Are Your Store-Bought Plants Killing Bees?

Pesticides found in plants purchased at Home Depot or Walmart can prove deadly for bees.

Buzz buzz.
National Journal
Marina Koren
June 25, 2014, 10:33 a.m.

Gar­dens may give flowers and plants life, but they can also be a death sen­tence for its most fre­quent vis­it­ors: bees.

Plants sold at ma­jor re­tail nurs­er­ies are of­ten treated with pesti­cides harm­ful to bees, ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­leased Wed­nes­day by the Pesti­cide Re­search In­sti­tute and Friends of the Earth, an in­ter­na­tion­al net­work of en­vir­on­ment­al or­gan­iz­a­tions.

The groups pur­chased plants from re­tail nurs­er­ies, in­clud­ing Home De­pot, Lowe’s, Wal­mart, and Orch­ard Sup­ply Hard­ware in 18 cit­ies across the U.S., as well as three provinces in Canada. They then sent the plants off to a labor­at­ory to meas­ure the pres­ence and con­cen­tra­tion of pesti­cides in the green­ery. Test­ing showed that 51 per­cent of store-bought plants had levels of a group of harm­ful pesti­cides known as neonicotin­oids that were high enough to kill honey bees, bumble bees, and oth­er pol­lin­at­ors “out­right.”

Neonicotin­oids are com­monly used pesti­cides in ag­ri­cul­ture. More than 140 crops in the coun­try, in­clud­ing corn, soy, wheat and can­ola seeds, are treated with neonicotin­oids. They’re also some of the most dam­aging pesti­cides to bees. Taken up through roots and leaves, the pesti­cides weave their way throughout an en­tire plant, even­tu­ally reach­ing the nec­tar on which bees feed. At high levels of ex­pos­ure, neonicotin­oids kill bees by at­tack­ing their nervous sys­tems. Lower levels of the pesti­cide can im­pair bees’ for­aging and nav­ig­at­ing abil­it­ies, dis­rupt their memory, and sup­press their im­mune sys­tems.

Neonicotin­oids have pre­vi­ously been linked to the coun­try’s shrink­ing bee pop­u­la­tion. Last June, more than 50,000 bumble­bees, or about 300 colon­ies, were found dead or dy­ing in a Tar­get park­ing lot in Ore­gon. The cul­prit was a neonicotin­oid pesti­cide called di­note­fur­an, which had been sprayed on nearby trees to keep hon­ey­dew from drip­ping onto parked cars.

The use of neonicotin­oids is cur­rently un­der re­view by the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, and a fi­nal re­port is ex­pec­ted in the next few years. Un­til then, be­ware the bee-killing po­ten­tial of the latest ad­di­tion to your home garden.

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