A honeybee on a flower
Be a friend to a bee and be wary of “bee-friendly” products.
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Beware of buying “bee-friendly” plants — they might end up killing your friendly backyard bees.

As gardeners have been waking up to the pollinator crisis, many have been planting bee-friendly veggies and flowers and keeping neonicotinoid insecticides away from their plots. But some plants being marketed to these bee-loving gardeners could actually be harmful to pollinators, according to a new report.

Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Research Institute bought 13 “bee-friendly” nursery plants from Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Orchard Supply Hardware in three American regions and found that seven of them were contaminated with neonic insecticides, which have been implicated in worldwide bee declines. Some plants contained two types of neonics. A sunflower plant purchased in Minnesota tested positive for three of them.

Such insecticides are so harmful to pollinators that they are being banned in Europe. Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced legislation last month that would impose a similar ban here — the Save America’s Pollinators Act [PDF] — but it won’t be going anywhere in the GOP-dominated House.

How did so many neonics end up in “bee-friendly” plants? “There are very few insecticide products containing multiple neonicotinoids as active ingredients and none containing three different neonicotinoids, so these plants were possibly treated multiple times during their short lifespan,” says the report. Indeed, the nursery industry is virtually swimming in pest-killing poisons. The report notes that such pesticides are used at higher volumes on nursery plants than on agricultural crops, and that they can persist from one season to another:

Nurseries commonly apply neonicotinoids as soil injections, granular or liquid soil treatments, foliar sprays (applied to leaves), and seed treatments. Water-soluble pesticides such as neonicotinoids are readily absorbed by plant roots and transported systemically in the plant’s vascular system to other portions of the plant, including roots, pollen, leaves, stems, and fruit. This systemic action results in the exposure of beneficial, non-target insects such as bees to potentially lethal doses of neonicotinoids.

Friends of the Earth, Pesticide Action Network, The Xerces Society, and other nonprofits are sending letters [PDF] and signed petitions to Lowe’s, Home Depot, Target, and other garden retailers asking them to stop selling neonics and plants that have been pre-treated with the pesticides.

So how can you protect your garden from neonics when even “bee-friendly” plants are loaded with them? Experts say get back to basics or go organic. “Gardeners should start their plants from seeds that have not been treated with chemicals, or choose organic plants for their gardens,” said Pesticide Action Network spokesman Paul Towers. Get more gardening tips from Honey Bee Haven.