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Planting garden center flowers is good for bees and other beneficial insects

Having a passion for plants often means that you must accept the pollinators as well.  You may have heard that purchasing plants from garden centers may be bad for the pollinators such as our bees BUT a study has shown that the benefits of planting these flowers for the bees outweighs the risk of some of the insecticides that may be present.  To help understand these findings, we have a great resource to share with you!

Recently, some Internet and media sources have suggested that buying and planting flowers from your local garden center could be harmful to bees because traces of neonicotinoid insecticides were found in the leaves and flowers of plants randomly purchased from garden centers around the country. Although it is true that concentrations of over 100 ppb of imidacloprid in nectar or pollen are toxic to honey bees, and lower concentrations (10 to 100 ppb) could affect their foraging behavior and immune response, the potential harm to pollinators in the yard and garden from buying and purchasing flowers from a garden center has been exaggerated. In fact, planting annual and perennial flowers and flowering trees and shrubs is expected to be beneficial for bees and other beneficial insects.

Greenhouse and nursery growers started using alternatives to neonicotinoid insecticides this year, and although the transition is not complete, the amount used is less than in previous years, and the plan should be fully adopted in 2015. Michigan State University began working with growers in March of 2014 to identify pest control strategies where neonicotinoids have been used so that alternative strategies could be adopted. Also, experiments were initiated to determine the risk to bees after treated plants are sold and planted in yard and garden. Several experiments are in progress now, where treated plants are put into screen cages with colonies of bumble bees.

People should not become too alarmed by the detection of neonicotinoids found in the leaves and flowers of some garden center plants. This does not mean that the plants will be toxic to bees. Here are several reasons why:

  • Michigan is home to some of the largest greenhouse flower growers in the country. In a recent survey we found most growers do not make soil applications of neonicotinoid applications to petunias, impatiens, marigolds, New Guinea impatiens, verbena, ageratum, celosia, dianthus, portulaca, salvia, snapdragons, vinca and other bedding plants grown in flats. They usually do not spray flowers with any insecticide in the last two weeks of production. So flowers sold by the flat should be safe for bees.
  • Many trees and shrubs, including all conifers, and many broadleaf trees like maple and oak trees are wind pollinated and are not usually visited by bees.
  • Perennial flowers, roses, flowering shrubs and flowering trees will be a valuable resource for bees and other pollinators for many years after they are planted, while the risk to bees will be limited to those plants that were treated with a soil drench, and only when they are flowering in the first year.
  • Bees feed on a large variety of flowering plants, and often forage as far away as a mile from their colony. Because they are feeding on many different plants, the presence of a neonicotinoid insecticide in one plant will be diluted when they feed on untreated plants.

Flowers bought in flats should be completely safe to bees. If you are worried about some of the perennials or flowering trees and shrubs that you purchase, the flowers could be removed during the first summer after planting. Also, if you buy trees or shrubs in a container you can reduce the amount of imidacloprid or any neonicotinoid insecticide which may be present in the soil by watering them until you see water emerging from the bottom of the container, and continue to run the water for another ten minutes. This will flush any neonicotinoid insecticide residue that is not tightly bound to the organic matter in the soil.

Another way to encourage bees and beneficial insects is to avoid spraying insecticides in the yard and garden as much as possible, and never spray flower blossoms. If you have a problem with caterpillars chewing too many holes in the leaves of some plants, you can use a product containing Bacillus thuringensis or B.t. without harming bees and other beneficial insects.

Another bee-friendly option is to use horticultural oil or an insecticidal soap. They are effective on most soft-bodied insects and can be used on cool mornings, less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit, after sunset, or at any time that bees are not present. The soap and oil residue is not harmful to bees, but spraying them directly is. Soap and oil can cause some plant injury, especially to open flowers, so do not exceed the rate given on the product label. In rare cases where a plant needs to be protected against damaging insects by using a broad-spectrum insecticide, it should be sprayed after petal-fall (after the plant is done blooming).

For the rest of this article go to msue.anr.msu.edu.

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