Pollinators need our help! Butterflies, bees and other animals that transfer pollen between flowering plants are responsible for the reproduction of 90 percent of all plants on earth — and the numbers and distribution of these pollinators are in decline. Honey bees are some of the primary pollinators in North America contributing to the production of 90 commercial crops which contribute $24B to the U.S. economy. The $4.8B California almond industry alone uses 60 percent of all U.S. beehives, 1.4 million bees, most of which are trucked into the orchards from all across the country to pollinate the crops. But beginning in 2006, beekeepers began to report large losses of bees in their colonies.
The decline in bee colonies has been evident worldwide lending itself to numerous studies to determine the cause. What has been discovered is that there are numerous factors including habitat loss, pathogens, parasites, poor nutrition, climate change and not the least, pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids.
There is growing evidence that neonicotinoids (neonics) have become a driving factor in the decline of bee populations. The EPA has acknowledged this and in 2014 the Commissioner of the European Union restricted the use of three neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) for seed treatment, soil application and foliar treatment on plants that are attractive to bees.
Neonics are systemic, which means they become part of the plant tissue, and can’t be washed off. They are absorbed through the vascular system to the roots, stems, leaves and even the pollen, nectar and moisture in the plant. Neonics are the most commonly used pesticides and are poisonous to all insects but especially harmful to bees because they are powerful neurotoxins. Neurotoxins affect the neural functioning of bees, interfering with the learning, foraging, memory, navigation, reproduction and the immune system – which means that bees that ingest neonics are unable to find their way back to the hive so they die. Affecting the immune system makes them more susceptible to infections. And in addition neonics are addictive; much like nicotine is to humans.
Neonics are primarily used as seed coating for commodity/agricultural crops. That means the plants that germinate from those seeds carry the neonics throughout their system. Another problem with the seeding coating is that only about 5 percent of the pesticide is taken up by the plant — 95 percent is lost to the environment. Neonic seed coatings are now one of the leading causes of water contamination, because they are highly soluble. A recent U.S. Geological Survey study found neonics in about half of the streams sampled nationwide, and in up to 75 percent of those tested in the Midwest. Neonics are not only used in agricultural products but are widely used in retail plants.
So what can we do to help reduce the loss of bees? There are several things we can do in our home landscape that address some of the causes for the decline. Creating a bee refuge in your garden is one way to replace the loss of habitat for bees. Where there are flowers there will be bees foraging. Be sure to devote enough space to provide plenty of season-long blooms. Just as we are not inclined to go picking in a berry patch that offers only a few berries, bees are more attracted to a garden with an abundance of flowers.
Bees need pollen for protein and nectar for carbohydrates, so plant flowers that provide both. Bee balm, asters, lupines, hyssop and sunflowers come to mind. Buy your plants from a local nursery and ask if they have been treated with neonicotinoids. If so don’t buy them and let the nursery know why.
Reconsider what you consider a perfect lawn. Dandelions are the first source of food for bees in the spring and white clover in your lawn can be another source of nutrition for them. As usual humans have created this problem for bees and it in turn has created problems for our environment, food production and economy. It is up to us to try to fix the problem.