So far this has been a gorgeous, gradual spring on the Front Range plains in the Rockies. Snow in February and a little in March helped, and the absence of drying Chinook winds afterwards meant that moisture stayed in the ground for a change instead of evaporating. This kind of gradual spring unfolding is unusual here. More typical are see-sawing temps from warm to freezing, freezing to hot, and back again.
Conditions have been just right for spring blooming (fall-planted) bulbs, which have been especially pretty here this spring. First come the little ones: crocuses; vigorous grape hyacinths in light and dark blues, white, and pink (pricey, but they spread); and Ipheon with its low, star-shaped blue or white flowers that last for weeks. I found a variety of chindoxia with bigger than usual blue and white flowers in Brent & Becky’s Bulb catalog a few years back. They’re early, inexpensive, long lasting, and bees love ‘em.
The many different species tulips are lovely and reliable here, and they need less water than bigger, showier, but not necessarily prettier, hybrids. Most are native to similar Steppe climates in Turkey and Iran.
If you’re looking for something grander, Darwin Hybrid tulips are your best bet since many others either don’t come back at all after a year or two, or quickly become a shadow of their former selves. But tulips, especially hybrids, like water in the spring (and bloom better when winters are moist) so if xeriscape is your aim, go easy on the hybrids. In Colorado many daffodils and early tulips get squashed in spring snows so later bloomers can be less risky. Always plant bulbs a little deeper than recommended here.
Education 2015 Issue Post
There have been significant developments regarding neonicotinoid pesticides during the last several months, both nationwide and in Colorado. For those less familiar with this complex issue here’s some background.
Systemic neonicotinoids or neonics (imidacloprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran & thiamethoxam are the most toxic and persistent) are the most widely used pesticides today in agriculture and horticulture worldwide. As neurotoxins they have been linked to the precipitous decline of honeybees and other pollinators, and more recently to bird mortality. The timing of their introduction and use corresponds to these population declines.
Because neonics are considered less harmful to humans, especially the workers who handle them, than previously used pesticides, they have been marketed as safe and, understandably, embraced by conventional farmers, plant growers, tree companies, and landscapers. Application of neonics is now often required before shipping plants to other states. Most neonic use in agriculture is through treated seed, meaning less need for spraying – usually described as better for the environment.
This is where the story gets complicated. The technology is such that all parts of plants that develop and grow from treated seeds, including pollen and nectar, contain neonics, making it impossible for bees and other insects to avoid them. Along with targeted pests, beneficial insects are affected. In the past when farmers applied other types of pesticides they could at least notify beekeepers, allowing them to cover or move hives.
Almost all GMO seeds are treated with neonics today; it’s almost impossible for farmers to find untreated seed. There are statistics showing that pesticide use has declined with GMO crops, but in fact, the millions of acres of seed-treated GMO corn, soy, canola, and more are not included in the figures because seed treatment isn’t categorized as a pesticide use. Taking this into account, the level of pesticide use has skyrocketed.
As with many environmental issues, those who oppose restrictions based on environmental harm argue that the science proving harm doesn’t exist. When presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, those with an economic stake in the status quo often deny the validity of the science or charge that scientists are politically motivated. This is what’s happening today with neonics.
Neonicotinoids were recently evaluated by a large panel of experts chartered under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), known as the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides. Their report, the “Worldwide Integrated Assessment on Systemic Pesticides,” is being published serially in Environmental Science and Pollution Research. Key findings include:
• Neonicotinoids are present in the environment “at levels that are known to cause lethal and sublethal effects on a wide range of terrestrial (including soil) and aquatic microorganisms, invertebrates and vertebrates.”
• Active ingredients persist, particularly in soils, with half-lives of months and, in some cases, years.
• Metabolites of neonicotinoids can be as or more toxic than the active ingredients.
• Standard methods used to assess the toxicity of a pesticide (short-term lab toxicity results) fail to identify subtle, yet severe impacts of neonicotinoids.
• The most affected group of species include insect pollinators, with high exposure through air and plants. and medium exposure through water. Harm to pollinators has been demonstrated at field relevant levels.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation summarized the report findings: “The independent scientists that undertook the review were attempting to synthesize existing knowledge on risks posed by neonicotinoids and fipronil. The resulting peer-reviewed literature review of approximately 800 studies speaks for itself. Current neonicotinoid use levels, combined with their persistence, has led to the contamination of agricultural soils, as well as freshwater, estuarine and coastal marine systems. The result of this widespread contamination is that many animals are being exposed to harmful concentrations of these insecticides.”
In a stunning turnaround, the Environmental Protection Agency reviewed the benefits of neonics on soybean production and last October concluded: “Soybean farmers see little or no benefit from neonicotinoid seed treatments.”
Meanwhile, volunteers for a campaign called Bee Safe Neighborhoods have been busy soliciting pledges from their neighbors and from businesses to stop using systemic pesticides. Colorado is the epicenter of this campaign, with more volunteers and pledges than any other state. The idea is to create as many toxic-free safe zones as possible for pollinators. For more information and to see which neighborhoods and businesses have pledged, visit livingsystemsinst.org/content/bee-safe-neighborhoods or http://beesafeboulder.com.
One of the challenges for garden centers and nurseries is that it is very difficult to find suppliers of neonic-free plants and plugs, but this may slowly be about to change. Wholesale grower and retailer Gulley’s Greenhouse in Fort Collins for example, now states on its website: “Neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticides that are believed to play a role in recent pollinator declines. We want our customers to know that we have not used any chemical from this class on our finished perennials, finished flats of annuals, and of course … on our herbs and vegetables.” While this doesn’t mean plants are entirely neonic-free it is a step in the right direction.
There is great opportunity for the green industry as the demand for neonic-free plants increases. While other factors such as habitat loss and bee diseases play a role in population declines, massive pesticide use affects both. Planting bee-friendly plants, especially when they contain neonics, won’t offset ongoing contamination; pollinators with immune systems compromised by pesticides are more susceptible to disease. No one wants to see a return to the harmful pesticides of the past, but neonics and some other pesticides are causing as many, and perhaps even graver, long-term problems. We’d all be a lot better off embracing a pro-life, non-toxic horticulture as our top priority.
The DDT/Neonic Comparison
Consider the per pound relative toxicity of neonics on insects compared to DDT. Longtime Colorado beekeeper Tom Theobald has done the math. Using LD 50’s (the level of exposure at which 50% of a population would be killed) neonics are 5,000-10,000 times more toxic to bees per pound than DDT. The highest use of DDT in the US was 80 million pounds in 1959. The most recent available data on neonic use is 3.5 million pounds in 2013. Using the more conservative 5000X figure for LD 50’s, this is the equivalent of applying 17.5 billion tons of DDT or 218X more DDT than was applied in 1959. Because neonic seed treatments are not included in the 3.5 million pounds the level of use is actually much higher.