Recently I’ve heard from a number of wildlife gardeners who say they are no longer buying plants from regular retail nurseries because there is no way of telling whether or not the pollinator-attracting plants they are purchasing have been treated with neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonicotinoids (imidacloprid, etc) are a class of pesticide which many studies indicate contribute strongly to colony collapse disorder in honeybees, and can also kill other bees.
However, the pesticide isn’t all bad. Neonicotinoids are often used because the application process is so safe in comparison to spraying. Neonicotinoids are watered in and taken up by the plants’ roots to treat the plant internally, so when they are applied correctly, there is less potential for agricultural workers to be exposed to harmful chemicals, and less residue left externally on the plant when it goes to market. In addition to their use on nursery plants, neonicotinoids are commonly used in non-organic food crops (in fruits, vegetables, wine grapes, and grains), and in the systemic flea medications that are dabbed on the back of Fluffy’s and Fido’s necks each month.
The problem with neonics is in the pollen. When plants treated with a neonicotinoid produce flowers and pollen, the pesticide is contained within the pollen and bees bring it home to their hive, where (many studies indicate) even small amounts can build up over time into a concentration that weakens or kills the hive.
Though many growers who use neonics say they take precautions by not applying them when the plant is in bloom, and by applying systemically with a soil drench or granular application rather than spraying, this only avoids acute and immediate honeybee death. The more insidious problem is caused when bees take home enough neonic-containing pollen over time to weaken or kill the hive.
Depending on the type of plant, neonics can linger within the plant and therefore the pollen for a number of years. Is that the case for all plants? No. Seeds that are treated, or tiny cuttings or liners will naturally have a much smaller concentration of the pesticide as they grow and mature, if they are not retreated. However, it’s clear that merely avoiding treatment during times of bloom is not an effective way of protecting our pollinators, as the pesticide is intended to remain active within the plant for some time.
It’s a heartbreaking realization for a wildlife gardener who has purchased pollinator-attracting plants from a major nursery, to think that they may have inadvertently killed or weakened many of the bees they were trying to benefit.
However, I think that wildlife gardeners who are completely avoiding purchasing from retail nurseries because of their fear of neonic pesticides are going too far. To start, the young plants often available at local native plant sales are a complete nonstarter when it comes to professional landscapers and people who don’t want to wait 10 years for their 1 gallon tree to reach a size to where it could provide shelter to birds during the winter. With the average homeowner selling their home every seven years, it’s just not practical. Then, there’s the issue of selection. Many of these sources do not carry the wide variety of plant material and even native plant material that retail nurseries do, so being able to utilize all the available sources for plants will allow for a garden that better supports wildlife over time. Locally-owned retail nurseries can be a huge ally in your search for appropriate wildlife-attracting plants for your region.
I’ve compiled a list of neonic-free growers, seed companies and nurseries (both wholesale and retail) to empower gardeners who value pollinators and wildlife to shop for pollinator-attracting plants that will be free of neonicotinoid pesticides.
Nurseries that DON’T use neonicotinoid pesticides
- Annie’s Annuals: No neonics
- Digging Dog Nursery: No on the plants they personally grow, but they do re-sell plants that they purchased from other nurseries, so call and ask before ordering whether the plants you wish to purchase were grown on-site. They expressed that they are happy to direct people to the plants they grew personally and that those are all free of neonics.
- Emerisa Gardens: No, EXCEPT on young Phormiums – see below
- Eschraghi Nursery: No
- EuroAmerican Propagators: No as of 7/14 (EuroAmerican grows many Proven Winners liners, so this is an excellent source for neonic-free PW plants)
- Iseli Nursery: No
- Plant Delights Nursery: No
- Pleasant View Gardens: No as of 1/15
- Prairie Nursery: No
- Prairie Moon Nursery: No
- Skagit Gardens: No use as of 1/15
- Suncrest: No use as of 7/14
- Terra Nova Nurseries: No, but not entirely happy about it “They were safer for humans for re-entry into greenhouses and very useful as long as you do not spray flowering crops that bees and other pollinators could get at. Now we all must find new or return to older less safe products if we need to use something to chemically-control pest like spider mites and other insects.” – Larry Finley
- Walters Gardens: No use as of 7/14 (Walters Gardens grows many Proven Winners liners, so this is an excellent source for neonic-free PW plants)
- Xera Plants: No
- Baker Creek: No
- Botanical Interests: No
- Fedco: No
- Maine Potato Lady: No
- Native Seeds: No
- Peaceful Valley: No
- Renee’s Garden: No
- Seed Savers: No
- Sustainable Seed Company: No
- Territorial Seed: No
Nurseries that DO use neonicotinoid pesticides (do read their explanations)
Dave Wilson Nursery: Yes “We use imidacloprid. But not during the bloom season.” – Dennis
Monrovia: Yes “Monrovia takes environmental stewardship very seriously, and we seek to do the right thing, adapting our methods and operating practices as scientific knowledge emerges. At this time, we continue to use neonics, but as safely and conservatively as we can.” – Katie Tamony
Emerisa Gardens (with caveat): Yes, but ONLY on young Phormiums (and after speaking with numerous people at the company I feel confident that they are extremely conscientious regarding pollinators and the environment) – “The only use of neonicotinoid for us is for the eradication of mealybugs in young Phormiums. These plants won’t bloom in at least two years, which is the longest possible length of time that this pesticide will reside in a plant. The manufacturer lists a residual of one year with rare exceptions of two years. Therefore, I feel confident that no pollinators are adversely affected by this usage since none feed on the leaves of Phormiums.” – Lutfi
Monterey Bay Nursery: Yes, but very rarely as they prefer to use beneficials and natural predators “We are targeted on what we apply for. For example, mealybugs on Phormiums – there is no predatory insect that we can use to control them, and it’s a pest that will persist in the landscape even after planting, which makes it critical to eradicate. When the citrus psyllid hits California (it has devastated the citrus industry in Florida), we may have to use it on that.
However, our best methods of control have been predatory mites and other beneficials. They don’t cure a problem, but if we release them in anticipation of a problem at specific growth stages or times of year, we can avoid spraying. Our biggest successes have been Phytoseiulus persimilis mites, which have been effective even in cool conditions for fuchsia mites if used in advance, and Encarsia wasps for whitefly.
From a business standpoint, aside from any moral judgments about it, we hate having to spray. It interrupts our watering and sales cycles, it takes expertise and a great deal of time to suit up, spray, and wash up afterwards, it’s hard work on our people, and the reports we have to file are long and exhausting. With natural predators, you avoid all of that, so from a practical perspective, I’d prefer to use natural predators any day rather than spraying.” – Luen Miller
San Marcos Growers: Yes “Entomologists at UC Davis have not identified a connection between colony collapse and neonicotinoids.” – Randy
Yes or no? The answer is complicated:
Proven Winners: Proven Winners states the following: “We are very proud to say that we do not use neonics on liners. And we do not use neonics on any plants we finish for garden centers to sell to gardeners. But that is a small number of plants when compared to the number of liners which leave our 5 facilities in North America.We do sell our liners to greenhouse growers, and also to retailers who grow for their own purposes. So the best thing to say is to have the gardener ask about neonic use at the garden center where they are purchasing their plants.” – Jeanine Standard
In other words, Proven Winners sells a huge number of their plants in liner size (trays of 72 tiny starts). These baby plants are “finished” by other growers across the country, so a more compelling question for PW-labeled plants is whether the grower who grew the plants to market-ready size used neonics. Walters Gardens and EuroAmerican are two of the larger companies that finish plants for Proven Winners; neither uses neonics. However, you will need to ask about neonic use at the garden center, or find out the grower who sold the plants to the nursery and call them to ask.
Nurseries that would not return repeated calls and emails (assume they DO use neonicotinoids, to be safe)
Hines Growers – assume yes, would not respond to repeated calls
Color Spot Nursery – assume yes, would not respond to repeated calls
Other plant sources that are often safe
Local native plant sales (always ask to be 100% sure)
Local farmer’s markets (don’t assume, many growers are not organic and so it is important to ask)
How to use this information
Many of the growers listed are wholesale growers that sell to retail nurseries, not directly to individuals. While the people at your local retail nursery can’t possibly keep track of every single plant’s background, if you ask, they can usually tell you what wholesale nursery the plant came from. Also, there is frequently a grower name or logo listed on the tag or pot. By using this list at the nursery, you can confirm that the plants you are selecting are safe for bees (or choose to purchase something else if they are not).
If you have a question about a nursery that is not listed, ask me in the comments and I will contact the company to get their answer and comments.
Should you boycott brands that use neonicotinoids?
Should you avoid purchasing plants from companies that occasionally or regularly use neonics? No, that’s not what I’m recommending at all. If you think about the wide variety of plants we purchase, many of them don’t attract pollinators at all. Many trees, conifers, ornamental grasses, ferns, and other plants provide tremendous wildlife value as shelter or in the form of berries/ seeds for birds, and are attractive and beautiful in the garden. There is no need to throw out the diverse array of plants available from these nurseries.
Neonicotinoids are not across-the-board bad. It’s just that they seem bad for insect pollinators, and particularly bees that live in a hive community. When viewed through a larger lens, they are actually a vast improvement over the many pesticides people used to use which were more dangerous to humans, groundwater and wildlife. I’ve spoken with many of the representatives from nurseries who do use neonics, and it sounds as though they use these pesticides responsibly and within a framework of preventive cultural care, organic and natural pesticides, biological controls, and beneficial insects.
Where I do believe neonicotinoids have no place is when treating plants that do attract pollinators. They’ve been banned in many parts of Europe and in other parts of the world because of their effect on pollinators, and while the case is often made (by those with a financial stake) that the research is inconclusive, it’s also true that I don’t see any major chemical companies or our government stepping forward to fund more conclusive research. The research that I do see, indicating that small amounts of these pesticides in pollen build up fairly quickly in a hive setting to lethal doses, makes me feel strongly that when I’m purchasing native milkweed or plants that are specifically for the benefit of pollinators, I don’t feel comfortable purchasing plants that have been grown using neonics at any stage of their development.
More information about neonicotinoids and bees:
Other lists of bee-safe nurseries, seeds, and growers
I hope that the information presented here has helped you take a balanced view of this range of pesticides and make better decisions about purchasing plants for your garden. If there are any nurseries or growers that are not listed above, please leave a comment below and I’ll contact them to ask.