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Death in disguise?

Marianne Landzettel - 09 June 2014

A US study finds more than half of all bee-friendly plants bought in nurseries to be contaminated with neonicotinoids.

Seedlings'Keep Britain Buzzing' - thanks to campaigns like the one run by the Soil Association the message comes across loud and clear: around one third of our food crops depend on bees and other insects for pollination. And the bees are under threat with more and more beekeepers finding nothing but dead bees in their hives after the winter.

There is no simple answer to what the causes are: varroa mites certainly are one, another is the use of pesticides and a lack of food in areas where monocultures dominate the landscape. Gardeners certainly have taken on the message, many opt for plants labelled 'bee-friendly'. But are they?

Last year, Friends of the Earth US had bee-friendly nursery plants tested for neonicotinoids, a systemic pesticide that shows up in every part of a treated plant, including its pollen and nectar. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that even very small doses of neonicotinoids are harmful to bees.

A recent German study found that bees exposed to neonicotinoids had an impaired sense of direction - they were unable to return to their hives. Friends of the Earth US tested nursery plants in garden centres in the San Francisco area, in the Midwest around Minneapolis and on the East Coast: the results were similar. More than half of the supposedly bee friendly plants contained neonicotinoids.

What about the UK? A two-year EU wide ban of neonicotinoids has come into force in December as a result of the increasing evidence about the problems... so problem solved. Well, not quite. I phoned up Nick Mole from the Pesticide Action Network. Yes, Nick says, the ban includes the use of neonicotinoids both in growing mediums and seed treatments for ornamental plants as well. But, he says, the ban is neither monitored nor enforced. And many shrubs and trees on sale may well have been treated with neonicotinoids before the ban was introduced in December 2013.

Steward Gould, chairman of the Somerton Beekeepers Association is equally concerned about neonicotinoids in supposedly bee-friendly plants. He says a lot of popular species like the bird-of-paradise-plant (strelitzia reginae) are imported from countries where the use of neonicotinoids is not restricted. And he also worries about the half-life of this pesticide: wherever it’s been used remnants can be found in the soil for years. Steward is very concerned that there is already so much neonicotinoid residue (which will be absorbed by the plants) that even after the two-year neonicotinoid ban ends no clear conclusions can be drawn.

As a result the pesticides would go straight back on sale. So what do we do? Do we have to give up on bee-friendly plants because they might actually cause harm to bees? One good option certainly is to only buy from a nursery you know and trust and to ask where the plants come from or whether neonicotinoids were used before the ban came into force. And if you really want to be on the safe buy your plants and seeds from a certified organic nursery or seed producer.

Marianne is a journalist and broadcaster. Agriculture, food, farming and their interconnections are her passion. She's co-written a book on urban agriculture, covering the US, the UK and South Asia. She has worked for the BBC World Service, and has been UK and Ireland correspondent for German public radio (where she started out as a reporter for the farming programme in the 1980s). Marianne is a Riverford veg box addict and doesn't function without coffee. Follow Marianne on twitter...


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Marianne Landzettel
16 June 2014 12:42

The study by Friends of the Earth US found neonicotinoid residues in just over half the plants analyzed. As this was a pilot study the sample was fairly small. But the authors conclude ‘The high percentage of contaminated plants and their neonicotinoid concentrations sug¬gest that this problem is widespread, and that many home gardens have likely become a source of exposure for bees.’ They say more studies are needed. And the same goes for the UK. Unless one buys plants and seeds from a certified organic nursery there is no way of knowing whether seedlings, plants and seeds have been treated with neonicotinoids or not.

N Kumar
14 June 2014 14:15

We need implementable strategies on global scale to protect bees and other pollinators.

N Kumar
14 June 2014 14:12

A world body should look into the problem to make implementable global strategies. To protect bees and other pollinating insects is so important for all of us.

Eileen Wheeler
13 June 2014 17:37

This is a particularly deadly and devious pesticide - it is so difficult to monitor all the plants one buys. I shall certainly question my local nurseries about this.

13 June 2014 15:12

Very disappointed. We have just stocked our newly created garden with all 'bee friendly' plants and now I'm fearful that we may have neonics in some of them. We bought a lot of plants from Frosts - some from Dobbies, I bought a couple of things from the shelf at TESCO, and some others have come from I know not where! We bought wild flower seeds too. What am I supposed to do? I can't afford to rip up the whole garden and start again.

Jane Peters
13 June 2014 14:22

Cavemen were smarter than us. They didn't poison their environment like we do. Everything they ate was organic.

Niall Mansfield
13 June 2014 14:20

"Last year, Friends of the Earth US had bee-friendly nursery plants tested for neonicotinoids". What were the results of the tests?

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