Save Our Pollinators! Go ‘Neonic Free’ in Your Garden

Neonicotinoids, a systemic insecticide used to treat crop seeds and ornamental landscaping plants, have been strongly implicated in the devastating collapse of pollinator populations around the country.  We all know how important pollinators are, right? About 70% of the world’s plants require a pollinator, including 35% of crop species.  The value of pollinated crops in U.S.: $18 to $27 billion. One in three mouthfuls of food and drink we consume are due to pollinators.

Unfortunately, one study after another is showing dramatic decline in pollinator populations in recent years.  So why the crash?  On March 31, the Indiana Pesticide Review Committee I serve on hosted a Pollinator Protection Plan development meeting on March 31 to bring together beekeepers, farmers, pesticide applicators, government agencies, and concerned citizens and recommend best management practices to protect pollinators. Several speakers outlined the problem and possible reasons for the crash, and a key theme to the day was that neonicotinoids (neonics for short) appear to be the smoking gun.

Neonics are used as a seed coating in virtually all corn and 75% of soybeans planted in the Midwest. A small amount of the seed coating is taken up by the developing corn or soybean plant and protects the plant from insect damage; the rest of the seed coating ends up on the soil, moved by the wind, or moved in the water.  Neonics are also commonly used to treat garden plants, so there is a very good chance that your garden has toxic plants that will kill the very pollinators you are hoping to help – literally, a death trap for bees and butterflies.

Neonics are neurotoxins that are highly toxic to invertebrates, and much less toxic to vertebrates.  How toxic are they?  A typical application rate is 1.25 mg per corn kernel; this is enough to kill over 150,000 honey bees if it were somehow applied evenly.  The vast majority of the neonic dust on the seed –  over 90% – is not taken up by the growing plant, but instead blows away, depositing on soil and water and being taken up by plants growing in the area.  Because of the long half-life of these chemicals – measured in years – levels of neonics in soil near agricultural areas continue to climb every year. Treated ornamental plants will continue to have toxic insecticide in their tissues for years.

Even if a plant doesn’t contain enough neonic to kill insects outright, it’s been shown that sublethal doses disrupt bee feeding, foraging, growth rate, and the production of new queens.  Bees exposed to low doses appear to be more susceptible to pathogens.  This should not be a surprise; the advertising for one brand of neonic for termite control boasts that termites are 10,000 times more susceptible to pathogenic soil fungi. Yes, and it’s likely the same holds true for all butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.

A study by Friends of the Earth and Pesticide Research Institute in 2014 showed that 51% of the garden plants purchased at Lowe’s, Home Depot and Walmart in 18 cities in the US and Canada contained neonics at levels that could harm or kill bees.  Gardeners should know that Home Depot and Lowe’s have both agreed to phase out neonics in their garden plants – but not until 2019. 

What can you do? 

  • Before you buy any seed or plants for your garden, ask whether they have been treated with neonics.  If the answer is yes or they don’t know, let them know you won’t buy neonic-treated seeds or plants and walk away. 
  • If you live near farm fields, there’s a strong likelihood that neonic-treated crop seed is being used and that it may be in your soil and taken up by plants in your garden. Ask questions and find out.
  • Watch for and comment on the Indiana Pollinator Protection Plan when it is available; it’ll be on the Office of Indiana State Chemist website ( when available, and I’ll post the link on INPAWS Facebook group and page.
  • And finally – don’t be bothered by insect damage on your garden plants.  That’s a badge of pride, showing that you have a healthy garden that’s helping our pollinators. 


    Suzan Stuckman wrote on May 20, 2015

    Thanks Ellen. I live with a Wal-Mart nearby and suspiciously there are no bees and butterflies flying around their outdoor plants anymore. As tempting as it is to buy those lush petunias and marigolds it is good to know not to do this to pollinators. I feel bad because the local garden store personnel work so hard to keep them watered and beautiful. Still I will plant from seed until this is resolved.

    Wendy Ford wrote on May 13, 2015

    Thanks for sharing this important information, Ellen. We gardeners should make our voices heard at the big box stores--no neonics!

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