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.


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