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Big drop found in neonicotinoid content of home stores’ ‘bee-friendly’ flowers

Big progress is being made on one small battlefield of the war to protect bees and other pollinators from neonicotinoid insecticides.

Big progress is being made on one small battlefield of the war to protect bees and other pollinators from neonicotinoid insecticides.

In a third survey of neonics in “bee-friendly” plants sold by large retailers to gardeners in 14 U.S. cities — including Minneapolis — anti-pesticide advocates found a dramatic reduction this spring from levels detected previously.

Only 23 percent of the plants tested positive for neonics, compared to more than half the plants tested in 2013 and 2014. No plants purchased in Minneapolis contained the insecticides.

The survey began as a pilot project in just three cities, again including Minneapolis, with a clear goal of embarrassing large retailers into halting sales of both neonic-treated plants and also neonic-based garden treatments formulated for home use.

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The 2014 testing expanded to 18 cities, some of them in Canada, and this year the sampling was broadened at the California sites to include flowering trees considered especially attractive to bees.

The focus of the survey is on plants with strong appeal to both gardeners and to bees: African and Gerbera daisy, alyssum, buddelia, coreopsis, cosmos, gaillardia, geranium, gerbera daisy, lavender, poppy, rosemary, salvia, scabiosa, trailing petunia, verbena and zinnia.

The sponsoring organizations, led by Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Research Institute, say the results are tangible evidence of success by those organizations and others who are pressuring retailers and suppliers to change their offerings.

In the past two years, more than 65 garden retailers, nurseries and landscaping companies, including the two largest home improvement retailers in the world, Home Depot and Lowe’s, as well as Whole Foods and BJ’s Wholesale Club, have committed to take steps to eliminate neonicotinoids.

This shift was documented in Greenhouse Grower’s 2016 State of the Industry Survey, in which 74 percent of growers who supply mass merchants and home improvement chains said they will not use neonicotinoid insecticides in 2016

Lowe’s, Home Depot in the lead

In 2015, according to the Friends of the Earth report issued Tuesday, Home Depot announced that 80 percent of the flowering plants it sells were already neonic-free and that the rest would be replaced or dropped by 2018.

For its part, Lowe’s said it would stop selling both neonic-treated plants and neonic-based consumer garden products by the following year.

Others weren’t persuaded by advocates’ arguments, whether on the risks to bees of neonic-treated garden plants or the benefits to retailers — buttressed with poll data, of course — of taking a stance in favor of pollinator protection. Wal-Mart, Ace Hardware and True Value Hardware have declined to change their practices, the report says; a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Los Angeles Times that the company is relying on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to manage the problem.

The Times also reached out to Bayer CropScience, a leading manufacturer of neonics, for its viewpoint and got this from spokesman Jeff Donald concerning one of its key products:

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Over its 20-year history, there has not been a single documented honey bee colony loss that can be attributed to a labeled use of imidacloprid. The unfortunate effect of the activists’ campaign is consumers who lose choice on how to protect their lawn and gardens, which may result in them losing plants and flowers to damaging pests or in them resorting to other costly or potentially more dangerous pest control measures.

Agriculture is different in California from the corn- and soybean-dominated Midwest, but then so is lawn and garden care. A fascinating glimpse:

California farmers applied nearly 144 tons of imidacloprid on more than 1.5 million acres in 2013, the last year for which complete data were available, according to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.

The top users of the pesticide were wine-grape growers, who applied 30 tons of it to about 240,000 acres in 2013, according to the state agency. Growers of table and raisin grapes, tomatoes for processing, oranges and cotton also were among the heaviest agricultural users, according to the agency.

The single biggest user, however, was the predominantly urban pest-control industry, which applied nearly 37 tons to homes and businesses to combat pests such as termites, according to the agency.

In a way, Jeff Donald is only underscoring (with different spin, of course)  the point that Friends of the Earth and their allies are making: Consumers do, in fact, have choices available as they contemplate pest management and pollinator protection in their home gardens.

And there is truth, of a vanishingly narrow kind, in Donald’s observation that nobody has yet proved his product guilty of genocide as long as it was used correctly.

Not JUST pesticides, but still …

Most who follow this issue, however, will have no trouble summoning up the yeah-buts:

That bees are beset by a multitude of problems, from parasites to loss of clean forage to other toxins, but pesticides surely make the other factors worse. That neonics are widely agreed to be a key problem, in combination with the others and sometimes alone. That the sublethal effects of neonics are both serious and multifaceted, and as science advances are likely to be proven more dangerous, not less, to bees and other pollinators.

On that note, I want to close by pointing to a new study out of the UK that addresses a few  standard industry objections by a) being a field study rather a lab experiment, b) measuring the exposures in actual agricultural practice rather than a scientist’s simulation of them, and c) considering data gathered over a long time period.

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The pollinators of interest were 62 wild bee species important to the pollination of oilseed rape, which we call canola. The test territory was a wide swath of English countryside. And the paper was published in the journal Nature, more credible  than which you cannot get.

Most significant was the longitudinal time frame, 1994 to 2011, which the trade publication Farmers Weekly noted “spanned the introduction of wide-scale commercial use of neonicotinoids” in England:

The scientists found evidence suggesting neonicotinoid use was linked to large-scale and long-term decline in wild bee species distributions and communities. The decline was, on average, three times stronger among species that regularly feed on the crop compared with species that forage on a range of flowers.

Researchers said neonicotinoids correlated with wild bee biodiversity losses at a national scale, with implications for conservation in intensively farmed landscapes.

Report lead author Ben Woodcock said: “As a flowering crop, oilseed rape is beneficial for pollinating insects. This benefit however, appears to be more than nullified by the effect of neonicotinoid seed treatment on a range of wild bee species.”