Bees and Pesticides

I had the opportunity to read a disturbing post over at Garden Rant the other day about the insecticide clothianidin and how the EPA required its producer, Bayer, to run tests on the safety of using plants grown from seeds treated with clothianidin for bees.  Tests which were, apparently, never carried out appropriately.  This post sent me over to another site, AlterNet, which explained the problem in detail.  In a nutshell what happened is that the EPA asked Bayer to run some tests on how its new pesticide might affect bees. Bayer was unresponsive at first, but eventually did run some tests (which were not what you would call robust) which showed that bees did fine when flitting around in a field of plants which came from clothianidin treated seeds  – at least for as long as the test was carried out.

Then one of our commenters asked for our opinion, and heaven knows, I am always more than happy to offer my personal opinion!  So here it is.  I am extremely unhappy with both Bayer and the EPA in this instance.  They didn’t do what they were supposed to do.  It’s as simple as that.  Tests were supposed to be run to demonstrate that it is unlikely that clothianidin affects bees.  This wasn’t done in a reasonable period of time.  Period.  As long as stuff like this occurs nobody is going to trust the EPA or the chemical manufacturers.  In terms of whether the tests were sufficient (basically some hives in a field of treated plants), well, I would have liked to have seen more depth, but they didn’t seem to be bad studies.

The implication is that, because we don’t have enough testing, clothianidin could be causing bee colonies to collapse.  This goes hand in hand with the suspicion that imidacloprid is leading to colony collapse since both of these chemicals are neonicotinoids.  We know that these pesticides can get into flowers where bees come into contact with them.  The question is whether the bees contact enough to cause hives to collapse (There is no question that these chemicals, at some level, are poisonous to bees – just as almost anything can be poisonous to humans at a high enough dose – even water).

One thing that is lost in this discussion is that SEED TREATMENTS were being examined.  A seed treatment is when the seeds which are planted are treated with a pesticide (in this case clothianidin) to protect the seed itself and the young plant from insects.  As the plant grows the insecticide will break down and become diluted – And so it is probably not going to be present at high levels in pollen that the plant (which comes from the treated seed) produces.  Still, there is potential for this to happen and so it is best if the plants which come from the seed are tested – hence the EPA’s request.

Historically, there are pesticides which have clearly and unambiguously lain waste to bee hives, the most infamous of which was Penncap-M.  This was a unique pesticide because it was a microencapsulation of the very dangerous insecticide methyl parathion.  The microencapsulation process made this pesticide last longer, and made it somewhat safer to handle, but it also made the pesticide into tiny little beads – about the same size as, you guessed it, pollen.  In fruit trees in particular this stuff would become attached to the bees (just like pollen does) and you can imagine the disastrous results.  The answer was to limit the use of this poison to certain times of the year and certain situations when bees were not likely to be around.  Why wasn’t it just banned outright?  Because it worked well and, when used appropriately, it didn’t affect bees (Here I’m giving you the official line – In my opinion its use should have been even more restricted than it was).   Penncap-M is not closely related to the neonicotinoids chemically, though it does affect insects’ nervous systems as many insecticides, including the neonicotinoids, do.

You can count me as one of the people who suspect that the neonicotinoids have something to do with colony collapse.  I’m not a bee researcher — but it is easy to see how the use of these chemicals might weaken a hive to the point where mites or disease could come in.  One of the things that drives me a little nuts though are those people who think that banning neonicotinoids is going to save our bees.  It seems quite obvious at this point that these chemicals are definitely not the sole cause of the disease and perhaps not even one of the major contributing factors.  They essentially banned these pesticides in parts of Europe, and guess what?  They still have bee colonies collapsing.  An interesting side note is that historically large-scale losses of bees isn’t as odd as we might think – in fact, we might have seen this disease (CCD) before.  Perhaps even in the 1800s.  In short, it seems that the answer to this problem is not as simple as banning some pesticides (though restricting their use may be a piece of the solution).  I wish it were.

A sustainable resource? Oh, for peat’s sake!

Recently a well-known gardening blog featured a guest posting by a garden writer who made a case for using Canadian sphagnum peat moss as a horticultural amendment.  He defended his preference through “facts” provided by the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association.
This is kind of like relying on the petroleum industry for the most objective information on the environmental effects of oil spills.  Or the tobacco growers association for data on the effects of smoking on human health.  C’mon now.  We know we should consider the source of our information, right?
This isn’t to say that industries don’t have their own scientists conducting research, or that their research is unreliable.  But to depend on industry talking points alone ignores the vast body of information provided by independent university researchers.
Several years ago I reviewed the scientific literature on the topic of peat as a sustainable resource; that column can be found here as well as in my most recent book (The Informed Gardener Blooms Again).  Rather than repeat what I wrote there, I’ve conducted a quick overview of the research conducted on Canadian peatlands published in the last 10 years.
There are many such articles.  And in general the results are not positive.  Here are some of the highlights (or lowlights):

  • Peat harvesting permanently alters the hydrology of bogs so that natural regeneration is impossible
  • Sphagnum does not easily regenerate on degraded peatlands, causing the sites to become drier over time
  • Species composition of harvested peatlands is not the same as on undisturbed peatlands
  • The mulches used in peatland regeneration decompose and become significant sources of carbon dioxide
  • Natural peatlands are long-term sinks of atmospheric CO2, while mined peatlands increase atmospheric CO2 levels
  • Amphibian populations, already hampered by acid deposition, are further threatened by peat mining
  • Volunteer birch trees on abandoned peat mines accelerate water loss

If we, as gardeners, deliberately choose to use unsustainable natural resources, we need to be fully aware of the consequences.  Unquestioned acceptance of industry talking points lends nothing to the discussion.

Pure Nelida: the story of one Viva Farms participant

Nelida was born in a subsistence farming community in Oaxaca, Mexico. She escaped an abusive alcoholic household at 14 by going to live with her (soon to be) husband’s family, who took her in, then took every opportunity from that moment forth to remind her what a burden she was for them.

After marrying at 16, the young couple migrated north to the US in search of a better life where they found farm work. They toiled 12 years on commercial farms in California, then headed further north, seeking farm work in the lush Skagit Valley in Washington State.  They added children to their household until they were nine in all…plus a steady stream of cousins, brothers, nieces, nephews, uncles, and others who’d joined them in their search for the good life. With family, Nelida’s work multiplied: farm worker by day, Oaxacan mother/wife by night.  Life in Washington wasn’t exactly the American dream, but Nelida knew it was better than the nightmarish situation her relatives faced back in Oaxaca.  Then, one day, things took a turn for the worse.

One of Nelida’s sons fell violently ill. When the traditional herbal remedies she learned from her grandmother failed, Nelida pleaded with her husband to take the boy to the hospital for tests.  Her husband refused, petrified of hospital bills (he had no health insurance) and of being fired for missing work. But a man’s greatest fear is no match for a mother’s love.  She looked her husband straight in the eyes and told him, “Si tu no eres lo suficientemente hombre para salvar tu hijo, yo mismo le llevare’ al hospital.” (If you’re not man enough to save your son, I’ll take him to the hospital myself.) She didn’t have a driver’s license at the time so she carried him to the closest hospital.

The doctors diagnosed the boy with late-stage leukemia and ordered treatment immediately. They told Nelida that if she’d waited even a few more days it may have been too late. Nelida quit farming and dedicated herself to her son’s recovery. She accompanied him back and forth from Mount Vernon to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle for weekly chemo treatments. Between treatments she made and sold tamales, empanadas, pan de burro, fresh tortillas, anything friends and local Mexican stores would buy. She needed every penny she could earn for the cancer treatment, which she was determined to pay for herself.

When her son achieved remission, Nelida did not return to being a farm worker.  She stepped up the organic production like she’d always done at home. She crammed pots and trays of vegetables and herbs into her kitchen window-sills, into her tiny balcony, her front doorstep, anywhere she could put them. When a community garden was created in her farm worker housing complex, Nelida was the first to sign up for a plot.  She was delighted with her garden plot but wanted more ground. Couldn’t she just use the whole 1/2 acre, she would ask the residential director. That would be enough space to feed her family and even sell a bit of surplus.

That’s when I met Nelida. When she told me how she had transported special plants and seed with her from Oaxaca to California, tended them in the migrant camps and then moved them up to Washington with her, I knew she was an ideal candidate for the new Latino farming program I was helping WSU Skagit Extension launch in the valley.

Nelida enrolled immediately in our first bilingual Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching course. She graduated and signed up for the more advanced Farm Business Planning course, in which she developed a business plan for a three acre diversified organic farm.  She now leases 1 acre at Viva Farms (Washington’s first bilingual farm business incubator) and two acres at a second site. Her goal is to purchase 10 acres with a house, where she can live and expand her organic produce sales that now complement her already established food business.

When we met to develop a name and logo for Nelida’s one-woman organic farm and food business, I could think of only one name to encapsulate her brand personality: PURA NELIDA, like the saying pura vida but with Nelida as the life force.  I asked Nelida what symbolized pura vida* and purity for her. She thought for a moment then smiled and replied, “una cebolla blanca“(a white onion). So that’s what she is seen cradling in the logo we designed for her farm.

So to those who feel discouraged by how long it has taken for us to farm as if we love and cherish life…I offer one of Nelida’s organic white onions: let its crisp, sweet, spice and purity cure you of your ills. Soon you’ll understand why, when I stand and behold Viva Farms, I am apt to repeat “Pura Vida…” again and again, like a mantra.

For more information about WSU S
kagit County Extension and Viva Farms, please view our websites at and [Note: Nelida (via Viva Farms) is offering a weekly box delivery in partnership with Growing Washington, another non-profit that serves beginning and Latino farmers. 20 weeks, mid June-Halloween. $25/wk small share, $36 large share. It’s a great way to support the next generation of sustainable farmers. Contact to sign up.]

Don McMoran is an Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Education in Skagit County, Washington.  You can reach him at

What fir?

OK, it’s the middle of December so I get to indulge my passion for Christmas trees.  One of the most interesting projects I’ve gotten to work on during my time at Michigan State is a study to look at alternative species of firs (Abies spp) for Christmas trees and well as for landscape conifers.  Firs are fascinating trees that are distributed throughout temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.  There are about 50 species, many of which are important for timber, landscaping or Christmas trees.


For those of you that put off your Christmas tree shopping until the end (or want to start thinking about next year’s tree) here are three trees to keep an eye out for.


Korean fir Abies koreana We have several growers in Michigan that are now growing Korean fir.  It has relatively short needles that have a bottle-brush arrangement on the stem.  The color is often described as dark green, but I’d say the needles tend more to a true green or Kelly green with a silvery underside.


Concolor fir also makes a great landscape conifer

Conolor fir Abies concolor  I grew up in the Northwest so I always knew this tree as white fir until I moved to the Midwest.  In any case, it’s a great tree.  Long, soft-blue needles.  Depending on the seed source they can be as blue as a blue spruce.  The main draw-back here in Michigan is that concolor tend to break bud early, which makes them susceptible to frost damage in the spring.  Their citrus-like scent is hard to beat.


Danish growers compete for the best Nordmann fir in the “Fight for the Golden star” at their annual tree fair.

Nordmann fir  Abies nordmanniana  Denmark is the leading producer of Christmas trees in Europe and Nordmann fir is their principle species.  The Danes like Nordmann because of its deep, dark green color and natural form and symmetry.  Europeans don’t like their Christmas trees sheared so they rely heavily on genetics and selection to find trees that naturally have good form. We’re starting to see more Nordmann in the US, both here in the Midwest and in the Northwest.  Growers complain that the trees are slow-growing to start but I think some US consumers are looking for a more open, natural-looking tree and Nordmann can fill this niche.

Green mystery revealed

Another easy one, or else you guys are just too smart!  It is indeed a mistletoe.  Gold stars to KB, John, Kandi, and Deb, and an extra point to Jane for identifying the genus (Phoradendron).  I believe it’s Phoradendron bolleanum, an introduced species which parasitizes Cupressus arizonica (Arizona cypress).

In any case, I chose this puzzle plant in keeping with the holiday season!  Thanks for playing!

Of Worms and Fertilizers

Today I’m going to write about fertilizers and worms.  The purpose of this post is not to encourage you to use fertilizers.  I agree wholeheartedly with Linda’s post – we don’t need many of the fertilizers which we’re using.  Still, it’s important to know the facts about anything that you’re doing (or not doing) to and for your garden, and to do them (or not do them) for the right reasons.  With that in mind, I’ve been reading about worms and fertilizers for the last few days and wanted to let all of you know the basics of what I’ve been reading, because it is somewhat contrary to what many gardeners believe.

Before we begin let’s get one thing straight — worms are basically good for your garden and your plants in general.  We like them!

Over the years I’ve heard all kinds of comments about how inorganic fertilizer is bad because it kills worms or drives them away.  For the most part I’ve just accepted these claims as generally true because it seemed to make sense and I didn’t have a reason to study it further (I don’t write about worms much, and I’ve never spent any time doing research on them – still, I have to admit that this is no excuse for ignorance).  The only contrary words I’d ever heard spoken about the reality of what fertilizers do to worm populations had come from a soil scientist friend of mine who told me, in casual conversation, that he didn’t believe that fertilizers were bad for worms at all, except, perhaps in the very short term if they got some fertilizer directly on them.  Rather, he believed that, because fertilizers encouraged the growth of plants, fertilizer use would actually increase worm populations because it would increase their food supply.

After reading through a few papers it looks like my soil scientist friend was right.  Here I’m going to summarize my general impressions about these papers into a few sentences – not exactly fair because the relationship between worms and fertilizers isn’t completely straightforward – but hey, this is a blog!  Basically, if you add fertilizer of any sort to your soil you will ultimately increase worm populations because you will encourage the growth of more plant material.  More plant material, over the course of time, means more organic matter for worms to eat.  Generally organic fertilizers seemed to be preferred by worms (probably because they include lots of organic material along with the nutrients which they offer), but overapplication of fertilizer (organic or inorganic) could be bad for worm populations, at least in the short term.

So, in a nutshell, judicious fertilizer use shouldn’t affect worm populations negatively.  Still, why add fertilizer at all if you can avoid it?  Mulch and compost – worms will definitely enjoy that!