Guest Opinions

Gardeners must be guardians of our pollinators

Timothy D. Hatten
Timothy D. Hatten

We’re in the heart of gardening season and everyone wants to see their garden and home landscape flourish. But bugs are chewing away at our gardens prompting us to take defensive action including use of pesticides. Unfortunately, pesticides can be harmful to the environment and lethal to pollinators.

This is a problem because pollinators such as bees, butterflies, birds and bats are crucial for our food supply and the health of flowering plants, and too often we read that these beneficial animals are in trouble.

Neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” have recently come into the news because of their well-documented detrimental effects on honeybees. Neonics are less toxic to vertebrates and mammals than pesticides that preceded them, are water-soluble so they can be applied in water and to soil, and plants readily take them up systemically into every cell of their bodies. This conveys a considerable level of protection to plants. Unfortunately, it also makes them toxic to invertebrates including non-target pollinators. Even the nectar and pollen of flowering plants is contaminated with neonics if they have been treated.

Now consider that neonics are among the most commonly used pesticides in the world, applied to just about every crop and ornamental species in every manner imaginable including foliar, soil and tree injection, spray broadcast, and ground treatment (granule or liquid).

In the spirit of the just-ended National Pollinator Week here are a few strategies for protecting pollinators:

▪ If possible, avoid using pesticides. Handpick pests or wash them off, encourage beneficial insects, use neonic-free seedlings, and try integrating unsprayed and unmolested habitat “refugia” into your landscape. Remember that there is a lot of information on pollinator conservation strategies available to us. Just do a web search for “alternatives to neonicotinoids,” and you’ll get lots of useful information.

▪ If you do use pesticides, become familiar with the most common neonicotinoids and then check the active ingredients list to avoid them. Imidachloprid, Clothianidin, Acetimiprid and Thiachloprid are four of the most common neonicotinoids in use. A number of garden and lawn products may contain neonicotinoids. But remember, if you’re just swapping one neonic for another pesticide then you may be walking on that no-win pesticide treadmill.

▪ If necessary, use botanical insecticides (BI) that have moderate to low toxicity to pollinators. That search phrase “alternatives to neonicotinoids” will yield lots of chemical and nonchemical alternatives. Azadirachtin (from Neem) and Pyrethrum (from Chrysanthemums) are the active ingredients in some of the more popular BI products. You’ll want to apply BI during late evening when bees are not active. Pay attention to residual toxicity times, that specified post treatment time interval when you, or the pollinators, should not come into contact with the treated plants.

▪ Try not to spray when plants are in bloom. If you do, spray during the evening and if possible on dry rather than humid evenings. Let’s keep our food supply safe and our yards beautiful. We alone are the guardians of pollinators.

Timothy D. Hatten, Ph.D., is a board member of Idaho Chapter Sierra Club and lives in Moscow.