In the past few months, two major chain retailers have been busy bees. Both The Home Depot and Lowe’s have begun phasing out the sale of flowering plants containing pesticides called neonicotinoids, which have been linked to declining populations of bees and other pollinators.
“Right now, 80 percent of our flowering plants are neonic-free, and we plan to completely phase out the use of neonics on our live goods by the end of 2018,” says Matthew Harrigan, Home Depot’s corporate communications and public relations manager. “But in the meantime, we’re one of the few retailers that have started requiring the suppliers to label neonic-treated plants, so that customers who believe that neonics are impacting the bee population won’t unknowingly purchase those plants.”
The decision to phase out these flowering plants was made about two months ago, Harrigan explains. And though the company listens to the feedback from activist groups, he continues, Home Depot ultimately makes these kinds of big decisions based on its own research and analysis.
The company’s environmental team has been a hive of activity, conducting research on neonics for the past 2 1/2 years, notes Ron Jarvis, vice president of merchandising and environmental innovation.
“We started out by talking to our suppliers, talking to our growers, and we spent a lot of time talking to the Environmental Protection Agency,” says Jarvis. “We reached out to the Xerces Society; we had conversations with Friends of the Earth and other organizations. We’re just trying to understand exactly what the issue is and how much science there is surrounding the pros and cons.”
Eventually, Jarvis and his team concluded that neonicotinoids are either lethal or sublethal (meaning they cause some harm) to pollinators at certain levels. But there wasn’t a clear consensus as to what those levels are.
“We started trying to find out: Is it 100 parts per billion, is it 2 parts per billion, or is it somewhere in between? And does it differ with nectar versus pollen?” Jarvis explains. “We continued to talk to the EPA, saying, ‘There’s got to be information you guys have out there.’ They were very helpful: They were going through the same process we were, trying to find those numbers.”
A murky picture
Information obtained from the EPA, he continues, seemed to indicate that 30 parts per billion for pollen and 120 ppb for nectar were acceptable levels of neonics that wouldn’t adversely affect bee populations. Meanwhile, tests conducted by Jarvis and his team found that concentrations of both nectar and pollen in the flowers Home Depot sells averaged a meager 4 to 5 ppb.
That, he says, is “much, much lower than any of the consensus out there on what the sublethal levels would be. I don’t think we were having any effects on the pollinators prior to us pulling out of it, but not being able to get a consensus and clear direction, we decided just to continue the pull-down of the product and then set a time frame to be out of it completely.”
The only exceptions, says Harrigan, would be if state or federal regulations required treating plants with neonics, or if undisputed science eventually proves that the levels on the retailer’s live goods don’t harm pollinators.
Last year, the White House announced that it would be working with the EPA on new steps to promote the health of bees and other pollinators.
In 2014, beekeepers nationwide reported losing about 40 percent of honeybee colonies, according to an article on the White House’s website titled “Announcing New Steps to Promote Pollinator Health.” That substantial loss threatened both beekeepers’ livelihoods and the pollination services bees provide.