Malathion and Pesky Bugs

There’s a pesticide causing grief among some hobby beekeepers. No, not the neonicotinoids again (though they’re not without blame). This is an “older” poison. If you are a new beekeeper, you might not have heard of malathion.

canada mosquito flagMalathion is deadly stuff.  Not so much to humans. For us, it’s relatively safe, though farm kids are cautioned not to eat it. Because malathion can be handled fairly carelessly, it was used a lot on farms in past decades. Insects are not so lucky. Malathion wiped out billions of honey bees over the years. Of course, it sometimes saved farm crops from hungry bugs and beetles and it did a number on malaria – for a while. But we still have nasty bugs and malaria, so the effects of malathion are ephemeral. Except where it has killed bees and put beekeepers out of business. Then the effects are permanent.

Until February, beekeeping wasn’t legal in Manitoba’s capital city. Then city council allowed kept bees (wild ones were already there and those bees generally ignored the council rules). Hives began sprouting on rooftops and in backyards. Unfortunately, in an effort to control Winnipeg’s famous mosquito population, malathion spraying was set to begin.  Some beekeepers are concerned that their city’s use of malathion to fog out mosquitoes will kill the newly established beehives.

Downtown Winnipeg - lots of rooftop beeyards available.

Downtown Winnipeg – lots of rooftop bee yards available.

We all know that mosquitoes are lovely blood-sucking parasites that spread Zika and West Nile viruses when they don’t have their mouths full of malaria. I’m not a fan of malaria or mosquitoes. But one of the few truisms I’ve appreciated in my days of keeping bees out here on the semi-arid western prairie is that when mosquitoes are especially bad, honey bees do especially well. We’ve had seasons without mosquitoes pestering us – those were poor years for honey crops. The common link, of course, is water. Mosquitoes magically appear when water puddles abound. In our dry climate here in western Canada, water puddles are also good for honey crops. This year started out really dry in Winnipeg, but now the water puddles are growing.

So, where does that leave Winnipeg beekeepers? The city is putting all registered urban hives on a no spray list. That will help the human-owned hives, but all those naturally occurring wild bees should think about quickly registering their homes, too.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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