In winter 2013, we decided to produce Bell Nursery’s spring 2014 crops without neonicotinoid pesticides. While the science does not exist proving that neonicotinoids (neonics) as a class do any significant harm to bee populations, we wanted to learn for ourselves about the impact of growing neonic-free. The verdict: we lost product that we would not have lost had we been using our normal chemical rotations.
We also learned that as we reduce chemicals available in the rotation, systemic or otherwise, we run the risk of developing resistance to the remaining treatment options we have to choose from, and/or resorting to broader-spectrum, typically harsher chemicals. In addition, many of the replacement chemicals are non systemic and foliar, requiring multiple applications and thereby increasing worker exposure.
Last, we are concerned that chemical alternatives would be harmful to biological controls used in Integrated Pest Management (IPM), in which chemicals are used only after biological alternatives have been exhausted.
For these reasons and more, we believe neonicotinoids are the safest class of chemicals in our toolbox.
“A ban on neonicotinoids would not benefit bees, because they are not the chief or even a significant source of bee health problems. Varroa mites are, along with the lethal viruses they vector into bee colonies,” said Dr. Henry Miller in the recent Wall Street Journal editorial, “Why the Buzz About a Bee-pocalypse Is a Honey Trap.” Miller is a physician and molecular biologist, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the founding director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Biotechnology.
Further, according to Miller, “a neonicotinoid ban would devastate North American agriculture and the communities that depend on it. Neonicotinoids are the last line of defense for Florida’s citrus industry [and] the first line of defense in Texas and California. Without neonicotinoid protection, tomatoes in Florida and vegetable crops in Arizona, California and the Pacific Northwest would be imperiled.”
In addition, without neonics, entire forests could be devasted by the Emerald Ash Borer, Asian Longhorned Beetle, Hemlock Woolley Adelgid and the Japanese Beetle. In horticulture, the state of Florida could cease export of hibiscus because neonic treatments are regulated for transportation across state lines.
Through IPM, the treatment we use depends on a few key factors. First is vigilance in scouting for potential problems. If pests are found, we move quickly to address the problem before it destroys the crop and/or spreads to another one nearby. First in line are biological controls, or natural remedies such as ladybugs, then pesticides may be used as a last resort.
Learning From Our Own Experience
There are few neonic alternatives that are systemic. Systemic treatments are typically applied one time to the soil to be absorbed into the roots and can provide up to 10 to 12 weeks of control in the greenhouse. They are popular and preferred because they are both effective and safe to mammals, birds and beneficial insects. Foliar applications (sprays) are harder to manage and can drift to other crops, and affect insects outside our target area. They often require multiple applications, which puts our workers at risk.
“Broader spectrum [foliar] treatments are simply not as safe,” says Tom Wheeler, director of growing operations for Bell Nursery. “Neonics are the best of both worlds: effective on the target insects and safe for humans and the environment, when used according to the label.”
When you take neonics off the table, there just aren’t that many options that are safe and effective for plants, pets and people. Moreover, when you reduce the options, you increase the risk of resistance developing to those you’re left with. The most effective use of controls, chemical or otherwise, is to rotate through the full range of options, and the more options we have, the better.
“Neonics are a key class to have in the rotation as part of avoiding resistance build up and maintaining effectiveness,” Wheeler says. “Without neonics as an option, the alternatives just aren’t there, and we run the risk of developing resistance to the few systemic tools we have.”
In addition, some alternatives may cause injury to the plants and biological controls. One alternative pesticide we tried this year affected the flowering of verbena. Also, there are limited options for geraniums, which could lead to reduced production of one of our most popular varieties, sold as bedding plants and as part of our most popular combination containers and baskets.
“We experimented a bit this year, but the alternatives are simply not as failsafe.” Wheeler says. “Using chemical controls that damage biologicals such as ladybugs would alter IPM as we know it.”
This affects our business all the way through the supply chain. Many of the cuttings we use to grow our most popular varieties originate from farms all over the world. Control of pest populations start there and while many controls are used, the use of chemical treatments ensuring safe transit into the United States is crucial to our industry, our environment and our economy.
Fewer Tools Would Mean More Pest Resistance
The USDA has a zero tolerance policy on allowing pests in at the border, and we should all have the same approach to our own growing practices. Without effective pest controls, we run the risk of spreading bugs, even super bugs, that affect our country’s most basic and essential commodity crops, such as the Q-Biotype whitefly with cotton. Similarly, without effective controls, our industry runs the risk of needing to drastically reduce the number of varieties offered, perhaps growing more seed and fewer offshore cuttings. Finally, without effective controls, we run the risk of spreading whitefly and other common pests into consumer gardens.
Insect populations are becoming harder to control over time, developing resistance in general. Whitefly, aphids and thrips are of particular concern in horticulture.
Our main challenge, however, is now in public relations where environmental groups have made headway putting out misinformation. Considerable efforts are being made to ban neonics and other pesticides used in horticulture and other industries. Ironically, our industry makes up probably less than 10 percent of total neonic usage, but we’re highly visible and an easy target — you can see bees going to flowers. Plus, only a miniscule percentage of European honeybee populations in the U.S. forage in the wild, as 90 percent live in managed beekeeper hives and are transported to pollinate crops as needed. More than half the hives in the United States are taken to California each year to pollinate the state’s almond crops.
“The potential harm to pollinators in the yard and garden from buying and purchasing flowers from a garden center has been exaggerated,” says Dr. David Smitely of Michigan State University. “In fact, planting annual and perennial flowers and flowering trees and shrubs are expected to be beneficial for bees and other beneficial insects.”
In Australia, the only continent without the Varroa destructor mite, which researchers have called the biggest threat to bees, and where neonic usage has steadily increased since their introduction in the 1990s, honeybee populations are stable. Similarly, Canada’s canola industry depends on neonics to control the flea beetle, but “those neonicotinoid-treated canola fields support such thriving honeybee populations that they’ve been dubbed the ‘pastures for pollinators,’” according to Miller.
Miller also quoted the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization statistics, which state that the world’s honeybee populations increased between 1960 and 2011, including the past two decades since neonics were introduced.
As a grower and businessman, I am most concerned about the pressure our industry is under from a public relations campaign that is not based on science. This is happening not only in horticulture but also in agriculture, which is critical to our survival and economy. I encourage everyone to read and consider Miller’s piece, and avoid the honey trap.