‘Bee-Friendly’ Gardens Are Finally Becoming Safe for Bees

The number of commercially sold plants treated with neonic pesticides has declined significantly since 2013.
(Photo: Brent Lewis/‘The Denver Post’ via Getty Images)
Aug 18, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Whether filled with neatly trimmed hedges and stately roses, towering cages brimming with tomato vines, or a hodgepodge of wildflowers, gardens bring character, beauty, and perhaps something good to eat to towns and cities. In recent years, gardens have come to be seen not only as an idyllic place for the humans who tend to them but as a sanctuary for bees and other pollinators. With colony collapse disorder, disease, pesticides, and other threats to bees becoming both more acute and better understood by the public, bee-friendly gardens are increasingly viewed as part of conservation efforts. The problem is, some of the bee-friendly plants sold by big-box garden-supply retailers have been treated with neonicotinoid pesticides—which some consider to be one of the chief threats to bee health.

Started in 2013, Friends of the Earth’s annual Gardeners Beware report revealed the routine use of neonics on more than half of flowers and other “bee-friendly” plants tested in ’13 and ’14. Now, according to the 2016 report, those numbers have dropped significantly: Just 23 percent of the tested plants had been treated with neonics. Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Research Institute tested plants purchased at Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, True Value, and Walmart in 13 cities across the country.

Not only is the number of plants treated with neonics down, but retailers including Lowe’s and Home Depot have said that they will phase out the pesticides altogether. Many stores label plants that have been treated with neonics, which was not the case in 2013.

“We felt like it’s pretty significant progress overall,” said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, food futures campaigner at Friends of the Earth. It’s likely that the amount of plants treated with neonics will continue to decline: According to the annual state of the industry survey published by Greenhouse Growers, a trade publication, 74 percent of the commercial growers that supply retail outlets said they will move away from the pesticides this year.

“The growers are having to change their practices because Home Depot and Lowe’s”—the two largest garden-supply retailers in the country—“have committed to phasing out the use of neonics on their plants,” Finck-Haynes said.

With their combined market share, Home Depot and Lowe’s moving away from neonics might be enough to bring about a tipping point in the retail market, but Friends of the Earth is still pushing for commitments from Ace and True Value—the third- and fourth-largest garden-supply retailers in the country. “We’ve been sending requests for meetings to Ace and True Value since 2013 and 2014,” Finck-Haynes said, and while both companies have vaguely said that they will follow Home Depot and Lowe’s, Friends of the Earth is seeking solid commitments. (Neither True Value nor Ace responded to a request for comment.)

While the decline of bees and other pollinators is most directly tied to the agriculture industry, which would lose a host of crops if pollinating insects were to disappear, suburban and urban spaces can provide important habitat for bees. From flower-filled gardens to parks to landscaped medians, cities can provide a significant amount of habitat—that is, if those spaces and plants are free of pesticides.

Encouraging retailers to phase out systemic pesticides like neonics, which are present in all parts of the plants—including the pollen and nectar—and educating home gardeners about less toxic ways of dealing with pests is one way to make urban places safe for bees. Progress is being made beyond the consumer marketplace too, according to Finck-Haynes, who noted that more than 30 cities across the country have passed pollinator protection ordinances. Following the release of the Obama administration’s pollinator protection plan last year, “states are really actively thinking about how they can increase their overall pollinator habitat,” she said.

Even if progress has been made in limiting the use of neonics in garden plants, the pesticides are still routinely applied to a host of crops planted across millions of acres of farmland—including on crops where they have been found to be ineffective in combating the targeted pests. The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting an ongoing review of the pesticides’ safety, focusing specifically on the threat posed to honeybees, but the process has been slow, and environmental groups have criticized the early findings.

“It’s important that we continue to hold our retailers, our city governments, our state governments, and our federal government accountable,” said Finck-Haynes, and to “support a sustainable food system and sustainable land management that’s good for bees, good for the environment, and good for everybody.”