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Neonicotinoids: Why They're Killing Bees—And What You Can Do to Help

Neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides, are killing bees—and therefore hurting our planet. Here's what you can do to help.

Written by
Kylie Fuller

Bees have been on everyone's radar lately. Threats to their survival have made many people realize how critical they are for our planet. They're pollinators, which means they're essential for the production of many crops. In fact, bees pollinate over 90% of the world's crops, including coffee and chocolate.

But while it's important to recognize bees for all their hard work, it's just as important to take action to protect our buzzing friends. Bees' threat of extinction is primarily due to two things: pesticides and parasites. Pesticides weaken bees' immune systems, making it easier for parasites to infect bees and their colonies.

Because pesticides open the door for parasites, experts consider pesticides to be the major source of bee decline. More specifically, neonicotinoids are to blame.

What Are Neonicotinoids?

You may have heard of neonicotinoids. When it comes to protecting the bees, the most common action step is to stop using them. But what are they?

Neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of pesticides. They use harmful chemicals that affect insects' nervous systems, resulting in paralysis and death. They're especially toxic because even minor exposure to these pesticides will give bees an insect-version of amnesia: They go into shock and forget their way home. And without the hive, bees will die.

Even worse, neonicotinoids are absorbed by the plant, meaning the harmful chemicals don't wash off after rain or over time. The chemicals are absorbed into the plant's pollen and sap, which is what bees drink. Neonicotinoids are relatively harmless for humans, making them the most common pesticide, but they're detrimental for bee populations.

3 Ways to Support Pollinators

Now that you know what neonicotinoids are and how they harm bees, there are several actions you can take to help protect bee populations and, in turn, our planet. Here, we've covered three ways you can help protect bees from toxic neonicotinoids.

1. Avoid Neonicotinoids

The first step is avoiding neonicotinoids. The best way to identify neonicotinoid-containing pesticides at retail garden centers is to ask the staff or look at the planet labels. Many of the major retail box stores, like Home Depot, require a label for products containing—or treated—with a neonicotinoid insecticide.

Instead of treating your outdoor spaces and gardens with chemical pesticides, try organic products or natural solutions. Sprinkling salt around the edge of your garden (avoiding the soil) will deter slugs and snails, and corn gluten is a natural herbicide. Both of these options are bee-friendly pesticides.

If your yard has already been treated with neonicotinoids, don't fret! While these toxins will last a while, avoiding future treatments (and taking some of the steps below!) will help make your garden more bee-friendly.

2. Plant Untreated Species

Did you know many plants from nurseries and box stores are already treated with neonicotinoids? That means you can introduce these toxins into your garden without ever buying pesticides.

Fortunately, many box stores are requiring plants treated with neonicotinoids to be labeled. Buying untreated or non-neonicotinoid treated plants will ensure your garden is bee-friendly. You can also purchase seed packets and start from the ground up (pun intended).

3. Buy Organic

If you don't have a garden, there are other ways you can support bee populations. Consider buying organic fruits, vegetables, and plants from your local grocery store or farmers’ market. By doing so, you’re helping to support a farming industry that protects bee populations.

You can also try growing your own food to ensure all of your fruits and vegetables are free of harmful toxins. Learning how to garden is easier than you think—you can even get started right in your windowsill!