Call to Ban Pesticides in UK Gardens to Protect Insects, Bees, Other Wildlife, and Human Health

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

While eating my breakfast this morning, I watched bees buzz around my back garden. They’re particularly fond of a large unkempt rose of Sharon, which overhangs our outdoor dining table. The shrub is desperately in need of a good pruning, but I can’t bear to get out my loppers while it’s throwing up gorgeous pink blooms.

I don’t use any pesticides in my garden. I’ve avoided them ever since Mr. Vicario, my science teacher, put me up to reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sometime in the early 1970s.   Originally published in 1962, the book launched the modern environmental movement in the U.S. Despite some early successes – banning DDT in 1972 comes to mind – the widespread use of pesticides has triggered a drastic drop in insect and bee populations, not only in the U.S. but worldwide.

The Guardian reported Thursday on a petition to ban pesticides in private gardens and urban areas in order to stem this decline and to protect wildlife and human health, Ban all pesticides in UK gardens to save bees and insects, says expert:

Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex, said outlawing chemical spraying in the country’s 22m private gardens, along with road verges, parks and other green spaces, could slow insect decline by creating a network of nature-friendly habitats where insects can recover.

In a petition launched on Thursday, Goulson urged the government to follow the example of France, which banned all use of synthetic pesticides in public spaces in 2017, and banned garden use from 2019. The campaign has been backed by the RSPB, Parkinson’s UK, the Soil Association and other environmental groups.

The launch of the petition coincided with UK publication of Goulson’s new book, Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse. I’ll snag a copy once it’s published in the U.S. at the end of next month and add it to my to-read pile.

Now, I understand that home gardens and public spaces probably don’t account for much of the total consumption of pesticides in the UK: they’re a mere drop in the bucket compared to agricultural uses. Goulson has addressed that point:

“The use of pesticides in farming is the subject of big debate. You can make a pretty strong argument that we probably do need pesticides if we’re going to feed everybody. But we don’t need them in our gardens. There’s no economic case for that at all,” Goulson said. “If we link up private gardens with flower-filled road verges and roundabouts, city parks, cemeteries and so on, that’s potentially a network of insect-friendly habitats. It would be a huge step in the right direction.”

The heavy use of pesticides has been highlighted as a factor in the catastrophic decline of the world’s insects. In the UK, butterflies, moths and pollinating insects have suffered sharp drops in abundance.

The campaign launches as a study in the journal Nature suggests the impact of agrochemicals on bee declines may have been underestimated. A meta analysis of threats to bees found that if the issue is not addressed, further declines in populations were expected, with knock-on effects on global food production.

I recently linked to a Wall Street Journal article that touted pollination robots as a replacement for declining bee populations, BUZZ OFF, BEES. POLLINATION ROBOTS ARE HERE.:

Farmers have long relied on insects, wind and even human workers to help pollinate their crops. Now, advances in artificial intelligence are helping some startups develop another way to pollinate plants: robots.

Across the globe, startups are testing robots to pollinate everything from blueberries to almonds. And in Australia, one company is so confident in robots’ abilities that it will soon deploy a fleet of them to pollinate tomatoes in its greenhouses.

Pollination robots could give future farmers a significant advantage, increasing yield compared with using insects, such as bees, and the human workers who are sometimes needed to help with certain crops. Scientists are also concerned that insect populations are declining because of habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change and other factors, which would make pollination robots even more important.

Hmm.Rather than relying on yet another untested technofix to replace the bees we’ve killed, Goulson’s petition instead recommends the urban and garden pesticide ban as one means to stem that decline. From the petition:

Wild bees & other wildlife are in decline, a potential catastrophe for us all. Pesticides also threaten human health, many of them being carcinogens &/or neurotoxins. As outlined in “Silent Earth” (2021), one way to help combat bee decline is to encourage them in urban areas. Our 22 million gardens, plus parks, road verges & other green spaces could form a network of wildlife friendly habitats. This will only work if, like France, we stop spraying pesticides in gardens and public urban spaces.

Over to the Guardian again:

Greenpeace, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Parkinson’s UK are among the other groups to back the campaign, also raising concerns about links between pesticides and human health. Goulson created the petition as part of the launch of his new book, Silent Earth, which documents the decline of wild insect species.

Gareth Morgan, the Soil Association’s head of farming and land use, said: “Most people are fed up with seeing councils spraying our streets and parks with chemicals exposing their workers, the public and wildlife to what are really poisons. We should look to manage our open spaces and gardens without resort to using pesticides.

“Just as farmers have had to respond to the ban on bee-harming neonicotinoids then similar phase-outs for pesticides should be introduced so the public and local authorities can start to adopt sustainable and safe alternatives in our towns and cities.”

As mentioned above, France has already phased out the use of synthetic pesticides in public spaces and home gardens and the Guardian article discussed other initiatives undertaken by Canadian towns and cities and the German state of Bavaria.  These places have shown what can be done.  To date, nearly 23,000 people had signed Goulson’s petition.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. upstater

    >Now, I understand that home gardens and public spaces probably don’t account for much of the total consumption of pesticides in the UK: they’re a mere drop in the bucket compared to agricultural uses.


    We have a large vegetable garden (probably too large, but family and neighbors appreciate it) and several flower gardens and grape vines. Certain plants, cole crops and eggplants, in particular can be totally decimated by flea beetles early in the season. We have not found a workable organic control (commenters?). We use a very small application of Cyfluthrin a couple of times a season. We control cabbage butterflies by covering plants. Squash beetles get caught with sticky traps, potato and Japanese beetles are controlled by hand. I have to occasionally nuke a yellow jacket nest to work on my house, otherwise I leave them alone.

    Goulson is telling us, essentially, throw out the baby with the bathwater. My garden with judicious used of insecticide is not “economic”. Should we buy cabbage or kale at the farmers market doused with all sorts of poison?

    But the point is this is simply a “feel good” proposal. Big Ag is huge. In the US, we also have people getting tanker truck loads of herbicides and pesticides from ChemLawn (rebranded as “True Green”) sprayed on their perfect lawns. Some area lakes have outbreaks of blue green algae. It kills song birds that are ground feeders. There isn’t a single clover flower on those lawns.

    More on “feel good”… the decline of Monarch butterflies caused all kinds of hand wringing. It has known causes, all from Big Ag. I believe they are now listed under the Endangered Species Act. Yet nothing is done. We plant loads of milkweed on our small property, but we cannot compete with Big Ag’s killing machine.

    It is remarkable the changes over the past 2 decades here in Central New York with the decline of birds and insects. What is to be done?

    1. katenka

      Have you tried beneficial nematodes to counter your flea beetles? That *can* work, depending on what else is growing around you outside the area you control. Flea beetles will happily traverse quite a bit of territory for a delicious eggplant leaf, so you can deflea your own zone but still get reinfested if they happen to be nearby. But if you’re the sole local source of things flea beetles like, nematodes might be able to knock them out.

      I’m in Chicago — we grow lots of milkweed (and nectar plants) for the monarchs too, but knowing full well that once they leave the happy, relatively clean and peaceful buffet of the city they have to pass through the Great Glyphosate Desert of industrial corn and soybean fields to the south of us. We just tank them up as best we can.

    2. vlade

      I agree.
      I use pesticides maybe twice a year, if the greenfly population gets totally out of hand. I do use fungicides (sparingly), as in the last two years it was really bad here.

      But IMO, the largest insect-population-reducer aren’t pesticides used on private gardens, but the close-cropped lawn, with nothing else growing around. You can be entirely pesticide free, but if there’s no habitat, the insects just won’t be there.

      Compare with our not-pesticide-free garden, where close-cropped lawn is about 10% of the available space, where I have a plethora of insects small and large, including things like the rhino beetle, stag beetles, old world swallowfails, numerous species of more common butterflies and moths, grasshoppers, forest ants and what have you. That supports a large and varied population of small birds, and lizards (on a warm day, I see slow worms and european green lizards basking on the pathways).

      Habitat >> banning pesticides for small private use IMO.

    3. rjs

      try floating row covers on the vines; get them on before the seeds emerge and then pull them off just as the flowers bloom (for pollination)

      you might still get a few bugs, but they won’t have time to breed the several generations needed to do real damage…

    4. drumlin woodchuckles

      I have read/heard of a concept called “trap crops”, which would be more clear if they called it ” sacrificial decoy” crops.

      In the flea-beetles-on-brassica case, the concept is that there are some brassicas that flea beetles like even more than others, and if your particular brassicas of desire are among the “others”, then you might also plant brassicas from among the “some” to attract all the flea beetles to themselves. Here is a webinar about that subject. I haven’t read it yet, but it is from several well-regarded groups, so I would at least take it seriously.

      Lee Fryer, author of books on gardening, agronomy,etc. claimed that leaf-feeding sprays containing seaweed extract had a ” slow down and stop feeding” effect on flea beetles. Here’s an article about “How to use a seaweed fertilizer through foliar feed”.
      Here’s an article about foliar feeding from Permaculture Research Institute. If it mentions seaweed, that could circle back to “seaweed to slow down flea beetles”.
      And here’s somebody’s very fancy home-recipe for foliar feeding.

  2. Carolinian

    I’m not much of a gardener, but I’ve always refused to use pesticides on my yard despite the clouds of mosquitoes in the summer. There was a time a couple of decades ago when cool bats would show up in the evenings and gobble away. For whatever reason I don’t see them anymore.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Would purple martins live in South Carolina if someone put up martin houses for them to live in? Or is South Carolina just too far south for martins to ever live?

      I remember up till some years ago I would see nighthawks flying all around eating insects, especially insects attracted to lights at night. And over the last few years I notice they have quietly faded out of apparent existence where I live. It has been several years since I have seen or heard even one.

  3. George

    Thank you so much for this. Good on France. The loss of insect life eventually flows toward us all. We have no bees in our yard this season and it is sad. We saw a few struggling in the drive early on but now are non existent.

    When I raised cants and pumpkins in the past I would self pollinate with a Q-tip. The fruits were large alright but I never really could know if it was because of my efforts or the bees? I suppose if I raised them today I would find that one out right away.

  4. Harry

    I was in the UK visiting an elderly sick close relative. I could have sworn I noticed a lot of dead bees on the pavement of the north London suburb I was walking around. I certainly don’t remember that from my youth.

  5. John Zelnicker

    I put out a couple of pounds of wildflower seeds in my front yard a few months ago. Although the results have been spotty, the pollinators love them. I’ve got all kinds of bees and butterflies enjoying the flowers.

    Next year, I’m putting out much more and doing it much earlier in the season, right after the last freeze which is usually in February, or perhaps early March. It’s my anti-lawn project, and it also saves me the trouble of mowing.

    As I stand on my front porch and look at my neighbors’ tightly-trimmed lawns, I wonder why they don’t just use Astroturf and eliminate the need to mow their lawn every week. It wouldn’t look any different than it does now.

    I also plan to devote another section of my yard to milkweed for the monarch butterflies since I’m in the middle of their migration flight path to Mexico to breed.

    The only pest I’ve had to deal with, so far, are aphids on my loquat trees. I use a mixture of vinegar and dish soap, applied to the leaves from a spray bottle, to control them.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Mowing a lawn shows you care enough to mow it. How would the homeowner show he/she cares with astroturf?

  6. Hepativore

    I think people also forget that some forms of pesticides are a necessary evil. This is because the pests and insects that attack many fruits and vegetables are often so unrelenting that they will literally leave you with nothing unless you use something.

    As a case in point, cucumber beetles in most of my state (Minnesota) are voracious and will attack almost anything in the melon or squash family that you try planting, and to make matters worse, they usually carry a bacterial disease that will kill your plants mid-summer before you get a single melon or squash. I have tried every non-pesticide method of control and management but nothing else seems to work except for the judicious application of Permethrin-based product such as Vegetables Plus. Since most plants that people plant in their garden have been domesticated by humans a long time ago, they would not survive without human aid from time to time.

    Also, even “organic” farmers use “natural” pesticides such as nicotine solution that are often just as bad if not worse than their synthetic counterparts since many of these natural compounds are not specially designed to break down after a certain period of time nor with keeping toxicity to humans and other animals in mind. We have to avoid perpetuating the naturalistic fallacy.

    1. Cocomaan

      Permethrin is awful for watersheds and you shouldn’t use it. Period.

      As a case in point, cucumber beetles in most of my state (Minnesota) are voracious and will attack almost anything in the melon or squash family that you try planting, and to make matters worse, they usually carry a bacterial disease that will kill your plants mid-summer before you get a single melon or squash.

      I had this problem until I improved the growing conditions for the garden: improved soil, got them more light, etc. if the plants are already stressed from bad growing conditions you will see problems in your squash.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Pesticides are not necessary in a suburban garden at the very least. Such a garden is small enough that one can control insects by craft and by detailed hand work. Farming may well be different, but a garden is not a farm.

      I remember one year long ago my area had a plague of japanese beetles. I remember our whole complex zapped with cancer juice to control the japanese beetles. But those of us who wanted the Bacillus beetlekillus spores spread our little zone of lawn could opt for that instead. So I got that, so at least I had a chem “free” zone right around my physical dwelling unit and little garden.

      Ever since then, we have had a few japanese beetles per year, too few to worry about. One year we had enough that I killed them by squeezing drops of oil on them with a squeeze bottle. J. beetles have the same waxy cuticle covering as most insects. It is water-repellent but oil-wetable. Any drop of oil spreads right out on the japanese beetle and two more drops are enough to smother it dead within seconds. What kind of oil? Extra virgin olive oil, because I care enough to use the very best.

      I grow a SoutherMountain heirloom variety of corn called hickory cane corn, in my own amateur way. I am trying to get it more Michigan adapted. Parts of the stalks have a fur of tiny downward pointing hairs, enough to block any aphid’s attempt to climb up. I suspect they could even exclude the aphid-herding ants. The ears themselves grow tight-wrapped shucks projecting 2-3 inches beyond the tip of the ears themselves . . . too far for corn earworms or other ear-attacking egg-layer moths to be able to physically lay eggs on the ear-tip. Again physical exclusion making a pesticide unecessary.

  7. The Rev Kev

    Strange to think that when Rachel Carlson came out with her book “Silent Spring” in 1962, that what she was talking about was how birdsong will be missing from woods. You wonder if she had not died so young at the age of 56, that she might have written a follow up book about how there will be the sounds of insects missing too one day. Perhaps that is why Dave Goulson named his book “Silent Earth” – as a homage to Carlson’s ground-breaking work.

    I see mention in this article to the UK’s Bumblebee Conservation Trust. This was founded by Dave Goulson and I can guess why he used that name. From Wikipedia-

    ‘Goulson has said that when he was born in 1965, the British short-haired bumblebee was quite widespread, but he never managed to see one before they became extinct in the UK. In his book A Sting in the Tale (2013), he described a causal link between World War II and the decline of the bee as a result of intensive farming, pesticide use, and the resultant habitat loss, initially caused by a need to increase wartime food production. “The shorthaired bumblebee died out because its habitats were swept away,” he wrote. “It wasn’t all that fussy, it just needed enough flowers to feed on: no flowers equals no bees.” ‘

  8. Sunoia

    I am in a small town in Oklahoma for a few weeks, a farming community. There are very few insects here.

  9. Eustachedesaintpierre

    Losing 50% of hedgerows since WW2 doesn’t exactly help either.

    We don’t see many bumble bees now, mainly Carder bees who have little burrows at the base of hedges, who often get caught out by early spring weather being followed by cold snaps. Herself would often walk the lawn with a sugar & water solution to give to stranded bees which had some positive results – as far as she could tell anyhow.

    Back when I was around 11 on a school field trip on Salisbury Plain, it was explained to us how to age a hedgerow, by counting how many species grew over a certain length. The one we applied the method too was born sometime in the 16th century. Just around the corner from my little place is a small organic farm that has planted a meadow with annuals such as cornflower, poppies, large daisies etc which is very beautiful & I bet thriving with insect life.

    I regret to say that I sprayed a lot of glyphosate around when I was a landscape gardener working on maintenance jobs for factories.

  10. raven

    Here in southern New England, pesticide companies offer yard spraying to kill mosquitoes and ticks. No doubt they’re killing lots of other insect too. A growing business. It’s slowing becoming an insect desert here.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      As global warming spreads the lyme disease ticks and then other disease ticks further into New England, spraying cancer juice to “kill the ticks” will be a growth industry.

      It might be worthwhile looking into physical tick-exclusion methods, and anti-tick physical landscape management methods ( designated pathways too wide for ticks to leap onto you from grass stems on either side of the pathway), etc. Also, foster more opossums, who eat thousands of ticks in Spring and early Summer. ( What kind of “permaculture planting” could keep the most possible possums alive all through the winter so that the most possible hungry possums would survive into Spring to go hunting ticks?)

  11. Phil in KC

    This year I finally pulled the plug on lawn chemicals. Except for some springtime fertilizer, nothing, nada, not even a grub treatment. Voila! More insects, including my favorites, green grasshoppers and daddy longlegs. I have more bees and more kinds of bees. I have planted milkweed and plan to cultivate more. A few more butterflies this year than last, but not too many, mainly Admirals. Alas, a few more weeds, too. But I have reverted to the solution that was common when I was a child: pulling weeds by hand. Decent exercise, that.

    For fleas and tic protection I use Deep Woods Off or Cutter bug sprays on me instead of blasting the yard with pesticides.

    My long term program is to convert my “perfect” lawn into what some botanists are now calling a “bee lawn,” a yard that is friendly and inviting to our first-rank pollinators. The University of Minnesota Bee Lab has specific instructions on how to convert your lawn. A quick search reveals that bee lawn seed mixes are now commerically available. if it work in Minnesota, it should work fairly well in northern Missouri with a few tweaks. U of Missouri is also working in this vein.

    I should think there would be a business opportunity in this for someone younger and more vigorous than me. When I mentioned this idea to the owner of a large lawn-care company in my town, I got a blank stare. That was a tell. This owner isn’t in touch with what’s happening!

    Thanks for this post. Saving birds and insects is important. Plus, we can only guess the long-term effects of living in an environment filled with pesticides, herbicides, and the like. My guess is it isn’t good for us humans.

  12. Bob

    It is often heard that the chemical buffet is needed to ensure continued crop yields.

    “You can make a pretty strong argument that we probably do need pesticides if we’re going to feed everybody.”

    Is it possible to show the actual numbers ? What is the actual cost benefit ratio for the common commercial systems ? And perhaps we should ask how it was possible to farm / garden in the pre chemical pesticide / herbicide days ?

    Gardeners here are becoming leery of a broad leaf control sprayed on grazing fields and hay fields -apparently there is carry over to straw / manure used by gardeners for compost.

    There is plenty of carry over that at best is tainting our food supply if not poisoning us all.

  13. James Simpson

    I’ve not seen anything here or on any other site about this problem which convinces me there is a straightforward solution. Industrial agriculture was a logical movement beyond previous forms and one which, at enormous cost to the natural world, eventually eliminated the periodic famines which killed vast numbers of people throughout history, a form of agriculture which drove the huge increase in human population. Now what do we do? If we return to previous forms of growing food, there is a likelihood that famines will come back, too. But how else do we feed ourselves? The Deep Green movement insists that we must vastly reduce the population but is coy about the suffering that will involve. I’ve no answer.

    1. Eben

      Seems human populations in many areas is in decline. My feeling is the Deep Green movement insists we pay attention to the effects of our actions and adjust accordingly. The blanket use of pesticides is unsustainable and strict adherence to convenience are worth inspecting.The fossil fuel techno/bio seed conspiracy does not automatically self regulate. Science and democracy are our best hopes.

  14. drumlin woodchuckles

    It was wise of Professor Goulson to avoid the argument over whether pesticides are necessary in farming or not, and narrow his focus on deleting pesticides from those areas which are not working commercial farmland and which therefor cost no food-grower a living if pesticides are banned from them. A call to ban pesticides from gardens, yards, verges, etc. is easier to rally people to without throwing “and farms” into the mix.

    And if UK adopts this approach, such “no pesticide zones” will be little refuges of survival for many insects against the day when farmland itself may become chem-safe enough for insects to re-enter.

    Now .. . are pesticides necessary in farming? There are a few ( few enough to know each of their names) farmers who say they are growing professional amounts of food year in year out without using pesticides. So far I haven’t read about any of them being caught using pesticides secretly.

    There is a ” theory of plant-nutrition-based insect resistance” which i think has been shown just as strong and useful as the “theory of universal gravitation” or the “theory of relativity” and so forth. What is that theory? That plants grown in bioactive soil with plant-nutrition-meaningful amounts of all the minerals plants need to live and function, in correct-as-determined-by-experiment balance and ratio with eachother . . . are more resistant to insect attack and are often “invisible in plain sight” to plant-eater insects.

    Apparently, many kinds of pest insects prefer plant-based food with simple peptides in it, rather than with complete proteins which the insects would have to do metabolic work to digest down into absorbable peptides. Completely nourished plants can turn their own self-made peptides into proteins as soon as they make them. Incompletely nourished plants can’t do that. The plants which are too unhealthy to do that often also emit small amounts of ammonia and/or alcohol, and are often a little hotter than fully healthy plants. Insects can detect these trace chemical emissions from unhealthy plants, and follow the traces back to their souce, which the insects then attack and eat.

    Many books, articles, etc. have been written about this in Acres USA, or are available as books from the
    Acres USA bookstore. And some of the names and some articles by those names can be found online.
    Names such as Lee Fryer, Phillip Callahan, Charles Walters Jr. himself, William Albrecht, etc. and so on.

Comments are closed.