You’ve no doubt heard the hullabaloo about bee die-offs and the threat to pollinators that pesticides containing neonicotinoids pose to the health of bee colonies around the world. You probably noticed that many countries in Europe have banned, either temporarily or permanently, the use of such pesticides, while in the US the EPA is only studying the effects of the chemicals and has not yet moved to restrict them. You’ve heard how loss of honey bees due to use of these pesticides leads to threats to your wallet (e.g., more expensive food) and your water supply and, being both a good person and personally threatened, you want to take action.
So what do you do?
First, and primarily, ensure that neither you nor anyone you employ on your property are using any of the products containing neonicotinoid chemicals. Those chemicals are clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam. They are part of the formulation of many pesticides, including Actara, Platinum, Helix, Cruiser, Adage, Meridian, Centric, Flagship, Poncho, Titan, Clutch, Belay, Arena, Confidor, Merit, Admire, Legend, Pravado, Encore, Goucho, Premise, Assail, Intruder, Adjust, Advantage, Marathon, Premeir, and Calypso*, but don’t depend on the name of the product, since chemical companies change their formulations all the time. Be aware of what is being applied to your property.
Educate yourself on the issue. Neonicotinoids are applied to plants, but because they’re a systemic pesticide (that is, they’re taken up inside the plant’s cells), even after the pesticide is no longer being applied the chemicals are still present—most dangerously for us, in our ground water. In case you haven’t heard, Dutch researchers found concentrations of imidacloprid in surface water samples that exceeded the level deemed safe by between 19 and over 4700 times the acceptable limit.** Most municipal water systems originate with surface water: lakes and streams. Talk with your neighbors and find out if they’re using pesticides and, if so, which ones. Educate them. Understand that the companies producing these chemicals have no incentive to tell people that their products are not safe–quite the opposite.
Support your pollinators—this one is actually a lot of fun in what otherwise has the potential to become a rather dire situation. Talk with your landscape designer or do some research and incorporate into your landscape the plants which feed and shelter the pollinators in your locality. Plants in the daisy family, or with wide disc-shaped flowers, are often good. Some annuals, like borage, are well worth allowing to self-sow to keep the bees fed. Watch what comes up along the edges of your cultivated garden, too, and see if you don’t have some of these bee plants, and then consider letting them grow.
One of my favorites is Queen Anne’s Lace (and, of course, the cosmos whose flowers are liberally sprinkled throughout this website!). So many of these are easily incorporated into gardens. For native pollinators like the mason bee, setting up bee “habitats” can help encourage them to do the work the imported honey bees are no longer around to take care of.
Depending on how politically active you are, or are willing to become, there are currently a number of petitions looking to convince various governmental officials to ban neonicotinoids in the US which you can sign. Even if you don’t want to get involved nationally, consider talking with your neighbors or neighborhood association to help them understand how very important the issue is. Usually, if people realize that they are affected, they’re more willing to consider changing their behavior.
Further reading on the topic is easy to find. As with all internet information, however, be aware of the source and its biases. Here are some good resources:
http://urbanbeeprojectseattle.com/pesticidestory/ (source of footnote **)
http://www.beecharmers.org/Pollination2.html (source of footnote *)
http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/ent/notes/Other/note109/note109.html – a datasheet on mason bees and their housing needs
http://www.themelissagarden.com/plants.html – a very nice list of bee plants, including not only annuals and perennials but also shrubs and a couple of trees
http://www.xerces.org/ – website of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation; see the opening page for links to news on recent bee die-offs and petitions.