Binkley Report on bees and the Senate

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ...

The Binkley Report

By seriously shouldering the problem of bee deaths

the Senate could prove its worth as a useful chamber

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

01 June 2014 The latest stalemate in the quest to reform the Senate is Prime Minister Harper’s huffy assertion that the provinces should agree to changes in the Upper Chamber’s role, preferably the kind he wants.

That came after the Supreme Court of Canada told Harper he had to follow the constitution in fixing the Senate.

Meanwhile the Senate agriculture committee, which faithful readers have probably never heard a peep about in the media, have been showing just how the Senate can play a useful role.

Several months ago, the committee started hearings on the health of the bee population. In case you have missed the hullabaloo over bees, a quick recap.

During the planting of the 2012 corn and soybean crops in Ontario, a lot of bees died. The prime suspect is neonic pesticide that is coated on the corn and soybean seeds before planting to kills bugs in the soil that would eat the seed. The type of planting machines used for those crops generates dust from the coating as the seed is buried. Some bees, foraging for food in the early spring, ingest enough of the pesticide to be fatal. There’s still disagreement how widespread the die off was in 2012 but no one argues it wasn’t significant.

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Beekeepers and grain farmers started to talk about the problem joined by farm equipment and seed suppliers. The issue gained some notoriety with environmental groups. The Commons agriculture committee studied it for a while but soon got distracted with other matters.

In 2013, the crop was planted under special guidelines developed by Grain Farmers of Ontario and industry partners and approved by Health Canada. The intent was to lower the amount of dust created and reduce the bee deaths. It was better but there were still too many dead bees.

Bees are having trouble in the United States and other parts of the world, They are crucial to the pollination of many crops.

Anyway the Senate committee took on the issue. Its hearings have brought in beekeepers, farmers, scientists and environmental groups. The committee may not conclude its work for some months and then it has to write a report outlining what it has learned and recommending what governments and farmers should do. It has a long list of ideas from the hearings to work with.

If it is done well, the report could not only benefit the bees and farmers, it could also point the way to converting the Senate from its current usually ineffective role into a truly useful institution, able to take on an examination in public of complex issues.

The picture that has emerged from the hearings is that while bee populations in Ontario and Quebec in the vicinity of corn and soybean fields are struggling, in the rest of the country they appear to be thriving. And that bee health has been the microscope in Canada and elsewhere for years. Much has been learned and much more could be.

However the contentious neonic pesticides aren’t the biggest challenge. Probably the biggest threats are the destructive Verroa mite and other parasites and viruses, inadequate quality nutrition and lack of foraging habitat and pesticides including the ones placed in hives to kill the mites.

Ongoing study of neonic pesticides is required as well.

The ultimate solution may lie in an Israeli technology called RNA, which could be used to trigger a genetic defence in bees against mites. It could also cut down the over use of pesticides in agriculture. Again a lot more study is required.

Meanwhile we can all help bees by planting more flowers and flowering shrubs and trees and cutting back on the amount of lawn and letting it grow longer.

Alex Binkley