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 a home supply store. 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.