Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, October 7, 2013

Is your wildlife friendly garden actually killing the wildlife?

As backyard gardeners we are being encouraged to turn our lawns and ornamental landscape into habitat that supports wildlife. We have all read about the decline of the monarch butterfly populations, colony collapse disorder impacting bees and the plight of many other insects due to habitat loss and insecticide use. And we have answered the call and are pulling up lawns, adding more native and pollinator friendly plants as well as providing food and shelter for local wildlife and ditching the pesticides and insecticides.


??? The Big Question ???

Where are you buying your plants and seeds and do you know who the growers are? A recent study (here) found that plants sold in garden stores and some nurseries have been pre-treated with systemic neonicotinoid insecticides, making them potentially toxic to pollinators. As if the pollinators don't have enough challenges already!


So, what is a Neonicotinoid? 

It is a new class of insecticides introduced in the 1990's that have become the most widely used systemic pesticides in the world. What makes these chemicals popular in insect control products is that they are water soluble and can be applied to the soil. The idea is that they reduce the risk of the insecticide drifting from the target area. They are used against sap-feeding insects such as aphids, certain beetles like white grubs found in lawns, fleas (Advantage & Nitenpyram), wood-boring insects and cockroaches.


 What is all the hype about?

When they first appeared on the market they were lauded for their low toxicity to beneficial insects. However, the more they were used in agriculture it was discovered that the chemicals impacted the bees ability to forage for nectar, learn and remember where flowers are located and impair their ability to find their way back to their nest/hive.


Unlike other pesticides that have been used in the past, neonicotinoids are being applied to seeds before planting crops. Over 140 crop seeds, with almost all corn, soybean, wheat and canola seeds grown in the United States, are pretreated with neonicotinoids. But, neonicotinoids are not only used in agriculture. Seeds and plants sold for home garden use are also being treated. In fact, nursery plants are treated at a much higher application rate than crops and therefore represent a more potent source of exposure to pollinators.


The pesticide is taken up through the plant's vascular system and expressed through the pollen and nectar which pollinators rely on for food. These pesticides can poison pollinators directly and through the water supply which they drink.  Their immune systems can also become compromised which leads to many wildlife diseases. Even more alarming is that the neonicotinoids can persist from one growing season to the next and will continue to exude the pesticide in the pollen and nectar for years after initial treatment. So, while we think we are taking steps in the right direction to support pollinators, are we actually poisoning the very insects we are trying to help? Are we unwittingly buying seeds and plants that have been pretreated with neonicotinoids? And, why are there no warning labels on these plants and seeds?


Could neonicotinoids effect the entire ecosystem?

While this study focused mostly on bees there is potential for these chemicals to effect an entire food chain. The American Bird Conservancy is conducting some research on the impact neonicotinoids has on birds (report). They found that a single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. During egg laying season, digesting 1/10th of a kernel is enough to affect reproduction. In The Netherlands, a study by a leading toxicologist found that neonicotinoids are so widespread in surface water that it is a major factor in the decline of many marsh, meadow and coastal birds in Holland.


What will I do? What will you do?

As a gardener supporting wildlife, I now have one more step in ensuring the health of the birds and pollinators in my garden. I must be ever more vigilant when buying seeds for my vegetable garden or bedding plants. Heck, even birdseed for my feeders. I must know the source of the seeds and plants and whether or not they free of pesticide treatment.

(Note: If you use pesticides in your garden do a sweep of the products you have. Products that contain acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, thiocloprid, thiamethoxam as an active ingredient contain neonicotinoid.)

35 comments:

  1. This is very useful information that every gardener needs to be aware of. It is unfortunate that one has to be so suspicious and constantly vigilant about the suppliers of the products that we buy for our gardens. As one who doesn't use pesticides, I like to think that my garden is safe, but now I have to be aware that the very plants that I bring into the garden may be lethal to wildlife. If that's what it takes, then I just have to step up my vigilance even more.

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    1. This definitely takes things to a whole other level. It is amazing that these chemicals were even approved by the EPA to begin with especially since there were red flags raised by experts during the approval process. It is certainly not responsible!

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  2. I have read both studies in Science a while ago and realized there is nothing that can be done on the treatment of seed and garden plants to date. No warnings are being given as to what seed and plants have been treated, nor since it is approved, does it have to be noted. I think there are measures currently to have at the least a warning on packages at some point. The only recourse appears to be not to buy the neonicotinoid containing products and to do as they did in the UK, get a nationwide ban for a couple of years. Good summury of the reports, Karin.

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    1. I also read that neonicotinoids are currently under review by the EPA. It is particularly pertinent since this class of pesticides won't be reviewed for another 15 years so whatever they decide (approve, restrict, suspend or cancel) will have a lasting impact on the environment. I would venture to guess that if you asked a nursery owner if their plants have been pretreated they wouldn't know. We have to research the wholesalers and that isn't always easy.

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    2. One thing you can do in the U.S. is buy certified organic seeds and seedlings. Organic certification precludes use of pesticides. This will help with vegetable seedlings and fruiting plants, but landscape plants are another issue. I've only seen organic certification applied to edibles, not ornamental plants.

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  3. Thanks, Karin. This is something I wasn't aware of and am so thankful to have the information. I'm going to share this with my gardening friends.

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    1. So glad that it was helpful! Cat, please do spread the word! This is even more reason to support our local native plant sellers and buy organic!

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  4. Oy, another thing to worry about. I guess one option would be to order directly from growers who are environmentally responsible - for example, Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nusery in the Midwest. However, I like to buy from some of the independent garden centers in our area. I doubt if they even know what insecticides were used by the wholesalers they buy from. I think it would make sense to ask, though, that would make the IGCs aware that this is a customer concern.

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    1. Absolutely Jason! I would definitely inquire with your local growers. I like to support local nurseries too. Some great resources in Georgia are our Native Plant Society and State Botanical Garden who hold native plant sales twice a year. I am sure other states have similar organizations/events. Let your voice be heard!

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  5. What about seed corn that goes into bird seed? How can we find out the origins and safety of seed food for birds?

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    1. I don't have an answer yet Sarah but it is definitely a concern! I am going to ask my local bird store if they know if the sunflower seeds (all seeds for that matter) they sell are pretreated before they are grown and harvested to be sold as bird feed. I assume (but one should never assume, right!) that buying from a local seller you will get a better answer. Do you buy your seed from a box store? I will see what I can find out.

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    2. Sarah, I have asked around to some sources that sell bird seed and the answer is that it is unknown if the plant sources are pretreated. Since neonicotinoids are approved by the EPA farmers are allowed to use them. Unless you buy organic bird seed, which is difficult to find at the commercial level, you just don't know if the seed you are buying come from plants that were pretreated. So, bottom line is that it is critical for this class of pesticides to be canceled during the EPA review so we don't continue to harm wildlife.

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  6. You've written a wonderfully informative post, Karin. So frustrating and upsetting, though. I have also been reading a bit about these issues and have been wondering some of the same things. I 'try' to buy plants from local native plant nurseries but there aren't very many of those around. My garden is filled with big box store purchases from many years...as well as local nurseries from all around. This is truly of huge concern to me and I'm sure, anyone who cares at all about wildlife. Just wish it wasn't so difficult to have a safe environment. That seems so 'common sense'...but sadly, common sense isn't real popular these days.

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    1. Jan you said it perfectly...common sense is the missing ingredient! I have been focusing on native plants the past few years but my garden does have some ornamental plants too. I have no way of knowing whether or not they were pretreated as many were installed by the builder. It certainly makes gardening more complicated than it should be!

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  7. Thanks for bringing these to light Karin. When I read the first one, I was so mad. I am trying to find a nursery for annuals that doesn't treat its plants. The study about the birds was very distressing as well. I have been getting organic non-GMO seed from certain suppliers and feel good that I was so diligent.

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    1. It does get the blood pumping doesn't it Donna! You make an excellent point about annuals...the pollinators visit my pots often that are filled with seasonal plants. Well done finding bird seed...are they suppliers you can share here?

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  8. Quite often these pesticides were developed and sold as being the panacea to control unwanted bugs. The side-effects, as you've pointed out so well, can be disastrous.

    I've always bought my seeds (online) at William Dam since their seeds are untreated. William Dam only ships within Canada, however, they recommend Johnny's Seeds for USA gardeners [disclaimer: I have no association with either company in any form other than being a satisfied customer].

    Oh - awesome photos by the way.

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    1. Thanks Rick for the recommendations. Will look into what the US company has to offer.

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  9. Appreciate the rendering-down of the neonicotinoid conversation.

    There's been a lot of discussion about attempts to get these banned over in the UK, and links to studies that have been difficult to struggle through, and since I garden organically... didn't seem particularly relevant.

    Discovering that planting something new could be harming my bees, birds, and butterflies is relevant...

    How many generations does this stuff persist?

    5 years in the soil... is far worse than anything we've been told...

    I'm going to start posting this link... How much of this article can I quote?

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    1. Please spread the word. We need informed shoppers and gardeners out there in order to make a change. Feel free to quote from this post!

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  10. Wow Karin this is a wonderful post, i hope many can read this from the western advance world. At least we don't have that much problem yet here, biodiversity here is favored by our basic practices.

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    1. It is nice to hear that biodiversity is still favored in some parts of the world! Too often people want quick fixes and don't have patients for nature to work out the balances itself.

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  11. It is just crazy that these toxins are not regulated better! I'm quite sure that a lot of the plants we buy from nurseries are treated with various things, but I'm not sure how to avoid it, other than growing plants from seeds obtained from responsible sources. So sad!

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    1. I agree Indie! I am continually astounded by how quickly things get approved for the market before proper research is done and how red flags are completely ignored just for some quick profits. It is irresponsible government!

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  12. It is certainly confusing about what exactly is in the plants and food we buy. Most people seem to think nothing of using chemicals but we need much more awareness around this. Your photos are lovely as usual.

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    1. So true Kelli! Like you we grow organically here but even organic labels are complicated here. We think we are doing well not using insecticides and pesticides and then they throw this at us! Crazy!

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  13. Quite disheartening. I wonder about any and all the plants I have in my garden. Well done Karen, thanks for the research and the sharing of this information.

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    1. It is very upsetting! It really makes buying native plants that much more important and that we really get to know our growers and their sources. More work for the gardener....

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  14. It's so depressing. Your post is great. One of the biggest problems is that people who don't stay informed on these things just buy pretty plants at big box stores and don't think anything about it. It's not their fault--they just don't know. As bloggers, we play a big role in informing our friends and readers, but it's such a monumental task to reach the general public. Hopefully, programs like Bill Moyers' and others will help. This was a good one: Dance of the Honey Bees.

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    1. Thanks for linking the video. It is beautiful to watch the bees fly and dance! I use to see lots of honeybees in my garden and then this year very few. I don't know if there was a hive nearby and it was abandoned/destroyed, but I can't explain the decline. I love seeing all the varieties of bees at my flowers!

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  16. I've heard of those insecticides but didn't realize the scope of their use and effects. :( A very interesting and troubling post. I sincerely hope their use is banned soon.

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    1. Me too! If they are not it will certainly change the ecosystem as we know it.

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  17. Horrifying to think that well meaning gardeners could be unwittingly harming their bees and pollinators! Thank you for the great information!

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  18. I just realized you put this post up. I wrote one very similar last week. Hopefully, we can get the word out and help create a public demand for pesticide-free plants. I'm growing all my plants from seed this year and have been looking for nurseries that are also pesticide free. This is definitely an uphill battle.

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"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

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