Hartley Magazine

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Toxins without borders

The insidious effects of neonic insecticides are leaving bees and other beneficial insects with no safe place to go. There’s still hope of rescue – but it will only happen with our help. 

Any day now I’ll hear a low buzz and a dull bumping on the glass out in my greenhouse. That’s my cue to grab the ‘bug vacuum’ and launch one of the spring and summer’s many rescue missions. Other than swaddling my greenhouse in netting, I’ve yet to find a foolproof way of persuading bumble bees to contain their curiosity and not fly on in. Some are on a mission of their own, zipping between flowers, helping to pollinate tomatoes and peppers, but most, once inside, are just riled at being caught behind glass. All the buzzing and bumping raises quite a din on a warm spring day, but once I ‘hoover’ them up and set them on their way, quiet returns.

Bees have been the source of a much louder noise of late. This particular buzz has come not from their wings, but from the media as it reports – albeit often half-heartedly – on another, far more serious ‘rescue mission’ that is underway. This mission affects not just bees, but other insects, and life in general, including us. It’s calling into question things we do in our gardens which many of us hardly give a thought to – but which we must all start thinking far more seriously about. This mission, which needs the help of everyone who gardens, raises serious questions about the motives of our garden industry, and it gives us a tantalising glimpse of the collective non-purchasing power we can wield.

This bug killer contains the chemical imidacloprid, a neonic common in many garden products. Its packaging suggests its makers are devoid of any sense of irony…
This bug killer contains the chemical thiacloprid, a neonic common in many garden products. Its packaging suggests its makers are devoid of any sense of irony…

It’s not often you see gaps on garden centre shelves, especially in the chemical and fertiliser section; usually they’re groaning under all kinds of man-made stuff that nature never intended us to put on our gardens. But selling insecticides, fungicides and weedkillers is lucrative, so manufacturers invest dizzying sums in trying to persuade us to buy them. (Roundup, who sell glyphosate weedkiller, is undertaking a ‘multimillion pound’ campaign to get gardeners buying it, despite a gathering cloud of question marks over its environmental impact.) This money buys influential space in gardening magazines and newspapers, on TV and radio, and online. But at a garden centre recently, I found gaps where certain products, containing what are known as neonicotinoid or ‘neonic’ insecticides (there’s a whole gang of them), had been withdrawn from sale.

Neonics are engineered to kill ‘pests’ which attack garden plants; when they chew on the tissues or suck the sap of a polluted plant, they get a fatal bellyful of chemical, and die. Bees – honey bees, wild bumbles and solitary species – were considered to be unaffected by neonics because they’re not ‘pests’ and don’t usually suck sap or munch on plant tissue. However, scientific studies show that honey and bumble bees (as well as other less glamorous insects) can be affected by even minute traces of neonics. In soulless jargon-speak, ‘sub-lethal’ amounts are foraged by bees gathering pollen and honey, much of which is taken back to their hives or nests to feed their offspring. It’s worth noting that some neonics are sold for use on edible plants, so you’ll be getting a sub-lethal dose too when you put a tomato – or anything else you’ve treated – on your plate; this stuff doesn’t wash off. Although manufacturers claim there is minimal risk to birds and mammals from neonics, few long-term studies have been carried out.

The big problem for insects, including bees, is that the effects of neonics are cumulative: each time a bee visits a polluted flower, it picks up another shot of chemical, in nectar and/or pollen either for its own use or to feed its offspring. Scientific studies show that even infinitesimal traces of neonics can cause honey bees to become muddled because of memory, learning and communication problems, making returning to their hives difficult; they also find it harder to move around and forage. Repeated exposure to sub-lethal doses of neonics over long periods also affects bees and other insects in other ways: erratic movement, rapid wing-beats, paralysis, and even death. Their immune systems can also be weakened, making them disease-prone. It’s this mounting, irreversible damage to insects’ nervous systems that packs the neonics with such an ecologically damaging punch; insects can’t recover from contact with neonics, while each new encounter deepens the damage.

Neonic insecticides pollute plants from top to toe. Even nectar and pollen collected by bees and other insects becomes tainted.
Neonic insecticides pollute plants from top to toe. Even nectar and pollen collected by bees and other insects becomes tainted.

Neonics are also persistent in the wider environment. They can build up in garden soil (to which they’re applied as a root drench), and can have debilitating effects on earthworms. There are knock-on effects, too. If insects or other small creatures imbibe low doses of neonics, then anything further up the food chain that eats them – say aphid-eating birds like blue tits – gets a hit, too.

If you garden in a more earth-friendly, organic way, you probably get a buzz from knowing that your garden is pesticide-free, and that it is filled with bee- and insect-friendly flowers, none of which have been polluted with neonics or anything else. ‘Your’ bees, you would think, are safe.

Perhaps your garden is the last in a row of six. You tend it organically and don’t use synthetic bug killers – but your neighbours regularly spray their flowers and vegetables with neonics (which are heavily advertised). On its journey from your farthest neighbours’ garden, a bumble or honey bee might visit hundreds or thousands of flowers en route to your organic, pesticide-free patch. Each one of those blooms is potentially polluted, and may pass on to the bee, via its pollen and/or nectar, a sub-lethal dose of neonic insecticide, adding to the total amassing in its body.

The bee might not be showing any obvious ill effects as it stops over in your garden – but what about the next garden it visits, or if it ventures out in the countryside, where neonic use is widespread? On the edges of treated fields, not even wildflowers escape; if they come into contact with neonics, they’re polluted too, as is their pollen and nectar. And spare a thought for butterflies, moths and other familiar insects such as hoverflies, which will be flying a similar route.

We’re told incessantly that using chemicals in our gardens is down to ‘personal choice’, but if there was ever an example of how illusory that choice is, using neonicotinoids must surely be it. These chemicals cause widespread, unchecked pollution of our natural world, but are staunchly defended by their manufacturers, and by a gardening industry which wants to flog them to us. Neonics’ very presence on a retailer’s shelf makes a mockery of the idea that our gardens can be safe havens for bees, other insects, and garden life in general.

Each of us can rescue individual bees which get waylaid in our greenhouses, but it’s now time for a wider, collective effort. Much of the buzz around the plight of bees is stuck in the stodgy language of international law, and lost in the only lukewarm media interest. I am still waiting to hear an edition of ‘Gardener’s Question Time’, or read an in-depth gardening magazine article, explaining exactly how these chemicals work and why we must stop using them (let alone why we don’t need them in the first place).

Those gappy shelves are the first sign that a bigger rescue mission has begun. The sellers of neonics are removing them because thanks to some vigorous, engaging campaigning, and to new scientific research, their role in the decline of our bee populations is becoming better and more widely understood. No garden centre or other retailer wants to be seen to be doing the ‘wrong’ thing by selling an environmental pollutant – so many have increasingly empty shelves, despite the all is well’ messages being beamed out by horticultural trade organisations.

It’s time to up the rescuers’ ante. We know garden centres are responding to pressure to do away with neonics – the gaps prove it. Now it’s time to save the garden chemical makers some money, by asking your favourite gardening magazine to stop carrying advertisements for neonic bug killers. Quite a coup awaits the first publisher to declare their magazines ‘neonic-free’. But if they are to do the right thing by bees and other insects, and avoid polluting our natural world – which is surely what every gardener wants? – they’ll need a nudge. A noisy one if need be.

Text and images © John Walker