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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Legislating Behavior and #Beewashing

Bees have been on my mind an awful lot, lately. And that's saying something ~ considering that I'm an entomologist who has spent a lot of time studying the bees the live in our gardens and parks, as a way to better understand how to garden in ways that protect (rather than harm) these beautiful jewels of the garden.

One of my favorite bees:  Agopostemum sp. (probably, Agopostemum virescens) on a sunflower in Spokane, WA.  Photgrapher:  Gail Langellotto

So, on a normal day, I think about bees quite a bit.  But lately, everywhere I turn, bees ~ and issues related to their conservation and protection ~ have been hitting me upside the head.

First, there was the news that Jeff Reardon (D-Portland) is considering legislation to restrict home gardener use of four neonicotinoid insecticides:  dinotefuran, imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.  Master Gardeners keep asking me what I think about this development, and our discussions have been really interesting.

Second, I received an email announcing that the Bayer Bee Care Tour is coming to Oregon.


It can be tough to write about pesticides and bees in such a public space.  There's so much rhetoric surrounding colony collapse disorder, bees and neonicotinoids that it can be difficult to separate sound science from sound bytes.

This is made even more difficult by the reality that sound bytes are easy to digest and even easier to propagate via the internet.
  • Sound byte:  neonicotinoids are killing honey bees.
By contrast, what we learn from sound science is usually much more complex and nuanced to communicate.
  • Science byte:  Many insecticides can have harmful impact on honey bees.  These harmful impacts are most apparent when pesticides are mis-used, such as being applied to plants in bloom or to areas with a lot of bee activity.  In addition to insecticides, habitat loss and development, the variable nutritional quality of a bee's diet, parasites and pathogens are implicated as being major threats to honey bee health.  It seems that honey bees are so immune-compromised, that adding on one additional stressor can have dire effects on hives.  But, if we focus on the impact of pesticides on honey bees, it's important to point out that beekeeper applied pesticides (to keep Varroa mites an other honey bee pests at bay) are a major source of honey bee exposure to pesticides.  It's not just growers applying pesticides to crops (although, this is also an important part of the picture that stresses bees).  But even if we take pesticides applied to crops out of the picture, honey bees would still be exposed to pesticides.  Bee keepers are really challenged to keep healthy hives with so much pest pressure on honey bees (mites, diseases, fungi), and so few options for control.  And, I could go on and on and on . . . because the story really is so complex.
But, I want to write about these things, because a major goal of my program is to ensure that home gardeners are informed and educated about current topics ~ so that they can make the best decisions for their particular gardening situation.  Knowledge is power, right?

So what do I think about the potential ban on home gardener use of neonicotinoids?  Well, it's complex (of course!).  I see value in neonic insecticides, and I have concerns about neonic pesticides.

Here is where I see value in neonics:
  1.  I like that they can be applied as a soil drench, which is a much easier pesticide application method for homeowners who need to treat a large tree or shrub, compared to a foliar insecticide spray.  I have seen too many bad examples of hose-end sprayer applications of insecticides to trees (e.g. homeowners standing underneath the drip line of the tree they were treating, or not being aware when the pesticide runs out ~ so that they continue to spray the tree with their hose ~ basically washing off the pesticide that they just applied).  Soil drenches, by comparison, are easier for most homeowners to apply in a way that does not expose them to the toxin, and in a way that may better target the intended pest ~ rather than dousing all insects that are in the canopy.
  2. Neonics have been a useful tool in protecting at risk trees (ash trees in the Mid-west) and ecosystems (hemlock forests in the NE) from large scale loss because of emerald ash borer or hemlock wooly adelgids, respectively.  In these instances, the products have been a useful tool in an overall integrated pest management approach to protect trees.  The IPM approach relies heavily on monitoring and quarantine in these instances.  The pesticides are not the first tool pulled out of the toolbox ~ but they are one aspect of an overall approach to protecting these trees.  And, these trees are pollinated by wind, and not insects ~ which reduces risk to bees and other pollinators.
Here is where I have concerns about neonics:
  1. My biggest concern over the last few years has been that most homeowners don't understand how persistent a neonic can be in a tree or a shrub.  I've written about this in a past blog post, and I've lectured on this extensively over the past few years ~ trying to raise awareness of this issue.  But, if you're reaching for a neonic in response to a one-time, ephermeral issue with aphids in your trees ~ you're reaching for the wrong product.  Better yet, many aphid outbreaks, if allowed to run their course, tend to disappear on their own.
  2. Honestly, many plants are fairly robust to pest damage.  The plants often recover.  A plant's tolerance for damage is often less than a gardener's tolerance for damage.  But, neonics are so easy to apply as a soil drench, that I worry that folks reach for them too often ~ as a quick and long-term way to keep their trees, shrubs and other woody plants free from damage.  This isn't IPM.  IPM is a well-thought out and informed approach to pest management that makes optimal use of all IPM tools, so that pesticide applications are reduced, targeted and effective.  
  3. I of course am concerned with the data that is accumulating on sub-lethal impacts of neonics on bees who gather nectar and/or pollen from flowering trees or shrubs that have been treated with a neonic.  The low doses of pesticide the bees get from the blooms is not enough to kill them, but it can be enough to change bee behavior in a way that has negative impacts on the hive.
What do I think about the proposed ban on neonics?  I have mixed emotions.
  1.  If banned, I guess I wouldn't have to worry about emphasizing the potential for long-term persistence of neonics in woody plants.  It wouldn't be a matter of educating homeowners to make better decisions about the products ~ because homeowners wouldn't have a choice.
  2. But ~ if banned, I'm really concerned that homeowners will instead reach for pesticide products that are broad-spectrum, foliar insecticide sprays.  These sprays have a much greater potential for harm to human health.  And, if mis-applied (such as the hose end sprayer example I gave earlier), these sprays could run off of the tree canopy and do real environmental harm ~ not to mention their broad impacts on insects that would be contacted by the spray.
  3. And, because of the value demonstrated by neonics in protecting at-risk, wind-pollinated trees, I do see a role for neonics in an IPM approach to plant protection.
What about my thoughts on the Bayer Bee Tour?

Well, the original stops on the Bayer Bee Tour included 'corn belt states'.  The tour appears to have been held from Feb. 26th-April 3rd, 2013.  But now, the Bayer Bee Tour is making its way to Oregon.  How curious, that the timing of a new stop on the Bayer Bee Tour happens so soon after Jeff Reardon's proposed legislation.

I'm not against Bayer ~ or any agrochemical company.  Bayer helps to develop new pesticide products that can be important tools in an IPM approach to plant protection.  And ~ before you jump on me for that last sentence, consider that one of the reasons that bee keepers are so challenged by Varroa mite is that there hasn't been an investment in developing new products for managing mites in bee hives.  Growers need tools to manage plant pests in the context of a well-planned IPM program ~ and without access to high quality tools, there is the potential for increased use and reliance of inferior tools.

I'm instead annoyed that the Bayer Bee Care Tour has rented facilities at major universities (Ohio State, Univ. of Illinois, Iowa State, University of Nebraska, University of Minnesota . . . and now, Oregon State University), and marketed it in a way that suggests that OSU is a collaborator on the tour.  Although completely within their right (these facilities are available for any group to rent and use), I worry that their Bee Tour announcement promotes the false impression that these stops have been planned with and endorsed by the Universities.  When in actuality, the entomologists I've talked to at Oregon State were largely caught by surprise by this upcoming Bayer Bee Tour stop, and were only called after the fact by Bayer to see if they would participate in a panel discussion (most, if not all, have said 'no').

It seems that the more open and inclusive approach, if the goal is to align Bayer's bee protection efforts with what is going on at Land Grant Universities, would be to invite Oregon State researchers to the table from the beginning ~ rather than trying to tack folks on as an afterthought.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Six Ways to Reduce Your Pesticide Use

It's the New Year ~ that time of year when many people resolve to do something better in the coming year, than perhaps they did in the past year.  Most resolutions have to do with getting healthier in some way, shape or form ~ whether it our physical health or our financial health.

In case your resolution has to do with your garden's health, I thought I would offer up XX ways that you can work towards reducing your pesticide use.  Some of these approaches require nothing more than a shift in perspective.  Others will take more time and effort.  But all are capable of having the effect of reducing pesticide use ~ which is generally good for the health of our environment, pets and families. 

1. Stop acting like organic pesticides aren't pesticides.  Many people believe that anything labeled with the term 'organic' equals 'no pesticides'.  They mistakenly believe that organic produce hasn't been sprayed with pesticides.  They mistakenly believe that they can use a pesticide labelled as 'organic' with total impunity.  And unfortunately, some folks tend to use more pesticide, simply because the pesticide is labelled as 'organic'.  As a general rule, pesticides ~ including organic pesticides ~ are formulated to kill or deter something.  Stop spraying it everywhere, thinking it's safe.  All pesticides should be used judiciously and thoughtfully ~ taking care to limit use only to when and where needed.
Organic pesticides are still pesticides ~ formulated to kill something.  Use judiciously.

2.  Make peace with spiders.  I adore spiders.  I think they're absolutely adorable!  If you have a chance to look at them under a microscope, you'll see that they're cute and fuzzy ~ not unlike a teddy bear.  And, they're great allies in natural pest control.  But I get that some people are seriously arachnophobic.  If you simply can't tolerate spiders, please don't reach for a pesticide.  The thought simply breaks my heart.  Instead, try to get the spiders to relocate.  If they're on your porch, try installing an ornamental porch bracket that will take away anchor points from web-building spiders.  Or, consider installing a yellow-hued porch light.  Yellow lights attract fewer night-flying insects, which will attract fewer hungry spiders.
Lynx spider in an azalea blossom.
Porch brackets can take away web-building sites for spiders.  Source of image:  http://victorianrevival.wordpress.com/
3.  Build diversity into your garden.  Diverse gardens, with an array of plant families, shapes, colors, sizes, and bloom times also tend to have a diversity of insect herbivores (sometimes called pests).  But, the trick is that even though diverse gardens tend to have a greater diversity of pests, these pests tend to be at lower abundance!  Why?  It may be that a diversity of natural enemies keep them in check.  It may be that a diversity of plants keeps them from exploding in abundance on a single plant type.  Or, it's more than likely a combination of these factors.

Marion Garden in Salem, OR.
Marion Garden in Salem, OR.

4.  Rethink your approach to early-season lawn weeds.  Are dandelions really all that bad?  Not if you love bees.  Our research has found that gardeners who tolerate early-season lawn weeds are likely to have a greater diversity of bees than those who keep totally pristine lawns.  Why?  In early spring, very few flowers are in bloom that offer spring pollinators access to nectar and pollen.  Dandelions are one such flower that helps early season pollinators get a jump on their season.  If you want to keep your lawn dandelions in check, try to dig this perennial weed out, so that you get the entire taproot.  Target young dandelions before they set seed and before they have a chance to grow a large taproot that will nourish them for many years.  Make sure your lawn is healthy and full, to crowd out dandelions.  Or, plant a dense flower bed, with no bare spots where dandelions can flourish.  Or, adjust your tolerance, and recognize that a dandelion isn't the worst thing that could grace your garden.  Invasive plants, such as cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), English Ivy (Hedera helix) or butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) are much more damaging to the environment and to local economies than are a few dandelions.  It would be much better to target your weed-hating energy towards these plants, than towards dandelions.

5.  Take regular walks in your garden.  This will help you notice when things 'don't look quite right'.  Regular walks in your garden are not only good for the soul, but their good for an IPM approach to managing pests in your garden.  When you notice that something doesn't look quite right, stop and take a closer look.  Often, you'll catch a pest problem in its early stages ~ when it will be easier for you to manage the problem.  Problems caught early usually require fewer (or no) pesticide, compared to those that are allowed to grow out of control.  A corollary to this suggestion is to keep a garden journal.  This will help you track (and remember) the seasonality of pest problems in your garden, so that you'll be better poised to respond quickly.

6.  Talk to the professionals who maintain your lawn and garden.  Ask them if they use an IPM approach to pest management.  Ask them if their staff are up to date on certifications and continuing education requirements.  Ask them what the major pest issues are in your lawn and garden.  Discuss non-chemical options for managing these pests.  If they don't know about IPM, and aren't aware of non-chemical options for dealing with common garden pests, you might want to look for a better-educated lawn care company.



Tuesday, December 24, 2013

During this Season of Giving: Six Garden-Focused Organizations to Consider

In my job, I've been lucky enough to meet so many folks who are passionate . . . and I mean PASSIONATE in their belief that they can help build a better world through gardening.  Some work to feed their neighbors, some work to teach the young, and others work to make gardening accessible to those who don't know how to garden, or those who need help starting a garden.

If you're thinking about making a year-end donation to a garden-focused organization, here are six that could use your help.


I've worked with all of them, in some capacity or another.  Some, I know through grant programs that I've judged.  Others, I know because Master Gardener volunteers support their efforts.  I've sat on the board of one, and know most others from our mutual work on the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network.  One, I've made my life's work.  Most of them are too small to appear on CharityNavigator.org, but if a rating does exist, I've posted it next to the organization.

Growing Gardens:  This amazing organization works with volunteers to install raised-bed vegetable gardens in the yards of low-income households.  Those in apartments or with limited space receive container gardens.  Recipients are then supported for 3-years, via a comprehensive educational program (that teaches them how to maintain and use their garden), seeds and starts, and access to garden mentors.  This past fall, they just installed their 1000th garden!

Lettuce Grow:  The Lettuce Grow ('Let Us Grow') Garden Foundation works to install organic vegetable gardens in correctional facilities across Oregon.  In doing so, they help to keep the correctional facility food budget low, while providing healthy and fresh produce to inmates.  Lettuce Grow also facilitates educational opportunities to inmates who work in the garden, by working with the Oregon Food Bank to deliver the Seed to Supper curriculum and by working with OSU Extension to deliver the Master Gardener curriculum in correctional facilities.  Upon successful completion of the Master Gardener curriculum, students earn a Certificate of Home Horticulture ~ a valuable job credential that is of value upon their release.  However, perhaps the most important benefits of the garden programs are their therapeutic effect.  Working the land is healing ~ especially in the high stress environment of a correctional facility.  And, education has the power to create positive social change ~ perhaps more than any other program that I know.  To me, Lettuce Grow offers hope in a place that may often seem hopeless.

Oregon Food Bank:  The Oregon Food Bank partners with OSU Extension to deliver a 5-week, comprehensive gardening course called Seed to Supper.  This curriculum is taught to low income individuals and families ~ teaching them how to grow their own food and to use the harvest in freshly-prepared and healthy meals.  Oregon Food Bank has 3 out of 4 stars on Charity Navigator, with a 70 out of 70 for transparency and accountability, and with 94% of their budget being spent directly on programs.

Food Roots:  I first learned of Food Roots, when they applied for a grant that OSU was offering for school and community gardens.  I was impressed with their application, and even more impressed when I visited their community and school gardens throughout Tillamook County.  They work to support a vibrant food system across Tillamook County ~ via their support of community and school gardens, educational outreach, and micro-enterprise endeavors.  Right now, they're holding a drive to raise funds to build three high-tunnel hoop houses that will be used to hold training classes on how to grow a diversity of fruits and vegetables in the cool climate of the North-Central Coast.  Honestly, I'm amazed at what Shelly Bowe has done in a few short years.  She is a force of good!

School Garden Project of Lane County:  This organization teaches kids about gardening, through in-school lessons and after school gardening clubs.  They assist schools in putting in fruit orchards, or starting a cafeteria composting program.  They also also created a garden-based curriculum for use in elementary schools.

OSU Extension Master Gardener Program:  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the organization where I work.  We work to train volunteers, who then go on to share what they learned about sustainable gardening with others.  We currently have over 4,000+ volunteers who field close to 200,000 gardening questions each year.  Surveys show that our volunteers and our programs make a difference and promote more sustainable gardening practices.  For example, after participating in our programs or using our services, our clients report that they will decrease or eliminate their pesticide use (68% of those surveyed), work to attract beneficial insects to their gardens (64%), or that they are more tolerant of insect pests (58%) or early flowering lawn weeds (60%).  Those with pest problems report that they intend to switch to more pest resistant cultivars (75%), further decreasing the need for pesticides.  Your dollars can be allocated to support the statewide Master Gardener Program, or to any of the county Extension offices in Oregon with active Master Gardener Programs.  Those few counties with online donation pages are listed, below ~ but you can also go into your local Extension office to make a donation to your local Extension Endowment Fund or Master Gardener Association Chapter.