In the past year or so you may have noticed tags intended to inform the consumer of the use or nonuse of neonicotinids on some Lowes and Home Depot plants. That is because both retailers have voluntarily agreed to work with their growers to limit and phase out the use of neonicotinoids. As replacement insecticides become available they will also eliminate lawn and garden products that contain neonics from their shelves.
Neonicotinoids, also called neonics, are a class of pesticides which are highly toxic to bees, in particular, but also lethal to birds and aquatic invertebrates. These pesticides, which mimic tobacco, are systemic; they are taken up by a plant and transported to the tissue in all its parts: the leaves, roots, stems and flowers as well as the pollen and nectar. The chemical is applied to plant roots in the form of a drench, a seed coating or sprayed on its foliage.
In response to pressure from environmentalists Lowes and Home Depot, along with BJs Warehouse Club, and a few smaller retailers have taken the lead in their industry to phase out the sale of bee-killing pesticides, and in so doing, help revive the health of bees.
Neonicotinoids were introduced in the early 1990s in response to health and safety concerns about pesticides current at that time. The US registered most neonicotinoids for consumer and agricultural use early on. Europeans, however, recognized the connection between dying bees and the chemicals. By 2013 research results led the European Union to ban most neonicotinoids for use on flowering crops and spring sown crops.
The U.S. was slower to respond to evidence. In 2013 the EPA initiated “a project to develop clearer language that will strengthen pollinator protective labeling on neonicotinoid products by more effectively highlighting the risks to pollinators,” but did not ban any neonic chemicals.
In 2014 President Obama issued a Memorandum to establish a Pollinator Health task force, co-chaired by the USDA and EPA, to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators. The Memorandum directed the EPA to engage states and tribes in the development of pollinator protection plans. Some states have been more responsive than others.
The EPA must register all pesticides sold or distributed in the U.S. It is a long and expensive process that includes rigorous testing and specific labeling, as well as registration reviews. The costs are borne by the registering company.
As part of the ongoing registration review program for pesticides the EPA informed registrants of neonicotinoids that no new formulations of products would be processed until more data on possible side effects was submitted. (The EPA can require new scientific data for a pesticide that is already registered.) Current registrations have been under review with the EPA focused on the threat of neonicotinoids to insect pollinators.
Based on ongoing input January 12, 2017 the EPA released its Policy to Mitigate the Acute Risk to Bees from Pesticide Products. It describes methods for addressing the acute risk to bees from pesticides. What does that mean? New pesticide labeling instructions.
The EPA expects to complete a risk assessment for specific neonicotinids—imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam and dinotefuran in 2018 and acetimiprid in 2018-19. The agency will pursue risk mitigation based on input.
The new leadership in Washington may revise what has been already released, or decide no restrictions are needed. Whether neonic pesticides have a dangerous impact on honeybee populations is still a concern for consumers in the U.S. and internationally.
Meanwhile, in your yard:
Residue can accumulate in the pollen and nectar of treated plants, thereby exposing pollinators to the insecticide.
Seed treatments (coating seeds with an insecticide) are a concern. Coated seeds are often available to birds because frequently soil does not fully cover them. Birds are easily poisoned by neonicotinoids. One coated kernel of corn, wheat or canola can kill a bird.
With permeable soils neonicotinids can leach out and run off with groundwater into streams where the chemicals are lethal to marine invertebrates.
It is up to us as consumers to read the entire label on insecticides and follow all directions. It is the law. Label information is there to help us protect pollinators. Instead of waiting for a law to prevent the sale of neonic insecticides we are free to simply stop buying them.
Reach Debbie Menchek, a Clemson Master Gardener, at firstname.lastname@example.org.