As reports of colony collapse and bee deaths increase, many people are trying to find ways to make their yards and gardens more hospitable to the pollinating insects. Planting swaths of flowers rich in pollen and nectar is one way to attract bees and other insects, as well as birds. But could you be harming the bees without realizing it?
The answer is often yes, according to beekeepers.
Recent research has shown that neonicotinoids, a controversial class of insecticides, cause harm to bees and their colonies. In one study, exposure to the pesticides shortened the bees’ lifespan and seemed to interfere with a hive’s ability to support its queen.
Neonicotinoids are soluble in water, which means that they can be absorbed through a plant’s roots. In the US, seeds are often coated in the chemical before being planted, a practice that has been banned in the European Union since 2013 and is now under review. The trouble is, it can be difficult to know just which seeds and plants pose a danger.
“A lot of plants are not labeled to contain neonicotinoids, so it’s probably not possible to avoid them completely,” said Wayne Andrews, vice president of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association. “But people can buy plants locally from people who don’t use pesticides at all.”
Most beekeepers -- and those who wish to help keep bee populations robust -- don’t use pesticides, opting instead for alternatives such as mineral oils and soap-based treatments instead. Eric Pilotte, president of the Bristol County Beekeepers Association, recommends Milky Spore, for example, a sprayable bacteria that destroys grubs, as an alternative to harmful chemical grub killers applied to lawns.
Pilotte cautions, however, that those who wish to use pesticides follow directions to the letter. Misuse can do long-term harm to an area’s fragile ecosystem.
“If you choose to use pesticides, please follow the instructions on the back,” he said. “Don’t double the amount and don’t apply it to flowering plants that are attracting pollinators.”
Bees are often out and about between sunrise and sunset, so spraying pesticides after dark or before dawn is the best way to avoid killing bees. It’s especially dangerous to spray on windy days, because chemicals can drift into their flight paths. Andrews said it’s also important to measure the area that you plan on spraying, so you don’t use more than you need to.
Beekeepers said gardeners can purchase pollinator-friendly native plants from reputable local retailers and Home Depot, which started tagging plants that contain neonicotiniods in 2014. In the past few years, several other big box retailers have said they will limit or stop carrying plants grown with the pesticide.
Some flowering plants that attract pollinators include gray goldenrod, New England aster, and bottle gentian.
“If you’re not sure whether the plant you want to buy contains neonicotinoids, have a conversation with the retailer,” said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, food futures campaigner for activist group Friends of the Earth.
If you use a landscaping company for yard maintenance, asking about the products they use on your property would be wise as well. Cliff Youse, a local beekeeper, said people are often unaware that their lawns are contaminated.
Youse also suggested fighting the urge to eradicate all weeds immediately. People often want to rid their lawns of dandelions in the spring, but the weed is the first source of nectar for many bees.
‘If you choose to use pesticides, please follow the instructions on the back. Don’t double the amount and don’t apply it to flowering plants that are attracting pollinators.’
“You don’t have to have that perfect green lawn right away,” he said.
After a recent die-off in Rehoboth that killed an estimated 60,000 bees, beekeepers are hoping that lawmakers will pass a bill to protect the pollinators soon. If passed, the bill would require a license to use neonicotinoids, restricting homeowners from spraying the insecticide. (The Department of Agricultural Resources is investigating the cause of the bee kill in Rehoboth.)
In the meantime, Youse said everyone can support local beekeepers by educating themselves on the importance of pollinators to the environment and the food supply — and by purchasing local honey.
“We just want people to be more aware of this issue,” Youse said. “That’s the biggest thing for us.”Bethany Ao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethanyao.