You’re probably aware that bees provide pollination essential for the majority of foods we eat. You may also know there are grave concerns about dwindling honeybee populations. Many of us have responded by planting “bee-friendly” gardens to provide more blooms for pollinators. But here’s a shocker. Plants sold by big box stores and garden centers are likely to contain the same systemic neonicotinoid insecticides blamed for killing pollinators. Yes, our gardens are poisoning bees.
A recent study found 54 percent of garden plants available at retailers including Home Depot and Lowes contained neonicotinoids at levels that could harm or kill bees, with no warning labels for consumers. These products are ubiquitous. They’re used to coat seeds, drench soil, and spray on plants. They remain present in the plant, and thus are contained in the nectar and pollen bees collect. After a single application neonicotinoids can persist for months or years, in some plants up to six years. Residue in the soil may be absorbed by other plants. And manufacturer-recommended application rates for homeowners are up to 120 times higher than rates approved for agricultural crops.
Because these potent pesticides are commonly used in commercial crops such as corn and soybeans, you’re probably feeding them to your family as well. Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees with companies producing neonicotinoids (Bayer and Syngenta) that there’s no direct danger to humans. But we need further investigation, since the chemical’s effect on maturing brain cells is similar to nicotine—known to cause adverse effects in children. A 2012 study presented evidence that “…neonicotinoids may affect the developing mammalian nervous system, as is known to occur with nicotine.”
Ironically, a recent review of scientific literature indicates that agricultural use of these chemicals don’t necessarily increase crop yields nor are they cost effective for farmers. The European Union is instituting a partial ban. In the U.S., beekeepers continue to report bee die-offs when treated corn seeds are planted in nearby fields. A survey of U.S. beekeepers, managing nearly 600,000 hives, reports a loss of 45 percent of their colonies over the winter. That’s a 78 percent increase compared to the previous winter. Many beekeepers can’t afford to replace lost colonies and are giving up.
I hope that’s not the case on our little farm. My bee geek family plans to continue as beekeepers, even though it appears most of our colonies have died. Again. So we’re doing what we can to spread information about how everyone can help support a healthier population of bees and other pollinators.
What can you do?
1. Support your local beekeepers by purchasing their products. This is the best way to assure you’re using real honey. Shockingly, studies show that three-quarters of the honey sold in the U.S. by big box stores and grocery chains isn’t really honey.
2. Avoid using pesticides and herbicides. To insure you’re buying seeds, plants, and potting soil free of neonicotinoids— buy organic only. Also avoid products such as lawn and garden treatments that contain neonicotinoids. Here’s a list.
3. Leave wild areas for native pollinators to nest. If you have property, consider designating a portion as a wild area. Leave it unmowed, unweeded, and alone. Even a small area will support a diversity of life and provide you with opportunities to enjoy watching birds, insects, and other creatures. Tended areas can also provide forage. Pollinators need plants in bloom throughout the growing season. Yards with flowers and diverse ground cover support pollinators. Flowering window boxes and pots on apartment balconies are also helpful. And consider asking your local schools, museums, businesses, and city administration to set aside areas for natural growth. Find more information at Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
4. Invite a member of an area beekeeping club to speak at your nature center, educational program, garden club, ecology meeting, or wherever interested people gather in order to increase awareness. Find a beekeeping club here.
5. Contact a local beekeeper if you discover a swarm of honeybees near your home. Hiving a swarm is a community service provided by beekeepers.
6. Consider becoming a beekeeper. Small scale and urban beekeeping is undergoing a renaissance. For information check out The Barefoot Beekeeper by P. J. Chandler as well as the fascinating sites BioBees and Beekeeping Naturally.
7. Limit your intake of non-organic corn and soy. Avoiding it may be harder than you think, as corn and corn syrup is ever-present in most commercial products. And remember, livestock in the U.S. is largely raised on corn and soy as well. Give it a try for the bees. As the bees go, so we go.