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Did GMO Corn Really Kill All Those Bees in Canada?

What is the current situation with pesticides and bees, and who really is to blame?

(Photo: Matthew T Rader)

As the director of the film Vanishing of the Bees, and the resident bee guardian within my virtual community, FB friends regularly post bee news on my wall. Last week, a handful of people sent me a story titled “37 Million Bees Found Dead In Ontario, Canada, After Planting Large GMO Corn Field.” It sounded familiar. Interested to learn more, I tracked down the beekeeper, Dave Schuit, who had lost all those bees.

I discovered that not only was the story inaccurate, it was also pretty old.

“Yes, I saw [the piece] circulating on Facebook, but I don’t know why they re-ran it. That happened in 2012. I’ve lost 100 million bees by now,” he confirmed. started the falsehood by basically repurposing a version comprised of two articles published by the online site The Post in June 2013 and CBC News in August 2013. Neither of those articles mentioned GMO corn as the culprit.*

Other than the title and the first sentence, Organic Health steered away from the notion that a GMO corn field killed millions of bees in Canada. If you read far enough, they correctly concluded that systemic pesticides are at fault.

While Dave (interestingly the poster boys for colony collapse disorder [CCD] in America are also both called Dave) did indeed lose about 600 hives, there is a distinction that needs to be made. These seeds, which, by the way, likely are genetically modified, are enrobed in systemic pesticides like clothianidin and/or thiamethoxam. These nicotine-based neurotoxins are what impair the bees’ navigational capabilities and compromise their immune and nervous systems’, causing paralysis and eventually death. In a way, it’s like the honeybee gets Alzheimer’s and is unable to find her way back home. A honeybee cannot live more than 24 hours without her hive.

While we all love to hate Monsanto – the makers of genetically modified organisms (GMO) – other pesticide manufacturing companies like Bayer and Syngenta don’t need any more help deflecting responsibility.

Accountability and Poisonous Drift

Since the original story ran, even more corn has been planted in Ontario, says Dave. And like many other commercial beekeepers in the United States, Dave too is now forced to hide his hives away from conventional farming to keep his bees alive. It’s pretty crazy, Canadian beekeepers are going through the exact same thing American beekeepers experienced when colony collapse disorder was first reported in 2006. Meanwhile, France was the first country to feel the effects of these poisons when they were initially introduced on the market back in 1995.

In the spring and summer of 2012, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) – the equivalent to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States – received a significant number of honey bee mortality reports from the provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario. Most of the cases hailed from southern Ontario, involving more than 40 beekeepers and 240 different bee yard locations. Timing and location of these honey bee mortalities appeared to coincide with planting corn seed treated with insecticides.

It’s important to note that corn is wind-pollinated; however, if it is tasseling and there is nothing around for food, bees will work it.

Because the seeds can stick together, talc is often added to the mix; and when air seeders are used, pesticide-laden dust particles blow all over the place. This exact occurrence was also reported in the United States, as well as in Germany and France. Not only are bees affected by the dust, studies show that these systemic pesticides can also settle on the soil surface of neighboring fields and flowering plants like dandelions that bees do forage. Catch the drift ? Systemic pesticides are taken up through roots and become part of the plant, hence contaminating our food supply, our rivers, and they can stay in the soil for up to 19 years!

Unlike the EPA, PMRA did confirm that neonicotinoid pesticides caused the widespread bee deaths in Ontario. Meanwhile, the Ontario Beekeepers Association has since filed a class-action lawsuit against the companies responsible for making these poisons, i.e. Bayer CropScience and Syngenta.

“We’re currently trying to get more beekeepers to enlist in the suit. The chemical boys use a lot of manipulation to take the focus away from pesticides and attribute losses on mites, viruses or other things like loss of habitat,” explained Dave.

Profits need to be protected. David L. Fischer, director, environmental toxicology and risk assessment, from Bayer’s CropScience division in North Carolina, also blamed everything but Bayer products when my codirector George Langworthy and I met with him several years ago. While Bayer forbid us from filming the interview or even using a tape recorder, spokespeople were pretty confident off camera that their poisons are safe on bees when used according to directions.

“Ultimately, there is no credible scientific evidence demonstrating a link between the use of neonicotinoid insecticides and the occurrence of widespread honey bee colony losses, including CCD,” Fischer wrote, in a response to a piece in Forbes that ran in 2012.

More disinformation. There have been several verycredible studies out of Yale, Purdue, Harvard and Europe. The EPA itself just revealed that neonicotinoids provide little benefits to yield on genetically modified soybeans.

And if their products are so safe, then why did the European Union instill a two-year ban on three of the most widely used systemic pesticides? Without nasty chemicals compromising its system, the bee would be able to fight mites and viruses, as it has for centuries.

But over the years, giant agrichemical companies have engaged in a massive PR disinformation campaign, in which they spin science, strategically deflect attention away from poisons, establish bee care programs for positive publicity and continue to tow the party line by claiming their poisons are safe. I have personally observed these tactics used in countries including France, Germany, England, Italy and Slovenia.

Oh Canada, my home and native land, welcome to the CCD Club.

*Journalistic standards have deteriorated into mediocrity. Today, anyone can slap on a misleading title and pass it off as news. We live in a digital misinformation bubble. Oftentimes, the stories are a result of shoddy reporting or straight out lies, like when the anti-GMO labeling committee on Prop 37 not only misused the FDA logo but even went as far as to fabricate a quote. How can a $45 million campaign make a mistake like that? But I digress.

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