Yesterday I attended a discussion forum for beekeepers in Ontario.  We (the beekeepers) were there to ask questions about bee deaths potentially caused by exposure to the pesticide Clothianidin.  Beekeepers in the US, Europe, and Canada (and probably other places too) have noticed massive bee die-offs that correspond closely to planting of corn.  Corn seeds are coated in pesticide prior to planting, and then shot into the soil using an air planter.  Turns out this process results in a cloud of pesticide-containing dust.  And if the bees are anywhere nearby, they end up paralyzed and then dead.

But of course the association between corn planting and bee deaths is not enough evidence.  The federal government agency is looking into things, having tested hundreds of samples from bees suspected to have died from pesticide poisoning, and nearby healthy live bees.  Although the sample size is low, about 70% of the dead bees have lethal concentrations of pesticide on them, whereas none of the live bees do.  The other 30% of dead bees could have also been poisoned, but because clothianidin breaks down quickly with UV light, it may be undetectable if it was there.  (See also Krupke et al. 2012.)

The beekeepers are fuming mad.  This spring they watched their livelihoods perish right before them, with hundreds or thousands of paralyzed dying bees trying to get back to their hives.  Some nearby beekeepers have lost over half of their hives. Our bees were unaffected but I can only imagine how sad I would be to see the same.  The big-name beekeepers at the meeting were emotional and vocal.  Many wanted the pesticide pulled from use in Canada.  But the government regulatory representatives there did not indicate this would ever happen.  They basically said that even if it is conclusively shown that clothianidin is killing the bees, they would merely ask farmers to plant corn when the wind is low and with machinery altered to steer dust down instead of up.  In conclusion, the farmer and beekeeper will get the short straw.

I couldn't help but wonder how this pesticide figured into the GMO corn, which has been engineered to produce the Cry toxin (that kills only insects feeding on the plants).  So I did some digging and found an old 2001 patent that described some experiments looking at how Cry toxin and/or clothianidin treated corn fared.  The data shown in this patent indicate that the Cry toxin is by far the better pesticide, and that the addition of clothianidin (in addition to Cry) did improve yield but not by much.  In my opinion, it didn't increase it by enough to justify bee kills.  This small increase in yield is also disproportional to the magnitude of clothianidin's use, making me wonder: who stands to profit here?  Obviously not the beekeeper.  The farmer may get a bit higher of a yield but not enough they'd get to leave their day job and become a full time a farmer.  Does the government profit?  How about the pesticide manufacturer?  It is worth noting that corn seed that has not been coated with pesticide isn't even commercially available, requiring researchers investigating this to wash their seed for the "untreated seed" controls.