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

Honeybees are under pressure because of natural pathogens we can’t eradicate, habitat loss we can’t reverse, and some pesticides that we could restrict but won’t, at least so far.

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:

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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.)

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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.

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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.