We Can Fight Zika without Harming Bees

As officials work to safeguard us from the mosquito-borne virus, they must take every precaution to minimize collateral damage.

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After health officials confirmed four travel-related cases of the dangerous Zika virus in South Carolina’s Dorchester County last month, authorities moved quickly to reduce the risk that mosquitoes might spread the disease. Within days, aircraft sprayed the area northwest of Charleston with naled, a widely used insecticide that drifts through the air and kills mosquitoes on contact.

Our hearts go out to the victims of the awful Zika virus, which can cause abnormal brain development in babies exposed in the womb, and to authorities grappling with a serious public health threat and trying to find the best way to protect us all.

Mosquito abatement is an important piece of more comprehensive efforts to do just that, and we’ve used naled in this country for decades to control mosquito populations.

At the same time, when using any insecticide it’s important to heed warnings and take every precaution to make sure we minimize the potential for collateral damage—to humans and all other living things.

Unfortunately, in South Carolina, officials did not follow a standard recommendation that naled be sprayed at night to reduce its impact on bees. As a result, millions of honey bees were killed in a mass accidental die off of vital pollinators that left beekeepers like Juanita Stanley saddened and stunned.

“Honestly, I just fell to the ground. I was crying, and I couldn’t quit crying, and I was throwing up,” Stanley told The New York Times, describing her reaction to finding bees by the thousands dead on her grounds.

“It’s not about the honey, it’s about saving the bees,” Stanley told the Post & Courier of Charleston. “I am trying to do the opposite of what just happened. They are in a sanctuary where I can protect them, and now they’re destroyed.”

If ever there were a moment to learn from our mistakes, this is it.

Dorchester County officials informed local media of plans to spray the insecticide, and reached out directly through social media. Unfortunately, not everyone got the word: Stanley said she and other beekeepers could have kept most of their bees in hives if they had known the spraying was to occur.

Beyond that, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that “applications [of pesticides] made between dusk and dawn, while bees are not typically foraging, can reduce exposure to honey bees.” Instead, the aerial spraying in Dorchester County took place between 6:30 and 8:30 on the morning of August 28, when bees were out of their hives in search of nectar and pollen. Dorchester officials have apologized for killing the bees and set up a hotline for beekeepers seeking assistance.

Bees are a vital part of the larger natural system that supports all life. Apart from producing honey, bees pollinate 75 percent of the nuts, fruits and vegetables we eat—from apples and oranges to broccoli, onions, almonds, and cherries—as well as important pasture crops like alfalfa and clover.

And bees face a growing crisis. Between April 2015 and April 2016, beekeepers nationwide lost 44 percent of their honeybee colonies, 3.5 percent more than in the previous year. Some losses are a natural response to cold winter weather. We’re losing bees, though, at an alarming rate.

Pesticides are part of the problem, along with the spread of viruses and bacteria that cause disorders and disease. Bees are also losing precious habitat to development. Natural pests like mites and fungus are taking a rising toll. And climate change means plants that bees depend on for pollen and nectar sometimes bloom in winter, while bees lie dormant in their hives.

All of these factors, acting together, are putting tremendous pressure on bees. We must do a better job of protecting these insects and the habitat they need to survive.

We must take prudent precautions, for that matter, to protect our people against the dangers of insecticides, even as the Zika virus requires more assertive mosquito control.

Naled has been used for decades in this country. It is routinely sprayed over some 16 million acres across the United States and has been used after hurricanes and floods, particularly in the South.

While typically applied in low doses for mosquito abatement, naled can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and muscle tremors in humans. People, and especially pregnant women, babies, and children, should avoid contact with naled and its residue—and indeed all insecticides—whenever possible.

That means staying inside or away from areas where pesticides are being applied. It means shutting windows and doors and turning off air-conditioning to minimize pesticides coming indoors. It means taking children’s toys inside, washing down items left outside, and wiping off outdoor furniture and grills before using them again after pesticides have been applied. And it means bringing pets, their food, and related items indoors (wherever possible) while spraying occurs, to protect our animal friends from harm.

Insecticides, moreover, are only one part of any comprehensive mosquito control effort, and there are things each of us can do to help. It’s important, for example, to prevent water from collecting around our homes and yards, because mosquitoes lay eggs in standing water that gathers in things like buckets, planters, old tires, and empty garbage cans. Use foggers or sprays to kill mosquitoes that gather in the garage, beneath patio furniture, or under the deck.

And minimize exposure to mosquitoes by using insect repellent when going outside where mosquitoes might be present, covering up with long sleeves and long pants, and patching tears in screens on windows and doors to help keep mosquitoes from coming inside.

Finally, we have to reckon with a big part of the problem: climate change. Warmer, moister weather has substantially lengthened the mosquito breeding season across much of the country, by a month or longer in some regions. In the well-watered low country around Charleston, for instance, mosquitoes are now active 219 days out of the year.

We need to protect future generations from the growing dangers of mosquito-borne diseases like Zika and the long list of other climate change ills, from rising seas and widening deserts to raging storms, wildfires, and more. That means cutting our dependence on the oil, gas, and coal that is driving climate chaos and threatening our health.

Public officials working to protect us all from Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases deserve out support. And it’s important that we take prudent precautions to minimize the hazard and harm protective measures might inadvertently present to humans, bees and all living things. We can do both—and we can do both right.

About the Authors

Rhea Suh

Former President

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