The insecticide being sprayed throughout the North Shore to combat West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses also hits an unintended target: honeybees.
It’s a frustration and a concern for local beekeepers, some of whom say they’ve lost thousands of bees.
Beverly beekeeper Anita Deeley estimates that between 100,000 and 150,000 of her bees died last year — four hives — even though she covered them the night the city sprayed for mosquitoes.
This year, Deeley moved her hives prior to spraying last week in neighboring Salem.
“I understand why they need to spray, but it is a little frustrating for beekeepers,” Deeley said. “I wish they wouldn’t spray at all, but I understand why they’re spraying.”
Mosquitoes from several North Shore towns, including Amesbury, Newburyport and Rowley and Newbury, have tested positive for West Nile virus this summer. The disease can be fatal, but health officials estimate that fewer than 1 percent of people infected with West Nile develop severe illness.
“Against this perceived threat, we’re spraying a cloud of spray in a neighborhood,” said Salem beekeeper Richard Girard. “It’s really throwing the baby out with the bath water. ... The spraying of this stuff, from a beekeeper’s perspective, is absolutely dire. You can’t protect your hives. It will kill them.”
Girard, a board member of the Essex County Beekeepers Association, says some beekeepers have put “no spraying” signs on their lawns.
Any resident can opt their property out of spraying by contacting their local board of health. But some beekeepers say their hives have been affected even when the spraying happens in other parts of town.
Jack Card, director of Northeast Massachusetts Mosquito Control, the Newburyport-based state agency that handles mosquito issues and spraying in 32 towns across Essex County, said he follows state standards.
“What we’re doing is spraying for mosquitoes to reduce the risk of people becoming sick. That’s our focus, our mission,” Card said. “We have to follow all the regulations. ... That’s our driving force, to protect the public as best we can.”
Card’s agency sprays insecticide from trucks after dark, when the chemicals can come in direct contact with mosquitoes, he said. This summer, they’ve used an insecticide called Duet, which targets adult mosquitoes.
The trucks are equipped with a GPS device, which alerts the driver to any addresses that have opted out of spraying.
It’s best if residents contact their city or town hall before March 1 each year to opt out of spraying, so their addresses can be loaded into the database early, Card said. As the season goes on, it gets harder to keep track of those who opt out.
“We do the best we can (to avoid addresses that opt out late in the season),” he said. “It looks like these viruses are going to be here year after year, and people have to start thinking about that, adjusting to that.”
At the same time, residential beekeeping is growing in popularity on the North Shore. The Essex County Beekeepers Association has 324 members. The group’s Introduction to Beekeeping class sells out every year, Girard said.
“It’s more common than people think,” said Deeley, who is the Essex County bee inspector. “Most likely, if you see a honeybee, it’s from somebody’s hive (a residential beekeeper). Not always, but most likely.”
Jane Wild, the vice president of the beekeepers’ association, and her husband have been raising bees at their West Newbury home since 1991. They have been chemical-free for eight years.
“Duet is not only harmful to the bees who are vital to our food source, it’s not good for humans either,” Wild added. “Not only is it fatal to honeybees, but to fish, other aquatic life and the birds. We are setting things out of balance. The fish eat the mosquitoes, their eggs and larvae and the birds get exposed to the pesticide. We are all players in the chain of life. We unwisely try to address problems with use of chemicals.”
“Mr. Card is probably correct in his assumption that we will continue to have problems with viruses from mosquitoes and that we need to start thinking about that,” Wild said. “But there has to be a better way and chemicals are not the answer.”
Beekeeper Kim Klibansky lived in Beverly for 45 years before moving to Rowley this year. She said the main reason she moved was to have more land — a buffer from the road spraying that decimated her bees in Beverly last year.
Klibansky keeps bees recreationally, her own effort to combat Colony Collapse Disorder, in which worker bees abruptly disappear.
Last year, she wrapped her hives with tarps before spraying occurred a half-mile from her Beverly home.
“I figured we’d be OK,” Klibansky said. “The next day, we went out and the front of the tarp was covered with dead bees. Our hives were so weakened that within four to five days, one hive died. About a week later, the second hive died.
“Bees are like our barometer. If there are bees, we know it’s a healthy environment,” she said. “That (mosquito) spray wipes out a lot of flying insects, not just mosquitoes. I just don’t think the risk is worth it.”
Wild would agree.
“Every third mouthful of food you eat is pollinated by a honeybee. We should all enjoy it while we can,” Wild said. “I believe it was Albert Einstein who said, ‘when all the bees die, humanity is approximately 4 years behind.’”