Pollinator Health 2015: What’s Next For Horticulture?

On the pollinator and neonic front, one moment there’s good news, the next there’s bad. That is the rhythm of the issue, and things aren’t likely to change anytime soon.

Toward the end of March, there was some good news. First, researchers from the University of Maryland, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published in a premier scientific journal the results of a three-year study on bees and neonicotinoids. The scientists did not observe negative impacts on bee colony health until neonic exposures were four times to 20 times higher than real-world, field-relevant levels of chronic exposure. The scientists concluded that bee health challenges are multi-faceted and found “neonicotinoid pesticides to be an unlikely sole cause of colony declines.” And USDA reported results of its 2014 national honey survey. Production was up 19 percent over 2013, and the number of managed honey bee hives in the U.S. rose to a level not seen since 1995.

Then came some less encouraging news. Lowe’s Home Improvement announced April 9 that it will phase out neonicotinoid products and neonic-treated products over a four-year period (See “Lowe’s Announces Commitment To Phase Out Neonicotinoids By 2019” on page 20). The announcement was buried deep inside a corporate responsibility report, but was trumpeted publicly — and loudly — by the activist group Friends of the Earth (FOE). The new announcement does offer considerable flexibility and opportunity for fine-tuning as new information and new alternatives emerge. However, FOE is advocating for an outright ban on neonics, and since neither EPA nor Congress seem inclined to go there at present, FOE’s tactics have shifted to local governments, the marketplace and mass retailers.

Next came a study out of Europe suggesting that bees, if given a choice between nectar containing neonics or nectar without, opt for the nectar with neonics. The suggested (but unproven) implication is that the nicotine-like molecule may have an addictive effect just as nicotine does in humans, thus potentially increasing exposure risk.

Sound Science Must Drive Decisions On Neonicotinoid Use

The good news, bad news, back-and-forth dynamic suggests that this issue will not be decided on science alone. Still, what we do as an industry should be based on the best available science, and we must be open to adjusting our practices as new information emerges. Meanwhile, swift elimination of neonics from our pest management arsenal just might be a case of “the cure being worse than the disease.”

Neonics have become the most widely used insecticides worldwide for several reasons. They are effective, and their general low toxicity means they are among the best tools available to manage pests while protecting workers and the environment. They are generally easy on beneficials, making them compatible with integrated pest management programs.

The best available information to date reaffirms that there are many threats to bee health; pesticides are indeed one threat, but neither pesticides generally, nor neonics specifically, are considered among the most serious threats.

Closing The Door On Neonicotinoids May Be A Loss We Can’t Afford

In many settings, at least until other options become available, removing neonics from the toolbox may lead to the use of older, more toxic products that must be applied more frequently. In horticulture, many neonic uses are on plants that are not even bee- and pollinator-attractive in the first place. In others, there are long time intervals between application and flowering or sale. Neonics are often a cornerstone of plant pest regulatory programs; their use may be required by federal or state governments to certify and ship plants. In other programs, such as whitefly management, neonics are a key component in preventing development of pesticide resistance.

There are nearly as many ways to grow plants as there are plants to grow. Certainly, some growers are producing without neonics. Yet, even for these growers, the loss of such important tools in the toolkit isn’t a good thing. Someday you might need that special Torx screwdriver, and if it’s not in the toolkit, and the stores aren’t stocking it anymore, you are out of luck. So, what some may tout as the responsible thing may be, in fact, irresponsible.

What Is The Path Forward For Horticulture?

Last summer, the Horticultural Research Institute and AmericanHort launched the Bee and Pollinator Stewardship Initiative in collaboration with the Society of American Florists (SAF) and the American Floral Endowment (AFE). We are also working with national beekeeper, honey producer and pollinator protection groups. Our goals are three-fold, and we are making steady progress to:

• Develop pollinator stewardship best practices for plant production. A task force including grower, retail and science perspectives has completed the technical work, and program development is underway.

• Directly fund or leverage research to fill important knowledge gaps on horticultural best practices. The Initiative identified a series of priorities, and the Horticultural Research Institute has funded $125,000 in special grants determined by a panel of scientists and industry reviewers. The American Floral Endowment has independently funded a new, two-year project. In addition, AmericanHort and SAF helped to leverage other funding through various sources, including a $272,000 USDA-funded project to be led by the Pollinator Partnership. This important project will assess bee- and pollinator-attractiveness of horticultural crops. Last December, we participated in an IR-4 special workshop attended by grower representatives and scientists who work with pollinator biology, risk assessment, product submissions to EPA, chemical residue analysis and agricultural economics, which helped define research needs and opportunities.

• Seek opportunities for horticulture to help improve bee and pollinator health, forage and habitat. To that end, we have launched the Grow Wise, Bee Smart campaign and are working to position growers and garden retailers as the go-to resource for plants and advice. The push for more habitat and forage opportunities for bees, butterflies and other pollinators means an opportunity to sell healthy plants.

Outreach And Training Efforts Are Underway To Raise Public Awareness

To assist with many of the communications and outreach components of the Initiative, and to build on our earlier-released “What Horticulture Needs to Know” video, we have partnered with Global Prairie, a respected public relations and communications firm. A campaign website has been launched (growwise.org). Some information already available includes a new brochure and a set of frequently asked questions. More resources will be added in the weeks ahead. Finally, we held a first “messenger training” for 25 national and state nursery and landscape association executives and staff, as well as their Canadian counterparts.

Broader outreach and training are also in the works. On the front line are the garden center and landscape company staff who are dealing directly with the public on a daily basis. Our opportunity with the gardening public is to help ensure that whatever planting and pest management choices they make, they are doing so with an eye toward protecting pollinators. And that they are growing an array of plants and flowers that will provide pollen and nectar throughout the season.

There is no question that neonics are a mainstay in plant production, yet this issue is bigger than just neonics. The Bee and Pollinator Stewardship Initiative is all about ensuring that we have a diverse array of tools for managing pests and producing healthy plants. It is about ensuring that growers and gardening consumers are making sound decisions in the interest of protecting bees and pollinators. And it is about positioning horticulture as an important part of the solution.

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