Like most gardeners, if you see insect damage on plants you worked hard to grow, you will probably want to put a stop to that damage. But before you purchase a product to help stop the chewing, please consider a few things. Some insect control products that are in the category known as neonicotinoids (neonics for short) have been shown to be very harmful to bees.
When you spray neonics on plants, the neonic chemicals get into the plant and can show up in the nectar and pollen, where they can be harmful to bees, butterflies, and nectar-feeding birds. Even if bees are not exposed to a lethal dose of a neonic chemical it can still have a harmful impact on them. Bumblebees grow more slowly and produce fewer queens when exposed to very small amounts of neonics. And when honeybees are exposed to small amounts it can harm their ability to fly, navigate, and find food.
And as you may know, many bees are endangered and struggling to survive for a variety of reasons including reduced pollinator habitat, climate change, and the use of neonics. A study published recently in the Journal Biological Conservation (you can read it online at tinyurl.com/yydcrcog) concluded that 40 percent of all insect species are in decline and could die out in the coming decades. Pollinators play an important role in our agriculture system — a full 33% of the crops grown worldwide depend on honeybees.
To learn more about the chemicals that are in the neonic family, you can read Wikipedia. The neonicotinoid family includes acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam. One of these, Imidacloprid, is the most widely used insecticide in the world.
Not only are neonics the active ingredient in some insect control products, but they are also sometimes sprayed on nursery plants to reduce insect damage. Before you purchase any plants at a nursery, ask if their plants were sprayed with neonics. Choose to purchase plants only from nurseries that do not use neonics.
In 2018, the European Union banned the three main neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) for all outdoor uses. In 2014, Spokane, Washington joined Eugene, Oregon, and Seattle in passing citywide bans on neonicotinoids. Democrat representatives at the federal level recently introduced a bill to ban a number of pesticides, including neonics. Information on the “Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act of 2020 (PACTPA) can be found online here.
The good news is there are bee-friendly ways to control insects that aren’t harmful to your plants.
The first and best step to controlling insects harming your plants is to properly identify which insect it is. One of the best books for identifying local insects is “Pacific Northwest Insects” by Merrill A. Peterson. Another option is to contact Vashon Master Gardeners. They usually have a table on weekends outside Ace Hardware, but not this year. Instead, they will answer questions via email. Send a question and/or photo to firstname.lastname@example.org. To help them identify your insect, collect one or more of the problem insects, take a picture and submit the picture in your email to them. You may need to go out at night with a flashlight to catch one of the culprits in action.
Once you have clearly identified the insect that is causing you problems, consider the safer options for dealing with it. For a list of best practices, visit this link.
You can also visit growsmartgrowsafe.org to find more environmentally- and human-friendly ways to reduce insect damage to your plants. If you go to the Grow Smart Grow Safe site to learn about safe insect control, click on the Insect sign. Then click on the “Insect Control Products.” It brings up products starting out with safe options like beneficial insects and then gives all products a green, yellow, or red rating. Green is the safest and red is the most harmful. It also rates the active ingredients for impact on humans, pets and wildlife, aquatic life, and water pollution.
For orchardists, the Holistic Orchard spray is very beneficial. See this website for more details on the Holistic Orchard Spray.
You can purchase the ingredients for the spray online here and at the Vashon Country Store.
See the Garden Green calendar online here for further detail on how to prevent and address many insect problems throughout the year in a more environment and human-friendly way.
Michael Laurie has been a sustainability consultant for over 30 years.