Alan Yuhas reports for The Guardian:
Huddled around their hives, beekeepers around the south-eastern US fear a new threat to their livelihood: a fine mist beaded with neurotoxin, sprayed from the sky by officials at war with mosquitos that carry the Zika virus.
Earlier this week, South Carolina beekeepers found millions of dead honey bees carpeting their apiaries, killed by an insecticide. Videoposted by a beekeeper to Facebook showed thousands of dead insects heaped around hives, while a few survivors struggled to move the bodies of fellow bees.
“This is what’s left of Flowertown Bees,” a despondent keeper says in the video. Company co-owner Juanita Stanley told the Associated Press her farm looked “like it’s been nuked” and estimated 2.5 million bees were killed.
In another Facebook post, South Carolina hobbyist Andrew Macke wrote that he had lost “thousands upon thousands of bees” and that the spraying had devastated his business. “Have we lost our mind,” he wrote, “spraying poison from the sky?”
Around the US, bees and other pollinators contribute an estimated $29bn to farm income. Clemson University’s department of pesticide regulation is investigating the incident.
The program head, Dr Mike Weyman, said that though South Carolina has strict rules about protecting pollinators, county officials were using the neurotoxin, Naled, under a clause exempting them in a “clear and public health crisis”.
More than three dozen people have tested positive for Zika in South Carolina, Weyman said, and officials have made it a priority to prevent local transmissions through the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
“We don’t want one of those mosquitos having a blood meal on an individual we’ve already determined was positive,” Weyman said. “We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that [Zika] is up and running in Florida. If it gets in the mosquito population ... you’re playing catch-up.”
South Carolina’s protocol for Zika infections is to alert local officials of a carrier’s residence, which they “consider a ground zero”, Weyman said. Local authorities then target the local mosquitos in a 200-yard radius, in this case with spray.
Flowertown Bees was listed on local records but not in the state’s voluntary registry of pollinators, according to Weyman. “We know where the big ones are,” he said, “but as you can see this was a fairly large operation and almost right smack dab in the spray path.”
Despite the investigation into what went wrong, the killing has beekeepers worried about what might happen next.
“Everyone that I’ve spoken to has major concerns about the effect” of insecticides, said Jennifer Holmes, vice-president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association and the co-owner of a company with about 300 colonies north of West Palm Beach.
Comparing bees to cows or other pillars of agriculture, she said: “If there was a regulation that allowed some spraying that would kill half of your livestock overnight, how would recover your livelihood?”
Holmes has spent the last week working with beekeepers and state and county officials. The keepers, she said, fear “not just the immediate die-offs, but possible genetic die-offs or sterility” for bees that survive the first sprays.
“We understand the serious threat of possible disease,” she said, “but we also have to maintain our agricultural livelihood.”
A Louisiana beekeeper, who requested anonymity because of work with county officials, added another set of concerns: careless mixture and application of chemicals, mismanagement and long-term imbalance in the ecosystem.
“In order to ‘fix’ the problem,” the keeper said, “it will all have to begin with re-establishing healthy soil that will nourish a healthy plant population that will nourish healthy populations, whether it be the honeybee or a deer.
“Chemical application of any sort creates an imbalance from the ground up, even if a simple mosquito is the target.”
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