Earlier this month, an elderly man in Salt Lake City died after contracting the Zika virus, making it the first Zika-caused death in the United States. The Zika virus, which is most commonly transmitted through mosquito bites, has been making headlines for well over a year now, and has sent the Center of Disease Control on a mission to not only contain the disease, but to also quash the growing fears about its spread. Because there are nearly 3,000 cases of Zika in Florida and the surrounding states, the CDC has shifted their strategy from preventing contraction to preventing further spread through mosquitos. This has led to a deadly, chemical war against mosquitos and, by default, honeybees and other flying insects.
Earlier this month, CDC officials sprayed Naled, an insecticide neurotoxin, over Florida and surrounding states in an attempt to kill off mosquitos in the areas where Zika has been found. Neurotoxins are a class of poisons that attack the nervous system, and this particular neurotoxin is the same class as the nerve-agent used in chemical warfare. In humans, Naled overstimulates the nervous system and can cause nausea, dizziness and, at high exposures, respiratory paralysis and death. For mosquitos, honeybees and other insects, breathing Naled results in a slow death.
Experts at the CDC and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have argued that Naled is safer than other chemicals because it breaks down rapidly and, when administered at low doses, does not pose a risk to humans. In spite of this, Naled has been banned from the European Union since 2012. Since spraying Naled, an estimated 3 million bees have been killed in South Carolina alone.
According to the Nature Conservancy, honeybees are the greatest pollinators in the world, and their rapid decline poses a huge threat to the world and cannot be ignored. Of 100 fruit and vegetable crops that equate to 90% of our global food, about 71% are pollinated by bees. The value of pollination by bees in the United States is estimated at around 15 million dollars per year.
When something disrupts the bee population in an area, fewer crops are able to produce food, which leads to a food shortage, higher pricing of fruits and vegetables, a drop in economy for farmers and pollinators and a shortage in food used to feed cows and other live stock. In other words, when bees decline, the entire system is thrown off balance, and everyone is affected.
In South Carolina, beekeepers were given little to no warning that their hives would be sprayed, and even if they had been given warning, the preparation it takes to create a safe haven for bees takes supplies, staff and money, which can pose difficulties for local beekeepers. If a beekeeper loses their hives, they not only lose a huge investment of time and money personally, but the entire local economy suffers. It is this ripple effect that spurred the viral conversation about bee protection back in 2014, and people were encouraged to read the labels on pesticides, herbicides and insecticides before spraying to make sure their efforts would not further damage the bee population.
Notwithstanding, the CDC has chosen to prioritize the short term goal to eliminate mosquitos over the long term effect of a mass famine should the bee population continue to decline.
“Our teams have been well-received and helped contribute to the response. The states and local health departments have done a lot of work to get prepared for Zika and are putting in tremendous effort in the Zika response,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC director.
The virus generally causes mild symptoms, like a fever or a rash, but is also associated with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disease that causes temporary muscle fatigue and paralysis. The worst effect of the virus, and the one that has brought the greatest concerns, effects pregnant women and their unborn children. The infection microcephaly, a birth defect in which the baby’s head is unusually small can be caused by Zika, and can lead to developmental and growth problems, intellectual disabilities and problems maintaining equilibrium.
It’s impossible to downplay the danger of the Zika virus, but maintaining the balance between protecting the bees and eliminating mosquitos needs to be considered, and a new plan of action should be discussed. At the very least, fair notice and, where applicable, assistance to beekeepers whose hives may be affected is crucial.