A recent protest by organic activists outside a Chicago Home Depot highlighted the current debate over pesticides and bees. It also reminded me that no one wants to go on record as being “against the bees”. Check out the video above.
Let’s face it. Despite their sometimes dangerous side, bees rank relatively high on most people’s list of favorite insects. After all, bees are a sure sign of spring (much needed this year). And they make honey for goodness sake. And, as the beekeeping industry keeps reminding us, a significant portion of agriculture depends on bees (honey bees especially) for pollination services.
The protesters in the above video are protesting the retail sale of “bee-killing” insecticides called neonicotinoids. They represent groups demanding that these insecticides not be sold, and that stores begin selling only nursery plants that have not been treated with these insecticides.
Briefly, the controversy comes down to recent studies suggesting that neonicotinoids may be more toxic to bees than previously thought. In light of growing concerns about declines in honey bee colony health from colony collapse disorder (CCD), some bee defenders have concluded that neonicotinoids are the principal cause, and want their use sharply curtailed or even eliminated (see my post on this subject from last year). Hence the protest.
If neonicotinoids comprised a minor group of obscure insecticides, this might be a minor issue. But neonicotinoids are the biggest selling class of insecticides worldwide. In other words, neonicotinoids are big money. But more important than that (from my perspective anyway), neonicotinoids today play a major role in pest management for pest control, agriculture and the ornamental plant protection industries. They serve as a group of highly effective insecticides with low risk to people and birds, which can be applied systemically to the soil. So the stakes surrounding the issue are quite high.
Of course, media-friendly protests serve a purpose of raising awareness, but they are not very good for serious debate of an issue. And in this case the issues are complex and still partly unsettled scientifically.
As I pointed out last year, bee experts are mostly in agreement that colony collapse disorder in honey bees is not as simple as using “bad” pesticides. In fact pesticides may have little to do with bee declines in some areas. Australia may be instructive in this regard. Australia uses neonicotinoid insecticides like the rest of the world, but Australian honey bees are not in decline. A new Australian government report out this month confirms as much, and concludes that take as a whole, neonicotinoid use has led to an “overall reduction in the risks to the agricultural environment from the application of insecticides.” (In an interesting side note, Australia does not have the bee parasite called varroa mite, which some researchers now think may be intricately associated with CCD, perhaps as a vector of some viruses that some researchers believe are closely associated with the syndrome.)
Sound complicated? It is. And that’s the point. The environmental impact of using a neonicotinoid in your backyard or around the house may be less than the protesters would have us think. And most researchers would agree that the risk to pollinators from planting a nursery grown plant with neonicotinoid residues in your garden is negligible.
If you choose to use any insecticide in your garden, you can do it safely. Just read and follow the label directions, especially those cautions about bees. Don’t spray any plant with any insecticide when bees are present. And time your sprays for the evening, after bees have gone to bed. Only use pesticides when you need them, and then just on those plants that have a problem.
If everyone followed these simple rules, we probably wouldn’t be talking about this issue. After all, no one really wants to be against the bees.