Honey Bees,  Mites, and Neonicotinoid Insecticides…What’s causing our honey bee decline

Honey bees are disappearing at alarming rates across the globe and scientists are still scrambling to find out the causes.

Since honeybees are responsible for pollinating 30% of the world’s food crops and 90% of our wild plants, the decline is something to sit up and take notice of.

Significant declines in the world’s honey bee populations began around 2006. Of course, this is not the first time that the world has seen bee decline. It’s occurred more than once in the 4,000 plus years since the ancient Egyptians began keeping bees.

But this time, the decline seems to be different. Beekeepers report that during the 2012-2013 winter, they lost 45.7 percent of their hives. So what’s causing it?

U.S. scientists and bee experts all agree that the two types of mites, the Varoa mite (Varoa destructor) and the Tracheal mite (Acarapis woodi) are the two most significant thugs in the bee world. Varoa infest both the brood and adult stages of bees. Feeding on the blood of the bee, they weaken the insect and also infect it with viruses. Studies have also shown that secondary infections from Varoa causes bees to become disoriented and not able to find their way back to the hive.

The Tracheal mite lays eggs inside the tracheae (the breathing apparatus) of bees. It also feeds on the blood of bees, but also weakens them by inhibiting their breathing ability.

But mites are not the only culprits. A relatively new type of insecticide, called neonicotinoid, is also affecting bee colonies. The name “neonicotinoid” literally means “new nicotine-like insecticides. Although the jury is still out on how much neonicotinoids affect the Colony Collapse Syndrome, there is pertinent data about the insecticide that lends credibility to the situation.

In the report “Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees, A Review of Research into the Effects of Neonicotinoid Insecticides on Bees, with Recommendations for Action.” by Jennifer Hopwood, Mace Vaughan, Matthew Shepherd, David Biddinger, Eric Mader, Scott Hoffman Black, and Celeste Mazzacano.

Some of the findings of the report:

  • Neonicotinoid residues are found in pollen and nectar consumed by pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The residues can reach lethal concentrations in some situations.
  • Neonicotinoids can persist in soil for months or years after a single application. Measurable amounts of residues were found in woody plants up to six years after application.
  • Untreated plants may absorb chemical residues left over in the soil from the previous year.
  • Products approved for homeowners to use in gardens, lawns, and on ornamental trees have manufacturer-recommended application rates up to 120 times higher than rates approved for agricultural crops. 

A number of scientist agree that the effects of neonicotinoids should be investigated. In fact, the European Union has placed  moratorium on the sale of the product until further research can be conducted on its effects on bees.

Dr. Michael Merchant, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Urban Entomologist, notes in a recently published abstract that two reports in Science magazine showed that neonicotinoids disrupted the homing abilities of foraging honey bees and colony growth in bumble bees. A Harvard School of Public Health study links the use of neonicotinoids to the ongoing demise of honey bee colonies. Dr. Merchant does add that this research has been “challenged by pesticide manufacturers and some researchers.”

There are currently 465 neonicotinoid-containing products on the U.S. market now, most of them readily available to consumers for backyard use.

The EPA, although not officially banning the use of neonicotinoids, has taken two important steps in regulating them. First, the EPA has said it will likely not approve “most applications of new use of these chemicals” until it obtains new data and research on possible dangers to pollinators.

The EPA also requires that all insecticides which may harm bees be labeled with the “Bee Box”that alerts users to not use if bees are present in the area, which is most of the time.

About 95 percent of the corn seeds in the world are treated with neonicotinoids, which supposedly increases yield by reducing insect predation. Neonicotinoid-treated soybean seeds are also widespread, although the EPA has recently released a study that says treating the seeds offers little,if any, economic benefit to soybean farmers’ economic bottom lines. In other words, some farmers are using pesticide-treated seeds they don’t need.

In addition to honey bees concerns, the USDA has released a report that links neonicotinoids to monarch butterfly decline. Researchers found that milkweed containing neonicotinoids “could negatively affect larval monarch populations.”

The jury is still out on the effects of neonicotinoids on bees. Many researchers believe there the chemicals have no provable effects on bees. Others say there is an abundance of evidence.

Whatever one’s feelings lie, there are alternatives to neonicotinoids.

Aphids and many other pest species are attracted to plants fertilized with high nitrogen products, a typical component of synthetic fertilizer operations. Organic compost, compost teas, low-nitrogen  organic fertilizers and fish emulsions release nitrogen slowly into the soil and aphids tend to avoid them.

Diversity in a garden is best. Plant a wide variety of native flowers, grasses and bushes to encourage natural predators like birds and ladybugs.

For lawns, use organic compost at least twice a year. Raise the mower blade and leave at least 2+ inches of grass blade. Sharpen mower blades.

Both Home Depot and Lowes have announced that they will ban insecticides that contain neonicotinoids, and are requiring that plants which have been sprayed with the inseciticide be labelled as such before being sold.

A partial list of products containing neonicotinoids include:

  • Bayer Advanced 3-in-1 Insect, Disease, & Mite Control
  • Bayer Advanced 12 Month Tree & Shrub Insect Control
  • Bayer Advanced 12 Month Tree & Shrub Protect & Feed
  • Bayer Advanced Fruit, Citrus & Vegetable Insect Control
  • Bayer Advanced All-in-One Rose & Flower Care concentrate
  • DIY Tree Care Products Multi-Insect Killer
  • Ferti-lome 2-N-1 Systemic
  • Hi-Yield Systemic Insect Spray
  • Hunter
  • Knockout Ready-To-Use Grub Killer
  • Lesco Bandit
  • Marathon
  • Merit
  • Monterey Once a Year Insect Control II
  • Ortho Bug B Gon Year-Long Tree & Shrub Insect Control
  • Ortho MAX Tree & Shrub Insect Control
  • Surrender Brand GrubZ Out
  • Bayer Advanced All-in-One Rose & Flower Care granules
  • Flagship
  • Greenlight Grub control with Arena
  • Maxide Dual Action Insect Killer
  • Meridian
  • Ortho flower, Fruit and Vegetable Insect Killer
  • Ortho Rose and Flower Insect Killer
  • Green Light Tree and Shrub Insect Control with Safari 2G
  • Safari
  • Transect
  •  Zylam 20SG Systemic Turf Insecticide

Imported Fire Ants: Prolific, protective and venomous.

Keep the grits, club soda, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, and coffee grounds in the pantry.  None of these “folk” remedies work on fire ants.

Red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) love to make their nests in sunny spots, which, as often as not, happen to be in the middle of a beautiful, well-cared-for lawn.

Prolific, protective and  venomous,  a typical mature fire ant colony contains at least 80,000 workers. Some mounds may contain over 200,000 workers. Queens can live 5 years or more and can lay as many as 1,500 eggs a day.

Fire ant venom is related to the main chemical ingredient in black pepper. Although the stings are painful, and pustules form on the skin of most people, less than one percent of the population actually has an allergic reaction to these creatures.

There are  few “urban legend” remedies that do work. A YouTube video showing a person pouring molten aluminum into a fire ant nest  proves that process works – killing 100 percent of the colony – but it can be a trifle complicated…and expensive.  Boiling water poured into a nest also will eliminate about 60 percent of the population, but the remaining number will quickly multiply. Some recommend simply flooding the nests with tap water, but this will only make the ants move, perhaps to another yard, which may not engender favor with neighbors. Pouring gasoline into a mound and igniting it will kill many of the ants but will also contaminate the soil for years.

There are, however, ways to eliminate fire ants that are also harmless to the environment.


An oil extract made from orange peels, d-limonene erodes the fire ant exoskeletons, essentially suffocating them.  D-limonene also kills other insects as well, such as roaches, earwigs, and silverfish.


Spinosad is an insecticide derived from a bacterium. It affects the nervous system of insects, causing “hyperexcitation,” which means they simply run themselves to death. Spinosad is also used to kill fleas, and many heart worm medicines for dogs have spinosad in them.  Spinosad should not be broadcast over a large area, but should be confined to the area on and immediately around the mound. Spinosad is toxic to bees, and should be spread in early morning or late afternoon when bees are not foraging.


Like Spinosad, Abamecten is a bacterial derivative. When an insect consumes abamecten, it becomes paralyzed and dies shortly after. Since abamecten is also highly toxic to bees, care should be taken to apply it in early morning or late afternoon.  Follow package directions.

Diatomaceous Earth

Made up of the fossilized remains of diatoms, a hard-shelled algae, this naturally abrasive product erodes the waxy layer on the ant’s exoskeleton, causing it to die of dehydration. However, once wet, diatomaceous earth loses its abrasive qualities as far as insects are concerned, anyway. It is used in toothpaste and cosmetics as well.

Do the Texas Two Step

Step 1: Apply Spinosad or Abamecten to the mound. Sprinkle it on and around the mound at the recommended amount. While some directions include broadcasting it with a spreader, it’s best to avoid this. While organic, these two insecticides are indiscriminate.

Step 2:  About a week later, thoroughly drench the mound with d-limonene.

Texas Three Step

Repeat the process. Several days after drenching with d-limonene, you can spread diatomaceous earth on the mound.

There are man-made chemical chemicals that can also be used. For more information on these, contact the Montgomery Master Gardener Hotline at 936-539-7824.


Red imported fire ants areaggressive and their it is painfull.

Make your lawn a giant rainwater harvesting system

As water becomes a more precious and expensive natural resource, experts are looking at ways to conserve and extend its usefulness. This is especially true for lawns, which guzzle large amounts of drinking water, especially during long, hot summers.

There is a way, though, to turn the lawn into a gigantic water harvesting device that will help save money, conserve water, and provide healthier and more disease- and insect-resistant turf.

In studies conducted by Texas A&M, Michigan State University and others, adding organic material to your lawn can greatly increase the soil’s water holding capacity.

Water-holding abilities of organic matter

Soil scientists note that for every 1 percent of organic matter added to soil increases its water holding capacity to about 1.5 quarts of water per cubic foot. Two percent organic matter can hold up to three quarts per cubic foot.

1% equals 1,500 gallons of water

Look at a 4,000 square-foot lawn, and take a cross section of it, a foot deep.  Those 4,000 square feet suddenly become 4,000 cubic feet of soil.  If one percent  organic matter added to soil can increase the soil’s water holding capacity to 1.5 quarts per cubic foot, a simple calculation shows that the 4,000 square-foot-lawn (also 4,000 cubic feet), can hold 6,000 quarts. That comes to 1,500 gallons of water.

Take that same 4,000 square-foot lawn, but instead of adding one percent organic matter, add two percent. The soil’s water holding capacity becomes 3 quarts per cubic foot, or 12,000 quarts. That many quarts equal 3,000 gallons of water, held in the soil – a significant amount.

Logically, one would think that if two percent can save so much water, four percent or five percent would do even better. And it would! However, because of the climate in southeast Texas, organic material decomposes relatively quickly. Getting and maintaining more than two percent into any given soil, is very difficult here. But twice-a-year application of organic material to the lawn should be sufficient to maintain a two percent level.

Irrigation and Rainwater

Good soil with an abundance of organic matter absorbs water. Just an inch or so of rain on 4,000 square feet will create almost 3,000 gallons of water.  That much water, stored in the soil, can eliminate a week of watering, and save homeowners a bundle.

When an irrigation system waters the lawn, excess water is absorbed by the organic matter. Instead of running off into the street, it is saved and stored in the soil.

Where to find organic matter

Organic material can be found anywhere. Home composting bins are excellent sources. Instead of bagging grass clippings, a mulching mower drops cut grass blades back onto the soil. Grass clippings are full of nutrients and organic matter.

Spreading compost over the lawn about 1/3 to ½ inch deep twice a year (once in mid-October and once in mid-April) will also add organic material to the soil.

Organic material also improves the population of beneficial insects and microbes in the soil, strengthens grass roots by allowing them to grow deeper and keeps the soil at a more even temperature.

Try “No Till” in your vegetable garden

Humans have tilled the earth since they stopped being hunter-gatherers and became farmers. The tradition has been to turn over the earth before planting to get rid of weeds and to make it easier to use fertilizers to plant crops. Mechanical tillers have made things easier, but tilling is still one of a gardener’s most difficult tasks.

However, soil scientists are now realizing that tilling interferes with the complex relationship of the soil and the micro-organisms that keep the soil healthy and productive. Tilling also compacts the soil, brings long-dormant weed seeds to the surface sale and adds to erosion. In fact, poor agricultural practices like tilling helped develop the Great Dust Bowl of the 1920s and 1930s.

Gardeners who practice the “no-till” method never disturb the bed once it is established. Instead, they add amendments like compost, manure, peat, lime and fertilizer to the top of the bed.  Water and the micro-organisms in the soil pull the nutrients down into the subsoil.  Instead of weeding, they use mulch to prevent weeds from germinating. The results of “no-till” gardening: good, spongy soil, rich in micro-organisms and beneficial fungi. This allows the roots of young seedlings to penetrate through the soil.

“No-Till” Gardening Benefits

Aeration and drainage

Earthworms, micorrhizal fungi and other soil organisms are keys to good soil structure. Worm tunnels provide drainage. Their excretions help fertilize the soil and bind the soil to provide for aeration. Gardeners who practice the no-till process say that their vegetable plots are freer of diseases and pests.

Water Savings

Good layers of mulch allow water to pass through into the soil, while shading the soil, keeping it at a more constant temperature. This is especially important along the Upper Gulf Coast, where late spring sun beats down mercilessly on garden beds. The mulch also prevents evaporation, and helps create a moist growing environment.

Less weeding

Most garden beds contain weed seeds which stay dormant until they become exposed to sunlight. Dormant weed seeds will remain dormant indefinitely in no-till gardens. Gardeners can easily remove the few weeds carried in by the wind or birds.

Saves time and energy

Some gardeners till with a shovel, turning over the soil one scoop at a

Leaving the roots of plants in the soil adds to the organic content.
Leaving the roots of plants in the soil adds to the organic content.

time. Others use gas-powered tillers. No-till gardeners save time and energy.

Keeping the carbon in the soil

Good soil has a great deal of carbon. Humus, compost and other decaying organic matter provides carbon and other carbon-dependent nutrients to plants. Tilling the soil speeds up the breakdown of organic matter. When this happens, it releases the nutrients too quickly, increasing the need for more fertilizers. Good plant growth requires a slow, steady release of nutrients. No-till gardening promotes this process.

Earthworm population

Soil without earthworms tends to be poor soil. A good earthworm population in garden soil is a good indication that the soil is healthy. Earthworms create tunnels which help water and air to filter deeply into the soil. Tilling destroys these structures. In addition, earthworm excretions (called worm castings) are extremely rich in desired micro-organisms and nutrients.

Reduces Erosion

The no-till method reduces erosion. It increases the carbon in the soil, which helps prevent fertilizers and topsoil from being washed away.

Types of mulches

Since mulch is such an important component of no-till gardening, it’s important to know what types of mulches work best. First, remember that mulch and compost are not the same thing. Mulch is organic matter that has not yet become compost.

Good sources of mulch:

  • Straw: Excellent mulching material, as opposed to hay, which may have weed seeds.
  • Pine straw: Don’t curse the pine needles in your yard. Save them for mulch. Many municipalities and homeowners are using pine straw. It degrades slowly and therefore has a longer life than many other mulches.
  • Leaves: A great source of carbon and other nutrients. After all, the largest amount of all nutrients in a plant are in its leaves. There are two easily-fixed problems with leaves. They sometimes tend to mat, and they tend to blow away. Spreading leaves in thin layers and sprinkling a little soil on each layer will help prevent both these problems.
  • Newspaper: Since paper is made of wood, these are good sources of carbon. However, newspapers tend to blow away. As with leaves, sprinkle soil between each layer.
  • Seaweed: Seaweed has a large amount of trace minerals that plants need. Slugs don’t like it, so it acts as a slug repellant as well.

Gardeners who want less strenuous work, good vegetable production, and continuous soil health might want to give no-till gardening a try.

Soil: The Living Lawyer of Earth

The soil in your garden and landscape should be a living layer of earth. That’s not a platitude – it’s a fact. It should be packed with microbes. A teaspoon of good soil should contain literally billions of beneficial bacteria, thousands of protozoans, and miles of micorrhizal fungi. Billions of bacteria and miles of fungi? In a teaspoon? It may sound like fiction, but it’s true…if you have good soil!

These organisms and larger life such as earthworms create a soil food web, devouring small bits of organic matter in the soil, converting it into nutrients. Plant roots can then take in those nutrients to produce leaves, stems, flowers, fruit and seed. Good healthy plants can fend off disease and destructive insects. The absence of these microorganisms and larger organisms such earthworms, result in compacted, lifeless soil. Lifeless soil, of course, cannot sustain life.

A recent non-scientific study in one Gulf Coast community not only indicated that “take-all patch” was common in the sampling, but that all the lawns tested had compacted soil. In fact, a sampling trowel broke during the testing because the soil was so hard.

Solving the compacted soil problem

The absolute best way to give your soil life again is to simply add organic material. You don’t need complicated chemicals and fertilizers. You don’t need “inoculants.” You don’t need humates. All you need is simple organic compost. Organic compost contains all the microorganisms needed to inoculate soil, and also contains nutrient-rich material which will not only decompose slowly, but will also feed all the tiny animals in the soil. Here are some typical ways to bring your soil back to life with microorganisms.


Spread organic compost evenly throughout the yard about ¾ inch deep. If you can’t do it yourself, hire a landscape crew to do it. Many of them will also pick up the compost for you as well, if you pay for it beforehand. After spreading, if you feel it looks unsightly, hose it down into the lawn or take a broom and sweep it down.

Do this twice a year – once in the mid fall around the end of October or beginning of November. Add it again about mid-April. These are optimum times to compost your lawn. However, compost can be spread on turf anytime.

If you’ve got St. Augustine grass, compost is about all you’ll need. You don’t need to dethatch. If you mulch your grass clippings, you probably don’t need to fertilize. If you’ve got weeds, you don’t need herbicides either. In fact, man fertilizers and herbicides actually kill soil organisms. St. Augustine grass is so aggressive and responds so readily to the microbial-rich compost that in a matter of months it will force out most, if not all, weeds. With a high level of microbes in the soil, the grass will develop deep roots and will become more resistant to insect and disease damage.

For Landscape Plants

Spread compost two to three inches deep around plants about a two foot radius for shrubs and less for perennial flowers. For beds, spread evenly the same depth. Again, herbicides and pesticides are not necessary and can actually harm the soil organisms. Spread compost two to three inches deep around plants about a two foot radius for shrubs and less for perennial flowers. Trees generally do not need to be composted.

For vegetable gardens

Spread six inches of organic compost six to eight inches deep throughout the garden. Then either mix it into the soil below or simply leave it on top and set plants in it.

Remember that compost is not mulch. They have two completely different purposes. Compost enriches the soil, and feeds all the organisms beneath the surface. It is made of fine particles of decomposed organic material, generally what will fit through a 3/8 inch screen.

Many gardeners make their own compost. However, they find they never have enough homemade compost, so they purchase more from a reputable compost provider. In order to find a compost operation near you, see this website: findacomposter.com.

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy, poison ivy
Late at night while you’re sleepin’
Poison ivy comes creepin’, around

Measles make you bumpy
And mumps’ll make you lumpy
And chicken pox’ll make you jump and twitch

A common cold’ll fool ya
And whooping cough can cool ya
But poison ivy, Lord’ll make you itch

– The Coasters

Despite the strong sexual metaphors, the last line is a true one, to anyone who’s ever been exposed to poison ivy.

When I was a kid, I used to handle poison ivy with impunity.  When everyone else was afraid to get close to it, I reveled in the fact that I was immune to urushiol.

Then came that one time. I was fishing along a slow moving, chocolate colored Louisiana bayou. The day was still a little cool (what we here along the coast call cool which, as you know, is anything below 80 F.) Insects were buzzing, a slight  breeze rustled the bald cypress needles just coming out of their winter nap, and white, shape-shifting clouds scudded through the almost violet spring  sky.

You know where I’m going with this. I leaned back against a large live oak and closed my eyes. When I opened them, the sun was going down. I didn’t catch any fish that day. By the time I reached home, though, I had caught something else.  An inescapable itching crept along my neck, and down both arms.  Welts began to appear. Voila. My immunity had disappeared.

So it is with urushiol.  A person may go for years being immune to it and then become allergic to it. Conversely, a person can be allergic to it in the past and then becomes immune to it.

Urushiol is found not only in poison ivy, but also in poison oak and poison sumac.  Their Genus name (Toxicodendron), means “poisonous vine”. Two of the three (poison ivy and poison oak) are prevalent along the Gulf coast. As for poison sumac, there are various interpretations of its range. Several descriptions put it east of the Mississippi, while others place it solidly all along the coast.

There are other members of the family, some which may surprise you. Cashews, mangos, smoke trees, marula and several others are included. All have varying levels of urushiol.

Poison ivy (and its brothers) are taking to warmer temperatures and higher levels of carbon dioxide like pigs take to slop. Their leaves are growing bigger. I’ve seen some poison ivy in Texas with leaves as big as my hand, and there are reports that some can get as large as a pie pan. Not only is the plant getting bigger, the urushiol is getting more potent.

The moral, I suppose is, if you’re going to get out in the garden, learn to recognize these plants. There’s plenty of information on the internet about them. Experts will tell you that If you’re working where one of these three brothers are living, wear long trousers and long-sleeve shirts. And gloves.

Of course, we who live along the Gulf Coast are aware that all that advice is given by people who live in cooler climes. For most of us, t-shirts and blue jeans tend to be more appropriate. Gloves are not a bad idea though.

If you must get rid of it, put it in the garbage, not in green waste or your compost pile. Don’t burn it. The urushiol. The fumes can carry urushiol and you can inhale it. If you think it’s uncomfortable on your arm, think what it would be like inside your body.


Gulf Coast Gardening

Organic gardening along the Gulf Coast

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