Millions of bees are dead following aerial spray of the neurotoxin Naled. The spray was released Sunday morning between 6:30 and 8:30 by a South Carolina county trying to control mosquitoes which may or may not spread Zika and West Nile viruses in the area. Unfortunately, it was hot, bees were bearded out, and many were in the air when the spray planes circled and repeatedly dropped the poison. One witness said she saw the pesticide plane make three separate passes over her farm. She described the aftermath near her bees as being as quiet as a morgue after the bees had “been nuked”.
Dorchester County says they warned beekeepers with a newspaper ad two days earlier (who reads newspapers anymore?) and with a Facebook posting one day earlier (Facebook?). Beekeepers said they hadn’t heard or seen the warnings. Even with warnings, precautions are difficult to implement. Hives need screened so bees are stuck inside, then they need cooled so they don’t die of heat exhaustion.
Moving hives is an option, but beekeepers need access to emergency temporary safe locations and need trucks and equipment for moving their hives. Again, that’s not easy to pull off on short notice. Some places register beekeepers and send them direct alerts when pesticides are imminent so counter-measures can be attempted, but I suppose that Dorchester County, South Carolina, is not one of those places.
The South Carolina experience reminds us how vulnerable honey bees are to conventional pesticides. Naled was invented in 1959 and kills immediately on contact. The EPA says it is quick-acting, kills immediately on contact by torturing animals (including people) with a complete nervous system shutdown. Beekeepers used to see a lot of this sort of poisoning and death in the 70s and 80s, with entire bee yards wiped out. Commercial beekeepers here in Alberta, Canada, have told me repeatedly that they have not seen such losses from neonicotinoids. Neonics are used ubiquitously on canola in western Canada. They say that farmers used to use millions of tonnes of organophosphates like Naled to control canola-consuming beetles. Before neonics, pesticide bee kills in western Canada were common. This does not absolve neonicotinoids of all guilt in bee deaths elsewhere, but it does indicate why large-scale prairie beekeepers don’t want neonics banned.