A showdown is looming in Ontario between beekeepers and some farmers and seed companies over the use of a controversial pesticide.
Beekeepers have already launched a class action lawsuit claiming the new pesticides, called neonicotinoids, are killing bees by the millions. They've got support from environmental activists, scientists and politicians.
In Europe there is a three-year moratorium on the use of the products. But even before planting season began this spring, some in the farming industry began fighting back.
Southern Ontario is corn country and with the late spring, most farmers have been scrambling to get their fields ready for seeding.
Almost all of them are using seeds treated with a pesticide containing neonicotinoids. Nearly all the corn grown in Canada and more than half of the soy bean crops are treated with neonicotinoids.
Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticide that targets the nervous system of insects that damage crops like potato bugs, corn beetles, grubs and aphids. But there is growing evidence that the pesticide is also harmful to beneficial insects such as honeybees and other pollinators.
There is a reason the insecticide is needed, says Kevin Armstrong, who farms near Woodstock, Ontario.
"It is a kind of insurance policy for us. It protects the seed and the seedling for the first month or so of its life and so if that’s protected then the vigor of the whole plant is secured for the whole season," said Armstrong.
That means more money, about ten percent more. That could translate into millions of dollars for farmers who are forever watching the bottom line.
But beekeepers say the problem is that neonicotinoids don’t discriminate and the pesticide is killing their bee populations by the millions. They say that is costing them millions of dollars and could drive them out of business.
"When 90 percent of your stock is dying that used to be alive, unsustainable is an understatement," said one farmer.
"Last year, 75 percent of the bees that were tested, tested positive for this residue," added another. "Young, dying, twitching, spasming bees around the entrance."
Some very powerful pesticides are now considered to be the main cause of bee deaths. That conclusion was verified by a panel of 50 international scientists. The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides found unequivocal evidence that neonicotinoid pesticides are killing bees.
Protests in Europe led to the EU bringing in a two-year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids. That is also a reasonable solution for Canada, according to Jason Tetro, a Toronto based biologist.
"Put the moratorium out there for a period of three years and let's see what happens. If the bees come back, then we know it was the pesticides," said Tetro.
In Ontario, the issue became so acute to beekeepers that in the fall of 2014 they launched a $450 million class action lawsuit against Bayer and Syngenta, two of the biggest companies that manufacture neonicotinoids.
Lawyer Dimitri Laskaris represents the beekeepers.
"These insecticides effectively act as a nerve poison and they are now, in fact, constituting a threat to t he productivity or natural farmed environment. The equivalent to that was created by DDT years ago," said Laskaris.
The Ontario government wants to dramatically restrict and reduce the use of the pesticide by the start of next year's corn and soybean planting season. It also wants to put the onus on farmers, making them prove they actually have pests before they could use certain pesticide-treated seeds, especially those suspected of killing bees.
CropLife Canada is the industry association that represents many of the big seed companies. It says neonics are the best thing that ever happened to farmers. Pierre Patel speaks for the association.
"They target insects. So this particular class of insecticides, the advantage of it is that has very low toxicity for wildlife and humans," said Patel.
But beekeepers are getting support from Ontario’s environmental commissioner, Gordon Miller. He, too, calls neonicotinoids a threat bigger than DDT.
"Everything that I have before me, which is scientific reports that come out almost weekly now, suggests to me, as an ecologist, that this is the biggest threat to the structure and the ecological integrity of the ecosystem that I have ever encountered in my life, bigger than DDT," said Miller.
The stakes are huge, not just for beekeepers but for the role that pollinators play in agriculture. Dave Goulson is a British biologist at the University of Sussex.
"Seventy-five percent of the crops that we eat are pollinated by insects of one type or another, mostly by bees," said Goulson.
The industry is fighting attempts to restrict the use of neonicotinoids. Earlier this year, farm groups and seed companies spent $350,000 to place a full page open letter in 14 Ontario newspapers claiming the bee industry is not in the dire straits some claim it to be in.
The calls for action are growing, but the response has been slow. As one beekeeper put it, the clock is ticking and the industry is failing fast.