A leading brand of home and garden pest-control products says it will stop using a class of pesticides linked to the decline of bees.
Ortho, part of the Miracle-Gro family, says the decision to drop the use of the chemicals — called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short — comes after considering the range of possible threats to bees and other pollinators.
"While agencies in the U.S. are still evaluating the overall impact of neonics on pollinator populations, it's time for Ortho to move on," says Tim Martin, the general manager of the Ortho Brand.
The announcement comes on the heels of state legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly to restrict the sales of retail home and garden products that contain neonics. The bill is now before Gov. Larry Hogan; his office tells us that he is currently reviewing it. Other states are also studying pollinator health and considering action, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
As we've reported, neonics are widely used in agriculture. Currently, at the direction of the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency is assessing the effect of neonicotinoid insecticides on the health of bees.
A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that neonics can negatively influence bee health and may make bees more vulnerable to mites and other threats.
Now, the amount of neonics used in home lawn-and-garden products is dwarfed by what farmers use on crops. But Delegate Anne Healey of Maryland, a sponsor of the Pollinator Protection Act, says it's still important to take action.
"I'm hoping this [legislation] will raise awareness" of the decline of pollinators, Healey told us. "In Maryland we experienced a 60 percent loss in bee colonies in one year," Healey says. Although the beekeepers have been able to rebuild their colonies, "overall, it's clearly a problem."
As we've reported, there are a host of issues linked to pollinator decline — from a loss of foraging habitat to the varroa mite to climate change. And neonics manufacturers, such as Bayer Crop Science, have focused on efforts such as planting more wildflowers and rebuilding habitat where bees and pollinators can eat.
The industry maintains that the products it manufactures are safe for bees both in agriculture and in home and garden settings. "The products that contain neonicotinoids are safe for use by homeowners and professionals," says Karen Reardon of RISE, a trade association that represents manufacturers, formulators and distributors of specialty pesticides.
Ortho has already begun to phase out neonics. The company tells us that some products will be reformulated or discontinued by 2017. The company says it will complete its phaseout of neonics in outdoor products by 2021.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A leading brand in lawn-and-garden care says it's taking steps to protect bees and other pollinators. Ortho, part of the Scotts Miracle-Gro company, says it will stop using a class of pesticides known as neonics, which are linked to the decline of bees. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports there are growing concerns from policymakers and consumers about these pesticides.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Last fall, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture released survey data pointing to high numbers of honeybee losses around the country, I visited a commercial beekeeper in Pennsylvania named Dave Hackenberg whose colonies had taken a big hit.
DAVE HACKENBERG: What we're seeing fly around here is we have probably 100 to 150 hives of bees. And as you can see looking here behind us, there's a lot of empty spots. I mean, every one of them places where there's not a bee sitting is already a dead beehive, and we'll probably lose even more than that.
AUBREY: So you're looking at about a 40 percent loss?
HACKENBERG: Yes, I'm seeing die-offs. Everybody in the industry pretty much seeing die-offs.
AUBREY: Hackenberg says this isn't just bad for his business. It's a threat to the food supply since bees pollinate billions of dollars of crops from almonds to blueberries. Now, figuring out what ails the bees has been tricky. Scientists have pointed to everything from climate change to a loss of bee habitat.
But the most controversial factor is a class of pesticides used both in agriculture and in lawn and garden products. The pesticides are called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short. And as the body of scientific evidence linking neonics to declining bee health grows, one company says it's taking action to protect bees. Ortho, which is a leading brand in lawn-and-garden care products, has announced it will stop using neonics. Here's Ortho's Tim Martin.
TIM MARTIN: Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the environment. And we'd like to position Ortho as sort of that trusted partner to take care of insects while still being a responsible partner with the environment.
AUBREY: Over the last year, several major studies have added to the evidence that neonics can impact the health of bees and their ability to reproduce.
NIGEL RAINE: Most of the influences that have been measured so far have been negative.
AUBREY: Nigel Raine studies pollinators at the University of Guelph.
RAINE: We're seeing impairment of pollen foraging ability. We're seeing reduced ability to return from the Fields.
AUBREY: And he says bees exposed to neonics may be more vulnerable to diseases. Ortho's Tim Martin says he hopes other manufacturers will follow their lead in phasing out neonics. But so far, the industry has not signaled that it's likely to follow suit. Karen Reardon is with the trade organization RISE, which represents manufacturers, formulators and distributors of specialty pesticides.
KAREN REARDON: The products that contain neonicotinoids are safe for use by homeowners and professionals. All of them have been approved and thoroughly reviewed by U.S. EPA before they can be released into the marketplace.
AUBREY: But the Obama administration has recently directed the EPA to reassess the effects of neonics, and some states are beginning to put on the pressure. Just last week, the Maryland general assembly passed a measure that would restrict retail sales of products that contain neonics.
Delegate Anne Healey, who sponsored the measure, says even though the use of neonics in lawn-and-garden products pales in comparison to what's used in agriculture, the measure is still important.
ANNE HEALEY: I'm hoping that it will raise awareness that this is a more serious problem than anybody anticipated being.
AUBREY: It's unclear if Maryland's governor will sign the bill. His office says the measure is currently under review. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.