If you have beehives in your backyard, you may be at a higher risk of contracting West Nile virus from a mosquito bite.
Beaufort County, particularly the more rural areas north of the Broad River, has experienced an “invasion of commercial beehives” during the past several summers, county mosquito control director Gregg Hunt told county leaders earlier this week.
Because pesticides used to control disease-spreading mosquito populations could also kill bees, there are large swaths of the county where those populations go untreated, he said.
“We can’t use the (mosquito control) aircraft (in most of) the Sheldon area, the Big Estate area and the Chisolm (Islands) area,” Hunt said. “It’s not worth the risk.”
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Last year, mosquito control officials in Dorchester County came under fire after an aerial pesticide spraying effort killed millions of bees.
“It made national news; it made world news,” Hunt said. “I don’t want to be in that situation.”
Beaufort County Councilman Gerald Dawson said, “The headache for (Hunt and his staff) is determining how to serve the public with mosquito control while also running the risk of … kill(ing) some of these hives.”
Not treating mosquito populations with pesticides could represent “a huge problem” for residents in northern Beaufort County, he said.
In Beaufort County so far this year, West Nile virus has been detected in one human, one crow and nine distinct mosquito populations.
Fallen Hurricane Matthew debris rotting in bodies of standing water, a warm winter, a rainy spring, and hot summer weather have combined to create a particularly fertile breeding season for mosquitoes, Hunt said.
Why does protecting bees matter?
All of this begs the question: Why not simply disregard the bees and spray pesticides even if there are hives nearby?
Bee expert and head of Clemson University’s Department of Pesticide Regulation Mike Weyman said Wednesday, “This is a very contentious issue — balancing protecting bees and making sure mosquito populations are well controlled.”
Human health is the number one consideration, “but all pollinators (including bees) are a precious asset,” he said. “Without bees and other pollinators, we would see a terrible reduction in agriculture and crop yield throughout the world.”
Various factors, including loss of habitat and exposure to pesticides, have resulted in an ongoing reduction in the worldwide bee population, Weyman said.
Why are commercial beekeepers swarming to the Lowcountry?
Hunt said commercial beekeeping operations — often based in Georgia or Florida — are drawn to Beaufort County because “Chinese tallow and Palmetto palms are flowering here,” and bees exposed to environments with these plants “produce a very uniquely flavored honey.”
Weyman said Chinese tallow allows bees to “produce a very, very desirable and light-colored honey,” while “the palms produce a very thick and sweet honey that actually has some pretty significant health benefits.”
Hidden hive locations
The commercial hives, which were brought by the thousands to the area in May and June, are mostly gone now, Hunt said, “but there are still a few out there.”
County officials say there is reason to believe there are many unreported hive locations.
Hunt said state regulations require that hives are inspected when they enter and leave South Carolina, but honey producers are not required to notify local governments about the location of their hives.
Even in places such as Chatham County, Ga., where notification is required, many commercial operators simply ignore the rules, he said.
Hunt said typically these locations “are not visible from the main roads,” and commercial beekeepers choose hard-to-spot locations intentionally.
“Many of them are secretive as to where they locate (their hives),” he said. “They don’t want (their competitors) to know.”
Communication is key
Weyman stressed the importance of communication between commercial beekeepers and local mosquito control agencies.
If the beekeepers inform local officials of the location of their hives, mosquito control can let them know in advance of spraying activities, he said. This would allow the beekeeper to move or cover their hives and allow for nearby mosquito population control, therefore reducing potential exposure to diseases such as Zika or West Nile virus.
According to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, about one in five people who are infected with the West Nile virus will develop a fever with other symptoms such as headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea or rash. These people likely will have a full recovery, but fatigue and weakness could last for weeks or months.
Less than one percent of those infected will develop a serious neurological illness such as encephalitis or meningitis, according to SCDHEC.