The Right Chemistry

5 ways companies are defending bees

Bee on echinacea flower
Businesses are beginning to step up to the challenge, in part by educating consumers about harmful pesticides.

For a growing number of smart businesses, the use of bee-toxic pesticides is on its way out and better, safer practices are on their way in.

As honey bees and other pollinators continue to die off at unsustainable rates — this year beekeepers experienced one of the highest losses on record — a growing number of garden retailers, wholesale nurseries and landscaping companies are removing bee-toxic pesticides from their operations while avoiding regrettable substitutions and adopting healthy practices for bees and the environment. 

Bees are essential to our food system. They’re responsible for one in three bites of food we eat, from apples to avocados to almonds. Without them, our plates would look pretty bleak and the health of our environment would suffer.

Bee-toxic pesticides, including neonicotinoids (also known as neonics), have been identified by a growing body of science as a leading driver of bee decline globally. They are the most widely used insecticides in the world, both in agriculture and around the home. They are toxic to bees, long-lived (lasting for months to years in the environment) and systemic — meaning they move through the plant, including in pollen and nectar consumed by bees, butterflies and other important pollinators. 

These same insecticides have been implicated in widespread negative impacts on a host of other important species, from earthworms, soil microbes and aquatic insects to birds and small mammals. 

Due to a lack of strong federal policy action to restrict the use of neonics, mounting evidence and growing consumer demand, businesses are stepping up to minimize, and in some cases to eliminate completely, the usage of neonics. 

In the past year, due to a campaign by Friends of the Earth and allies, more than 20 wholesale nurseries, landscaping companies and retailers have taken steps to eliminate bee-harming pesticides from their stores, including the two largest home improvement retailers in the world, Home Depot and Lowe’s, along with Whole Foods and BJ’s Wholesale Club.

This trend reinforces a recent finding by Green House Grower magazine, which found 31 percent of the 100 largest greenhouse growers in the industry have completely stopped using neonicotinoids. About 38 percent of these growers have stopped using neonicotinoids on some of their plants.

In the recent report, “Growing bee-friendly garden plants: Profiles in innovation” (PDF), Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Research Institute highlight strategies that growers, retailers and major purchasers across the United States are using to make their plants truly bee-safe. The report provides strategies and resources for other businesses to follow the lead of these industry leaders. 

Here’s a small snapshot detailing how retailers and nurseries are tackling this issue: 

1. Source neonicotinoid free plants

It’s an important first step for retailers and institutions concerned with pollinator health. BJ’s Wholesale Club, a major garden retailer with more than 200 locations in 15 states, put together a comprehensive strategy for eliminating neonicotinoids from its plant supply chain. In its first year of the transition away from neonics, the company will require pre-treated plants to be labeled with a sticker identifying the hazards to pollinators if neonics were applied at any point in growing or propagation. In the second year, BJ’s will require all of its suppliers to provide untreated plants, with only a few exceptions.

2. Make it the rule: Setting strong neonicotinoid use policies

Retailers and nurseries alike are acting to make their commitments to pollinator health official by setting in stone policies to address neonics. These include choosing how to label non-treated plants, separating those from treated plants to avoid pesticide contamination, verifying compliance, publicizing the policy and training employees about the policy and issue. 

3. Educate customers

Educate customers about the store policy in person, with informational handouts, on the company website and through classes. Some retailers, such as Harlequin’s Gardens in Boulder, Colo., hold classes to educate customers and community gardeners on the proper neonic-free pest management strategies.

In these, gardeners learn about acceptable levels of cosmetic damage in plants grown using integrated pest management techniques. A few small pests or discolored leaves are not reason enough to over-apply pesticide — in fact, a certain number of pests are necessary to contribute to healthy garden ecosystems.

This customer education is essential as pesticide products approved for home use have manufacturer-recommended application rates up to 120 times higher than approved for agricultural use. In California, where pesticide use and sales are tracked, consumer use accounted for more than half of the total neonicotinoid use in California. The report demonstrates our backyards can be maintained without the use of these harmful chemicals and this shift can start via customer education about alternatives. 

4. Get some help from natural predators

Some nurseries are employing beneficial insects as a natural defense against threatening pests. There is “no resistance against being eaten,” said Chris Hartun with Desert Canyon Farm, an organic nursery in Colorado.

Carefully introducing insects such as beneficial nematodes, praying mantises or lacewings would allow nature to regulate excessive threats to nursery plants. As Lloyd Traven of Peace Tree Farms, a national expert on biological control in greenhouses, said, “Step away from the sprayers; the biologicals work a lot better.”

5. Prevent pests, and set cultural and physical controls 

Many pest prevention tactics can be adopted to reduce pest pressure and keep populations below threshold levels. These include accepting low levels of pest presence and controlling pest outbreaks when pest levels meet an established threshold; keeping the nursery clean; physically trapping pests using row covers or greenhouse screening; and starting with clean plant material to ensure pests don’t enter the production area when a plant arrives.

It’s also essential for growers to monitor plants’ health status, remove highly infested plants from the growing area, and ensure plants receive the proper amount of irrigation and staff is well versed on different tactics.

Take action

To view a list of garden retailers, wholesale nurseries and landscaping companies that have taken steps to eliminate neonicotinoids, visit this Friends of the Earth page.

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