The Coming Bee-pocalypse? Collateral Damage of Mosquito Spraying

Everyone should support the humble bee. It's thought that every third bite of food we take is there because of pollination by bees. Honey, when raw and unprocessed, may even be used as a wound covering for burns and other injuries due to its antibiotic effect. Yet bees are in big trouble, and we still don't know all the reasons why. In the last decade, bee colonies are experiencing die-offs that have taken out a significant percentage of all the colonies in various areas.


Our growing concerns about the Zika, West Nile and other mosquito-borne viruses have led to the institution of mosquito control programs in many towns and cities in the U.S. One effective means of eliminating adult mosquitoes is aerial spraying with an organophosphate pesticide called Naled. Unfortunately, there's been collateral damage to many beneficial insects, including the honeybee.

A recent series of aerial sprayings in Dorchester County, South Carolina, has killed millions of bees. Although relatively short acting, Naled is lethal to bees and daytime spraying has decimated the population of these important pollinators. The chemical is not meant to be used between sunrise and sunset, when bees are out foraging. The inappropriate timing of pesticide spraying has had the effect of killing off the colonies of many Dorchester County beekeepers. Dead worker bees were found in large clumps at hive entrances—one beekeeper lost 46 hives.

Although the county claims it gave advisories of the spraying via email, many local beekeepers say they didn't receive the notice. Mosquito control is normally conducted by trucks in the county, and the aerial sprayings came as a (very bad) surprise.

In a CNN interview, one bee farm owner was quoted as saying, "when they sprayed by trucks, they told me in advance, and we talked about it so I could protect my bees....But nobody called me about the aerial spraying; nobody told me at all."

With some warning, the beekeepers could have shielded the hives and the bees' food and water.

All this is happening at a time when another pesticide used to control pests is devastating bee populations in other areas. 

Death by Insecticide

Some time ago, customers at an Oregon Target store arrived to see tens of thousands of dead and dying bumblebees in the parking lot.

An investigation revealed that, the day before, a pest-control company had sprayed insecticide on surrounding trees due to an aphid infestation. Of course, bees don't read warning signs and 300 colonies were destroyed. That's a lot of lost pollinators.

The pesticide used is known as a neonicotinoid, also called a neonic. It was developed by Bayer a decade ago and differs from other pesticides, like organophosphates, in that they clear from the air a lot slower.

Many crops are treated with neonics. Once sprayed on the plant, it is absorbed by the plant's vascular system. This makes it poisonous to bugs that eat the leaves, nectar or pollen. Sometimes the soil is treated as well, with the same absorption effect that makes it deadly to pests. Unfortunately, it kills off the good insects as well.

When a Bayer neonic doesn't actually kill a bee, the poison can still damage the immune system and even affect the bee's ability to navigate. The afflicted bee becomes lost and can't find the hive. This phenomenon is sometimes known as Colony Collapse Disorder, and it appears as if the bees have magically disappeared. Although not proven to be the cause in all cases, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to implicate the pesticide as a factor.

Now, a new study indicates that neonics harm drone bees' sperm, killing close to 40 percent and causing a condition called "queen failure." A queen failure is when queen bees fail to have live offspring. A queen failure is a hive failure.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons a hive can fail. Parasites, disease and many other factors may come into play. But given the stress that our nation's bee population is already under, what will be the straw that breaks the camel's back?

To be banned, a chemical has to be proven dangerous in the U.S. Although Bayer is a German company, you might be interested to know that you can't use neonics in Germany or anywhere in the European Union. Too dangerous. In the U.S., however, neonics are widely used. And the bees pay the price.

Some areas in the U.S. are taking action. The city of Eugene, Oregon has forbidden the use of this pesticide, and others should follow. We need to encourage others to follow their lead and urge action by the federal government to ban neonicotinoids and mandate wiser use of organophosphates like Naled.

Our bees are an important natural resource, not just for beekeepers, but for farmers and for all Americans. Big agriculture's chemical branch is a powerful political force, but if an entire continent like Europe can outlaw neonics, why can't we?

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