Canada (finally) notices neonicotinoids

Many of you have probably heard that neonicotinoid pesticides seem to be responsible for negative effects on various pollinators, including bumblebees and honey bees.

With limited time today (and for this entire week), I won’t add much more than that right now, other than to say that others have written a ton about it already. So check out some of the links that I’ve provided for some background information.

But, I do have a reason for this brief blog post. It turns out that the Canadian government, via the Health Canada Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) are starting to take some notice and have issued a notice of intent to begin consultations on this subject. The notice of intent gives 90 days for interested parties to comment.

Some quotes from the notice of intent:

…in spring 2013 with more typical weather patterns, we continued to receive a significant number of pollinator mortality reports from both corn and soybean growing regions of Ontario and Quebec, as well as Manitoba. Consequently, we have concluded that current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable.

Bee health is a complex issue that goes beyond the incidents in 2012 and 2013 and may involve a number of additional factors, including parasites, disease and climate. Health Canada’s PMRA is currently conducting a re-evaluation of all uses of neonicotinoid insecticides in cooperation with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) as part of the work being done with international partners. We are expediting this re-evaluation, which will help us better understand and manage potential risks these pesticides may pose to long-term bee health.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Although the notice of intent seems to mainly target dust-related problems – and pesticide-laced dust is definitely an issue – it’s not the only issue.
  • Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides. That means that they end up in the plant’s tissues. This is why they are very effective against herbivores (and why they were touted as such a great thing) because they are mainly targeted at things that are eating plant tissues. But the pesticide also ends up in the pollen and nectar, and that is what bees and other pollinators forage on.
  • On that topic, it’s not just honey bees that are affected. Bumblebees, as noted above, are also known to be vulnerable. In addition there are many other native pollinators – bees and otherwise – that are likely to be affected (and honey bees are not native pollinators in North America).
  • Many other organisms and ecosystems may be harmed by this class of pesticides, including fish, birds, non-pollinating insects, and soil microorganisms. This article is a decent synopsis.

It’s good to see something resembling traction on this issue emerging here in Canada.

If anyone feels so inclined, the notice of intent contains instructions for making a statement on the continued use of neonicotinoids in Canada.


Fear and loathing

Over the past few weeks, Prince George and other parts of British Columbia have seen a massive outbreak of tent caterpillars. And that, of course, means that people have been talking about insects. A lot. In fact almost everyone in town has become, at least for a short while, an amateur entomologist. In some cases, I have heard some pretty interesting observations from people. There have also been a few fascinating forays into applied economic entomology as well – my favorite being the lady who filled her Shop Vac half full of soapy water and used it to suck the caterpillars off of her shrubs.

Of course, an infestation of this size has unpleasant aspects. My wife and kids did not like going out in the backyard during the peak of the outbreak. And I don’t blame them, as I wasn’t too keen on it either. A short walk through our yard would leave us draped in zillions of invisible strands of caterpillar silk with a few of the creatures crawling up our necks. And even a simple task like coiling the garden hose would leave your hands covered in squished caterpillar goo. So, I fully understand not fully appreciating these creatures when they occur in vast numbers. Beyond making parts of our city look like autumn is already here, they have been just a general nuisance.

That said, I do not understand today’s editorial in the local newspaper. The editor spent a lot of column space writing about insects, pulling out some interesting and salient facts. Yes, insect biodiversity is astounding. Yes, some of them would likely survive even if an apocalyptic natural event wiped out all of human life. Yes, as implied, we share a more recent common ancestor with other vertebrates than we do with insects. All valid points.

Then these bits:

“Our hatred of caterpillars and other bugs also has a basis in evolution.”


“We’re right to fear and hate them as much as we do.”


Since the muse for the editorial seems to be the swarms of tent caterpillars in town, let’s start with some reasons not to “fear and hate” them.

First, although they cause a great deal of visible damage, they are unlikely to kill many trees at all. So on the “fear and hate” side of the ledger we are left with temporary cosmetic damage and a bit of hassle in the yard for a few weeks. On the other hand, they do have benefits. This article nicely summarizes many of them. For instance:

  • they are a natural part of a functioning forest ecosystem.
  • their removal of canopy leaves allows light to the forest floor, giving some plants down there a leg (or limb?) up.
  • caterpillars and the moths that they become provide food for other organisms.
  • caterpillar poop gives a burst of nutrients to the forest floor.
  • all of these things, over time and many cycles, make a forest what it is.

In other words, if there weren’t periodic outbreaks of defoliators, our forests would be much different from what we enjoy today both in terms of the forest structure and the plants and animals that live there.

But, even if you don’t believe me that the benefit side of the ledger is much more substantial than the detriment side for tent caterpillars, perhaps you’ll agree with me on some easier-to-prove examples:

If this recent caterpillar outbreak has shown us anything, it is that people are fascinated by insects – and by nature in general.

To give the editor the benefit of the doubt, as pointed out by a colleague of mine:

And perhaps that’s true; perhaps the editor meant “respect.” But, one way or the other, I would prefer more coverage of the wonders of nature and more encouragement for people to get outside and to see what’s really going on out there, than demonization of vast segments of the natural world with careless words – even if the intent of those words is mainly to amuse. If we want people to care about the global environment, it’s not wise to begin with making them think that they have reason to hate the local fauna and flora.

Rather show people why it’s so awesome out there, and they’ll begin to understand why we are all so intimately connected with those very insects that are buzzing around our yards and jogging paths.

And in time that will turn more people from being armchair environmentalists (at best) to being actual hands-in-the-soil and boots-on-the-ground naturalists who have a stake in real conservation.

Good news x 3

Most days environmental news is bleak to say the least. Truthfully, much of what’s going on is bleak. Species are going extinct at record rates. Climate change seems to be accelerating. Environmental degradation is having real effects on real people.

But even though the bad news is usually what makes it onto the evening news, there are bits and pieces of good news as well. And those deserve to be highlighted. So, let’s take a look at three of those today.


A clawed cave spider: I always get excited when I hear about new species discoveries. That’s partly because it reminds me that no matter how much we think that we’ve figured out, there are still zillions of cool things out there that we have no clue about. We just need to look – sometimes in difficult places. In this case, the cool new find is a new species of spider, Trogloraptor marchingtoni. And not just a new species, but seemingly an entirely new family. If a new species is a big deal, a new family is an even bigger deal. By way of analogy ostriches, pelicans, and hummingbirds are each in separate bird families. So you might say that this newly discovered spider is approximately as different from other groups of spiders as those three groups of birds are from each other.

Trogloraptor is about 4 cm in diameter and lives mainly in caves and some old growth forests. It has substantial claws on its legs, but it is not clear what they are used for. And, now that we know about this creature there are a ton of other new and interesting things to find out as well. What will those discoveries be? Only time, and more hard work, will tell.

An (un)extinct snail: The Mobile River Basin in the southeastern United States is home to an amazing diversity of freshwater mollusks. Or perhaps it should be said that it was home to an amazing diversity of freshwater mollusks. After years of human influences, several dozen species are now extinct. However, in a recent survey of the snail fauna of the Cahaba River, researchers found a small population of a snail that has been thought to be extinct for decades. The snails can be bred in captivity and the authors of the linked research article point out several locations that may be suitable for reintroductions.

Monarch butterflies finally find protection: I’ll probably devote an entire post to monarch butterflies in the near future because they are so amazing. Briefly, these insects migrate across a huge swath of North America to a few very small wintering areas in forest groves the mountains of Mexico. So, entire populations that cover large chunks of geography in the summer are dependent upon a the survival of a few hectares of trees. Because of this, they are highly susceptible to deforestation in that region. Illegal logging has been impinging on these winter redoubts for decades. Removal of trees, even trees not used by the butterflies for roosting, allows more rain below the canopy. Wet butterflies are highly susceptible to winter cold.

The whole situation has been extremely dire in recent years. But now comes news that cooperative work between government, NGOs, private individuals, and the people who live near to the butterflies’ overwintering groves has almost completely eliminated illegal logging. Residents are now replanting trees in the butterfly groves and are working on developing a more robust ecotourism-based economy.


Yes, there are spots of good news out there as well. It pays to look for them because we need to take the time to highlight these events and accomplishments. They are due in large part to the dedication and efforts of researchers and, as exemplified in the case of the monarchs, to the people who are most likely to be affected by the negative consequences of doing nothing.