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Scientists say no longer any doubt about impact of pesticides on bees

A bee lands on a flower in a garden in Chelsea, Que.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A group of international scientists is meeting in the national capital to try to convince parliamentarians there is no longer any doubt that common agricultural pesticides are proving toxic to ordinary honey bees.

In fact, says Jean-Marc Bonmatin of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, neonicotinoid pesticides kill a lot more than just bees, posing a deadly risk to frogs, common birds, fish and earthworms.

The scientists represent a task force on pesticides within the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which in 2015 released a comprehensive review of more than 1,100 peer-reviewed research studies on neonicotinoids.

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On Tuesday, they were releasing an update to the report and meeting with MPs in Ottawa to make the case for an immediate ban on the pesticides.

Neonicotinoids, also known as neonics, are nicotine-based pesticides commonly used by farmers to help keep everything from field crops to fruit orchards free of pests like aphids, spider mites and stink bugs.

After beekeepers started sounding alarm bells about mass deaths of honeybees, scientists began to zero in on neonics as one of the culprits. Bees were consuming pollen contaminated with neonics as well as flying through chemical-laden clouds of dust from farm fields.

Bees, Bonmatin, said, were only the most "visible part of the problem" because beekeeping is a big business — and without bees, billions of dollars of farm crops would go unpollinated.

Wild bees, invertebrates like earthworms and amphibians like frogs have also shown signs of neonics poisoning, as have birds, which eat neonics-coated seeds.

Research suggest neonics can affect reproduction, growth and movement for these species, as well as make them more susceptible to disease.

Lisa Gue, a senior researcher with the David Suzuki Foundation which is involved in the release of the updated report, said Canada has to catch up to Europe which banned the use of neonics in crops which attract bees in 2013.

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France is currently phasing in a complete ban on all agricultural uses of neonics, with the full ban set to take effect next year. France's ambassador in Canada will explain the reasoning behind France's decision to MPs at a reception in Ottawa Tuesday evening.

Ontario phased in limits on the use of neonics for corn and soybeans starting in 2015 after a significant loss in bee populations. Quebec proposed similar regulations this year, while Vancouver and Montreal have both banned neonics outright in their city limits.

A year ago, Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency said preliminary evidence from the study of imidacloprid, one of the three main neonics used in Canada, showed it was present in toxic levels in surface and groundwater and killing aquatic insects that are a source of food for fish and birds.

Gue said even if Health Canada decides next year to ban imidacloprid that phase-in isn't scheduled to even start until 2021.

"I do have hope policy-makers and regulators in Canada will see the report as a wake-up call," she said.

However, Ron Bonnett, the president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said Canada is not yet at the stage where a ban is possible.

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Bonnett said there has been a lot of research, but more work must yet be done to introduce alternatives and determine whether the products can be used in a less damaging way.

"I'm not sure if we're at the point of the ban yet, but I think one of the things is if there is real strong evidence that the pesticide and the way we're using it is causing harm, we'll have to deal with it," said Bonnett.

Bonnett said pests are a significant problem for Canadian farmers, pointing to a study done on potato crops in P.E.I. that showed potato plants grown without the use of any pesticides were just leaves and stems with no potatoes underneath.

Bonmatin said since Europe began barring the use of neonics, there has been success at limiting the exposure honey bees have to the toxic chemicals, without a significant reduction in crop yields.

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