Neonicotinoids & Garden Centre Plants

Bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, flies, hummingbirds, bats and more all pollinate plants. Without them, we would lose much of our food supply, wildlife’s food supply and habitats, and plants that protect against erosion. And even though flies are the most prolific pollinators, it’s bees that often come first to mind. They also happen to be the ones most in need of intervention to reverse their declining numbers.

There is much debate and finger pointing regarding the causes of bee decline but most independent experts would agree there are three main reasons: varroa mites, loss of habitat, and neonicotinoids. These experts would also likely agree that just one of those reasons is enough for alarm and that all three happening simultaneously is simply too much for them. And why all three factors need to be addressed to give bees and other pollinators a fighting chance to regroup.

Varroa destructor mite is a serious problem for western honey bees. Additionally, in response to global bee decline, these honey bees are sold or rented to farmers around the world bringing the varroa mite with them, leaving most honey bee colonies worldwide infected.

With industrial farming the new norm, there’s little-to-no soil left untouched for pollinators to find a place to rest and a place to nest. This issue seems the easiest to address: agro-industries can give up some land for the good of all.

Neonicotinoids (neonics) are synthetic systemic insecticides applied to crops and plants via seed coatings, sprays, injections, or granules that are absorbed throughout the plant: stems, leaves, flowers, pollen & nectar. Even at low levels, exposure to these chemicals impairs a bee’s ability to function. And more independent research is coming forward showing the casualty list is much greater than bees alone.


Imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, and acetamaprid are the main players of neonicotinoids. There are also insecticides such as pyridinecarboxamide that are not neonics but are also indiscriminate killers of insects. Today’s neonicotinoids are yesterday’s DDT.

The chemical industry adheres to strict, precise measures when testing their products, focusing on what happens during application without stepping back and looking at the bigger picture: the sub-lethal picture. They are ignoring what happens to animals that are not killed outright (acute toxicity) during crop spraying.

As bad as acute toxicity is, it’s less common than the sub-lethal or cumulative effects of these toxins. Sub-lethal effects to honey bees include developmental disruptions, such as impaired memory, communication behaviours, reduced foraging ability, disorientation, and immune suppression.

This toxicity is not only affecting pollinators. Birds are eating these treated seeds. They’re eating the worms that live under a treated plant. Rain and water runoffs from farmers’ crops and our own gardens send contaminated waters to our streams & rivers killing midges and mayflies that aquatic life feed on. And, of course, our drinking water.

Neonicotinoids also have synergistic impacts on pollinators in combination with other chemicals in the field, compounding their effects. The combination of neonicotinoids and, say, fungicides, can increase the potency of neonics by more than 1,000-fold. It’s not uncommon for plants to have more than one chemical applied to them. By not looking at the big picture the chemical industry is circumventing the true degradation of what neonics and other pesticides are doing to the environment.

Independent reports regarding crop yields in countries that have already banned neonicotinoids are showing either no difference or better yields without them.

A much more promising endeavour that is also environmentally friendly is the use of pheromones to disrupt the mating of certain insects. Synthetic pheromones are dispersed to attract males away from the females. A reduction in mating means less eggs hatching, reducing the pest population. And no collateral damage.

In the meantime, neonicotinoids are being used by large and small plant producers for both the industrial and residential markets.

Wildlife gardener Pat Sutton’s 2018 article about sourcing wildflowers is an interesting one for those ready to help pollinators. She has links to articles from The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation regarding the difference between wildflowers and their commercial counterparts. There’s also a link for Americans to locate wildflowers, state by state. And information on neonicotinoids.

When I started writing this paper in 2017, Proven Winners’ website was comparing the effects of neonics on pollinators as being equal to the effects that caffeine, wine or ibuprofen have on humans. Little wonder that seems to have disappeared. Their website declared the company neonic-free, and I’ve just seen a 2016 article thanking them for their decision to go neonicotinoid-free.

However, they replied to my 2017 email that, because they have so many plant providers, they truly have no idea what each individual supplier does, but “We are confident that our grower-customers, some of who may use neonicotinoids, do everything they can to protect themselves, their staff, their customers, and the environment when using plant protection products. So, no bees should be harmed.”. Note the euphemism: plant protection products = pesticides.

Similar results came from small and large nurseries, including all the big box stores. They say one thing here and another there, always with the caveat, “well, we have no control over what they do, When, in actual fact, they have complete control. They can choose to not purchase them. But none will bother without enough incentive from their customers: us.

What is truly disturbing – and contemptuous – is that these plant producers are labeling plants as bee-friendly even though they have been treated with neonicotinoids. By buying them we are unwittingly contributing to the decline of bees when we believe we’re helping.

It’s really up to us to start directing government, suppliers, and nursery buyers to take appropriate action for the sake of this planet. Let’s face it, if ordinary citizens like you and me don’t do something, we will see the end of bees and beneficial insects because those in control are simply not listening.


Talk with our money and boycott these vendors in favour of the few places you can purchase safe plants.

Call or write a letter telling these retailers why you’re not buying from them this year or any other until you’re confident that what you purchase from them won’t kill insects.

Call or write all levels of government and pressure them to, on your behalf, stop accepting what the chemical industry says and start addressing this environmental problem. We must tell them it is no longer acceptable for them to turn a blind eye.

At the very least, we should all be pushing for proper plant labelling, allowing us to make informed decisions on what plants we’re comfortable buying. Feel free to forward this paper in your communications with any and all decision makers.


Leave areas of your garden to naturalize: a corner or back wall where the grass can grow, where native flowers can be planted or simply allowed to take hold. Remove mulch to allow solitary bees a place to nest. Buy local native flowers – which are the plants our bees instinctively look for. Do not purchase any seeds or plants unless you are 100% confident they’re safe for wildlife. But first, drop off all your pesticides to your local hazardous waste depot.

Insects really do live in their own world. And they’ll keep each other in check if we leave them to it. Trying to eradicate one species opens the door for another to move in. As I wrote in my book, Little Buggers!, wasps are to the insect world what sharks are to the water world. Sharks have been driven to the brink of extinction, and the chaos in our ocean’s today is the result. We need to understand their world and learn to get along.

Beyond making your own gardens environmentally friendly, try to get your neighbours and community groups on board. Search online for the pollinator highway a woman in Oslo, Norway, started. The city has embraced the concept of ensuring pollinators have access to enough food as they come and go without starving in their search. Or at least ensure patches of green space in your community have native flowers. Municipal governments would love to help out in any way they can… if enough of us ask.

If you can plan your garden to ensure a steady supply of long-blooming flowering plants from early spring through autumn, you will be rewarded with a natural ecosystem that works together, as nature does.


There are local plant and seed sellers committed to the environment and an online search should provide positive results. If starting seeds indoors is not for you, try broadcasting them and simply thin out the excess. Strive for perennials over annuals because they’ll grow bigger and produce more flowers, which means more pollen and nectar.

Friends of the Earth has a booklet to help homeowners make sense of garden centres and pesticides. Basically the same information, but Canada’s is dated 2014 and the United States’ is from 2016. No link to the report at Friends of the Earth International, but here’s a link to its website. These chemicals are used worldwide, so the information is useful regardless of where you live.

Or, what if, instead of purchasing any plants come spring, you make a beautiful, colourful lawn sign explaining the absence of annuals, and what steps you took to change the world for the better. Then donate the money saved to any one of the deserving organizations that are working hard on our behalf to help our global home: Earth.

We all need to make concessions to help the environment and, as the saying goes, it begins at home. Stop using chemicals on your lawns and gardens. And say no to purchasing garden plants that are contributing to pollinator decline. All the garden centres I spoke to that do use chemicals say they do so because we expect to see perfect flowers and larger than normal plant sizes.

We all need to care very much about bees/pollinators because they’re vital for pollinating much of our food, food for our livestock, and for other wildlife. Every third bite of food we eat is thanks to a pollinator.

Tess Watson

Updated 2019

Much research was undertaken to collect the information in this email, and I thank the following sources: Monty Don, various articles for UK’s Daily Mail; Wikipedia; Mother Nature Network; local, provincial, and federal government websites; FOE’s website and email communications; the American Bird Conservancy 2013 report, The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds; the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy 2015 report, Unknown Benefits, Hidden Costs: Neonicotinoid Seed Coatings, Crop Yields and Pollinators.