The first time Mark Winston entered a buzzing apiary, he fell in love with bees and what their communication skills and co-operation could teach people.
Now, the entomologist and author despairs to see his teachers being silenced in droves.
After years of review, the federal government recently approved the continued use in Canada of three widely used neonicotinoids (or neonics), a common class of pesticides known to harm pollinators like bees and other insects.
There is irrefutable evidence that neonics are harmful to bees — particularly wild bees — and other bugs essential to maintaining healthy ecosystems, said Winston, a professor of apiculture and social insects at Simon Fraser University whose book Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive won a Governor General’s Award.
Yet despite acknowledging the dangers neonics pose in a 2016 proposal to ban them, Canada's recent decision to allow the pesticides continued use is failing to protect bees and other pollinators, Winston and other environmentalists say.
That's left a patchwork of municipalities and provinces trying to pick up the slack. In 2016, Vancouver and Montreal banned neonics within city limits, becoming the first major Canadian cities to do so. Other municipalities and provinces have wide-ranging bans against the use of cosmetic pesticides on lawns and gardens that sometimes include neonics, but not always.
The federal government decides which pesticides can be used in Canada, and sets the thresholds on how much farmers can use and what residual levels can remain on food, explained Louise Hénault-Ethier, director of the Centre Eau Terre Environnement, a research institute within Québec's publicly funded independent scientific research organization. “(But) the provincial governments can be more stringent ... and municipalities can be even stricter.”
Faced with overwhelming evidence the pesticides were harming bees and other insects, Vancouver took advantage of that regulatory leeway, explained Vancouver-Hastings MLA Niki Sharma, who once chaired Vancouver’s park board and was the driving force behind the city's decision.
“(We were) looking at how to support pollinator populations. A big part of that was reducing chemicals that are causing harm (and that) have been scientifically shown to do so,” she said. “There are so many reasons the populations are declining that are part of the human (influence) on nature, but this was one we could just stop doing and really help the populations.”
Montreal's ban had similar origins: In 2015, an international study found severe negative impacts from neonics on pollinators, birds, and other animals. Within months, the city had prohibited the chemicals due to their environmental and health impacts, a spokesperson for the municipal government said in a statement.
"It's unfair that the rest of Canada does not benefit from the same class of protection as Québec," says Louise Hénault-Ethier of @inrsciences."Québec citizens' (and ecosystems') health is better protected." #bees #neonicotinoid #pollution
Vancouver's ban was well-received by residents, Sharma said, with most urbanites happy to protect pollinators. Many were also comforted knowing the toxic chemicals wouldn't be used on lawns and in parks where pets or children might play.
The effort was so successful that Sharma hopes other municipalities will follow Vancouver's lead: “It would be great if more cities took that on — I think we have a lot of reasons to support our bee populations,” she said.
However, Hénault-Ethier noted initiatives to ban pesticides rarely take root outside urban centres. Farmers tend to be more at ease with chemical use and their attitudes often differ from those of city-dwellers on the issue, she said.
But the federal government faces a political headwind the cities didn't: Lobbying from Canada's $1.7 billion pesticide industry.
Most neonics are used in agriculture that takes place outside of urban centers. Pesticide manufacturers want to make sure they won't lose the lucrative market, explained Hénault-Ethier.
Sharma and the City of Montreal spokesperson confirmed neither municipal government was heavily lobbied by the pesticide industry over their bans.
“It seems like pesticide regulation is really driven ... by entrenched interests that profit off the use of these chemicals,” said Lisa Gue, senior researcher and analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation. “In the case of neonics, we know the final decisions (on whether to ban them or not) were delayed while industry stakeholders assembled additional data for consideration.”
Most of the data submitted is considered confidential business information and can't be independently reviewed, Hénault-Ethier said.
In 2005, neonics accounted for between 11 per cent and 15 per cent of Canada's total insecticide market, according to a 2015 report by Ontario Public Health. A 2018 Health Canada report noted two of the chemicals — thiamethoxam and imidacloprid — are among the top 10 pesticides sold in Canada and are used primarily for agriculture.
Pesticides in Canada are regulated by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), a government body managed by Health Canada. The agency has always been under intense industry pressure not to decrease potential pesticide markets, Hénault-Ethier said.
The PMRA relies on data provided by pesticide manufacturers, or “registrants,” independent researchers or provincial monitoring programs to assess a pesticide's environmental risk and develop mitigation measures, Health Canada confirmed in a statement.
Gue noted the agency has no independent, long-term monitoring system for pesticide contamination in the environment.
Québec implemented strict restrictions on the three main neonics and two other dangerous pesticides in 2018 after finding alarmingly high pesticide levels in the province's rivers and streams.
The province has one of Canada's most extensive freshwater monitoring programs, and regularly tests for pesticides and other contamination, Hénault-Ethier explained. At the time, neonics were appearing in most water samples from the province's agricultural region, and international studies had found that preventative neonics use — a common practice where pesticides are usually applied to seeds before they're even planted — was disproportionately harmful to the environment.
Prior to the new rules, almost all the corn and about half the soy seed planted in Canada was treated with neonics, according to the 2015 report by Ontario Public Health.
Québec's move to significantly restrict the chemicals means that under provincial rules, farmers who want to use neonics must now receive a “prescription” from a professional agronomist — a lengthy and paperwork-heavy process, said Hénault-Ethier.
That is not the case in other regions of Canada. In 2014, Ontario passed a law restricting the use of neonic-treated corn and soy seed, but it was weakened by the Ford government last year. No other province or territory has passed laws restricting the pesticides' agricultural use.
“It's unfair that the rest of Canada does not benefit from the same class of protection as Québec,” Hénault-Ethier said. “It's like we have different classes of society — and Québec citizens' (and ecosystems') health is better protected.”