Spring Flowers, Buzzing Bees, and Nerve Poisons
As the sun comes out to melt the snow and spring planting mania builds, I wanted to share some information about neonicotinoids. If you’re now scratching your head wondering what a neon-icky-tinoid might be, the simple answer is an inorganic, man-made insecticide with very particular traits that make it unacceptably toxic to honeybees and other pollinators. Break down the long scientific name in digestible bits and you have: “new” (neo), “nicotine” (nicotin), “like” (oid). These chemicals are “new” because they’ve only been around since development in the 1980’s and 1990’s and “nicotine-like” because the mode of action is similar to that of nicotine, which has been used as an insecticide for hundreds of years and is what makes a nightshade plant so deadly. “Why create something new when nicotine is found in nature?”, you might ask. Although nicotine is natural and highly effective as an insecticide, it is extremely toxic to farm and nursery workers who come in contact with it, causing death, neurological damage, and cancers. Neonicotinoids were developed as a safer alternative.
The beauty of neonicotinoids for production nurseries (companies that produce plants for sale by others) is that they allow the low-cost creation of masses of gorgeous plants with nary an insect-induced blemish. How? By making the entire plant from root to tip toxic to insects for a year or more. That’s all insects. Destructive pest species along with honeybees, native pollinators, butterflies, and other beneficials that come into contact with a neonicotinoid-treated plant are poisoned. Exposed insects either die outright or become permanently impaired and die a more lingering death.
Once a plant is treated with a neonicotinoid, the chemical remains resident in the plant tissues and is carried in sap to new tissues as the plant grows. Neonicotinoids can also remain adhered to soil in which a plant is grown, creating a long-lasting reservoir for further contamination. Their persistence in plant tissues and the ease with which they are carried in the sap of a plant are what make neonicotinoids so valued by the agricultural and nursery industries. But, poisonous neonicotinoid-treated plants clearly don’t belong in your pollinator garden. Unfortunately, though, a majority of the plants now offered for use in home gardens have been treated with neonicotinoids. The big home and hardware stores are getting most of the negative publicity, but it doesn’t matter if you shop at a large box store, a big nursery center, and or a small local nursery—neonicotinoids are almost ubiquitous in the nursery industry and chances are the beautiful perennial you pick up to add to your pollinator garden this spring has been treated.
Confusion Runs Rampant
I’ve seen a swirl of confusion in the media and online concerning neonicotinoids as the outcry grows over the USDA’s continued insistence that they are safe and the EPA’s failure to eliminate their use. Just today I received multiple notices from environmental justice organizations that are suing the EPA over the lack of movement around the use of neonicotinoids and the approval of new insecticides, sulfoxaflor and flupyradifurone, which are not neonicotinoids but have many similar characteristics. To help clear up the confusion and make the “systemic insecticide” or “bee-killing pesticide” furor easier to sort out, I’ve put together a little question and answer session for you. It’s my hope that I might arm you with the information you need to confidently add your voice to the outcry. But if you don’t have time for all the details and want a quick overview instead, skip on down to “Just the Highlights” and the game plan for keeping neonicotinoids out of your garden.
A Little Q and A Session on All Things Neonicotinoid
- How do neonicotinoids kill insects?
- They are neurotoxins that cause paralysis and death. At least one of the chemical companies involved in their development and production also developed “nerve gas” for use on humans during both World Wars.
- Are they toxic to humans and other mammals?
- The news is that they are “less toxic” to non-insect organisms like us. The difference in toxicity is linked to how the chemicals move from an animal’s blood to its brain—every organism on Earth may have neonicotinoids in its bloodstream but it’s easier for these chemicals to move from an insect’s blood to its brain. Unfortunately, some pesky studies on mice are showing that once they break down, neonicotinoids can also be lethal to mammals. It’s important to realize that this class of insecticides is new enough that not everything is yet known about the impacts.
- Do neonicotinoids have other environmental impacts?
- Preliminary research says yes! Studies in Europe have shown impacts on aquatic invertebrates of all types and on non-target insects. European research is also suggesting that bird populations are being reduced dramatically due to substantial reductions in the populations of insects that they depend upon for food, especially while raising young. The use of neonicotinoids has been dubbed an “unsustainable agricultural practice” by many.
- How are neonicotinoids applied to plants?
- Every which way imaginable. They are applied to seeds as a seed treatment, are sprayed on foliage, are applied to soil as granules, and are mixed in irrigation water. Once in the plant tissues, neonicotinoids become persistent in the plant and are carried into new tissues as the plant grows.
- Which insects are killed by neonicotinoids?
- Although sucking insects like aphids, mealy bugs, spider mites, and thrips are most commonly targeted for control, I can’t find mention of any insect that is not killed by this class of insecticides. Honeybees are killed outright or become neurologically impaired and not able to find their way back to their hives. Some may also carry the poison back to the hive, causing or contributing to what has been dubbed “hive collapse”. It’s important to note, too, that neonicotinoids don’t spare native pollinators or butterflies.
How do bees make contact with neonicotinoids?
- Through exposure to pollen and nectar (including that which is brought back to the hive); via exposure to dust (either dry insecticide that is released while treated seeds are planted or insecticide that is adhered to airborne soil); and via exposure to guttation (you know…when sap drops form at the edge of a leaf).
- What crops are treated with neonicotinoids?
- Almost all corn and soybean crops, other grain and cereal crops, sunflowers, safflowers, tomatoes, berry bushes—the list goes on and on to include almost every food crop produced plus nursery stock like trees, shrubs, perennials, and bedding plants. This includes…ready for this?…nursery plants that are marketed as “bee-friendly” or are specifically sold to unsuspecting gardens as pollinator or butterfly plants.
- Aren’t all the pesticides gone by the time I buy those new plants for my pollinator garden?
- No! Neonicotinoids have a half-life of 1,000 days. That means it takes 1,000 days for the concentration of a neonicotinoid to reduce by half in the environment. Almost 3 years just to get it to one-half concentration. Even if the store you bought your plants from didn’t apply any neonicotinoids, those that were applied at the production nursery are still contaminating your plant and the soil in its pot. Most manufacturers of neonicotinoids indicate they will remain residual in a plant for at least a year and up to 2 years. Neonicotinoids are readily carried in sap, so they enter new plant tissues quite readily as a plant grows. That means that simply plucking off the existing blooms from a treated plant won’t protect pollinators that visit new blooms…those new blooms will also be toxic. Remember, that the sap of your treated plant and the pollen are also toxic–any insect that comes into contact with the sap or pollen, even indirectly, can be poisoned.
- Are neonicotinoids widely used?
- Neonicotinoids are THE most widely used pesticides in the world and are used to treat approximately one-third of U.S. crops. They also are widely used in the nursery industry, which produces annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees for ornamental purposes. They are especially valued in protecting tender greenhouse-grown plants from sucking insects because they are highly effective and deemed safer for nursery workers.
- If they kill bees, why aren’t neonicotinoids banned?
- Because of the potential economic impact in countries where they are used. Since neonicotinoids are so persistent and become concentrated in all parts of a plant, they don’t need to be applied as frequently and are a “one-chemical kills everything” choice. They also spread into new parts of a plant and the plant grows. That makes for cheap and efficient insect control and reduced costs. The tide is turning a bit, though, in Europe where regulations are being put in place to keep neonicotinoids away from crops that are especially attractive to bees and to ensure that seed coatings are adhered well so they don’t enter the air as dust during planting. In the U.S., the Fish and Wildlife Service is taking the lead by eliminating the use of neonicotinoids in the production of wildlife food crops on the National Wildlife Refuges.
- Glyphosate (that herbicide that starts with “R”) is a neonicotinoid, isn’t it?
- Glyphosate is an herbicide that is sprayed on foliage to kill weed plants and is not at all related to the neonicotinoid class of insecticides. Glyphosate and neonicotinoids are used together in the same fields, though–the one to control weeds and the other to control insects–which causes confusion. Adding to the confusion, Monsanto, which produces glyphosate, does not produce neonicotinoids but treats the GMO soybeans it sells with this class of insecticide.
Just the Highlights
To summarize, neonicotinoids are “new nicotine-like” nerve poisons that make all parts of a plant poisonous, move into new plant tissues as a plant grows, kill all insects with which they come into contact (including pollinators), affect aquatic ecosystems, amphibians, and bird populations, may impact humans and mammals as they break down, and are applied on our food and introduced to our water supplies worldwide. And even though neonicotinoids are known to kill bees and persist in plants and on soil for years, that are no regulations in place preventing sellers from marketing neonicotinoid-treated plants as “bee-friendly”, “attractive to butterflies”, or “great for pollinator gardens”.
Get Your Game Plan Here
Ok, now that I’ve completely freaked you out, here’s a game plan for making your yard neonicotinoid-free.
- Garden Organically
- Remember that organic insecticides can still kill bees, but they generally do not persist on your plants or in the environment for long. They are a better choice if insecticides are needed, but you really need to understand how to use them properly to reduce impacts on pollinators and other non-target insects. If you’re interested in organic gardening, research it! Rodale Press, Storey Publishing, Mother Earth News, and Timber Press are just a few of the trusted outlets where you can find in-depth instruction in organic gardening. Your local Ag Extension Agent can be a great local source of guidance.
- Read Labels
- Don’t buy or apply products that contain:
- Don’t buy or apply products that contain:
- Ask to See the Written Neonicotinoid Policy of Your Nursery
- You’ll want to shop from nurseries that: 1) do not use neonicotinoids themselves; and 2) either grow all their own plants from untreated seed or purchase plants for resale that were growth without neonicotinoids.
- Prairie Moon Nursery, located in Winona, Minnesota, sells plants, seeds, and bare roots online and has a strict neonicotinoid policy that represents what you’re looking for. Read it here. High Country Gardens, located in Colorado, also sells online and has a strong neonicotinoid policy, too.
- Search Out Local Native Plant Nurseries
- Natives to your area are less prone to insect issues to begin with and native plant nurseries commonly adhere to organic growing practices (although you must confirm with each nursery).
- Find native plant nurseries in your state using a directory like the one found on the Plant Native site.
- Plant Seeds!
- It’s much easier to find a wide variety of untreated seed to use in your pollinator garden than it is to locate uncontaminated plants.
- You can find at least a small selection of organic, neonicotinoid-free seed at many of the large seed houses. Look at each seed description to see if it’s marked organic and contact the company with questions.
- Some seed companies make an even bigger commitment to producing and providing organic seed and/or seed that has not been treated with neonicotinoids. You might want to check out companies like Prairie Moon, Seeds of Change, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Botanical Interests, Peaceful Valley, Renee’s Garden, Seed Saver’s Exchange, and Territorial Seed Company. This list is not meant to be exhaustive as I just grabbed my stack of catalogs from trusted sources to create it.
- Download my free guide to creating and maintaining a neonicotinoid-free garden. ( Neonicotinoid Free Gardening Guide (275 downloads) )
Add to the Discussion!
I hope I was able to both clear up any confusion you might have had about neonicotinoids and give you a reasonable approach to creating a pollinator garden that’s free of toxic plants. If you have other insights, ideas, or experience gardening around the neonicotinoid issue, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.