Pollinators and Pesticides Don’t Mix

I am sure that you don’t want to hear the story about why I became an organic gardener again. I re-hashed it just in the last two weeks.

So here’s a different story that I haven’t told in quite some time. Retail gardening was an eye-opener for me, particularly as an organic gardener. The idea that not only was I there to sell an arsenal of toxic products and to advise the consumers on how to use them was difficult, but worse yet, in the box store where I worked, half the customers were absolutely convinced that they knew far better than I did how to use the products and refused to take my suggestions.

This was extremely upsetting because I had customers coming in and saying things like that they were going to put down their crabgrass preventer in February because the bag said it could be applied then (mind you, it’s a national product, so the February recommendation is for the southern regions of the country!). Some of them even said that they were going to apply it over the snow! Sigh.

I don’t have enough time or patience to explain why that is a bad idea other to say that none of the product is going to reach your grass. It’s just going to wash away, into the streets and storm drains and contribute to pollution in our waterways. So for those of you that do that, you are wasting money and polluting our waters. Please re-think.

The other issue with this foolhardy way of using so-called “Step 1” programs is that the preventer in these bags is good for 4 months of crabgrass prevention. Now, crabgrass germinates at soil temperatures of 50 degrees or so (not under the snow!) So if you put the preventer down in mid-February, let’s count forward. Your preventer will be all used up by mid-June–just about the time crabgrass really gets going in my region.

But this is not a post about crabgrass. It’s a post about the many crazy things that folks do to harm our pollinators, our waterways and even ourselves.

Back when I was at that same box store, I had a lovely woman come to me and say that she wasn’t getting any zucchini on her plants. She had flowers on the plants, but the flowers were just falling off and not forming squashes.

So I asked her if she saw any bees in her yard. She had to think long and hard and finally said, no, that she didn’t. So I told her that her squashes weren’t getting pollinated so they couldn’t form the zucchini.

She wanted to know why, so I asked her about pesticide use. Normally, I knew better than to voluntarily bring this up. At first she said no, but then she said that yes, they did use the 4 step program on their lawns. They used a grub killer on the lawn. She also used a foundation spray that claimed to work for long periods of time to keep insects out. And she might even have used something in the garden–I don’t recall now–like a weed killing product.  But even if not, that’s still a pretty intensive pesticide load on the property and it was clearly taking a toll on the bees–there were none.

So you tell me whether pesticides and pollinators mix based on that story. Or, you can learn the hard way and try it on your own. But, quite frankly, I’d prefer that you didn’t. Our pollinators are too imperiled for that!

So What if I Don’t Include Flowers for My Pollinators?

What are the consequences of leaving flowers out of the edible garden? Well, it depends.

If you have neighboring gardens with lots of flowers, you may have no consequences. Bees are amazing fliers and their territories can be as wide as 4 miles.

Further, it’s been shown that they are somewhat specific. So if a colony of bees is pollinating apple blossoms, they’ll come to your apple trees too, even if you do nothing special to entice them there.

If a colony of bees is pollinating everyone else’s tomato gardens, chances are they’ll stop by yours as well–even if you don’t have anything around to entice them like bright yellow marigolds or nasturtiums.

What is going to really mess things up for you? Pesticides! Pollinators are highly sensitive to pesticides! And remember, no pollinators, no fruits or vegetables. (Well, not exactly–we’ll still have lettuce and leafy greens, radishes and root crops, herbs–but many of our favorite summertime vegetables won’t be possible without pollinators–or be woefully stunted!)

On Monday I’ll talk about a story from my retail gardening days about just how influential pesticides are on crop production–and lack of pollinators.


A Progressive Bill on Pollinator Health

A month ago, Connecticut joined Montgomery County, Maryland in establishing protections and habitats for pollinators.

The bill, signed into law on May 6 by Governor Dannel Malloy, and effective upon its passage, provides 9 different items relating to pollinators. Some are more specific than others.

The text of the bill regulates neonicotinoids, that class of insecticides that is thought to cause particular harm to bees. You can see the bill, now PA 16-17, in its entirety, here.

For those not accustomed to reading legalese (or who would just prefer not to–and frankly, who wouldn’t?) Beyond Pesticides has done a nice summary of the law when it was just passed unanimously by both houses of the Connecticut legislature (which in itself is near miraculous!) That summary can be found here.

The very specific provisions of the bill prohibit things like the use of the “neonics” on certain plants at certain times (when in flower, for example) and as treatment for seed coatings.

The broader provisions authorize pollinator habitat–and this is where presumably the bill will be helpful to all pollinators, not just bees or butterflies or moths, bats or whatever. There are 3 of those provisions.

There is also a provision authorizing the state environmental department to develop a “model” pollinator habitat for citizens. I am not sure how useful that will be. But it is certainly commendable that there is something for folks who want to try planting included.

We are not going to solve the problem of habitat degradation, disappearing monarchs or honeybee issues overnight. But if more states tackle issues like habitat creation, it will at least be a good start!



New York Aster

These tiny purple flowers (purple, of course, for the butterflies and the bees) almost hiding among my chives foliage are the flowers of the New York aster.

Asters are great late season color for the garden. But they serve an even more important role. They provide nectar for bees and butterflies, some of which may be taking off for long migration journeys.

Although it’s not readily apparent, asters have that ray flower structure that native creatures like so much. In this photo, you can actually see the earlier stages of the flower (with yellow center) and the later stages (with brown center).  Try to ignore the parched earth and the dead maple leaves in the photo–they’re just examples of how long it’s been without rain.

I planted these two plants in July. I should be watering them more than I am. Asters have very deep tap roots and are great for piercing clay soil. But make sure you get them where you want them because once they’re there, they’re almost impossible to remove. More about that in a moment.

white wood aster

This is the white wood aster. It comes up wild all over my property. This is the tiny aster I spotted among the ragweed that I mentioned in Wednesday’s post (on someone else’s property). Bees love it.

I actually have significantly less of this aster this year than I have had in many prior years. I’m not sure if that’s because I have been fairly ruthless about deadheading–because there’s no digging these out unless they are tiny seedlings. I’ve cut them off and all that does is make them flower at lower heights.

It’s not that I don’t adore them–I do (as do the bees). But over the years I have been lax about letting them sow just about everywhere. Now I need to get them out of certain places and that’s darn near impossible. The root system, I have read, will extend as deep as 16 inches into the soil. And in a dry, baked earth year like the last 2, I’d need to dynamite them out. And who needs that disruption in the garden? Particularly over such a pretty wildflower?

So I just cut them down where I don’t want them. And even in this scorched earth dry year, they come up where I leave them alone, and bloom along the edge of our woodlands, sparkling like tiny stars against all the green.

It’s a lovely effect–and great for bees too!