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Sunday, January 22, 2017

A reprieve for bees?

The clouds may be parting for gardeners who have been unknowingly poisoning bees and other insects. The bad news is that many of the flowers we buy to help pollinators may be treated with pesticides that poison them. The good news is that a campaign to stop this practice is bearing fruit.

This cosmos attracted a bee to my garden

     In 2014, Gardeners Beware, a report from Friends of the Earth, showed well-documented proof that insecticides called neonicotinoids (“neonics”) were present in more than half of bee-attracting commercial nursery plants bought at a broad sample of garden centers and big box stores in the United States and Canada.

     At commonly used concentrations, neonics kill bees. At lower levels, they cause neurotoxicity. Picture a bee that can’t remember how to get back to her hive. Friends of the Earth concluded, “. . . the chance of purchasing a plant contaminated with neonicotinoids is high. Therefore, many home gardens have likely become a source of exposure for bees.” 

Poisonous for bees?

     Growers treat annuals and perennials with the neonics in order to display plants unmarked by insects. The chemicals persist for years in plant tissues, including flowers, pollen, and nectar that bees touch. 

    I take this very personally. I don’t buy pesticides or spray them on my annuals or perennials. It’s upsetting that plants I used to create my insectary bed could have been killing insects rather than providing them with safe food as I intended.

I planted black-eyed Susans to feed insects, not poison them

    The good news is that thanks to pressure from activists, some major retailers have agreed to phase out neonics and plants treated with them. BJ’s Wholesale Clubs was the first major United States outlet to respond, requiring that its suppliers label plants treated with neonics and stop using them by the end of 2014. Home Depot has committed to stop selling treated plants by 2018 and Lowe’s by spring 2019. These retailers are way ahead of the Environmental Protection Agency, which still hasn’t put a moratorium on use of neonics while it reconsiders their registration for use in the US.

    Predictably, the chemical companies that make these pesticides, including Bayer and Ortho, blame the drastic bee population decline on diseases and non-native pests. The burden of scientific evidence now indicates these are less serious problems for bees than neonic toxicity. Restrictions on neonic use in France, Germany and Italy have sharply curtailed bee colony losses.

    I don’t know whether I’ve been buying neonic-treated plants at my favorite garden center. That will be my first question the next time I’m there.

     Marigolds, which I buy every year, tested positive at three quarters of the Massachusetts sites in the Friends of the Earth study. 

Marigold seedlings are fun and easy--but are they safe for bees?

Young annuals change hands several times from germination to sale. If any one of those handlers treats them with neonics, my bees are in trouble. 

    If I can’t get full assurances that plants I buy are safe for pollinators, I’ll have to go to Plan B (so to speak). That will be to buy only organically grown plants or seeds until this issue is fully resolved.

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