Four Questions about Neonicotinoid Pesticides

The increasing buzz on pollinators has raised awareness on the various threats to their survival, such as habitat loss and chemical use. For over 42 years, the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program has been ahead of these issues by educating and empowering people to restore habitat for bees, butterflies and other pollinators in their own yards and by gardening in natural, sustainable ways.

Swallowtail butterfly
Swallowtail butterfly. Photo by National Wildlife Photo contest entrant Jenyfra Nelson
Sustainable gardening means reducing, or, even better, totally eliminating use of chemical pesticides in your yard. Unfortunately, there is a class of insecticides that are very difficult for home gardeners to avoid: neonicotinoids.

With the increased media awareness on pollinators and the potential dangers of neonicotinoids to them, many concerned gardeners and wildlife-lovers are seeking more information on what exactly these chemicals do and how to avoid them. Here are answers to four of the most commonly asked questions:

What are neonicotinoids?

A pollinating fly
A pollinating fly. Photo by National Wildlife Photo contest entrant James MacDougall
Neonicotinoids are a class of chemical used as an insecticide on crops, in home and school gardens, by landscapers, and on public lands. They are commonly used in products that can be found in garden and agriculture supply stores.

Neonicotinoids are systemic chemicals, meaning that they are absorbed by the plant, protecting it from chewing and sap-sucking insects. They are absorbed by all parts of the plant, including the sap and pollen. Therefore, once neonicotinoids are applied, they cannot be washed off. They have a low toxicity level for humans making them one of the most widespread class of insecticides for plants in use today.

Why are neonicotinoids a concern?

The actual impact of neonicotinoids on pollinating insects is difficult to measure. However, recent studies have led researchers to believe that neonicotinoids not only affect targeted pest insects, but may also be harmful to non-target beneficial pollinating insects including bees and butterflies, as well as moths, wasps, flies, and beetles. A large concern is the high occurrence of neonicotinoids in home garden products.

Where can I find plants that have not been treated?

Determining if a plant had been treated with neonicotinoids is not always easy. There are no regulations requiring that plants treated with neonicotinoids be labeled. To guarantee you are purchasing plants that have not been treated with neonicotinoids, contact local plant nurseries—particularly those carrying native plants—and ask if their plants have been treated.

Your local or state gardening extension or gardening club should be able to provide a list of native plant nurseries and native plant sales. In fact, some smaller independent garden centers have completely eliminated plants treated with neonicotinoids.

Monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar. Photo by National Wildlife Photo contest entrant Norma Kisida
Conservation groups and the gardening industry are working to fully understand the impacts of neonicotinoids on pollinators. Current data suggests that the negative impacts are real, and that home gardeners concerned about protecting bees, butterflies and other insect pollinators should avoid them.

monarch butterflies
Monarch butterflies. Photo by National Wildlife Photo contest entrant Diana Flory
Here are ways that to help support pollinators by restoring their habitat and tips on avoiding neonicotinoids in your own yard or garden.

  • Avoid using garden products that include neonicotinoids. The Xerces Society has compiled a list of home garden products that include neonicotinoid chemicals.
  • Use native plants in your garden, which reduces the need for chemical treatments.
  • Implement organic garden practices to attract beneficial insects that help keep pests in check.
  • Ask nursery or garden center staff if plants have been treated with neonicotinoids.
  • Tell retailers that their customers want neonicotinoid-free plants and labels on plants that have been treated with them.
  • Check out the Garden for Wildlife Gardening Tips page for additional information on organic practices, native plants and more.


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