I’ve become the go-to person in our community of late whenever a friend or friend of an organization wants to sort out and understand the criteria for protecting our pollinators. I’m certain that it’s not because I have an exceptional expertise, but more likely because I have been particularly vocal on the subject and tend to craftily interject the “safe seed question” into otherwise everyday conversations. Would I like to go plant shopping? “Ah….do you have a few minutes? Can we talk?” Yes I know I wrote letters to the editor every week this month, but don’t you have some room in the latest edition? “Wait. Stop the car! That gardener is planting perennials in the city park!” Much of the confusion has undoubtedly occurred because two years ago we began to see articles about bee colony collapse and the danger of losing our natural pollinators and what that would mean for the food chain. For instance, in May of 2013 an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune proclaimed – “You can help bees by adding native plants” and went on to suggest creating a garden in your own back yard by planting bee balm, purple prairie clover, cup plant, asters and giant hyssops. The cover of Time Magazine in August 2013 featured a photo of one lone bee and the headline – “A World Without Bees – The price we’ll pay if we don’t figure out what’s killing the honeybee.” Yet again and again we were told that WE could be the solution. Unfortunately this trend exemplifies the adage that a little knowledge can be dangerous and recent articles have confused the public further by stating, for instance – “If you’re planting pollinators you just might be killing the bees even faster.” HUH! you say. At this point I should be directing you to scholarly sources like http://www.beeaction.org and http://www.xerces.org and hopefully you will take the time and follow through. For a quick-y perspective, however, I will offer my amateur understanding and here’s the story. Because farmers had been dousing their fields with pesticides for decades and that continued to be a concern, in the early 1990’s a new tool came on the market which was hailed as less dangerous to humans. The tool was labeled neonicotinoids and today they are the most widely used pesticides in the world. The name which encompasses the word – nicotine – should give you a hint. When will we learn? It took too long to realize that an acceptable social habit was actually deadly while the big tobacco interests spent a fortune telling us otherwise. Too late for many. In agriculture these neonicotinoids are used in virtually all row crops today, including corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, sunflowers and sugar beets. If you go into your own personal garden shed and read a few labels on the sprays you use, look for Imidacloprid, Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, Acetamiprid, and Dinotefuran. Yep. Sorry. Neonics by another name and you’re killing bees too. How does it happen? This insecticide, which permeates the tissues of the plant, whether systemically or sprayed, affects the nervous system of the insect resulting in death, paralysis, or at the very least, confusion so that it can’t find it’s way home to the hive. And primarily, how does this take us back to personal plant and seed choices? The answer lies in the fact that over 40% of the seed companies in the United States have been bought out by Monsanto. And they haven’t changed the names. So you don’t suspect. And what do you think they are systemically inducing into their seeds? Bingo. And seedlings that are developed by wholesale suppliers and sold to local nurseries, in more abundance than we would like to imagine, use systemic neonicotinoids in their products. One of my most fun things in life used to be going to a nursery like a kid in a candy store, gathering up exciting bounty for my garden. When the seed catalogues arrived each year, it was heaven. Like making a list for Santa. And now, the fun is spoiled. And so, what is the answer? At this point we all need to arm ourselves with knowledge. Google beeaction.org and xerces.org. Refuse to buy plants from local nurseries that don’t answer our needs or questions. Make certain that our seed companies have signed the “Monsanto-free” pledge. There are many trustworthy and safe seed sources such as – Baker’s Creek Heirloom, Fedco Seeds, High Mowing Organic, ION Exchange, Johnny’s Seeds, Livingston Seeds, and Xerces. Occupymonsanto360.org lists many more. And what of the nurseries? I have yet to find a local source which guarantees GMO free plants. However, if we keep asking the right questions, demanding safe pollinator merchandise, and show that we have done our homework, changes will be made if only from the interest of economics. I sometimes worry that I may have inadvertently planted killers in my new Minnesota garden. Pulling plants isn’t the answer because the chemicals linger in the soil, spread to their neighbors and even pollute water sources. But mainly, I care and hope you do too.
And one more thing. While you’re doing your homework, make certain that your pollinator plants are the specific varieties native to your area. Your bees and butterflies will thank you and live on.