Home Depot promised to stop selling treated plants last year, but it will take another year before the change takes effect.

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Every few days a tall man with bright blue eyes winds his way through the aisles of a Home Depot garden center in Atlanta, Georgia. “Hi, I’m Ron,” reads the front of his orange smock. It’s his job to inspect the store’s shelves to see how quickly its stock of live plants is moving.

Ron Jarvis is the vice president of merchandising and sustainability at Home Depot. It’s also his job to make sure the plants his company sells are safe for people and the environment. But currently some of Home Depot’s plants — mostly fruit trees and shrubs, such as grapes, raspberries and blueberries, which are often plagued by tiny insect pests that eat their leaves — are not safe. They’ve been treated with potent insecticides that are meant to eradicate plant pests but have also been found to kill some of the Earth’s most beneficial bugs: bees.

Home Depot’s plants carry a rather benign-looking tag meant to indicate they’ve been treated with toxic chemicals. “This plant,” the tag reads, “is protected from problematic aphids, white flies, beetles, mealy bugs and other unwanted pests by neonicotinoids.”

What the tag doesn’t discuss is why it’s important. Neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” were introduced by chemists in the 1980s as a less-toxic alternative to chlorpyrifos, another type of insecticide that’s highly poisonous to people and animals. But shortly after neonics were brought onto the mainstream market as an alternative in the 1990s, scientists began accumulating evidence that the chemicals were hurting wildlife. They killed more than just agricultural pests like the aphids and white flies they were intended to target, causing damage to worms, birds, lizards, coastal shellfish, and, most alarmingly,  crucial pollinators: bees.

Since the 1990s scientists have only accumulated more evidence of neonic toxicity to the environment. In response Home Depot announced in May 2016 that it would stop selling neonics-treated plants by the end of 2018. Several other home and garden retailers, including Lowe’s, have also set dates to stop selling neonics-treated plants.

But if scientists already know neonics are toxic, why not pull them from shelves now?

“Whenever we hear concerns about a product at Home Depot — be it stakeholders, customers or special-interest groups — we do a lot of research to understand all sides of the story,” says Jarvis.  “And that takes time.”

Apparently, it takes a lot of time. Jarvis says he started his investigation of neonics by calling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2013 to learn more about the possible connections between neonics use and a decline in honeybee health, specifically a phenomenon called “colony collapse disorder,” or “CCD.” CCD, first observed in 2006, is defined as an event where most of the worker bees in a colony disappear from a hive, leaving behind a queen, immature bees and a few nurse bees. The EPA has not defined any causes of colony collapse, but scientists believe there are several potential factors — among them the application of pesticides such as neonics to crops.

After 12 to 18 months of research, Jarvis says he still did not have conclusive evidence that neonics were harming bees. But he says he felt pressure from the public, which had been learning about neonics through the media, to take plants treated with the chemical off his company’s shelves. So while the government could not provide him with any conclusive evidence about widespread bee deaths and neonics, Jarvis moved forward with labeling plants and asking Home Depot growers to stop using the chemicals. At the same time, rather than destroy growers’ existing neonics-treated plants, many of which are put in the ground years before being sold, it appears Jarvis decided Home Depot should sell off its remaining toxic plant stocks to protect growers’ pockets, as well as its own revenues.

“Forcing our growers to destroy their existing neonics-treated plant stocks would cause them great financial hardship,” says Jarvis. “We have contracts with growers that they would not be able to fill should they get rid of the plants they’ve already put in the ground…and those plants are worth money.”

He adds that Home Depot’s move to remove neonics-treated plants from its shelves is a demonstration of the company’s commitment to staying “ahead of the curve.” Despite their danger to honeybees and other animals, neonics are still approved for use by the U.S. government, which acknowledges they impact bees, yet only mandates warning labels on packaging.

The government’s position doesn’t match up with independent scientists’ peer-reviewed research, which reveals that neonics are a major threat. “Neonicotinoids influence bees’ nervous systems,” says Maj Rundlöf, a biologist at Lund University in Sweden and lead author of a well-known neonics study published in the journal Nature in 2015. She and a group of Swedish researchers allowed various groups of wild bees to forage for pollen and nectar on rapeseed (canola) oil plants in 16 fields. Some fields were treated with a neonic pesticide called clothianidin and a fungicide, while others were treated with fungicide only. The researchers found that the presence of clothianidin reduced the number of bees found in a given field, decreased nesting of solitary bees, harmed honeybees’ growth and reproduction, and diminished “honeybee colony strength,” as defined by the number of adult bees present.

The chemical doesn’t necessarily cause instant death for bees, Rundlöf says. “If the exposure doesn’t kill them, it influences their ability to navigate, forage, care for their brood and fight disease. Bees are used to eating very nontoxic food, pollen and nectar, and therefore have little adaption to detoxification, which make them particularly sensitive.”

While the EPA hasn’t come forward with a conclusive answer, many independent scientists and conservation groups continue to push for an end of neonics use, for the sake of the bees.

“Home Depot’s promise to remove neonicotinoid-treated plants from its stores is a step in the right direction,” the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation told The Revelator in a statement. “This action will help limit bee exposures to harmful chemicals and send a valuable message regarding the need to reconsider how we manage pests. But as the retailer notes, its promise is only part of the solution. The shift away from chemical-intensive pest management can be made by everyone from backyard gardeners to large farms.”

Hopefully other retailers will take notice of Home Depot’s moves to help take toxic plants off its shelves. More retailers and more growers moving away from neonics might help spark a movement to ban the toxic chemicals nationally, as has been proposed in the European Union, for the sake of the bees — and the plants and people that depend on them.

© Erica Cirino. All rights reserved.

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Erica Cirino

is a freelance science writer and artist based in New York. She travels the world to cover stories about wildlife and the environment; specializing in conservation, biology and policy. Her work appears in Scientific American, VICE, Audubon and other popular science publications.