Beeware! ‘Bee-friendly’ garden plants can contain bee-harming chemicals

by Katy Malone, Conservation Officer (Scotland)

It’s early spring here in the Highlands. Despite the continuing flurries of snow, snowdrops have pushed their way out of the iron-hard soil and are waiting for those early rays of sunshine to allow them to open up into their classic nodding shape. I was thrilled to hear my first song thrush of the year this morning – he must know that spring is waiting around the corner and was warming up his fine voice. I love to walk around the garden at this time of year to see the first leaves breaking, the first flowers, and of course, the first bumblebees!

Snowdrops in a Highland wood, February 2018

Yesterday I also did my first talk of the year, to the Inverness area University of the Third Age group (U3A), and I wanted to share some of the latest research about garden plants and the use of pesticides. They were interested – and quite rightly horrified – at finding out that many plant nurseries use pesticides to grow some of our favourite garden plants, and so I thought I would share our joint thoughts here as I reckon this issue deserves much wider attention.

As a keen gardener and allotmenteer, I love flowers and watching the bees and hoverflies visiting the blooms. Of course, I try to plant as many bee-friendly flowers as I possibly can, and I often wander around the garden centres looking for those blooms that bees are visiting before choosing what to buy. Then comes a prolonged amount of head scratching back home, while I try to decide where my new purchases will fit… and usually deciding that yet more of the dwindling lawn has to be sacrificed to make room…

I was therefore absolutely shocked and dismayed when I learned last year of a new piece of research that found bee-harming chemicals are often found in garden centre plants – the very plants that were actually marketed as being bee-friendly. Have I been inadvertently causing harm to the bees in my garden? I was appalled at the idea. This was widely reported in the media at the time, but now that many of us are scouring the seed catalogues and gearing up to our spring planting time, I think it’s worth revisiting the research and its conclusions.

The research was conducted by Professor Dave Goulson and colleagues – a name that might be familiar as Dave founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006 and is the author of the acclaimed books “Sting in the Tale” and “A Buzz in the Meadow”. The research team purchased 29 different plants from a range of nationally widespread outlets such as B&Q, Aldi and Homebase. They tested all the plants and found that out of all the 29 plants, only 2 had no traces of pesticides or chemicals. A massive 70% of the plants actually contained neonicotinoids, those systemic pesticides that have been widely shown to cause damage to bees. The pesticides were found on the leaves, in the pollen and the nectar as well. Prof. Goulson wrote about his finding in his blog (which you can read here)


So my take-home message to you, fellow gardeners and bee enthusiasts, is this: next time you buy seeds or plants, ask the seller about their policy on neonicotinoids. If they can’t provide guarantees that their stock is pesticide-free, walk away and take your custom elsewhere. If nothing else, they will get the message that this is something that really matters to consumers. Instead, buy organic, grow from your own collected seed, or organise a plant swap with like-minded gardeners – and together let’s ensure that we can enjoy watching bees in the garden worry-free.

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