesn't seem like a lot of bees when you think of the natural mortality, but what's happening with this particular chemical, from everything we've been told in literature.... I have here a copy of the EPA report on it, which we just picked up. I got it before we came. This chemical causes a paralysis of insects and affects their brains, so they die. The bees were dying in front of the hives. We knew it was the chemicals. We had a strong concern, especially knowing that this particular chemical had a half-life of at least 107 days.

So within the hive, we're not only losing the bees that are in front of the hive, within the traps.... We made up some traps to see what was actually happening, because if it was just something lying on the ground, the bees would climb out and away. We looked in the traps. We were finding dead bees and we were finding larvae. In my operation, the odd one had a queen that had died. Without a queen, a hive just collapses.

We are not just losing the bees we find in the trap; we are losing the ones that can't find their way home because of the nature of this chemical.

It was also killing the larvae and brood that were nine days younger. It had to be killing some of the older brood also, because they uncapped it and were pulling out fully developed larvae.

This has been kind of unique. The EPA got in touch with me, because in our yard, we also found a dead robin behind the hive. We realize that in nature, animals always go for the weakest and the most vulnerable. You can find birds in the beehives in the evening, and what they are doing is eating the dead bees that are dying off.

We don't have the reports back on that. We are as curious as anybody to know what happened to it.

Ultimately, the bees are being killed. The only thing we can understand that's changed in ours is the spray. It was the best wintering we'd had in several years. The mite levels were really low. We had no tracheal mites showing up. We tested for nosema last fall, and most hives didn't have it. And it was a really low count. We treated anyhow to make sure that we kept the numbers down.

I think that's about the gist of what's going on. I've been making notes every day this has been going on, based on recommendations from our provincial apiarist.

If there are any questions, I'm willing to answer them.

Thank you.

3:40 p.m.


The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you very much.

We will now go to Mr. Davis Bryans for 10 minutes or less, please.

3:40 p.m.

Davis Bryans President, Munro Honey & Munro's Meadery

Thank you very much for inviting us here today.

I'm a fourth generation beekeeper. My brother and I run the operation. My son is also involved. We have about 3,000 hives. About a third of them were hit with corn spray this year.

What's happened in our instance, and I have some pictures to show later on, is that the bees went out healthy in the morning and were gathering pollen on some plants that had been contaminated by this poisoning. The only thing happening at this time of year was that corn was being planted. The bees came back loaded with pollen, and the other bees wouldn't let them in. We lost between 30% and 40% of the bees in the hive.

When you lose the flying bees, those are the foragers that bring honey back to feed the young bees so that they mature. So now the bees are starting to starve. We have to feed them to try to maintain the hives and keep them going.

We need to make a decision as to whether pollinators are expendable, including honeybees. This poison is not just hitting honeybees. It's hitting all pollinating insects. We have to figure out who is responsible for protecting all these insects, frogs, fish, etc. They are all interconnected, and it's affecting all of them.

There is no insurance of any kind available for beekeepers for this kind of problem. We feel that these products weren't properly field tested to begin with when they brought them out. There should have been at least a two-year period for testing and overwintering of the bees. It just hasn't been tested properly.

This stuff is systemic. It gets into the plant, and it makes the plant toxic. It doesn't only hit the bees now; it's going to hit the bees later when the plants come into flower, because it makes the plant toxic again. These neonicotinoids probably should be banned, as they are in Europe. They are just not good products.

We need independent research that isn't funded by chemical companies. Our problem is that these chemical companies are the ones that are doing the testing. We need independent people to do the testing, because if you're a researcher, and you don't get the results these big companies want, you won't get hired again. It's hard for a researcher not to give them the results they want. They can make the figures the way they want to make them. We've seen it.

Is this product not conditionally registered so that if there is a problem, it should be pulled? These are some of the questions we want to ask. We just think that these companies are doing testing at our expense, and we'd like to know who is going to compensate us for this.

Thank you.

3:45 p.m.


The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you very much.

Now we have Mr. David Schuit and Mrs. Hendrika Schuit. You have 10 minutes or less, please.

3:45 p.m.

David Schuit President, Saugeen Country Honey Inc.

Thank you, Mr. Miller, for inviting us to come to speak about the troubles we're having.

I will just mention that my wife and I were bee inspectors for OMAFRA for a few years, but we got so busy with our operation that we decided to give up working for OMAFRA and work full time with our own hives.

My wife will read our statement and we can carry on from there.

3:45 p.m.

Hendrika Schuit Member, Saugeen Country Honey Inc.

First, we would like to thank Mr. Miller for inviting us to come to this meeting today. We really appreciate your interest in what's going on with the bee industry.

Mr. Miller asked us to share our story of what has been happening with our bees this year.

The bees came through winter exceptionally well, with the lowest mortality rate in years. The spring was mild and with some supplements in the form of sugar syrup and pollen substitute, they were ready to explode by the end of April. We started getting ready for splitting hives in the first week of May. This is done by adding an extra brood chamber to hives so the queen can continue to lay eggs and there is more room for the extra bees.

From beekeepers to the south of us, including Bill and Davis, we had heard reports of large numbers of bees dying after corn had been planted, but up to the beginning of May, we had not seen any evidence of that in our operation.

So far, of the 37 samples that have been taken in the province, 28 have come back positive with the chemical called neonicotinoids, which is used on corn.

On May 14, when David and our son and another worker came to the first yard of the day, they were surprised at the amount of dead bees outside the hive. We immediately called the health inspector and provincial apiarists, neither of whom were immediately available. The health inspector did get back to us at lunchtime and informed us that he would be coming to inspect and take samples. From the time we noticed the first yard affected, David and I went to a number of different yards, but they did not seem to be hit, with the exception of one yard beside that first yard we checked. After a number of bee yards were inspected by the health inspector and samples were taken, he informed us that the samples would not likely be tested at that time. They have been tested now, but we haven't received the results.

The one yard that David and I inspected together, where we found quite a number of dead bees, was not inspected by the health inspector because he had to go home. He informed us that he would not be coming back to take samples unless an exceptionally large number of dead bees showed up again. He encouraged us to continue to take samples if we wanted, but he was not sure if they would actually be tested because of problems with security and custody.

We continued to see bees dying in our yards, and hives that had been strong getting weaker and weaker. More and more corn was being planted in the area. We noticed that there was increased skunk and racoon activity in the bee yards, indicating that bees were being eaten by skunks and racoons, making it impossible to get good-sized samples.

When our home yard had a hive affected so badly that in front of the hive there was a carpet of dead bees an inch and a half thick and three feet out from the hive, we were at our wit's end. We took pictures. We have a couple of pictures with us if anybody's interested. The hive where the dead bees were was so strong only a week prior to this event, but corn had been planted on Tuesday all around our organic farm, and by Thursday morning, the hives were on a downward spiral. Some hives in the home yard were so weak that there may only have been a handful of bees in the hive. Our son was trying to find a frame of fresh larvae to graft queens from, but out of about 40 hives, he was not able to find one hive with a decent amount of larvae. He then went to a yard not too far from us which so far had not been affected and found lots of dead bees there as well.

A rough estimate would indicate there may be over 600 acres of corn and several hundred acres of soybeans in a one-mile radius around our home yard. That's not even taking into account all the corn planted around the other 32 bee yards.

Different people suggested that we call our MP about this, but I really didn't think it would do any good. Then, with all this loss, I could wait no longer, so we called Mr. Miller's office. They informed us that he was not in, but he would get back to us in about two weeks. I said that I needed to speak to Mr. Miller then as my bees were dying. I was given the Ottawa office number and did get to speak to him that day.

Millions of our bees are dead and more bees are dying every day. I don't know how we're going to sustain this continuous loss of bees. If we don't get a decent crop of honey, we won't have honey to sell at the different markets we go to.

We are not the only beekeepers affected by this chemical used on corn and soybeans. There are many beekeepers with the same stories to tell.

The bee inspector for our area stopped by on Thursday—that's this past Thursday—and observed the hives in the home yard for about 20 minutes. He noticed that for the time of day and weather conditions there should have been a lot more activity. He said, you have a major problem here, meaning in this yard.

I can see it is a very painful way for the bees to die. They twist and kick with their tongues sticking out. In some cases, the venom can be seen coming from the stinger. They can no longer control their bodies, and appear to be in terrible pain and agony. Many queens are dying or being kicked out of the hive even before they are dead. Our daughter found a queen outside at the front entrance of a hive. When she picked it up, she held it in her hand. After a few minutes, the queen started kicking her legs, but could not move because she was paralyzed.

We need to have this chemical banned from the market if we want to continue to have bees and other pollinators to pollinate fruits and vegetables, and to continue to have local honey on our table.

Thank you.

3:50 p.m.


The Chair Larry Miller

Thank you very much.

We will now move to questioning. Each member of the committee has five minutes, including the questions and answers. I try to be flexible, but if you could keep your answers reasonably brief, I'd appreciate it.

Mr. Allen, you have five minutes.

3:50 p.m.


Malcolm Allen Welland, ON

Thank you, Chair. Thank you to all of you for coming.

Mr. Scarlett, I will start with you. I come from Niagara. We experienced a summer in March this year where we literally saw blossoms in every tender fruit imaginable, including apples and pears, come out. The head of the Vineland Research Station said to me, we are either going to have a lot of fruit, or we are going to have none at all, because we had 40 days before we were frost free when we actually saw that.

Is there any sense of what impact that had on bees, specifically in southwestern and south central Ontario, because of that, which was really summer-like conditions? It was 25 degrees Celsius. It wasn't just mild by any perspective. It was literally 25 degrees for about a solid week. Do you have any evidence of any impact that had on hives?