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 and honeybees.

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 pollinator meadows?

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 colonies dying.

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 varroa mite?

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 problems there.

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 insulation.

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 that.

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 presentation.

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 commercial purposes.

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 higher virulence.

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 incorrect.

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 ingredient?

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 lesson.

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 the colony.

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 colonies.

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 struggle.

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 challenging.

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 choice.

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 outright ban.

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 pollinators.

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 to speak.

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 Stanley Cup.

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 June.


That said, we will now go in camera, and then we will adjourn.

(The committee continued in camera.)

Back to top