Bachman’s Is Moving Away From Neonics That Harm Bees

I just want to take a minute to update my recent post, “In Search of Plants That Won’t Harm Bees.” I’ve now had the chance to talk with Bachman’s CEO, Dale Bachman, as well as John Daniels, Bachman’s vice president of production, about how the company is dealing with neonicotinoids (neonics), a class of pesticides that is harming bees.

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As of 2014, while various entities continue to research the role neonicotinoids play in the decline of bees, Bachman’s has decided to take the “precautionary step” of removing all neonicotinoid products for home use from their shelves. That includes imidacloprid, a popular neonicotinoid pesticide used for all sorts of things like rose and lawn care, as well as to protect trees from emerald ash borer. (Of course, homeowners can still buy these products elsewhere and hire professionals who use imidacloprid to treat ash trees.)

They have also stopped using neonics in the production of Bachman’s-grown nursery stock and outdoor plants, which means most of their shrub roses and perennials will be neonic-free along with some annuals. As for plants from other suppliers, they are currently talking with vendors about discontinuing the use of neonics and Dale and John says the outcome may cause them to rethink some of their suppliers. Even as they said that, though, they stressed that the neonics issue is much more complicated than it may seem — a fact that becomes more and more clear to me as I interview people on this topic.

Courtesy of iStock

For example, in many instances neonics and other pesticides are used in compliance with regulations regarding moving plants and the potentially invasive pests they may harbor across state lines. In the case of large-scale suppliers, discontinuing the use of neonics will mean switching to other pesticides that will come with their own problems and consequences. For now, shoppers looking for neonic-free plants at Bachman’s should seek out a salesperson for help locating plants the company has grown since implementing their new policy.

Take a deep breath. Buying plants at places that many of us like to shop is going to take more work and patience than usual if we want to help bees. If you start to feel frustrated about the slow pace of change, remember that we are part of the problem. Gardeners have come to expect perfect plants on store shelves, so every entity in the plant supply chain has done everything in its power to kill every bug and wipe out every disease imaginable to make us happy. Moving away from chemical treatments that harm people, pollinators and the planet will be costly and difficult for those who care enough to do so. And we’re going to need to learn to live with more mites, aphids and other things than we’re used to. Who’s in?

In Search Of Plants That Won’t Harm Bees

In the midst of the worst winter—ever—it’s hard to think about flowers, I know. But this time of year, I normally order a few plants for spring delivery from catalogs and I’m having to spend a lot more time on that than usual because I want to make sure that the flowers I’m ordering aren’t going to kill the bees that visit my gardens. By now you’ve probably heard that many of the pollinator-friendly plants and flowers that we’ve been filling our gardens with over the last few years may actually be harming, and even killing, bees. The culprit, many scientists and researchers believe, are neonicotinoid pesticides. Widely used in lawn fertilizers and on crops and nursery plants, neonicotinoids (commonly called neonics) came on the market in the 1990s and are chemically related to nicotine.

           

Credit: iStock

Marketed as safer for humans than other pesticides, neonics are now thought to be at least in part responsible for declining bee populations all over the world. Let me explain why. Like all systemic pesticides, neonics are absorbed by plants after being applied to the leaves, seeds or even soil. When bees and other pollinators feed on the leaves, flowers and pollen of plants treated with neonics, they ingest a “dose” of the insecticide.

Though the makers of these pesticides contend that the amount ingested by insects, including bees, is not enough to kill them, entomologists who study bees believe otherwise. Neonicotinoids are neuroactive, meaning they block connections in the brain. Over the last several years, studies have shown that even after ingesting small amounts of neonics, bees can become confused to the point of being unable to identify food sources. Some even forget how to find their way back to the hive. Over time, without food from the hive’s forages, colonies starve and collapse.

Credit: iStock

Vera Krischik, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, has been studying the effects of insecticide on bees for several years. She has found that large doses of neonics can kill bees, sometimes moments after they feed on a treated plant. Where are they getting these large doses of neonicotinoid pesticides? Possibly, my garden, I hate to say; or maybe yours, or your neighbor’s. That’s because it is legal to treat ornamental plants with much higher levels of neonicotinoids than are acceptable for use on agricultural crops like corn and soybeans. And because pre-treatment of nursery plants is so common these days, it’s very likely that most of us have brought home some of these plants in the last few years without realizing the harm they could be doing.

 

What Can Gardeners Do?

So what can we do now? Well, that’s going to take a bit of work on our part. Concern over whether neonicotinoids are harming bees is not new, and Krischik is just one of many researchers across the country. and the world, who have spoken out about the problem. As a result, some European countries have restricted or banned some neonicotinoids.

But, as is usually the case, our U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has opted to take a wait-and-see approach and has decided to look at the insecticide as part of a standard registration review. That could take years—years that bees don’t have. Though it is good news that the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Department of Natural Resources seem to have taken the issue more seriously since the start of the year.

Credit: iStock

           

For now, fellow gardeners, help must come from us, so we need to do all we can to keep neonics out of our gardens. That means growing some of our plants ourselves using seeds collected from plants we know to be untreated or purchased from retailers who don’t sell pre-treated seeds such as Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Renee’s Garden Seeds.

           

Shopping for plants will be trickier and in some cases, more expensive. Home Depot and Lowes may offer lower prices on ornamental plants, but so far Home Depot has indicated that they plan to continue selling plants treated with neonics until they can work with suppliers to find an alternative insecticide. I don’t know about Lowes, but I imagine that selling far fewer plants to gardeners who won’t buy anything treated with neonics might speed talks up a bit.  

           

Before buying plants from any seller, ask them whether they use neonics or buy plants treated with them. To help, I made some calls for this article to see how various growers and garden centers are dealing with this issue. Glacial Ridge Growers in Glenwood, Minnesota, sells native plants free of neonics. Bachman’s, Gertens and Menards didn’t return calls before my deadline, so you’ll need to ask them yourselves. Mother Earth Gardens says they don’t sell any flowering, edible or fruiting plants treated with neonics, though they do carry a few non-flowering trees that have been treated with the pesticides.

           

Scott Endres, co-owner of Minneapolis’ Tangletown Gardens, told me that though he can’t guarantee that every single plant they sell is neonic-free, almost every single plant is neonic-free because they grow the majority of them themselves and know exactly how they are produced. When they do buy something they want to carry but don’t grow, he says they buy from reputable growers they trust, so consumers can feel confident buying plants from them. Scott also said that he thinks it’s “awesome” that more and more gardeners are insisting on plants grown “with organic principles that support a sustainable product and the earth.” He believes that people’s awareness is already creating demand that is pushing companies to think more closely about their practices. I couldn’t agree more.

           

Extreme Gardening

Pros weigh in on the best plants and gardening practices for our changing climate. 

Extreme Gardening, that’s the name of the reality TV show someone really ought to make about what it’s like to be a northern gardener. We’re already well known for our ability to cope with short growing seasons while making sensible, hardy plant choices and coping with dreadful-sounding issues like frost heave and snow mold. Now, climate trends indicate that we must add excessive heat, humidity, drought and torrential “rain events” to our list of things to think about before putting trowel to dirt. Surely all of that adds up to enough adversity, struggle and tears to make a successful show, right?

Early summer hail storm knocks over family of plastic pigs—top left.

As you no doubt have noticed, our climate is changing. In January, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2012 was the world’s 10th warmest year since 1880. Closer to home, 2012 was the warmest on record for the United States and the third warmest for Minnesota. But increasing average temperatures are not the only climate trend affecting our region. According to University of Minnesota Climatologist Mark Seeley, the average number of days with a high dew point in also increasing, and we are also experiencing changes in the amount and type of rainfall we get.

Annual precipitation has increased  over the last several decades and is expected to continue to do so. Heavy rain that sometimes leads to flooding is becoming more common. Yet between these events, we are experiencing long periods of drought. Complicating matters further is the rate at which changes are happening, Seeley says. Because it is possible temperatures may rise faster than we, or nature, can adapt.

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Natives vs. Exotics: Which are Better in the Garden?

Who among us has not encountered at least one person (not always a gardener) who wags a judging finger when we admit our gardens include both native and non-native (also called exotic) plants? This natives-only stance is not only annoying, it’s also wrong-headed.

What’s the difference between a native and non-native plant? Plants that are native to North America have evolved and grown over thousands of years in a specific region before European settlement. Non-native or “exotic” plants, on the other hand, have been introduced in one way or another to an area in which they did not naturally grow.

Walk through any garden center, and while you may see a few native plants, what you’ll mostly encounter are exotics that have been bred and cultivated to offer benefits like bigger or longer-lasting blooms, disease resistance, or standout color.

Many gardeners, including me, love non-native plants because of the diversity they bring to the garden. This doesn’t mean we exclude natives, but we do have a mix of plants, and maybe even a preponderance of non-natives at home. As interest in natives has grown in recent years, so has their availability, as well as the debate over which plants are the best choice for home gardens. This debate is more complex than it seems, with some of the arguments breaking down as follows:

  • Native plants are more pest and disease resistant than exotics. This is true in the sense that native plants are better able to withstand attacks from native pests and pathogens. But they don’t fare any better than exotics when faced with terrors like emerald ash borer, Dutch elm disease, Asian longhorned beetle, and white pine blister rust.
  • Native plants are more drought resistant, so they can be grown more sustainably than non-native plants. This is true when natives are planted in places that offer the conditions they need to thrive. If you’ve got the perfect spot for a native prairie garden, by all means, plant one. But plant a native sugar maple in a sandy spot and it won’t be around to enjoy for long, since it needs loamy clay soil.
  • Native plants offer better habitat and sustenance for insects, birds, butterflies, and wildlife. Again, there is truth here. Over time, all of these creatures have adapted to use what native plants offer. This discounts the fact, though, that many non-native species offer the same bounty, cover, and protection. What is truly at issue, some ornithologists say, is whether more and more birds that used to migrate are now sticking around to snack on the offerings of non-native plants when, sadly, some of these plants don’t offer seeds and berries with enough fats and nutrients to sustain birds through the winter. The birds may eat heartily, but it won’t be enough to keep them going through the long, harsh months so they don’t make it until spring.
  • Non-native plants are invasive. People often lump non-native species in with invasive plants that take over landscapes, destroying ecosystems and choking out native plants. In truth, only a small number of non-native species are invasive—think kudzu, which is taking over the south.

Rather than taking sides on this debate, it seems more prudent to accept that both native and non-native plants have characteristics that endear and alienate gardeners. Though it can’t be qualified with research or backed up by studies, one of the best plain-and-simple reasons gardeners include non-natives in their landscapes is because they like them. Gardeners who limit themselves to natives miss out on the benefits of centuries of plant cultivation and innovation. Plants like gardenia, evergreen azaleas, Japanese maples, and Norway spruce are well-behaved, non-native species that look great in the garden and perform well in the right circumstances.

Of course, no gardener should knowingly plant an invasive species. Before adding something new to your garden, check with your local extension service to get a list of plants considered to be invasive in your area. You’ll find a list of extension services here: http://www.nifa.usda.gov/Extension/index.html. If you don’t have an extension service, check the Nature Conservancy’s Web site for detailed information on invasive plants: http://www.nature.org/initiatives/invasivespecies

Butterfly Gardening

I saw my first butterfly of the season the other day. I am but a rookie lepidopterist, so I don’t know what kind it was. All I saw was a streak of black, not nearly enough to be of help when looking it up in my field guide. As it swooped over my brown, sleeping garden, I worried about what in the world it would find to eat in these early days of spring. What was it doing here so soon?

The only thing I’m sure of is that it wasn’t one of our Eastern black swallowtails. It’s wings didn’t have the right yellow spots and blue patches. I say “our” swallowtails because for the last two summers my husband, Mike, and I have tried raising swallowtails on our front porch. We got the idea, or I should say I got the idea and my ever-patient husband went along with it, from a man named Jim.

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