Last week (Aug. 14, 2013) The Fresno Bee ran a story by Erika Bolstad of the Bee's Washington Bureau with the rather alarming headline "Is your garden killing the bees?" The article discussed research by the Pesticide Research Institute and the Friends of the Earth environmental organization that found traces of neonicitinoid pesticides (neonics) in plants purchased at major retail garden centers in several areas in the U.S.
Neonics like imidacloprid, clothianinidin and thiametoxam are used to coat seeds of many commercially grown crops, including nursery plants. When the seeds germinate, the pesticide becomes incorporated into all plant tissues, including the pollen and nectar. When applied as sprays, neonics are highly toxic to bees. The cumulative effect on bees and other pollinators that collect pollen and nectar from plants grown from treated seed is yet unknown, but this use of neonics is now being considered as a possible factor in colony collapse or bee die-off.
So how does a home gardener avoid bringing neonic-treated plants into a bee-safe garden? First, ask garden center or nursery staff if their growers use neonic-treated seed. Reputable nurseries and growers should be receptive to consumers' concerns. Second, consider growing your own bedding plants and vegetables, especially those that attract bees and other pollinators, from seed. Several seed companies (Territorial Seed Company, www.TerritorialSeed.com, John Scheepers, www.kitchengardenseeds.com, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, www.rareseeds.com) state in their catalogs that they sell only untreated seeds. When buying seed from catalogs that do not specifically mention selling untreated seed, ask before ordering. Certified organic plants are pesticide-free and certified organic seeds are never treated with pesticides.
Third, begin saving your own seeds. Seed saving is a growing movement to preserve older or rare heirloom and native plants. But you don't need to grow rare plants to benefit from seed savings; you can easily preserve a lifetime supply of the seeds of your favorite plants. The only restriction to seed saving is that the seeds must come from open-pollinated (OP) plants. Unlike hybrid seeds (F1), OP seeds will reproduce true to the parent plant.
Several websites, including www.seedsave.org, provide information and instructions on seed saving. The Fresno County Master Gardeners grow many of the plants in our demonstration garden (the Garden of the Sun, 1944 N. Winery in Fresno) from saved seed, and docents at the garden will happily answer your questions about seed- saving techniques. Call 456-4151 for the Garden of the Sun hours and info.