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Wouldn’t it be nice if planting more gardens could save U.S. honeybees?

As always, “one way we can all help is by planting bee-friendly flowers in backyard gardens and keeping them free of pesticides,” Bryan Walsh writes in Time.

Some readers who share my concern about the problems of honeybees have asked why I’m not reporting on the new study showing that “bee-friendly” garden plants sold as a means to rescue the country’s imperiled pollinators are often laden with the very insecticides implicated in their massive die-offs.

Fair question. And in case you missed others’ reports on the research, I’ll start with a summary:

About a week ago, Friends of the Earth published the results of laboratory tests it had underwritten on “bee-friendly” garden plants purchased from three mass retailers in the Twin Cities, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.  It was looking for signs of the neonicotinoid compounds that now appear to be the single most important controllable factor in colony collapse disorder (CCD).

Nationwide, 7 of the 13 plants tested contained one or more of the so-called “neonics.” Further details for Minnesotans:

The stores shopped here were Lowe’s and Home Depot (the third retailer, Orchard Supply Hardware, doesn’t have a presence in the region). The plants purchased were gaillardia, salvia, squash and tomato.

The vegetable plants had no detected levels of a neonic. The flowers had, in varying amounts, one or more of the compounds imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam and acetamiprid. (You can read the full report here. [PDF])

Not surprisingly, the guy taking press calls at Home Depot was caught a little flat-footed when Minnesota Public Radio rang him up: “We haven’t reviewed the study yet, but we certainly appreciate the importance of the bee population and will be reaching out to the study groups to learn more about their findings and methodology.” (Lowe’s didn’t comment.)

‘Neonics’ are everywhere

My hat is off to Friends of the Earth and its allies for a smart piece of media-relations work here, but my take on the research itself is about the opposite of what they intended.

I’m not troubled by their testing protocol, sample selection or even the small sample size, although 13 plants is maybe a little light, even for a “first-of-its-kind pilot study.” And I trust that our friends at Friends are telling the straight-up truth about the results.

But I’m frankly amazed that all of the samples didn’t contain neonics. These poisons are wildly popular, available not only to commercial applicators but also to backyard gardeners through outlets like Home Depot. And they’re highly persistent, not only in plants but in soils.

Which means they’re pretty much everywhere. That’s the problem, people, and we need to keep our eyes on the ball.

(OK, I suppose there may be another kind of problem if conscientious bee-huggers in large numbers are in fact failing to assume that mass market, non-organic garden plants have been treated with today’s leading pesticides, just like non-organic fruits, vegetables, grains and other crops. In which case I am happy to have spread the news a little further.

(But let’s get back to the big picture of the vanishing honeybees, and to a recent and prominent update – the one that made the cover of Time magazine last week.)

Keepers also in decline

In “The Plight of the Honeybee,” senior editor Bryan Walsh delivers a classicly Time-style, detail-rich survey of why “mass deaths in bee colonies may mean disaster for farmers — and your favorite foods.” (The article is behind the magazine’s paywall, but a related blog – focusing on the parallel problems of wild bees – is here.) A few excerpts:

In June, a Whole Foods store in Rhode Island, as part of a campaign to highlight the importance of honeybees, temporarily removed from its produce section all the food that depended on pollinators. Of 453 items, 237 vanished, including apples, lemons and zucchini.

One-third of U.S. honeybee colonies died or disappeared during the past winter, a 42% increase over the year before and well above the 10% to 15% losses beekeepers used to experience in normal winters.

There were just barely enough viable honeybees in the U.S. to service this spring’s vital almond pollination in California, putting a product worth nearly $4 billion at risk. … And almonds, totally dependent on honeybees, are a bellwether of the larger problem.

“The take-home message is that we are very close to the edge,” says Jeff Pettis, the research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s bee Research Laboratory. “It’s a roll of the dice now.”

If you’ve been following the coverage of CCD in recent years, you may not learn much that’s brand-new about the neonics, or about their contribution to a die-off phenomenon that seems to occur in the convergence of multiple factors: mites, fungal and bacterial infections, the shrinking amounts of undeveloped or uncultivated land that offers forage to bees in the form of plants we humans see as weeds.

What impressed me most was Walsh’s look at what’s happening to the bees’ keepers:

Since World War II, the number of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. has dropped from 5.8 million to 2.5 million. It has remained stable at that lower level for about 15 years, despite the emergence of CCD in 2006, but the number of commercial beekeepers has fallen by three-fourths. So, even if solutions to CCD can be worked out, the expertise needed to apply them may be in short supply.

Hand pollination, tiny robots

As for possible solutions, Walsh notes that Chinese orchards are now hand-pollinated by farmers wielding little brushes (like Americans are going to do that). Tiny robot bees are in development at Harvard.

And some beekeepers think the solution is to develop the honeybee equivalent of the feedlots we use to raise factory hogs, cattle and poultry, keeping the hives confined and supplying “supplemental feed” in place of natural nectars.

But I wonder about that last one. One of the problems in concentrating the feeding of animals is that it also concentrates disease.

One more: As always, “one way we can all help is by planting bee-friendly flowers in backyard gardens and keeping them free of pesticides.”

Here’s the reality, I think: Honeybees are under pressure because of natural pathogens we can’t eradicate, habitat loss we can’t reverse, and some newfangled pesticides that we could restrict but won’t, at least so far.    

EU acts, EPA waits

Changing course on neonics now would be difficult because they have become so ubiquitous since they came on the market in the 1990s, and because they have clear benefits to farmers, including lower human toxicity compared to other insecticides.

So it’s a complicated question for policymakers, which the European Union addressed in May by adopting a limited ban: a two-year suspension in the use of three neonic compounds on crops likely to attract honeybees.

Our Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, announced last week that it will require some changes in product labeling for neonics, including a new “bee advisory box.”  But it will not review its earlier approval of the products for another three or four years.

In the meantime, I guess, we can keep planting organic salvia in the back yard. And hope the neighbors’ equally attractive gardens aren’t full of neonics.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by elizabeth carlson on 08/22/2013 - 11:04 am.

    bee friendly gardening

    Those toxins are tough on butterflies, too.

    You can get toxin-free plants at the Friends’ Plant Sale held every Mother’s Day weekend at the Minnesota state fair grounds and at the many plant sales by the various master gardener clubs that propagate their own plants.


    on a related issue–

    With regard to claims by Monsanto that their pesticides, which many believe are decimating bees and butterflies, only target corn weevils and specific other corn pests, a farmer friend of mine in Iowa says that’s like saying the bullets in my gun only kill bad guys.

    • Submitted by Pat Thompson on 08/22/2013 - 02:01 pm.

      Friends School Plant Sale

      Hi, Elizabeth. Thanks for the mention of our plant sale. We do sell many plants that are grown by local nurseries using integrated pest management instead of chemical pesticides. For sure all of our edibles are grown this way, and some are certified organic. About two-thirds of our plants in the sale overall come from growers who use IPM or are organic.

      However, we probably have sold flowering plants and shrubs/trees that contain neonicotinoids. For instance, even a grower who uses IPM may buy plant source material from a propagator who uses neonics, and as I understand it, that means the plant grown from the material contains traces of the pesticide. It’s a complicated, interconnected business.

      The Friends School Plant Sale committee is looking into this, given the recent news, and will be either making changes in our plant offerings or working with growers to stop using them. We are in communication with the U of M Bee Lab as well. It’s likely to be a multi-year process and the effort will be aided by gardeners letting nurseries know that they want plants that don’t kill bees.

      Barring government action, only consumer pressure can stop this.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/22/2013 - 01:06 pm.


    I’ve planted a strip along the boulevard in front of my house with native grasses and flowers in an effort to attract more butterflies, bees, and dragonflies. The issue I’m facing isn’t pesticides, but rather a city system that’s set up to encourage Kentucky Bluegrass over native plantings.

    First I had to get the city council to change the rules as they didn’t allow anything over 6″, the prescribed length of your standard suburban lawn. Good luck finding much of anything native that will fit within that criteria.

    Then when the grasses started growing this spring I promptly got a letter from the city saying I had to mow my unruly lawn or they would do it for me and send me the bill. This is after I had talked to the city environmental manager and he assured me he would put my address on the native plantings list specifically to ward off this kind of thing. Ironically, he’s the one that signed the letter.

    After that misunderstanding was cleared up I got another letter from his office saying I had Kentucky Bluegrass growing in my plot, it was over 6″ and, once again, I need to pull or mow it or they’ll mow the whole thing and send me the bill. Never mind that there isn’t any Kentucky Bluegrass in the plot as it’s along a major street with a lot of sand, salt, and chemicals from winter plowing. Kentucky Bluegrass is too fickle and won’t grow there at all. My neighbor decided to give it a try this spring, so he plowed up the whole plot, put down seed, and faithfully watered it daily. As soon as the weather got hot it promptly died and the weeds took over again.

    But hey, his weeds are less than 6″ tall! Unfortunately that seems to be the primary criteria for my city. It’s going to take some work, but hopefully we can change the attitude of our city managers and get native plantings in as the default setup for houses instead of manicured golf course lawns. I think that’ll be a long row to hoe though.

    • Submitted by Linda Ruecker on 10/07/2013 - 07:12 pm.

      city codes

      I’m not sure what code enforcement is like in your area, Mr. Hintz, but if it is like St. Paul, the city folks only contact the homeowner about boulevard plantings if there has been a complaint. I’ve found that the city inpectors are not the bad guys, they’re just put in the awkward position of referreeing between homeowners who are making a good faith effort to maintain a sustainable landscape and the local yard police who think everyone should have grass.

      If the codes in your neighborhood are unworkable, keep trying to have them changed. But I suspect the real problem is not the city, it’s the outdated attitudes of the neighbors. That’s what drives code enforcement.

  3. Submitted by Tom van der Linden on 08/22/2013 - 05:28 pm.

    Native Bees

    I have multiple prairie gardens in my yard, and a 10-acre restored prairie on my farm.
    These gardens draw a huge variety of native bees, honey bees, butterflies, flies and wasps, all of which pollinate a variety of flowers. I must admit my ignorance; I know so little about them. But, they will grace your yard if you plant a variety of flowers and flowering shrubs, and they don’t live in beehives (most are solitary creatures), some live in the sand between cracks in patio stones, for example.
    We all have a great deal to learn about their activities, and the plants they prefer. Even if many of us remain ignorant of them, they still come and do their work. So we can be hopeful, I think.
    As for you folks who would like to grow native plants, look for books by Minnesotan Lynn Steiner at your library.
    I’d suggest dutch white clover for Mr Hintz. It doesn’t grow very tall, and you can mow it once or twice if you wish, and it draws pollinators like crazy all summer long. You can buy seed from garden stores or garden seed catalogs. If you plant seed, you don’t have to worry about insecticides, though a few seeds are treated with fungicide – most are labelled if so.

  4. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 08/26/2013 - 07:41 pm.


    I find your clover comment interesting because I’ve been letting clover and self-heal grow (wild) at my lake place all summer and there have been, I would estimate, hundreds of native bees. The clover and self-heal grow shorter than grass–so if you do need to mow, you can do so a lot less frequently. Also, I’ve mowed in sections–so that part is always blooming for the bees. It seems senseless to me that Americans waste so much time, energy, and resources mowing lawns.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/27/2013 - 04:39 pm.


      Well, that’s one of my goals with going native: less time spent maintaining a lawn so I can spend the precious minutes on things that really matter. And if the plantings can attract bees and butterflies in the process, then all the better! The last thing I need to occupy my time with is a bunch of silly grass that needs to be watered daily, fertilized, thatched, aerated, and mowed twice a week. It’s too much work and the end result is a lawn that doesn’t look any better than astroturf.

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