As pesticide worries grow, 'bee safe' plants generate a buzz

Bee-friendly plants
A greenhouse full of neonicitinoid-free perennials at Bachman's growing range in Farmington.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Gardeners shopping for plants this spring at Bachman's nurseries will find some new signs in the soil. The company will begin telling customers which plants are safe for bees.

Bachman's is growing plants now at its Lakeville production center that are free of neonicotinoid insecticide, a widely used treatment that experts partly blame for the die-off of bee populations in Minnesota and across the country in recent years.

As researchers and lawmakers look for policies to protect and restore bee populations, Bachman's and other nurseries are taking up the cause one plant at a time.

"What we're looking at in our own production is to suspend the use of neonicotinoids on the plants that would be available to pollinators," said Dale Bachman, the nursery giant's chief executive. He called it a precautionary move.

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Applied to seed or soil, neonicotinoid insecticides become part of the plant and kill pests that attack the plant. That's attractive for growers because it reduces pesticide applications. But the insecticide also gets into the pollen and nectar of flowering plants and can injure or kill bees.

Bee-friendly plants
A greenhouse full of neonicitinoid-free perennials, mostly coral bells, at Bachman's growing range in Farmington.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

It's a widely used insecticide, so while Bachman can assure customers that plants grown by his company are neonicotinoid free, he can't say the same for plants that come from other suppliers.

Bachman and many other retailers are trying to determine which suppliers use the insecticide.

Home Depot plans to offer customers alternatives this spring, but because they're still working with suppliers, some flowering plants they sell will be treated with neonicotinoids, a spokeswoman said.

University of Minnesota entomology professor and bee expert Marla Spivak said she's being bombarded with questions from nursery and landscape professionals.

"It's picking up momentum but I can't say how many nurseries will actually be ready to sell neonic free flowering plants this summer," Spivak said. "It's not going to happen overnight, but as with any movement it takes time."

Requiring companies to label plants so consumers know what insecticide is used would be a big help, she said, adding she's hopeful the Minnesota Legislature will pass a bill requiring pesticide labeling on bee friendly plants.

This is a hot issue for nurseries and garden centers nationwide, said Joe Bischoff, regulatory and legislative affairs director with AmericanHort, a trade group that represents about 3,000 nursery and landscape businesses.

While some of the organization's members are eliminating or reducing neonicotinoid insecticides, AmericanHort isn't taking a position Bischoff said.

"Nothing is that black and white," he said. "We really need to better understand the interaction and allow for that conversation and science to take us further before we have a sort of reactive response."

Bischoff says the organization supports more research. He worries public opinion is ahead of the existing science.

"Are we missing something? Is there a role that these pesticides are having in this? Are there better ways for us to execute control of problematic organisms while further limiting its impact on pollinators?" he asked. "I think those are all things we need to know more about. "

Neonicotinoid insecticides are probably not the only cause of bee deaths in recent years and there are many unanswered questions about how bees and neonicotinoid insecticides interact in the environment, said Spivak. "They're certainly contributing, and we just don't know enough about what the bees are actually picking up in the environment."

It's difficult for researchers to find money for the expensive testing needed to help find answers, she added.

Dale Bachman doesn't want to wait for overwhelming scientific proof. He said he'd rather reduce use of the insecticide in his nursery and wait to see if science proves neonicotinoids are safe.

Suspending neonicotinoid use might also have a financial impact, but Bachman said there are so many variables in a growing season he can't predict if it will cost more to protect plants with other insecticides.

Consumers, though, are likely to notice a difference if nurseries stop using a very effective insecticide, he added. "We may not be able to grow as pest free as we have in the past. And customers will have to adopt that as well."