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Tick spraying at Loudoun parks alarms beekeepers

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As part of Loudoun County’s campaign to combat the spread of Lyme disease, nine county-owned parks were recently sprayed with an insecticide in an effort to reduce the population of ticks, which can transmit the disease to humans.

Loudoun leaders have championed the spraying as necessary to help protect people from Lyme infection, which they say is on the rise. But as the final rounds of spraying concluded this week, local beekeepers voiced concern that bees might become the unintended casualties of the war on Lyme disease.

Members of the Loudoun Beekeepers Association questioned the county’s decision to apply a bifenthrin-based insecticide, called Talstar, which they said is highly toxic to bees and poses a substantial threat to beekeeper-owned bees and the vulnerable population of wild honeybees, which are still recovering from the introduction of a devastating foreign parasite decades ago.

Bill Bundy, president of the Virginia State Beekeepers Association and a member of the Loudoun Beekeepers Association, said he and other beekeepers had no idea the county was considering spraying in parks and were not contacted by county officials before a decision was reached.

“We were made aware of it very late in the game,” Bundy said. “The first time I heard about it, the decision had been made.”

Matt Gaillardetz, president of the Loudoun Beekeepers Association, noted that warnings about the toxicity to bees are clearly stated on the Talstar label, which says that the product should not be applied or allowed to drift to blooming crops if bees are visiting the treatment area.

Flowering plants treated with the product, Gaillardetz said, “will be detrimental to the visiting honey bee, and perhaps the colony if the bee makes it back to the nest to store the poisoned food.”

The county first announced the campaign to stop the spread of Lyme disease at a March 20 Board of Supervisors meeting, when the board voted unanimously to declare 2012 “Lyme Disease Awareness Year” in Loudoun. The supervisors created a 10-point action plan to combat the disease and declared that insecticide sprays would be used to help reduce the population of ticks at county parks.

Bundy, who owns Redgate Farm in Leesburg and manages 70 beehives, said several members of the Loudoun Beekeepers Association contacted Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) with their concerns, “but the answer was pretty perfunctory, that this is something that must be done to fight Lyme,” he said.

Higgins, who co-sponsored the Lyme disease campaign along with Vice Chairman Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) and Supervisor Kenneth “Ken” Reid (R-Leesburg), said at the March 20 meeting that many constituents identified Lyme disease as a critical issue during his campaign in the fall.

Higgins said that he had recently heard from residents concerned about the spraying and that the county planned the insecticide application carefully to minimize environmental impact.

The total sprayed area was also very small, he said — 196 acres — and Loudoun’s total acreage is about 333,000.

“We believed that our careful approach would protect citizens and their children while having a minimal impact on honeybees and other insects, given the size of Loudoun County,” Higgins said.

The spraying at county parks — including Franklin, Woodgrove, Lucketts Community, Ashburn, Conklin, Phil Bolen, Neil Boone, Mickie Gordon Memorial and Claude Moore parks — was completed this week. The application took place during a seasonal time frame that beekeepers described as “peak nectar flow,” when local bees are gathering nectar that will later be harvested for honey.

The spraying at all county parks took place in the early hours, and that is when bees are most likely to be foraging on flowering plants, said Richard Fell, a professor of entomology at Virginia Tech University who specializes in bees and beekeeping.

“Those are lousy times to spray,” Fell said. “Normally, what we recommend is to spray in the late afternoon or early evening, when your foraging bee numbers are way down.”

Fell said that parks filled with blooming plants and weeds such as dandelions and clover would be a natural foraging ground for bees.

“If they’re spraying blooming plants, there’s a very good chance that they’re not only going to be killing honeybees, but other bee species, as well,” he said, adding that there are more than 400 species of bees in Virginia.

Higgins noted that the spraying took place in mowed areas, rather than meadows, although beekeepers expressed concern that the wind could carry the insecticide to neighboring plants.

Bundy said the application of the insecticide could have a significant impact on the broader agricultural community. Beyond fueling honey sales, bees play a vital role in Loudoun’s rural economy by pollinating many crops, he said.

Just as beekeepers work with farmers to coordinate the timing and application of pesticides, Bundy said, the same relationship should exist with the county.

“We would like an open dialogue, and a recognition that bees are not simply stinging insects, but they’re a vital part of our environment here,” he said. “It would be very beneficial for everyone if we were in the loop with these things.”

Bundy and Gaillardetz said that they applaud the county’s intent to combat Lyme disease — in fact, both beekeepers said they have been previously treated for Lyme disease and understand its impact. But they questioned the effectiveness of spraying in county parks as a way to reduce the overall infection rates.

“It is a noble cause for the county to declare 2012 as Lyme disease awareness year,” Gaillardetz said. “However, the spraying of the county’s parks is not, and never should be, a solution.”

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