Bees are in serious trouble. The tiny little pollinators, which save U.S. farmers billions of dollars in pollination services, are dying off by the thousands—a travesty that has led many a home gardener to plant "bee-friendly" plants in his or her yard or garden to provide a refuge for bees, far away from the toxic agricultural pesticides many scientists believe could be playing a role in their die-off.
But a new report, titled Gardeners Beware: Bee-Toxic Pesticides Found in "Bee-Friendly" Plants Sold at Garden Centers Nationwide, from Friends of the Earth US, Pesticide Action Network, and the Pesticide Research Institute finds that home gardens could be poisoning bees just as badly as large farms. The groups bought plants marketed as "bee friendly" at big-box home-improvement stores in the Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Minneapolis metropolitan areas, and found that seven out of 13 tested positive for neonicotinoids, pesticides known to be deadly to bees.
The plants purchased for the report included a number of flowers and vegetables popular among home gardeners who want to attract bees and pollinators to their gardens: tomato and summer squash starts, herbs, pumpkins, gaillardia, daisies, zinnias, and asters. Most samples tested positive for one neonicotinoid but the two gaillardia samples each tested positive for two types of the pesticide.
"The pilot study confirms that many of the plants sold in nurseries and garden stores across the U.S. have been pretreated with systemic neonicotinoid insecticides, making them potentially toxic to pollinators," said Timothy Brown, PhD, of the Pesticide Research Institute, in a statement. "Unfortunately, these pesticides don't break down quickly—they remain in the plants and the soil and can continue to affect pollinators for months to years after the treatment," Brown said.
Agricultural researchers have been sounding the alarm on neonicotinoids for years. The pesticides are systemic, meaning they're absorbed by a plant's roots and then travel into its pollen and nectar, the bees' food. Even if the pesticides exist in levels low enough to not kill bees, the new report states, they can still compromise a bee's immune system, impair its ability to forage, and exacerbate the effects of any other infections or diseases a bee might contract.
Because these pesticides are commonly used on large agricultural fields, they've been fingered as one of a complex set of factors that cause colony collapse disorder, the mysterious phenomenon that has decimated beehives since 2006. Yet, as this report shows, home gardens could be just as toxic to bees as massive monocrop fields, given that many home and garden centers treat plants with systemic pesticides to kill insects.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just announced that the agency has developed new pesticide labels that will sound an alarm on any neonicotinoid pesticide, whether for use in homes or on large farms. The labels state that the use of those pesticides is prohibited anywhere bees are present.
However, it's unlikely those labels will show up on plants. Your best move? Go organic.
• Seek out USDA- certified-organic seeds and plant starts. They're prohibited from being treated with pesticides of any sort. And that goes for flowers as well.
• Evict pesticides. Even though the EPA's new labels will help protect bees, why risk killing any in the first place? The new report lists 55 pesticides sold to consumers that contain active neonicotinoid pesticides toxic to bees. In saving the bees, you'll be saving yourself: The inactive ingredients in pesticide formulations are often more harmful to human health than the active ingredient.
• Plant WILDflowers. Attract and feed wild bees by growing lots of flowering plants from spring though fall, especially native wildflowers, which attract not only bees but also birds and other wildlife that thrive in your local climate.
• Go au natural. Leave a part of your landscape uncultivated. Many native bee species are solitary, rather than social, meaning they don't build hives. Some nest in the ground, others, in shrubby, weedy areas.
• Call your congressman! A bill currently floating through Congress, Saving America's Pollinators Act of 2013, would call for national measures to protect bees, beyond simply labeling pesticides.Tell your local reps to support the act here.