ATLANTA, GA, August 1, 2016 – by Guest Columnist, Kim Flottum – Atlanta’s summer so far has been on the drier side of its normal 4” average. Well, on the far drier side of that average, actually. Only 2” fell in June, with Atlantans getting damp only a couple of times a week. And only three of the seven ‘drizzles’ measured more than a quarter inch, so what fell usually evaporated in less than a day. Usually much less. And July was actually drier than June this summer, which is definitely not the norm. Average rainfall is just over five inches in July, but there was just a cup less than two inches that washed the streets this July, falling on only nine days during the month, with only four of those drenchings over a quarter of an inch. Most of it was gone in a day, puddles maybe two, with low spots in the lawn maybe four or five. It’s not a drought, yet, but you might think so.
This is, of course, a mixed blessing. Lawns and gardens need a big long drink on at least a weekly basis, and as summer wears on that drink needs to be bigger every week. But the good side of this is that standing water is much less common, as are the blood sucking demons that spend part of their life swimming and growing in that standing water – mosquitos. These whiney, pesky and sometimes disease carrying insects need a week to ten days of sub-surface life to complete their development, and, with less and less water to live in, there are fewer of them to deal with.
That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Well, for the birds, bats, fish and dragonflies that make mosquitoes their main course for every meal, all summer long it’s not a good thing. Purple martins eat their weight in mosquitoes every day, thank you, and there are plenty of other predators out there looking for a free lunch. But, the rivers and lakes around town supply a lot of those predators with their daily meals, so folks won’t escape mosquitoes completely I guess. And we deal with them the best way we can, even if there are a few million fewer than last year.
But because mosquitoes need water for part of their life cycle, they don’t wander all that far from that necessity – too far from home and you’re doomed to not reproduce, and Mother Nature takes a dim view of that. Thus it’s closer, rather than farther from those mostly permanent bodies of water for them this year. So unless you have “Shore” in your street address, you will be a tad less bothered this summer, at least into late summer.
But this year is different in other ways, too. Zika virus. And, not gone away, West Nile virus, too.
Spreading up from South America it has reached the U. S., with mosquito borne cases already in Florida, not all that far from Atlanta. But the particular mosquitoes that carry this virus live and breed across almost the entire southern U. S., up the east coast a bit, into the Midwest and parts of the west coast. They are, nearly, everywhere there is water. So…as you can imagine, some folks are worried. Zika isn’t the common cold, and everybody from your next door neighbor to county and even state mosquito control boards are ramping up their efforts to keep these critters, first, from breeding, and second from spreading, and third to kill those that they can’t prevent. Public health, after all, is important.
For homeowners this is, for the most part, a good thing. But not every homeowner has the mosquito truck driving by on a routine basis and for some, this is reason enough to take matters into their own hands. Moreover, with increased mosquito prosecution going on, municipalities have the added burden of hiring new, and for some, inexperienced sprayers. Even if they’ve had the course it’s a new ball game and irregularities can happen. Plus, the demand for the newest and most effective pesticides has grown exponentially and some spray programs are still in line to get them, and in the meantime are using the older, more toxic, less safe sprays from last year, or older. Another issue is that with increased attention to these sprays, more likely an expansion of the area to be protected and the frequency they are applied, the time frame for application will be expanded, reaching into mid-afternoon, and prime flying time for bees. And even if that truck passes every other evening, using the best trained, safest sprays, some still fear this isn’t enough and will add their own level of protection.
For urban beekeepers, this can be an issue. Most municipal sprays are carried out in the evening when bees are mostly not flying, and, by design, are essentially broken down to non-toxic residues by morning, when bees again a flying. Beekeepers can, for the most part, avoid problems with this scheduling, but when a neighbor either hires additional protection, or undertakes it themselves, a different, and perhaps less-safe-for-bees program may evolve.
Homeowner assaults include mosquito zappers, which will zap anything that flies into the trap attracted by the UV light most of them have. Honey bees aren’t affected by them mostly because they are used at night when bees aren’t around. Dunks are used too, which are simply slow release BT dispensers placed in standing water to kill larvae. Sometimes oil is applied to water, which covers the surface with a film, suffocating the mosquito larvae below. This isn’t, or shouldn’t be used when there are fish in the water, or the water eventually heads down stream. Repellants, too, can be used, applied to vegetation around the yard, since mosquitos spend resting time in the shade, where it’s moist, cool and a bit damp.
It’s when the professional pest control operators enter the scene that poisons and bees can mix and mingle, to the detriment of both bees and mosquitoes. These encounters include sprays and mists applied to surrounding vegetation that kill on contact, and linger for much of the season, killing anything venturing into the protection of that vegetation, or visiting flowers growing there that might not have even been there when the spray was applied. These sprays, unlike those used by public applicators are meant to last season long and to keep these pests at bay.
The increased exposure, coupled with any drift from one home to the next has been known to play real havoc with a beeyard next door and may continue all season long. These sprays contaminate any water source the bees were using, too, and, though controlling the mosquitos breeding there, killing the bees gathering water.
Some of these sprays also contain growth regulators, stopping the larvae in standing water from completing development, but sharing that problem with any bees that drink from the water source, and returning it to the hive.
Municipal spray programs are designed to reduce to the very minimum any side effects to people, pets and beneficial insects. But it still pays to contact your local government to find out what their program is, what chemicals are used, when sprays occur during the day or evening, who is doing the spraying and how often they will be in the neighborhood. And, once informed, a beekeeper may suggest possible alternative plans to reduce honey bee/spray contacts. Mostly, good governments will bend over backwards to not harm honey bees, even in the face of protecting public health.
But homeowners are under no obligation to help bees or other organisms they may harm with their private property mosquito control. It will pay, too, to talk to neighbors and even neighborhoods about what can and should be done at the homeowner level to keep all people, and all beings, safe from harm.
Kim Flottum has been the editor of Bee Culture magazine for over 30 years and educates beekeepers all over the U.S. He keeps bees, gardens, raises chickens and tries to avoid mosquitoes at his home in Northeast Ohio.