Up to 13% of US beekeepers are in danger of losing their colonies due to pesticides sprayed to contain the Zika virus, new research suggests.
Zika – which can cause severe brain defects in unborn children – is spread by mosquitoes, so the insects are being targeted in the southern US where Zika-carrying mosquito species live.
The new research, by the University of Exeter and the University of California, Berkeley, was sparked by a 2016 media report on millions of honeybees killed by Zika spraying.
Honeybees are not native to the US and most colonies are kept by beekeepers, who play a key role in agriculture by helping to pollinate crops.
By comparing data on bee densities with areas at risk from Zika, the researchers calculated the percentage of colonies that could be affected.
“A colony unexpectedly exposed to pesticide spraying for mosquitoes would almost certainly be wiped out,” said Lewis Bartlett, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.
“Beekeepers in the US move their colonies around to support farmers, so a beekeeper with all their bees in one area at a given time could lose them all.”
Mosquitoes are usually targeted for spraying in summer, when the insects are most active, but this is also the key time for honeybees.
Some states, such as Florida, have well-established mosquito control programmes and systems to limit the effects on unintended targets such as bees.
But the researchers warn other states are less well prepared to organise measures such as warning beekeepers before spraying.
“At the start of this research we spoke to a beekeeper who was caught unawares and lost all her bees,” Bartlett said.
“Beekeeping is a very traditional way of life in the US, with a lot of pride in families who have done it for generations, but many are struggling now.
“Given all the threats facing bees, even a small additional problem could become the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Many beekeepers live on the breadline, and if something like this changes things so beekeeping is no longer profitable, there will be huge knock-on effects on farming and food prices.”
People in many countries are rightfully concerned about Zika, but Bartlett said research and preparation were essential before embarking on “expensive and environmentally dangerous” mosquito control measures.
The study found a positive correlation between honeybee colony density and areas with suitable conditions for Zika – raising the risk of bees being harmed by anti-Zika spraying.
These areas include Florida, the Gulf Coast and possibly the California Central Valley.
The study focussed on honeybees because being kept by beekeepers means there is more data on them than any other bee species.
Although the findings do not directly translate to other species, Bartlett said honeybees are resilient compared to most bees – so the situation for other species may be similar or even worse.
The paper, published in the Journal of Apicultural Research, is entitled: “Identifying regions of risk to honey bees from Zika vector control in the US.”
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The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university that combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 21,000 students and is in the top one per cent of universities worldwide. Exeter is also ranked 14th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2018 and 13th in the Guardian University Guide 2018. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the University ranked 16th nationally, with 98% of its research rated as being of international quality, while in 2017, Exeter was awarded a Gold rating in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) assessment. Exeter was named The Times and The Sunday Times Sports University of the Year 2015-16, in recognition of excellence in performance, education and research. Exeterwas The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13.
The University has four campuses. The Streatham and St Luke’s campuses are in Exeter and there are two campuses in Cornwall, Penryn and Truro. In a pioneering arrangement in the UK, the Penryn Campus is jointly owned and managed with Falmouth University. At the campus, University of Exeter students can study programmes in the following areas: Animal Behaviour, Business, Conservation Biology and Ecology, English, Environmental Science, Evolutionary Biology, Geography, Geology, History, Human Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Marine Biology, Mining and Minerals Engineering, Politics and International Relations, Renewable Energy and Zoology.
The University launched its flagship Living Systems Institute in 2016, a world-class, interdisciplinary research community that will revolutionise the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. This follows recent investments of more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses in recentyears; including landmark new student services centres - the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange on the Penryn Campus in Cornwall, together with world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment and Sustainability Institute.
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