Monday, September 12, 2016

Honeybees, Zika, and Chemical Warfare Part 1

A few weeks ago I heard about a wildlife disaster on a rather small, small in the sense that it only dealt with one county in South Carolina scale, but with big implications.

I first heard about the event in early September. A news broadcast flashed across my Facebook feed, with a title describing a mass killing of honeybees in South Carolina. Though I couldn’t read the post at the time, I made a mental note to go back and search. When I did several days later, I found an article written by Adam Blinder of The New York Times, titled “Aimed at Zika Mosquitos, Spray Kills Millions of Honeybees.” You can find a link to this particular article here:

Before I can go into detail about the issues presented in this case I want to first give you a synopsis of what happened.

The media has done a fantastic job highlighting the threat that is the Zika virus, a new pathogen spread through the bites of infected mosquitos. The most alarming aspect of this virus is that it can cause severe developmental effects in unborn children. The most notable of these is a condition called microcephaly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “Microcephaly is a condition where a baby’s head is much smaller than expected. During pregnancy, a baby’s head grows because the baby’s brain grows. Microcephaly can occur because a baby’s brain has not developed properly during pregnancy or has stopped growing after birth, which results in a smaller head size.

If you are interested in learning more, I suggest following this link to their page on the disorder:

Understandably so, many municipalities across the United States are on high alert, keeping tabs on the spread of this disease. In many of the active cases in the United States, those who are infected seemed to have contracted the virus while overseas. However, Florida has recently discovered that local mosquito populations have tested positive for the virus (Belluck, Alvarez, & McNeil Jr (2016). Needless to say, this has caused fears to reach even greater heights. To combat the spread of these new locally grown mosquitoes, many municipalities have rolled out aggressive spraying plans in an attempt to stop the disease before it gets out of hand. This is where our story begins.

The news began to hit that the town of Summerville in South Carolina had an environmental crisis on its hands. The article by Mr. Blinder followed the plight of a local beekeeper named Juanita Stanley. Ms. Stanly’s apiary, a place where bees and beehives are kept, was a disaster area. All around her were the bodies of her dead bees. She estimated that the death toll of the spraying event had been two million honeybees… and that was just from her business (Blinder, 2016).

To put that in perspective, an average worker bee produced about 0.8 gram of honey on a daily basis (“Bee Trivia”). The average lifespan of a worker bee is about 40 days (“Life in the Hive). That’s 32 grams of honey in one bee’s life time. Multiply that by two million bees and you have a whopping 64,000,000 grams of honey or 141,096 pounds of honey. At about $6 a pound (depending on the month) (“Unit Honey Prices by Month-Retail”) that’s roughly $846,576 in lost revenue for just this one commercial operation. The article goes on to state that many other commercial operations, as well as hobbyists, suffered tremendously from this one incident.

The spray operation was organized by officials in Dorchester County. The weapon of choice for this campaign was Naled, an organophosphate insecticide (but more on that later). The article suggested that this was the first time the county had used aerial spraying, stating that it is usually done from trucks (Blinder, 2016). As in true government fashion, when they began to learn what was happening they released a statement to the press in which they said they had “underestimated” how many beekeeping operations were going on in the 15 square mile spray zone (Blinder, 2016). They also mentioned that they had used social media and local press outlets to spread the word about the spraying. Obviously, some didn’t get the message.

The most troubling point of this article, and a point which I will focus on in later instalments of this post, came from an interview with Dr. Dennis van Englesdorp. Dr. van Englesdorp his is a bee researcher at the University of Maryland. Dr. van Englesdorp points out that events such as this often happen when we are under stress and forget to use the best practices available to us.  He warned that, “If you are killing honeybees, you’re killing a lot of other non-honeybee pollinators, too, and those populations could take a long time to recover (Blinder, 2016).”

Next time, what is Naled anyway?

Cited Sources:

(2016, July) Facts about Microcephaly. Retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Bee Trivia. Retrieved from The Canadian Honey Council:

Belluck, P., Alvarez, L., & McNeil, D. (2016) 4 Zika Cases in Florida Were Likely Spread by Local Mosquitoes, C.D.C says. The New York Times.

Blinder, A. (2016) Aimed at Zika Mosquitoes, Spray Kills Millions of Honeybees. The New York Times.

Life in the Hive. Retrieved from the British Beekeepers Association:

Unit Honey Prices by Month-Retail. Retrieved from the National Honey Board:

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