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Marin IJ Articles

Know what plants have been treated with

  • Jane Scurich
  • Spring is just around the corner. If you’re like me, you may be in the market for some seasonal annuals to add a little excitement to your garden. I look for bright colors to accentuate borders, add vibrant interest to containers and attract pollinators.

    Cell packs and 4-inch containers are the most readily available commercial source of annual color. But what’s really in that cell pack?

    As winter approached, I sought out a flat of hot pink cyclamen to frame a newly refurbished garden space. Once home, I discovered a little plastic tag tucked discretely behind the plant label with this wording: “This plant is protected from problematic aphids, white flies, beetles, mealy bugs and other unwanted pests by neonicotinoids.”

    As I returned the flat of cyclamen, I realized I wanted to share what I have learned about the use of neonicotinoids and encourage others to stay informed about the products we are purchasing.

    What we know:

    • Neonicotinoids include a relatively new form of synthetic insecticide chemically similar to nicotine and have been in use since the 1990s. Literally translated, the term means “new nicotine-like insecticides.” The active ingredient affects the central nervous system of insects, resulting in paralysis and death. The family of neonics includes imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.

    • These products have been widely used in agriculture and had been thought to be less toxic than pesticides such as organophosphates, which have been linked to human health risks. We now know that neonics remain in the soil for many, many years and in the cells of woody plants for up to six years. They also travel through the soil, into our lakes and rivers, possibly affecting aquatic organisms and birds that drink from these water sources.

    • Recent concern for bee colony collapse and the rapid disappearance of bees has brought more close examination of these products. They are water soluble and are absorbed by plants, which become systemic, making the entire plant toxic to pests. The pesticide also moves into the pollen and nectar, threatening pollinators. While the products may not be lethal to honeybees, they have been found to disrupt the bee’s mobility, navigation and ability to locate food sources.

    According to the Xerces Society, an international nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats, “Millions of acres a year are treated with neonicotinoids as a kind of ‘insurance policy,’ even though no pest problems are known to be present. Simply moving away from such practices can save money and help pollinators as well as other beneficial insects.”

    While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is testing and reevaluating some of these products to determine their safe usage in our environment, ask yourself: Do we really need that kind of “insurance policy” in our home garden? Is it worth endangering the bees, butterflies and birds that make our gardens so much more inviting?

    Without bees, it is estimated that we would lose almost 30 percent of the world’s food crops and 90 percent of all wild plants. I’m willing to work a little harder at controlling pests in my garden, knowing that I am not risking harm for these hard-working pollinators.

    The University of California recommends integrated pest management, or IPM, a system of using less toxic solutions to managing pests. Monitoring plants, correctly identifying pests, and selecting the most effective management solution will help attract beneficials to your garden and, ideally, eliminate the need for toxic products.

    For more information on IPM, go to ipm.ucanr.edu/WhatIsIPM.