Maryland set to ban use of bee-killing chemicals by home gardeners

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Here’s a bee pollinating an apple tree, one blossom at a time. Without a pollinator’s work, no apple.

By the time you read this column again, we should know whether Maryland is to become the first state in the union to ban its non-farming citizens from using neonicotinoids, a type of insecticide widely employed in agriculture and home gardens and believed by scientists to be killing bees wholesale around the world.

Proposed legislation adopted last week in both chambers of the Maryland state assembly would prohibit stores in the state from selling products containing neonics. It would also make it illegal for individuals who are not farmers or otherwise working professionally in agriculture to use such chemicals.

But the farming sector, whose use of neonics is as an ocean to home gardeners’ drop in the bucket, would be exempt from the ban. And the measure would not take effect until 2018.
Two years is a long time to wait. Maryland beekeepers lost more than 60 percent of their hives to massive bee deaths last year alone, they reported. Nationwide and worldwide, bee populations have plummeted since neonics were invented in the 1990s and gradually became the favorite way to protect commercially grown crops from harmful insects.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has noted that 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of human food are pollinated by bees. Europe slapped a two-year ban on neonics in 2013, after scientists established a link between the chemicals and bee die-offs. Two weeks ago, the French Assembly – equivalent to our Congress — narrowly approved another ban, but one which would not start until September, 2018.

In the United States, farmers used neonics on about 95 percent of all corn and canola crops, as of 2013, according to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Most cotton, sorghum, sugar beets and about half of all soybeans grown by conventional methods were also treated with them, as were most fruits and vegetables, including apples, cherries, peaches, oranges, berries, leafy greens, tomatoes and potatoes. The same went for non-organically grown cereal grains, rice, nuts and wine grapes, Wikipedia said.

Eight U.S. cities have banned neonic use on their territory. Last year, the Oregon Department of Agriculture prohibited neonic application on several types of trees.
If the proposed ban in Maryland becomes law, consumers could always buy insecticides containing neonics online or in another state. And the prospect of state inspectors checking stores and gardens in Maryland for compliance seems far-fetched, to say the least, particularly as the state has few inspectors.

Still, even a baby step is better than none. Perhaps Maryland can light a small lamp for the rest of the country. Maybe our state can show the way toward a future where all U.S.  growers, gardeners and farmers alike, work to preserve a precious part of nature on which much of our food depends – bees and their pollinating activities.

Last week, each chamber of the Maryland assembly adopted its own version of the draft law. The next step is to draw up a text acceptable to both, then send it to Governor Larry Hogan to sign. Should he veto it, there’s said to be enough bipartisan support in the assembly to override a veto.  The public overwhelmingly backs a ban, according to news reports.

On the federal level, two Democratic members of the House of Representatives have proposed a temporary ban on some of the insecticides until the Environmental Protection Agency can determine if they kill bees, but neither the House nor the Senate has approved the measure.

What local gardeners can do

Meanwhile two years will elapse before Maryland’s partial ban – if enacted — goes into force. During that time, there’s a lot local gardeners can do to protect bees, and not only by planting bee balm and putting pollinator-friendly messages on ones vehicle.

Gardeners can avoid buying products that contain neonics, such as Knockout Ready-to-Use Grub Killer, Ortho Bug B Gon, All-In-One Rose & Flower Care and Lesco Bandit Insecticide. Educate yourself to recognize the names of neonics so you can identify them in the small print on pesticide labels. An example is Imidaclopeid, which Wikipedia describes as possibly the most widely used insecticide worldwide. It occurs in products such as Confidor, Admire, Gaucho and Advocate.

The environmental group EarthJustice says we should also steer clear of Venom Insecticide, Dinotefuran 20SG, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

Try to buy only seeds with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic seal on the envelope and only organically grown plants. Many seeds and many commercially-grown plants are pre-treated with neonics, which are systemic insecticides, meaning a plant absorbs them throughout its system, making all its parts poisonous to target insects as well as some unintended victims.

Finding organically grown plants for sale is easier said than done, however. Last Saturday, I telephoned three garden centers in Talbot County and found most staff I talked to had no idea if their plants had been treated with neonics. In fact, I got the impression they had no idea what neonics were.

“Our plants are all natural,” one staffer said, as if that covered it. “They arrive on a truck. We have no way of knowing how they were grown,” said another. (Well, I for one, wouldn’t expect them to arrive on a flying carpet.)

The closest I got to a satisfactory answer was the owner of one garden center who told me none of the plants he sold were treated with systemic insecticides.

One can find organic seeds in stores and plant nursery catalogues. Organic growers selling their wares at farmers’ markets may have organically grown plants for sale, as well.
Every day for the past few days, I’ve gone out to look at my peach tree in glorious full bloom. A gentle humming generated by many small voices and occasionally a baritone buzz comes from the cloud of pink blossom that dwarfs the gardener. A delicate fragrance greets the nose. Observed with the help of glasses, each flower’s many stamens are spectacular, protruding with a graceful curve well beyond the limit of the petals.

So far, I haven’t seen any honeybees, but I did spot a few sturdy carpenter bees (those of the baritone buzz) and many much smaller pollinators looking like skinny wasps. These may be native bees, also efficient pollinators.

Watching the methodical, energetic little creatures as they go about their business, one can gain a great appreciation for the important work they do and an understanding of the crime humans perpetrate by destroying them needlessly.

On Easter Sunday, I considered that all the religions I know of enjoin their followers to be good stewards of the natural world that surrounds us and helps keep us alive. We gardeners can do much to fulfill this sacred duty, even as the wheels of government in Annapolis and Washington slowly turn.

So, let’s do it! And meanwhile, happy gardening!

Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.

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