We owe a lot to bees and other pollinators: without them, there’d be no fruit, flowers or vegetables. The world would be a dramatically different place.
Why, then, do many people buy plants permeated with chemicals that put bees in danger? That’s the question some Mainers who would like to get the word out about neonicotinoid, or neonic, pesticides are asking. The chemical insecticides were first marketed in the mid-1990s as a safer alternative to the pesticides then on the market. But while they are less harmful to mammals and birds than their predecessors, they can negatively impact pollinators. In one disturbing incident that took place in Wilsonville, Oregon in 2013, 50,000 bumblebees died, some falling dead from the skies onto a shopping center parking lot.
“It has sublethal effects, too,” John Bochert, an organic gardening specialist from York, said. “Bees may not drop out of the sky, but they can’t find their way back to the hive.”
Bochert, who runs the lawn and garden sections at the York-based Eldredge Lumber & Hardware stores, is passionate about educating home gardeners about neonics. The chemical pesticides can harm the nervous systems, immune systems, fertility and reproductive success rate of bees and other pollinators such as pollen wasps, ants, flies, butterflies and moths. In 2014, the independent chain of hardware stores stopped selling these kinds of pesticides to customers, and in its own greenhouses, it doesn’t use these pesticides to grow flowers. But only about 30 percent of the plants sold at Eldredge are grown there, and Bochert said that some of the other plants they sell probably have neonics in them. According to the National Wildlife Federation, they’re the most widely used class of pesticides in the world.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “The greenhouse industry is based on the neonics. It’s understandable in a way. When plants leave a greenhouse, the importance of having a clean plant is [paramount].”
That means that customers are looking to buy a perfect plant with no insect pest issues, and to get that, growers have leaned on chemical assistance. It didn’t used to be that way, Bochert said.
“We used to be gardeners, and knew how to look for the insects. Ninety-seven percent of the insects that visit our plants are either beneficial or benign,” he said. “I try to make sure all our customers leave with that kind of information.”
But for years, the trend was for major growers to essentially idiot-proof their plants, by putting neonics into the potting soil as fertilizer and even using seeds that are coated with the pesticides. A 2014 report by Friends of the Earth U.S., Pesticide Research Institute and SumOfUS found that more than half of plants sold at three major big-box stores across the U.S. and Canada contained neonicotinoid pesticides.
At the time, Heather Spalding of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which assisted with the pesticide sampling, said that the findings were ironic.
“People are going out [and] growing these plants. There is an awareness of the decline in pollinator and bee populations. People think, ‘[I will] enrich my landscape with plants that support the health of bees,’” she told reporters in 2014. “The very plants they are buying are filled with chemicals, killing bees.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way, said Bochert and Ann Marie Bartoo, a Maine master gardener who recently wrote an article about neonicotinoids that was published in the Maine Home Garden News June newsletter from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“I have discovered through master gardening that there are things you can do and products to be aware of,” Bartoo said. “The neonics are a big deal. They are one of the largest threats to pollinators, and people just don’t know that. I want to get people’s awareness elevated, so they know. ‘Oh, I should really be looking at this particular fertilizer, this particular item, and try not to use it.’”
One of the things home gardeners can do to avoid neonics, she said, is be careful about purchasing flats of vegetables and perennials from big-box stores. Things have been improving on that front, Bartoo said. Home Depot now provides labels on its greenhouse ornamentals, indicating if a plant has been treated with a neonicotinoid pesticide, and in 2016, the company announced that it would phase out the use of neonics on its plants by the end of 2018. Lowe’s made a similar announcement, saying that the company would phase out neonics on their products and plants by the spring of 2019.
“There are some big box stores that have really listened to consumers and are really making an effort to avoid products treated with neonics,” Bartoo said. “But the bottom line is, shop at small, independent nurseries. Staff there are typically very knowledgeable. They would know — just ask.”
Her list of other things to do includes:
— Carefully read labels on plants and lawn and garden treatments, looking for the following toxic pesticides: imidacloprid, acetamiprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin or thiamethoxam.
— Let all plant retailers know you want them to choose suppliers who do not use neonics on seeds or as topical treatment of seedlings and other plants.
— Grow your own vegetables and perennials from untreated seeds.
— Eliminate pesticide use in your home gardens and lawns.
— Look for sources to help you move toward an organic approach to gardening.
— Contact your local representatives, letting them know you support legislation to ban neonics.
— Plant flowers thoughtfully, so that bees and other pollinators will have food sources throughout the growing season. Early spring and late fall are particularly challenging times of year for pollinators. Early flowers that are food sources include crocus, golden Alexanders and wild columbine, and late-season flowers include New England asters and closed gentian.
In some places officials are moving faster to put laws in place that will eliminate this class of pesticides. In April, European Union lawmakers voted to ban three kinds of neonicotinoids from all field crops (farming associations did greet the news with trepidation, according to the magazine Science). Pollinator activists in the United States, including Bartoo, would like to see similar protections enacted here. But until then, she said, if home gardeners are mindful of neonicotinoids they can take steps to avoid them. Bochert agreed, adding that taking a pro-pollinator stance actually has been good for business at the stores where he works.
“When you make decisions based on health and not based on profit, customers will beat a path to your door,” he said.