ruthDear Ruth,

I have heard neonicotinoids are bad for bees. What are neonicotinoids and how can I avoid buying plants that have been treated with them?

Asheville, NC

Dear Lucy,

Pollinators are battling Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and a complex mix of issues. Neonicotinoids (a class of insecticides) are just ONE of the issues. It will be impossible to touch on all of the complexities of this topic in this short article.

It’s serious business. About one third of the food WE eat (including foods for meat animals) depends on pollination to occur, and pollinators are in crisis. This issue strikes at the heart of food security for all human beings and most of Earth’s creatures. European honeybees, native bees, butterflies, bats, hummingbirds, flies, and mammals are some of the creatures that aid in pollinating plants. In 2013, the USDA expressed concern that there may not be enough pollinators to support major US crops of blueberries, apples, avocadoes, and more.

The thing is…everything is connected. Pollinators are experiencing pressure on many fronts. Habitat loss is huge – everything from farm field expansion and new developments in our towns, to loss of (weed and border) habitat due to Roundup-ready crops which are diminishing pollinator habitat.  Additionally, parasites and diseases challenge the honeybee’s immune system. And then there is the complicated topic of pesticides, including neonicotinoids. Beyond single insecticides, multiple pesticides and fungicides can add up synergistically, the combination being worse than the individual parts.

flowersBees and most of our pollinators are insects, and insecticides are designed to KILL insects. Harming pollinators is the unintended, but inevitable consequence of pesticide use in agriculture, and in home gardens and landscapes. Wake-up-call for gardeners: according to the Boston Globe, “The average lawn gets up to 10 times as much pesticide per acre as farmland”, so farmers aren’t our only concern. We are talking about our own back yards.

What are neonicotinoids? They are a synthetic (human-made) nicotine-like compound that affects the nervous system of the insect. They have been in use since 1994, and are currently the most widely used insecticides in the world. Organiphosphate  and carbamate compounds have mostly been replaced by neonicotinoids, and neonics ARE safer for mammals. They can be easier to apply and growers/farmworkers may experience less exposure to chemicals.  Most often, they are applied only once per season – as a drench, a spray, seed coating, an injection, or as a powder…rather than multiple white-suit applications. Neonics can be used on food crops and ornamental plants, and in some other non-food/non-plant situations.

So what’s the big deal? All insecticides are designed to kill insects, so what makes neonicotinoids different and potentially more concerning with regard to pollinators and beneficial insects? Neonicotinoids are a family of SYSTEMIC insecticides (including Acetamiprid, Clothianidin, Dinotefuran, Imidacloprid, Thiacloprid, and Thiamethoxam – look for one of these names on the active ingredient portion of the product label.) After application, the neonic compound is transported throughout the “system” to every part of the plant – the roots, the stems, the leaves, the flowers, the fruit, and the pollen and nectar. Because the compound inhabits the entire plant and is therefore unavoidable, any creature that feeds on that plant (including us) will ingest neonic compounds.

Some scientific research argues that when neonics are applied correctly, pollinators are not harmed. Like most insecticides, product labels require that neonics are not applied during bloom time (when pollinators will be visiting). Here is the problem; Imidicloprid, the most widely used neonic, has a half-life in soil of 40 – 997 days…or almost 3 years of potential activity! So even if the insecticide is applied after bloom time this year…what about the NEXT year?

flowers2Now let’s jump to another topic that allows every one of us to be pro-active. Loss of pollinator habitat is a huge piece of the puzzle, and growers on every scale can make a positive difference by adding pollinator habitat (flowering and host plants) to their balcony, flower beds, garden, and farm fields. Basically, plant flowers! Plant something pollinators like to eat that will bloom during each season. Ideally each flower clump is a generous 3-4 feet in diameter, and the habitat is unbroken from yard to yard, farm to farm. Ideally. But don’t be overwhelmed. Just start somewhere… even a petunia plant on your balcony is a positive step forward and provides some pollinator food. Remember that native plants are especially beneficial for our valuable native bee populations. Find links to plant lists at the end of this article.

The big question – how can we find neonicotinoid-FREE plants? Easy answer: Buy organically grown plants and you have no worries. OR if you can’t find organic plants, my advice is to ask, ask, ask. Ask the nursery where you buy plants whether these plants contain neonicotinoids. Some growers may not even know that term. You could also ask if they have used Marathon on the plant (a trade name for a commonly used neonic) or whether they have used a systemic insecticide. If the nursery bought the plant from a wholesale nursery, they probably don’t know the answer, but ASK anyway. The more we ask, the sooner growers will pay attention and look for alternatives to neonics.

Be patient too. With pollinators in crisis, it is very frustrating to learn that growers use chemicals that are harmful to bees, but remember that neonics were championed partly because they are LESS toxic to humans. Changing established production procedures can be costly and time-consuming for growers, and customers don’t want to buy plants that have bugs on them. It’s a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t proposition for most growers. Three great pollinator plants – butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, and common milkweed – predictably get covered with orange aphids every year if they are not treated in some way. What is a grower to do?

flowers3The good news…this year, the nursery where I work choose NOT to use neonics on the perennial plants we grow. We buy perennials from other growers too, and some of those growers (under pressure from us and other retailers) are beginning to reassess their neonic usage. One of our local native plant nurseries stopped using neonics in their growing operation. Scientific American reports that Home Depot now requires that plants treated with neonics be labeled as such, and BJ’s Wholesale Club is requiring its vendors to provide neonic-free plants by the year’s end, or label the plants as requiring “caution around pollinators”. Despite opposition by the Washington State Landscapers and Nurseries Association, the city of Seattle banned the use of neonicotinoid-class insecticides on city property. This spattering of examples illustrates that positive change is happening. Keep up the good work. Bee pro-active and keep “asking”!

Last thought – remember that pollinator gardens should be free from ALL pesticides, not just neonics. Some links to further information follow this article.

Thanks for writing Lucy!


Pollinator Garden Plant Lists:

Bee City USA:

Debbie Roos, NC State, Chatham County:

The Pollinator Partnership:

Related Resources and Articles:

Xerces Society:,

Study from Harvard:

Scientific American on retailers restricting neonic use, etc:

EPA on Neonic Seed Treatment:

Pollinator Partnership, NACCP (National):

Buncombe County Beekeepers Chapter:

Ask Ruth © 2014 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Author: Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate who wants to see organic farms proliferate and organic gardens in every yard. She also served on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

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