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Duluth, Minn., seeks to cut use of pollinator-killing insecticide

A newly adopted policy could make the city of Duluth a more inviting place for bees and other pollinators in the future. By a unanimous vote last week, the Duluth City Council resolved to stop using neonicotinoid pesticides on city property and i...

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Rebecca Masterman teaches some hobby beekeepers how to combine a hive during a bee squad class on Aug. 6, 2014, in St. Paul, Minn. (Renee Jones Schneider/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

A newly adopted policy could make the city of Duluth a more inviting place for bees and other pollinators in the future.

By a unanimous vote last week, the Duluth City Council resolved to stop using neonicotinoid pesticides on city property and instructed staff members to do their best to steer clear of plants that have been treated with the insecticide.

However, councilors offered one exception -- authorizing the use of neonicotinoids to protect high-value ash trees from the spreading threat of emerald ash borers.

Catherine Winter, a local beekeeper and University of Minnesota Extension Service master gardener, urged the city to exercise vigilance.

"The city should not buy plants that have already been treated with neonicotinoids," she said. "This is one of the huge problems with these pesticides ... greenhouses and big-box stores and other distributors of plants sell plants that are pretreated with these insecticides. The insecticide goes systemic. It goes throughout the plant. It gets into the pollen. It gets into the nectar. And then it sickens whatever pollinator lands on there."

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But 2nd District City Councilor Joel Sipress, who introduced the resolution, said it's often unclear whether or not plants have been treated with neonicotinoids.

"One of the problems is that there is no requirement for producers or retailers to disclose what any vegetation has been pretreated with, and in many cases the garden centers that are selling this stuff, they don't even know," he said. "It would be hard for them to find out without going all the way back to the original source, and in that case, even the original source is not required to disclose what plants have been treated with."

Each year, the city plants 17,000 to 18,000 ornamentals in flower boxes, hanging containers and garden beds. The order for this year was placed in February, and Dale Sellner, buildings and grounds supervisor for the city of Duluth, said he frankly does not know whether any of the plants that will arrive this spring have been treated with neonicotinoids.

"It hasn't been a part of our purchasing process to ask that question, and the ship has kind of sailed this year in that regard," he said.

Sellner said he plans to ask the folks at Engwall Garden Center, which supplies plants to the city, whether neonicotinoids have been applied to the plants it will receive, but it's too late to change the order.

"If they're raising some of the annuals in their own greenhouse, I'm sure they'll be able to answer that question. But if they're purchasing them from wholesalers in the southern states, they might not know," he said.

Sellner said canceling the existing order and placing a new one could double or triple the cost.

Sipress said he understands and noted the resolution is not binding on the purchase of plants.

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"The intent of the resolution is for us to do the best we can to try to identify sources where we can get nontreated vegetation. But at this point in time, it's very difficult for any individual to know for sure what they're actually buying," he acknowledged.

Sipress expressed his hope that Duluth's residents will follow the city's lead and ask local garden centers for neonicotinoid-free plants, as well.

"Anyone concerned about this issue ... can raise the issue with their local garden center and encourage them to seek out sources where they're able to purchase untreated products," he said.

At Large City Councilor Em Westerlund views the new policy as an opportunity for the city to lead by example.

"I do hope that citizens will feel inspired by the many resources available in our community to build native plantscapes and bee-safe yards on their own properties so that this resolution can have an even further-reaching impact in our city and our region, with the recognition that public lands are a start, but we will need the buy-in of our citizens as well," she said.

Cathy Podezwa, a local ecologist who teaches environmental science at the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and writes science texts, said she was "thrilled" by the city's new policy.

"I'm very much in support of banning this particular class of insecticide. It's a very dangerous insecticide to many more pollinators besides honey bees," she said.

Podezwa noted that honeybees, which are not native to the region, are affected as well as other native bees and wasps that also succumb to the chemical.

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"They're all very important, in terms of pollinating all the plants that we have in this city. So I really support this," she said.

Sipress began working on the issue with former city councilor Sharla Gardner and Mayor Emily Larson about 1½ years ago. But he credits constituents with pushing the policy forward.

"This was something that was brought to our attention by the community, and whenever we got bogged down, whenever it looked like it was falling off the radar screen, someone from the beekeeping or gardening community would remind us to not drop this. So this would not be happening tonight without healthy advocacy by many members of our community," he said.

Ultimately, Sipress contends the use of neonicotinoid insecticides ought to be regulated at the state and federal levels, but he said progressive communities such as Duluth can't wait for that to happen.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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