I have vivid memories of my maternal grandmother, grey-haired, slim and tall at 5’11”, standing waist-high in her expansive flower garden and casting an admiring eye over its summer splendour. For some reason, Gram, as we called her, planted her flowers, both annuals and perennials, in long, straight rows, a single species per row. I remember zinnias, asters, marigolds, sunflowers, and hollyhocks.
The mix of colours was as varied as my grandmother could make it. From any vantage point the garden was a rainbow palette created by patient hands, careful nurture, and above all, love. So glorious was her vast floral display that the garden lost its oddly-regimented aspect and became a seamless sea of sun-kissed, smiling faces.
Zinnias were my favourite: fist-sized, dome-shaped flowers, yellow, red, pink, orange, purple, and lilac. Sometimes I would lie on my back between the rows and wait patiently. Almost always, a ruby-throated hummingbird would appear directly above my face. Forward, backward, up, down, side-to-side it would dart, inserting its long beak into the petals and extracting nectar with its tongue. For a boy fascinated by nature, such moments were magic.
Like my grandmother, I also delighted in what otherwise was happening in her garden. It was an intensely busy place of commerce. Bees, butterflies and other insects foraged among the blossoms, bartering their pollinating services for nectar. They did so in vast numbers, blithely and unassailed by the sinister killer that lurks in many fields and gardens today, and threatens their very existence.
Neonicotinoids is a very difficult word to get one’s tongue around. It’s not a term Gram would have known. This family of powerful systemic pesticides, which includes chemicals with also-hard-to-pronounce names such as Clothianidin, Imidacloprid, and Thiamethoxam, hadn’t been invented yet.
Today, neonics are commonly used in modern, intensive agriculture, marketed as a way to protect crops from harmful insects. They can be applied to seeds as a coating, used as a foliar spray, applied to soil as granules, or mixed in irrigation water. At least 75 pe rcent of corn and 50 per cent of soy bean seeds, crops grown extensively in Ontario, are treated with neonics.
In recent years, neonics have been the target of much negative publicity. They have been linked to large-scale ecological damage including commercial honey bee colony collapse, and the deaths of native bees and other pollinating insects. They may also be partly responsible for a decline in bird populations because many birds feed on insects.
Because neonics are systemic, once in plant tissues they become persistent and are carried into new tissues as the plant grows. They act as a neuro-toxin. If a honey bee consumes pollen containing neonics, it either dies outright or becomes permanently impaired and succumbs to a lingering death. The same fate awaits native bees, butterflies and other insects that come into contact with neonic-laden pollens or plant tissues.
Perhaps surprisingly, neonics are also present in the home gardening sector, in both flowers and vegetables. In 2018, the environmental group Friends of the Earth Canada bought a selection of common garden flowers including daisies, asters and lavender from five major retailers. The flowers are favoured by native bees which are responsible for pollinating one-third of the world’s crops and 90 per cent of all wild plants (a fact worth italicizing). The samples were sent to the University of Guelph where they were tested for neonics. Half were found to contain traces of the chemicals.
Production nurseries (companies that produce plants for sale by retailers) are drawn to neonics because they allow the low-cost creation of large volumes of plants relatively free of blemishes. But they make the entire plant, from root to tip, deadly toxic to insects for a year or more.
There’s a confounding irony here. In recent years the popularity of planting pollinator gardens to increase pollinator numbers has skyrocketed. Many of the native and domestic flowers selected for such purposes will have been purchased from garden centers and may be killing the very insects they are intended to help.
Although neonic use is regulated in Ontario, the Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA), in concert with 13 other Canadian conservation and environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation and Nature Canada, have called for a total ban on the pesticides in Canada.
In 2018, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency announced a three to five-year period to phase out some neonics. The OBA and others say this measure is insufficient and will allow the use of the ecologically harmful toxins to continue until at least 2022-2023.
Farmers who use neonics shouldn’t be blamed for doing so. Neonics are a tool on which they’ve become reliant to address real threats to their crops. But they face a conundrum. Some agricultural crops are reliant on the same pollinators now being devastated by neonics.
Concerned gardeners can take steps to help ensure the plants they purchase in garden centers are free of neonics. They can check whether plant labels are marked neonic free. If they aren’t, they can ask staff. They can also request the outlet’s manager to relay their concern about neonics to suppliers.
Last year I began planting zinnias in our flower and vegetable gardens. I did so partly in memory of my grandmother but also as a symbol of what I know would have been her desire to rid crops and gardens everywhere of insidiously destructive human-made toxins. ◊