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‘Do your homework’
Of course, buying plants that attract bees may not be beneficial if the plants themselves are laced with toxic chemicals. A study released last summer by Friends of the Earth-US and co-authored by the Pesticide Research Institute, found that seven of 13 samples of garden plants at some large national retailers in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay area contained neonicotinoids, including plants marketed as “bee-friendly.” That’s why bee advocates urge gardeners to make informed decisions when buying plants.
“Ask first, before you buy, to confirm they’re not using systemic insecticides,” said Holm. “Look at smaller, local growers rather than those who buy from others. Do your homework.” The insecticides are so widely used that avoiding them can be a challenge, particularly when buying trees and shrubs, which have a longer growth cycle before they’re brought to market.
“These insecticides are everywhere; they’re so effective, and so safe for humans,” said Jean-Marc Versolato, production manager of plant health, for Bailey Nurseries. Nonetheless, the wholesale grower recently discontinued spraying foliage with neonicotinoids, although it is still using small amounts of the systemic insecticides in granular form on some tree crops in the field. “Insects can really affect the growth of trees when they’re small,” he said.
Home gardeners who use insecticides are encouraged to avoid neonicotinoids, especially if they’re growing plants that are attractive to bees. “If people want to use perennial natives or heirlooms, they should not use systemic insecticides,” Krischik said. “They’re completely legal, but they’re absorbed by the plant and can end up in the pollen or nectar.”
One local group, Pollinator Revival, has been working with local hardware stores and garden centers, urging them to remove neonicotinoid insecticides from their shelves. “We’ve made quite a lot of progress,” said co-founder Julia Vanatta of Minneapolis. “Our goal is to educate consumers and retailers, get stores to voluntarily remove these products and help retailers with disposal, which is a huge cost. We can’t wait until laws happen. We have to be proactive.”
In the meantime, consumers should read labels and the list of active ingredients when buying insecticides, Vanatta advises. “The brand names change constantly.” (If the active ingredients include imidocloprid, clothandin, thamethoxan, acetamiprid or dinotefuran, the insecticide is considered a neonicotinoid and a potential threat to bees. While active ingredients must be labeled under law, inert ingredients are not always listed, but lumped under “other ingredients”; some of these are also believed to be detrimental to pollinators.
That’s one reason insecticides should be used sparingly and as a last resort, according to some bee advocates. “People have a tendency to put things on plants to prevent problems, rather than wait to treat problems once they occur,” said Vanatta. “We need to be a little less fussy.”
Consumers who are concerned about bees should be prepared to accept some imperfections, such as a few aphids on a plant they purchase, agreed Versolato. “Picture-perfect will be difficult without neonicotinoids.”
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784