Wildlife Wednesday – A Perfect Storm

Inspired by Tammy’s Casa Mariposa blog, I have been trying for some time to compile a list of UK Garden Centres and Nurseries which sell plants without neonics – systemic insecticide use. I am failing. The RHS were unable to help – despite selling a licensed logo “Perfect for Pollinators” This isn’t regulated – plants can be treated with neonicintoid insecticides and still carry the label.

Astrantia Roma

Astrantia Roma and Bumblebees

Neonics, used to kill off insects by commercial growers deemed to be aesthetically harmful to a plant, stay within the plant – that same systemic insecticide is able to kill the very pollinators it’s labelled to attract. Which is beyond stupid. Laced with hidden toxic chemicals enticing us to buy the perfect plant we are creating a pollinator death trap. Dave Goulson reports “Neonics in soil can persist for years. They can also last for several years once inside perennial plants. Once you have them in your garden there is no known way to get rid of them, other than waiting many years for them to slowly break down.”

“They are tremendously toxic to insects; just one teaspoon of neonic is enough to give a lethal dose to 1 ¼ billion honeybees.”


There has been much debate on the use of neonics on farmland crops – the soil association reports “around 95% of chemicals do not get into the crop but instead get into soils and are absorbed by wildflowers, hedges, trees and streams”. Its acknowledged now these insecticides play a large part in killing our Honeybees. But these same insecticides kill our earthworms, wild bees, bumblebees and other pollinators including Butterflies, Moths and Hoverflies, and even the birds who feed on these insects.

Chalk Hill Blue Butterfly

Chalk Hill Blue Butterfly

Two months ago I chipped into a twitter debate, which lobbied the RHS to do something about the lack of testing on plants carrying a label they endorse and sell. Led by John Walker and Kevin Thomas, The Natural Bee Keeping Trust and Dave Goulson, Scientist, Sussex University lecturer, Bee champion, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and author.  This resulted in a change of wording by the RHS. “…..been grown in accordance with all relevant UK and EU legislation and regulation, including the use of pesticides and the current ban on neonicotinoids” However, in reality, the ban is applicable to farm crops not commercial garden plant growers.

Yesterday Dave Goulson launched a crowd funding appeal which aims to test garden plants for neonics, to find the ones which are truly safe or not, then lobby for garden centres to sell plants which are genuinely good for bees and other pollinators. Those that are safe would be sold as neonic-free. He is a measured man, not a ranter or crank, a scientist, who acts on scientific evidence. Hence the need to carry out tests. Greenpeace have already tested garden plants on the EU mainland and found neonics.

Borago officinalis and Honey Bee

Borago officinalis and Wild Bee

Without pollinators, we would not eat Strawberries, Apples or Chocolate, amongst many others. Without pollinators we would see very few flowers in our Gardens or on Countryside walks.  Buglife report it’s estimated that 84% of EU crops (valued at £12.6 billion) and 80% of wildflowers rely on insect pollination.

Solitary bee on 'White Pearl' Perennial Sweet Pea

Solitary bee on ‘White Pearl’ Perennial Sweet Pea

As gardeners we are uniquely placed to really help our beleaguered pollinators and impact how this knocks on into the wildlife food chain and ecosystems. We can make a genuine difference. If we carry on planting plants laced with toxic chemicals then its quite frightening how empty, devoid and unhappy our gardens could be.

I haven’t included any of our May 2016 wildlife from home today, these photos are last Summers. Tina from My Gardener Says who hosts this lovely meme, has shared lots from her Texas garden though.

Happy Wildlife Watching!

79 thoughts on “Wildlife Wednesday – A Perfect Storm

  1. Thanks for shedding more light on this, Julie. Every time a bee flies through our garden, I smile with gladness, understanding these days, much better, about their vital roles.

  2. Great blog post. 🙂 I was going to do a post on this as well when I read Dave Goulson’s post yesterday and the link he put up to Wallachea, who are doing the crowdfunding.
    It still amazes me that garden centres still can’t tell you where they get some of these plants and that even the one’s bearing the “For Pollinators” cannot tell you where or what country they were imported from.
    Seriously good post and so important to let poeple know about the dangers of neonics. 🙂

  3. Excellent post Julie with some wonderful photos and one of my pet topics. Earlier in the year I started emailing seed companies to see if their seeds were dressed with neonics with varied or no responses. This is such an important issue. In America I think they are ahead of the game here with some garden centres now only selling plants that have not been treated with neonics. It’s a really important message to get out there – that these chemicals persist in the plant.

  4. Firstly, as usual, your photos are stunning, Julie. The information in this post is disconcerting, to say the least. I’m reasonably careful when I purchase a plant, but systemic pesticide/herbicide use in the agricultural industry is certainly a problem for pollinators–and everyone else. Thanks for this informative post–it’s good that this information is available and that you’ve reminded gardeners of the important role we can play. Thanks for participation in Wildlife Wednesday!!

  5. Well done Julie. Some of us have been lobbying for the complete banning of neonics for agricultural use and protesting about the UKs whimpish response to the farming lobby, but overlooked the use of neonic in commercial horticulture. We need our pollinating insects we don’t need agro-chemiocals.

  6. Congratulations for writing this important post and for all the research you have been doing lately. Most people are sadly ignorant about the dangers posed by these chemicals – we need educating urgently! I have noticed a dramatic reduction of all insects in this part of the country just during the past ten years which must relate to the use of a particular pesticide.

  7. Your photos are exquisite! The use of these chemicals is atrocious. I am happy to report my grass blooms beautiful weeds without the use of chemicals. I love watching the little creatures flit about and do not understand the need for a perfectly green lawn. I had not thought of chemicals in my perennials, but it breaks my heart to think it might be so. Thanks for the eye opener.

  8. It’s so sad and devious to mislabel plants that are serving up pollen full of poison! I started growing all my own annuals because of this and have scoured the internet for companies that sell clean plants. Since gardening is such a huge part of British culture, I’m surprised more growers haven’t abandoned neonics in favor of more organic practices. I ended up calling a lot of nurseries directly. After several years, my list is still shorter than I’d like it to be but it does grow every year. Most of the companies on the list are small, family owned businesses. Big horticulture here still uses neonics in everything. It’s revolting and morally wrong. 😦

    • Hi Tammy, we have some organic growers producing fruit, veg and herbs and a few organic flower and edible seed suppliers but its virtually impossible to find an organic ornamental plant grower. In addition to British grown, many plants widely sold in the UK are imported in from the Netherlands, produced cheaply with neonic use. Our legislation covers flowering farm crops, although even that was partially relaxed during the winter and does not cover ornamental plants.
      The RHS – our leading horticultural charity produced a Bee graphic “Plants for Pollinators” which is widely added on unregulated license to ornamental plants containing neonics. And is a major selling point. Its this lack of transparency thats creating more harm. Folk expect labelling endorsed by the RHS to be completely valid, growers using neonics are labelling with our leading hort charity’s endorsement. We need urgent action, complete transparency and new labelling in the first instance.
      And a move to ban neonics on ornamental plants. Not everyone would be swayed by the word ‘organic’ here, its still viewed as pricey and with some scepticism, but selling plants to help bees is big business now and should be ethical. Currently it isn’t.

  9. Gardens are so important for pollinators and I admire your determination to push for more non-treated plants on sale. In France I have discovered a beekeeper who also has a small nursery of bee friendly plants. I do not know of any drive here to mark plants as neonic free. Amelia

  10. I had no idea that they are used for flowers sold in our garden centres. A frightening thought. Thanks for bringing up this issue and making me think more Julie.

  11. Yes Julie your photos are beautiful. It is a very informative post. I have to confess to not much about this but do know the world population of bees are at risk,that is right isn’t it? Never heard the word neonics but I have now.

  12. This post should go viral Julie; it is so important. I’ve never re-blogged anything but I will try with this and ask all my readers to re-blog it too. This is too important to stay among just a few of us. I hope at least the RHS (to whom th government sometimes listens) will realise that gardeners are willing to help the situation of pollinators and that with the currant labelling we might be buying plants that will help KILL rather than save our pollinators. Garden centres are just using this label as a marketing tool rather than to to any good!

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  14. Well done, a brilliant post! As gardeners this is something we should all be aware of. I have gardening friends who happily spray against lily beetle. Not that they don’ t care about bees, but they don’ t understand the implications. Why don’ t you send this post to some of the leading gardening magazines and see if one of them will publish it? If gardeners were aware of the problem I am sure most of them would support a ban on neonics in horticulture.

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  17. I had no idea… Such important information! Thank you. I’ll try to spread the word too. (PS Super-duper photos! I’ve come here via Barnhouse Garden.)

  18. Excellent research and well put. I’ve learned something new in that I did not know neonics stayed in the plants for years. Beautiful photos for Wildlife Wednesday.

    • Thank you, what a dreadful situation this is. Hopefully Dave Goulson’s research will be the catalyst for some major changes in our industry.

  19. Like Tammy, I’m surprised the learn that the UK isn’t far ahead of the US on this issue. I know Tammy resorted to growing her own annuals (which she does well!) but that’s harder for many of us. In the US, I suspect things won’t fundamentally change until the economics of ignoring the issue hit growers and sellers hard in the pocketbook.

  20. Reblogged this on a french garden and commented:
    Are your garden plants treated with neonics? Julie is highlighting the lack of clarity in labelling of treated plants destined for our gardens.
    Will gardeners be able to lobby for more transparency? Even in France?

    • Hi Amelia, its been reported here that France are now permanently banning neonics on flowering farm crops . The recent Greenpeace study which did NOT include any ornamental plants in the UK found “79% of ornamental plants sourced from across European garden centres, supermarkets and DIY stores were contaminated with the banned neonicotinoids.” Dave Goulson is aiming to test plants sold in the UK and then lobby for change. Transparency is needed everywhere. The RHS labelling is catastrophically unhelpful – we need accurate signage saying ‘Neonic free’.

      • France’s ban does not start until September 2018 so that gives them plenty of time to lobby for amendments. Transparency is very important and also vigilance. Amelia

  21. Greetings, I am aware of the treatment of seeds that grow our nursery plants and always ask if plants are treatment free. If they do not know I tell them about neonics. We can all relay this information to our friends and garden clubs. “Awareness is Power” and if we ask for Neonic free plants regularly the Garden Centres will respond to demand.
    I grow my vegetables with treatment free seeds and share the seedlings with friends. We do not spray in our garden and have two bee hives. We cannot control their foraging but offer them lots of choice.

    I do enjoy receiving cuttings from friends of plants that have been in their gardens for many years in the hope that they are untreated.

    Thank you for raising awareness of this important subject.
    Regards Janine

  22. I came to your blog via Amelia’s A French Garden blog. A great post and great to see this issue highlighted, and so many of your commenters already so informed. I had no idea the RHS ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ label only applied to a list of species and cultivars, regardless of their origins and propogation/growing methods. Although the RHS would never have the resources to police such a thing, they would simply be relying on growers answering questions honestly. As it happens I’ve got 3 RHS botanists arriving on Monday as part of an ongoing research project I’m involved in (a particular rare orchid, so nothing to do with neonics, nor indeed gardens…). If the right moment occurs I’ll quiz them about the issue. Not that it’s their area of speciality but they might have some interesting insights. I’ll put a link to your post on my blog too.

    • Hi Susan, The RHS undertook trials at Wisely comparing non natives and natives and simplified found non natives with accessible pollen and nectar were able to attract pollinators too. From that trial they produced a Plants for Pollinators list found on their website, including natives and non natives. They produced a licensed logo for suppliers to add to their plants on the plant label, which is widely used. In itself thats a good initiative. However, as evidence increased, re farming, they removed themselves from the group of voices, including Defra who stood by the use of neonics. (Having initially supported that opinion).
      Currently they still allow this label to be used, when its now been shown neonics are also used in the production of commercially grown ornamental plants. Despite the ban in the UK on Agricultural flowering plants. The RHS as our leading horticultural charity is a trusted body that folk rely on when making a decision in a garden centre. It would be really helpful now if they were to pull the label from use, explain why and publish the Greenpeace and Dave Goulson’s findings and make this transparent. Performing further trails analysing the neonic content of the plants within their trials would also help. It would be really interesting to hear the views of your botanists.
      I agree they haven’t the resources to police the use, but they are able to publish the concerns and evidence in a balanced way. There are some folk that will use plants with neonics in anyway, thats their choice but a lot of gardeners want to do something positive for pollinators and wildlife. Realising that the very plant chosen to help is causing even more harm will help folk make an informed choice and hopefully change the practises of the very big business Plants for Pollinators is in garden centres, supermarkets ect..

  23. I didn’t realise either that plants promoted for pollinators could be pre-treated in this way. It’s nonsensical. I had been reading how neonics build up to scary levels in the hedgerows though. Once again incredible photos to support the post Julie!

    • Hi Allison, Buzz about Bees have published the following residue times for agricultural seed treatments.
      28 – 1250 days for imidacloprid (3 years & 155 days);
      7–3001 days for thiamethoxam (8 years & 81 days);
      148– 6931 days for clothianidin (short of 19 years by just 4 days).
      Very interesting and comprehensive site.
      Greenpeace have published a much longer document, which includes their research into EU mainland ornamental plants – 79% contained neonics.
      Dave Goulson is crowd funding a relatively modest amount to corroborate Greenpeace’s evidence. – We import so much from the Netherlands as do other European countries – neonics used as soil drenches and seed treatments. The more scientific evidence gathered the better the chance of change.

  24. Hi Julie, many thanks for raising such an important topic. As a society we are caring more and more for where our food comes from, yet as gardeners we pay too little attention to where our plants come from. How many of us stop to think how the commercial processes that bring plants to our garden centre shelves impact on the environment we profess to care so much about? I am certainly as guilty as anyone, and I shall henceforth stop and think harder as to what I can do to reduce these hazardous chemicals coming anywhere near my own garden. For my first action, I’ll reblog your post!

  25. I applaud your efforts Julie…it is equally hard here and virtually impossible to find chemical free plants for sale…many growers have no info because they purchase plugs to start their plants and they do not know or want to know about the chemicals. And I have found growers who out and out lie too.

    Such an important topic so thanks for bringing the efforts there to light.

  26. And I was living with the impression that in EU at least some neonics were banned; as opposed with US and Canada. I don’t know why actually…
    Very well written! Yes, the irony of planting ‘beneficial’ species for the pollinators.

    • Neonics are currently banned for agricultural flowering crops in the UK for 2 years. This will be reviewed by the government towards the end of 2016. Although, they allowed a temporary lift over the winter in some areas. The ban does not cover Horticulture – obviously it should. More irony – wildflower margins around fields funded by stewardship grants from our government are shown to have more concentrated amounts of neonics than the crops they were originally put on due to run off into the soil and surrounding margins, including waterways.

  27. Great post and photos Julie. Let’s hope that if DG gets his project off the ground, the data it generates will be so dramatic that all the mainstream media will jump on it, and it’ll produce a wave of lobbying for things to change. How mad a world we live in where such powerful agents are employed in the commercial growing of plants which are then marketed as “perfect for pollinators”. However, until the situation changes it’s another good reason for propagating one’s own plants, or growing from seed, so that one has some control over this situation at least in your own patch,
    best wishes

    • Hi Julian, I find it also incredible that DG as a scientist is having to crowd fund for this research – there are lots of reputable plant sellers making huge sums of money, I wonder why they are reluctant to meet this head on. I grow at home from purchased organic seed but in the past when I have collected free seed from ‘wild’ wildflowers, I am now worrying what that actually contains, given the research on field margin wildflowers and neonics entering water courses.

      • Hello Julie,
        I agree. Why is such vital research not being funded/sponsored commercially ….because it’s likely to throw a spanner in the works of the current horticultural status quo. I read yesterday that Bayer is bidding for Monsanto, China chem is bidding for syngenta, and last year Du pont linked up with Dow. So what/ Well if they all happen the big 6 agrochemical firms will reduce to just 3… and we all know what tends to happen when such money, power and influence becomes even more narrowly controlled…
        Maybe pop over to Wales again for some wild flower seed collection? Farming is relatively pesticide free here – apparently only 2% of UK agro pesticide consumption is actually used in Wales,
        best wishes

      • Its both staggering and deeply alarming that the powerfully rich chemical companies are allowed by governments to merge like this.
        We live in the middle of a heavily crop farmed area – the ‘countryside’ as we know it here. But have been researching places we would like to live in for over a year now, Wales is already on our list – the lack of pesticides make it even more enticing! By the way, we loved our trip last year and are coming back in July to walk the coast path.

      • Hi Julian, thanks so much for your Brother in Laws link, lots of helpful and entertaining, hilarious information. I have just read your latest blog and see I have missed another too. You are opening on the day we drive up, but would love to see the meadows, but think this is achievable as we are heading to Boncath. Speak soon and thanks again, Julie

  28. Julie, I am quite simply shocked since I am one of the millions of ‘sadly ignorant’. I was standing in the middle of one of my garden messes before all our rain started and enjoying how happy the bees were – I can hardly bear to think that plants I have added to my garden are killing those bees – bees that possibly give me more pleasure than the plants themselves do. Thanks so much for opening my eyes. I will follow the trail that you and others are marking out above and try to add my voice to the pressure. Living in France, I think possibly contacting the 4-6 nurseries I regularly order from online and asking them about their own use of neonics might be a good start. I shall also reblog your post.

    • Thanks Cathy, I feel just as you do about bees in a garden, without them gardens are sterile and lifeless. The prospect is really frightening.

      • It is – my husband started furiously reading up about it yesterday – the only good thing he discovered was that they break down after 30 days of sunshine – and are already banned in Switzerland, apparently. I don’t know if that’s continuous sunshine or not. Thanks to you I have now donated to the work on surveying garden centre stock in the UK for the presence of neonics.

      • Hi Cathy, have a look at the website
        This gives details of neonics lasting in soil for many years, rather than 30 days. Explains how a bee taking minuscule amounts can bring that back to a nest or hive. And references many of the previous studies and the latest findings from Greenpeace. I looked this morning and see DG is almost there with his funding goal – thanks so much for helping. This morning the soil association tweeted DG’s latest blog too.
        What a mess this all is.

      • Thanks so very much Julie for yet more information – will follow through. And thanks again for your eye-opening post.

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  31. I’m so glad people are organizing in the UK against the use of neonics by commercial nurseries. There are several mail order nurseries in the US that guarantee their plants are grown without neonics. However, every time I buy a plant at a garden center I have to worry about whether the plant was treated with neonics.

    • I feel we are behind the States in understanding and recognising the problem let alone dealing with it. It will take some bravery from garden centres to publicly acknowledge this – but public opinion has counted in agriculture so far, so hopefully with ongoing respected research a difference can be made here too.

      • That’s funny, because I always thought that the EU was well ahead of the USA when it comes to regulating chemicals. It does seem there has been more focus on GMOs in food, but this is just as important. (I don’t really feel well-informed on the GMO question.)

      • Hi Jason, this is a really good quick article explaining the pros and cons of genetically modified food.
        Again large chemical companies Monsanto and Syngenta involved.
        Global food poverty needs addressing urgently, maybe the increased mycoprotein – Quorn technology is partly the answer, rather than GM, but some folk are allergic to that too. I work for a lady who is Vegan and says it can be made into a huge variety of foods.
        Animals are fed imported GM crops here although its banned as a food crop, so is in our human food chain, (Scotland and Wales have GM free policies) but the current British conservative government have been in negotiation with the EU to allow GM crops.
        It will be interesting if we come out of the EU – there is a vote here in two weeks time to see how this all progresses.

  32. Here in the States, beekeepers have pressured the big-box garden stores to discontinue neonicitinoids, with some success. It’s slow going. In the meantime, if I buy a plant or seeds, I call the manufacturer to check. The safest thing is to always buy organic. There’s no point in a lovely garden that kills my bees.

    • We need that here, a change in mindset and transparency. Part of the problem are the imported plants, which are produced cheaply on mainland EU. Although we are in the middle of a neonic ban on flowering agricultural crops, there is no legislation for ornamentals. I agree it safest to plant organic.

  33. Thanks for writing about this important topic, it’s shocking to think that places we should trust such as garden centres are in fact peddling potentially bee-killing plants. I have tweeted a link to your article.
    One point of information: in my view the neonics pose the greatest hazard to wild bees (bumblebees and solitary bees, all fantastic pollinators) and in recent field studies honeybees were relatively unscathed by neonics used under agricultural condtions (here is my summary of the work: https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/bees-and-neonicotinoids-another-twist-in-the-tale/).

    • Hi Philip, thank you for your contribution, I wonder if beyond the research on both wild and hived bees wether there was any research by Lund University into the run off to soil and the take up into the wider food chain and ecosystems. Bees of course are not our only pollinators, although they attract the most press. I wonder if research into Pollinating Hoverflies, Beetles, flies ect.. will take place. How these chemicals are getting into our water systems and affecting aquatic life. We need more transparency. Dave Goulsons latest research into the neonic levels within ornamental plants will hopefully shed more light and help gardeners make informed choices.

  34. Tulips are an interesting aspect of the neonics disaster. In Holland they use literally tonnes of neonics and fungicides to protect tulip bulbs . . . literally saturate them – because the highly bred tulips have very low resistance to insects, bacteria and fungi. One young Dutch chap who came from an Organic Farm got so fed up that he went to the USA and started the first Organic Tulip farm there: Jeroen Koemans . . .see his blog and website here:



    • Thank you for the really interesting link, I was also interested to see this couple continue links with Dutch Organic bulb growers for new cultivars. And have just read that Mantel one of the largest Dutch bulb producers have an organic range now, which shows it can be done and there is the demand – is the Swiss market a financial motivator here where they have a total ban on neonics.
      A couple of days ago I read an article written by John Walker http://earthfriendlygardener.net, dated September 2015 and published in a very respected daily broadsheet.
      A major part of the problem here is the publicity respected garden suppliers generate such as Sarah Raven,
      who sells and buys in from Holland, non organic bulbs. Promotes “Plants for Pollinators”, has her own “Loved by Pollinators” symbol although she is not organic and presented the TV programme “Bees, Butterflies and Blooms”.
      In the UK there is a real need for transparency, its hard enough for seasoned gardeners to cut through the nonsense let alone younger gardeners trying to plant responsibly.

  35. Goodness Julie, I thought I was educated about this and, with this wonderful article, I have realized that I most definitely am not – so thank you so much for bringing all this to my attention. I am truly shocked, especially about the residual life of these substances in the ecosystem. This is truly appalling and of course, we will be years behind over here about anything being done. I read one of the comments above and will definitely try to source organic seed for my cutting garden as much as I can from now on.
    Thank you!
    Kate x

    • Finding organic plants is really hard over here, although seed is much easier but choices are limited. These large giant chemical companies have a great deal to answer for.

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