Winter is the time for cool-season annuals in Florida, and so last week found me hard at work in my gardens, planting pansies, violas, and more. As I removed the nursery pot tags during planting, I was surprised to find some of my plants had two different tags – the usual tag giving the plant name and growing info, along with the one shown below:
As my tongue stumbled over the word “neonicotinoid” (it’s nee-oh-NICK-uh-ti-noid, by the way), my brain drifted back into the dark recesses to try to recall what I’d heard about this pesticide. As often happens, my memory was a little foggy, and all I could recall off the top of my head was something about neonicotinoids and bees. But what? Once I was done planting and had cleaned off the worst of the dirt, I headed to my computer to do a little research.
First, what are neonicotinoids? Neonicotinoids are a class of broad-spectrum systemic pesticides. Let’s break that down to make it easier to understand.
- Broad-spectrum means the pesticide is used to kill a wide variety of insects. Rather than just targeting one species, a broad-spectrum pesticide kills off or affects many insects that have contact with the plant. It does not differentiate between beneficial insects and actual problem insects.
- Systemic means the pesticide is found throughout the entire plant. It is applied to the soil and is taken in through the roots, or it is applied directly to the seed itself. It then travels through the vascular system and affects leaves, stems, roots, flowers, pollen, and nectar. You cannot rinse off a systemic pesticide as you might a topical one.
Neonics (as they’re often called by professionals) first became popular around 20 years ago. Initially, it was believed that their impact on the ecosystem in general was minimal; they were lauded for killing off pests and improving crop yields without affecting bees and other pollinators, while being considered safe for humans and other mammals by the EPA. As with many pesticides, though, it has taken some time for the effects of neonics to make themselves known. Over the last couple of years, scientists have begun to question the safety of these pesticides, especially as they impact bees.
If you’re a gardener, you’re most likely familiar with Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which is threatening our important pollinator honey bees. CCD is a complex problem, with a multitude of causes that scientists are still working to understand. What is certain is that honey bees pollinate as much as 80% of our food crops, and they are disappearing in large and alarming numbers due to CCD.
In January 2016, the EPA released research indicating that in some situations, honey bees showed serious effects from exposure to neonicotinoids in treated crops. Honey bees may be exposed through nectar and pollen from treated crops, but they can also take in neonics by drinking water emitted by plants during guttation (sweating), or even when collecting honeydew from aphids who have visited treated plants. When honey bees bring too high a percentage of neonics back to the hive, bees are less productive and fewer in number. For a colony hovering on the edge of collapse from other causes, this could be the straw that breaks the bees’ backs.
It’s worth noting that the EPA study only focused on honey bees. Other wild bees, including bumble bees, and pollinators like butterflies were not included, and we are uncertain of the effect neonics may have on them. Certainly some caution is justified, though, as scientists continue their studies and make determinations and recommendations, especially as neonics have expanded their range of uses beyond crops like corn, soybeans, and citrus and into the world of flowering plants intended for use in home gardens.
Which brings us back to my plants and their new tags. Over the last year or so, stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and other “big box” stores began to take action on neonics. Most of them have committed to phasing out plants treated with neonics entirely over the next few years. Some, like Home Depot, have also decided to label any plants treated with neonics in the meantime. These are laudable actions, though the tag itself used by Home Depot seems a little vague – there’s no mention of neonicotinoids and bees anywhere on it. However, visiting the website provided on the tag does provide more detailed information, for those consumers who take the time to go and look.
For now, as the EPA continues to study and make determinations, it’s up to us as consumers to decide how we use neonics in our home gardens. In my case, I was about halfway through installing my new plants before I realized that my ten new violas had been treated with neonics. I decided to go ahead and continue planting, but I’ve been feeling a little uneasy about it ever since. My advice to home gardeners who wish to avoid neonicotinoids, especially those planning a butterfly garden, is to take the time to read the tags while you’re still in the store. If you don’t see any tags or signage, ask a store worker for more information. Our choices today can affect the world around us for years to come.
You can learn a great deal more about neonicotinoids and bees at the links included throughout this post, as well as at the sites below: