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Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Agriculture and Forestry

Issue 11 - Evidence - Meeting of May 6, 2014


OTTAWA, Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry met this day, at 6:01 p.m., to study the importance of bees and bee health in the production of honey, food and seed in Canada.

Senator Percy Mockler (Chair) in the chair.

[English]

The Chair: I welcome you to this meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. My name is Percy Mockler. I'm a senator from New Brunswick and chair of the committee. At this time I would like to ask all senators to introduce themselves, starting with the deputy chair.

Senator Mercer: I'm Senator Terry Mercer from Nova Scotia.

[Translation]

Senator Robichaud: Fernand Robichaud from New Brunswick. Good afternoon.

Senator Tardif: Good afternoon. I am Claudette Tardif from Alberta.

[English]

Senator Merchant: Hello, I'm Pana Merchant from your neighbours in Saskatchewan.

[Translation]

Senator Maltais: Good afternoon. I am Ghislain Maltais, a senator from Quebec.

Senator Dagenais: Good afternoon. Jean-Guy Dagenais, a senator from Quebec.

[English]

Senator Eaton: Nicky Eaton from Ontario.

Senator Buth: JoAnne Buth, Manitoba.

Senator Ogilvie: Kelvin Ogilvie, Nova Scotia.

The Chair: Thank you, honourable senators. Today the committee is continuing its study on the importance of bees and bee health in the production of honey, food and seed in Canada.

We have received an order of reference from the Senate of Canada that the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry be authorized to examine and report on the importance of bees and bee health in the production of honey, food and seed in Canada. In particular, the committee shall be authorized to examine this topic within the context of:

(a) the importance of bees and pollination to produce food, especially fruit, vegetables, seed for crop production and honey production in Canada;

(b) the current state of the native pollinators, leafcutter and honeybees in Canada;

[Translation]

(c) the factors affecting honeybee health, including disease, parasites and pesticides in Canada and globally; and

[English]

(d) strategies for governments, producers and the industry to ensure bee health.

Honourable senators, our first witness is Shelley Hoover, Apiculture Research Scientist, Agriculture and Rural Development, Government of Alberta.

Dr. Hoover, the process is the following: You will make your presentation and then the senators will be asking questions. Before I ask you make your presentation, thank you very much for accepting our invitation to share with us your comments, your vision and your opinions.

Dr. Hoover, will you make your presentation, to be followed by questions.

Shelley Hoover, Apiculture Research Scientist, Agriculture and Rural Development, Government of Alberta: Thank you, Mr. Chair and honourable senators for inviting me and for the opportunity to talk to you. You've had a large number of people speak to you on this issue already, so I'll try not to repeat too much of what has been said. Instead I will offer my perspective as a research scientist working in the canola growing region of southern Alberta.

I work for Agriculture and Rural Development at the Agriculture Canada Lethbridge Research Centre, and I do research on honeybees, leafcutter bees and I've also worked on bumblebees, as well as pollination.

In Alberta we have over 40 per cent of the honeybee colonies in Canada. Approximately 80,000 colonies of honeybees and 175,000 gallons of leafcutter bees are used to pollinate the canola seed production fields in southern Alberta. This is many billions of managed bees.

Insect pollination is absolutely critical to the seed crop in southern Alberta, which produces the bulk of the seed used to plant Canada's 21 million acres of commodity canola. Insect pollinators also increase both the yield and the value of the commodity canola crop. Canola seed is treated with a seed coating that includes a neonicotinoid insecticide. Although the honeybee colonies of the southern Alberta region are exposed to this insecticide treated seed, we have an average of less than 19 per cent winter mortality over the last seven years and the number of hives has been increasing in southern Alberta as the demand for pollination services has increased.

This relationship with agriculture, as well as high honey prices, has allowed the beekeeping industry in Alberta to grow. I would argue that one reason we have been relatively successful in Alberta as an industry is that there is this interdependence of agriculture and beekeeping. In fact, that's how my research position was created, with industry stakeholders getting together with the government to fund a research scientist position.

In contrast, many parts of the world, including many parts of Canada, have experienced continued high annual honeybee losses and many pollinators are in decline. As I know others before me have said to the committee, scientific consensus is that pollinator declines are caused by multiple interacting pressures including pathogens, nutrition, habitat loss and exposure to a multitude of agro-chemicals.

Parasites and pathogens are the top concern for honeybees, but the availability and quality of forage is also critical, although pesticides also play a role in bee loss. There has been a recent focus on neonicotinoid insecticides. This is a class of insecticides that is acutely toxic to insects, including bees. They have been clearly implicated in the bee kills associated with the planting of corn seed, particularly in Ontario and Quebec. There have also been documented sublethal effects of neonicotinoids on foraging, feeding, immune function and navigation in honeybees. Repeated exposure to sublethal concentrations can make bees more susceptible to other stressors in their environment, such as parasites and pathogens and environmental temperatures. As such, concern about their effects on agro-ecosystems, including pollinators, is justified.

However, neonicotinoids are not the only pesticides that bees are exposed to. There is a whole host of fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, adjuvants — a variable chemical soup that these bees are exposed to, and this includes products used by beekeepers in hives.

In Alberta, most pollen samples from canola today don't contain detectable levels of neonicotinoids. Other studies have found low but detectable residues in canola nectar and pollen, but the existing data suggest that levels of neonicotinoids in these crops are fairly low. I'm specifically referring to analyses done by Dr. Stephen Pernal and Dr. Tom Thompson.

In the canola fields in Alberta, we don't see acute bee kills associated with neonicotinoids with either foraging a crop or planting a crop. Managed bees seem to not only coexist with canola but also to contribute substantially to the agricultural production and the economy.

Both wild and managed bees are facing numerous challenges; however, losses to the native bee populations go largely unnoticed. We need to acknowledge that agro chemicals are harmful to many species, including pollinators, and follow integrated pest management practices and use all pesticides in a safe and judicial manner.

I would like to offer the committee a number of suggestions for concrete steps that can be taken to benefit bee health in Canada. The first is increased testing of pesticides to include more life stages and more species of pollinators. Even if we just take honeybees and leafcutter bees, those species are about as related as, say, a giraffe and a goat. I think we can all agree that you could feed things to a goat that would make a giraffe sick, so we can't assume that bees have a one-bee-fits-all response to these compounds, or even within a single species, that each life stage will respond the same.

Second is improving the quantity and quality of bee forage throughout Canada. One international example of this is the Trees for Bees NZ program in New Zealand, which works to plant bee-friendly trees and improve soil stability and bee forage availability in critical seasons when they don't have forage available. Similar work in blueberry fields in the U.S. has benefited blueberry yields as well as being cost efficient for farmers. This benefits not only bees but other insects as well.

The third is research into how to manage both current and emerging pests of managed bees. We need to ensure that beekeepers continue to have the tools they need to manage pathogens in their hives, particularly varroa.

The fourth is investment in training of highly qualified personnel and the creation of permanent research and extension positions across the country. I'm sure you've heard of the excellent work done by the Ontario Tech-Transfer Team and the Saskatchewan Beekeepers Association Technology Adaptation Team. They do research that's relevant to the local beekeeping areas and provide training for beekeepers in their region. Unfortunately, access to these types of extension and inspection services is not adequate or equal across all of Canada. In fact, inspection services in Manitoba were recently cut. Funding for all types of research tends to be short term, and this precludes some types of research, such as stock selection. We need to have long-term investments in research and training.

Bees are facing many stressors, but I think if we can effectively manage parasites and pathogens, ensure they have adequate nutrition, and minimize their exposure to pesticides, they can successfully coexist and contribute to modern agricultural practices.

Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you, Ms. Hoover. We will begin questions.

Senator Mercer: Thank you very much for a very interesting presentation. You've done something that I really like to see witnesses do: You've made concrete recommendations that we need to examine, and I do appreciate that.

You said a number of interesting things, but this is the one I wanted to talk about: Pollen samples have shown no traces of neonics. Did I understand you correctly in terms of canola pollen samples?

Ms. Hoover: Not all samples show no traces, but many samples show no traces. Past work that's been done by Dr. Steve Pernal from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Tom Thompson from Alberta Agriculture. I refer you to them for more specifics on the data, but the information they gave to me was that the neonic levels they're finding in the pollen is "low" to "undetectable."

Senator Mercer: Would that lead me to believe that the problem people continue to talk to us about is not as significant as they might think?

Ms. Hoover: It depends which problem you're referring to. Absolutely, the seed treatments in corn are killing bees, but that's specifically associated with the planting. When you plant canola seed, much less dust is generated, partially because of the seeders used and the shape. But when foraging on the crop, we don't tend to see a problem with the neonicotinoids in canola.

Senator Mercer: If we were to use more dust deflectors in the planting of corn, would that help solve some of the problem, or is it just the way corn is and has to be planted?

Ms. Hoover: I certainly am not an expert on planting corn, but it's the dust that's generated when you plant it that is causing the bee kills. If we can minimize the dust — and I know Health Canada is doing some work to try to minimize that dust both in terms of modifying the planters and the lubricants used — that will help with the acute bee kills associated with the planting of the corn.

Senator Buth: Can you tell me what you think the number one issue is affecting bees in Alberta?

Ms. Hoover: It would be parasites and pathogens. From year to year it varies, but right now we seem to have varroa well under control, but we also see associated viruses. We see problems with Nosema. Some years, we happen to have a longer, colder winter, and that can be number one in terms of winter loss. Overall, though, I would say parasites and pathogens.

Senator Buth: You mention that winter losses for bees have averaged 19 per cent over a certain number of years. That's low compared to some of the other numbers we've heard. Why do you think winter losses are lower in Alberta, because it's not that you're any warmer than most of the Prairies?

Ms. Hoover: The number I gave you was specifically for the southern region of Alberta where we have the hybrid canola seed. We are not only warmer but we get breaks where the bees can go out and fly and the beekeepers can get in and feed earlier. So we do have a shorter winter down here.

Senator Buth: You also mentioned leafcutter bees and I don't think we've had many witnesses on leafcutter bees. Can you maybe just talk a bit about leafcutter bees and what they're used for, and what types of issues you find in leafcutter bee populations?

Ms. Hoover: Certainly. Around here we really use leafcutter bees for two things in seed production: alfalfa seed production and canola seed production. Most canola seed production fields will have both managed bees — honeybees and leafcutter bees — on them. In general, they don't get very many what they call "returns" off the canola fields for the leafcutter bees, so they may produce slightly more than they put in; whereas on alfalfa they can get three or four times the number of bees back that they put on, and they can sell those bees to pollinate other fields.

The leafcutter beekeepers have concerns about fungicides, about a fungus that affects the brood called chalkbrood, which is a different species of chalkbrood than honeybees have. They also have some parasites, such as wasps, that will affect the pupae over the winter. Those tend to be their greatest concerns.

Senator Buth: So leafcutter bees are used primarily with alfalfa seed production, with some used for hybrid canola seed production; is that right?

Ms. Hoover: Yes, around here, although they're also used for blueberries in other locations. We export leafcutter bees to the U.S. from Alberta.

Senator Merchant: Thank you again for your presentation.

Do you collaborate with other provinces? I am thinking of Saskatchewan. Are there programs where you pool the surveys you do or the information you have? I noticed that you have had an insurance program in Alberta. It may have been to help with the winter losses of bees. I noticed that Saskatchewan has now introduced a pilot project, and I think it's for three years. Can you tell us something about whether you work with other provinces?

Ms. Hoover: My position is primarily a research one, so I don't tend to do inspection services outside of research. In terms of research, I definitely do collaborate with other provinces.

We're just finishing up a project that I think other people have mentioned to this committee, which was collaboration between people at the University of British Columbia, me, Dr. Steve Pernal at Agriculture and Agri- Food Canada in Beaverlodge and the University of Manitoba. I've also applied for some funding to work with researchers at Laval University. I do collaborate with people from other provinces, but it's primarily for research purposes.

Senator Merchant: I had a little trouble hearing you, but I think I got the gist of it. Sometimes you're cutting out as you're speaking to us.

Do you have an opinion about whether the federal government should do national surveys? I think the honey council wanted Canada to establish programs similar to the one they have in the U.S. which has been conducting annual national surveys of honeybee pests and diseases since 2009. The goal of the survey is to document which bee diseases, parasites or pests of honeybees are present in the country. Such a survey does not currently exist in Canada. Efforts to establish one by the Canadian Honey Council were voted down by the Eastern provinces. Do you think that the federal government has a role to play in doing that kind of a survey?

Ms. Hoover: Absolutely. I think that type of survey is important for two reasons. One is for trade, because you can't establish trade boundaries if you don't know what parasites and pathogens you have. The second is for events such as we're finding now, where we have increased mortality. If we don't have historical records of levels of parasites and pathogens, it's difficult for us to say what has changed.

Senator Eaton: Dr. Hoover, you said something that I hadn't heard before. When you were talking about pesticides and other things, you talked about products used by beekeepers in the hives. What specifically were you referring to?

Ms. Hoover: Beekeepers put a number of compounds in their colonies to control the varroa mite. It's a very difficult thing to do because you're trying essentially to kill one arthropod that lives on another one, so you have to try to kill the mite without killing the bees. Many of the products that are used to kill mites are actually toxic to bees, it just depends on dose, just as something like aspirin can be toxic to people or beneficial depending on the dose. We found that residues can accumulate in wax and they can have harmful effects on the bees themselves.

Senator Eaton: Have you determined ways that the dosage — in other words, the residual can be taken out of the hives before it sits in the wax? Is there a practical way of doing that?

Ms. Hoover: There are a couple of things that beekeepers can do. One is to pick which miticide you're using very carefully.

Senator Eaton: Can you speak louder?

Ms. Hoover: Some are more harmful to bees than others, so you need to use miticides that are not as harmful to bees.

The second thing they can do is remove old comb and replace it with new comb.

Senator Eaton: Thank you for that.

If you wouldn't mind indulging me, because I think those are two rather important recommendations, would you mind emailing them to our clerk? The sound is cutting in and out, and I want to be sure that we get what you mean by that.

The other thing is we heard from a very interesting American doctor that nobody understands really what bee nutrition is and what bees really need. Would you agree with that statement? It's not just a matter of sugar and water: bee nutrition is more complex.

Ms. Hoover: Yes, I think so. If you compare, say, the investment in understanding bee nutrition to other livestock such as cattle, or bee breeding to cattle breeding, you can see that we still have a long way to go in those areas with honeybees.

Senator Eaton: Trees for Bees in New Zealand, could you tell us a bit about that program?

Ms. Hoover: That program involves government researchers as well as the beekeepers. In New Zealand a large number of the bee plants are actually trees, something like manuka or a shrub. They've been planting trees not only for the honey crop, because manuka is a valuable honey crop, but also to provide forage when there is a dearth, when there is no forage available for the bees. They're working to try to pick plants that they can use to, for example, improve soil stability if that's required in the region.

Senator Eaton: In other words, it would be like us allowing strips of land along a field where wildflowers could germinate and grow, which would be another source of nutrition? Is that what it is, a form of that?

Ms. Hoover: Exactly, but carefully planned so you don't get weeds in the crops and plants are flowering when bees need outside nutrition, not at the same time as the crop. That's something that benefits not only managed bees but wild pollinators as well.

Senator Eaton: Thank you very much.

Senator Tardif: Good afternoon, Dr. Hoover. I was quite surprised when I heard you say that the bee mortality rate was 19 per cent, and then you explained it was in southern Alberta. My understanding, from having spoken to beekeepers in northern Alberta and in the Peace Country, was that bee mortality was more like 30 to 40 per cent, obviously depending on the year. I've even been told that 30 years ago in the Peace Country there used to be 80,000 hives and now there are only 20,000. Would you agree with the figures that I've just put forward?

Ms. Hoover: I would have to look at the records that provincial agriculture keeps to know the number of hives in each region. The southern Alberta region typically has generally the lowest mortality over winter of the regions in Alberta, but you do see strong regional differences. A lot of that depends on the weather that particular winter.

Senator Tardif: Beekeepers from Alberta and Manitoba have told the committee that they would like the federal government to end the prohibition on importing bees from the U.S. Although some beekeepers think that the ban should remain in place, others say there are pathogens and pesticides that we have to deal with in Alberta as well. What is your position on the issue?

Ms. Hoover: To be honest, I'm glad it's not my decision to make. I'm reluctant to import bees from a place that seems to have more problems with their bees than we do.

Senator Tardif: Would you repeat that? I'm sorry.

Ms. Hoover: It seems as though the U.S. struggles with their beekeeping industry and their bee mortality. I would be leery to import bees from somewhere that's struggling to keep their bees healthy.

Senator Tardif: Do you see the U.S. as struggling to keep their bees healthy?

Ms. Hoover: Overall, I would say so, yes. If you look at some of the data coming from their national survey, they have very high loads of pesticides and pathogens.

Senator Tardif: A lot of beekeepers that I've spoken to are quite concerned about the fact that they can't import queen bees. They say where queen bees used to be able to last for three years, now they're only lasting about a year. They continually have to bring in new bees, it's not sufficient and the bees aren't living longer, so it's a real problem. If they could import, especially queen bees from the U.S., they see that as alleviating the problems they're facing.

Ms. Hoover: Currently they can import queen bees from the U.S.: from Hawaii or California. It's mostly the import of bulk package worker bees that they're aiming for.

You've touched on an important point, and that is queen health. That is something that most people aren't talking about. A lot of new research is showing that queens are either not well mated or they have a lot of semen but half that semen is dead. I think that's a very underestimated part of bee mortality.

In my own bee yard, the largest mortality cause was because the colonies went queen-less.

Senator Tardif: That's what I've heard from beekeepers in the northern part of Alberta. Thank you for confirming that.

Senator Robichaud: How much attention is paid to the wild bees? We have the research on honey-producing bees. Are we paying sufficient attention to the wild bees?

Ms. Hoover: I don't think we are, but it's a hard thing to pay sufficient attention to because you're talking about hundreds of species of animals. They're often very difficult to tell apart. It requires a lot of work, a lot of specialized skills to even identify the species.

It's very difficult to know exactly what's going on in the population of a particular species of wild bee. We need to look at it from an ecosystem approach and try to create healthy environments.

Senator Robichaud: You mentioned long-term research. I interpret that as not having enough research done on a long-term basis.

Ms. Hoover: Exactly. We don't have, for example, baseline data on how much bee populations fluctuate naturally. What are historic levels of wild bee populations of honeybee, parasites and pathogens? Even something as simple as breeding honeybee stocks that are resistant to disease is very difficult because you need multiple years of funding; you need funding on a decade scale, rather than the two or three years that are typical.

Senator Robichaud: You say "on a decade scale." We've been using neonics for about a decade, haven't we?

Ms. Hoover: Yes.

Senator Robichaud: Have you seen any effects in that period of time?

Ms. Hoover: I couldn't speak to the populations of wild bees. You would need to talk to wild bee experts and ask them that question.

For honeybees, the bigger impact has been the parasites and pathogens. We have varroa and its associated viruses and we have Nosema ceranae.

Senator Robichaud: The research would be to look at those mites as to how we can better control them, rather than look at the bees themselves?

Ms. Hoover: That's definitely an important question, yes.

Senator Robichaud: Long-term research, to you, is how long?

Ms. Hoover: More than two or three years.

Senator Robichaud: I'm asking that because some programs are over a couple of years and people cannot really get to the end of their research where they have to compress, and then you lose a lot of work that would have been completed if a few more years had been given to them.

Ms. Hoover: That's a very important point, actually. For example, I've been part of a breeding program. We had three years of funding, and in that three years we managed to breed three generations of bees. We've come up with both a technique that we can use to breed disease-resistant bees, but we also have disease-resistant stock. Now that the funding is up, we don't have the resources to maintain that stock anymore.

Senator Robichaud: So that is lost, isn't it?

Ms. Hoover: Yes.

Senator Robichaud: I hope we can make recommendations to that effect. Thank you, doctor.

Senator Mercer: Again, doctor, thank you for this very enlightening presentation tonight.

Senator Robichaud asked about the wild bees. You indicated there are hundreds of species of wild bees. Have we done a study of these species? Is there a species of wild bee that can do better than the bees that beekeepers are now using? I don't know that you tame bees, but we should "domesticate" them, I guess is the word, to use them to our benefit. Is there anybody anywhere doing that study? There are hundreds of species out there. I have to ask myself: Are one or two of those species better than what we're using?

Ms. Hoover: In terms of pollination services, I would highly doubt it. The reason honeybees are so successful is because you can take 50,000 bees, put them on a truck and move them to the crop. You can manage them easily. They also conveniently store honey, which you can make a profit on.

It's difficult to rear other species in sufficient numbers to pollinate a crop in a cost-effective manner. They do it with leafcutter bees, for example, but again that's a European species of leafcutter bee.

If you want to pollinate a crop using wild bees, you need to encourage wild bee populations in the areas surrounding your farm, and not focus on one species but on the whole guild of pollinators.

Senator Mercer: You talked about 19 per cent mortality in southern Alberta over winter, and Senator Tardif talked anecdotally of 30 to 40 per cent mortality in northern Alberta. We've heard across the country some very wide-ranging numbers. Recently we heard in Ontario of some beekeepers reporting almost zero mortality over winter.

As a researcher, how do we get a handle on what's really going on? People are telling us that they're having 70 per cent mortality. You're telling us 19 per cent. I believe your number; I'm not questioning the validity of the number. I'm just trying to figure out how we grasp this problem. How do we understand this is really a problem before we get down to making any recommendations?

Ms. Hoover: For one thing, I think you need to look at longer term averages. You can't look at one year with 50 per cent loss and say that we have a huge problem when maybe it's just a freak, long winter. The length of winter can make a huge difference.

The other thing that makes a huge difference is whether or not a particular beekeeper had an effective mite treatment on in the fall. If you see one particular beekeeper with high or low mortality, there will be things that contributed to that particular beekeeper's success. We need to look both at long-term averages and also geographic averages.

Senator Mercer: I guess it would mean that we need to establish a directory of best practices that all beekeepers can refer to. Of course, the best practices may vary from northern Alberta to southern Alberta to eastern Ontario to the blueberry fields of Nova Scotia; am I correct?

Ms. Hoover: Yes, absolutely.

Senator Mercer: It doesn't seem that anybody is doing that; am I correct?

Ms. Hoover: The beekeepers talk to each other and they will find out if something worked for somebody. This is why one of my recommendations was that we need these tech-transfer teams regionally so we can get the scientific information out to the beekeepers in a way that works in their local environment.

[Translation]

Senator Dagenais: Good evening, Ms. Hoover. My question is simple. You said that Albertan winters were less harsh. Nevertheless, this winter has been quite cold in most parts of Canada. That said, bee mortality rates could be higher. Have you taken any measures in Alberta to reduce the bee mortality rate caused by this year's harsh winter?

[English]

Ms. Hoover: The weather conditions I was specifically referring to are in southern Alberta. In southern Alberta, our winters aren't as severe as, for example, in the Peace Country.

Some beekeepers will winter their bees indoors, and that can help to mitigate the effects of a long hard winter. Part of the problem is you don't know beforehand whether it's going to be a long hard winter or not, and we can't control the weather.

There are two things beekeepers can do. One is to make sure they have their diseases and pests under control before winter, and the other is to feed them sufficiently so that if we have a long, prolonged winter, the bees won't starve.

Senator Buth: Dr. Hoover, how does a beekeeper actually calculate their losses?

Ms. Hoover: That's actually not an easy question to answer because even something as simple as what counts as a colony can be a difficult question. Beekeepers will take big strong hives and split them. Queen breeders will split them further into making little mating nucs.

In general, they decide in spring what's a survivable size and what isn't. If something is queen-less, it dies. If something is too small, it may still have a queen and one frame of bees, but if it's too small, they will say it is going to die.

That's basically what they do. They count the number that are strong enough to live and the number that are not, but how big those units have to be in terms of numbers of bees varies from region to region.

Senator Buth: If a beekeeper says he has 20 per cent losses and he has 100 hives, that means he lost 20 hives completely. If he had split the hives going into fall, he might have had something less than that if he had maybe combined them into 80 hives to start with.

Ms. Hoover: Right. That's another issue. You may have two beekeepers, each with 100 hives. One may take the weak ones in the fall and combine them. He goes into winter with 90 strong hives, whereas the other guy goes into winter with 100, 20 of them are weak, and he comes out with 80. He says he has 20 per cent winter loss, and the other guy's winter loss is much lower because he took his hit in the fall.

Senator Buth: That creates all sorts of questions regarding the information we've received in terms of winter losses. That's quite interesting.

Agricultural extension is a provincial responsibility. You made the comment about the differences in the Prairie provinces between different extension support systems. Is there any role for the federal government that you can see in agricultural extension?

Ms. Hoover: It would be great if they would fund the provinces to provide those services, absolutely. I don't know how the money would flow, but it would be nice.

Senator Buth: I think perhaps that question could have been asked on the other side.

Thank you very much, Dr. Hoover.

Senator Robichaud: What is the relation between pollinators? Here I want to make a relation between bees and bats, because they are also pollinators, aren't they? Is there any pesticide or whatever else that affects one and also affects the other?

Ms. Hoover: I honestly can't speak to bat physiology, but a huge number of animals pollinate: birds, bats, flies, moths, even a few other mammals besides bats, not only bees. Bees are, by far, the primary pollinator, but I would say that there are differences even among bees. We're talking about a huge group of organisms. Just because we call them all "bees" doesn't mean they're going to respond similarly to all compounds.

Senator Robichaud: But you can't call bats "bees," can you?

Ms. Hoover: No.

Senator Robichaud: We had a witness that keeps bees, and he was saying that he had found some kind of procedure to get rid of some of the varroa mites, because he was saying they're a pretty stupid insect. You can read what was said.

He puts a screen under the hive, and those mites fall down through the screen, but they can't make their way back up. Would that be worthwhile looking at?

Ms. Hoover: The screened bottom boards are actually a pretty well-known technique that can be used in beekeeping. They can be problematic, especially in the middle of winter when it's 40 below. You would have to switch your bottom boards. If you have to switch your bottom boards on 20,000 hives, that can be time-consuming.

You also do still need to treat for mites. It's not a silver bullet that will get rid of all of the mites, by any means. It helps to control.

Senator Robichaud: He wasn't saying that he got rid of all of them, but he was saying a certain percentage, and then used other methods to further control the mites. But it is effective, you're saying?

Ms. Hoover: To some degree, yes.

The Chair: Dr. Hoover, thank you very much for sharing your opinions and answers with us. It has been enlightening and very educational. I want to say thank you very much on behalf of the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.

Now, honourable senators, we will take a brief pause before we begin with our next panel of witnesses, from Australia.

We will now hear from our second panel, via video conference, from the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. We have Ms. Kareena Arthy, Chief Executive Officer; and Dr. Les Davies, Chief Regulatory Scientist, Pesticides.

In Canada, we are in the evening; for Australians, it's good morning to you both, and thank you for accepting our invitation to share your opinions, your comments and your recommendations on the subject matter. I will ask you to make your presentations, to be followed by questions from the senators.

Kareena Arthy, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority: Thank you very much, chair. It is good evening, at this time of day, for you.

Today, what I thought we would do is make some very brief opening comments, because I believe you have a report that we recently released on neonicotinoids and bee health.

By way of background, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority is the regulator in Australia for pesticides. We have the responsibility for ensuring that all chemicals that are available are safe to use. We have a range of criteria that we must use, including human health, environmental health, animal health, as well as some other trade and efficacy criteria.

With that in mind, we commissioned work with Dr. Davies, who is with me today, as the principal author to do a project in Australia to see whether we needed to take regulatory action in relation to neonicotinoids. As you're well aware, there has been much activity, particularly in Europe and North America, around the neonicotinoids, so we looked at what is the Australian evidence? Do we need to take action?

We can take specific questions later, but in general, what we found was that, apart from strengthening bee health statements on our labels, we didn't believe that we needed to pursue any further regulatory action at this point. There are really two main reasons for that. One is that we aren't seeing the decline in bee populations that elsewhere are seeing; and that's possibly because of our general bee health. We don't have varroa mite in Australia, which certainly makes our situation very different to other countries.

We've also got very different agricultural practices in terms of not just how we farm but also the location of our agricultural land, which really does promote bee health.

With that, we've done a fairly comprehensive review in terms of Australian evidence, and we're happy to take questions from the committee that might help inform your deliberations to what may happen in Canada.

Senator Mercer: Thank you very much for being here this morning, and this evening.

You said that Australia has no varroa mites and we hope you never get them. They're a bit of a pain.

Tell me about the mortality rate of bees. You obviously don't have our severe winters, which causes us a great management problem. What is the mortality rate in the various hives in Australia, and does it vary from region to region?

Les Davies, Chief Regulatory Scientist, Pesticides, Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority: You're correct in that we don't have varroa mite. The concern is that our nearest neighbour, New Zealand, does have it. The relevant authorities are very careful to watch imports coming in from there. Also, as you mentioned, we have quite mild winters. Even in a place like Canberra, winters are mild compared to what you have in North America. We don't have those key threats.

In terms of bee losses in Australia, I couldn't give you the exact number, but two of the big threats to bees here are droughts. Several areas of Australia have recently been in quite severe drought, both in parts of Victoria in the south, and quite extensive areas of Queensland. Obviously, droughts affect the flowering of native flora, particularly eucalypts, which are a major source of nectar and pollen for the European honeybee. Obviously, the other big stressor on bees here is bushfires. You would probably be aware that a number of regions in Australia suffered quite severe bushfires this last summer. That obviously has a major impact on the floral source of honey and nectar for bees because the bush is completely destroyed for several years.

Ms. Arthy: In terms of specific questions on mortality, I'm not sure whether you have been in contact with the industry group that represents the pollination industries in Australia. It's called the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council. They might be able to give you more specific information around the mortality rates. From a regulator's point of view, we needed to be satisfied that we weren't seeing declines that warranted action. While we don't have the specific mortality rates to hand, all of our contacts and research suggests it's just not happening.

Senator Mercer: You mentioned the other flora that is so important to the health of bees. There's a tendency in this country for farms to plant crop after crop next to each other. They obviously will switch crops from field to field. But there's not a lot of encouragement to have other flora and fauna in close proximity. Is that a habit that Australian farmers also have? We have heard that it's important for there to be a variety of opportunities for bees to be around other flora, as well as the crops that we are anxious for them to pollinate.

Mr. Davies: The situation in Australia is that we have a very large number of wild or feral European honeybees because of the wide availability of native vegetation, which those imported bees like. Because the ratio of feral bees to managed bees is quite high, the agricultural and horticultural community often hasn't realized the importance of honeybees to pollinating their crops.

The Australian landscape is such that there is a fair degree of native vegetation in most areas, so that honeybees are not critically dependent on agricultural crops. It's only in recent years that there is more a move into particularly horticultural crops, like almonds, where people are realizing that they do need to bring in managed pollinators for those crops. There is a move away from apiarists just keeping bees for honey and a realization that there is money to be made in providing pollination services.

Ms. Arthy: If I can add to that, you are right in the way that the farmers manage their land in Australia; they are very conscious around making sure that there is proper rotation of crops. As you're probably aware, we have very different soil types, very limited water. So the farmers really have to take care of their land. There's a very large focus on how they rotate crops.

The other thing that Les mentioned is our geography. We do have an awful lot of bushland that's very near our farming land. It's not as if in a particular region that there is essentially a monoculture of agricultural crops. I'd say the majority is neighboured by bushland, which can harbour honeybees and act as a refuge for bees to go to, if necessary.

Senator Buth: Thank you very much for helping us with this study today. I'm curious in terms of the primary crops that are grown and which would have neonicotinoids on them.

Mr. Davies: Within our overview report, there is a table of the neonicotinoid active constituents that we have approved. Regarding the registered products and the approved uses on their labels, I can tell you that, in the main, they are very similar to what you have in North America.

Certainly one of the big crops is the one you would know about, canola. That's grown across most of the dry land cropping regions of Australia, from southern Queensland across to Western Australia, South Australia and even Tasmania. The issue with canola is that there have been somewhat conflicting reports; one or two areas have suggested that maybe there is a problem with neonicotinoid-treated canola. But the general impression is that canola is still quite a good crop for bringing up the strength of bees, certainly in Western Australia, which is Australia's biggest canola producer.

There is an abundance feral honeybees, so much so that they are trying to control those in national and state parks. They're taking over bird nesting spots.

The other thing is that corn and soybean, which are issues with respect to dust drift in Canada, are not particularly significant crops in Australia. Corn is grown, but it's certainly not a major crop at this stage, and soybean is a reasonably minor crop so far.

Senator Buth: Have you looked at residues that might occur in the canola plants in terms of nectar or pollen later in the year?

Mr. Davies: To the best of my knowledge, there has been very little monitoring of bee media in Australia, and that was one of the recommendations in my report to research agencies; namely, this would be something that could be useful to compare with levels measured in bee media overseas.

The only information I do have is some data on beeswax that was measured in the U.S.A. several years ago. Contrary to the findings of large numbers of residues in the U.S., there was only a small detection of chlorpyrifos in the Australian wax sample. But I wouldn't place too much on that, because only one sample was sent, to the best of my knowledge. It was fairly limited information.

Senator Buth: There is cooperation going on in Canada between our two regulatory agencies and the review of the neonicotinoids. How closely do you work with the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency, and were you in touch with them at all in terms of your review of the neonics?

Mr. Davies: We spoke with a wide range of stakeholders, but we are certainly in very regular contact with Thomas Steeger of the U.S. EPA and some of the Canadian regulators. I guess it's quite likely that when we extend our risk assessment guidance for bees, we will follow more closely the North American approach than the European EFSA approach.

Senator Buth: I don't have your report in front of me, but I think one of the comments you made was that the neonicotinoids were actually a less risky option than some of the practices that had been used before seed treatments in terms of foliar applications. Am I correct in recalling that comment?

Mr. Davies: Yes. That was a feeling that, because of the fact that the young plant was protected by the absorption of the neonicotinoids from the seed coating, there is a less need for foliar spraying and therefore less burden in the environment from other insecticides or other pesticides. Protecting plants from insect attack also help protect them from viral and fungal attack, because there is less damage to the plant and less access for fungal and viral attack.

Ms. Arthy: To add to that, we have an issue in Australia around spray drift. Because of the sheer size and scale of our agriculture industries, we are always conscious of minimizing the risk of having any drift from application. Having the neonics deployed in this way does actually reduce the pressure on farmers to use other spray applications later on, which has the potential to cause greater damage to the environment.

Senator Tardif: Thank you for being with us. I do not have your report before me, but have researchers in Australia conducted studies to compare yields between crops treated with neonics and those that are not? If so, what are the results?

Mr. Davies: I'm not aware of specific studies, but certainly the evidence I've seen from reviewing the literature on field studies is that, generally, crops do seem to do better if they have been treated. I'm not aware of any specific Australian studies on that; although I'm aware of general reports that seed treatments do protect the crop, and the crop is generally better and healthier.

Senator Tardif: You've indicated that you have canola crops in Australia; is that correct?

Mr. Davies: That's correct, yes. It's the most important crop after wheat and barley.

Senator Tardif: Would the farmers, then, be using seed that has been treated with neonics for their canola production?

Mr. Davies: To the best of my knowledge, canola is virtually all treated with neonicotinoids these days.

Senator Tardif: And farmers have not indicated that they have seen an increase of yield because they're using that? I know, for example, in some places in Alberta where I'm from that farmers are saying it does increase their yield.

Mr. Davies: The general view is that farmers wouldn't be paying the extra cost of the treatment if it wasn't beneficial. I guess most farmers are very aware of the need to be efficient just because of the huge input costs of farming. They wouldn't be spending money if they didn't have to, for sure.

Senator Tardif: That's a good point.

Do you import packaged bees from other countries?

Ms. Arthy: We export.

I don't know about importing; that's not our area of responsibility. We could find out for you, if you would like. We would have to contact our local department to see who manages the imports. I don't know it.

Senator Tardif: You have no shortage, obviously, because your bee mortality rate is so low?

Ms. Arthy: That's basically right. Actually, we have quite a significant and growing export industry just because our bees are so healthy.

Senator Eaton: That's very nice to hear, because we've been listening to testimony for three months now about the poor state of the honeybee.

Why don't you have varroa mites?

Ms. Arthy: This is actually outside of the realm of us as a regulatory agency, but I can talk about it in terms of my previous position, which was head of a biosecurity agency. There are several reasons why we don't have varroa mite. We are an island country, and that helps in terms of the passage of bees. We also have fairly tight border controls not only at the ports, but our biggest risk is actually coming in through the north of Australia on passenger boats and pleasure yachts coming into harbour from our neighbours around Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

There is a lot of monitoring that happens at all the ports. We are very tight biosecurity controls because we know how important it is to make sure that varroa mites don't come in. A lot of government work is done separate to the APVMA on monitoring bee populations and ensuring that we don't have varroa mites present. There is probably an element of luck, but we are always on the lookout for it.

Mr. Davies: The Department of Agriculture has been working with us and has strategies in place to deal with outbreaks if they're detected. They have a number of special use permits for various insecticides and other chemicals that would kill off colonies of bees if varroa mite is detected and also pesticides to be used. There are monitoring stations around Australia to pick up and monitor incursions of insects that may be carrying this mite.

Senator Eaton: We have heard that varroa mites sometimes happen in large commercial honeybee operations. Do you have large commercial honeybee operations in Australia, or, as you say, is your industry still at the stage and are the types of crops you grow still at the stage where you don't have farmers or beekeepers with 20,000, 30,000 or 40,000 hives?

Mr. Davies: Our economics of beekeeping in Australia has largely been fairly small operators keeping bees for honey. We certainly don't have the huge operations that they have in the U.S., with 50,000 or 60,000 hives. That may change. As I said, there's an increasing interest in beekeeping specifically for pollination of horticultural crops such as almonds. People see a demand for pollination services; someone may be thinking it's economically feasible to meet the demand.

Ms. Arthy: The honeybee industry in Australia is actually a very good industry because they spend a lot of time training all their people around varroa mites and what to look out for. They're very proactive to make sure their honeybees are healthy. As I have worked very closely with the industry over many years, I can't see them moving away from doing anything or from doing anything that would put their bee population in jeopardy, if they change their practices.

As Les says, we don't have the scale because it's a very different honeybee industry. We have a lot of bush land. It's focused fairly heavily on using native flora to get the honey rather than these fairly large operations.

Senator Eaton: You could probably educate me more, doctor. Concerning the varroa mite itself, you were talking about borders and checking and making sure you're an island. The varroa mite has to be imported; that is, it spreads. It's not something that grows out of the hive itself or conditions in the hive; is that right?

Mr. Davies: It would have to be imported if we don't have it here. The problem with the varroa mite is that it brings other viruses with it that can impact bees. I have been told that the varroa mite on a bee is equivalent to a human carrying around something equivalent to the size of a Frisbee. As you can see, a number of those mites on a bee would have quite a significant impact on the creature.

Senator Eaton: One doctor we had last week as a witness said a varroa mite on a bee is like you having a big rat on your shoulder.

Mr. Davies: Yes. It's pretty unpleasant.

Senator Eaton: Thank you very much.

[Translation]

Senator Dagenais: I understand that you have conducted a great deal of research to better understand the relationship between bees and the use of pesticides. What do you think would be the best solution for reducing bee mortality rates?

[English]

Mr. Davies: That is a difficult question for us to answer since we don't seem to be having a problem. One of the issues that came up constantly, or in cases of pesticide bee poisoning in Australia, was most commonly a lack of communication between the farmer and the beekeeper. As I've mentioned before, beekeepers are relatively small operators and they tend to act in competition with each other for locations to place their bees. As a general statement, they tend to keep the information about where they locate their bees fairly secret, so this is a problem if they put bees in a location in a native vegetation stand and then a farmer next door sprays his crops. A lot of the extension advice to beekeepers is this: liaise with the farmers in your area. I guess that extension information also is to farmers, too, to tell them that bees can partially increase to some extent the yields of their crops even if they're not fully dependent on pollinators. It's useful for farmers also to encourage bees. The advice is that beekeepers should talk to farmers about where they put their bee colonies.

I think that would be the overarching message for the situation in Australia.

Senator Mercer: One problem that we've been listening to is the planting of seeds treated with neonicotinoids and the dust that comes through the planting process. Are Australian farmers using dust deflectors? Manufacturers are coming out with new equipment that has dust deflectors built in but also there is some retrofitting happening of old planters to cut down on the dust from the seeds as they're being planted.

Mr. Davies: We are certainly well aware that the generation of neonicotinoid dusts has been a problem in Europe, particularly in Germany, in 2008; and also in Italy. We are also aware that it has been a problem in Canada in recent years, particularly in corn and in soybean. The APVMA doesn't have any reports of bee poisoning arising from the generation of neonicotinoid dust in Australia. Canola, which as I've indicated is virtually all treated with the neonicotinoids, is planted with air seeders. I think you would be aware of what air seeders are. They utilize low pressure air to blow the seed into the planting tube. That air is then vented into the furrow so that there is very little risk of generation of neonicotinoid dusts from the air seeders. I'm aware that cotton and corn here are planted using vacuum seeders. Once again, to the best of my knowledge, the vents from the vacuum fans are deflected down to the ground so that it's not a problem that I'm aware of in Australia.

That being said, we have suggested to CropLife Australia that they develop a code of best management practices for the storage, handling and use of neonicotinoid treated seed.

Senator Mercer: How many species of wild bees are found in Australia?

Dr. Davies: Most of our bees are solitary bees, and it is my understanding, and Kareena may know, but I think it's over a thousand. It's a very large number.

Ms. Arthy: That's right.

Senator Mercer: The number we've heard in Canada is in the hundreds, not in the thousands. My question to an earlier witness was whether anybody is examining the wild bee population to see if there are bees who are hardier than the ones we are using for pollination now that can do a better job.

Dr. Davies: That's not really a question I can answer, but I think there is one species of native bee that several apiarists have tried to manage in a commercial sense, but I couldn't really comment in detail on how successful that activity has been.

Ms. Arthy: There is a research organization down here, and the acronym is CSIRO, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. They do a lot of research into bees, and we have some of the leading bee researchers. If you are interested, you may want to contact them because they would have more detail on that.

I am aware, purely from my previous job, that there is a lot of research happening into bees because about four years ago, we had an incursion of Asian honeybees which aren't as good at pollinating. At that time, there was a fear that it would overtake the European honeybees and therefore cause damage to the pollination services in Australia, so there is a lot of work happening at that point around not only the Asian honeybees but also looking at alternatives to pollinating for European honeybees. That research was getting done by the honeybee industry and CSIRO. If you do want to talk to them, we can put you in contact with the right people.

Senator Mercer: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

[Translation]

Senator Maltais: What is the quality of the honey you produce in Australia?

[English]

Ms. Arthy: How do we answer that? It's very nice.

Dr. Davies: I guess the most favoured honey is from various eucalyptus species. It's quite a dark honey compared to most European honey. There is a big export market to places like Korea and, to a lesser extent, Japan.

[Translation]

Senator Maltais: Is this a rumor? Is it bad news that some Australian beekeepers are adding sugar to honey? Do you have that problem?

[English]

Ms. Arthy: I'm not aware of it, but that's not something that we would come across in terms of our professional career and what our responsibilities at the APVMA are, but going back over media, I can't recall that ever being an issue. Can you?

Dr. Davies: No, it's not something I've heard of.

[Translation]

Senator Maltais: You have adopted a German method called LC-IRMS to detect added sugar in honey. Is that a common practice or is its use minimal?

[English]

Ms. Arthy: It's beyond the scope of our responsibilities. We don't look at that at all. If you would like us to follow that up with the food regulators, I would be happy to do so and come back to you out of session.

[Translation]

Senator Maltais: That was the main topic of the 40th beekeeping congress, held in Melbourne from September 9 to 14, 2007. Is that still your reality in 2014?

[English]

Ms. Arthy: I'm sorry, are you referring to additives in honey?

[Translation]

Senator Maltais: Yes, I am referring to additives.

[English]

Ms. Arthy: The issue of additives into food is handled by a separate government agency called Food Standards Australia New Zealand. That's not something I have responsibility for or knowledge of, but if you have a series of questions in relation to that, I would be happy to go to the head of the food standards authority and come back to you with answers.

Senator Robichaud: The use of insecticides and pesticides depends on best practices. There are ways to apply them and use them. How do you monitor those practices so that people that use them follow the right practices, or do you monitor them?

Ms. Arthy: In Australia, the responsibility for monitoring practice falls with our state and territory governments. There are three tiers of government in Australia. We're at the federal or commonwealth level; then there's a state government level; and then there's local government level. The main responsibility falls to the states. There are a variety of ways they use to monitor. Because Australia is so large, the most common way of looking at this is coming from an adverse experience point of view. I don't know what it's like in Canada, but in Australia, if a farmer is not using equipment properly or is causing inadvertent damage, it is very quickly notified to authorities, whether it's from a neighbour or themselves. We have highly aware farmers in terms of proper use of equipment. At that point, if there is an adverse report, then the states and territory governments go in and investigate.

If we see behaviour being repeated, then there is often much stronger and more targeted and more proactive monitoring, which would involve usually government inspectors going on farms and having a look.

There is also a very large education campaign that gets run through state government research agencies, so they work very closely with industries about how to manage their farms correctly.

As I mentioned much earlier, it's quite a difficult farming environment in Australia because you have to manage lack of availability of water with harsh climatic conditions. Our farmers take a lot of effort into how they work with government and researchers into best use.

I'm not saying that we pick up everything. There will always be farmers who misuse, but we typically get informed when there are problems.

Dr. Davies: Chapter 12 of our overview report talks about the adverse experience reports we have received with respect to bee poisoning episodes, and I think that highlights the point that Kareena made that the relevant state government agency will go out and do an investigation if an incident is reported to them.

Senator Tardif: Are you comfortable that the test methodology you are using is adequately evaluating the acute and sub-chronic impacts of pesticides on bees and bee brood?

Dr. Davies: Our report has alluded to the fact that while we think that the current test methodology for acute toxicity testing is adequate, we accept that there is a need to extend the range of tests to pick up the concerns about sub-chronic effects of repeated low-dose exposures. Australia is working both with Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, SETAC, and the OECD to develop this suite of tests. My best understanding is that Australia, like most other OECD countries, will eventually have a similar test package and test requirements.

The Chair: You mentioned that the bee mortality rate in Australia is relatively low, and you do not seem to have an issue with the use of neonics on crops such as canola. Therefore, my question would be: Could you explain why you decided to undertake a study on neonics and the health of honeybees?

Ms. Arthy: This is something that we do regularly as a regulator. Part of the pressure on us, and really as a regulator, given that, particularly in Europe and in North America, there was a lot of action being taken around neonicotinoids; we wanted to make sure that we were, frankly, not missing something in Australia. That's why we did this work.

This research is really a preliminary piece of work to see whether we did have a problem that we did need to act upon. It was also to give us a look at whether there are any issues on the horizon that we needed to address, and that's when we came up with the issues around the statements on labels, as well as pointing to future research. It's about trying to be more proactive about the possible regulation of neonicotinoids in the future. We wanted to assure ourselves that we didn't have an issue.

Senator Buth: I'm wondering if you looked at persistence of the neonics. Do you have any additional data on persistence in soil, especially considering most of the time you have fairly dry soils?

Mr. Davies: That is an issue that we certainly won't dismiss. We will continue to keep an eye on all the work that is being done on neonicotinoids. Certainly one of the comments in our overview report is that this issue of their relative stability and persistence is one that can't be dismissed.

We will be informed by some data from regulatory assessments that are currently taking place on some new products that are in the regulatory system, and certainly that will be a focus of those assessments.

I think the evidence to date is that at the levels used, it's probably not an issue, but we're still waiting on that very data, a final report that will be coming out from our environment department probably in the next several months.

The Chair: Before we conclude, do you have any additional comments to make, Ms. Arthy and Mr. Davies?

Ms. Arthy: No. I believe we've covered all the substance. We'd be happy, if you have any other questions out of session, to answer anything or if you want anything from the Australian point of view. We can also put you in touch with any other Australian organizations that you may wish as well. Thank you for the opportunity.

Mr. Davies: Certainly we'd be keen to keep working closely with the Canadian PMRA and the U.S. EPA as we develop new test methods and better label statements.

The Chair: Australians have their national sports. Some might say it's rugby and others might say it's football.

I'll share something with our Australian friends this evening. As you continue your working day, Canadians very shortly will be tuned in and will be engaged in watching our national sport tonight, which is hockey. This evening, the great majority of Canadians will be watching our national sport of ice hockey. We will be engaged, and there is no doubt in my mind that — I will show my partisanship — the Montreal Canadiens will defeat the Boston Bruins.

To our friends, the Australians, thank you very much.

(The committee adjourned.)