Bee-killing pesticides found in 51 percent of “bee-friendly” plants in garden centers throughout U.S., Canada

Posted June 25, 2014, at 6:16 p.m.
Last modified June 25, 2014, at 6:47 p.m.

Fifty-one percent of plants sold at three major big-box stores across the U.S. and Canada contain a pesticide fatal to the pollinating insect, according to a new study by Friends of the Earth U.S., Pesticide Research Institute and SumOfUS. The study’s results were released Wednesday at a press conference in Portland.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association assisted with conducting the pesticide sampling, the results of which were published in the report Gardeners Beware 2014. The report showed 36 of 71 garden plant samples purchased from top garden retailers — Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Lowes — in 18 cities in the U.S. and Canada contain neonicotinoid, or neonic, pesticides.

Neonic pesticides work systematically throughout the whole plant creating long-lasting prevalence in the plant and exposure of the pesticide to honeybees.

Several flowers in the study contained neonic levels lethal for bees, and researchers assumed comparable concentrations were also present in the flowers’ pollen and nectar.

“The irony there is hard to ignore,” MOFGA deputy director Heather Spalding said. “People are going out [and] growing these plants. There is an awareness of the decline in pollinator and bee populations. People think, ‘[I will] enrich my landscape with plants that will support the health of bees.’ The very plants they are buying are filled with chemicals, killing bees.”

According to the study, bee kills are a visible impact of systemic insecticides. It also states exposure to “levels of neonics that do not cause immediate bee death can still damage colonies.” The immune system is affected, making bees more vulnerable to disease. Neonics affect the bees’ ability to find food and return to the hive by impacting its learning and memory, as well as the bee’s reproduction, reducing queen fertility and brood success.

“This class [of pesticides] is so widespread. It is taken up into every cell of the plant. It is there for life of the plant. It’s not just applied. It’s just there, working all the time, so there are many concerns of the harmful effects that it has — not only harmful to bees but other insects, butterflies and reptiles and birds,” Spalding said.

Research director Lisa Archer, of the food and technology program at Friends of the Earth, said major producers should pay attention.

“Ultimately, this study is a snapshot of the market — it paints a picture. We really hope these companies will see this as a wake-up and see they need to take responsibility for the products on their shelf and take stand,” she said. “There is no reason they shouldn’t take action and begin urging suppliers to look for new alternatives.”

Last year, the European Union banned three of the most widely used neonics based on other studies showing neonics can kill bees outright. BJ’s Wholesale Club announced Wednesday it will require vendors to remove neonics from plants by the end of 2014.

“Clearly if these retailers can do that than the companies here can, too,” said Archer, who cites thousands of grassroots campaigns and a petition signed by half a million people urging Lowes and Home Depot to stop selling neonics, as a driving force behind these changes.

The success of two-thirds of the food crops consumed by humans worldwide every day is reliant on pollinators such as bees.

These pollinators are in decline, according to the report.

“It’s really a matter of basic decency and responsibility — being transparent with customers,” Archer said.

Responsibility is what Peter Beckford of Rebel Hill Farm said he feels of the flowers he has been growing organically for the past 26 years on his Clifton farm. He focuses on plants native to Maine, at least from the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains.

“Everything we’re growing is good for bees and pollinators,” he said. “We’re growing plants that the pollinators have a lot of use for because they are native plants.”

Spalding and Archer suggest buying local, organic plants as an alternative to potentially neonics-ridden plants sold by major suppliers.

Despite Beckford’s efforts to create a habitat for pollinators, the reality of food production is quite different, according to Meghan Gaven, owner of The Honey Exchange.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how we grow food. They don’t realize that we take ten’s of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of hives and move them to a single crop,” she said during a Wednesday press conference in front of her exchange on Stevens Avenue in Portland. “Over a million honeybee hives were moved to California to help with the almond bloom. Each hive has 50,000 bees in it. Because there are 750,000 acres devoted to almonds and when they’re in bloom, you’ve got honeybees there. But when they’re not in bloom, there’s no point in having honeybees there because there’s nothing for them to eat. So you have to move them there and then move them somewhere else,” she said.

Pesticide use in agriculture is highly regulated, according to Tony Jabczak, Maine State Beekeeper at Maine’s Department of Agriculture. Comparatively, homeowner use of pesticides is far more concentrated and left up to the consumer.

Jabczak said he thinks labeling and educating about pesticide use, versus a complete ban, can help combat the use of neonics. More specifically, it may spur more research regarding synergies, which occur when different types of pesticides are mixed together, significantly increasing the pesticide’s toxicity.

“Plant material should be labeled, if nothing else, for consumer protection,” Jabczak said. “We do a good job in training farmers, but the public has access to a lot of materials. You’d be surprised how little common sense is out there. Education is definitely a concern, as far as I’m concerned.”

Jabczak cites the Varroa mite, introduced in the U.S. in 1985, for the decline in bee populations, which he said are rebounding. He said neonics is a complex issue that can be improved upon by more educated consumer choice and more research about synergies.

Last week, President Barack Obama announced a federal strategy to protect pollinators and called on the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the effect of pesticides, including neonics, on bees and other pollinators within 180 days.

Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, and John Conyers, D-Michigan, introduced the “ Saving America’s Pollinators Act” in 2013 and are seeking to suspend the use of neonics on bee-attracting plants.

The bill has bipartisan support and 68 co-sponsors.

BDN reporter Sam Hill contributed to this story.