It’s curious how many gardeners seem to believe in the total safety of organic insecticides and sometimes spray them liberally over their entire garden. Then afterwards, they wonder where all the bees have gone! Remember that insecticides kill insects – it even says so in the name! – and bees are insects. Beneficial ones, but insects nonetheless. For example, diatomaceous earth is a popular organic insecticide, one even considered safe enough for humans to eat (although personally I like to consider that theoretic), yet if a bee lands on a leaf sprinkled with diatomaceous earth, the end is nigh!
And it’s not just insecticides you have to worry about. Many fungicides (Bordeaux mixture, copper sulfate, etc.) are also toxic to bees. So even if you treat against a disease, it can have a negative impact on bees.
As a gardener, you need bees to pollinate the flowers of your plants. Without them and other pollinators, there would be no apples, no squash, no beans… and the list goes on and on. So you must protect the bees that visit your plants… but also protect your plants against bad bugs. What’s a gardener to do?
Here are some tips for gardening without poisoning the bees:
- Grow insect-resistant plants. Thus, no insecticide treatment will be necessary.
- Eliminate plants that have been highly damaged by insects over the years. These plants are probably ill-suited to your conditions anyway (otherwise why would they be so damaged?) and require many risky repeat treatments. Do you really need such problem plants?
- Learn to tolerate a certain degree of predation. A few chewed leaves rarely kills a plant and probably doesn’t require treatment.
- Treat with insecticides that don’t affect bees. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), for example, is specific to caterpillars (moth and butterfly larvae) and won’t hurt bees. And a jet of water will knock aphids right off the plant, with no poison involved. Bees, true enough, don’t like being sprayed with water and will go elsewhere while you spray… but at least water doesn’t hurt them.
- Use insecticides that are less harmful to bees. Insecticidal soap and neem, for example, can kill bees, but only if sprayed directly on them. Once they have dried, they no longer affect them.
- Treat early morning or at the end of the day when bees are absent.
- Spray only plants that are affected by the target insect, not the entire garden. That way you limit the risk to bees.
- Whenever possible, collect pests by hand (caterpillars, slugs, lily beetles, etc.). It may be unappetizing, but at least the bees will be spared. And note that you are allowed to wear gloves!
- If you do feel that a powerful pesticide is needed, at least apply it when the plant is not in bloom. Thus, bees will not be present.
- Use insect traps. Bees aren’t attracted by yellow sticky traps, for example, or sticky red balls and even less to pheromone traps. Be careful with blue sticky traps, though: they may attract certain insect pests but they also attract bumblebees.
- And finally, eat organic whenever possible. After all, it’s not just in your garden that bees are poisoned by insecticides. Large-scale agriculture, which applies insecticides abundantly and supplies most of the food in our supermarkets, kills more bees that home gardeners on their small plots ever could.
There you go: lots of ways to garden without harming bees. Share the info with a fellow gardener!