Cut Down On Bee-Killing Pesticides? Ontario Finds It's Easier Said Than Done : The Salt Pesticides called "neonics" are popular among farmers, but also have been blamed for killing bees. In Canada, the province of Ontario is trying to crack down on neonics, with mixed results.

Cut Down On Bee-Killing Pesticides? Ontario Finds It's Easier Said Than Done

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A group of pesticides that are very popular among farmers is at the center of a bitter controversy. They are highly toxic to bees, and some scientists think that they're part of the reason bee populations have declined. Regulators in the U.S. are still studying the risks of these pesticides. But in Canada, the province of Ontario is trying to cut their use dramatically. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Ontario's battle over neonicotinoids began in the spring of 2012.

TIBOR SZABO: You know, it was a very early spring.

CHARLES: This is Tibor Szabo, a beekeeper who lives near the city of Guelph.

SZABO: And the hives were really developed well. They came through a mild winter.

CHARLES: Because they were out early, bees were collecting pollen while farmers planted crops nearby. And Szabo started hearing reports from beekeepers to the south that hives were dying. Then one day, disaster struck a few of his hives.

SZABO: It looked like the hive itself had thrown up a bunch of dead bees because there was a huge pile out in front of the hive, a huge pile right at the entrance and a few bees wiggling in between the dead ones to get in and out of their entrance hole in the bottom of the hive.

CHARLES: At that point, Szabo hadn't heard of neonicotinoids. But he soon learned that they're used to coat most of the corn and soybean seeds in North America. And equipment that farmers use to plant the seed scatter some of the pesticide coating into the air. Scientists were finding traces of neonics in beehives. The companies that sell neonics say these chemicals are not a significant problem for bees. They say this kind of mass poisoning happens rarely, and they've developed new technology since 2012 to make it even less likely. But scientists are finding evidence that even tiny doses too small to kill bees can weaken them and decrease their numbers over time. Not just honeybees, but also many kinds of wild bees, like bumblebees. In Ontario, the bee deaths led to a political movement, Szabo says.

SZABO: The public really found sympathy with our cause.

CHARLES: In 2015, Ontario's government passed a law that aims to cut the use of neonics by 80 percent. The law says farmers cannot use seed coated with neonics unless it's really necessary, which sounds sensible. The problem is it's hard to know if it's necessary. The main pests that these chemicals fend off - wireworms and grubs - live underground. Farmers don't know if they're there or how much damage they'll do. So Ontario came up with a test - before a farmer like Greg Hannam orders his seeds, he has to go out to each field, dig holes and drop in some bags of insect bait.

GREG HANNAM: Grain that we've soaked overnight or some cut-up potatoes or rolled oats.

CHARLES: It's meant to attract the pests. If he can find just one insect for every hole he digs, he can order the neonic coating on his seed.

HANNAM: So I hope that I find enough wireworms and grubs that demonstrates I need - that I can use it.

CHARLES: He really wants to use the neonics. Most farmers here do. To show me why, another farmer, Stephen Denys, takes me out to a corn field. Denys is also an executive at a small seed company, Maizex Seeds. This field is an experiment. Half of the seed he planted here was coated with neonics. Half was not. And here's a row, he says, that did not have the insecticide.

STEPHEN DENYS: If you look in here, you see a lot of gaps.

CHARLES: There's just bare dirt where stalks of corn should be.

DENYS: And so that tells me that there's something going on down there with the seed. So it could be that the insects - in this case, wireworms - were actually eating the seeds before they had a chance to germinate and emerge.

CHARLES: This doesn't happen as often with neonic-treated seed, he says. Now, field trials conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph show that on average, farmers lose only 1 or 2 percent of their corn crop if they don't use neonic-treated seeds. But they can lose up to 15 percent, and farmers like Denys don't want to take that risk. So far in Ontario, farmers are saying that their bait traps show they need neonics in most of their fields. Here's Dale Cowan from the company Agris, a seed dealer in Ontario.

DALE COWAN: I can tell you that probably this year, between 75 and 85 percent of corn seed went out the door with neonic seed treatment on it.

CHARLES: That's nowhere close to the dramatic neonic reduction that the law promised. The government will release official data on this later this fall. The people who pushed for the law, such as beekeepers, say if it's not accomplishing what it promised they'll demand new regulations that are even stricter. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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