Green sweat bee on a lavender aster with yellow centerFriends School Plant Sale cares about the health of your garden. We want to see healthy plants in healthy soil visited by a healthy assortment of thriving pollinators. In 2013 we focused on the health of bees, one particular pollinator, and encouraged the wide use of bee-friendly plants. But we have come to believe that even the best plants grown in the best places with the best practices can do harm when those plants come to the garden infused with long-acting, invisible insecticides.

Neonicotinoid insecticides threaten bees and other species

Which brings us to neonicotinoid insecticides. This is a family of insecticides, with actions similar to nicotine, that was developed in the 1980–90s. These insecticides (see list below) have been very commercially successful, probably because they are supposed to be less toxic to mammals than previous insecticides. One of them, imidocloprid, is the most widely used insecticide in the world.

But the neonicotinoids have been implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder, and in the decline of pollinators in general. What makes them particularly concerning is that they are systemic (treat one part of the plant or the soil around it and you have treated the whole plant including the pollen and the nectar) and they are persistent (after one treatment they may last years in soil, and up to six years in woody plants).

At lethal levels they kill, and at sub-lethal levels they may kill also, but indirectly, by disrupting the immune system and the navigational system, at least in bees. Responding to these concerns, in 2013 the European Union imposed a two-year moratorium on some uses of three of these neonicotinoids. In the U.S., they are “under study” with no action likely for at least another three or four years.

In addition to bees, songbirds and beneficial invertebrates may be negatively affected by neonics. There is data worldwide that neonic contamination of surface and groundwater is already above the level needed to kill aquatic invertebrates. The Plant Sale committee is particularly concerned because most neonic studies have looked at agricultural neonic usage; amounts used in horticulture may be up to 120 times higher, and in home use higher still.  

Our goal: no neonic plants at the Plant Sale.

In complex systems, we can argue forever about what level of certainty constitutes “proof.” But the Plant Sale committee has become quite sure that we don’t want neonics in our own gardens, and absolutely certain that we don’t want to sell neonic-treated plants to anyone else. So the Plant Sale had to try to become neonic-free.

Has it been easy? Essentially it has meant having conversations with each grower, asking growers to speak with all their suppliers, and in effect examining the history of every plant we sell. Often we have been the first to ask about neonics. And this is still not a certified process -- we are trusting our growers to tell us the truth about how they treat their plants and where they get their plant material from before they start growing it.

Inevitably we have had to drop some plants, substitute others, and in a few cases raise some prices. Some things we have learned:

Seed-grown plants have the simplest history to trace.

Unlike agricultural seeds (almost all soy seeds, for example, are treated with neonics), horticultural seeds are available without insecticide treatment. Since they tend to be grown by a single grower, if that grower does not use neonicotinoids, we can be virtually certain that the plant is neonic-free. Many of the smaller plants at the sale are seed-grown: all 4-packs in annuals and vegetables, vegetables in 3.5” pots, most perennials in 2.5” pots, all our native flowering plants and grasses marked with a Minnesota symbol, and some others.

Cutting-grown plants have proved to be a much more complex problem.

Plants grown from cuttings tend to be the larger annuals and perennials. They begin their lives as a cutting from a mother plant somewhere in the world, often outside of the U.S., which makes treatment records difficult to access. These cuttings then get shipped to growers in the United States where they are rooted. They often pass through several growers on their way to becoming the plant that you see at the sale.

The Plant Sale committee has had to accept that we are unlikely to know about the early treatment of these cuttings (does early treatment matter? Or are the neonicotinoids diluted out by time and plant growth? We don’t know), but we have made every attempt to be sure that they have not been treated after rooting. This in itself has been difficult; some growers treat all the plants, but at different times; some treat none, and some treat selectively. And some consider the information private and won’t talk to us.

We have chosen to drop plants when it has been clear that they have been treated with neonics, or if there is, in our best estimation, inadequate information. Recognizing that we are working from second-hand data, unavailable data, and, for some plants, layers of information, we can’t absolutely guarantee that none of our plants has been touched by a neonic, but we come as close as is possible this year. Given what we are able to know, there is not a plant that we sell that we would hesitate to put in our gardens.   

Bulbs proved a problem

Many of the bulbs at past sales came from the Netherlands, where there is a ban on neonics, so we assumed these bulbs would be neonic-free. Not so. The lily (Lilium) bulbs that we have ordered for years are exempt from the ban and in fact are required to be treated with neonics prior to export. This discovery necessitated a last-minute scramble to find some good replacements, which we have done, but you’ll notice that they are not quite as inexpensive as in previous years.

Some of the growers we have spoken to have plans to stop using neonics, either because of their own concerns or because of ours. A few didn’t even know they were using neonics (see the product list below for multiple names for the same chemical)! Simply bringing up the issue is beginning to effect change.

We have done everything in our power to be sure the plants we sell are neonicotinoid-free.

You can protect pollinators: talk to businesses, avoid neonic's

Let’s carry this forward. If this issue is important to you, and we think it should be, then the greater community needs to hear your concerns. When you go to another nursery, garden center, or plant sale, ask questions:

  • Do you use neonicotinoids?
  • Do you know which of your growers do?
  • What are you doing about it?

There are alternatives, both chemical and non-chemical: tell them. Be willing to work with responsive and responsible vendors and growers, big and small. One of the things that we hear from growers is that they treat because of the expectations of the customer (are a few aphids all that bad?). Maybe we have a part in this; maybe we need to let some of that need for “perfection” go. And while we are on that subject, if you have ever used an insecticide, check your shelves to make sure that it is not a neonicotinoid; labeling is often unclear.

We are happy to welcome you to our best effort at a neonic-free Friends School Plant Sale, the first of many. If you have questions about specific plants, feel free to e-mail us, or ask at the info desk during the sale. We look forward to talking with you about this.

To learn more, including, including

American Bird Conservancy,

TED Talk by Dr. Marla Spivak,

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

A partial list of products that contain neonics

If you care about pollinators, be alert for neonics. They can hide under a multitude of aliases in lawn treatments, Japanese beetle sprays, and pre-treatments for Emerald Ash Borer.

Treatment in your neighbor's yard can kill the bees in your yard, so the time to talk about this is now. Be a good neighbor yourself and properly dispose of any of your own neonics. And don't buy new ones.

Avoid products that contain:

  • Acetamiprid
  • Clothianidin
  • Dinotefuran
  • Imidacloprid
  • Thiamethoxam


Foliar spray for garden fruits and vegetables, and ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs.   

Ortho Bug B Gon Garden Insect Killer
Ortho Bug B Gon for Lawns
Ortho Flower, Fruit and Vegetable Insect Killer
Ortho Rose and Flower Insect Killer
Ortho Rose Pride Insect Killer


Granules for turf, and ornamental flowers, shrubs, or trees.

Bayer Advanced All-in-One Rose & Flower Care granules
Green Light Grub Control with Arena


Granules for turf and ornamental flowers, shrubs or trees; soil drench for ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs.

Green Light Tree & Shrub Insect Control with Safari 2 G
Ortho Tree & Shrub Insect Control Plus Miracle Gro Plant Food


Foliar spray for turf and ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs; soil drench for garden fruits and vegetables, ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs; trunk injection for trees; granules for turf and ornamental flowers, shrubs, or trees.         

Bayer Advanced 3-in-1 Insect, Disease, & Mite Control
Bayer Advanced 12 Month Tree & Shrub Insect Control
Bayer Advanced 12 Month Tree & Shrub Protect & Feed
Bayer Advanced Fruit, Citrus & Vegetable Insect Control
Bayer Advanced All-in-One Rose & Flower Care concentrate
DIY Tree Care Products Multi-Insect Killer
Ferti-lome 2-N-1 Systemic
Hi-Yield Systemic Insect Spray
Knockout Ready-To-Use Grub Killer
Monterey Once a Year Insect Control II
Ortho Bug B Gon Year-Long Tree & Shrub Insect Control
Ortho MAX Tree & Shrub Insect Control
Surrender Brand GrubZ Out


Foliar spray for turf and ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs; granules for turf and ornmanetal flowers, trees, and shrubs.

Amdro Quick Kill Lawn & Landscape Insect Killer
Amdro Rose & Flower Care
Maxide Dual Action Insect Killer


Photo credit: A green sweat bee (Agapostemon) on a fall-blooming aster. Photo by Heather Holm from her book Pollinators of Native Plants