Neonicotinoids – Still killing butterflies and bees

A friend of mine purchased some plants at one of the big box stores the other day…some pretty pentas and salvias, along with a few other “fill-ins.”

When she removed the plants from their plastic pots, she was amazed – and horrified – to find, behind the plant marker, another smaller marker indicating that the plant had been treated with neonicotinoids.

In case you didn’t know, neonicotinoids are a new class of insecticides related to nicotine. The name actually means “new, nicotine-like insecticide.” Neonicotinoids affect receptors in the nerve synapse of insects.  Particularly toxic to insects, they can also harm vertebrates.

In a 2015 paper from the Environmental Science and Pollution Research group, an EU-sponsored organization,  neonicotinoids  can have lethal consequences on smaller bird species, and dangerous, but non-lethal effects on fish and mammals, including humans. See the report here.

Many growers treat seeds with neonicotinoids.  Since neonicotinoids are water soluble, they are also used in a spray. Neonicotinoids are systemic, which means once they are applied, they distribute throughout the plants vascular system – the stems, leaves, roots, flowers and seeds. They can exist in the plant anywhere from one to three years.

They are most dangerous to bees, for a number of reasons. Bees sipping nectar from a plant treated with neonicotinoids, or drinking moisture exuded from a plant (for instance corn sweats at night and bees are drawn to the moisture, are directly affected.

Growers know that aphids make plants less attractive, so they use neonicotinoids to kill the aphids. Aphids emit a sweet substance, that bees find attractive. Bees will also drink this.

Bees will also take neonicotinoid-affected pollen back into the hive with them, infecting larvae and adults alike.

Bees aren’t the only beneficial insects killed by neonic chemicals. Aphids love milkweed. Growers and nurseries spray milkweed with neonics to prevent aphids. But milkweed is the food source of the monarch butterfly larvae. When the monarch caterpillars hatch and begin eating the leaves, they die.

Home Depot and Lowes, two major big box stores, have pledged to phase out all neonicotinoids by 2018, and Home Depot has gone as far as to label those plants treated with neonics. However, gardeners need to look closely at the labels.

Ask your nursery if neonicotinoids have been used on the plants you are thinking of buying. Many locally-owned nurseries already know the dangers, and have taken measures to keep neonicotinoids out of their product stream. It still doesn’t hurt to ask.

Here is a list of brands that make and sell neonicotinoids, and under what names they are sold.


Living on the edge (of the woods)

Population is growing – not just here in The Woodlands, or in Montgomery County, or in Texas, for that matter.

As that population grows, as new residential and commercial construction increases, the condition and size of natural habitat, where all varieties of species thrive, decreases. That may just be one of the facts of life of the 21st century.

Let’s talk about here in Montgomery County, and specifically in The Woodlands. Once, this area was a vast, contiguous tract of mostly pine forest. As development began, not only did the natural habitat area shrink, but it became fragmented.

While it may still resemble one, it no longer is a forest. It becomes, in effect, the edge of a forest, and is known to biologists, unsurprisingly, as the edge effect. Light, wind, temperature, moisture all change the dynamics of this ecosystem.

As we develop more “islands,” we change the requirements for native species of all types – birds, insects, mammals, plants, fungi and other flora and fauna.

Species which thrive deep in a forest are forced to abandon their habitat. The only species left are those which  thrive on the edges of a forest (or any native habitat). One might take a look at what’s left of the once magnificent Katy prairie to get an idea of what can happen to any habitat.

The species that are most affected by the loss of deep forest habitat are song birds. Decreasing the size of the forested area, and further fragmenting it with roads, reduces the living area of these species. A road cut through a forested area takes up a lot more room than just the thoroughfare. Increasing the edge of a forest also affects the reproductive abilities of many species.

Creating “islands” or forest edges without forests allows predators, of which there are many, easy access to many desirable species, including  the nests of song birds. These predators, which include racoons, cats (domestic and feral), rodents (not only rats – squirrels frequently raid nests for eggs or nestlings), skunks, snakes, oppossums, and predatory birds like the cowbird, who lays her eggs in the nest of a host species.

Is there a solution? Weighing the realistic needs of a human population against the retention of desirable species is a conundrum. Even in planned communities like The Woodlands, reduction of natural habitat for many species which once thrived here has been rampant.

End of rant.

Can we really smell rain?

We’ve all heard someone say “I smell rain,” as storm clouds gather. And we’ve probably heard experts say “rain has no smell.” As odd as it may seem, both answers are correct…well, sort of.


When a raindrop comes in contact with the earth (or any porous surface) it traps miniscule pockets of air. These air “bubbles” speed upwards very quickly and explode at the top surface of the drop. This, of course, takes place in milliseconds. Upon bursting, the bubbles release microscopic particles called aerosols.

The amount of these aerosol particles relies on how many raindrops hit the surface. The speed and number of the raindrops and the quality of the soil will determine how many of the aerosol droplets are released.

If close to the rain, we smell this rich earthy mineral odor right away. If farther away, temperature variations can cause wind to deliver it to our noses, even from many miles away.

The scent is called petrichor – a composite of two Greek words: “petra” meaning “stone,” and “ichor” meaning “the blood of the gods.”

Petrichor is basically composed of two substances: one is an oil that plants secrete during dry periods. The oil inhibits germination of seed. Plants hold onto this oil until it rains, then they release the oils.  These oils are encompassed in the tiny aerosol bubbles.

The second element is that rich, earthy smell, caused by microscopic, bacteria-like creatures called actinomycetes, which are released when the rain drop hits fertile soil. Actinomycetes are great nitrogen-fixing organisms. This means they can trap nitrogen from ozone and from the air and help soil retain it for later use by plants.  Actinomycetes exist in large numbers (read millions) in a teaspoon of good, fertile soil, and are part of an ecosystem that creates strong roots systems in turf grass and other plants. One family of actinomycetes, Streptomyces, provides us with many of the important antibiotics used in medicine.

A third element is ozone, which may or may not be present trapped in the aerosol. Ozone is formed during a thunderstorm. Lightning can split oxygen and nitrogen molecules which then forms nitric oxide. Rain brings this form of nitrogen directly into the ground. That’s why people say “everything looks greener” after a thunderstorm. It probably is greener, as plants take in lots of nitrogen from the rain, which helps them create more chlorophyll, thus greening up the plant leaves.

When someone says they smell rain coming, it’s probable that wind from a coming storm or rain event is carrying ozone, actinomycetes and oils from the soil and oils from plants. This goes into a person’s nostrils and is interpreted as “smelling rain.”

Enjoy the smell. It’s beneficial to humans, other animals and to the soil itself.