By Elizabeth Williams, Maria Roque, Katherine Recatto and Alice Kozdemba
Gardeners, beware—plants marketed as “bee-friendly” may be laced with pesticides that have been proven to harm the buzzing pollinators, according to a recent study.
The study, released by Friends of the Earth U.S. and the Pesticide Research Institute reported that 51 percent of plant samples advertised as “bee-friendly” contained harmful neonicotinoids, or neonic pesticides. The plant samples were purchased at major garden retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart from 18 cities across the U.S. and Canada, including stores in Austin.
The findings of the report fall in line with a study published by the Harvard School of Public Health in May, which linked the pesticides as a possible cause of colony collapse disorder, or CCD.
CCD is the phenomenon of worker bees disappearing from their hives. It has been reported in North America and Western Europe since 2006 after beekeepers were discovering their hives had been mysteriously emptied, with no trace of dead bees to be found.
“People are purchasing these plants with the idea that they want to attract bees and be helpful to bees, and instead they are unknowingly, in some cases, actually poisoning bees.” Luke Metzger, founder and director of Environment Texas
The losses reported in 2006 ranged from 30 to 90 percent of beekeepers’ hives, according to the USDA. While some beekeepers are reporting a bounce-back from CCD in the last year, the causes still remain at large.
“We can use alternatives for these plants, and I think it’s especially concerning because, again, people are purchasing these plants with the idea that they want to attract bees and be helpful to bees, and instead they are unknowingly, in some cases, actually poisoning bees,” said Luke Metzger, founder and director of Environment Texas.
Without the bees’ pollination, foods like apples and onions would never make it to the dinner table. According to the study, approximately two-thirds of food crops rely on commercial pollinators, and more than 140 crops are grown with neonic pesticides, including corn, soy and wheat.
“When that happens to an entire hive, or happens to even hundreds or thousands of hives at one time, that causes a problem because that means that plants don’t get pollinated, fruit doesn’t result, and the entire food system can be compromised,” said Konrad Bouffard, owner of Round Rock Honey, a local beekeeper and honey producer.
Agrochemical businesses like Monsanto Co. and DuPont have said that neonic pesticides, which are used to soak seeds before planting, should not be present in levels that affect bees after the plant has flowered. The companies have cited mite infestations as a cause of dwindling bee populations.
While researchers have also noted habitat loss and disease as possible causes of CCD, neonic pesticides are a direct human intervention that has been proven to negatively affect bee behavior.
“It’s a combination of all these things coming together, and the straw that broke the camel’s back, or the one that stressed the environment to the point of breaking, is the neonicotinoids,” Bouffard said. “If you take out the neonicotinoids, then you don’t have the breaking point anymore.”
When crops are treated with neonics, the chemicals travel and are distributed throughout the entire plant, including areas like pollen and nectar. The pesticides can also be present in soil.
The pesticides are neurotoxins that can change the way bees behave, even when the pesticides are not at lethal levels said Nancy Moran, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Ingestion of these pesticides can also make bees more susceptible to disease and less able to fight off mite infestation.
“Bees have very complicated behavior,” Moran said. “They go to a flower, then they go back to the hive and do this special dance that tells the other bees where the flower is, and if they do the dance wrong because their brains are not working right, then the other bees will not find the flower.”
Neonic pesticides are a direct human intervention that has been proven to negatively affect bee behavior.
Natural diversity provides bees with the healthiest pollinating opportunities.
“We don’t put our bees on the edge of farms, even organic farms,” Bouffard said. “There’s so much seed out there that has been touched by Monsanto and those places.”
In 2013, the European Union banned neonic pesticides until 2015 to see if honeybee populations increase. In the U.S., Congress proposed the Saving America’s Pollinators Act in 2013 and President Barack Obama called on the EPA and other federal agencies to create a strategy that would take steps to protect bee populations.Several states including Minnesota, Oregon, New York, California and New Jersey have also banned certain strains of the neonic pesticides.
Metzger said that the best way to get truly bee-friendly plant options is to talk to the staff of garden stores and let them know that consumers want neonicotinoid-free plants.
“I think that kind of direct consumer pressure, as the stores see the public demand for them to stop using it, they’ll respond to that,” Metzger said.