How ‘friendly’ are bee ‘friendly’ plants from garden centres?

June 29, 2014

in Bumblebees and their ecology, Nature, health and well being, Red mason solitary bees, Solitary Bee Observation Box

So you want to help the bees? Buy bee friendly plants right?

You are absolutely convinced now that bee numbers are crashing world wide. You know that bees are actually far more important to our food security than you realised. You have seen it on the TV, read it in the press and heard it on the radio. Honey bees are dying in large numbers which scientist call Colony Collapse Disorder . You are now more aware of bumblebees and you’ve even heard of solitary bees! You know all bees are also affected by a myriad of man made problems, loss of habitat, pesticides, pests like varroa, diseases and loss of wildflowers. You have heard that insects and mainly bees pollinate many of our wild flowers and about 75% of our fruit and vegetables.

Life without bees

Without bees and other wild pollinators, we would still have wind pollinated crops such as corn, grasses, grains and tuber grown crops such as potatoes. So we would be eating for example, wheat, pasta, bread, rice and chips, with banana or seedless grapes for dessert! But that’s boring eh and I would find it difficult eating a healthy (and tastier) balanced diet! Plus I don’t particularly want to hand pollinate my strawberries, apples, plums, tomatoes, etc. Thats even more boring!  (If mankind had to hand pollinate crops the costs would rocket. In the UK alone Prof. S Potts states it would cost a whopping £1.5 billion a year!). And I like wildflowers. How boring again, if they diminished even further.



Buying plants to help bees.

Most of the research done into neonicotinoids (neonics) has been done into their affects on bees visiting farmland and their pollination importance to the growing of crops. But hey, you think, I have a garden and I like flowers. I have stopped using chemicals in my garden and can control what I plant or grow in it. I like watching wildlife in my garden. Why not plant bee friendly flowers for the bees? I can do my ‘bit’ for the bees. So off you go to the garden centre to buy bee friendly plants. Responsible organisations such as the Royal Horticultural Society have even labelled (as above) some plants to save you time watching which plants are being used by bees or reading long lists!

Neonic contaminated garden plants sold in garden centres

A recent study, “Gardeners beware 2014, by scientists in the US and Canada, involved sending plant material from retail outlets, to an independent accredited analytical laboratory who found that major retail outlets, such as Walmart (Owners of our Asda) sold materials with neonics found in 51% of the samples, the very same chemicals that the EU has suspended their usage on flowering plants attractive to bees. They concluded that with a 51% contamination of plants, the chances of buying a plant contaminated with these banned chemicals was high. This latest research simply re enforces my article about neonics  being out of sight out of mind, but still being present as seed and flower bulbs dressing. Are neonics the new DDT.?

How do neonics work?


How neonicotinoids work & travel

This is how the world’s most widely used insecticide works and travels through the plant. Being ‘systemic’ means they are taken up by the plant and travel from root to shoot to fruit. In other words ALL parts of the plant become infused with the toxin.

Thus pollen and nectar is eaten by bees. On farmland the air and surrounding area is contaminated from the seed dressing dust, which contaminates the soil, year on year, washes into streams, rivers and the sea and the seeds can be eaten by birds and other wildlife.

Neonics treatment of plants

Even if the plants have not been sprayed with the chemicals, the seeds/bulbs/plants could have been treated with them. Greenpeace International undertook their own study, “A Toxic Eden: Poisons in your Garden” in Europe. They found that an incredible 79% or ornamental plants sourced from across European garden centres, supermarkets and DIY stores were contaminated with the banned neonicotinoids.

I am aware that here in the UK, after a campaign by Friends of the Earth, the UK’s largest garden retailers, including Homebase, B & Q and Wickes, have already stopped selling neonicotinoids. I don’t know about other garden centres, plant nurseries etc. Neonics may not just simply affect bees. It may affect other non targeted wildlife.


Bumblebee on organic onion (allum)


This bumblebee is safe whilst foraging on this allium grown from an organic set in my organic garden

What about other wildlife in your garden?

We know insecticides are designed to kill insects. A recent research paper (which you can download)  found that the use of certain neonics as seed treatment could kill small birds or affect their breeding if a few seeds were eaten. Neonics were found to be toxic to many birds and most fish.

What can you do?

Do you really want this stuff in your garden? When visiting your garden centre and selecting your bee friendly plants, ask if they care about bees and I would think they would state yes, we actually stock bee friendly plants!  Tell then that scientists have found that neonics harm and even kill bees. Ask if they can guarantee that their plants have not been grown from neonicotinoid dressed seeds, grown from infused cutting or treated with neonics.

If the plants have been imported into the UK, (as quite often they do not grow them themselves and buy them in, often from abroad) do they know whether the country where they originated from has used neonics in the growing of the plants? If they do not know any of these answers, don’t buy them. They will get the message if enough people start asking questions. Simply because the label states ‘Bee Friendly’ is no guarantee it has not been treated with neonics at some stage in its life and therefore is positively NOT bee or wildlife friendly.

If they are found here in the UK, labelled and sold as bee friendly plants, and you bought them believing this to be correct, is this a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act? Have you been misled? Would you have bought it contained neonics?

Seek out trusted organic sources for your seeds and plants. Grow your own from your saved organic seeds or organic cuttings.

Download the ‘Gardens Beware’ scientific report, with references here (very easy to read!!!!) courtesy of Friends of the Earth US.

Download the Greenpeace International  report “A Toxic Eden: Poisons in your Garden”   here

Download Research paper “A review of the direct and indirect effects of neonicotinoids and fipronil on vertebrate wildlife” here

Read New Scientist “Neonicotinoid pesticides are bad news for everything” here 

For more information about bumblebees go to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

For more information about bees and wasps…Bees Wasps and Ants Recording Society  BWARS

Download the FOE Bee Count App

“All my articles and videos, available free, are funded by my  teaching and sales of award winning bumblebee nest boxessolitary bee boxes,  and wormeries. Please help by spreading the word and forwarding this link to your friends and colleagues.  Thank you” George Pilkington

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard July 4, 2014 at 10:25 pm

These are a good starting point, insecticide & pesticide free.


nurturingnature July 5, 2014 at 9:27 am

Thank you Richard I have spoken with them and moving things along! Cheers George


Alan Kimber July 19, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Please put me on your database for future newsletters. We get dead bees in our garden. Is it worth sending them off to find out what killed them?

Alan, an interested amateur gardener.


nurturingnature July 20, 2014 at 10:36 am

Hi Alan, This time of the year you will see many dead bumblebees around. It is nearing the end of their season and they literally work themselves to death. Of course I will add you to my newsletter and updates. Cheers, George


Richard Cain March 28, 2016 at 3:59 am

Great article. Source plants from peatfree organic nurseries, from growers who grow the plants, not garden centres who merely act as retailers. That way you can be sure of truly pollinator friendly plants


nurturingnature March 28, 2016 at 12:40 pm

Thanks Richard, Hopefully sheer weight of public opinion and action in not buying will get to the root cause of these plants being sold. Cheers, George


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: