Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Agriculture and Forestry
Issue 11 - Evidence - Meeting of May 8, 2014
OTTAWA, Thursday, May 8, 2014
The Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry met this day,
at 8:32 a.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.
The Chair: Welcome to this meeting of the Standing Senate
Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. My name is Percy Mockler, a senator
from New Brunswick and chair of the committee. I will ask senators to
introduce themselves, starting with the deputy chair.
Senator Mercer: I'm Senator Terry Mercer from Nova Scotia.
Senator Merchant: Good morning. I'm Senator Pana Merchant from
Saskatchewan. I was going to tell you Western Canada, but I think you know
that. I think you know where Saskatchewan is. Thank you.
Senator Robichaud: I am Fernand Robichaud from
Saint-Louis-de-Kent, New Brunswick. Good morning.
Senator Maltais: Good morning. I am Senator Maltais from Quebec.
Senator Oh: Senator Oh, Ontario.
Senator Eaton: Nicky Eaton, Ontario.
Senator Dagenais: Jean-Guy Dagenais from Quebec.
Senator Buth: JoAnne Buth, Manitoba.
Senator Ogilvie: Kelvin Ogilvie, Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia.
The Chair: The committee is continuing its study on the importance
of bees and bee health in the production of honey, food and seed in Canada.
The Senate of Canada gave an order of reference to the Standing Senate
Committee on Agriculture and Forestry that we would 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 in pollination to produce food,
especially fruit and vegetables, seed for crop production and honey
production in Canada;
(b) the current state of native pollinators, leafcutter and
honeybees in Canada;
(c) the factors affecting honeybee health, including disease,
parasites and pesticides in Canada and globally; and
(d) to look at strategies for governments, producers,
stakeholders and industry to ensure bee health.
This morning, we have with us Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Assistant
Professor of Entomology, University of Maryland. Thank you for accepting our
invitation and for being here by video conference so that you can share with
us your opinions, your comments and your vision on the order of reference.
I would ask you to make your presentation, Dr. vanEngelsdorp, which will
be followed by questions from senators.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Assistant Professor of Entomology, University of
Maryland: First, thank you for this invitation. I am actually Canadian,
so I am pleased to be able to do this.
For better or for worse, I find myself now in a position where I have
been studying honeybee losses in the United States and globally for seven
years. So in today's presentation, I would like to focus more on what
factors we think are contributing to honeybee losses.
As you know, honeybees have been dying at unsustained rates in the United
States. Certainly there is evidence of that in Canada as well and globally.
In the United States, we have lost one in three colonies every winter for
the last seven years, and this afternoon, I will finish the analysis of this
winter's losses that we will release next week. Clearly, we have been losing
about twice as many colonies every year as beekeepers think are normal or
sustainable. We have to understand what the drivers for those losses are.
Early on, I became involved in this because of colony collapse disorder.
I want to emphasize that we have not seen that condition in the United
States for the last three years in the strict definition of the sense
because it was defined narrowly by a certain set of conditions, and we don't
see those conditions unfold anymore. However, it is clear that colonies
continue to be lost at these very high rates.
We believe that there are three factors in play here. One, of course, is
the varroa mite. The second is pesticides, both those that beekeepers apply
to the hive and pesticides that farmers apply to the field and the bees
bring back to the hive. Third, we think poor nutrition probably plays a role
in losses as well.
These factors do not act independently; they probably interact. It can be
a combination of factors, much like heart disease is not caused by one
factor, such as you are genetically predisposed or you don't eat well. All
of these different factors can come together.
I would like to talk a bit about the varroa mite because I think if we
were to prioritize efforts, we need to control the varroa mite. The varroa
mite is the number one killer of colonies around the world. These are
vampire mites. These are very large mites as compared to the bee. It would
be like a dinner plate feeding on us. They also transmit viruses to the bees
and weaken the bees' immune system so that bees then become much more
susceptible to other diseases. As you can imagine, if you are sick and
parasitized, you will be much more susceptible to other problems.
Beekeepers themselves have ranked varroa mite as the first or second
leading cause of mortality in the country every year for about the last five
years. That is an important note, especially among commercial beekeepers.
The two leading causes are queen failure and varroa mite. They self-identify
as the leading causes of mortality.
Indeed, in a national honeybee disease survey we do across the United
States to assess our disease status, we find that three out of the twelve
months of the year, mite levels are above a level such that we even think
that treatment would still cause those colonies to decline. Clearly, mite
levels are getting out of control, sometimes unbeknownst to the beekeepers,
and also the treatment management plans we have in place do not seem to be
working as well. They need to be much more aggressive than they
traditionally have been.
Also, the population of mites is doing things that are unexpected. We
usually say mite populations double every month. That tends to be true, but
now we have evidence that sometimes they triple in a month. We have to
understand those dynamics better.
The next issue, of course, is pesticides. As part of the National Honey
Bee Survey, we have done a broad analysis of samples collected across the
country, and it is surprising the number of pesticides we find. On average,
we find about five different pesticides per pollen sample. We have never
found a sample of pollen that was clean. The most common products we find
there, not surprisingly, are varroa mite control products, which we know
have negative effects on the bees. But it is a lot like chemotherapy. You
don't take chemotherapy because it is good for you; rather, you do it
because it is better than the alternative. Beekeepers are caught in a hard
place trying to kill a bug on a bug. That is a problem in itself, and we
have to figure out other methods to control the mites.
The other big finding is that we find a lot of fungicides in the pollen.
Of course, fungicides are not labelled, so that you can't spray them during
bloom, like insecticides. Fungicides are often considered benign to bees.
Indeed, an adult bee can fly through a cloud of fungicide and look perfectly
fine. There is growing evidence, however, that fungicide exposure may have
sublethal affects, and so the bees become much more susceptible to disease
afterwards. I think we need to consider fungicides.
We also have to reconsider the formulation. There are no regulations for
the inert ingredients in pesticides, and it seems there is growing evidence
from research around the country that these "inerts" may actually amplify
the effects of insecticides or be lethal on their own. We have to look at
some of these unregistered parts of pesticide products.
I should emphasize that there are few findings of neonicotinoids in
pollen. This could be, and likely is, because it is applied at very low
doses and low rates, so it might be below the detection rate. Also, it
breaks down quickly in ultraviolet light. If it is exposed to sun, we should
not expect to see it.
The whole neonicotinoid issue is a big one and it's a big concern to a
lot of beekeepers. There is ample evidence to show that when you plant seeds
coated in neonicotinoids, the dust cloud that can form and move over on to
flowering dandelions or other plants that bees might forage, that is an
acute risk to bees. There is clear evidence that we need different planting
technologies to prevent these clouds from forming.
The issue, however, of neonicotinoids is that they are systemic, so they
get sucked up by the plant and get expressed in the leaves to kill
caterpillars and other insects that are eating those leaves, but also it can
get into the nectar and pollen. It is not clear what effect these have on
bees at the colony level. I still think that is a gap in knowledge. I don't
think there has been strong proof that there are negative effects or that
there are no effects. There is still a lot of work to be done in that area.
I want to emphasize that there are clear times, though, that there have
been neonic applications to flowering linden trees or flowering basswood
trees, so ornamental plants, where there has been an acute kill of
bumblebees. I think there is room here to consider whether it is appropriate
to use such a toxic chemical in ornamental use, when there is no food or
human safety risk involved.
The final thing I will say is about nutrition. In the United States,
because of the price of corn and soybeans, there has been a dramatic shift
in agricultural practices, particularly in the Midwest. If you look at the
Dakotas, that is the traditional place where most of the beekeepers in the
United States move their bees in the summer. Most of the bees in the United
States are found in North and South Dakota, collecting honey and pollen,
sort of fattening up so they can move those same colonies to California for
almond pollination early the next year.
However, because of the price of corn and soybeans, and because of
changes in federal law concerning conservation land, millions of acres that
used to be prairie and good bee forage have been plowed under and planted in
corn and soybean, even though corn and soybean production is not very
productive in those areas. So we have seen huge, dramatic losses in areas
that can sustain honeybees and native bees.
To conclude, there are three factors. Varroa mite cannot be discounted.
It is a clear and big problem for U.S. beekeepers, and I imagine for
Canadian beekeepers. However, if we took the varroa mite out of the picture,
we would certainly reduce losses, but we would still have problems.
I think pesticides are a problem, but we cannot overlook things like
fungicides and some of the inert products that may be contributing.
Certainly, we need a better understanding of what neonics are doing in terms
of the exposure from pollen and nectar.
Finally, there is nutrition. We have to make sure we leave room in our
agricultural and urban landscapes to ensure there is forage for both native
The Chair: Thank you very much, Mr. vanEngelsdorp.
Senator Mercer: Doctor, thank you very much. It is always good to
see a Canadian lead some of the research elsewhere as well as in Canada.
Congratulations on that.
You outlined a number of problems. You have mentioned colony collapse
disorder, varroa mites, pesticides and nutrition.
When I see my doctor, as someone over 65 and overweight, the first thing
he talks to me about is nutrition, or at least finding a way to control my
health on my own as opposed to coming to see him all the time.
You didn't spend a lot of time talking about nutrition, although you
talked about having different plants in the neighbourhood where bees are.
Could you expand on that and tell us what farmers should be doing to help
accommodate better bee health and bee nutrition?
Mr. vanEnglesdorp: That is a really good point. One of the things
that we are very aware of is that we don't have a good understanding of the
nutritional needs of a honeybee colony. Certainly, beekeepers in the United
States are spending a small fortune feeding protein and different nutrients
to their colonies, trying to build them up. That is very new. That has only
happened in the last five years.
However, what we can do in the landscape, I think, is to try to
incorporate good bee forage in our agricultural setting. One of the targets
we often hear when talking to NGOs and the World Wildlife Fund and different
organizations is that we need to make room for pollinator plants in the
agricultural landscape. The goal is 10 per cent. I don't know that we have a
lot of evidence that that is the exact number we need, but I think that is a
good starting place. We should aim at having 10 per cent of the landscape
dedicated to producing pollinator plants. That benefits bees and native
bees, but it also benefits ducks and wildlife. A lot of other things happen
in those meadows. It is a good, well-rounded approach to seeing a good
agro-ecosystem and a healthy agro-ecosystem.
Senator Mercer: Do you have suggestions as to what those plants
should be, or would that vary region to region?
Mr. vanEnglesdorp: That's right; I think it varies region to
region. Every region knows what pollinator plants are really good for them.
There is some debate about whether we should only be using native plants or
whether we can incorporate some introduced plants, but I think that that's
semantic. Usually, a good bee plant is good for native bees and honeybees,
and I think that that mix can happen.
Another thing that the federal government can do both in the United
States and Canada is think about the highways and byways that are federally
controlled. Why do we mow that grass? Why can't that grass be planted in
forage that supports native bees and honeybees? When we think about federal
lands that we typically think of mowing down, why don't we let those become
Senator Mercer: When I drive through the United States on
interstates, I notice that in certain states there are a lot of flowers
planted in the median. Is that the kind of thing you are talking about that
would be very helpful?
Mr. vanEnglesdorp: Yes. You can do the direct planning. In
Maryland, there would have been a lot of daffodils just a little while ago.
You can also do native meadows and native plants. It can be either very
ornamental plants or just meadows with blooming plants in them. They are
much more attractive than these green, desert lawns.
Senator Mercer: Indeed.
My final question is about your comment on neonicotinoids. You talked
about the dust cloud that is created when planting. What are your thoughts
on dust deflectors on planters? Do you think they are effective? We know
that some manufacturers are putting dust deflectors on their equipment now,
but is retrofitting existing planters a worthwhile investment?
Mr. vanEnglesdorp: I think it is absolutely essential that you do
that when you are planting. We have to reduce these dust clouds. I certainly
think that the agriculture industry is aggressively pursuing ideas, not only
with the dust deflectors but also looking at different powder lubricants
that allow the seeds to get planted without causing these dust clouds.
But remember that these seed coatings contain enough active ingredient
that it could kill tens of thousands of bees. There will always be some risk
to planting seed-treated plants. We have to reduce that risk as much as
possible. One of the ways we can reduce it is to only use seed-treated
plants when we need them. In the United States, at least, it is very hard to
get non-seed treated plants, and so it is the only plant getting planted.
That seems short-sighted in terms of both bee health and the long-term
sustainability of these products.
Senator Buth: Thank you for being here today with us and so
clearly outlining the issues with bee health.
I have a technical question to start with. You made the comment that you
are not seeing colony collapse disorder anymore, that this is a completely
different issue. Can you define colony collapse disorder and why that
syndrome is no longer occurring?
Mr. vanEnglesdorp: I was there when we first discovered colony
collapse disorder. I was in Pennsylvania at the time. A beekeeper called and
found that of his 3,000 colonies, half of them had completely left. He
bragged in November about how great his bees were, moved them to Florida, as
he does every year, and called me to say that he went to this apiary and
didn't hear a thing. It was like a ghost town. He got on his hands and knees
and looked into the hives, and there was nothing in the hives. There were no
dead bees. They had completely left, which is very unusual.
We went down to sample these bees and neighbouring bees, and it was clear
that it was happening in many places, so we came up with a case definition.
That was: the complete absence of dead bees in the colony in the apiary. The
colony collapse was quick; it happened within two weeks. That's very
important. That's evidence because usually you'd find young bees left
behind, so that colony had to be strong a while ago. If the bees were still
collapsing, they were young bees, and the queen was present. The bees didn't
rob. You would have colonies full of honey, and neighbouring bees wouldn't
go in and steal that honey, which is very unusual.
We did extensive tests on these bees, and we knew that they were very
sick. They had every virus going, basically. We think it was the virus that
caused the symptom. It is an expression of something that we called
altruistic suicide because bees are social insects. They somehow knew they
were sick and wanted to fly away from the hive to die. We see this in
termites, for instance. If termites get a fungal infection, when they leave
the colony, they tap on the ground, telling other termites not to touch. So
we think that the bees fly away thinking they are saving their nest mates
from disease, but this happens so quickly that they all fly away.
Historically, when we look at the literature, we have seen this sort of
condition at least 17 times over the last 200 years around the world. Every
time it happens, it sort of disappears a couple of years later on. This
classic condition appeared, and it was sort of like an emerging disease. We
saw this peak episode, and then it tailed off. What I think it did, though,
was focus our attention on colony losses. That is when we began to see that,
even without this very specific set of symptoms, there were a lot of
The public and the press have used colony collapse disorder to describe
all bee mortality, but from our point of view, colony collapse disorder is
defined by that strict definition.
Senator Buth: We have heard from many witnesses about varroa
mites. Clearly, people around the world are working on trying to control
varroa mites. What would your recommendation be in terms of dealing with the
Mr. vanEnglesdorp: I am in charge of a management survey where we
survey beekeepers across the country and ask them what practices they used
and didn't use in the last year. We compare the ones who are most successful
to the ones who are least successful, as defined by the greatest
survivorship rate. We are finding that the most successful beekeepers have
to treat four times a year. That is much more than we have traditionally had
to do it.
The other very surprising finding is that 70 per cent of beekeepers are
not using any varroa mite control product at all. Those aren't commercial
beekeepers. All commercial beekeepers who make a livelihood out of this are
treating, but a lot of the smaller-scale beekeepers are not treating at all,
thinking, "If I breed from survivors, that is better." What they are not
considering is that when those bee colonies die, those bees and the mites
contained within those colonies fly off and invade your neighbour, who may
have had their mites under control, therefore killing them. There are
We need to get the message out that everyone needs to have a varroa
control plan in place, and we also have to stop reacting. We always get a
new product when our last product stops working. We have to have different
products in the toolbox right away, and we need to work with regulators to
get those products on the market quickly and to make sure that resistance
isn't developing. We need to have plans in place to measure resistance in
the field, and we need to have a variety of products.
Beekeepers need to treat aggressively. They have to have a management
plan that incorporates different products that are applied multiple times a
year, and we have to have a national level of surveillance to make sure the
products are working and get word out quickly when those products might not
be working as well.
Senator Merchant: You didn't mention this as a cause, but I am
wondering, because I come from Saskatchewan, what role the very cold winters
play, if any, in the survival or mortality of bees.
Mr. vanEnglesdorp: That is a really good question. I think,
though, that when you are in Saskatchewan and Alberta where it is big bee
country and is so cold, beekeepers have managed to figure out how to keep
bees. They winter them in sheds, usually, or really give them a lot of
If you are talking about Ontario or places closer to the U.S. border,
their cold probably plays a more important role because beekeepers aren't
necessarily prepared for the severe winter. Bees stay in that hive all year
round producing heat; that is why they have the honey. They keep it warm. If
it stays cold for a long period of time, they are not able to go out to do
cleansing flights. They have to go to the bathroom, and they can't get out
of the hive to do that. So that can cause disease problems. Also, they don't
allow the cluster to break and move on to new honey sources. Even if there's
honey in the colony, in a real cold winter they can starve to death because
they can't move to find new honey.
Certainly, cold plays a role. In the more prolonged winter periods in
areas where the winters are very long, the beekeepers are much better able
to deal with that because they are anticipating them, so they winter their
bees in sheds.
Senator Merchant: Also, because our growing season is much
shorter, we don't start getting flowers or blooms until late June. That
might play a role, too.
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: That might play a role, but then you have long
summers, so the bees are able to work longer because it's daylight longer.
Senator Merchant: Sometimes we have nice long falls.
Part of our mandate is to see what role the government can play. They do
things in the U.S. that we don't do; for instance, they have a national
survey that we don't have. Are there things our government can do? You said
something about the shoulders of the roads. Are there other things that we
could recommend as a committee?
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: I don't know about Canadian farm insurance and
whether it is federally mandated. One thing that we would encourage the U.S.
government to do is to look at ways to incentivize farmers to plant a
certain percentage of their land in pollinator-friendly habitat. That land
can be the marginal land; it does not have to be the top producing land. A
lot of evidence shows that soybeans can be planted beside rows of meadows
with flowering plants. Soybean right by that barrier produces more soybean
than in the interior because you get the benefit of all the native bees
pollinating them. Have these lands benefit the farmers. Incentivizing
getting 10 per cent of the landscape under pollinator plants is a great
thing the government can do.
The other thing they can do is to work actively on looking at ways of
evaluating products, especially the new generation of products for sublethal
effects. All our registrations of products usually look at the LD50 — how
much does it take to kill an adult bee; but it's more complicated than that.
Sometimes an exposure predisposes you to a disease so you die later on in
life. We have to reevaluate how we register products to ensure that we are
accounting for sublethal effects. Those are big things: incentivizing bee
forage in the landscape and looking at how we register products to control
At the end of the day, if beekeepers can make money, they can keep bees
alive. It just depends on how much money they can make because that's how
much they can invest in their hives. Look at the economics of beekeeping and
making sure that you are doing everything to help beekeepers stay viable.
Senator Ogilvie: Thank you, professor, for a very clear
I'm interested in the issue of control studies. Virtually every witness
before us describing losses in colonies maintained for harvesting honey.
Bees have two jobs: pollinate large crop areas and produce honey for
No one has been able to describe a situation in which a bee colony is
maintained purely for the benefit of the bees. That is, they may be
maintained next to a crop that needs pollinating, but no one has described a
situation in which a colony has been maintained purely for the functioning
of the bees. Bees didn't start off producing honey for people; they produce
it for their own purposes, as you alluded to in your presentation.
Are you aware of any study in which a control of that type has been used
directly in comparison to the hives that are used in the normal commercial
way and in the same area?
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: I guess the strict answer to your question is
no. However, I want to expand on one of the reasons that complicated that,
although it's a great idea.
You have to look at a colony of bees not as a group of 10,000 to 40,000
individuals but as one big super organism. That one super organism
reproduces by splitting in half in swarms. When that happens, you lose your
honey crop because your extra bees produce your honey crop. You lose a lot
of money from that as you lose your bees and honey production.
What also happens in that natural process is you're splitting diseased
populations in half, especially varroa mite as you interrupt that cycle. If
you're actively splitting colonies, you don't have to treat for varroa mite
as well. There's a natural way that some of the disease loads decrease.
If you're going to make that comparison, the colony that's left alone is
going to swarm a lot, so it might survive better but be much smaller and
won't be a productive colony. In the one you're managing, the disease load
builds up but that's because there's production.
There are things about feral colonies, which exist in Europe where
honeybees come from: They can survive in a variety of different ways. Also,
honeybee colonies in the wild are separated by three kilometres between
nests. If a colony dies, the disease it contains can't spread to the
neighbour. That evolutionary pressure means that any diseases in wild
colonies will evolve so they are not as virulent. If they kill their host,
they kill themselves, too. However, in a commercial setting when the colony
dies, the disease is spread to the next colony, so there is a selection for
It is a good point, but these are managed animals or plants, depending
how you define "bees." It is in the management of these organisms that we
increase the problems associated with pests.
Senator Ogilvie: That's very helpful. My question is aimed at
trying to get a control sample that gives us a better handle on the true
impact of the other four characteristics that you described, one of which is
the underlying driving force in this study: the neonics and the pesticides.
That was the basis for my question.
My second question is on the issue of residues of neonics in soils.
Testimony before our committee has indicated that the level of neonics in
continuously farmed terrain tends to reach a certain level and remain
relatively steady over time. Is that your experience in looking at the data?
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: I wouldn't want to say that I was an expert in
this field, so I'm going to deflect the question. I would ask Christian
Krupke at Purdue University. I think he has a good handle on that and has
been one of the big leaders in that work. I wouldn't want to say anything
To your first question about the neonic thing, I would suggest you
consider talking to the Swedes. Ingmar Friess from the University of Uppsala
has done a very big study. I don't know if the results are out yet but I
think they're coming out shortly. They were able to get isolated canola
fields with hives so they were able to control the forage area rather than
the colonies. I'm very much looking forward to that work to see what
happens. That might address your control issue.
Senator Dagenais: Professor, you probably know that, so far, the
United States Environmental Protection Agency has refused to take any
measures concerning pesticides, which are toxic to bees. The agency plans to
continue its study over the next five years. I do not think pollinators can
wait five years. How do you think the agricultural management system could
be improved in the meantime to better safeguard the health of honeybees?
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: There are things that we can do, and one of
them I mentioned already. We need to make sure that the agriculture
landscape has forage areas available to bees. We should target 10 per cent
of the landscape to ensure that it's managed to support both honeybees and
native bees. There are government incentive programs to meet that need.
With the neonic story, it is important to realize that if we're not going
to use those products, what will we replace them with? We often think about
10 to 20 years ago when beekeepers had huge losses because of pesticides.
The difference was they found piles of dead bees in front of their hives so
they knew it was that pesticide.
Now we have to figure out if it's true that neonics are playing a role in
colony levels as the mortality is happening many months later. It seems to
be confused because there are other contributing factors, unless it's that
dust cloud we talked about.
We need to make sure we use products only when we need them and avoid
prophylactic use. Instead of using seed treatment all the time, use it only
when you know about or anticipate a problem that year. Right now you can't
find half the pests you're treating for in the United States in most of
those areas because these products are so widely used that there aren't any
of these pest organisms in the environment to treat. Do we need to have this
sustained treatment all the time?
Encourage people to use products only when they need them — the wise use
of products — and not ban the products.
Senator Robichaud: You told us that we have to reevaluate the
pesticides we are using as to their effect at the sublethal level. Am I
correct when I say that? Have we started to do that?
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: You would have to talk to some people. I think
a lot of discussions are going on. There was an international SETAC meeting,
I believe, where they had a lot of people from the EPA and the Canadian
equivalent. I know the Canadian government is working well with the
California EPA and the federal EPA to try to figure out ways of doing it.
They're trying to come up with international standards so that there's a
very clear set of rules. There are discussions about that, but I don't know
if they have translated into policy yet. I don't think so. I wouldn't want
to say that I'm an expert in that field.
Senator Robichaud: If we were to make a recommendation in our
report, this would be one place we could go.
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: Absolutely. We have to reevaluate how
pesticides are registered in order to accommodate the calculation of the
risk factors associated with sublethal effects, including the testing of
inert ingredients in these products, not just the active ingredient.
Senator Robichaud: Are you saying those other products are not
tested and that we are only testing the pesticide itself, the active
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: I think that's true in Canada. I know it's true
in the United States. Those are trade secrets, so you don't know what those
inert ingredients are. The 99 per cent that's inert is these unknown
products, and now there is growing evidence that they may have either
synergistic effect with the active ingredient or on their own pose a risk
both directly and sublethally to honeybees.
Senator Robichaud: You mentioned that you paid a lot of attention
to the nutrition of bees. You also said that some beekeepers are
experiencing different ways. Is the scientific community looking at what
proper nutrition for bees is, which would be an important factor in the
wintering of the hives?
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: It's a gap in our knowledge that needs funding
to pursue, absolutely.
Senator Robichaud: That could be another recommendation.
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: Yes, absolutely.
Senator Robichaud: Thank you, professor.
Senator Eaton: Professor, according to our notes, in 2013 you
co-authored a study with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and North
Carolina University that found genetically diverse honeybee colonies tend to
have better rates of survival than less diverse colonies. Could you tell us
more about this study?
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: Sure. I'll just give you a little biology
We talk about the colony being a super organism that splits and becomes
two organisms, one being a swarm and the swarm produces a queen. The virgin
queen flies out of the hive within the first two weeks of life and mates
with, on average, 16 different drones. They store the sperm from those
drones in a sack called a spermatheca. That's the only time she will mate.
She'll use that sperm for the rest of her life to fertilize all the eggs
that become worker bees. There are millions of sperms in the sack.
It's a biological question: Why would you want all these half-sisters
living in the same colony? What's the advantage? We think bees are social
organisms precisely because they have these diverse family members. Some
family members are probably better at cleaning and some are better at
gardening. That variety allows all the tasks to be efficiently performed in
One of our concerns was whether there's a problem with bottlenecking.
Over 2 million queens are produced by a handful, a dozen or two dozen queen
producers, in the United States. Some of those queens from Hawaii even come
into Canada. If there were a lack of diversity in the drone pool, there
would be a restriction in the variety of different sub-families in the
In that study we found that colonies headed by queens that weren't mated
by a good variety of drones did not survive nearly as well as colonies that
had a big diverse bunch of drones mating with those queens. That's
biologically interesting and has implications for queen producers.
Thankfully, most queen producers are successfully mating their queens with a
variety of drones.
Having said that, there is a real issue with the products we use to
control varroa mites. There is growing evidence, especially from work out of
the USDA up the road from where I'm sitting right now, showing that some of
those products kill the sperm a month or two later. You can have a perfectly
good queen full of sperm, but the sperm starts to die and those queens start
to fail. This is why queen problems are another big cause of losses, which
probably results directly from the pesticide exposure that beekeepers are
applying to the bees to control mites.
Senator Eaton: That's very interesting.
We have talked about pesticides, varroa mites and nutrition. What about
monoculture and industrial beekeeping practices? Should we be doing more
research on that and the effect on honeybees, getting back to forage?
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: The monoculture issue is 10 per cent of that
landscape. As part of the ongoing survey work, one of the most consistent
findings over five years is that big commercial beekeepers that move their
colonies regularly lose fewer colonies than beekeepers who are stationary
and don't move their colonies.
Senator Eaton: A beekeeper who goes from the eastern part of the
United States to California in those big trucks with those millions of bees
will do better than someone who never moves.
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: That's right.
While there is probably some stress associated with moving bees, it is
probably accommodated by better management techniques. These guys make their
livelihood from it so they have much more invested and make sure their
colonies stay alive. We have to figure out what's going on there. It's an
interesting question, but I don't think there is any evidence.
I think this is true in Europe, too, where they have done the same thing,
but I know about the Canadian statistics. A consistent finding is that
people who move bee colonies, including the larger commercial beekeepers,
tend to lose fewer colonies than those who don't move them. There's no
evidence to show that big AG beekeeping is bad for bees.
Senator Oh: Thank you, professor, for being here today. You talk a
lot about and we have heard a lot from other witnesses about varroa mite.
Today, you put list the varroa mite as number one in relation to colony
collapse. We heard very little from all of the witnesses about research on
varroa mite and how to effectively get rid of the varroa mite. Can you
comment on that?
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: I think that we certainly have an understanding
of the biology of the mites. We certainly need to know more about mite
biology and reproduction and how mites spread within a colony, apiary and
region. There is a gap of knowledge there that we can address. If you have
an action point, understanding the spread and population dynamics of varroa
mite is very important. Those are very regional, too. They are probably
different in New Brunswick than they are in British Columbia.
The problem with mites, too, is that they are developing resistance to
some of the products we have used. We need to come up with a next generation
of products that can target those areas, borrowing information we have
learned from mosquito control programs where they have developed specific
chemistries to overcome resistance development in the population and looking
at that. We can also look at new technologies like RNAi technologies that
can attack mites without attacking the bees. I think we need to develop new
products and certainly think about the next generation of products rather
than the traditional ones.
Having said that, we can also look at "biologicals." We know that there
are essential oils that work for bees. There are products on the market for
that. How we get those products to work in a commercial setting is a
I will also refer to formic acid. There is a company in Ontario that is
the leader in getting formic acid to beekeepers in a safe and effective way,
and that, too, is part of the organic product. It works well, but there are
problems with it because it's a fumigant. So it's temperature dependent. You
can kill bees doing it. These other methods for controlling mites aren't
always as effective. How beekeepers adopt them is sometimes a little
Senator Mercer: First of all, I want to thank the professor for
being here. He's been very informative and helpful to us.
You talked about a better managed use of pesticides, that farmers
shouldn't just assume that they need to use neonicotinoids all the time,
that they have to only use them when they have a problem.
How do farmers, who have become a bit dependent on the use of treated
seeds and on neonicotinoids, get to the point where they say, "I don't need
treated seeds for this crop this year or in this particular region or
field?" How do they get to that point? I think changing attitudes in the
use of pesticides will be a huge struggle if that's the way we need to go
because people have become so dependent on those products.
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: That is a really good question. I think it's
true, though, that most farmers are concerned about the land. I also think
it's true that this year, for the first time, farmers actually have a
choice. Before, they didn't have a choice about whether to buy treated or
untreated seed, and that certainly isn't good. They need to have that
To answer your other question — and I think there are other people who
would be more expert in this field than I am — you can have scouting
programs to look at disease or pest levels in fields in a region this year.
Then, based on those results, you can predict whether there will be a
problem next year or not, and then decide whether to use treated seeds next
year or not.
The problem with that, in the United States at least, is that those
scouts and those crop consultants are often getting paid because of the
chemicals they are selling to farmers. If they're suggesting not using
chemicals, they're taking money out of their own pocket. We have to figure
out how to divorce those two different things so that it's not motivated by
selling product but by selling by need.
Senator Mercer: The Europeans have had a moratorium on the use of
neonicotinoids for a while. Is it a recommendation that you would make, that
we think about putting a ban on it for a few years to study what effect it
would have on the bee population and, obviously, on crop production, or
should we continue studying and trying to find the next generation of
chemicals that will not have a negative effect on bees?
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: I was afraid of that question. I think it's
important to note that the Europeans banned the product and that that ban
started this year, in January. It has not been a complete year of the ban
being in place.
I will say that the loss rates in Europe have varied tremendously between
member states, and I don't think that you can see a correlation between use
pattern and non-use pattern. It is a little more complicated than just using
the product or not.
I do think you have to consider what the alternative is. For instance,
you are not allowed to use genetically modified corn for food consumption.
You have corn grown for people to buy at the farmer's market that's sprayed
nine times with pyrethroids versus BT corn that is grown beside it for
cattle. Is that nine times pyrethroid spray really better for the
environment than using genetically modified crops? I think that you have to
balance the risks.
As to banning something outright, I don't think there is evidence to
suggest that. There is a lot of evidence that we can use this product more
wisely and prolong its long-term usability. That's probably the place that
we want to aim for and that I think we should aim for, rather than an
Senator Buth: I have a simple question: Where do you get the 10
per cent number?
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: When we're talking with NGOs, this is the
number that has come to the surface. I don't think there is any science
behind it, and that's certainly a gap in knowledge. So perhaps the take-home
point is: What percentage of the landscape do we need in pollinator meadows
in order to sustain a healthy pollinator supply? Ten per cent is a number
that a group of people have come up with and we're repeating as our talking
note. It's what the church asks for, so maybe we should ask for the same for
Senator Buth: Thank you very much for that answer, professor.
The Chair: Professor, we have seen it in other agricultural
production and agricultural sectors across Canada and even in the U.S, and
you did allude to it in your comments about the techniques planting
techniques and innovation in sequipment. Are you aware of certain
improvements in the construction of beehives like we see for efficiency in
our houses across Canada and the U.S? As to beehive efficiency, have there
been any studies done in order to have better bee health?
Mr. vanEngelsdorp: Are there things you can do to the beehive to
improve bee health? Certainly, there are adoptions that have been
incorporated, like the screen bottom board. If you look at the bottom board
of a hive, it's solid, usually, but, if you put a screen there, if any mites
fall out of the beehive, they fall on the ground and can't re-infest. There
are modifications like that that have existed.
I do think that the box itself is useable. Beekeepers have been using it
for over 100 years now. I don't know that we need to reinvent the hive, so
The Chair: Professor, before you leave, you said you are a
Canadian. What part of Canada?
Mr. vanEnglesdorp: I grew up in Ontario, but everyone else now
lives in British Columbia, Whistler and Delta.
The Chair: Okay.
As we conclude, there is no doubt, professor, that although you are in
Maryland, you will follow what's happening in North America, watching the
Montreal Canadians taking on the Bruins.
Mr. vanEnglesdorp: Indeed.
The Chair: Because, as Canadians, we know that we can win the
With that, thank you very much, professor.
Mr. vanEnglesdorp: Thank you.
The Chair: Senators, before we adjourn, the steering committee met
yesterday, and we would like to inform you of the agenda for the next few
weeks coming up and also of the draft report.
We will produce a draft report on innovation in agriculture, so as to
ensure that the report will be submitted to the Senate before the end of
That said, we will now go in camera, and then we will adjourn.
(The committee continued in camera.)