The Top 100 Growers Talk Pollinator Health

The Top 100 Growers Talk Pollinator Health

Top100 Sixty people representing Top 100 Growers crowded into Greenhouse Grower’s 2014 Top 100 Growers Breakfast on July 14, the Monday morning of Cultivate’14, to be part of a discussion on pollinator health and how our industry is addressing the challenges growers are facing over neonicotinoid pesticides.

Sponsored by BASF, the Top 100 Growers Breakfast is an annual event that addresses industry issues, and how the nation’s largest growers are impacted by and overcoming these challenges.
This year’s discussion was timely, coming off the 2014 spring season faced with an unprecedented level of concern over pollinator health and consumer activism against neonicotinoids — and pesticides in general.


Growers are not used to the level of scrutiny they have received, either directly or indirectly, and with consumers asking for EPA to take an important class of chemicals out of the growers’ toolbox, many feel it threatens their operations’ viability, and the industry, as well. Simultaneously, growers are concerned about pollinator health, and measures we as an industry can take to improve their conditions.

Experts on the Top 100 Growers’ Breakfast panel discussed:
• Research that still needs to be done on neonicotinoids and pollinator health
• How growers are working with retailers to investigate the use of neonicotinoids and other chemicals
• Industry efforts to improve pollinator health
• Tools for communicating
with consumers
• New research on how consumers react to terms at retail

Each panelist spoke for several minutes, then there was time for a question-and-answer period. This is an abbreviated version of the discussion. Stay tuned for a more detailed transcription, plus video.

Joe Bischoff, regulatory and legislative affairs director for AmericanHort, on the issues at hand and what the industry is facing:

It’s an important conversation to have. We rely on bees for pollination services. There’s also a sensitivity and emotional piece there. Bees are an indicator of the health of our planet.
We are seeing a lot of the emotional aspect playing out with the focus on neonicotinoids. We are also seeing an over-emphasis on pesticides with this issue. The media is trying to bring in an audience, and it’s relying on emotion through the over-emphasis on pesticides’ role. It’s hard to battle soundbites from the other side.

There are three reports of importance:
• USDA Report – Fall 2012
• United Kingdom – 2013
• Australia – February 2013


Panelists at the Top 100 Growers Breakfast included (left to right) Gary Mangum from Bell Nursery, Dr. Joe Bischoff from AmericanHort, Dr. Raymond Cloyd from Kansas State University, Dr. Bridget Behe from Michigan State University and Karen Reardon from RISE.

Researchers came to the same conclusion on all three reports — it isn’t all about pesticides. Neonics are a useful tool, and growing and responsible practices would be tougher to manage if we had to move to other chemicals.

The challenge with this issue is public perception, not with Capitol Hill or regulators. To combat this, there are three pieces needed:
• More research on pollen and nectar
• A stewardship effort, to increase forage and habitat
• More focus on best practices for pollinator health
It is important that we work together with our partners on this issue.

Dr. Raymond Cloyd, ornamental entomologist, Kansas State University on what we need to learn about neonicotinoids and pollinator health through research:

We have been working on studies regarding the impact of systemic insecticides on phloem-feeding insects for four or five years.
There is a lot of research on lab control studies. What is missing is field trial research, especially research that tracks the concentration of nectar from point of sale to the landscape.

The study we’re proposing is to look at an application at a nursery, and tracking the concentration of pollen nectar to the point of sale. Then, when it’s moved from the nursery to retail, what’s the concentration of the active ingredient in the pollen nectar, and from there, to the landscape?

We need to do more outdoor tracking on the application of neonicotinoids, and not all of them are the same. They are different in several aspects, and one of those is water solubility. That will impact and influence if they’re going to get in the pollen and nectar at all, and at what levels.

That kind of a study will provide answers we just don’t have right now.

Sub-lethal effects of pesticides are what are really getting the emphasis, and we need to know, if pollinators get a sub-lethal dose, will it impact their foraging behavior, homing ability and reproduction? And when they bring this back to the hive, what’s the impact on the rest of the colony?

Bumblebees and honeybees differ when they collect pollen, and they forage at different times, so we have to also understand that the effects are going to vary between bumblebees and honeybees, because they’re obviously not the same.

To apiculturists (beekeepers), the number one problem is the varroa mite. The miticide sprays they use for it are stressing the bees out, and varroa mites are becoming resistant to miticides. Also, they can’t breed a varroa mite-resistant variety of the European honeybee.

Most of my entomological colleagues agree that the problem is a compilation of many factors, including mites, pesticides, poor beekeeping, transportation, habitat fragmentation and destruction. There is no smoking gun.

However, this is not a new issue. We have known since the 1960s that systemic insecticides affect bees.


Gary Mangum spoke publicly for the first time about why his operation grew crops without using neonicotinoids in spring 2014, and what Bell Nursery learned.

Gary Mangum, CEO of Bell Nursery and Home Depot grower advisory board member, on how growers are working with retailers and what he found from his own research:

Home Depot is listening very well, and having good conversations. There is much to learn on this issue, and a big company like that can be so helpful to our industry, as well as companies like them, whether it’s independent garden centers collectively or Lowe’s and Walmart.

That being said, I think Home Depot reacted too quickly, asking us to provide labeling next year. They’re certainly not asking us to grow neonic-free, but they did ask us to label. So we’re working on that to the extent possible with a number of growers, to help influence the message coming out of Home Depot.

We started on the subject 18 months ago, trying to educate ourselves as much as possible internally. This was before the Oregon bee kill. We had heard what was going on in the European Union. As a result, in November 2013, we decided to grow 100 percent neonic-free, but we didn’t make it public.

We had an out. I told my team that if they really had to use neonics, they could, but we didn’t end up doing so.

What I wanted to find out was the short-term implied cost of not using neonics. In the end, about $150,000 of product was thrown away. I’m certainly not advocating for neonic-free production.
Home Depot is very, very focused on this, and will likely follow the research and regulations.

Meanwhile, Bell Nursery has a Bee Aware section on our website ( that has been effective in getting the message out about our products and practices. It’s a valuable tool.

Editor’s Note: Read more about what Bell Nursery leaned from growing without neonicotinoids this spring.

Dr. Bridget Behe, ornamental marketing specialist and professor, Michigan State University, on new consumer research on how consumers value different terms at retail:

My colleagues, Heidi Wollaeger and Dr. Kristin Getter, and I decided it was time to get some consumer perceptions about pesticides and bees.

Seven weeks ago, we sampled 3,000 consumers throughout the U.S. We wanted to see how pervasive the issue was with the general public.

We put consumers in three groups:
• 1,000 were shown four indoor flowering plants
• 1,000 were shown outdoor perennials
• 1,000 were shown hanging baskets

Consumers were shown images of plants grown in different ways. They were asked how likely they were to buy them under different labels, but these labels were not defined:
• Traditionally labeled plants
• Plants grown neonic-free
• Plants grown with beneficial insects
• Plants grown under bee-friendly practices
Individuals who had purchased an ornamental plant 12 months prior to the survey were better informed about the issue of
pollinator health.
• 33 percent of the sample said “bee friendly” did not use of pesticides
• 46 percent said it was the use of products without bee toxicity

Audience members at the Top 100 Growers Breakfast were captivated by the information on pollinator health.

Audience members at the Top 100 Growers Breakfast were captivated by the information on pollinator health.

Many consumers don’t have a very specific or accurate ideas of what bee friendly products are, but they had the greatest willingness to purchase plants with that characteristic compared to the other management practices we tested.

We also wanted to find out what it is worth to the consumer to label a product. Showing them a poinsettia priced at $4.99, for example, they said:
• Bee-friendly labeling: worth about 10 cents more per plant

From the consumer perspective, labeling with “bee-friendly” terminology is more valuable. This researcher would advocate for bee-friendly labeling.

Karen Reardon, vice president of public affairs, Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE) on industry efforts, the Bee Friendly campaign and communication tips for growers to educate consumers:

We represent your supplier companies, the manufacturers of the pesticides that provide you with tools to grow your crops.

RISE is looking at the complex issue of Colony Collapse Disorder, as well as the misapplication incidents. These events continue to fuel the discussion. We do have a role — to provide
educational resources.

You, as growers, have become an attractive target, but you also have a role to play. As leaders in this industry, growers are the best messengers to talk about this issue, and communicate what your operation is doing. It’s time to become more engaged with your state associations.

RISE has developed the Bee Responsible Campaign. It’s a consumer outreach program, which also provides resources for growers and retailers.

RISE is doing some work with the White House. We are also trying to engage with AmericanHort and expand our social media presence.

RISE also went to Oregon in January, to the epicenter of where the bee kill incidents happened. There’s a lot of activism out there. Consumers told us they understand Colony Collapse Disorder and the issues with varroa mites, and they understand our industry’s challenges and what we are trying to do to promote pollinator health but also protect our crops. They said they felt that this issue was distracting state legislatures from other environmental issues that were more important to them.

Consumers are very malleable in their thinking, and they are receptive to good information. The most important thing is to get the information out there.

You are leaders in the community — their neighbors and providers of the plants they love. You need to speak up, and also be very aware of what’s happening at your state and local level.

Question And Answer Period

It seems like the Bee-Friendly campaign is the way to go. How fast can the Bee Friendly campaign be implemented?

Bischoff: We need to have a program, but we have to be careful with terminology. Maybe we could do something under a Bee Aware campaign. We need to turn the tide. To do that, we need to start right now.

AmericanHort has sketched out a skeleton plan. We are meeting with people to get support for a taskforce, and expect to flesh out a program in the coming months.

If a Bee-Friendly campaign came out, would it stop Home Depot from requiring labeling?

Mangum: They really want to follow the science and do the right thing We’re hopeful that a campaign will help; good information, communication and dialogue will also help.

We all need to step up to help AmericanHort and put some money into the stewardship initiative, to help them implement this effort quickly.

Bischoff: The research wing of AmericanHort, the Horticultural Research Institute, just approved an “Emerging Issues” account, with a component for research on neonicotinoids. It will be set up to respond as donations come in.

Editor’s Note: Donate to the Bee & Pollinator Initiative at or

If we are growing neonic-free, how far back in the supply chain can neonics be detected? All the way back to cuttings from offshore?

Cloyd: That depends on the neonic insecticide. This is an issue we are trying to address — what are the concentrations from application to point-of-sale and if it is detected, at what level is it harmful to bees? The application timing, type of neonic, water solubility, etc. all drive the ability to detect neonics, and many factors play in.

Bischoff: There’s only so much you can control as a grower We are not talking about removing the tools from the toolbox; we are talking about using them more wisely, in a more responsible way.

As the green industry, maybe we should focus on broader argument, and talk about things we’re doing that are great for the environment.

Reardon: We need to stand on the science, but that can leave people cold when we focus only on that. This is a heart and mind issue. It’s very emotional and very complex.

The Top 100 Growers can be great ambassadors for the industry to talk about this issue. All of you have a role in it. There’s a lot of space for you to talk about this. No one else is going to do it for you.

The folks who oppose insecticides have made great overtures. You can do the same.