EASTON — Pollinator Protection Week in Maryland is June 17-23, and both the state and county are encouraging everyone to be good stewards of these beneficial natural resources.
Fortunately, good stewardship is simply a matter of common sense and courtesy towards our tiny friends who feed on pollen and nectar.
From local extension agents to master gardeners to online help, there are plenty of resources to help backyard gardeners be good neighbors in attracting and protecting pollinators.
According to the June 11 Talbot County Council proclamation, the county "provides ... conservation assistance to promote wise conservation stewardship, including the protection and maintenance of pollinators and their habitats."
Many types of plants, including fruit and vegetable crops, depend on animals for pollination,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “In addition to honey bees, many other types of animals pollinate crops and wildflowers, including wild bees, ants, beetles, wasps, lizards, birds, bats (and) butterflies.
Mikaela Boley of University of Maryland Extension in Talbot County is also the area's Master Gardener Coordinator. One of the simplest ways to protect pollinators is by using pesticides correctly.
At local gardening and home supply stores, average backyard gardeners are faced with an arsenal of chemicals to zap everything from aphids to Japanese beetles to fungus. How do you pick one that won’t harm honeybees and butterflies?
"The label is the law," Boley said. Her advice: “Make sure you’re using the pesticide in an appropriate manner or what you’re using it for will be helped by using the pesticide. Identify the insect or plant disease you want to treat — make sure it really is a Japanese beetle first before attacking it.” Learn when and where to apply and when not to apply and the right temperature for applying.
In other words, read the directions. “I know that sounds simple, but it’s true,” Boley said. Products are “all a little bit different. Make sure it controls what you’re trying to control.”
Even if the label has become damaged or lost, “each product is registered with the EPA, and you can find that product label online,” Boley said. You can even find out if the product is even still legal to use.”
Boley suggests calling her to help diagnose plant problems and properly identify pests. The University of Maryland also has a website to which gardeners can submit photos of the problem at its Home and Garden Information Center.
In other words, don’t grab the Bug-B-Gone and start dusting everything in sight on a windy day, hoping you’ll nail some unknown, nasty critters who are fine-dining on your Knock-Out roses. Do your homework, Boley said.
“They all come with a label, and we’re legally obliged to follow the label,” beekeeper George Meyer said. “That means taking the time to read the label and follow the directions.”
Besides reading the labels of gardening products, Meyer offers simple tips for applying insecticides: "Never spray on flowers, never spray on windy days and spray in the evening when honeybees are back in the hive.”
“If you’re going to spray your fruit tree before it blooms, and there are dandelions or clover underneath it, mow that first because there won’t be any pollinators because there’s nothing to pollinate,” Meyer said.
Meyer, who lives with his wife Charlotte on the family farm near Oxford, is in his 45th season keeping bees. In 2018, his hives produced about 9,000 pounds of honey which he sells throughout the area as BeeGeorge Honey.
Meyer suggests farmers plant hedgerows and homeowners grow a variety of flowers. Since most flowers bloom in the spring, homeowners could plant whatever blooms in July and August.
Meyer has some advice for those who like pristine, weedless lawns: “Kill your grass.”
To pollinators, an expanse of green lawn is “a desert. If I’m a honeybee, all I see is the Sahara Desert,” Meyer said. “Honeybees love clover. Clover is beautiful. Dandelions are beautiful. Allow the weeds to come up. Mow it, of course, but don’t worry about this perfectly manicured lawn.”
“Dandelions, clover and other weeds provide nectar for bees,” Meyer said. They also like tree flowers like black locust and tulip poplar blooms.
An abundance of caution
Pollinator Protection Week at both the federal and state levels came about as a result of concerns about pollinator health and a potential link to the use of a particular class of insecticides.
According to the MDA’s website, the diminishing population in recent years of European honey bees, native bee species, and other pollinators in Maryland “led to increased scrutiny of a widely used class of insecticides, known as neonicotinoids. Public concerns resulted in the passage of the Pollinator Protection Act of 2016 by the Maryland General Assembly. The law went into effect on January 1, 2018 and restricts the sales and use of neonicotinoid pesticides.”
“A retailer needs to be a restricted-use pesticide dealer in order to sell neonicotinoids,” said Lindsay Thompson, executive director of Maryland Grain Producers Association, based in Queenstown.
“You can’t just walk into Home Depot or Lowe’s and purchase neonicotinoid pesticides. (The Pollinator Protection Act took) these pesticides out of the hands of homeowners — people who aren’t trained to use 'neonics.'"
In order to apply neonicotinoid pesticides, a certified pesticide applicator will have earned credit hours, passed a test to earn a license by the MDA.
“Only farmers and certified pesticide applicators (or people working under their supervision) can apply neonicotinoid pesticides outdoors,” according to the MDA. “So while neonicotinoid products may appear on store shelves in Maryland they cannot be applied outdoors by gardeners.”
You shouldn’t be able to find neonics on the shelf in Maryland stores because of MDA enforcement for the past 18 months.
If (consumers) have questions about whether a product should be on the shelf or not, they should consult the Maryland Department of Agriculture, “who are the enforcers for something like that,” Boley said.
It was in 2013 that a disastrous — and irresponsible — application of a pesticide containing neonics raised red flags at the federal level. Ignoring the label — which stated that the pesticide could not be applied to flowering plants, an applicator sprayed the pesticide on flowering fruit trees at a Target store in Oregon, resulting in thousands of dead bees scattered throughout the parking lot.
The pollinator carnage “created a little bit of a hysteria,” Thompson said.
“The EPA did a special pollinator risk assessment which resulted in a couple of label changes to protect pollinators, but (the agency) didn’t find evidence that neonics are the primary cause of things like colony collapse disorder or pollinator health issues,” Thompson said.
The jury is still out on the exact impact of neonics. A study by Texas A&M found that low level exposures may impair some bees’ ability to forage for nectar, “learn and remember where flowers are located, and possibly … find their way home to the nest or hive.” Researchers still don’t know if bee colony collapse disorder can be traced to neonics.
Although the use of neonics in agriculture is allowed, it typically isn’t sprayed on crops in the Mid-Shore area. “As far as row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat, neonics are primarily used as a seed treatment, so it’s coated on the seed,” Thompson said.
“One of the best management practices seed suppliers and farmers have started using in order to avoid exposure to or adverse impacts on pollinators, … is using lubricants, so that you don’t have the dust-off of the seed, so there’s not a risk to pollinators,” Thompson said.
“The better seeds they’ve come up with are so much better for the environment because on a day like this (June 5): It’s kind of windy, spray would float over into the woods, onto the grasses, and other areas — and that’s a lot of damage,” Meyer said.
“Here in this tiny, little area of Maryland, in our corn and soy and wheat world, we don’t really use insecticides” Meyer said. “Crops are so resistant that they don’t spray. They spray herbicides. But the last time I saw a crop duster, they were just planting winter wheat.”
Fortunately, for honeybees and other pollinators, the go-to sources of nourishment aren’t grain crops. “Soybeans aren’t the foraging diet of choice” for pollinators, and corn is self-pollinating,” Thompson said.
Other threats to pollinators
But neonics aren’t the only culprit. “There are definitely a variety of factors that impact pollinator health,” Thompson said.
According to epa.gov, “The prevailing theory among scientists in EPA, USDA and the global scientific and regulatory community is that the general declining health of honey bees is related to complex interactions among multiple stressors.”
“Those stressors include pests, pathogens and viruses; poor nutrition; pesticide exposure; bee management practices; and lack of genetic diversity,” the EPA stated.
According to Meyer, the biggest threat to honeybees is an invasive mite called varroa destructor that appeared in the early 1990s. “The mite started out as a minor pest on another species of bee in Asia but managed to jump to our honeybee,” Meyer posted on his website, www.beegeorgehoney.com. “It has spread worldwide … and has caused havoc and destruction in its wake.”
In Maryland, there are about 400 species of native bees, but research is ongoing to find more. “For anyone to say there’s a collapse of native pollinators, they have to make a lot of assumptions,” Meyer said.
“It could just be a natural cycle. There could be a collapse of native pollinators. I don’t know — nobody knows. There just isn’t enough data. We can make educated guesses. We can make lots of assumptions, but there’s very, very little data,” Meyer said.
“Honeybees are a completely different story. It has virtually nothing to do with neonicotinoids or any of that kind of stuff,” Meyer said.
Other threats to honeybees, according to Meyer, are “loss of habitat and loss of nutritional variation.”
“The more and more houses we build and impervious surfaces we put down, there’s less and less unimproved land and wildflowers and grass for them to forage on and their nutrition suffers as a result,” Thompson said.
Check your garden shed
Backyard gardeners who want to check their current supply of insecticides for neonics can find helpful information online.
For more information about the EPA’s efforts to inform the public and protect bees and pollinators, visit www.epa.gov/pollinator-protection.
The MDA’s Office of Plant industries and Pest Management has a one-page information sheet describing the use of neonics in Maryland at mda.maryland.gov/plants-pests/Documents/PollinatorProtectionActFactSheet.pdf
This article from Texas A&M lists the common neonics you'd find in the store: citybugs.tamu.edu/factsheets/ipm/what-is-a-neonicotinoid/
Active ingredients in “neonics” are acetamiprid, clothianidin, cyantraniliprole, dinotefuran, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, sulfoxaflor, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam.
“To make it even more confusing, each brand has its own name for their products, but the active ingredients are all the same chemical,” Boley said.
“There’s a kind of flea control application for pets that contains Imidacloprid which is a neonicotinoid, so it really depends on the application of it," Boley said. "Obviously, that’s allowed, but what they don’t want is people using neonicotinoids in a broad spectrum landscape use.”
The EPA's website provides information on efforts to protect pollinators:
University of Maryland Extension offers a Home and Garden Information Center where you can upload photos and get personalized help: