Friday, April 1, 2011

Bayer and the Bees

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a tremendous amount of luck luring good insects, or what garden-types call “beneficials” into my garden. Aphids? Got ‘em. Thrips? Absolutely. Earwigs? Check. But Ladybugs? Mmmm….not many. Green lacewings? Don’t think so. Tachinid flies? Nope.

My most recent issues of Garden Gate and Horticulture magazines both boast articles detailing the wonders of these elusive critters, and their ability to go munching through a garden, consuming vast quantities of bad bugs, while leaving your leaves, flowers and vegetables unscathed. Beautiful.

The only bug I’ve ever been able to entice en masse is bees (my favorite animal). And even on that score I have flopped in fairly dramatic style.

I blame Bayer. Yes, the company that makes the aspirin. They also happen to make gardening products like Tree and Shrub Protect and Feed, a systemic fertilizer and insecticide. The bottle I bought looked like this:
Now, my mother, who earned a Masters degree in marketing, always told me I was a sucker for advertising (to save my feelings she called me a “perfect consumer.”) Guilty as charged. I took one look at the Bayer bottle and my mind was made up: I wanted my trees and shrubs to look like the lush, right-hand side of the tree on the label, not the left-hand side. And if I failed to “Protect & Feed” my yard Bayer-style, I would end up with yellow, insect-ridden plants in return for my negligence. A shameless scare tactic on the part of Bayer, no doubt, but as a new gardener, I was powerless in the face of it.  I handed over a hefty share of hard-earned money, and took my new wonder product home.

The first indication that something was amiss came in the form of a raw, sore throat I developed after spending a good hour mixing the product in my watering can and sprinkling it on my favorite plants. A quick examination of the bottle showed the insecticide was called imidacloprid.

Afraid for my health, I did a bit of web research and discovered that, according to a report compiled by a team of universities, imidacloprid (a pesticide modeled after nicotine) is only “moderately toxic.” No cases of human poisoning had yet to be reported.

Somehow, I was only moderately relieved. It occurred to me that maybe, if inhaling the product bothered me-- a full-grown human-- then perhaps the earthworms I hoped were living in my soil would not survive having the stuff poured directly over their naked, wriggly bodies. If I had to identify the moment I began to shift my loyalties toward organic gardening, this was it.

But the real clincher came later, when my June 2009 issue of Horticulture magazine arrived. Inside was a brief piece on pollinators by an east coast Master Gardener named Peter Garnham. Discussing the colony collapse disorder (CCD) decimating the global honeybee population at the time, Garnham said “A combination of stress and the insecticides imidacloprid and fipronil is the likely cause of CCD.” More web research revealed that the jury was still out, but that some people, most notably French beekeepers, believed imidacloprid was responsible for the massive bee die-off in the mid 1990s, leading the French to ban the product for certain uses in 1999.
It was about this time I suffered my first bout of full-blown gardener angst. I couldn’t stop thinking about a rose in my yard that I’d treated with the Bayer product. It was a John Cabot climbing rose, and, at that very moment, it was absolutely covered in brilliant pink blooms. It was also, during most hours of the day, positively swarming with bees. This is what it looked like back then, in all its glory:

If there was one thing worse than the thought of cutting the blooms off my rose, it was the way I felt watching the bees, eager and oblivious, as they bobbed about the flowers, sipping the tainted nectar that might spell their doom.

So cut I did.  Wielding my beloved Corona bypass pruners, I lopped off every last bud and flower. It was a tragic, poignant, moment. You would have been on the edge of your seat. Imagine me, pruners in hand, while the mournful notes of Bohemian Rhapsody played in the background:
Mommaaaaa…..just maimed a rose.
Pulled my gardening gloves on,
snipped the flowers, now they’re gone.
(I was gonna stop there, but the rhymes just kept coming.
I know, it’s a gift)
Goodbye, little roses,
 I had to choose
 Between you and the bees--
 I can’t choose you!
(Stick with me, now, I’m going for broke)
 Bayer!  Ooooh oooooh  ooooh ooooooh
 Your noxious, nasty brew
 Now I wish I hadn’t bought it at all.
 Carry on!  Carry on!
 Let’s all go organic
 ‘Cause anyone can see
 The best way is organic……
 For bees.

Today, instead of Bayer’s fertilizer and insecticide, I fertilize using compost, along with a stinky brown sludge known as “fish emulsion”. I think it’s basically putrefied fish remains in the form of a brown, smelly sludge. In other words, I’m using the same trick the Native Americans taught the pilgrims to get their crops to grow (and shoot, the pilgrims were so impressed, they teamed up with their teachers to slaughter enemy tribes) But where was I?  Ah yes, fish emulsion from a bottle. The stuff makes my flower beds reek like a Red Lobster dumpster for two days, but it offends not one single worm or bee. (I can’t speak for my neighbors). 

I’m also poring over magazine articles about “beneficial” bugs and dreaming about getting in on that natural bad-bug-beating action. This year I’ll try planting more of the specimens they supposedly love (dill, parsley, coriander, daisies) and see if my luck improves. Stay tuned!


  1. I also try to be as organic as possible, but sometimes you need to get more aggressive. I've used the Bayer "tree and shrub" before on my bamboos, trying to control mite infestations. Did you use it correctly? It's supposed to be used on the roots of the plant, not on the foliage from what I remember - I could be wrong though. It's a systemic insecticide, which means its taken up by the plant and transferred to any insects that are eating the plant, sucking its juices (aphids, mites, etc.)

    I've not used it on any flowering plants though, and if there is a chance that properly-treated plants are harming bees that's reason enough not to! Thanks for pointing this out.

    Incidentally, this stuff hasn't taken care of the mite problem on my bamboos yet. I don't know if the product is not effective on the type of mite I have, or if I haven't applied it in a strong enough dosage. I'm loathe to spray anything on the bamboos though,

  2. Interesting...I haven't given much thought to orgaic gardening, but logically it does seem like a better way to go. Especially since every Summer, for the last few years, they keep doing flyovers, here, to spray for West Nile Virus. Considering that, I don't think my plants need any more insecticides.

    Anyway, I used to work with a women who took her gardening very seriously and every Spring she said that she actually bought Ladybugs and then set them out on the various flowers and plants in her backyard. I don't know where someone would buy Ladybugs but she swore by the darn things. Just a thought...

  3. I did once use fish emulsion, then I discovered seaweed/kelp extract. Or just crumbled dry kelp. Similar benefits. No fish smell!

  4. Hey Aunt D!

    They sell ladybugs at nurseries. I've considered buying them before, but the whole thing is a little tricky. You have to release them at night, and then you hope and pray they stay in your garden and don't fly away. And then they have to actually *reproduce* in your garden, since it's the larvae that eat aphids, not the adults. So I figured the best approach would be to try and get the ladybugs to come to me, rather than me trying to install them, so to speak.

    Thanks for continuing to read!

  5. Hey Alan!

    I did actually apply the Bayer product at the roots of the plant, instead of the foliage, but thanks for pointing that out. I'm not above those sorts of mistakes!

    Have you tried horticultural oil on your bamboo? I have some in my garage, and to be honest I haven't used it much. But it's supposed to be fairly "safe" and ecologically friendly. Might be worth a try on your mites...

  6. Bel: your question about the garden photos -- email me (link on my contact page) and I can give you some tips on what I do.

  7. Bel, I just discovered your blog on Blotanical and am very much enjoying it. I have a “Blog of the Month” feature on my blog, Jean’s Garden, where I review blogs that I want to recommend to my readers. I just wanted to let you know that your blog is one of three highlighted this month. The post reviewing the blogs just went up, and your blog will be featured on my sidebar throughout the month. -Jean

  8. Welcome to Blotanical! Jean has chosen yoru blog and it's fantastic reading it. Best, Lula

  9. Good to keep talking about the harm of pesticides. Something that will KILL an insect, just can't be good for humans...I don't care what they say! When my husband tries to sneak chemicals in to the garage...I tell him to be sure he wouldnt mind it being sprinkled on his morning bowl of cereal. He gets the point!!
    Love your blog!

  10. Hello Bel, found your blog from Jeans. I've enjoyed paging through your posts and applaud your efforts to befriend the bees and other pollinators. I'll be back to read more. :-D

    Sorry about your roses.


Thanks for reading!