Pollinators & Plants: Our response to the recent news about bees

New information about neonicotinoid insecticides

Spring 2014

In recent weeks and months, we have seen an increase in media reports and questions from customers about neonicotinoid insecticides and their impact on pollinators and on bees in particular. As will happen, because of information spreading quickly due to the feelings it emotes, what is being communicated contains facts, half-truths, and some sensationalism. When we at Malmborg’s Garden Center and Greenhouses became aware of the discussion and concerns, a search into the truth and science behind the chemicals was needed to best determine our response. As our business is about flowers, vegetables, herbs and more, pollinators and in particular bees, are very important to us and we want to ensure we are not using a chemical that would be detrimental to their long term health.

Malmborg’s has been committed to using any chemical only as labeled for use. One of the changes recommended by EPA is to limit foliar sprays of any insecticide to times of day that minimize risk to bees. Most applications of this chemical for greenhouses, like Malmborg’s, is as a liquid applied to the soil or as a granular that is dissolved when the plant is watered. All insecticides, not just neonicotinoids, can be harmful to bees when they are sprayed when bees are present. That is why these chemicals are used very minimally as a liquid spray and only for targeted areas with high detrimental insect populations. The systemic nature of the chemical allows for the ability of the plant to move the active ingredient throughout the foliage. This is an effective deterrent to insects because most feed on the leaves and flower petals. The bees are interested in the pollen, and most studies have found zero or miniscule levels of chemical in the pollen (Entomology Today)(Forbes 2014). The levels are so low that it is deemed to be insignificant and not detrimental to pollinators. The number is in the area of 0 to 3 parts per billion. One part per billion is equivalent to one second every 32 years (Entomology Today).

Growing plants involves managing many environmental factors, including light, humidity, water, fertilization, diseases, and insects. As part of our plan to control pests on our crops called IPM – integrated pest management-, we attempt to minimize our use of chemicals while considering greatest effectiveness (EPA). The key to the use of these chemicals is to use them as approved by the EPA and labeled by the manufacturer (AmericanHort 7/2013).

The neonicotinoids, first developed in the 1990s, represent a tremendous advancement over older pesticide treatment options (Forbes 2014). When used properly, neonicotinoids effectively control problem insects, while exhibiting less impact on non-target insects (including bees). Their ability to provide residual control means fewer applications and less applicant exposure. We fear that decisions made to restrict or prohibit use of such materials, without scientific merit, will undermine research and development in new and reduced-risk materials going forward. The chemical is based on the nicotine molecule that has been altered so as not to impact human nerve endings but to retain its ability to impact insects. The chemical’s ability to act systemically in the plant means a reduction in the need to spray broadly but allows for target applications and that allows the plant to move the insecticide around. Thus far, all the scientific evidence suggests that when neonicotinoids are used as described on the EPA approved label they are safer for humans, safer for the environment, and safer for non-target insects-including bees (AmericanHort 8/2013).

Research and peer reviewed publications, including those from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strongly contradict the finger-pointing at neonicotinoids. Rather, the research suggests that Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) of managed hives is likely caused by a combination of factors, including the 1987 introduction of the destructive Varroa mite, bee pathogens and the constant stress of transporting hives to new locations by beekeepers (USDA). Fortunately, our native bees do not appear to be impacted by CCD despite dealing with many of the same parasites and pathogens and similar exposure to pesticides. Every February, two out of every three hives in the U.S. are shipped to California for almond bloom, which puts enormous unnatural stress on colonies. Normal colonies have time to rebuild from normal winter death but these traveling hives do not. The USDA and EPA convened a working group in 2012 to address the concerns about bee deaths. Their report, issued in May 2013, concluded that neonicotinoids, while a contributor, were way down the list of possible causes (USDA). They cited the primary drivers were colony management, viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition, genetics and habitat loss. By far the single most detrimental factor and pest is identified as the parasitic Varroa mite. Further research by the USDA affiliated researchers and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences concluded that honeybee deaths (and likely bumblebee deaths as well) stem from the tobacco ringspot virus (TRSV), not from pesticides (The Scientist)(American Society for Microbiology)(The New York Times). It’s long been known that foraging bees pick up the virus; what’s new is that researchers discovered the virus has evolved the ability to infect bees, and it now attacks their nervous systems. TRSV then spreads to other bees by the mites that feed on the bodily fluids of the bees.

Additional analysis of the issue has found that in Australia, where neonicotinoids are used on seeds and in insect control, the bee population is healthy and thriving. The unique factor is that the Varroa mite is not present in Australia (Forbes 2013).

Malmborg’s Greenhouses and Garden Centers will continue to use neonicotinoids as a viable and safe chemical in managing our entire pest management program. We believe that neonicotinoids are a much safer alternative to older chemicals for environment, beneficial insects, our customers, and our workers. We carefully follow label instructions and always work to keep any chemical applications to a minimum. Most of our products are not treated with insecticides, including neonicotinoids, but we do use it as part of our arsenal in our integrated pest management plan. We will continue to follow the data as more research is done by USDA and EPA as well as universities to ensure that we are not endangering our natural pollinators and especially bees.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What plants are neonicotinoids used on in the greenhouse? Primarily hanging baskets and tropical plants, and occasional spot treatments on larger plants.
  • What are neonicotinoids not used on in the greenhouse? We are not using neonicotinoids on vegetables, herbs, or any plant with an open bloom.

Works Cited

Akst, Jef. "The Scientist." The Scientist. N.p., 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

Entine, Jon. "Bee Deaths Reversal: As Evidence Points Away From Neonics As Driver, Pressure Builds To Rethink Ban." ForbesForbes Magazine, 05 Feb. 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

"Frequently Asked Questions." The Knowledge CenterAmericanHort, 29 Sept. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.

"Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Principles." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 9 May 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

"Neonicotinoids Barely Found in Pollen of Seed-treated Plants." Entomology Today. N.p., 6 Feb. 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

"Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health." National Honey Bee Health Stakeholder Conference Steering Committee. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

"Systemic Spread and Propagation of a Plant-Pathogenic Virus in European Honeybees, Apis Mellifera." Systemic Spread and Propagation of a Plant-Pathogenic Virus in European Honeybees, Apis Mellifera. Ed. Anne Vidaver,. American Society for Microbiology, 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

Wines, Michael. "Bee Deaths May Stem From Virus, Study Says." The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.