Turf and Bees: What’s the buzz on pesticides in lawns?

October 23, 2014

By Ian Lane, Graduate Research Assistant

White clover and dandelion provide great early season forage for pollinators in lawns
White clover and dandelion provide great early season forage for pollinators in lawns

If you have been paying attention to the news lately, you know that bees have been making headlines. News outlets have done an amazing job of helping scientists sound the alarm on unsettling declines in bee pollinators. While we have good evidence for declines in honey bees and some of their cousins, the bumble bees, the cause of this decline is hard to pinpoint. Current thinking in the scientific community puts the decline down to a number of interacting factors, including reduction in stable food sources, introduction of bee diseases, and the irresponsible use of insecticides. While it’s difficult to tease apart how these factors interact, we do have some good knowledge about how lawns fit into this theoretical framework.

Herbicides

Lawns are home to a number of weeds that are the bane of homeowners. While our gut reaction may be to reach for a herbicide, it’s worth noting that many weeds actually can provide high quality forage for bees. Two of the most important lawn forage plants are the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens). Dandelions are one of the earliest, and often only, blooming flowers of spring. This early source of pollen and nectar is essential to overwintering honey bee colonies as they begin the process of raising new workers. White clover is another spring bloomer (though not as early) that provides highly nutritious pollen throughout the year. While the exact nature of bee’s relationship with these flowers isn’t widely studied, recent research at the University of Kentucky sought to characterize the types of bees visiting dandelions and clover. They found  surprising diversity on white clover, including a number of at risk bumble bees (Larson et al. 2014). Similar preliminary research here at the University of Minnesota confirms many of their findings.

There may also be some solutions for homeowners looking to control weeds but leave clover in their lawn. One common herbicide known as 2,4-D is effective on many broadleaf weeds, but generally ineffective on clover. Small demonstration trials at the University of Minnesota confirm that 2,4-D has relatively low action on clover but is relatively effective against other weeds.

Insecticides

The another type of pesticide that can make a big impact on bees are insecticides . Much of the recent attention on pollinators has focused on a class of insecticides known as the neonicitinoids. Neonicitinoids are used in turf to help control a number of insect pests, most importantly grubs. They work by “dissolving” into the irrigation water or rain, which is then taken up by the plant and becomes part of the leaf and root tissue. This ensures that any insect munching on the tissues of your grass gets a lethal dose, and your lawn stays green. While bees would never have a reason to take a bite of your grass, your helpful lawn weeds are a different story. It turns out that not only do these insecticides move into plant leaves and roots, but the nectar and pollen of the flowering weeds as well.

Many studies have looked to see if neonicitinoids applied to lawns full of clover have negative effects on bumblebee colonies. The researchers in Kentucky  do this by getting a colony of the commercially available common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens), placing it on a patch of flowering clover that is treated with a neonicitinoid, then caging them so they are forced to forage on the treated clover. These experiments are always accompanied with a similar set-up but on a non-treated patch as a point of comparison. Here again the University of Kentucky has been leading the way with a study published in 2002 (Gels et al. 2002) that found if imidacloprid (a type of neonicitinoid) was applied to flowering turf without any post application irrigation that bumble bee colonies suffered worker weight loss, increased worker death, and sluggish behavior. However, if irrigation was applied directly following these imidacloprid applications, no negative responses were seen.

Similar responses were seen in a study investigating clothianidin, another type of neonicitinoid (Larson et al. 2013). Bumble bee colonies that were confined over patches of flowering clover, and that had the high label rates of clothianidin applied to the turf, saw dramatic effects on the number of workers, new queens, as well as total colony weight when compared to control colonies. The effects of irrigation were not part of this study, but when clover nectar from nearby sights that had been applied with clothianidin were sampled, they found high amounts of the neonicitinoid. This study’s main aim was to compare clothianidin to a new chemistry of insecticides called anthranilic diamide (specifically chlorantraniliprole). This new class of chemical had seemingly no adverse effects on bumble bee colonies when compared to the controls. While there is more research to be done, this is a promising alternative to neonicitinoids for insect control in turf.  You can currently purchase chlorantraniliprole for use on residential and commercial turf, and trade names include “Scott’s Grubex” or Syngenta’s “Acelepryn”. 

While urban landscapes and lawns are only one part of a very large system, they are nevertheless an important part of a vast majority of people’s lives. Promoting animal diversity in urban landscapes, be it pollinator or other, helps improve important issues related to stormwater runoff (rain gardens and buffer strips) and urban agriculture (pollination and biocontrol services) and also enriches everyday life through learning opportunities and aesthetic value. Even the smallest effort, such as leaving some weedy flowers or choosing a safer insecticide, may make a difference.

Stay Informed

A new series on pollinators is being offered by the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.  “Pollinators: What you need to know and how to make a difference” is a 3-part series focusing on: 1) Plants and People, 2) Pesticides and Other Problems, and 3) Policies and Politics.

The Minnesota Turf and Grounds Foundation will be offering a 1-day session on Super Tuesday of the Northern Green Expo, January 13th, 2015.  “Bee Aware: The importance of pollinators in the landscape” will feature expert presenters discussing real world issues surrounding pollinators, as well as practical strategies to promote them in the landscape.  Stay tuned to www.mtgf.org as this program develops.   

Works Referenced

Gels, J. A., D. W. Held, and D. A. Potter. 2002. Hazards of Insecticides to the Bumble Bees Bombus impatiens (Hymenoptera : Apidae ) Foraging on Flowering White Clover in Turf. J. Econ. Entomol. 95: 722–728.

Larson, J. L., A. J. Kesheimer, and D. A. Potter. 2014. Pollinator assemblages on dandelions and white clover in urban and suburban lawns. J. Insect Conserv. 18: 863-873

Larson, J. L., C. T. Redmond, and D. A. Potter. 2013. Assessing insecticide hazard to bumble bees foraging on flowering weeds in treated lawns. PLoS One. 8: e66375.