Honey bees have generated a lot of buzz in the last decade since the first known case of colony collapse disorder was reported in 2006.
Another danger to this already stressed pollinator surfaced in the news recently when The Washington Post reported that Dorchester County, S.C., inadvertently killed more than 2 million bees while spraying for mosquitoes.
The event made national news and has garnered attention throughout the United States, as well as highlighted the dangers of mass pesticide spraying.
Extermination of bees
Dorchester County announced in an early-morning release Aug. 26 that it would spray aerially an insecticide called Naled between 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. Aug. 28 in certain areas to combat disease-carrying mosquitoes.
While South Carolina has strict policies protecting pollinators, it also has an exception clause if there is a public health crisis, according to an article published by the Guardian.
Since mosquitoes can cause serious health risks — South Carolina has had several dozen confirmed cases of Zika this summer, though all have been travel-related, according to the Post — officials decided to “target areas where the level of demand cannot be addressed with ground spraying and larval control alone,” an 8 p.m. Aug. 27 release states.
The results proved disastrous for some professional and hobby beekeepers in the area when more than 2.5 million bees were reported to have died due to exposure to the aerial insecticide.
“We have thousands and thousands of bees dead,” hobby beekeeper Andrew Macke told The Charlotte Post and Courier. “All around our pool deck and our driveway, just everywhere.”
The insecticide used to spray in Dorchester County is somewhat controversial.
It is classified as an organophosphate. In insecticides, organophosphates are nerve agents that irreversibly inactivate the acetylcholinesterase enzyme that is necessary for nerve function in insects and humans, as well as many other animals.
Naled is listed as extremely toxic to bees, birds and at-risk animals, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documents produced when the EPA re-registered Naled for public use in 2006.
Approximately 1 million pounds of the insecticide are used annually in the U.S., with 70 percent being used to control the adult mosquito population. The other 30 percent is used in agriculture.
However, there is some debate regarding the safety of Naled even for humans. When the U.S. Centers for Desease Control and Prevention similarly tried to spray the insecticide over Puerto Rico, residents protested due to the perceived health risks.
Naled degrades into a carcinogen, environmental biologist Elvia Melendez-Ackerman told The Miami New Times.
Multiple studies have shown that overuse of organophosphates can lead to neurological disorders in unborn children when pregnant women are exposed and even death in some agricultural workers. This latter phenomenon occurs mostly in developing countries, though.
Reaction to event
People all across the world reacted to the incident in South Carolina, leaving comments on online articles to express their rage.
In a matter of days, 35 one-stars reviews were left on a Dorchester County Facebook page, all citing the bee-killing incident.
The county apologized to local beekeepers, saying they were aware of impact of the losses.
“I am not pleased that so many bees were killed,” County Administrator Jason Ward told the Post and Courier.
However, not everyone thought the incident was as extreme as reports made it appear.
Shannon Palus, who writes for Slate, wrote an article saying it was “weird” to see outrage normally reserved for “personable” animals being expressed for bees.
She also stated that “the main tragedy” is not ecological and that “you don’t have to worry about the bees right now.”
While she is right that the bees being reported on were not wild bees, Palus seems to miss two main points.
It is not easy to replace any hive, commercial or otherwise.
But most important, any wild bees in the area suffered from the same exposure — and therefore the same fate — as the commercial bees.
(I won’t even get into the somewhat flippant attitude that was used regarding colony collapse disorder, which — while slowing — has not disappeared.)
Again the internet exploded, most taking issue with Palus’ stance that because they were “commercial,” bees they were not as important as wild bees.
One commenter pointed out that other pollinators such as butterflies were exposed, too, as well as other beneficial life forms such as birds and spiders.
Local officials talk insecticide
Neither the City of Arkansas City nor Cowley County use insecticides at all.
“The only spraying we (Cowley County) do is for noxious weeds,” Cowley County Public Works and Engineering office manager Crystal Merz said in an email.
Similarly, the City of Arkansas City no longer spays for mosquitoes because BioMist — the product it was using previously — wasn’t effective enough to merit the cost, according to an email from City of Arkansas City Public Information Officer and Special Projects Coordinator Andrew Lawson.
The insecticide also was known to pose some health risks to both humans and wildlife. It was “extremely toxic” to fish and invertebrates, as well as bees exposed to “blooming crops or weeds” that have been treated, according to the BioMist information sheet.
“The city treatment efforts now are focused more on larval control, using pesticide ‘donuts’ or ‘briquettes’ to kill larvae in pools of standing water,” Lawson said.
Not everyone locally is against insecticide use, however.
Chaplin Nature Center naturalist Shawn Silliman says it’s all about using the products correctly.
“I wouldn’t say I’m against agricultural spraying — it’s just a matter of doing the application correctly, at the right levels and during the right time of year,” Silliman said. “A lot of that stuff will break down eventually.”
“It will have an effect on any type of pollinator, especially if it’s a really recent spray,” he added. “How bad of an impact? I probably going to have to leave that one up to the scientists.”