Gardeners cultivating a buzz

Pressure from conscientious gardeners is making big retailers rethink what they sell. John Manley reports on the bid to curb the use of harmful pesticides...

A bumblebee collecting pollen from a butterfly bush.

I LIKE to think gardeners understand the value of bees better than most. Through our often corresponding interest in nature and witnessing the dynamics of the garden up close, we have learned that the gentle hum of bees' wings is an indication that a space is healthy and supports biodiversity.

It's pressure from customers – ie gardeners – that has resulted in most leading garden retailers and garden centres deciding they don't want to sell flowering plants that have been grown using bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides.

A survey by Friends of The Earth published this week found that nine out of the 10 big plant retailers, some of which have stores here in the north, have told suppliers not to use ‘neonics', as they are commonly known.

However, one of the biggest garden retailers – Homebase – has yet to commit to working with suppliers to end the use of restricted neonicotinoids, despite being contacted by thousands of people via a Friends of the Earth online petition.

The survey of retailers comes weeks after research by leading bee scientist Professor Dave Goulson revealed that 70 per cent of the plants tested from major stores contained neonics – including three pesticides restricted across Europe that have been found to pose a ‘high acute risk' to honeybees.

Earlier this year leading garden store B&Q became the first retailer to announce that it was banning suppliers from using all neonics in its flowering plant range from 2018.

Public opinion is helping the corporates make-up their minds, with a YouGov poll published in May showing 78 per cent of people think retailers shouldn't sell plants grown with pesticides that are harmful to bees.

Leading bee expert Professor– who carried out research published earlier this year into pesticides in garden plants – said:

"There is currently lots of interest in making our gardens into havens for bees and other wildlife, which is fantastic,” said Dave Goulson.

“Hence we were very sad to discover that most of the pretty flowers marketed as 'bee-friendly' by garden centres, and bought by well-meaning people with their hard-earned cash, actually contain significant concentrations of highly potent insecticides.”

Voicing the hope that we can soon reach a point where 'bee-friendly' plants are completely free of insecticides, he welcomed the retailers' positive response to date.

You see without bees life would be much less sweet. Albert Einstein once speculated that if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.

Without them and their pollinating prolificacy, birds, insects and mammals would have less food, and crops we rely on for food such as apples, tomatoes and peas would be less productive.

There's been a steady decline in the Irish bee population in recent decades

If you want to help bees in your own garden, the best thing to do is to plant some native flowers. The best plants for bees are often those with white, blue or yellow flowers because bees can see these colours – as well as ultraviolet.

Autumn time is best for sowing wild flower seeds, but most do very well sown in spring too.

You can get a guide to collecting and sowing native seeds free from Biodiversity Ireland (

Some non-native flowers that are particularly good include sunflowers, sedum, sweet pea, viburnum and lavender.

But as well as a source of food, bees also need somewhere to build a nest. There are a number of different boxes available from internet sources – or you could build your own bug hotel.

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