Bugs on my plants are a bad thing… right?

Hey farmer farmer
Put away that DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Please! *
Eastern Bluebird feeding chicks

Eastern Bluebird feeding chicks

Last century’s answer was Yes.  But now we know more [1].  It turns out that insects make up most of our birds’ diets and they feed their young exclusively insects [2] [3].  No insects, no birds. Not to mention all the good things the bugs themselves do.

Honeybee Pollination - photo: Louise Docker

Honeybee Pollination – photo: Louise Docker

Case in point:  ‘Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators’ [4], which makes what’s going on now even more alarming. So what exactly is going on?

Great Crested Flycatcher with a meal

Great Crested Flycatcher with a meal

While we’ve all heard about how pesticides are bad for us and other critters, we’ve recently heard about one that’s especially alarming.  They’re a class of pesticides called Neonicotinoids [5], (can’t even pronounce it can you – try ‘Neonics’ for short).

Bee on Milkweed

Bee on Milkweed

You think you’re doing something good by buying pollinator-friendly plants for your garden.  But the scary thing is, they could be treated by the grower with Neonics without your knowledge.  Neonics are taken up by the roots and wind up in the plant’s leaves and pollen making them deadly to insects who consume them, like our beloved Monarch Butterfly caterpillars, honeybees, and native bumblebees.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to live with a few aphids as a trade off.  Plus aphids are food for beneficial insects and relished by ladybugs.

So what’s a gardener in search of plants to do?

  • Avoid using Neonics in your garden or yard—when purchasing plants, ask nursery or garden center staff if the plants were treated with Neconics or other pesticides harmful to wildlife (Helpful tips and great information in this Xerces brochure: [6])
  • Even better—go pesticide free and let birds do the work for you! {link to eNature article}
  • Get organic starts at your farmer’s market.
  • Buy from locally owned nurseries (they often grow their own plants and can tell you if they’ve used any pesticides)
  • Check out plant sales at your local nature centers, botanical gardens, native plant groups
  • Have fun starting your own plants from organic seeds.
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
* Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi

Ladies of the Canyon – April, 1970


Neonics at a Glance

Neonicotinoids [5]  are a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine.  Manufacturers might argue that it’s much more ecologically friendly than some of the alternatives. But there is evidence that it’s one of the factors killing the honeybees and other pollinators and may contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) [9], which has been in the news a lot lately.  It’s also a potential contributor in the dramatic decline of the monarch butterfly population.

Flats of Flowers at a local nursery

Flats of Flowers at a local nursery

Buyer beware!  Read the label to determine whether a product contains Neonicotinoids: imidacloprid, acetamiprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam.

We visited two local sellers of pollinator-attracting plants to see if we could tell from the label whether on not Neonicotinoids were used on the plants.  We couldn’t.

At one reseller, the label had a tag that read ‘This plant is protected from problematic aphids, white flies, beetles meely bugs and other unwanted pests by Neonicotinoids’ on one side and ‘Treated with Neonicotinoids – These pesticides are approved by the FDA’ on the other.  Exactly the wrong message; we would never buy this plant.

The Xerces Society site has this to add: [6]:

“Extremely concerning is the prolific inclusion of these insecticides in home garden products. Home garden products containing Neonicotinoids can legally be applied in far greater concentrations in gardens than they can be on farms – sometimes at concentrations as much as 120 times as great which increases the risk to pollinators.”

This same page on the Xerces site has a list of ‘Examples of Neonicotinoid Garden Products Used in the United States’.

References and Additional Information

[1]   Doug Tallamy: The Chickadee’s Guide to Gardening
[2]   New York Times: To Feed the Birds, First Feed the Bugs
[3]   Perdue University: Eating Insects is for the Birds
[4]   USDA: Insects and Pollinators
[5]   Wikipedia: Neonicotinoids
[6]   Xerces: Neonicotinoids in your Garden
[7]   Xerces: Protecting Bees from Neonicotinoid Insecticides in Your Garden (pdf)
[8]   Wired: How Your Bee-friendly Garden May Actually Be Killing Bees
[9]   Using Georgia Native Plants (blog): ‘Avoid the ‘Noids’ in 2015’
[10] Mother Earth News: Neonicotinoid Insecticides: Are Your Nursery Plants Being Treated With Bee-Killing Chemicals?
[11] EPA: New Labeling for Neonicotinoid Pesticides
[12] EPA: Protecting Bees and Other Pollinators from Pesticides
[13] Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens: What’s all the fuss about Neonicotinoids?

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