A few years ago I saw my first posting about the use of neonicotinoides (neonics) on horticultural plants. I knew people were concerned about using this stuff in agriculture, but it was a surprise that it was also a concern on horticultural plants.
Soon after, a study was made that verified neonics were not only used on plants, but that lab testing found trace amounts in plants for sale to consumers. Around the same time, memes were popping up all over the place. The cry was loud, “stop killing pollinators by selling us sprayed plants.
It is spring here, and uninformed people are again sharing the same memes and trying to convince new gardeners of the dangers posed by neonics. But what is the reality here? How much of a danger are these plants? Should you stop buying plants so you don’t poison pollinators. Lets have a look.
Home Depot Tries to Solve Neonic Problem
A few years ago Home Depot (big box store) decided to do something about the problem of spraying horticultural plants with neonics. They announced that in a couple of years all of their products would be neonic free. They even took the time to label and plants that had been sprayed.
The problem with the labeling is that many people stopped buying plants from Home Depot because “their plants had been sprayed”. Instead people bought plants from competitors that were less honest and didn’t label their plants. It is hard to believe that people actually thought only Home Depot sprayed their plants. Don’t they know that all of these big box stores get plants from the same growers? Don’t they know that almost all growers spray if the plant is prone to pests?
No they don’t.
I applaud Home Depot for taking a stance.
The above picture has been circulating for several years on social media, and each time it shows up scores of people want neonics banned from plants.
Major Neonic Problems Found
Last summer, Friends of the Earth Canada (FOE), reported on a major study that looked at this neonic problem, and it was reported in several Canadian newspapers. FOE is an environmental group that set out to show just how bad this problem is. Too bad they ignored their own data when they talked to the media.
They collected plants from three different big box garden centers, in the Ottawa area, and sent samples for testing. You can imagine the story.
“Neonics found on garden center plants are killing pollinators – stop using these plants and save the bees.”
The Truth Behind the Neonic Scare
I decided to check out the facts, and I even reported them in our local newspaper the week after the FOE story broke. This is what I reported.
“Last week a front page article in this paper had the sub-heading, “Neonicotinoid-treated plants, Implicated in bee decline …” It goes on to explain how our horticultural plants are sprayed with neonics, and that if you plant these in your garden you will be killing pollinators. It is unfortunate that such fear-mongering is used to misinform the general public.
It is true that neonics are used by the horticulture industry to protect plants from insect pests and that when you buy such a plant it may contain small residual amounts of the pesticide. It is however not true that these plants pose a significant risk to pollinators.
Friends of the Earth Canada (FOE) tested plant samples from common retailers in Ottawa. Acetamidiprid and clothianidan were not found in any of the 18 samples. Imidacloprid was found in three of the 18 samples.
The FOE news release made it sound as if they found a smoking gun, but in fact:
83% of the plants tested contained no neonics.
The levels found were low, and over time the amount decreases as the plant grows and metabolises the pesticide. Nectar contains only 1/10 as much as leaves; pollen is about the same as leaves. After a few months the levels will be negligible and by year two it is all gone.
Bees arriving in your yard will visit many plants. They won’t just sip nectar and eat pollen from the newly purchased ones, and they don’t eat the leaves. This behavior dilutes any exposure from a particular plant.
Most annuals are not treated with neonicotinoids. Many trees and shrubs are pollinated by wind, not pollinators, and therefore are not an issue. Smaller perennials that don’t flower the first year are also not an issue.
Buying horticultural plants sprayed with neonics is simply not an issue for pollinators. If you are concerned, simply remove the flowers from perennials in the first year.
It would be great if this industry stopped using all neonics but that can cause a big problem. People will not buy plants with lots of holes in the leaves and the industry can’t produce perfect plants without spraying something. When agricultural use of neonics was banned in Europe, farmers resorted to using older technology like organophosphates. These chemicals are far more toxic, but because they have not been sensationalized in social media, people are not concerned about them.”
Some Other Bee Myths
FOE reports on its web site that 66% of our food is produced by pollinators and this is a common number found in social media, but the real number is closer to 10%. Contrary to popular belief, we will not die soon after the extinction of bees.
You have probably heard that we need to protect the dying honey bees, but the reality is that except for a couple of down years, the population of honey bees in Canada, USA and Europe has been climbing for the last 20 years. There is no extinction concern for honey bees.
Native bees are a different story, but the main threat there is loss of habitat. Cities need to stop building on every vacant lot and stop their intensification plans. It is ironic that Guelph, Ontario considers itself to be a “Bee City”, while at the same time stripping away all of their natural habitat.
Guelph even built a “bee hotel” – too bad they didn’t realize that these types of structure do more harm to bees than help them.