Wow, this season has been going by in a hurry. It’s been a great growing season so far…fingers crossed that this continues! I’ve been even more lax than usual updating this blog. Running the farm on my own this year, with part-time help from my neighbour Dave, has been really great, but also super busy. And there are so many environmental issues on my mind lately that I don’t even know where to begin.
For starters, below I’ve shared with you an article written by Pat Carson (friend from Chesley) about bees and the negative effects of neonicotinoid pesticides.
Bees are in the news if not in our gardens
This Spring I waited to see how many “candles” our Fort McNair red chestnut would produce and looked forward to the humming of happy bees as they zoomed to it. The tree flowered beautifully and I waited for the bees. They never came! I didn’t see one bee at the tree this year and in fact have seen only a handful of bees in our front yard “bee friendly, hummingbird friendly, butterfly friendly, moth friendly, frog friendly, bug friendly” garden. I wondered why and I was concerned. It seems that our bee keepers are concerned too as they have endured the loss of hundreds of thousands of bees and hundreds of hives over the past few years.
In order to educate myself on this alarming situation, I decided to attend a “bee/pollinator” workshop at River Croft Farm just outside Neustadt. The workshop was part of the 4thannual celebration of the Neustadt Community Growing Project (in conjunction with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and in support of conservation farming projects in Africa). The farm of Gary Kennedy and Deborah Kellar who hosted this event is definitely “pollinator” friendly with native plants, old fashioned perennials and giant sunflowers in abundance.
Kevin Eccles, Mayor of West Grey, welcomed us to the event and talked about changes in rural life. In his grandmother’s day, farms were “mixed” and she would preserve the bounty produced by the farm for the family’s needs in the long winter ahead. That slowly changed as agriculture and society changed after the Second World War. He notices now resurgence in that practice as people become involved in the organic food and food-to-fork movement. At the municipal level he expressed interest in the idea of native plants along road verges while consideration has to be given to the need for winter snow removal as well. “Without honey bees we don’t eat” he concluded.
The first workshop speaker was Carol Dunk, President of the Ontario Horticultural Association, who talked about the “roadside use of native plants” as well as giving us a mini-lesson in all the kinds of bees we have and how they pollinate flowers and crops. She encouraged us to reconsider our own yards by getting rid of the grass and planting a garden to provide a habitat for bees, butterflies, moths and frogs. She also encouraged us to talk with our local municipal councils as to how to make bee-friendly areas along roads and public spaces. This is something that WE can do!
The next speaker, Jim Coneybeare, is a third generation bee keeper. In the 1920s his grandfather was a bee keeper in the Leamington area. His father also kept bees until he lost 1100 hives in the mid 60s due to the intensive use of insecticides on the tomato crops there. Later the family decided to move to the Wellington County area near Fergus and things went well for 5 years until they noticed bees dying in great numbers again. The common factor seemed to be insecticide use, this time in the form of “aldrin” which, like DDT was eventually banned. (Aldrin was banned by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and was cancelled in the United States in 1974 in order to “protect plants”. It was found to be extremely toxic to trout and bluegill.) Jim has continued in his family’s tradition of keeping bees for his livelihood by moving hives to our area. His presentation was sobering, alarming and worrisome.
Here is just some of what I learned: The suspected insecticide causing the deaths of millions of bees worldwide is a class called “neonicotinoids” – a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically related to nicotine. (“neonics” for short) It is currently the most widely used class of insecticides in the world. 98% of corn, 100% of canola, 65% of soya, 35% of wheat and winter wheat crops are all treated with “neonics”. Other crops are also treated but these ones are the big concern for bee keepers because of the huge acreage involved. These systemic insecticides are applied to the seed prior to planting and when the seed germinates some goes into the nectar, pollen and leaves. Systemic insecticides are long lived, from 200 to 1000 days. However when the ground freezes the insecticides stay in the soil, thereby overwintering for the next planting season, when more treated seeds gets planted. Only 1.6–20% of the active ingredients actually work on the intended recipient, the plant and the rest from 80-98.4% pollutes the soil and water without any intendedaction to the plant. Last year “experts” said that it was a “one off” year because of such dry weather but this year has been wet, and Jim Coneybeare said that 85% of his operation has been affected, compared to only 25% last year. He may be able to hang on as a bee keeper for two more years. According to Canada’s PMR (Pest Management Regulatory Agency) 75% of dead bees last year tested positive for neonicotinoids. “Sub-lethal” dosage over prolonged exposure affects both the communication and navigation systems of bees. Eventually they die. A bee hive should have about 50,000-60,000 bees but this year his hives are populated by maybe 10,000 which means they will be susceptible to winter die- off and he’s expecting a 50-60% loss over the coming winter. This class of insecticides is by volume 10,000 times more powerful than DDT in destroying insect life. One treated corn kernel ingested by a blue jay will kill it. The Ontario Bee Keepers are “seeing a wall going up protecting the continued use of neonicotinoids” and Jim doesn’t know how it’s going to be overcome without banning them. “We are not privy to the scientific data surrounding “neonicotinoid use and our efforts to rule it out are being stonewalled. What we do know is that our bees are dying in cataclysmic numbers and that the only common denominator appears to be the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. Parts per million are also showing up in water sources.”
The final speaker was a local farmer, Nathan Carey, who has formed a group called “Friends of Pollinators”. He got involved when he noticed that his wild apple trees were”quiet” in the spring. Farming practices have changed and “integrated pest management” which had a resurgence “has been derailed by ‘neonics’ because they are so easy to use and so effective.” His conclusion though is that neonicotinoid insecticides need to be banned. “We can work through the economic issues by banning neonics BUT we need pollinators!” Questions by the 60 or so people in attendance were many. One participant stated that “We may be revisiting Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. For people who don’t know this book, it was written by an American biologist in 1962. It catalogued the environmental impacts of the indiscriminate spraying of DDT and questioned the logic of releasing large amounts of chemicals into the environment without fully understanding their effects on ecology or human health. The book suggested that DDT and other pesticides may cause cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. Eventually DDT was banned in 1972 for agricultural use in the USA and worldwide under the Stockholm Convention. In April 2013 the European member states voted to issue “a continent-wide suspension of neonicotinoid (insect nerve agents) pesticides. This is the world’s first ever continent-wide suspension on widely used pesticides alleged to cause serious harm to bees. Nathan Carey and Jim Coneybeare clearly stated that “a loud public outcry is needed” in Canada to save the bees. (and perhaps us!)
The time to create that loud public outcry is NOW. Write your Member of Parliament and MPP, write the Minister of Agriculture, write the Premier of Ontario, write Prime Minister Harper demanding a moratorium on neonicotinoids. (no stamp required!) In the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
Written by Pat Carson with thanks to friends, Gary Kenny and Deborah McKellar, for hosting this event. Check out the website of “Friends of the Pollinators – Grey-Bruce” which is a group working towards the protection of pollinators in Canada. Local organic farmer Nathan Carey has spearheaded this group: friendsofpollinators.wordpress.com The following article in the Guardian is also worth checking out: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2013/aug/05/neonicotinoids-ddt-pesticides-nature
I’ve signed numerous petitions and written letters to my MP and Premier Kathleen Wynne to ban the use of these ‘neonics’ until further study can be made. This ban is already in place in the European Union. Yet here in Ontario, organizations like the Grain Farmers of Ontario are actually sending postcards out to their members to ask their MPs to keep seed treated with neonics available! This definitely did not please the many Ontario grain farmers who are against the use of neonicotinoid treated seeds. It seems to me that the agricultural industry will be in a lot more trouble in the long-term if pollinators are killed off, then if they use different pest management techniques than these poison seeds.
I’m trying to find a local beekeeper to keep his/her hives at my farm as I don’t use any insecticides, herbicides or fertilizers, and it doesn’t seem like there are many large fields planted around me with crops using neonicotinoid treated seed. My farm, with its constant flowering of various plants from spring to late fall, and relative distance from extensively chemically treated fields, would be quite a haven for struggling bees. A beekeeper will be visiting the farm on Labour Day to see if this is a good place for his hives…I’ll keep you posted if honey bees will be making at home at Black Sheep Farm!
This is the story of my journey into sustainable agriculture. From the streets of downtown Toronto, to the farm land of southern Ontario, I hope to discover the techniques and practices that work for me in both mind and heart.