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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham

When the sun comes out and the flowers open, it is easy to feel that all is well with the world. The farmers markets and grocery stores overflow with fresh vegetables, fruit and flowers. Many fine restaurants offer locally grown, organically produced food. A nearby garden center offers beekeeping classes and supplies, and beekeepers are emerging in our cities and suburbs. Our Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens has a Pollinator Festival on June 14. It all looks so good on the surface.

Sadly, if you read any environmental news, or speak with horticulturists, naturalists or beekeepers, you absorb a harsher reality. In spite of renewed beekeeping enthusiasm, honey bees, butterflies and other pollinator populations are declining. The European honeybee (the primary pollinator for America and much of the world) is rapidly succumbing to a series of maladies. Meanwhile native or wild pollinators can’t handle the whole task. There are about 5,000 species of native bees (mostly solitary bees, that nest in holes in the ground or in trees), but their food sources and habitats are disappearing. And we live in an insect-phobic society in which people commonly consider all insects creepy or threatening. So they kill them without a second thought.

Yet pollinators (mostly insects) are responsible for the reproduction of 75 percent of the flowering plants in the world. More than 150 food crops, comprising at least one-quarter to one-third of our diet, depend upon pollinators. Further, those insects have huge roles within the food web and jobs as predators of other insects. Again, people kill them, individually and through larger scale practices.

What can we do? We individual gardeners and homeowners can do some practical things to make a difference, even for just a few bees and butterflies. But vast change is required, starting with attitude. We must influence others to think differently about insects, gardens, land use and pesticides. Then urban planning, land use regulations and policy changes must support what we understand. (Hurrah for the pollinator corridor proposal – one step in the necessary direction!)

Learn about pesticides

We organic gardeners – my commitment since I moved to my land in 1985 – didn’t need studies to know it was just wrong to spray pesticides that killed insects both helpful and pesky, and endangered birds, other animals and our health. Besides, we figured out that we could grow vegetables and flowers just fine – many say better – without them. Increasingly, organic products and techniques have made that even easier, and new gardeners and growers have emerged who want to grow organically.

But the society at large certainly hasn’t gotten the memo, if you judge by the products lining shelves at box stores and some garden centers, or by media advertising. Someone new to the planet or owning a first house, watching TV in May, would certainly learn that to be a real man and responsible citizen you must buy and use certain pesticides (including herbicides and fungicides). Big money is invested in those products. It’s tough for not-for-profit, educational and environmental organizations to combat that power.

While many will argue that some pesticides are important for some agricultural or horticultural interests, clearly there is a lot wrong with the common misuse, overuse and unnecessary use.

Recently several of you have written to me about one particular pesticide group that has been in the news: neonicotinoids. In former decades neonicotinoids were considered less threatening than organophosphates and carbamate-based products because they showed less direct toxicity for birds and mammals. Then in 2008, studies in Germany linked neonicotinoids to several ecological problems including honey bee colony collapse disorder and bird death (related to fewer available insects to eat). In 2013, the European Union and some other countries restricted the use of several neonicotinoids.

What are they? I am not a chemist, but this is what I understand. (Even if you read labels carefully, the names are not easy or necessarily obvious.) The most familiar neonicotinoid is Imidacloprid, I believe still the most widely used insecticide in the world. Others are Clothianidin, Dinotefuran and Acetamiprid, seen on very familiar products on pesticide shelves. They are typically listed to kill sap-sucking and leaf-chewing insects. They are systemic, meaning in the plant, from leaf to pollen, so all insects who use the plant are at risk. And if you simply think that their labeling for home garden use means they are safe – well, no.

The approval system is far from perfect, and many home-garden products are legal in much greater concentrations than commercial-use products. And we cannot, should not, blame farmers or professionals in general.

Think about it: Who is more likely to overuse or misuse a product – the farmer or CNLP whose budget and product depends upon correct, minimal use? Or Joe homeowner who figures that a little more won’t hurt?

You can learn which products are neonicotinoids with a little research. But you don’t have to know the product names or chemical groups if you simply choose to avoid using pesticides.

How important, after all, is a perfect rose petal or broccoli leaf if you are contributing to the collective damage?

What we can do

Whatever your role in environmental advocacy and educational, social or political action, gardeners can take some steps:

• Plant a butterfly or pollinator garden that includes nectar- and pollen-producing plants such as asters, butterfly bush (Buddleia), milkweed and butterfly weed (Asclepias incarnata, A. tuberosa,) coneflowers, daisies, Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium), lantana, Monarda, etc. Provide wind protection and water.

• Provide the plants that caterpillars eat and breed in – birches, dill, hollyhocks, milkweed, spicebush (Lindera), willows and a diversity of other shrubs and trees, especially natives.

• Skip the above steps if your neighbors spray pesticides on lawns, rose gardens, landscapes, etc. Butterflies are first to succumb to the slightest pesticide drift.

• Maintain natural habitat where you can; substitute hedgerows or bio-strips for some lawn on your property. Leave some brush piles, dead trees and logs.

• Obviously, don’t use pesticides. Grow healthy plants and tolerate some holes.

• Influence a child to appreciate a bee. She may plant a meadow or help a species someday.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.