When Dianna Y. Bailey walked out to check on her zinnias in mid-July, she was devastated to find a number of dead honeybees on her flowers.
“I was heartbroken.” she said. “The bees were flying and on my flowers, and then they came by and sprayed and [the bees] just became paralyzed. They were there for about two days and then they just fell off. It was devastating,” she said.
As a resident of City of Williamsburg, she lives in an area that is sprayed once a week with an adulticide called Duet, said Public Works Director Dan Clayton. The program is designed to reduce the mosquito population in the area to prevent the spread of disease but also, Clayton said, because the insects are a nuisance.
The trucks only spray after dusk or overnight, when the bees are not active, Clayton said. This schedule is supposed to help keep the bees safe from the chemicals, but local beekeepers aren’t convinced.
“Mosquito spraying is probably one of the biggest killers for honey bees,” said Andy Westrich, president of the Colonial Beekeepers Association. “These pesticides are designed to last for a long time, usually weeks at a time, and so that means the bees are still coming in contact. There’s a really good chance that when they touch that pesticide that they’re going to bring that back to the colony, and eventually it’s going to build up.”
The spray that Williamsburg uses is Duet, which is manufactured by Clarke, a company that designs environmentally responsible solutions to mosquitoes, according the company’s website.
Duet contains chemicals such as prallethrin and sumithrin. While Duet is one of the more environmentally friendly mosquito sprays on the market, Clayton said, local residents are still worried about its effects.
“I’m not a chemist, but if you watch an insect die after that spray just being in the air, it can’t possibly be good for humans and other living things either,” said Maureen Anderson, owner of Tasha’s Own.
Anderson has been raising her own bees for over a decade and teaches beekeeping classes in Williamsburg. She has witnessed the effects the mosquito sprays can have on bee populations and voiced concern about what the mosquito spray does to local honey that is being consumed.
“I live in James City County, so I don’t have honey from bees that are around the spray. But if you were buying honey from bees that are gathering nectar from plants sprayed by these chemicals, would you want to eat it?”
James City County stopped spraying for mosquitoes in 2009, said Grace Boone, the county’s director of general services.
“This change reflects cost considerations during challenging economic times and a recognition that pesticide applications have too little real control of mosquito activity overall,” Boone said.
Clayton, however, said that Williamsburg’s program has helped reduce the city’s mosquito population.
Reducing the number of mosquitoes can have far-reaching effects across the entire ecological community in an area, Westrich said. Honeybees are often used as an indicator of the healthiness of the surrounding environment because they are one of the few insects that, when placed in one particular area, will remain there until they no longer can.
“I would equate the honeybee to a canary in a coal mine,” he said. “Coal miners know when it’s unsafe when they send a canary in and it dies. If we’re seeing honeybees leave an area, we know something is wrong.”
While Williamsburg’s program offers residents the option to opt out of spraying, it still means that surrounding areas are affected — areas where bees travel and spread the spray to other bees, Anderson said. Typically bees will forage about 2 to 5 miles from their hives, which means that if the spray has been used at all in that range, the bees can carry those chemicals back to their homes.
But for residents like Bailey, who grows her own figs and other fruits, just seeing the bees paralyzed from the spray is bad enough.
“I just need it to stop, I’m not even getting bees in my garden now,” she said. “If they continue to do this, we’re going to lose our resources. I know I already have.”