In an effort to better protect the planet’s most important pollinators, pest control company Ortho says it will remove from its products a class of chemicals thought to be linked to declining bee populations.
The company, a division of Scotts Miracle-Gro, said in an announcement Tuesday it would “immediately begin to transition away from the use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides for outdoor use.”
Tim Martin, general manager of the Ortho brand, says the decision came after carefully considering the potential threats of the chemicals, called neonics for short, to honey bees.
“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,” Martin said in a statement. “We encourage other companies and brands in the consumer pest control category to follow our lead.”
The decline in bee populations, both in North America and around the world, is well-established. A nationwide survey last year by researchers at the University of Maryland, for example, found that U.S. beekeepers lost 42 percent of honey bee colonies between April 2014 to April 2015. This is an especially alarming statistic considering bees pollinate 75 percent of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the United States.
Today, bees face a host of threats, including the parasitic varroa mite, disease, poor nutrition from the loss of foraging habitat, and a lack of genetic diversity, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Neonicotinoids, a common insecticide used to fight off a variety of pests, are also suspected of playing a role in the pollinators’ collapse. The EPA is currently reviewing the neonic class of pesticides to assess its risk to bees and other pollinators, but a study last year found that chronic exposure to the chemicals, which are believed to attack the central nervous system in bees, can impair bumblebees’ learning and memory.
A second study, published last month in the journal Functional Ecology, found neonics can impact a bumblebee’s ability to forage. “If exposure to low levels of pesticide affects their ability to learn, bees may struggle to collect food and impair the essential pollination services they provide to both crops and wild plants,” Nigel Raine, a senior author of the paper, said in a statement.
The Associated Press reports that Ortho plans to eliminate neonicotinoids from three of its products by 2017 and from another five by 2021.
Larissa Walker, pollinator program director at the Center for Food Safety, called Ortho’s announcement a “much needed win for bees and other pollinators.”
“Research continues to point to neonics as a prime culprit in bee population losses and poor colony health,” Walker said in a statement. “We are glad to see that Ortho is moving away from using these bee-toxic chemicals, and we hope that other garden and nursery companies will follow suit.”
While Ortho’s decision is good news for bees, parent company Scotts Miracle-Gro has not always protected the world’s vulnerable critters. In 2012, Scotts was ordered to pay $12.5 million after pleading guilty to illegally applying toxic insecticides to bird seed.
Ortho’s recent announcement comes less than a week after Maryland lawmakers voted in favor of a measure that would ban the consumer use of such products. While the bill has been hailed by beekeepers and environmental groups, others say it falsely blames homeowners and ignores science. It remains unclear whether Maryland’s governor will sign the bill.
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