SHERIDAN — When it comes to running the business that’s been in his family for nearly a century, the past several years have been difficult for Clifford Reed.
Since about 2005, the Ranchester beekeeper and owner of Tongue River Honey has seen his bees mysteriously die off in droves. In recent seasons, the situation has become so severe that he’s losing between 500 and 800 hives — or 30 percent to 60 percent of his total operation — every year.
While he can’t say for sure what’s causing his losses, he suspects that the aerial spraying of pesticide intended to kill mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus might be to blame.
Although he acknowledges the usefulness of the program insomuch as it prevents the spreading of a potentially deadly condition, he questions the necessity of an aerial application.
“Basically, the bees are the canary in the coal mine shaft,” he said. “If we didn’t raise the issue, it would never be raised.”
But Sheridan County Weed and Pest Control Division officials strongly dispute Reed’s claim that spraying the chemical from an airplane is unnecessary and possibly dangerous. They maintain their program protects area residents in the most cost effective and efficient way possible.
Moreover, they point to a lack of scientific evidence that the particular strain of VectoBac larvicide used to treat more than 10,000 acres in Sheridan County is in any way harmful to bees.
At a meeting last week hosted by a Sheridan College instructor and attended by stakeholders on both sides of the issue, the debate became contentious on several occasions.
Neither side appeared to win many new friends, as audience members traded emotionally charged talking points for the better part of two hours.
Still, both sides seemed to agree that science ought to drive the decision making process moving forward.
Determining once and for all whose view is supported by that science, however, remains a point of contention.
Since midway through last decade, Weed and Pest has been applying one pint of diluted VectoBac to each acre of the county deemed to be a potential breeding ground for infected mosquitoes.
Most areas are treated about once per month in June, July and August.
Luke Sander, assistant supervisor of Weed and Pest, said aerial application of the chemical is necessary given the amount of drainages his agency is charged with covering.
While he acknowledged Reed’s concerns, Sander said the method of application is a simple matter of logistics and cost.
The program costs a total of between $40,000 and $50,000 per application and is funded by a combination of state money and grant funds from the Department of Agriculture.
“It’s our most expensive program, but everybody in the county benefits from it,” he said.|
The chemical is applied by pilots from Bighorn Airways and sprayed over most major drainages throughout the county.
Robert Eisele, co-owner of Bighorn Airways, said most people say they’re grateful for the program as it currently stands.
“West Nile Virus has killed people, and it’s made a lot of people sick over the last 10, 15 years when it first came into the country,” he said. “This program has gotten it down to a pretty low occurrence in Sheridan County.”
As for those concerned by the county’s method of application, Eisele said it’s impossible to ever win everyone over. He remains convinced that the aerial spraying poses not threat to human or honeybee health.
“It’s hard to convince people (that it’s safe) because there’s too many other places out there where they’re hearing and reading stuff that’s not necessarily true,” he said.
Recently, Reed said he felt as though his position on the method of VectoBac application had been severely misrepresented by a handful of people on the opposite side of the issue.
In a letter to landowners whose property is sprayed, Eisele accused Reed of trying to shut down the program entirely.
Not at all true, Reed said.
Instead, he said he’s merely encouraging the county to more seriously consider a manual application.
“Their motivation (for aerial application) is it’s cheap, it’s fast and it’s a lazy man’s way of applying it,” he said.
Ultimately, he feels as though the program sprays far more acres than is actually necessary in order to control mosquitoes. His bees, he said, are paying the price.
But Sander and other Weed and Pest Control officials said myriad issues prevent them from applying the pesticide by hand, including the long and difficult process of obtaining permission from landowners for access and the added costs of hiring extra workers.
For his part, Reed points to Johnson County where the same product is applied manually as a potential model for a reformed Sheridan County application process.
“There’s way more water up here — I know there is — but I think it can be done,” he said.
But Rod Litzel, district supervisor of Johnson County Weed and Pest, said manual application is only possible given the small amount of land he has to cover.
“If we were doing the whole county I would probably have to look at an aerial deal or hire more people to get that done,” he said.
As for what’s ultimately killing Reed’s bees, Sander said other factors such as mites might be to blame.
He added that while VectoBac isn’t applied everywhere in the country, the bee populations of commercial beekeepers nationwide have been steadily declining in recent years.
That trend leads him to believe that VectoBac isn’t responsible for killing Reed’s bees.
“I think it could be a combination of things,” he said. “But there’s not a single study that VectoBac affects honeybees at all.”
Still, Sander said he’s willing to continue working with Reed to discover exactly what’s killing his bees.
“If it turns out the stuff we’re using is harming the bees, and it can be proven, I’ll stop using it tomorrow,” he said.
Until then, the program is set to continue as usual.