Protecting Pollinators And Killing Mosquitoes

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Swarms of mosquitos trying to suck you dry, leaving you itching, and with little red welts, can be very maddening. They can ruin an evening sitting outside with friends, or a round of golf, or playing a game of softball, spending time in your garden, or playing with your children in the backyard.

But those pesky mosquitoes are more than a summertime annoyance – they also potentially carry diseases that can be debilitating or even life threatening. The Zika virus, though the mosquitoes that carry it don’t live as far north as Minnesota, is getting a lot of headlines these days creating considerable concern. La Crosse encephalitis and West Nile virus are both carried by mosquitoes and do cause serious illness, even death, in Minnesota.

That is why citizens demand that their local governments spray on a regular schedule to keep mosquito populations down as much as possible.

Today, however, we are faced with unquestionable evidence that our use of chemicals to not only control mosquitoes, but pests that attack crops from corn to apples, soybeans to peaches, and wheat to almonds are having a devastating impact on insects that are vital to one-third of the world’s food supply.

These insects, called pollinators, range from bees, to Monarch butterflies, to pollen wasps, to ants, to moths, and beetles. They carry pollen from one part of a plant to another, or from one plant to another plant, fertilizing it – causing fruits, vegetables, berries and seeds to form.

“Many species of wild bees, butterflies and other critters that pollinate plants are shrinking toward extinction, and the world needs to do something about it before our food supply suffers, a new United Nations scientific mega-report warns,” AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein wrote recently.

“The 20,000 or so species of pollinators are key to hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of crops each year - from fruits and vegetables to coffee and chocolate,” he writes. “Yet 2 out of 5 species of invertebrate pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are on the path toward extinction, said the first-of-its-kind report. Pollinators with backbones, such as hummingbirds and bats, are only slightly better off, with 1 in 6 species facing extinction.”

The honeybee alone accounts for 80 percent of the pollination that takes place in plants that bear fruits and seeds. In 2015, a national survey estimated that 40 percent of the honeybees in the U.S. died with Minnesota beekeepers seeing more than half their bees die. The deaths were attributed to three primary causes - pesticides, diseases and poor nutrition.

Bees also face the loss of habitat as prairies are plowed up to plant crops. A rich, varied habitat with lots of flowering plants is essential to honeybee production and health. When farm fields and urbanization displace the environment they live in, honeybees don’t thrive and have a hard time surviving through the winter.

We once sprayed all kinds of chemicals with little thought to their impact on the environment. It was only when faced with hard, disturbing evidence of the harm they caused that we backed off. That evidence nearly always involved the impact they were having on our – human beings’ – health. It is much more difficult to motivate people when the evidence points to the harm being done to something as nebulous as “the environment” or “pollinators.” We also have a hard time figuring just what we as individuals, or as a community, can do about such a big problem.

The City of Benson has already taken one step in trying to avoid having a deadly impact on pollinators in our community by starting the spraying of mosquito insecticide until after 9 p.m. Still, that might be too early in the summertime when it doesn’t get dark until nearly 10 p.m.

“To fully protect honeybees and native pollinators from mosquito control pesticides, the pesticide should only be applied when it is dark: the sun has set and the streetlights are lit,” Michele Colopy writes in Bee Culture: The Magazine of American Beekeeping.  “Dark is dark, not twilight, not sunset: dark.”

The later the city crews wait to start spraying, the later they are going to have to go into the night. Currently, they only spray until 2 a.m.

Colopy also says cities and homeowners should avoid putting briquettes containing larvacides in standing water. “Every living creature needs clean, pesticide free water to drink; and ‘busy as a bee’ means on warm, hot days they work from sunrise to sunset, and they need water to cool the hive, and themselves.  Many mosquito control products speak to addressing mosquito larvae in water, and then imply the pesticides in the water will not harm bees. Bees do drink water. So, if a pesticide lingers in the water, bees will encounter the pesticide there.”

It’s extraordinarily hard to change individual and societal behavior when convenience and comfort are involved, especially when public safety is also a concern. But there are things we can do as individuals and local governments to create a better environment for pollinators in addition to smarter use of when and where we use insecticides. The National Wildlife Federations suggests the following steps:

  • Plant a wildlife garden that attracts bees and other pollinators.
  • Plant native plants that co-evolved with the native wildlife of your region. Native plants form the foundation of habitat for pollinators by providing them with pollen and nectar for food.
  • Plant milkweed. The iconic monarch butterfly has declined by over 90 percent in just 20 years. One of the main causes of this decline is a lack of milkweed, the species’ only caterpillar host plant. Without milkweed, monarchs can’t complete their lifecycle and populations plummet.
  • Protect grasslands. America’s native grasslands are critically important for pollinators such as bees and monarch butterflies. Today, more than 90 percent of native grasslands have been converted to cropland and development.
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