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What can we learn from Dorchester County's bee-killing pesticide debacle?

Buzz Kill

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When 2.3 million of Juanita Stanley's honeybees were killed by a pesticide spray in August, her business was not the only thing she had to worry about. Ten Lowcountry farms — most in Dorchester County — were lined up to use her bees as pollinators next spring. Many farmers use honeybees to increase their crop yield. From beans and broccoli to persimmons and peaches, 80 percent of crops need pollinators like bees in order to grow, according to David Shields, author and Carolina Distinguished Professor of English at the University of South Carolina.

"Anytime there's an absence of pollinators is very, very difficult. They're absolutely necessary," Shields says. "Anytime the pollinator population is in peril is a potential crisis situation."

Some farmers rent bees from beekeepers like Stanley, who had 60 hives before a Dorchester County aerial pesticide spray unintentionally killed 48 of them (12 were safely offsite, split between a pecan farm and an organic multi-crop farm). Others farmers, like Cheri Ward of Blue Pearl Farms, keep their own bees.

"The tragedy of what's going on is that this broad-spectrum spray is being applied to all of our pollinators," Ward says. "The environment depends on all of our creatures."

Ward has kept bees on her McClellanville blueberry farm for 15 years. The first year she brought bees on the property, her blueberry crop increased by more than 25 percent. A well-kept bee population can double a crop's yield she says. Fortunately, Ward's farm was untouched by the pesticide spray. In Charleston County beekeepers are warned of any spraying in advance. "I'm on a registry," says Ward. "We have more protection."

JONATHAN BONCEK FILE PHOTO
  • Jonathan Boncek file photo

But that doesn't mean her bees are entirely safe. Beekeepers must take steps to ensure the aerial pesticide sprays bypass their land. The pesticides used in the Lowcountry — Naled in Dorchester County and Trumpet EC in Charleston County — coat the insects they come in contact with, killing them. The sprays are intended to kill mosquitoes that carry infectious diseases, including those that could potentially carry Zika, although no Zika-carrying mosquitoes have been found in South Carolina to date.

Keepers can prevent their bees from coming into contact with the spray by adding their property to a county registry. Those on the registry are supposed to be alerted in advance of aerial spraying so they can keep their bees in the hive and away from the deadly pesticides. Dorchester County did not alert some registered beekeepers of the spraying that killed Stanley's bees and others in late August, and has since apologized.

But even when beekeepers shield their hives from deadly pesticides, the wild pollinators — butterflies, dragonflies, wild bees and others — are still killed, impacting the level of pollination a farm's crops can receive. The pesticide is not species-specific, so it can't target the disease-carrying mosquitoes while sparing the pollinators.

So what does that mean for farmers? The pesticide's impact on wild pollinators combined with the accidental deaths of bees like Stanley's could result in lower yields for some Lowcountry farmers if they cannot find a way to make up for the loss. Unlike the Midwest and the West Coast, there are few, if any, bee "mega-farms" in South Carolina with millions of bees and dozens of hives, according to Shields. Without access to the hives that they are accustomed to renting out, yields could be smaller. Despite a smaller supply, farmers like Ward would likely be unable to significantly raise the price of their produce because of competition.

"The farm would definitely feel an impact. Whenever you have variations in the crop supply, if you're the only one impacted, you can't really raise your prices that much," Ward says. "We could probably raise prices a little, but we probably would choose not to."

If farmers see smaller crop yields as a result of fewer pollinators, they could be hurt far more than local farm-to-table restaurants, Shields said. When one local farmer's crop decreases, there is likely another local farmer with enough produce to go around.

"It's not like Thomas Keller at the French Laundry where they only use food from their own garden," Shields said. "It's rare that a restaurant depends on one farm."

If faced with higher prices or lower availability, some chefs at farm-to-table restaurants would still work to maintain their food's local routes. Jacob Huder, chef de cuisine at The Macintosh, doesn't anticipate an issue with pollinators affecting the farmers he works with anytime soon, recalling one farmer recently discussing bringing in more bees for a fall bean crop.

At Edmund's Oast, Executive Chef Reid Henninger says he would work with what was still available locally before exploring other options. Without boxes of fresh vegetables at his disposal, he could shift to an "old bistro menu" heavy with beef, pork, and potatoes.

But Henninger is also mostly unconcerned about pollinator issues affecting the food supply chain. Having come to Charleston less than two years ago after previously working in New Orleans, he's still in awe of the amount of fresh, local produce chefs can acquire in the Lowcountry. "There's so much variety that I almost sometimes feel guilty," Henninger said. "At the end of the day, I just have to make some calls, tap out a few texts, and somehow there's always a bunch of stuff that ends up at our door in the morning. With talented people and some controlled chaos, you can turn it into a meal and serve it."

Unfortunately for Dorchester beekeepers, their solution isn't so simple. 

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