The Unrealistic Concern About Neonics and Horticultural Plants

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Robert Pavlis

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.

neonics and pollinators

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.

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis


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.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

15 thoughts on “The Unrealistic Concern About Neonics and Horticultural Plants”

    • It fails to provide any details about concentrations. The way in which animals ingest the neonic is also important. This article seems to imply that the deer are eating treated grain that was not properly cleaned up. Sso is this an environmental problem or a case of careless farmers?

  1. I agree with Aaron, it’s sad that pseudoscience is being promoted on a site that claims to be sensible.

    I’m a botanist and no entomologist or chemist I’ve met has anything good to say about pesticides unless they work for a pesticide company, and even most of those I’ve spoken to that do still have a poor opinion of them. Outside of a few cranks, the scientific consensus is that pesticides do more harm than good, as they disturb the biome of the soil and leave land barren and unable to support itself.

    I would be interested in knowing your research methods, Robert, as it doesn’t match the modern understanding of the subject and I’m wondering if you’ve fallen prey to confirmation bias.

    • Really? Please provide some research that shows we can produce the same amount of food as we do today without any pesticides.

      There is no pseudoscience promoted here. If you really believe that, provide a clear quote of what you think is incorrect, and then provide the scientific proof.

  2. I have just discovered your blog, and I enjoy the discussions on certain home gardening myths. I have qualified agreement about your analysis of how critical bees are currently to our food crops, as long as you are analyzing calories vs. balanced nutritional foods. If you look at the numbers for food species , for example looking at each type of plant, I would strongly suspect there are many more vegetables and fruits species consumed by humans than by grain varieties.

    To settle the issue of neonicitinoids, the simplistic answer is to analyse residue in dead bees and then compare mortality rates. The first study cited below did that for bees around commercial corn fields. As corn is not a nectar source I would have guessed that there was a small but larger amount of neonicitinoid contamination in the dead bees near the treated corn simply due to scale. Instead the amount was significant. I’ve included additional cites about direct measurement of neonicitinoids being present in amounts directly from colonies in concentrations that are problematic for healthy bee colonies.

    From a quick skimming of the 66 page report from the NIH et al, The researchers also explain the mechanism they believe this may be caused by, as the earlier the exposure the more significant the effect may be on later development. As an isolated stressor this may have had a small effect, but adding in mites, diseases, etc. it can provide a tipping point. IMHO it would be hard to design a more thorough guaranteed system to spread increasingly resistant and virulent developments in pathogens and parasites than the current one where bees from every part of the country are brought together for several months each spring and then sent back out to every part of the country. Add all of this together and you end up with massive die offs, i.e. Colony Collapse Disorder which is a directly observable phenomena. Here’s another cite as to how this may well be undersampled.

    Every time you eliminate a level of resiliancy in a population, that population becomes more vulnerable. I disagree with your conclusion, especially as with agribusiness and regulatory capture in the US, any attempt to institute nuanced common sense regulations meets with failure as it is abused to avoid regulation totally. I’m not particularly fond of the other extreme in the EU, but those appear to be the only two models in actual practice. I used to work in aviation safety, where maybe equates to unacceptable.

  3. What is your reference for the statement “the population of honey bees in Canada, USA and Europe has been climbing for the last 20 years” and can you comment on the decline or lack thereof of honey bee populations prior to 20 years ago?

  4. I can see that purchased plants sprayed with neonics are completely harmless for the reasons you state
    It might be more serious for the bees in the actual nurseries where the spraying takes place – though I think this much over-rated as a serious danger to bees.
    More of a challenge are questions about when huge areas of farm crops are the sole source of pollen for local hives.I am on the fence about banning this use but am very aware that they might be replaced by something much worse

    • I would be in favor of banning neonics if at the same time they would also ban any other chemical that is equal to or worse for the environment, than neonics. I suspect governments understand the harm this would do to agriculture, and would not take this step.

      But if banning leads to use of worse chemicals, we accomplish nothing.

  5. Extremely disappointing to see misinformation like this making the rounds in a site titled “GardenMyths”. I would expect the science and evidence based debunking of myths, not the propagation of more myths and fake news… All of your links to supporting documentation are self-referencing (utterly anti-scientific) and in one case lead to some Facebook page that falsely claims to focus on science based gardening. You make so many wild claims that seem like “common sense” but are actually completely unsupported opinions.

    • WOW – “all of my links are anti-scientific”! And yet you were unable to provide even one scientific link to support your position.

      Maybe you were reading a different post?

      Link 1 – to a newspaper article – I never claimed it to be scientific.
      Link 2 – to another newspaper article of what I wrote – it does not contain links.
      Link 3 – A link to a discussion by scientists about the accuracy of how much food is pollinated by bees. They all agree the numbers reported are very exaggerated.
      Link 4 – a link to another post discussion some scientific research about bee hotels.

      There is NO link to a Facebook page!


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