From Big-Box Stores to Organic Boutiques, Bee-Killing Pesticides Are Vanishing From Shelves

Retailers and nurseries are phasing out neonicotinoid products implicated in mass bee die-offs, a new report shows.

(Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr)

Jun 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Plant nurseries across the nation aren’t waiting for federal regulators to move on neonicotinoid pesticides, substances linked to mass die-offs of bees and other important pollinators.

Instead, as the public chorus to “save the bees” has grown from a fluttering to a loud buzz, many have taken the initiative to stop selling products that contain these chemicals.

That’s the finding in a new report from the nonprofit Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Research Institute, which surveyed around 100 retail and wholesale growers across the country to get a “snapshot” of how the nursery and greenhouse industry is responding to growing demand for neonic-free plants.

While only about one-fifth of those surveyed responded, bee expert Tiffany Finck-Haynes at Friends of the Earth said the results were promising.

“What we’re seeing is a shift in policies on how to prevent bug infestations without using bee-harming pesticides,” Finck-Hayes said.

That’s good news for honeybees, insects that pollinates one-third of our food but that beekeepers are having trouble keeping alive.

At Peace Tree Farms in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, owner Lloyd Traven learned how to make a no-pesticide regime work by taking his 60,00-square-foot plant nursery organic.

The classically trained horticulturist says things have changed a lot in 10 years. “When I started out, the mantra was ‘If it moves, kill it,’ ” Traven said. He sprayed everything, including the herb garden, even if no bugs were visible.

“One day, I was watching buyers come in and check out the basil—first thing they did was pull off a leaf and eat it,” Traven said. “I was like, ‘Oh, God, I know where that’s been,’ and that’s what started it originally—nothing to do with pollinators but about people.”

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Traven witnessed firsthand how pesticides became ineffective, leading to the use of potent insecticides and then the rise of pesticide-resistant bugs and diseases.

The remedies? Clean and inspect seeds, plants, and bulbs before they’re planted. If problems appear, fight pests with pests—letting nature do the dirty work to remove attacks on plants.

“It’s like Game of Thrones in the greenhouse,” Traven said. “Inevitably, you’re going to have an explosion of aphids or parasites—something—and the knee-jerk reaction is to spray. But then you’re back at square one. There is a battle out there, and you have to be educated on it.”

Lisa Archer, food and technology director at Friends of the Earth, said the report shows that an industry-wide shift away from bee-harming pesticides is possible if other nurseries and retailers follow the lead of early adopters like Peace Tree Farms.

“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,” Archer said.

Last year, Friends of the Earth reported that 51 percent of garden plants purchased at Lowe’s, The Home Depot, and Walmart across 18 cities contained levels of pesticides that could harm or kill bees.

Since then, big-box garden centers like Home Depot, Lowe's, and Ace Hardware have promised to label pesticide-laden plants for sale in their stores and phase out neonic-containing products from their shelves. As more neonic-free options come out of nurseries, these stores should have more options to buy bee-friendly plants, and make good on their promises.

So, Why Should You Care? Neonicotinoids can be fatal to honeybees, wild bees, and other pollinators. The more that nurseries take neonics out of their pesticide arsenal, and garden stores remove the products from their shelves, the safer our backyards can be for these important little animals. Neonics are found in many common retail products, such as Bayer Power Force multipurpose insect killer, Ortho flower, fruit, and vegetable insect killer, and Scott Rose Pride rose and flower insect killer.

Pesticide use in agriculture makes up the majority of neonicotinoid use nationwide. But statistics out of California show consumer use of neonics for home use, such as landscaping, comprises a substantial portion of nonagricultural use. Last year’s total neonicotinoid insecticide sales came to 591,000 pounds statewide, 227,000 pounds of which was sold for consumer use.