Are You Accidentally Poisoning Your Pollinators?

by Asia Jones

Your garden is not always bee-ing as friendly to pollinators as you think.

Bumble bee

The pollinator friendly plants you buy at your local nursery may actually be poisoning your pollinators, at least when you buy them. Lentola and colleagues found that nursery plants contain pesticides that are harmful to pollinators (Lentola et. al, 2017)! Fortunately, there are easy and cost effective ways to grow your garden without harming our important and beloved pollinators.

You Should Still Plant a Garden:

Gardens in urban areas are some of the only places that wild bees and other pollinators have to go for food in large cities — and even in rural agricultural areas. Pollinators rely on flowers for food, and crops generally don’t bloom continuously nor are there many flowering plants located near busy city streets. Your garden is helping keep these species alive. The purpose of this article is not to persuade you not to plant, but to protect the pollinators we rely on from excess and unnecessary exposure to harmful pesticides that you, the consumer, may not have been aware of on your new garden plants.

Pesticides Damage More than Just Pests:

Monarch butterflyMonarch butterfly CCO

Pesticides and fungicides are put on many plants to keep them pest and disease free. Both, though, are very bad for pollinators. Pesticides, especially ones called neonicotinoids, can be very harmful to bees. They have been found to make bees confused and have trouble finding their way home or to feeding sites; as well as, increasing the chances of death of worker bees or the queen! Fungicides, chemicals made to kill off fungal diseases, can also be harmful to pollinators and have been shown in bees to decrease their ability to fight off the harmful effects of pesticides. A lot of this research has been done on honey bees, however, it can be inferred that many of the harmful effects honey bees are feeling from these chemicals, wild bees and butterflies are feeling, too.

Agriculture vs. Your Garden:

GreenhouseGreenhouse Garden Plant Gardening Green Flowers. CC0 Public Domain Max Pixel

Almost everyone is aware that most agriculture uses pesticides. We see the crop-dusters spraying down fields or we see the organic section in the grocery store and know that everything else must have had chemicals used on it. However, it is news that the places nurseries buy their plants from — and likely nurseries themselves — use pesticides too! Lentola et al. found this out only by buying plants from U.K. nurseries and testing them for pesticides. Harmful pesticides were found in the pollen, nectar, and on the leaves of the plant. It is very likely that using pesticides in nurseries is not limited to the U.K., so this is a relevant problem no matter where you are in the world.

Like many others in this world we share, you probably buy new plants to put in your garden in the springtime, as the weather warms and you want to get outside and enjoy nature. This is also the time that bees, and other pollinators, start repopulating. These two events are timed just perfectly so the bees can go collect pollen from your plants to feed their soon to hatch offspring. However, if everyone is planting these new plants that have pesticides on them, the first thing these new bees will eat are pesticide-contaminated pollen; and could result in a higher chance of these bees having very bad symptoms of pesticide poisoning or even death. Agriculture already does this to bees, so if they can’t get clean pollen and nectar from your garden, where will they go?

How to Avoid Poisoning Your Pollinators:

Bee Friendly Garden
Bee Friendly garden. Jason Wong, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Luckily, there are ways for you to avoid accidentally making your pollinators sick. Since these pesticides are applied to the plants after they are grown and before they reach the nursery; one option is to grow your plants from seeds. This way you know for sure they have never been exposed to toxins. Another option is to swap plants with a friend or neighbor, like taking cuttings, from their unsprayed plants. However, if neither of the previous options work, there are still two ways to safely buy from nurseries. The first is buy your pollinator friendly plants from an organic nursery since they don’t use pesticides. On that note, it is always good to double check where they get their plants from and how/if they verify they are organic. The last option is buy plants from a regular nursery, but wash them off and cut off or cover the current flowers. This washes the pesticides off the leaves and doesn’t allow the pollinators to collect contaminated pollen from the flowers.

Lentola, A. et al. (2017). Ornamental plants on sale to the public are a significant source of pesticide residues with implications for the health of pollinating insects. Environmental Pollution 228, 297–304.