Keeping Bees Safer

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Just Say No To Neonics

Bee-apisI love bees. I feel comforted when I hear that gentle buzz as I putter in my garden. I feel grateful when I eat any of the many foods that need bees’ help to be productive. Zucchini, for instance, need about 40 pollinator visits to mature properly. This year, many gardeners noticed that this was a more silent spring than usual. There were plenty of birds about, but bees were in short supply in many parts of the country. I was happy to finally see a few bumble bees making the rounds in May, but disturbed to hear so many others asking “Where are the bees?”.

The bad news is, the bees are going, going…not quite gone. Honeybees are finally making the headlines when they die off in droves, but nobody is counting the death toll for wild colonies or native solitary bees, all of which are awesome pollinators, even more efficient than honeybees. Many possible culprits have been suggested, but a study released in April by the Harvard School of Public Health has finally pinpointed the main element.

NeoNics Can Kill

The study confirms that exposure to several neonicotinoids (imidacloprid and clothianidin) significantly contribute to colony collapse disorder (CCD). Bees exposed to low doses of these common pesticides often abandon their hives in winter and die. Although some studies seemed to indicate that mite infestations could be a contributing factor in hive collapse, this new study shows that hives not exposed to neonicotinoids survived even with the same levels of mites and other pathogens.

For bees, neonicotinoids appear to be the most deadly of the many garden and agricultural toxins used today. As the name suggests, neonicotinoids are synthetic version of nicotine, itself a deadly poison used by gardeners for hundreds of years (smokers take note). The death of a violent husband or inconvenient wife by gardener’s nicotine was a popular theme in early detective fiction, sparked by many a real-life example.

NeoNics Are Everywhere

First synthesized in the 1980s, these neonics are now the most heavily used insecticides on the planet. That’s bad news for bees and also bad news for people who like to eat, since bees pollinate at least a third of our food crops. Neonics are extremely popular because they are effective against a huge range of insects. However, an Italian study released last year revealed that neonics disrupt bees’ immune systems, so viruses that don’t normally kill bees become deadly.

Direct neonic exposure also kills bees, as we all learned last June, when the most massive bee kill in history occurred in a Target store’s parking lot in Oregon. In that case, workers had sprayed blooming ornamental trees with Safari, a common insecticide, to kill off aphids that were dripping sap on customers’ cars. An estimated 50,000 dead bees soon littered the parking lot, wiping out about 300 wild colonies.

Hidden Death

Safari (Dinotefuran) is in the neonicotinoid family, as are a surprising number of other common pesticides. Some are fairly easy to spot, since they are labeled as insecticides. Others are less evident, such as the Bayer Advanced series of treatments for lawns and shrubs, including fertilizer-plus spikes, All-in-one care products, and Protect-and-feed products.

Many Scott’s Green Light products also contain neonics, as do Marathon, Merit, Knockout, Lesco Bandit, Ortho, Safari, Syngenta, and Xytect products. The list of neonic-based pesticides is much longer than this, and you can find a downloadable, updated version at the  website for the Center For Food Safety (see below).

Good News?

Oh, and the good news? Hmmm. Well, the good news is, we can help the bees by NOT using pesticides and planting more flowers. A LOT more flowers. Plant some today!

You’ll find lists and information about common pesticides that contain neonicotinoids here:

Learn more about gardening and landscaping without toxins, and find ways to nurture and support bees and other native pollinators here:

Read the Harvard School of Public Health study at this link:

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