Home Gardeners Beware: Tests Reveal Many Garden Plants Are Treated with Bee-Killing Pesticides

Story at-a-glance

A first-of-its-kind pilot study reveals that more than half of garden plants attractive to bees sold at Home Depot and Lowe’s have been pre-treated with pesticides that could in fact be lethal to the bees

50,000 bumblebees were recently found dead in a parking lot in Portland, Oregon. The pesticide dinotefuran, a so-called neonicotinoid, was found to have been applied to nearby trees

Last winter, beekeepers across the US reported losing anywhere from 40 percent to 90 percent of their hives, and many of the 6,000 almond orchard owners in California could not find enough bees to pollinate their almond trees this year

There are about 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of food globally and, of these, 71 are pollinated by bees. In the US alone, a full one-third of the food supply depends on pollination from bees

There are about 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of food globally and, of these, 71 are pollinated by bees. In the US alone, a full one-third of the food supply depends on pollination from bees. I mention this to stress the full ramifications of bee die-offs, which continue unabated.

Last winter, beekeepers across the US reported losing anywhere from 40 percent to 90 percent of their hives, and many of the 6,000 almond orchard owners in California could not find enough bees to pollinate their almond trees, at any price, this year.

According to Friends of the Earth,1 50,000 bumblebees were recently found dead in a Target parking lot in Portland, Oregon. The pesticide dinotefuran, a so-called neonicotinoid, was found to have been applied to nearby trees prior to the “massacre.”

In July, tens of millions of dead bees were found on a farm in Ontario, Canada. In this case, the deaths were thought to be linked to the dust coming off neonic-treated corn seeds that were being planted.

A general consensus among beekeepers is that the bee die-offs are most definitely related to toxic chemicals, and nicotine-related compounds called nicotinoids in particular.

Lawsuit Filed and Bill Introduced to Protect Bees…

Nicotinoids were initially introduced as a new form of pesticide in the 1990s, as widespread pest resistance rendered many older pesticides useless. The disappearance of bee colonies began accelerating in the US shortly after the EPA allowed these new pesticides on the market in the mid-2000s.

Today, they are the most widely-used pesticides in the world. In California alone, there are nearly 300 registered neonicotinoid products available. In addition to foliage applications, many seeds are now also pre-treated with neonicotinoids, which are water-soluble and break down slowly in the environment. Virtually all genetically engineered Bt corn crops grown in the US are treated with neonicotinoids.

In May, American beekeepers and environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its failure to protect bees from these toxic pesticides.

France has already banned imidacloprid for use on corn and sunflowers after large losses of bees were reported as a result of exposure to the pesticide. They also rejected Bayer´s application for clothianidin, and other countries, such as Italy, have banned certain neonicotinoids as well.

The European Commission also recent­ly announced it will suspend the use of three neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam) on flowering plants in EU countries as of December 1, 2013. The US, however, has not followed suit… In fact, the EPA has decided to delay action on nicotinoids until 2018!

In July, following the travesty in Oregon, US Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the “Save America’s Pollinators Act” (H.R. 2692).

This bill would suspend the use of neonicotinoids on seeds, soils, and bee-attractive plants until such time that the EPA has reviewed all of the available data. The Oregon Department of Agriculture has already issued a prohibition of cosmetic use of pesticides containing dinotefuran for the remainder of this year, as a precautionary measure.

Tests Tie Bee Die-Offs to Pretreated Plants Sold at Garden Centers

Now, a first-of-its-kind pilot study2, released by Friends of the Earth and its allies, reveals that many homeowners unwittingly contribute to the problem by purchasing so-called “bee friendly” garden plants sold at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and other garden centers —i.e. plants that attract bees—that have been pre-treated with pesticides that could in fact be lethal to the bees.

As it turns out, more than half of the plants tested were found to have these toxic pesticide residues. Contaminated plants included tomatoes, squash, salvia and flowers that would be attractive to pollinators. As reported by Friends of the Earth3:

“The pilot study, co-authored by the Pesticide Research Institute, found that 7 of 13 samples of garden plants purchased at top retailers in Washington D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area and Minneapolis contain neurotoxic pesticides known as neonicotinoids that studies show could harm or kill bees and other pollinators…

‘Our investigation is the first to show that so called ‘bee-friendly’ garden plants contain pesticides that can poison bees, with no warning to gardeners,’ said Lisa Archer, director of the Food and Technology Program at Friends of the Earth. ‘Bees are essential to our food system and they are dying at alarming rates. Neonic pesticides are a key part of the problem we can start to fix right now in our own backyards.’”

What You Can Do to Protect Bees on Your Home Turf

The study makes a number of recommendations for garden retailers, wholesale retailers, home gardeners, as well as cities, counties and states, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Congress. Home gardeners and institutional purchasers such as schools, private companies, and hospitals, for example, can:

  • Plant only neonicotinoid-free plants on your property and around your facilities (e.g. land­scaping around parking lots, grounds and gardens).
  • Let your local nursery manager know that you will only purchase neonicotinoids-free plants, and ask the manager to forward your request to their corporate headquarters, plant growers and suppliers.
  • Ask your landscaping company to avoid all neonico­tinoids and pretreated plants. Also, make sure they are not using the organophosphate pesticide trichlorfon, and avoid using Roundup to control weeds around your home or business.
  • Practice bee-safe pest control:Avoid using pesticides that are toxic to bees in your garden. Read the label and avoid using products that contain ac­etamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam as active ingredients. Instead, use alternative approaches such as providing habitat to attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. Insecticidal soaps or oils and other eco-friendly pest control products can also be used if need be.
  • Check the products you already have, and if they contain any of the nicotinoids mentioned above, please dispose of them properly or take them back to the store where you bought them. The pesticide diazinon (sold under the brand names Diazinon or Spectracide) has been banned from residential use, but there might be some left in your old garden shed, so check for this one as well.

Ecosystem Threatened by ‘Gross Underestimate’ of Toxicity of Neonicotinoids

While the effects of neonicotinoids pose an immediate threat to our food supply by killing bees, they also pose a grave danger to other animals in the food chain. According to recent research by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), one of the leading bird conservation organizations in the US, the use of neonicotinoids in seed treatments is also responsible for the death of birds, terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, and other wildlife.

ABC commissioned the world renowned environmental toxicologist Dr. Pierre Mineau to conduct the research, which resulted in a 100-page report4 titled The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds.” Mineau’s report reviews 200 studies on neonicotinoids, including industry research obtained through the US Freedom of Information Act. The report concludes that neonicotinoids “are lethal to birds and to the aquatic systems on which they depend.” Even more disturbing, contamination levels in both surface and ground water around the world are already beyond the threshold found to kill many aquatic invertebrates. According to this shocking toxicology assessment:

  • A single kernel of corn treated with this type of pesticide can kill a songbird
  • A single grain of wheat or canola treated with the neonicotinoids Imidacloprid can be fatal to a bird
  • As little as 1/10th of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed per day during egg-laying season can affect a bird’s reproductive capability

In response to these findings, the American Bird Conservancy is calling for a ban on the use of neonicotinoids as seed treatments, and wants all pending applications for neonicotinoid products to be suspended pending an independent review of the products’ effects on other animals besides bees.

As reported by the ABC5:

“It is clear that these chemicals have the potential to affect entire food chains. The environmental persistence of the neonicotinoids, their propensity for runoff and for groundwater infiltration, and their cumulative and largely irreversible mode of action in invertebrates raise significant environmental concerns… The serious risk to bees should not be understated, as one-third of the US diet depends on these insect pollinators. The ABC assessment makes clear, however, that the potential environmental impacts of neonicotinoids go well beyond bees.”

Four Toxic Pesticides Get EPA Advisory Label

Fortunately, there are some signs that the insistent and dire warnings are finally starting to seep through to the EPA. On August 15, the agency issued a press release6 announcing a new advisory label for four of the most widely used neonicotinoids: imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. The advisory label states in bold red letters: “This product can kill bees and other insect pollinators.” The labels also provide information on exposure routes and spray drift precautions. According to the press release:

“In an ongoing effort to protect bees and other pollinators, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed new pesticide labels that prohibit use of some neonicotinoid pesticide products where bees are present. ‘Multiple factors play a role in bee colony declines, including pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency is taking action to protect bees from pesticide exposure and these label changes will further our efforts,’ said Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.”

Take Action NOW to Help Save the Bees, and Our Food Supply

Pesticides have a dramatic impact on the health of our ecosystem. Neonicotinoids kill insects by attacking their nervous systems, and these pesticides are known to get into pollen and nectar, thereby posing a grave hazard to beneficial insects such as bees. Truly, the stakes couldn’t be any higher, with at least one-third of the US food supply being dependent on these pollinators.

While many pesticides may contribute to the problem, neonicotinoids have been implicated as one of the primary culprits in the mass die-off of bees, and have subsequently been banned in some countries. The United States, however, is not among them. We absolutely need to press Congress and the EPA to get their act together… As stated by Nichelle Harriott, staff scientist at Beyond Pesticides7:

“The bees and beekeepers are telling us they can’t wait until 2018 — and neither can we. Retailers, EPA and Congress need to step up their efforts to protect pollinators.”

Although the EPA has not yet taken action, there is still much that can be done to pro­tect bees across the nation. The report released by Friends of the Earth and its allies shows that more than half of the “bee-friendly” home garden plants found in garden centers like Home Depot and Lowe’s are in fact toxic to bees, yet sold without any warning to gardeners. Please join us in asking the CEOs of Lowe’s and Home Depot, Robert Niblock and Frank Blake, to pull all bee-killing pesticides from their shelves and stop selling neonicotinoid-treated plants.

“Europe has already banned bee-harming pesticides, and top retailers in the U.K. are refusing to sell them. Now Home Depot’s and Lowe’s CEOs need to make the same commitment here,” Friends of the Earth says.

Please, take a moment right now to sign your name to the letter to Home Depot and Lowe’s on Friends of the Earth’s Action page.

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