Del Mar beekeeper educates public on dangers of pesticide

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After thousands of her bees were poisoned, a Del Mar beekeeper is asking the community to be careful with pesticides, particularly on flowering plants.

Months after Janet Wilson’s hives were poisoned last summer, both have still not yet recovered. Bees are crawling, not flying, on the roof deck of her Del Mar home, where she and her husband, Nigel Hook, keep their two hives.

“Bees fly; they don’t crawl,” Wilson said. “Because of the mass poisoning, they’ve been weakened. There are bees that are being born that can’t fly.”

After her husband bought her a Flow Hive for Christmas, Wilson started taking classes last spring by Hilary Kearney, whose company Girl Next Door Honey teaches people about beekeeping and helps them start hives.

“I’ve always been interested in bees,” Wilson said.

She was inspired to finally collect and harvest honey when the Flow Hive was released. The beehive invention allows beekeepers to harvest honey without opening the hive and with minimal disturbance to the bees.

“I’m learning so much,” she said.

Wilson began keeping bees in April. She started off with one hive and by June had expanded to a second hive. Both thriving hives grew to about 50,000 bees each. And then in late June, the poisoning happened.

Wilson was out of town when the incident happened.

Because of the relatively short lifespan of honey bees, the couple routinely find a few dying or dead bees on their rooftop. Worker honey bees have a lifespan of only six weeks during honey production seasons, when they forage for food, store nectar, feed larvae and produce honey.

When Hook came home and discovered thousands of dead bees, however, he knew something was wrong and immediately called Kearney, who had helped Wilson start her bee colony.

Kearney said it was obvious that the bees had been poisoned. Pesticide bee poisoning is a common problem, she said, and it usually occurs when pesticide is used on flowering plants.

“When bees forage they forage on just one kind of flower at a time,” explained Kearney, who has had her business for four years. “A lot of times, if there’s a big source with a singular type of flower, they’ll send a lot of bees there.”

Because both of the independent hives were poisoned, Kearney believes the poisoned source must have been a large flowering shrub, likely within a three-block radius.

Honey bees can travel up to three miles, she said, but usually stay within a mile.

“They’ll go as far as they have to, to get nectar and pollen,” Kearney said. “Because both of them were going to it makes me think that it was something that was closer.”

To prevent bee poisoning, Kearney said that people should always read pesticide labels carefully and use them properly.

Pesticides, she said, should be used at night so that the chemicals have time to dissipate. She said people should also avoid using pesticides on or near flowering plants.

“Ideally, you wouldn’t apply anything at all ever, but if you have to, you would apply it in the evening because then it has all night to dissipate before anything would access it,” Kearney said. “Ideally, you would also not treat something that was flowering. You want to wait until it is done blooming.”

Kearney estimates that 30,000 bees died.

“A few of them made it back, but most of them died outside the hive, near the hive, and probably thousands more died in the neighborhood,” she said.

Since the poisoning occurred, Wilson has been feeding her bees sugar water. So many of the older, flying bees died, leaving the younger bees without a food source.

“The only thing you can really do after is cross your fingers,” Kearney said. “There’s not a lot you can do to help the bees.”

Not long after the incident, Wilson went to a council meeting and asked city officials to help her spread awareness about the dangers of pesticides, particularly on flowering plants. Del Mar staff later posted an announcement on the city’s website, asking community members to not use pesticides on flowering plants.

“Don’t spray flowering plants,” Wilson said.

“Once it’s happened once, it’s probably going to happen again,” Kearney said. “The only way you can stop it is just to educate people.”

In an effort to better educate the public, Wilson plans to eventually host an informational meeting at her house and start a pesticide exchange campaign at the Del Mar Farmers Market.

She is also scheduled to talk with the Del Mar Rose Society in February.

In addition to using pesticides correctly, Kearney said people who want to be proactive can also plant plants specifically for pollinators.

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