Protecting bees: Ortho nixes neonicotinoids in bee-friendly move

A garden-care company owned by Scotts MiracleGro will phase out neonicotinoids in eight products by 2021, in hopes of saving declining bumblebee and honeybee populations.

Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters/File
A pollen-covered bee sits on a blade of grass on a lawn in Klosterneuburg, Lower Austria on April 29, 2013. Garden-care company Ortho said on Tuesday that it will phase out the use of chemicals that are widely believed to harm bees in eight of its products by 2021.

As scientists continue to warn about the serious harms bees face from chemicals contained in many commonly-used pesticides, garden-care company Ortho is taking a decisive step.

The company announced Tuesday that it will phase out the use of chemicals known as neonicotinoids by 2021 in eight of its pesticide products.

Ortho will stop using neonicotinoids in three products for roses, trees, and shrubs by next year and modify other products later, said Tim Martin, vice president and general manager of Ortho, reported the Associated Press. The lawn-care company is a division of the Ohio-based Scotts Miracle-Gro. 

The use of neonicotinoid-containing pesticides is one of several factors believed to contribute to rapid declines in the bee population, along with poor nutrition, mites and disease.

In 2014, beekeepers reported losing about 40 percent of their honeybee colonies across the country, a highly significant decline given that honeybees pollinate about 80 percent of crops that use insect pollination, including favorites from cantaloupes and kiwis to pumpkins.

When the neonicotinoid-bearing pesticides are sprayed on some crops – such as cotton or citrus – and spread to pollen or nectar, the bees can develop an addictive craving for the substances, similar to a human addiction to nicotine.

As they keep coming back for more, the chemicals can damage bees' central nervous systems, ultimately impacting their ability to pollinate flowers, one study found last month.

Researchers have come to different conclusions on whether the chemicals have a stronger impact on wild bumblebees or domestic honeybees. Pesticide makers such as Bayer Crop Science and Syngenta, the top manufacturers of neonicotinoids, argue the research exaggerates the chemicals' risk.

But some beekeepers are skeptical of the companies' claims.

"I can't keep them alive no matter what I do," said Steve McDaniel, who owns a honey farm in Manchester, Md., to the Washington Post. "The trouble is they started selling these pesticides to homeowners. They put these things on flowers that bloom within a mile of the beehive. No one can offer me a reasonable explanation of any other cause for what I've been seeing."

Mr. Martin said Ortho is taking action because of concern about the declining honeybee population. The company hopes to reassure customers that "Ortho's got their back, taking care of whatever they need controlled in the most responsible manner," he told the AP.

The reformulated products might require gardeners to apply them more frequently, but the new versions would make it easier to focus on pest control without harming bees, he says. The price of the products won't change significantly.

Ortho's policies join a growing effort to save declining bee populations, from grassroots campaigns to a federal task force. 

Last week, the Maryland House of Delegates voted in favor of a plan to pull pesticides containing neonicotinoids off retail store shelves and restrict their use to certified pest control applicators, farmers, and veterinarians.

The White House unveiled an effort last year to restore 7 million acres of bee habitat over the next five years and encourage people to monitor how they are using pesticides.

In March, the US Fish and Wildlife Service said it would consider whether to protect two species of wild bumblebees under the Endangered Species Act. The agency banned the use of insecticides that contain neonicotinoids on national wildlife refuges across the country in 2014.

Conservation groups have recommended that the Environmental Protection Agency take a closer look at its regulations for approving new pesticides and whether the products could harm the bee population.

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