Home & Garden: Bees, please

Home & Garden: Bees, please

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Getting rid of neonics can help protect star pollinators

Recent numbers indicate that bees are dying off in a season when they should be thriving. Photo by Kyle Anderson.

By Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva

“I’ve had bees for 30 years,” says Steve McDaniel, a master beekeeper and owner of McDaniel Honey Farm in Manchester, Maryland, “And in the last four years, I can’t keep them alive no matter what I do. The trouble is they started selling these pesticides to homeowners. They put these things on flowers that bloom within a mile of the beehive. No one can offer me a reasonable explanation of any other cause for what I’ve been seeing.” McDaniel has lost 50 percent of his hive where he lives in Manchester, and 100 percent at his downtown Baltimore hive since 2012.

Last month, thanks to the hard work and dedication of Maryland scientists, beekeepers, farmers and legislators, as well as public health, food and environmental advocates, the Pollinator Protection Act was passed. Maryland is now the first state to ban the sale of products laced with neonicotinoids to consumers. By 2018, only farmers, veterinarians and certified pesticide applicators will be allowed to use these products in the state. Just what are neonicotinoids? Neonics, as the kids say, are poisons. I suggest you break up with this powerful class of pesticide and never go back into that toxic relationship.

Two of the largest producers of these products are Bayer and Syngenta, whose neonic-coated seeds poison pollen and nectar, as well as waterways and soil. These products are designed to kill pests, but they don’t differentiate between harmful and beneficial ones such as bees. These chemicals, even at very low levels, weaken bees’ immune systems and impair critical brain functions, making them confused and vulnerable to disease and pests.

“Federal regulators and Congress are slow-moving or stuck, unable to take steps to protect the nation’s pollinators,” says Paul Towers, organizing director and policy advocate at Pesticide Action Network. “For the second year in a row, beekeepers have lost more than 40 percent of their bees. What’s more, recent numbers point to the fact that bees are dying off in a season when they should be thriving.

If you’re not a huge fan of the bee, why should this matter to you? Well, if you like to eat food, you should be concerned. Besides gathering nectar to produce honey, bees pollinate agricultural crops, home gardens, orchards and wildlife habitat. As they travel from blossom to blossom in search of nectar, pollen sticks to their furry bodies and is transferred to another flowering blossom, enabling it to swell into a ripened fruit. It’s estimated that about one-third of the human diet is derived from insect-pollinated plants, and three-quarters of all plants on the planet depend on insects or animals for pollination.

The good news?

The Environmental Protection Agency launched a review to determine if several varieties of the insecticide have contributed to the collapse of bee colonies. Its findings are due in 2018. It’s pretty much a no-brainer, but OK, let them go on and do their slowpoke research while we all continue to massacre the bees. Do you have any idea how long it takes for a person to spread pollen by hand, going from flower to flower, with a tiny paintbrush like they do in parts of China, because of pollinator decline? Our smart devices have taken away every last ounce of patience we ever had! (Note to self: Invent a hand-pollinating-paintbrush-for-plants app, tomorrow.)

Locally, California is working on creating a new pollinator protection plan. Bay Area communities are taking action to better protect pollinators already. The City of Sacramento, for example, passed a new policy in March that ensures that all seeds and plants they purchase and plant on city property can’t be pre-treated with neonics. And many local nurseries now have signs at the front door promising that they will not be selling plants with neonics.

This spring, Senators Mark Leno and Ben Allen introduced legislation that would protect pollinators against toxic pesticides. Senate Bill 1282 would inform retail consumers about plants and seeds that have been treated with neonicotinoid pesticides and would make the chemicals available for use only by trained professionals.

“Science suggests that neonicotinoid pesticides exacerbate other challenges bees face; while several factors are at play, these insecticides are not only a final straw for many bees, they are something policymakers can—and must—do something about,” Towers says. “And California state and local officials can lead the way.”

What can you do? First, go to your shed and take all of your nasty garden chemicals and drop them off at your community hazardous waste disposal facility. Enough with the poisons, bro! I promise, you can grow flowers and food with compost and mulch only. I have teenagers gardening at two high school gardens without any chemical fertilizer or pesticides. If they can do it, you can, too.

Some tips from UC Berkeley soil scientist Stephen Andrews, aka the Dirt Dude

-Plant attractive native California plants rather than ornamentals and exotics. For a list of bee-friendly plants, visit the Urban Bee Lab website: Helpabee.org.

-Maintain a mulch-free zone of 6-12 inches around the base of plants. This will enable ground-dwelling bees to construct a nest in proximity to plants being pollinated.

-Maintain patches thinly top-dressed with less than 1 inch of compost. This will provide a habitat opportunity for some digging bees while also offering some of the benefits associated with mulch.

-Remove all evidence of “Black Plastic Insanity”—aka, plastic mulch (of any color). Plastic is not only detrimental to digging bees, it also suffocates soil. Think about it: How long would you survive if shrink-wrapped? Get rid of the stuff! Let the soil breathe. It does, you know.

-Find Bee Smart California on Facebook and “like” them! Read their updates on Senate Bill 1282.

Neonics hide in these popular brands:

Aloft, Arena, Atera, Caravan, Dino, Flower, Rose & Shrub Care, Gaucho, Grub-No-More, Hawk, Imicide, Imigold, Lada, Mallet, Nuprid, Premise, Safari, Sagacity, Tandem, Termprid, Triple Crown Insecticide, Tristart, Xytect.

Dangerous ingredients to look out for in products: ACETAMIPRID, CLOTHIANIDIN, DINOTEFURAN, IMIDACLOPRID and THIAMETHOXAM.

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