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With Pollinators at Risk, Bee-Friendly Gardening Moving into Mainstream

Report urges nurseries and greenhouses to 'phase out neonics and ensure our backyards and communities are safe havens for bees'

Neonicotinoid insecticides widely used in ornamental plant production remain in the plants at the time of sale and pose a potential source of exposure to toxic pesticides for bees and other pollinators, report says. (Photo: Brian/flickr/cc)

Bee-friendly landscaping and gardening is both necessary and possible—and the movement is growing, according to a new report released Monday by Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Research Institute.

"A growing number of wholesale nurseries, retailers and institutions have successfully made the shift away from bee-harming pesticides, which signals that these essential changes are possible," said Lisa Archer, Food & Technology program director at Friends of the Earth, in a statement. "We hope that this report will be a resource for other responsible businesses as they get toxic, bee-harming pesticides out of their plants, off their shelves and out of the environment as soon as possible."

The report, Growing Bee-Friendly Garden Plants: Profiles In Innovation (pdf), relies on interviews with growers at nurseries and greenhouses across the nation, many of which are taking a proactive, precautionary stance on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides that are toxic to bees and other pollinators.

"[A]lthough nursery and greenhouse use of these insecticides may not be comparable in quantity to agricultural use, it is highly targeted to plants that are grown intentionally for their flowers—plants that are attractive to pollinators," the report explains. "Hence, there are heightened concerns about neonicotinoids in nursery production."

According to the report, "The combination of high toxicity, systemic action and persistence means that the flowers of neonicotinoid-treated plants will remain a source of toxic exposure for bees and other beneficial insects throughout the growing season (for annuals) and for several years (for perennials)."

While a 2014 study by the same two organizations showed that 51 percent of garden plants purchased at Lowe's, Home Depot, and Walmart in 18 cities in the United States and Canada contained neonicotinoid pesticides at levels that could harm or even kill bees, the authors point out that in the face of mounting evidence and growing consumer demand, an increasing number of wholesale nurseries, landscaping companies, and garden retailers are paying attention to the issue and beginning to change their practices in response.

Last week, for example, Ace Hardware, the largest retailer-owned hardware cooperative in the world, announced it is willing to move away from products containing neonicotinoids.

"A growing number of responsible retailers have decided to be part of the solution to the bee crisis and are taking bee-harming pesticides off their shelves," said Archer. "We urge Ace, True Value and other major retailers and institutions to join these leaders in making commitments to phase out neonics and ensure our backyards and communities are safe havens for bees."

In addition to retailers, more than 20 states, cities, counties, universities, and federal agencies have passed measures that minimize or eliminate the use of neonicotinoids including Seattle, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; Boulder, Colo.; Warren County, N.C.; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The report details specific policy options and strategies for businesses wanting to transition away from neonicotinoids, including biological control strategies .

"I use primarily organic sprays in the spring and summer, when pressure is highest and life cycles are shorter, and I have a larger inventory of plants," said Chris Hartung of Desert Canyon Farm in Colorado. "There are so many plants going from seed to sale for that period of time. With organic sprays, they are most effective when used before a problem becomes too big. It’s been my experience that if you’re spraying, you have to do it every week. We use soaps or paraffin-based oils, neem, or Beauveria bassiana. We also release Aphidius wasps to control aphids during the spring season."

First-person stories like Hartung's "provide valuable insights and strategies to growers who are planning for neonicotinoid-free plant production, and can help provide guidance for retailers who are working on developing store policies on neonicotinoid-treated plants," said Rose Radford of the Pesticide Research Institute.

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