Lawn Care Giant Announces Plan to Phase Out Bee-Harming Pesticides

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It's been a banner week for bees .... but the fight continues. . (Photo: Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)

Derived from the Greek orthos, ortho is a word — used as a preteen-spooking prefix, mostly — meaning “correct,” “upright,” “proper.”

All of these words also accurately describe the move that venerable consumer gardening behemoth Ortho, a Scotts Miracle-Gro brand since 1999, has made with the announcement that it is phasing out all pest control products containing neonicotinoids.

Also known as neonics, the highly controversial chemical nerve agents have been linked, along with pollution, habitat loss and pathogens, as one of several contributing factors to a staggering decline in honeybee populations over the last decade, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Some studies have identified neonics as the primary culprit behind bee die-offs.

Vintage box of Ortho Slug Bait
Vintage box of Ortho Slug Bait. (Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/flickr)

Established by William Volck and Ellerslie Luthe of the California Spray-Chemical Company to shield apples from the dreaded codling moth, Ortho has been protecting and repelling since 1907. For American gardeners and lawn care enthusiasts, Ortho is trusted and recognized — if she wasn't using homemade deterrents, it’s what your granny turned to when keeping slugs at a safe remove from her prized tomatoes; it's what your dad uses to deal with both fire ants and crabgrass; it's the Heinz Ketchup of pest and weed prevention products.

Ortho’s strong name-brand recognition is what makes the announcement such an important one in the ongoing fight to save bees — and not to mention the state of global agricultural, as humanity depends on the livelihood of pollinating insects. No bees, no food, no us.

'Time to move on'

A small but growing number of cities — and as of last month, one state — have already restricted or outright banned the use of bee-harming pesticides. The European Union temporarily put the kibosh on neonicotinoids in 2013. What’s more, leading retailers both home and abroad, Lowe's and Home Depot included, have pledged to purge neonic products from their shelves altogether if they haven't already.

And the fact that a leading pesticide purveyor itself is now recognizing that some of its products are hurting bee populations, and have moved to do something about it? Well, that’s big. Some might say woefully belated, but still big. As Lori Ann Burd, director of the Environmental Health Program at the Center for Biological Diversity, tells the Associated Press, Ortho is believed to be first major American garden and lawn care brand to nix neoncontinoids from all of its product offerings.

In fact, as reported by NPR, Ortho has already started to discontinue or reformulate some of its neonic-containing treatments. The brand plans to be completely neonicotinoid-free by 2021. Three Ortho brand pesticides used to protect roses, trees and shrubs from pests, will be relaunched next year in new, bee-friendly formulations while several more remaining products that contain the chemicals will be retooled after that.

"This decision comes after careful consideration regarding the range of possible threats to honey bees and other pollinators," said Ortho general manager Tim Martin in a press statement published by the Ohio-based company. "While agencies in the United States are still evaluating the overall impact of neonics on pollinator populations, it's time for Ortho to move on. As the category leader, it is our responsibility to provide consumers with effective solutions that they know are safe for their family and the environment when used as directed. We encourage other companies and brands in the consumer pest control category to follow our lead."

Martin further elaborates to the AP that Ortho’s new bee-friendly formulations might require more frequent applications to get the job done (read: control targeted pests) but will cost roughly the same as neonic-based insecticides.

The brand is also launching a public education-centered partnership with the Pollinator Stewardship Council.

Martin says of the brand’s loyal customer base: “Ortho's got their back, taking care of whatever they need controlled in the most responsible manner.”

The battle for bees in the backyard and beyond

So, here’s the thing: Neonicotinoid-pesticides do a bang-up job at controlling unwanted, detrimental insects. They’re effective, which is why they’re so incredibly popular. But the consequences of applying neonicotinoid-based products in and around one’s garden are now believed by many, environmental activists and scientific researchers alike, to dramatically outweigh the benefits given that bees, which are very much not unwanted insects, love the stuff.

Bees have shown to be addicted to the toxic insecticide — a cousin of nicotine, by the way — and will seek out plants sprayed with it to get their fix. Yet research has shown that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees, wreaking havoc on their central nervous systems and interfering with their keen abilities to reproduce, navigate and forage. That said, the chemicals don’t necessarily eliminate bees instantly. It acts as a sort of slow-acting poison, rendering them more vulnerable to other threats associated with CCD. However, if exposure to residue is great enough, which it often is in backyard gardening contexts, the pesticides can indeed kill pollinators on the spot.

Despite the very orthos move by Ortho, neonicotinoids aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The dubious pesticides are still widely used in commercial agriculture and powerful chemical manufacturers Bayer Crop Science will no doubt continue to fight for them tooth and nail, claiming that neonicotinoids, when used appropriately, are harmless to pollinators. And while companies like Bayer don’t deny the existence of CCD, they believe it’s a complex phenomena and that the role of neonicotinoids, contrary to the belief of many, is negligible.

Whatever the exact role that you believe neonicotoids have on the health of bees and other crucial pollinators — minuscule, moderate or massive — there’s absolutely no denying that they need our help, and bad.

Consider this: Roughly one-third of the human diet is sourced from plants that rely on insect pollination. While several insects — and insect surrogates — have been tasked by Mother Nature to get the job done, honeybees do 80 percent of it.

Via [NPR], [AP]