“This is a bigger problem than we previously thought,” said Lisa Archer, Food and Technology Program Director at Friends of the Earth. She is talking about neonicitinoids, the pesticide implicated in the collapse of thousands of honeybee colonies over the past decade. It has come as a shock to some local gardeners that they may be unwittingly planting this neurotoxin in their yards.
A recent study by Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Research Institute found traces of neonicitinoids (called neonics for short) in garden plants sold at some Bay Area big box stores. Most of the local garden stores in Oakland contacted for this story didn’t know whether the flowering plants they sell contain neonics. Calls to wholesale nurseries who supply plants to East Bay retailers revealed that some of them continue to apply the pesticide in what they believe is a “bee safe” manner, by soaking the roots rather than spraying the plants.
Bayer CropScience, a major manufacturer of the chemical, said in a press release after the European Union banned its use, “Bayer CropScience remains convinced that neonicotinoids are safe for bees when used responsibly and properly according to the label instructions.” Bayer sued the EU in September to overturn the ban.
These contentions are challenged by a report from the Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation: “Neonicotinoids are systemic chemicals. They are absorbed by the plant and dispersed through plant tissues, including pollen and nectar.” “The whole point of a systemic pesticide is that it gets sucked into the whole plant,” Archer concurred.
California is home to 1,600 species of native bees, according to the UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab. High concentrations of neonicitinoids can be directly lethal to bees, and even low levels of exposure cause disorientation, which makes it harder for the pollinators to forage and find water, and reduces immunity, making bees susceptible to parasites and pathogens. The neurotoxic poison also affects a range of beneficial garden insects, including butterflies, ladybugs and earthworms.
Sold under the names Imidacloprid, Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, and Acetamiprid, it is sometimes found in products labeled as plant food, particularly for roses or shrubs. A full list of products containing neonics can be found on the Xerxes website. “We encourage all gardeners and beekeepers to contact their local nurseries to eliminate the use in their operations and take products with neonics off the shelves in their stores,” said Paul Towers, spokesperson for the Pesticide Action Network.
Neonics can find their way into your garden in more insidious ways. If you buy a plant whose seeds or roots were pre-treated with the pesticide, it may come home with you quietly, in the tissues of your salvia or peony. Even worse, according to Archer, because neonics are water-soluble, they can spread from the soil of a treated plant and be sucked up by the roots of neighboring plants. She noted that flowering trees, which may be injected with the pesticide, “can be killing bees in your back yard for years and you wouldn’t know it.”
If you are feeling despair at this point, here is some good news: armed with a little knowledge, you can protect your backyard bees — and the East Bay is a great place to find the resources you need to create a bee-safe garden.
“The first thing folks can do is ask their garden retailers for neonic-free plants,” said Archer. Some East Bay stores are already addressing the issue. “We’re actively working on this now but it’s in the early stages,” said Paul, General Manager at the Berkeley Horticultural Nursery. “We’ve requested that the plants we get aren’t treated.”
Bloom’s Wholesale Nursery, which supplies plants to a number of East Bay stores, including the Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, Thornhill Nursery, and Grand Lake Ace Hardware, has heard the message. “When I heard about this, I was somewhat horrified,” said co-owner Paul Bloom. “We will not be using neonicitinoids.” You can identify plants from Bloom’s nursery by their reddish-pink pots.
Since flowering plants are rarely certified organic, it can be tricky to discover which ones are truly bee-friendly. Oaktown Native Plant Nursery’s starts are raised “with primarily organic practices” according to owner Kristen Hopper, who added, “A lot of native plants are good for the pollinators.”
To mitigate harm to bees from plants that are already in the ground, Towers recommends trimming the first year’s bloom because it’s likely to carry the largest pesticide load. “That will be the greatest reduction in risk for bees,” he said.
Some believe neonicitinoids could cause a second “Silent Spring,” according to Archer, as birds eat affected insects and the poison moves up the food chain. To remove neonicitinoids from our backyards and our fields, she asked Oaklanders to support the Save Our Pollinators Act in congress.
By using neonics, Archer said, “We’re undermining the base of the food chain.” Towers added: “Whether that’s the food you grow in your backyard or the food grown in the central valley, we know that bees are the underpinning of a healthy food system.”
More bee resources:
MoveOn petition asking Lowe’s and Home Depot to remove neonicotinoids from their shelves.
Spiral Gardens in Berkeley is a good source for organic gardeners.