Major Garden Company Is Moving Away From Pesticide Linked to Bee Deaths

Ortho will phase neonicotinoids out of its products by 2021.
(Photo: Smudge 9000/Flickr)
Apr 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The blooms that unfurl across lawns and gardens around the country every spring will be a slightly safer source of nectar and pollen for honeybees and other pollinators in the coming years. On Tuesday, the home-garden supply company Ortho, which is owned by gardening giant Scotts Miracle-Gro, announced that it will remove neonicotinoids—the controversial class of pesticide that some blame on the stark decline in bee populations—from its products. A number of popular products, including Ortho Rose and Flower and Ortho Tree and Shrub, will go neonic-free by next year, and the process will be complete by 2021.

“While agencies in the U.S. are still evaluating the overall impact of neonics on pollinator populations, it’s time for Ortho to move on,” Tim Martin, Ortho’s general manager, told NPR.

“They are a consumer-driven company. They listen a little more to their consumers about what they want to work in their yards and gardens and on their flowers,” said Michele Colopy, program director of the Pollinator Stewardship Council, which is working with Ortho on a customer education program and pushing for clearer labeling standards for potentially harmful pesticides. Both Colopy and Scotts Miracle-Gro call Ohio home, and the council previously worked with Scotts to promote its grant program that helps schools and other organizations establish their own pollinator gardens.

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The same sense of collaboration with conservation and pollinator groups and consumers has been lacking from agricultural chemical companies such as Syngenta and Bayer, which have staunchly defended their neonic products against claims that they are killing bees.

The change to Ortho’s products follows other garden retail victories won by pollinator conservation groups last year, when both Home Depot and Lowe’s said they would stop selling neonic pesticides. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan is reviewing a bill passed by the General Assembly that would put new restrictions on retail sales of products containing neonics.

However, the locus of the problem of pesticides and bees is centered in rural, agricultural parts of the country, where Bayer neonics dominate Ortho neonics. According to a Penn State study published last year, nearly 80 percent of the 2011 corn crop—the rows running across a total of 92.3 million acres—was planted with seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides. But Colopy and others say the comparison is not so simple, because while the scale of pesticide use is far larger on commercial farms, the concentration of applications at home can be far higher. One report published in 2012 by the Xerces Society, a pollinator conservation group, found that the recommended use of home-garden pesticide products was as much as 120 times higher than the approved use of the same chemical in an agricultural setting.

“The pesticide control applicators are looking at ounces per acre” of a neonicotinoid or other chemical, said Colopy, and the application and usage are highly regulated. When the same chemicals are applied on lawns and gardens, it’s with an untrained hand, in an unregulated setting.

While the change to Ortho’s products marks further progress in reducing the amount of potentially pollinator-harming pesticides being used across the country, Colopy noted that “there is no one specific thing” harming bees. She ticked off the cocktail of troubles: systemic pesticides, mites, pathogens, and lack of forage. Fixing the complex problem of pollinator die-offs will take more than limiting one type of pesticide. But in Scotts, Colopy sees a corporate partner to gardeners that “is willing to work with folks, to make changes, to reach out to their customers,” and inform them about how to adjust what they’re doing and to protect their crops from pests.