ELMWOOD, ONT. - David Schuit routinely watches his employees die.
He’s an apiarist, after all, with bees that work to make honey for him. But now he fears the bee business is losing its buzz, and he claims it’s largely because of a rampantly used pesticide that he believes is killing his bees by the millions.
“This is how they die,” says Schuit, 48, pointing with a broad hand to a bee that’s gone haywire, flailing erratically in the grass. “Their tongue sticks out and the venom drips out their backside.”
He pauses, and his voice wavers. “You really get emotional because they’re your insects, your livestock … It’s terrible.”
Like many apiarists in Ontario, the Schuits, who make organic honey in Elmwood, Ont., say their bees have been dying en masse every spring in recent years. They estimate they lost a staggering 37 million bees in 2012 alone, representing more than half their entire brood. The sudden decline forced them to sell their old 40-hectare property in December, and persuaded their eldest son to jump ship on the family industry.
“We just can’t continue on like this,” says Erika, mother of the seven Schuit children. “It’s very stressful as a family, and you need to put food on the table.”
Recent declines in bee populations have been documented around the world, prompting a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder and raising fears over the consequences of losing a species vital to the pollination of many plants. In Canada, the bee population has dropped by an estimated 35 per cent in the past three years, according to the Canadian Honey Council.
Several suspected causes have been studied, including the loss of flower habitat, disease, bee mites and parasites.
The Schuits, however, are convinced widely used “seed treatment” pesticides called neonicotinoids are to blame for the seizure-like deaths of their European honeybees.
Sold by German agricultural science giant Bayer and Switzerland’s Sygenta, neonicotinoids are highly lethal to insects like bees, but far less toxic to mammals and other vertebrates. Corn, soy and canola seeds are coated with the nicotine-related compounds to prevent ground-dwelling insects from damaging them before they grow.
According to the Grain Farmers of Ontario, the pesticide has been used on virtually all corn seeds in the province since 2004.
“Although there may be a pesticide more toxic to honeybees, I am not aware of one,” said Greg Hunt, a Purdue University entomologist who has studied how honey bees are exposed to the chemicals in Indiana, explaining that exposure to four billionths of a gram will have a 50 per cent chance of killing a bee, according to a 2011 study.
The pesticide is thought to spread during corn planting season, when machines kick up dust containing the toxic compound, which drifts to nearby areas where bees collect pollen and get contaminated.
In April, responding to the pesticide’s increasing scrutiny as a major factor in bee deaths, the European Union approved a two-year neonicotinoid ban, while in North America, a collective of companies and organizations, including Bayer and the Grain Farmers of Ontario, have pledged to research ways to prevent the spread of neonicotinoids during corn planting season.
“If we can reduce the exposure of the dust, then we can reduce the risk to the bees,” said Murray Belyk, manager of scientific affairs for Bayer in Regina.
John Cowan, Grain Farmers of Ontario vice-president, said he shares concern over the effect these pesticides on bees, but cautioned that more research needs to be done to determine exactly how — and to what extent — neonicotinoids contribute to bee deaths.
“I think we all look for a silver bullet, that if we change this it’ll fix everything,” Cowan said. “We’re doing a significant amount of research to determine what the problem is, and how we can mitigate it.”
Last year, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Industry started taking samples of dead bees from apiaries in Ontario and Quebec — including Schuit’s. They found clothianidin, a type of neonicotinoid, in 70 per cent of Ontario samples, while the pesticide was found at 80 per cent of apiaries visited.
The agency is now “re-evaluating” the status of neonicotinoids in Canada, while more samples are being analyzed this year.
“The length of time this takes will depend on the number of reports received and bee samples requiring analysis,” the agency said in an emailed statement. “If warranted, regulatory action will be taken at any time during the process to further protect bees.”
Back in Elmwood, Schuit dons a bone-white jumpsuit and tends to a cluster of hives with his 8-year-old son, Caleb. As the boy blows tufts of smoke from a heated canister of hardwood shards, Schuit reaches down and sifts through the dead and dying bees on the ground with his bare hand.
“It comes to the point where I’m sick of taking samples,” he says, standing up and rubbing his face. “The bees are speaking to us, and we hear them, as beekeepers.
“We know what the problem is.”