Systemic Chemicals and Neonics In San Francisco Street Trees

Presented to the City of San Francisco regarding their plan to purchase and plant 55 thousand flowering ornamental street trees, most of which have been treated with Neonicotinoids, making the trees 7 times deadlier than DDT, for years and potentially killing butterflies, birds, bumble bees and any other animal that survives on pollen and nectar.

As a beekeeper concerned about pesticides for close to a decade I have read the science and studied this issue for a long time. I am part of an International network of researchers, scientists, beekeepers, organic food growers, NGO’s and writers.  I have spoken about this issue in Italy to beekeepers and to International organic food growers. Everywhere I go, beekeepers from around the world shake their heads and ask what is wrong with America and especially with our beekeepers. We are the only country that is not taking a stand against neonics and our beekeepers and their Associations have given in to the pesticide industry without a fight.



There is a danger posed to all Bay Area pollinators from the fact that Systemic Neonicotinoid (nenonic) poisons are present in flowering ornamental trees being planted by the city and its agencies.  My work as a citizen and as a mom, is about assisting pollinators in our region to not just survive, but to thrive.  And my hope is to create an oasis of real and long-term safety for all pollinators. An oasis where all pollinators can find abundant, healthy food and a poison-free habitat. I think we owe our children the beauty of song birds, bumblebees and butterflies.

You may not know that the United States is odd man out in the developed Western world by our refusal to ban neonics. This issue rarely gets to the discussion stage in this country. The clear evidence speaks to an infrastructure-wide abuse of power by the pesticide and chemical industry over our agriculture and food systems. Documents are now revealing the 50-60 year-long hold the chemical industry has on our research, our regulatory agencies, our Agriculture Universities, Extension Universities, farming, agribusiness, our food system, the USDA, The Almond Industry, commercial Beekeeper Associations and other such business-friendly Commerce Associations, Industry funded think tanks, PR machines, media, lobbyists, politicians and other collaborators. And now, with the current federal administration dismantling our thread-bare safety regulations with its blatant disregard of science to make even more room for business friendly ‘science’, we are witnessing an avalanche of propaganda that bees and pollinators are just fine and neonics were never the problem anyway.¹

This crushing reality is why our natural world is dying.  Simply Google decline of bees and neonics to see how the timelines correlate exactly with the onset of neonic use.  Chemical Industry PR investments have received a massive return on the dollar as is revealed in the way most discussion of bee death quickly deflects responsibility far away from the cocktail of poisons within our plants, trees, soil and water ²,³ and onto all the other lessor issues that harm pollinators.  Even American beekeepers drumbeat the Bayer, Syngenta and the mite heavy data narrative from Bee Informed Partnership of Mites! Mites! Mites! All the while, their efforts work diligently to deflect attention away from any talk of poisonous flowers. 

But how can anyone talk about bees and not discuss flowers? The bottom line is this, feed anything poison and it will die. Immediately or later.⁴

For almost two years, I’ve been attending any San Francisco Urban Forestry, Dept. of the Environment, IPM and City Council meetings that discuss the upcoming tree plantings and have asked my city to please do something different. Specifically, to not purchase any more trees that have ever been pre-treated with any systemic, whether neonic or fungicide to ensure our pollinators have something other than poison to consume.

Now, more than ever, our environment is under fire from regulatory agencies that work solely for industry.  

Both this year and last, San Francisco Senators Leno and Weiner supported a bill to restrict the use of Imidacloprid in California. (SB 602 and SB 1282) Please see the entire bill, it’s supporters and opposition below. Creating public confusion, both years the California Beekeepers Association voted to prevent any restrictions or bans on this poison and clearly showed everyone in the room who their handlers were. Their lobbyist reported to Senator Leno that the Association Board held an 11th hour vote the night before the first committee meeting, seeming to kneel under pressure. The pesticide industry argument prevailed that day calling for the use of ‘citizen exterminators’ who should have the right to use Imidacloprid, and should easily purchase it anywhere in California in their backyards, unregulated, at any point they want.  

Please see the bottom of this document for resources that show how the regulatory agencies use faulty science to approve chemicals and understand that the EPA, FDA, USDA, etc has run interference for the Pesticide Industry to quickly approve these poisons that should never have been allowed on the market in the first place.

It’s up to you, the City of San Francisco to lead the way and show the rest of California how to truly provide safe home and poison-free food for all California Pollinators.  

San Francisco is a rare city.  We operate under the The Precautionary Principle which our city adopted for its own safety.  Unlike the Federal Govmt which operates on a system of allowing a poison to be approved and look at it later after safety issues arise, the Precautionary Principle says the science or common sense of a substance assumes it is dangerous and you don’t have to have confirmation of that danger to take all steps to limit potential damage. We have that proof on neonics. ⁵  After all, San Francisco banned its use several years ago!  So shy would the city allow these poisons in flowering pollinator trees?

The Precautionary Principle alone is enough of a reason to stop the planting of any neonic pre-treated trees. One only has to look no further than the neonic treatment of trees in an Oregon parking lot to see the devastation to both nature and to a city’s image. Will our city have enough money for nets to cover flowering trees if bumbles are found dead like what happened in Oregon? ⁶

For four years, Neonics have been banned by 28 developed Western countries because their Science Academy’s 1100 peer reviewed papers all agreed, neonics must be banned. The British Government (along with the British Beekeeping Associations) used to be against the ban and were rabidly Pro-Industry but just now have reversed that position and support the ban on neonics.

America looks isolated as the only major player in the western world that refuses to listen to the scientific facts.⁷

Usually people stumble around in the dark, not thinking very deeply and being far too trusting of industry and the powers that be, when suddenly the light comes on.  At this critical juncture in human history when all lights are glaring, blame is a waste of precious time. Our ‘standard practice’ thinking should change immediately because pollinators have no time left for our human dithering.  And importantly, San Francisco pollinators should not be another victim of corporate denialism, propaganda deception and ‘green’ washing. 

I assure you, do this hard work now and the entire world will recognize it and thank you.  You’ll be known as the city that knew, and did the right thing. 



Did you know that a single bumblebee must visit 10,000 flowers every day?  This question addresses why city trees matter to city pollinators.  That immense volume of flowers, spread out, meadow-like, is an impossibility in any city and most especially in a tiny space like San Francisco. A simple solution of how to save bees and all pollinators lies in our trees!  A mature flowering tree is a highly efficient use of urban space potentially delivering up to ¼ acre or more of nutrition to beneficial insects and birds.⁸   Each tree has the potential of thousands and some have millions of flowers, and in San Francisco, many trees bloom continuously for most months of the year providing much needed food. There is no better solution to our biodiversity’s survival than planting a diverse and nutritious canopy of flowering ornamental trees.


Due to drought, lack of foresight and care, poor tree policy, age and other factors, San Francisco is losing acres of irreplaceable, flowering tree canopy. In an effort to ‘green’ the city, San Francisco is planning to purchase and plant up to 55,000 ornamental trees within the next few years.  


As a tree-loving citizen and urban beekeeper, whose livestock is dependent on a pesticide-free tree canopy, I contacted the nurseries and tree brokers on the city’s vendor list. 


My findings are 75% of the city’s tree vendors use systemic neonicotinoids.


Additionally, because so little attention or regulation has been paid to this one issue, tree nurseries may be using much more poison, and inconsistently, than the regulated seed treatments farmers use. 

“The neonicotinoid levels measured in the report far exceed what’s typically found in agricultural settings, but are in keeping with manufacturer-recommended doses for garden and landscapes. 'If there's demand expressed in the marketplace, that's how changes can be made.' As the report details, a single corn plant grown from a seed treated with imidacloprid, the most popular neonicotinoid, has access to 1.34 milligrams of the pesticide. The recommended application rate for a perennial plant in a three-gallon plot is a full 300 milligrams.

In further personal research, I contacted the largest tree growers in Northern California, Southern California and even reached out to tree nurseries in Western Colorado and Southern Oregon. I suspect all the major, monoculture operations (except Palm Tree growers) use systemic neonics (mostly Imidacloprid) as a rule in their operations. This is based on either their direct confirmation of that fact, their defensiveness at being asked by a beekeeper who understands the poisons, or their flat refusal to answer or discuss the question in any way. My concerns are further confirmed by the fact that UC(Riverside?) is searching for funding to investigate how long neonics last in trees and by the City of San Francisco’s willingness to take up this pressing issue at this meeting today and early August. 


I also base my assessment on last year’s Friends of the Earth report that showed dangerously high levels of Imidacloprid on randomly tested Crepe Myrtle, Acacia and New Zealand Christmas Tree (which sample did not make it to their final report, and would have made the stat closer to 50% of tested Bay Area street trees instead of 23%).¹⁰


What is the point of declaring that San Francisco cares about biodiversity and its Bee City, USA status if we go ahead with the city’s plan and plant millions of flowers that are poisonous to pollinators? ¹¹


The above referenced Urban Forest Plan and this year’s Biodiversity Mission Statement omits any mention of neonicotinoids or systemics even though the pertinent city agencies knew about this issue before they published the mission.  


Let me describe the problem. Neonics are deadly to pollinators for several reasons.  The poison itself, the Neonicotinoid products are reportedly more than 7,000 times stronger than DDT and I reference many articles that corroborating this fact. ¹² 


But the poison’s delivery system is what is so devastating. Systemics make the entire tree poisonous to any beneficial insect or pollinator trying to source both protein (pollen) or carbohydrate (nectar) and guttation (water and enzymes found on the tips of leaves). Systemics don’t discriminate between good and bad insects.  Systemics essentially turn a flower into an immediate death trap or kill later as the poison off-gasses in the nest intentionally rendering the queen infertile, weakening mite-prone males and doing who knows what to the larvae.


Systemics are also found to last longer (up to six years in woody plants according to Xerces Society) rendering blooms poisonous year after year after year.10 If Bayer has completed any further studies on this issue, they have not released them.  I’m not a scientist, policy analyst nor an academic. Just a realist so I can say these words out loud. The Industry silence about persistence of neonics in trees does not bode well for pollinators otherwise they would have released some studies on the subject. It is highly unlikely they have not looked at this.¹³


Birds who feed on nectar, pollen, guttation and seeds are also affected and seeds from neonic treated trees have not yet been fully studied. But the American Bird Conservancy comes down hard against Neonics based on their research and good common sense.  One only has to mourn the lack of songbirds in the city and knowing how systemics work to suspect that the seeds are likely highly poisonous, too. 



Methods of systemic neonic treatment in order of most dangerous

*Soil Drench 

*Trunk Injection

*Folilar Spray


  1. It would be very wise to slow down the purchasing process and take a period of consideration so you can assess the current science (making sure you’re not just listening to the industry’s biased research. It’s easy to know the difference and I can assist with that by directing you to unbiased researchers).  Listen to the rest of the world’s unbiased research from their Science Academies and take a hard look at the consequences of your next steps.  If neonic trees have been ordered, the contracts should be broken. Please delay in purchasing trees from vendors who will not report their systemic products (insecticide, fungicides, etc.)  The potential disaster you are creating is well worth a holding period while you investigate all options.  I’m trying to help the city avert a PR disaster and potential lawsuits. I firmly believe that poisonous flowering, ornamental trees are the main reason pollinators are dying all around the world. San Francisco can lead the way to permanent change, nation-wide with this knowledge. It’s going to happen, it might as well be here and right now.


  1. Create the San Francisco Street Tree Nursery immediately. Properly guard it from pests by planting diversity and protect it from people and industries who may seek to harm the program. And plant tree species that don’t attract common pests such as aphids which cause people to buy neonic pesticides over the counter.
  1. San Francisco’s pollinators currently enjoy a good amount of diversity, which currently supports their good health.  Please continue to increase flowering tree diversity as a plan. Use intelligent biological methods to prevent invasive pests from gaining a foothold. Source early, and pre-purchase neonic free trees from smaller growers whenever possible. This issue is soon to create a new market of Clean Trees.  Ecology takes care of invasive pests.  Thousands of new pest species have arrived in the last 150 years and have not destroyed California’s canopy (we have the drought and short-sightedness to blame for that).  Again, bird and insect diversity makes an enormous helping hand for IPM and neonics destroy both birds and beneficial insects.  Work to increase biodiversity, not deplete it further. If chemicals are used, monitor diligently and spray topically and never use any systemic products. Use smarter IPM practices to deal with invasive species without falling back on the usual Extension University invasive pest management messaging. And ban all other systemics (RoundUp) within the city.
  2. Take a stand as a city that all trees from any nursery or broker come with a systemic chemical report with dates of all treatments, method of treatment, name of systemic product and strength of dose.  Require that any tree stock that has been trunk injected or soil drenched not be brought into the city.


  1. Work to change the narrative about expected perfection in plant purchasing and create an understanding, dialog and financial acceptance of the fact that insects eat plants.¹⁶

“I don’t think that chemical application is the final difference-maker in how they can produce plants at low cost,” said Daniels. He did note, though, that cutting back on neonicotinoids could lead to increased use of other pesticides. While these should be less-toxic to pollinators, an even more pollinator-friendly option may simply be for gardeners to be more tolerant of pests. In nature, said Daniels, there are a great many plant-infesting insects, and they only become pests when they enter our yards and interfere with visions of perfect-looking plants. “I understand that perspective, and that’s okay. I respect that as a matter of personal opinion,” Daniels said. “But to have a perfect plant takes a great deal of effort. ¹⁷

Nature cannot sustain our ‘efforts’ as we continuously reach for the impossible ‘perfection’ aesthetic. San Francisco is already working to change the perfection aesthetic, as I recently heard at Alamo Square.  When neighbors complained about the ‘look’ of native plants, a city worker educated them about the benefits of native plants that attract beneficial insects. This is the right approach to help people understand that people’s ideas and perception of nature must change if we want other species to survive.

  1. Take the long view of tree planting. View from at least a ten-year period. We have to re-define what it means to plant a tree.  It’s not a superficial, feel-good/look good ‘greening’ activity.  It’s our responsibility to the future. A future, generations ahead, that we personally may not witness. But it’s that act of generosity that nurtures our best qualities and gives more than it takes, unselfishly without expecting anything in return.  Planting a tree is a sacred act in these times and we should speak about it.  On a practical basis, that means at minimum a five-year financial commitment to watering and care. And every tree planted should provide nutrition to at least one native pollinator.
  1. Put this news out to the public.  There are many tree nurseries who are concerned about their liability or morally don’t want to have the responsibility of the damage their trees are doing. The nursery industry is well aware of this issue having held conferences over the past several years. Many in the industry are concerned about liability and have discussed this with landscaping corporations and associations so the word is out anyway.
  2. Create a 7X7 neonic-free radius. Declare San Francisco a true Pollinator Oasis.  San Francisco will burst with butterflies and birds.  It will be a sight for the world to enjoy. 




1 References on Pesticide industry collusion with EPA and others:

Prof Dave Goulsen













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