The 2.5 million bees killed by Naled in South Carolina will recover just fine. The businesses, not so much.

Zika Prevention Accidentally Kills 2.5 Million Bees. Whoops!

Zika Prevention Accidentally Kills 2.5 Million Bees. Whoops!

The state of the universe.
Sept. 2 2016 3:28 PM

South Carolina’s Zika Prevention Backfires, Kills 2.5 Million Bees

This was definitely a mistake. But it is not a crisis.

dead honeybee.
Not so great for this bee, but the bee population will survive.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by defun/Thinkstock.

This week the residents of Dorchester County, South Carolina, tried to ward off Zika using a strong pesticide called Naled. Unfortunately, they accidentally ended up killing about 2.5 million honeybees at one bee farm alone because they sprayed after dawn, instead of at night, when bees are not out and about.

The owner is understandably devastated. “Honestly, I just fell to the ground. I was crying, and I couldn’t quit crying, and I was throwing up,” beekeeper Juanita Stanley told the New York Times about what happened after she saw the ground covered in bees.

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The internet, it seems, is also devastated. A sample of the outcry on Facebook: “This makes me SO SICK!!!!,” “Murderers,” and “[It] was like visiting a cemetery, pure sadness.” Someone even floated a hashtag: #SaveHumanitySaveTheBees.

To be honest, it’s a little weird to see this kind of outrage for bees! Usually we reserve that for more personable animals, like Harambe (sorry) or more recently, reindeer. In a way, it’s nice—uncuddly animals deserve our love, too. Perhaps it’s even an offshoot of how the animal right’s movement—currently obsessed with helping the lowly farm chicken—has broadened our understanding of what kinds of animals warrant protection.

But the main tragedy here is not an ecological one. You don’t have to worry about bees right now. The bees affected by the millions weren’t wild bees; they were commercial bees, bred to produce honey. They can be replaced by human efforts easily. Restoring bee populations in the wild would be a bit more complicated.

But honestly it wouldn’t be that complicated. These creatures can bounce back from setbacks quickly. Bees are no great panda population. They can regain their numbers rapidly, thanks to their very fast reproduction skills. Queen bees can lay a couple thousand eggs a day. (Part of the problem with pandas is that they are only in heat and fertile for a day or so per year.) And contrary to what you’ve heard about honeybees’ hardships, they’re actually doing all right these days (OK, pesticides are still not the best for them, but colony collapse disorder is not the crisis you might think.)

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It’s still understandable that Stanley is upset. The real hardship resulting from this mass instance of bee death is on people like her, because she depends on the bees for her business and will experience a dint in honey production while she reacquires a healthy bee population.

Even with the destruction, there was good reason for South Carolina to spray the Naled. South Carolina has experienced higher temperatures than usual and major flooding last fall—conditions that result in more mosquitoes. Right now, public health officials are particularly worried about these mosquitoes carrying and spreading Zika. Cases of the disease brought back by people traveling to regions where Zika is spreading prompted this instance of spraying. Dorchester County even decided to start spraying from the air, instead of from trucks, to achieve maximum efficiency.

We need to keep spraying pesticides to keep Zika at bay, but clearly, doing so should be handled better in the future. That’s perfectly possible: Officials just had to do a better job of specifically communicating with beekeepers. It seems that the officials just didn’t understand the extent of the possible bee damage, according to the Post and Courier. “I can assure you that having a better relationship with the beekeeping community is paramount in avoiding this type of situation,” a county administrator told the local paper.

There are easy steps that they can take. The county said in a statement that it isn’t planning any further aerial sprays right now and, if that changes, plans to notify beekeepers several days in advance. Covering bee colonies, moving the colonies to an unrelated site, and providing clean sources of food can all reduce the exposure of the bees to Naled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

So the hope is that this is a mistake that won’t be repeated. In terms of the damage already done, it’s on the county to compensate beekeepers for any lost income resulting from the bee-icide. And it’s unclear whether they plan to do that—right now they’re just asking beekeepers to get in touch.