Beekeeper Ben Brown (Photo Art Howe)

Beekeeper Ben Brown (Photo Art Howe)

by Art Howe

One recent evening, Chestnut Hill builder Ben Brown received an alarming telephone call from an exterminating company calling itself “Mosquito Shield.”

“We are calling to inform you that you are on our hypersensitivity data base, and we will be treating a property within 500 feet of your house,” Brown recalled a woman telling him.

Brown wondered aloud, “So why are you calling me? Do I seem hypersensitive?”

Turns out, that because he was a state-registered beekeeper and longtime supplier of local honey, Brown is listed on the state’s “Pesticide Hypersensitivity Registry.” The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture maintains a registry of individuals abnormally sensitive to pesticides, including beekeepers.

Because honeybees play a crucial role in pollinating flowering plants and an estimated one-third of all crops, protecting bees against some pesticides is state law. Businesses that use any of the thousands of restricted pesticides must notify any nearby person on the registry at least 12 hours before making an application.

Mosquito Shield, which promoted its services at the recent Chestnut Hill Garden Festival, is seeing demand grow rapidly over fear of mosquito-borne diseases like the West Nile and Zika viruses. Local franchise owner Tina Brogan said her workers use natural substances like garlic, lemon grass and peppermint, as well as bifenthrin, a legal but restricted-use insecticide, which collapses the nervous system of most insects.

Bifenthrin resides on plants and in the soil it can be present for up to eight months, the longest known residual time of any pesticides, according to the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC).

Bifentrin is also highly toxic to beneficial insects like bees, NPIC says studies show.

“This stuff is really bad,” said beekeeper Brown. “It can get in the groundwater and the Schuylkill and kill a lot of wildlife.”

“If they are spraying flowers or whatever, it’s going to be killing bees and a lot of other things,” said Jeff Eckel, a Pennsylvania state bee inspector. “Seems like a pretty bad thing to be spraying around people’s flowers.”

Honey bees have experienced sharp declines in population in recent years resulting from a syndrome called colony collapse disorder (CCD). Theories abound about the precise cause of CCD, but many researchers point to increased use of pesticides.

Brogan stressed that while she “cannot guarantee” some honey bees aren’t exposed to bifenthrin, her workers are instructed not to spray flowers and bushes if honey bees are present.

“I’m personally very ecologically minded,” she said, adding “We also don’t want to hurt butterflies, fireflies and all the other insects.”

Don Shump, president of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild, questioned how careful Mosquito Shield and other exterminators really are.

“I don’t believe that they aren’t going to spray if they see a bee,” he said.

But he is encouraged that Mosquito Shield is following the law and notifying beekeepers before spraying.

Shump said he has not heard from other beekeepers about Mosquito Shield. But he recommends that homeowners worried by mosquitoes request exterminators apply organic treatments, in particular those that kill mosquito larvae in standing water.

Franchise owner Brogan said that her company supplies an all-natural mosquito remedy.

“We have a 100 percent organic” treatment, she said.