By 2011, Phyllis Stiles had grown tired of the gloomy news bugging the honeybee community. Colony collapse disorder and the deadly varroa mite were devastating hives worldwide; pollinators were suffering at the hands of pesticides, urban sprawl and monoculture; and as these problems piled up, the future wasn’t looking optimistic.
“I was 55 years old, and my husband and I had been keeping honeybees for a couple of years,” Stiles recalls. “At every beekeeping meeting people would cry about their bees dying. There was little good news.”
That was when an idea stung her: an advocacy organization that would help save bees and thousands of other threatened pollinators at a grassroots level. The following year, Stiles founded the inaugural chapter of Bee City USA, which has since spread to 39 states and 174 chapters nationwide.
The organization, for which she eventually quit her full-time job at UNC Asheville, aims to reverse the threat facing pollinators around the world. In 2018, Bee City achieved greater recognition and support when it joined forces with The Xerces Society, an international nonprofit dedicated to invertebrate conservation. Together, the programs work to develop and endorse a set of commitments from communities that will create more sustainable habitats for pollinators.
For Stiles and her peers, reducing the mainstream use of neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” which Stiles describes as “an obvious culprit in the decline of pollinators,” has been a major goal. And thanks to the hard work of pollinator advocates worldwide, major strides have been made to both reduce its use and educate growers on its toxicity.
Originally developed in the 1980s, neonics are one of the most widely used insecticides in the world, according to a report by the University of Vermont. The chemical can be applied as a seed-coating, spray, soil drench or trunk injection, and despite its popularity, many folks using the insecticide might not even realize it.
“You have to look closely at the ingredients,” explains Stiles. “And even if you do inspect the labels closely, remembering chemical names like clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam can be challenging for the average gardener.”
According to a 2014 analysis by the Center for Food Safety, neonics can “damage the central nervous system of insects, causing tremors, paralysis, and death at very low doses.” Neonics also easily seep into the soil, contaminate waterways and are highly toxic to aquatic organisms. Moreover, the Center for Food Safety asserts, the use of neonics is considered a major factor in colony collapse disorder, which plagues pollinators worldwide. Due to these concerns, the European Union announced a ban on three neonic insecticides in April 2018.
“What sets neonics apart from other insecticides is that they are systemic,” explains Ruth Gonzalez, who works at Reems Creek Nursery. “They are absorbed into every part of the plant. Animals and bugs feed on it. Honeybees spread it to the rest of their hive, and it can affect their ability to navigate.”
The kicker? More often than not, most neonics applications fail to demonstrate a corresponding yield benefit, according to the Center for Food Safety. “The bottom line,” the report concludes, “is that toxic insecticides are being unnecessarily applied in most cases.”
In January 2016, Xpress reported in “Bees Here Now” that thanks to pressure from consumers, Home Depot and Lowe’s declared they would work to phase out neonics-treated plants from their inventory by 2018. Since then, a handful of other major retailers, including Ace Hardware, BJ’s, Costco, Kroger and Walmart, have followed suit with commitments to cutting down and/or removing all neonic-treated plants.
“The take-home message for me is that public pressure works,” says Stiles. “Companies listen. And when companies listen, they put pressure on suppliers. The marketplace speaks loud and clear when it comes to what people want to buy.”
The retailers appear to be keeping true to their promise. Stiles says that her Bee City volunteers often go into the stores that have made neonics-related commitments and verify with employees that neonics-free plants are labeled accurately. In Fort Bragg, Calif., for example, Stiles says there’s a group of Bee City volunteers who monitor the shelves of the local hardware store every week to see if the number of neonic pesticides is going down.
In June 2018, Ace Hardware published a statement noting that over 95% of its distributed insecticide product offerings are neonics-free. In an emailed statement this month, Home Depot’s Christina Glowacki-Cornell confirmed that its plants are now 98% free of neonics and that any plants that have been treated with it are labeled so customers can make an informed decision.
Some local suppliers have been even more proactive. In 2013, Reems Creek Nursery began to phase out neonics on its farm operation, which makes up about 40% of its inventory. Gonzalez says the transition to 100% neonics-free plants was finalized in 2015.
When it comes to the plants not grown on farm property, the staff also calls vendors to verify whether or not neonics were used in the plant’s production. According to Gonzalez, the majority of the vendors say they do not use the product, but on the other hand, a lot of growers have not yet implemented a companywide ban.
“We have pollinator talks and conversations with customers about it all the time,” says Reems Creek Nursery owner Susan Reavis. “If they are deciding to spray insecticides, we try to educate them to avoid flowers, spray late in the evening when the bees aren’t out and to read the safety labels on the products carefully.”
Reavis adds that while she sees the elimination of neonics as an important step, other forms of pesticides such as herbicides, fungicides and even organic insecticides can often be just as harmful. Also, if improperly disposed of, leftover pesticides can pose a major threat to soil and water health.
“The whole umbrella of pesticides is implicated. It’s very complicated,” says Gonzalez. “We might tend to blame farmers and monocropping, but homeowners contribute a lot of pesticides. It comes down to us all paying more attention.”
‘There is no planet B’
As more folks grow aware of the pollinators’ plight, Gonzalez emphasizes that real change is going to have to come from the decisions of individual growers, suppliers and consumers.
According to a 2019 Biological Conservation report, over the next few decades, 40% of the world’s insect species, many of which are pollinators, may become extinct. Pollinators are necessary for three-quarters of our major food crops, reports Pennsylvania State University’s department of entomology. Although not every species of plant — an example being wheat — relies on animal-mediated pollination, the majority of the food we eat does. Without pollinators, we can expect a major increase in food insecurity across the world.
While the European Union declared its first moratorium on neonics in 2013 and banned the use of three different neonics in 2018, no such traction exists for the U.S. in the realm of public policy. In fact, the policy train appears to be moving backward. Currently, there are no bans for neonics in place for agriculture, and this past year, the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era ban on the use of neonics, allowing the insecticides to be used on a case-by-case basis in national refuges.
“Even if neonics were to be completely banned, the haunting that hangs over us in the pollinator conservation world is [the question of] what’s going to replace them, and will it be worse?” says Stiles. “If growers continue to swap chemical for chemical instead of addressing the root problem of what harmful pesticides do to our soil, water and wildlife, how much progress have we really made?”
Mark Traub, vice president of the Buncombe County Beekeepers Association, says that in the past five years, he has seen more folks growing interested in beekeeping and pollinator gardens, and it’s a change that he’s enjoyed. But for Traub, “It’s just a drop in the bucket. We need to change the way we think as a collective group. …. Because once we screw this planet up, there’s no planet B.”
Gonzalez echoes this sentiment. “I don’t have control over the EPA or the government or the huge, big picture, but I do have control over my own yard,” she says. “But in my own yard, I can plant flowers and things that are going to support pollinators. I can talk to my neighbors and tell them what I’m doing so they know they could be helping too.”