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The first alarm about bee-killing pesticides that caught my eye warned of plants that had been sprayed with neonicotinoids doing the killing.  Then petitions like this one got my attention and I hoped it meant that only the big boxes stores were at fault here, selling horrible products.  But then I read some more and realized it’s not just two unfeeling companies involved here.  These bee-killing pesticides (neonics for short) are sold everywhere.  You know, on the shelves of garden departments and garden centers everywhere – products from companies like Ortho and Bayer. Scroll down here for the list of products.

Worse, the deadliness of neonics to bees is being claimed not by some fringe greenies but by such establishment authorities as the USDA.  There’s really no argument about the problem here.

No surprise then that the campaign against neonics has gained a lot of momentum and big bucks are being spent to get the message out – like for this full-page ad in the New York Times. The ad announces that “This week, 15 countries are imposing a two-year restriction on the use of several of these chemicals. Meanwhile, the United States is stalling. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates it will be 2018, 5 years from now, before it makes a decision on this deadly class of pesticide.”


So far, all the EPA has done is to develop an advisory warning consumers not to use these pesticides “where bees are present.”  HUH?

The Impact on Retailers

So, what would be the impact, both horticulturally and financially, of banning these bee-killing pesticides, anyway?  I turned to people in the independent garden center world for their thoughts on the matter, since like the big boxes, they stand to be hurt financially, and I actually WANT them to make a profit and continue to feed my plant-buying habit.

Here’s how important these pesticides are to them: They sell lots of those blue and green bottles, especially the bizarrely named “Rose and Flower Care” – sounds harmless, doesn’t it?  And almost all growers, I’m told, use these pesticides. Here’s why, via email from a perennial buyer.

Virtually all ornamental plants we sell are treated with them at one time or another. That’s why they are the most popular pesticides on the planet: They work. They have low mammalian toxicity. They came on the market at the same time that many of the other long-term pesticides were coming off due to environmental and health concerns. They replaced diazinon in grub treatment for example.

He went on to predict that the since “the EPA has banned just about everything over the years, I have no reason to think that they won’t act properly on this issue.”

And what are the alternatives to neonics?  Not a lot:  hort oils, pepper spray, Neem and pyrethrins, to which there is wide resistance.

Even without EPA action, retailers with a conscience could just stop selling neonics, right?  Just like the good ones refused to sell Impatiens this season (due to downy mildew) – and took a huge hit because customers got right back in their cars and drove to Home Depot to get their sickly annuals.  No doubt that would happen again if small retailers took these super-effective pesticides off their shelves.

And what if the small retailers tell their growers to stop using neonics?  One wrote to tell me that:

We’ve contacted most of the growers we buy from to ask about their spray programs and to find out whether they are aware of recent reports about neonics, or how widely publicized they are. I spoke to one grower who said they would quit using neonics (which they use sparingly, in rotation with other controls) immediately if they thought that we, the garden centers, and our customers would buy plants with “pests” and occasional, visible insect damage. I hope to see a lot of education from the garden media, and anyone who has the eyes and ears of the public about the fact that we will have to adjust our notions about all insects being pests. We need to accept that if we want to save the bees and butterflies, we’re going to have to live with some aphids too.

There are several growers who were proud to say they didn’t treat with neonics, so I’d like to see some education among the growers, who will have to implement new methods to address all of our concerns. I have great respect for the people who are growing our plants, and I hope the public understands they are farmers, with much at stake on their crops and methods.

Another retailer agreed that “Growers will do what their customers want them to do. Do we think the main players in the horticultural world, which is the mass merchants and their suppliers are willing to do this? Not yet.”

One garden center owner suggests better labeling and education about the proper use of neonics:

The use of neonicotinoids on plants that are visited by pollinators is inappropriate, and nursery professionals should advise their customers of that — regardless of what the product label might say. If we want to retain these products for appropriate uses, we will need to stop using them in ways that harm beneficial insects. They have become among the most widely used pesticides in agriculture and horticulture, and in many cases they are unnecessary and clearly have unintended, undesirable consequences. We as an industry need to support reasonable re-regulation and re-labeling of neonicotinoids and discourage their inappropriate use by our customers.

Solutions, please

From what I read, the EPA absolutely should act faster to ban neonicotinoids because the science is clear.  But until they do, we should put pressure on the huge retailers with oversized clout to stop selling these products now, and tell their growers to stop using them, too.  Then the local garden centers can follow without digging their own graves.  That’s my take, anyway.  Yours?

Sources, and for more reading: Chemistry World, Mother Jones, the Center for Food Safety,  and Minnesota Public Radio’s report that plants for bee habitat may be killing bees.

Bee image courtesy Shutterstock.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on December 12, 2013 at 5:14 pm, in the category Gardening on the Planet.

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  1. admin

    27th September 2016 at 9:01 am

    I think there are larger, deeper issues here (and I am agreeing with you on everything). The deeper issue is that we expect our landscapes to be perfect 24/7 — which is something outdoor living shows on HGTV play / prey on, as well as lawn maintenance companies. Insect damage is a good thing. Yes, fine, there are bad infestations, but my god let the aphids be on the milkweed and the lady bugs will come, and much more. Of course, as we import god knows what new invasive pests come about…. We have a spray first mentality in this country born of post WWII chemicals. Education? Yes. Acceptance of nature? Yes. Living with nature and not being afraid of bees and wasps? Yes yes yes.

  2. skr

    18th November 2016 at 5:46 pm

    The people that are afraid of bees and wasps, and I would include fleas and mosquitos, are not getting rid of them with neonics. They are using persistent broad spectrum insecticides.

  3. Ivette Soler

    24th November 2016 at 6:02 pm

    HOLLA!!! Yes yes yes – a big no to the 24-7 magazine perfect garden (I think images like those published in garden mags do more harm than good in many cases)
    One needs aphids in their garden to attract the ladybugs to keep aphids in check. It isn’t APHIDS that are bad, it is an OVERABUNDANCE of aphids that are bad! The balance is important or the beneficials won’t thrive.

  4. Chris

    27th November 2016 at 5:13 am

    “It isn’t APHIDS that are bad, it is an OVERABUNDANCE of aphids that are bad!”

  5. skr

    27th November 2016 at 4:07 pm

    If you get rid of the systemics, most people will switch back to topicals. You think the bees survive contact with beta-cyflurin? The ‘organic’ alternatives just suck.

  6. skr

    30th November 2016 at 2:13 am

    oh, and if you saw my garden, you would see it’s not about perfection. I let the aphids go when they show up. However, when I encounter say a citrus with a terrible white fly infestation, that has to be knocked back in order to let the plant recover and defend itself. I’m also not going to wait around for beneficals when one of my rare endangered species gets hit by an infestation.

  7. ET

    30th November 2016 at 9:11 am

    The picture between the pesticides is of a fly, not a bee.

  8. Casa Mariposa

    30th November 2016 at 1:38 pm

    Starting with the big box stores is the wrong approach. They don’t care how many pollinators they kill as long as they’re making a profit. The people who are educated about this issue usually don’t shop there or buy the pesticide laden products, anyway. You need to start small with independent nurseries who have an established consumer base willing to buy “clean” but possibly not picture perfect plants. They become the guinea pigs. Until they become a viable threat or at least an irritant, the big box stores have no motivation to ever change.

  9. Chris

    30th November 2016 at 1:41 pm

    “Educating the sheeple who mindlessly buy these bottles of death has to become part of the dialogue.”

  10. Ivette Soler

    30th November 2016 at 1:50 pm

    I’ve always voiced the need to allow for imperfection on ones plants and in one’s gardens – it is actually where we find the beauty. Count my voice as one of those calling for an end to the use of these poisons. Sorry, but if a plant has an infestation it can’t shake through organic methods, you have planted the wrong plant in the wrong place. Ditch the poison and use design/hort skills instead.

  11. skr

    30th November 2016 at 1:55 pm

    “Sorry, but if a plant has an infestation it can’t shake through organic methods…”

  12. Casa Mariposa

    30th November 2016 at 2:01 pm

    There is no plant so unequivocally special that preventing its death is worth killing hundreds of pollinators. Our choices and their consequences are bigger than ourselves and the priorities of one affect us all. Rationalizing a bad choice doesn’t make it any less bad. It just makes it easier to live with.

  13. skr

    1st December 2016 at 12:59 am

    how exactly does a neonic being used on a plant not in flower kill hundreds of pollinators? How do pollinators get into my screened shadehouse in order to be killed?

  14. Sandra Knauf

    1st December 2016 at 10:22 am

    I agree. If something is so special you feel the need to keep it alive by ultimately poisoning the environment for us all – as we are ALL carbon based life forms and we are all interconnected – we know this, right? . . . Well, I hope you will re-examine those priorities.

  15. skr

    1st December 2016 at 1:44 pm

    yeah, screw those endangered species in favor of an invasive species that produces a product that tastes yummy and sweet.

  16. Heather

    1st December 2016 at 1:53 pm

    Have you ever tried to talk someone out of a ‘bottle of death’? It’s not that easy. As someone who works at an independent garden center, there’s a hefty percentage of our customers who would rather spray first and ask questions later. I’ve had folks remove heirloom roses planted 100 years ago because they “couldn’t deal with it getting destroyed by Japanese beetles every year.” In an area hard hit by emerald ash borer, one of the pesticides licensed for homeowner use is imidicloprid (neonic). The recommendation is to treat your ash for the life of the tree. That’s a lot of imidicloprid out and about. Applied by homeowners. Who believe that if you apply something, more than the recommended dose at the recommended timing, must work better.

  17. skr

    1st December 2016 at 1:57 pm

    Ash is a pretty easy vector to deal with. Just don’t apply neonics to female plants in the spring until after it flowers.

  18. Jim Monroe

    1st December 2016 at 2:04 pm

    Better yet… just stop supporting the big box retailers…

  19. skr

    2nd December 2016 at 12:25 am

    The biggest threat to bees from neonics comes from the use of neonics as a seed treatment in agriculture. This is especially true if the proper sticker isn’t used.

  20. Kathy martin

    2nd December 2016 at 5:37 am

    I can’t imagine that big box workers and customers who walk the isles of these pesticides aren’t being sickened.

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