A warning about “bee-friendly” plants

When you go to your local gardening center and buy plants for pollinators, what are you really getting? It turns out that these plants may have already been treated with insecticides, including neonicotinoids.

Lindy from the Netherlands recently wrote to me about a pesticide report aired on Dutch television. Researchers there purchased a total of 600 potted plants from garden centers around the country and tested them for pesticides. Out of all the plants, only one—a daffodil—was without any trace of pesticide. The pesticides were found even in plants that were specifically labeled as “bee friendly,” and some of the poisons discovered are specifically forbidden in the Netherlands.

Unfortunately, this problem is not unique. An August 2013 study by Friends of the Earth US found neonicotinoid traces in 54 percent of nursery plants purchased at major garden chains in the US, including Lowes, Home Depot, and Orchard Supply. Neonicotinoids in even minute quantities can have serious sub-lethal effects on bees, even if the poisons don’t kill the bees outright.

According to Alison Gillespie in Hives in the City, Lowes, Home Depot, and Target have been petitioned with 175,000 signatures to stop selling neonicotinoid-treated plants in their stores, but as of December 2013 there was still no response.

Gillespie writes of grappling with this news:

Knowing that insects such as bees or caterpillars might be killed on plants that I purchased which were sprayed with long-lasting neonics brought me to full despair. All of the avenues that I had been using to try to reverse the lack of wildlife food in my urban habitat garden now seemed darkened with sinister possibilities.

Knowing what I do now, I’m sure I have fallen into this trap as well. Some years ago I bought a flowering shrub from Home Depot. I choose it simply because it was covered with bees and certainly appeared to be bee-friendly. Once it was planted, however, I began to see dead bumble bees on it. Not once, but several times during the flowering season. I was perplexed. Oddly, it never occurred to me that the shrub was probably loaded with lethal pesticides. Since I don’t use pesticides, I had eliminated them from consideration. Dense I was.

The take-home message is look for untreated plants. Organically grown plants are available (for a price, of course) at smaller stores and farmers markets, or you can trade seeds and cuttings with like-minded friends. Perhaps you can help your bee club set up a bee-friendly plant exchange or create a list of reliable sources.

Whatever you end up doing, do not be lulled by the colorful displays in the gardening superstores. You never know what lies within.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Honey-bee-on-prunus
Honey bee on cherry laurel. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

mbee
Reply

So glad you are writing about this topic, Rusty! And I second your suggestion to check out sources before buying plants.

The take-away for many people who read or hear about the Friends of the Earth report is that they should avoid buying plants from big box stores. This is misleading. Smaller chains and independently owned nurseries are also selling plants that are toxic to bees. It is not a “big box” problem, but rather an industry wide problem. Last summer I tried to find retailers close to me that either excluded or identified plants that might be toxic to bees. No luck. Matter of fact, several nurseries told me that unless the plants were specifically labeled as organic, I should assume they were toxic.

There is little, if any, financial pressure on big box stores to change their practices when their competitors are also selling treated plants.

Rusty
Reply

mbee,

Thanks so much for this additional information. It is shocking to know how widespread the problem is.

Mark
Reply

This just depresses me. It’s always on my mind when I buy veggie and especially herb plants for the garden but it never occurred to me when I was buying perennials and shrubs. And I just thought of all the flowering annuals I get each year for the bees and hummingbirds!

Rusty
Reply

Mark,

I agree: depressing.

Blaine Nay
Reply

I can see the reasoning behind spraying plants in a nursery or garden center — nobody wants to buy plants that already have bugs on ‘em. Consequently, I have NEVER seen an insect of any kind in a nursery or garden center.

My local nursery wont/can’t tell me whether their plants are treated with systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids. So, the question is, how long is a tree or woody shrub toxic?

Rusty
Reply

Blaine,

That is a really good question. I believe I’ve read shrubs can be toxic for a couple of years, although I don’t remember where I saw that. Does anyone else have info on this?

Alison Gillespie
Reply

Hello Blaine — according to research compiled and reports from the Xerces Society the neonics can last as long as six years, maybe longer, in woody plants. Here’s a quote from the Executive Summary of the report titled Are Neonicotinoids Killing the Bees?: “Neonicotinoids can persist in soil for months or years after a single application. Measurable amounts were found in woody plants up to six years after application.”

I highly recommend both that report, published in 2012 and the report published in 2013 titled “Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Effects of Neonicotinoid Insecticides on Agriculturally Important Beneficial Invertebrates.” Both are full of info and well written, easy to understand and FREE on the Xerces website:

http://www.xerces.org.

I also interviewed Scott Black for more info and published our conversation in my book, as Rusty mentioned, Hives in the City: Keeping Honey Bees Alive in an Urban World. http://www.hivesinthecity.com

Robbie
Reply

I heard some bulbs can be toxic for 4 years or more.

sonia nixon
Reply

We sell organically grown willow collections for bees – these are not treated with any pesticides – the bees that visit our nursery from from March through June are happy and healthy.

Rusty
Reply

Excellent! And I know bees love willows, so that is a great suggestion for people wanting to plant for bees.

Stephanie
Reply

As a first year bee guardian, I did a lot of research and quickly learned not to trust any one, people just don’t care about our bees. Since I haven’t used any pesticides on our property for 14 years I knew that I would only buy heirloom or organic non-gmo seeds. There are sites out there and the prices were not any more than the toxic seeds. Seed savers exchange has excellent quality seeds and a good variety, I also found organic seeds at Lowe’s and Walmart.

Mari Vega
Reply

Stephanie, I just wanted to congratulate you on informing yourself. Also, ‘bee guardian’ is a great title that I will share with others.

Pam, you make a sound suggestion. Getting the question around will increase discussion and awareness, and that’s an important step in getting the change to happen.

Michael
Reply

I plant borage, salvia, zinnia, echinacea, and tithonia from seed for my bees. I also have coneflowers raised from seed indoors and trasplanted outside. These all grow easily in modest to poor soils and are blooming by the time the April bloom fades into May. Not a lot of food, but something – and no pesticides! For your readers with more space – plant clover.

No need to buy flowers. Grow them from seed.

My two cents.

Barbara Blackburn
Reply

We took petitions into Lowe’s and Home Depot for them to stop selling these treated plants. Lowe’s looked at me like I was from outer space. Home Depot told me that their vendors won’t label which plants have been sprayed. They told me they have “no control” over this. I wish we had an independent hardware store in our town otherwise I would stop shopping at either of those stores for any screw or nut that I need.

Luckily I have other sources for non-toxic plants and grow almost all of our own flowers, etc.

Rusty
Reply

Barbara,

Right. I’m sure the stores would suddenly find a way to “control” what they sold if everyone stopped buying from them . . . not that it will ever happen.

Megan
Reply

Rusty, I’ve just ordered some Bee Bee tree (Korean Evodia) seeds. They bloom late in the summer when forage can be scarce. As a small token of appreciation for all the good advice, may I send you some when they arrive?

Rusty
Reply

Megan,

That is so thoughtful! I’ve always wanted to try them and this will be a perfect opportunity. I will e-mail my address. Thank you!

TravisB
Reply

Are seed packets bought at store like home depot treated with neonics? I know they do that with corn and soybeans for farmers, didn’t occur to me that the nurseries would as well. But would they treat the flower seeds? Would seem like that would increase the cost for little effective gain?

Rusty
Reply

Travis,

My guess—and it is just a guess—is that garden seeds are not treated, and largely for the reason you stated. Farmers pay extra for the treated seed because they want their crops to be bug free. But the company retailing garden seeds really doesn’t care if your plants thrive or not. If they germinate, he has basically fulfilled his “promise.” What happens later is your problem.

Also, I don’t know if it is still true, but farm seeds used to be labeled and dyed pink or blue if they were treated. I don’t know if it was done by law or not, but I think it was to prevent accidents like people giving leftover seed to their chickens or grinding it into corn meal. I have seen small packets of seed labeled as being treated (usually fungicide) but I don’t know if it is required or not.

It sure seems strange that treated seeds should be labeled and treated plants not. After all, we touch the plants, kids and pets play around the plants, insects—including beneficials—feed off the plants, we stick our noses in flowers and inhale deeply. It is all very creepy.

Alison Gillespie
Reply

As far as treated garden seeds: I would assume guilty until innocent! Sounds terrible, but true. I now only buy “untreated” organic seed. It is harder to find and it narrows my choices a bit, but eventually I find what I want. Hope that helps. I also now am a regular at seed exchanges. I never used to go to those, but it is great to actually ask the person who grew the seed — hey, do you use any chemicals in your garden? And cheap! This winter I got about two hundred dollars of seeds for FREE at the DC seed exchange, made some new friends, and also had the extreme pleasure of sharing my untreated seeds (which I marked “neonic-free and totally ORGANIC”) with other local gardeners. All of my seeds are now out there in the DC metro area, giving the bees a clean meal, which makes me enormously happy. (Here’s a blog post I wrote about it: http://whereyouareplanted.com/seed-swapping-order-avoid-neonicotinoid-pesticides/.

Pam Phillips
Reply

It is essential to ask your nursery or garden center whether they or their suppliers use systemic insecticides. Even if they can’t answer you immediately, they will hear the question being asked.

I have some lists where you can find untreated seeds and plants for bees, including nurseries and garden centers in the Boston area. Sonia, I’d be pleased to add your willows.

sonia nixon
Reply

Thanks Pam. Michael Dodge at Vermont Willow Nursery (willowsvermont.com) has listed the following willows: Salix acutifolia ‘Blue Streak’, S. alba ‘Raesfield’, S. alba vitellina, S. Xaquatica ‘Gigantea Korso’, S. bebbiana, S. caprea, S. caprea ‘Lemoine’s Improved’, S. caprea ‘Ogon’, S. chaenomeloides, S. chaenomeloides ‘Mt Aso’ , S. daphnoides ‘Continental Purple’ , S. discolor and Salix daphnoides ‘Oxford Violet’ . Are you aware that “Friends of the Earth” are running a campaign to protect bees by pressuring stores like Home Depot to stop selling bee-killing pesticides and plants that have been sprayed with them. They need your support! http://www.foe.org

eriocephala

Xfragilis

Xfragilis ‘Basfordiana’

Xfragilis ‘Frangeels Rood’

Xfragilis ‘Golden Willow’

Xfragilis ‘Hutchinson’s Yellow’

gmelinii

gracilistyla

gracilistyla ‘Melanostachya’

Xhagensis

integra ‘Hakura’

koriyanagi ‘Rubykins’

lucida not available this year
miyabeana

miyabeana Hybrid

myricoides

pentandra ‘Patent Lumley’

petiolaris

purpurea ‘Irette’

schwerinii

Xsepulcralis ‘Chrysocoma’

Xsmithiana

triandra ‘Black Maul’

udensis ‘Sekka’

‘Winter Green’

Chris V
Reply

Hi Rusty,
One particularly nasty insecticide neonicotinoid which is widely used here in Australia is imidicloprid. This is a systemic which is applied by spraying or in pellet form in the substrate around the base of the plant. It’s highly toxic to bees. It is a suspect in CCD and has been found by the European Food Safety Authority to pose an unacceptably high risk to bees. I suspect that a lot of nurseries use the pellet form to protect their big ticket ornamentals. This stuff persists for ages in the soil, and if the plant is kept in a pot I’m sure the concentration taken up by the plant will be higher and the effects longer lasting than if the plant is transplanted into the ground. This might explain your dead bumblebees.

I recently installed a package which was doing really well for about 3 weeks. I went out one day to top up the feeder and noticed dozens of bees writhing around on the ground outside the entrance. It was as though they had been hit with flyspray. There was no robbing going on; all I could do was speculate and observe. I checked the next day and there were dozens more slowly dying bees on the ground, very few foragers coming and going and most disturbingly I saw several bees emerge from the hive to shoot off straight up vertically, spinning around furiously like little Catherine wheels until they disappeared out of sight. By the third day there was a pile of dead bees on the ground and virtually no activity at the entrance. Fearing the worst I opened the hive – but the brood best looked great! I found the queen, who was laying well; there were nurse bees everywhere and the larvae and plentiful capped brood looked fine. Only problem was that there were now no foragers left. I suspect that some of the foragers found a nectar source which had been contaminated with one of these nasty neurotoxic insecticides and then recruited all their sisters to come and partake in the toxic nectar?/pollen?… The foraging population died a horrible, agonising death within 2-3 days of exposure. If only the RSPCA cared about bees.

Fortunately I have another hive and was able to swap their positions around to give the package bees some foragers. I don’t know that they would have pulled through on their own otherwise.

The whole experience made me kind of angry. We can’t control where our bees go to forage, but we can regulate these insidious chemicals. It’s just that the powers that be choose not to, probably due to lobbying by the big chemical companies. I wonder when we as a species will wake up to ourselves.

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

This was the subject of my masters thesis a few years ago, and you are exactly right about how it works. The further problem is that the pollen brought back from the field by those bees that don’t die is stored in the cells and fed to future generations of developing larvae. If it doesn’t kill the larvae outright, it can cause the sublethal effects we keep hearing about, including lowered immune function, lowered cognition, inability to find home, etc. It’s a sad and serious situation. I’m not surprised we have the problem here because the corporate world seems to manage the government, but it’s sad to hear you have similar problems.

Rusty
Reply

Matt,

I agree, but it’s worse than that. Since neonicotinoids are systemic, once the plants are sprayed they can stay lethal to bees for the entire season if they are annuals, and multiple years if they are perennials. So what are we supposed to do? Move the bees permanently? Makes no sense.

Matt
Reply

I know. For the sake of your blog I am keeping what I really am feeling bottled up…I guess this is another victory for someone…other than us.

PermieWriter
Reply

Yet another reminder that buying organic isn’t just about human health.

Definitely agree that the lowest cost option is to plant from seed. That also has the advantage of letting the plant be acclimated to your local conditions from germination on. It’s always disappointing to bring home a plant that was thriving in the nursery to find it just doesn’t work in my yard.

I’m lucky to live in the SF East Bay, where there are excellent nurseries like Spiral Garden and Ploughshares. I’ve seen many a bee go away happy from the plants I’ve bought at both.

Stephanie
Reply

Does anyone know of any resources regarding plants you HAVE purchased from these retailers? I planted my whole garden from Lowe’s and Kroger flowering plants, and now I’m trying to see if there is anything I can do to keep from killing bees (we haven’t had any in our area yet). At first I lamented but now I’m so relieved! I wish I’d have known before I planted. Now I’m worried that my plants will be poisonous for years and that I might have to take them all out and start over!

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