After picking out dead honeybees from a honeycomb frame recently, I pledged to use only plants that are neonic free. Neonics or neonicitonoids have been implicated in recent bee declines as well as other factors, such as loss of habitat and the game changer bee parasite- varroa mite. There are a number of studies that have conflicting findings and beekeepers aren’t convinced that there is a number one cause. See this scientific article at Cornell University and you will be even more unsure what to believe. Neonics have been implicated in being more toxic to bumblebees than honeybees, but that is enough to convince me that we should be limiting the use of neonics in general.
Many gardeners have contacted me who say they are no longer buying plants from regular retail nurseries and seed companies because there is no way to tell if the pollinator-attracting plants they are purchasing have been treated with Neonicotinoids/imidacloprid, etc. As a beekeeper, I am interested in keeping my property free of these systemic pesticides. So, I have compiled a list of companies that do not use neonics. I recently updated and greatly expanded it.
Systemic and Neonics
Neonics or Neonicotinoids are a new class of insecticides chemically related to nicotine. Like nicotine, the neonicotinoids act on certain kinds of receptors in the nerve synapse and are much more toxic to invertebrates, like insects, than they are to mammals, birds and other higher organisms.
Systemic means simply that the insecticide is applied, usually as a seed treatment or soil drench, and permeates the entire plant – roots, stems, leaves, flowers- and most importantly for bees, pollen and nectar.
Legislation to ban neonicotinoid application in nationally protected wildlife refuges was passed under President Barack Obama but was repealed by the Trump Administration in August 2018.
A recent article in Science Daily found that neonic use reduced honeybees ability to self-groom and remove the deadly varroa mites, and summed it up for me-“This study highlights the importance of reducing stressors that bees are exposed to, to reduce the risk of disease and consequently colony mortality.” It is not just one thing that is adversely affecting bees, it is the combination of factors. So, the more things that we can correct, the better!
Plant Nurseries that Don’t use Neonics
A few are wholesale and most are retail; the wholesale ones sell to your local nurseries
Some of the following companies sell both organic and conventional seeds. Make sure you read the seed descriptions.
Adaptive Seeds – OR
Annie’s Annuals – CA
Arrowhead Alpines – WI
Bluestone Perennials – OH
Blue River Hybrids – IA
Botanical Interests – CO
Brushwood Vines – GA
Burpee – PA; sells both conventional as well as certified organic
Dancing Oaks – OR
Dawn’s Wild Things – NY
Digging Dog – CA
EcoTulips – VA
Edible Landscaping – VA
Far Reaches Farm – WA
Fedco – ME
Forest Farm – OR
Fruition Seeds – NY
Grow Organic – CA
Harris Seeds – NY
High Country Gardens – NM/CO
High Mowing Seeds – VT
Horizon Herbs – OR
Hostas Direct – MN
Joy Creek Nursery – OR
Niche Gardens – NC
Peaceful Valley Farm – CA
Prairie Moon Nursery – MN
Prairie Nursery – WI
Renee’s Garden Seeds – CA
Santa Rosa Gardens – FL
Seeds of Change – CA
Select Seeds – CT ,They also sell plants
Streambank Gardens – DE
Terrior Seeds – AZ
The Tasteful Garden – AL
Tripple Brook Farm – MA
Valley View Farms– MD, Read their policy concerning pesticide use at the link provided
Walters Gardens-MI, this is a wholesale nursery that provides a lot of Proven Winners Plants
Xera Plants – OR
Lowe’s garden stores and BJ’s Wholesale Club have agreed to phase out all neonic-treated products on their shelves by 2019. I will be curious to see if they have reached this goal when their spring 2021 plants go on sale. Home Depot has asked its suppliers to label any plants treated with neonics and is 98% free of nenonics. Many local garden stores are doing the same.
Should you boycott nurseries that use neonicotinoids?
No! Many trees, conifers, ornamental grasses, ferns, and other plants provide habitat and tremendous wildlife value. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water! Concentrate on planting Keystone species, ones that have a great role in propping up the entire food web.
The conclusion is that neonics are both good and bad. The application process is relatively safe in comparison to spraying of the old-time organic phosphate chemicals. The old chemicals that were applied were a lot more toxic because they left a residue. The difference with Neonicotinoids is that they are watered in and taken up by the plant roots to permeate the plant internally, all throughout the plant tissues.
For a great article disputing that neonics are causing pollinator problems, go to Financial Post. This article says that “Neonics are a minor issue for bee health and the continued false allegations are pulling resources away from stopping the real threat” and that according to an apiculture scientist there are three top reasons for bee colony death and they are “varroa mites, varroa mites, and varroa mites”. These tiny parasite like ticks suck the blood from bees and they can weaken the entire hive. But the jury is still out and I prefer plants that have not been treated with pesticides-period!
The problem for bees is the pollen that they collect. When plants treated with a neonicotinoid produce flowers and pollen, the pesticide is concentrated within the pollen and bees bring it home to their hive, where even small amounts can affect the health of the bee.
Many nursery owners who use neonics say they take precautions by not applying them when the plant is in bloom. Though growers who use neonics say they take these precautions, the chemical is still carried through the entire plant system-enough to harm honeybees and other pollinators.
Proven Winners states the following: “We are very proud to say that we do not use neonics on liners. And we do not use neonics on any plants we finish for garden centers to sell to gardeners. But that is a small number of plants when compared to the number of liners which leave our 5 facilities in North America. We do sell our liners (young plants) to greenhouse growers, and also to retailers who grow for their own purposes. So the best thing to say is to have the gardener ask about neonic use at the garden center where they are purchasing their plants.” – Jeanine Standard
So, Proven Winners sells a huge number of liner plants to “finishing nurseries” that grow them to be a salable size. You will need to ask about neonic use at the garden center or find the grower who “finished” the plants and find out their neonic use. Often, the container pot has the logo or the name of the nursery that grew it to size and you would know who to ask. But if this is too much trouble, ask at the nursery and they should have the answer to your questions.
Other Plant Sources That Are Usually Safe
Local native plant sales (ask to be 100% sure). Local farmer’s markets (many growers are not organic and so it is important to ask).
Where Can I Find More Information?
So much has been written on this subject and here is some further reading: Xerces Society
It is true that the research on neonics is inconclusive at this time, and I don’t see any major chemical companies or government agencies stepping forward to further the research. Until that time when we decide what the conclusions to the science are, I would be wary of using plants that have been treated with this class of chemicals. The graphic above issued by the EPA is a guide to use.