Insect spraying: save the bees!

Published in Poisons Beware

A bee sting can cause a severe allergic reaction in a vulnerable person. Under current Croatian law, insects which cause allergic reactions must be subjected to an annual programme of suppression.

Bumble-bee at work Bumble-bee at work Photo: Vivian Grisogono

A bee sting can even be fatal. Is that a reason for bees to be suppressed, their breeding grounds and habitats destroyed? Current Croatian law appears to say yes.

The Croatian Law for Protecting the Population Against Transmissible Diseases was passed in September 19921. It presented a list of 62 diseases of special concern, and the various measures for dealing with them. It covered issues such as immunizations, quarantine, border controls, and special measures in case of epidemics. Preventive actions included compulsory disinfection, insect suppression and rodent elimination. A separate document entitled 'Directive governing the implementation of the compulsory disinfection, insect suppression and rodent elimination measures' was issued in March 20072. It stated: "insect suppression measures are various methods used, with the aim of reducing an insect population at least to a threshold level; they prevent growth and an increase in the insect numbers, or completely eliminate the targeted population of harmful insects..." (Article 2, Clause 9).

Pollinator at work. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

The Law as related to insect suppression focussed purely on transmissible diseases (Article II, Clause 3). It was updated in 20073, 2008 (NN 113/08) and 2009 (NN 43/09), and amended in 2017 (NN 130/17) coming into force in January 2018.

By 2014, the list of diseases had expanded to 994. The Directive, which was updated in 2012, lists six types of insect as disease vectors: mosquitoes, sandflies, flies, fleas, lice and ticks. But it goes way beyond these with six more categories of 'harmful' insects to be suppressed: those which can 'transmit micro-organisms mechanically' such as cockroaches and ants; parasites such as lice; 'poisonous arthropods', including black widow spiders, wasps, hornets, horse-flies and centipedes; 'warehouse pests' such as moths, beetles and mites; pests 'important for aesthetic or public health reasons', such as springtails, woodlice, earwigs and crickets; and 'insects which cause allergic reactions', including pigeons, swallows, moths such as the pine processionary and brown-tail moths, paederus beetles, house-mites, dust-mites and poultry-mites5 (Article 2, Clause 10).

Even though bees are not included in the official list of 'enemy insects', they definitely qualify in the allergy category. As things stand, they are on the front line, even though they are not named in the target list.

Bee with hibiscus, on the front line? Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Pollinators are essential

There is widespread concern about the loss of bees, with some types even listed as endangered6. Pesticides are implicated in the decline, causing different kinds of harm, including damaging changes in bee behaviours7,8. Measures are suggested to protect bees, especially honey bees9, but total protection is impossible, especially when insecticides are used on a large scale.

Many of the world's crops depend on pollinators. Honey bees are not the only crop pollinators, and domesticated honey bees cannot cover all the needs for agricultural pollination10. Apart from bees, there are many other pollinators of different kinds11. Pollinator diversity, besides creating a healthier environment, can increase crop yields12. A lack or loss of animal pollinators can have damaging consequences for human health13, 14. Protection of pollinators is therefore a vital part of crop security15.

Insecticides are harmful poisons

Chemical poisons can never be 'safe'. Even when they do not kill, they inevitably cause damage. When applied indiscriminately on a large scale, they cause collateral damage to non-target victims. All insects have some part in the natural chain. Insect loss is an increasing problem16. Interfering with the natural chain causes unexpected harm. For instance, insecticides based on Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti) have been found to reduce reproduction in birds17, The research focussed on house martins, which are feared to be in decline in some parts of the world. Bti insecticides are considered to be a low-risk alternative to chemical pesticides18. They are commonly used for the larvicidal programme on Hvar. However, repeated applications may cause a loss of biodiversity, and certain formulations of Bti pesticides may even be harmful to humans19. For an overview of the possible adverse effects of commonly used insecticides in Croatia, please click here.

House martins. By Ómar Runólfsson [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The 2012 Directive states that "chemical methods of insect suppression are carried out only when other preventive methods have failed to prevent an uncontrolled increase in harmful arthropods" (Article 2, Clause 12). In practice, throughout Croatia chemical poisons are the method of choice for insect suppression. Local authorities receive annual directives from the National20 and County21 Public Health Offices as the basis for their insect suppression programme. There are some regional variations, according to local conditions and finances. In general, larvicidal actions, which aim to eliminate breeding grounds and hatching insects, extend from April to October. In summer, there may be several poison sprayings to kill off adult insects, particularly mosquitoes. On Hvar and elsewhere this is usually done by 'fogging', the practice of spraying a poison mist from a moving vehicle. In some places it used to be done by aerial spraying: this was limited in the 2007 Directive to exclude aeroplanes flying over inhabited settlements, national parks and other protected areas (Article I, Clause 14), and not mentioned at all in the 2012 Directive (Article I, Clause 13).

From 'Glas Slavonije', April 2014, happily, aerial spraying is no longer allowed. Photo reproduced by kind permission of PIXSELL

Damaging and inefficient practices

The current practice of insect suppression using chemical means, especially through 'fogging', assumes that the chemicals used only affect the target insects, do not spread in the environment, do not last longer than it takes to apply them, and are otherwise safe. None of this is true. Apart from Bti formulations, pyrethroids are the main poison of choice. On Hvar an organophosphate product, Muhomor, based on the active substance Azamethiphos, was thrown into the fray for use against flies for good measure up to 201722. This product was not included in the Health Institute's Programme or Implementation Plan, and was not on the ECHA list of approved products as from 2018. Pyrethroids23 are far from safe 24, 25. They are synthetic poisons which must be distinguished from Pyrethrins26, which are based on the extract pyrethrum from chrysanthemum plants, a natural insecticide. Both pyrethrins and pyrethroids can cause adverse health reactions in humans 27,28, and they are extremely toxic to bees29, 30.

The 2012 Directive states that following review of the success of the preventive pest control methods, every second year less pesticides should be used, in order to improve sanitary conditions and reduce the overall emissions of harmful organisms into the natural environment (Article IV, clause 41, 2012).

In practice, insects develop resistance to poisons after repeated applications31. On the island of Madeira, resistance mechanisms were identified32. In Croatia, the tendency has been to use increasingly strong toxins to counteract resistance, contrary to Article IV, clause 41 of the Directive.

Hvar Town's 2017 Programme of Measures for Preventive Pest Control33 is based on the regulations set down by the Split-Dalmatia County Health Office. Apart from Bti for larvicide, it allows for the use of neonicotinoids as an alternative to pyrethroids (article V, clause 3.3). Neonicotinoids have been shown to be particularly harmful to bees 34, 35, 36. The EU partially banned certain neonicotinoids in 2013, and further restrictions were being proposed in 201737, which resulted in a ban, due to come into force by the end of 2018. After stiff opposition from chemical company Bayer, the ban on imidacloprid, clothlanidin and thiamethoxam was finally confirmed by the EU Court fo Justice on May 6th 2021.

On Hvar, the toxins used for the summer 'fogging' treatments have continued relentlessly year on year. There is a lack of transparency: active ingredients are named in the Health Institute's documents, but the actual products used are not, and are never named in the sparse public warnings given, apart from the bland assurance that the products are not harmful to warm-blooded creatures - which is untrue. It is known that the formulations of insecticides in combination tend to be more toxic than the active ingredients alone38. Even the synergist PBO is not inert: besides making the active pyrethroid ingredients more poisonous, it carries toxic dangers of its own39.

Poisons threaten the loveliest insects indiscriminately. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

There is concern about mixtures of  pesticides, as there is minimal regulatory control over the practice40. Scientific overviews of such mixtures are generally vague, and are mainly for two rather than four or five active substances41. The potential adverse effects of mixtures of poisons which accumulate in the environment are almost completely unknown. The 2012 Directive states: "during the implementation of compulsory pest suppression measures, it is the duty of the accredited health inspector - to ensure that the pesticide is being used in the concentration and manner prescribed and printed on the declaration of the product according to the Instructions for use of the product, in accordance with the Resolution for the marketing and use of the product as laid down by the relevant body of the National Office, also the inspector must ascertain that the pesticide formulations not only conform to the toxicological profile laid down according to the special regulations, but has also been evaluated for effectiveness on the basis of chemical, physical and biological researches in the Republic of Croatia..." A further duty is "to ensure that the pesticide is included in the Programme of Measures" (Article IV, clause 39).

In relation to 'fogging', the 2012 Directive states "In carrying out compulsory insect suppression measures, every pesticide application must keep the spread to non-target surfaces at the minimum level possible, starting with the choice of pesticides, to the decision on which method to use, and through the actual treatment...in order to reduce unnecessary pesticide spread, applications should be made with less volatile formulations, should use sprays at the right pressure, with appropriate nozzles, also taking into account droplet size. The use of cold fogging (ULV) or thermal fogging should be avoided if localized targeted treatment can achieve a satisfactory result." (Article IV, Clause 45.) In practice, the fogging vehicle sprays indiscriminately along the roads it passes through, to the detriment of people, animals, beneficial insects and the environment as a whole - for more details, see our articles 'Poisoning Paradise - a Wake-Up Call' and 'Insect Spraying:the 'Fogging Practice'.

It seems the practice of poison use for insect suppression has gone beyond the safety measures proposed by law.

This is the more worrying, because there is ever-increasing evidence that the commonly used glyphosate herbicides also pose their own threats to bee health. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that on Hvar as elsewhere all over the world, beekeepers are lamenting the visible loss of honeybees. For an overview of the potential harm glyphosate does to bees, please consult the section on 'Bees' in our reference list: Glyphosate Herbicides, Scientific Evidence.  

Precautions and warnings

The poisons used for the insect suppression programmes are clearly dangerous. The Law aims to protect the population against transmissible diseases. The 2012 Directive specifies regulations for protecting workers handling poisons (Article IV, Clause 43), but no specific advice for protecting the public from the pesticides used (Article 1, Clause 3/3). This is perhaps because chemical insecticides were considered to be a last resort, for use only if other preventive methods had failed to prevent an increase in harmful pests (Article I, Clause 12).

Medulin: warning published the evening before 'fogging', 2017.

Hvar Town's 2017 Programme for Compulsory Preventive Pest Suppression states that the public must be informed of adulticide 'fogging' actions and advised of precautionary measures to take, three days beforehand. Accordingly, warning notices are placed on official notice boards, in Croatian only, advising people to close windows and shutters, and beekeepers to close their hives. The possible adverse effects of the poisons used are not identified in detail. The actual route of the 'fogging' vehicle is not publicized. In practice, even local people rarely, if ever, see the notices. The several thousand non-Croatian-speaking tourists who are present on Hvar when the 'fogging' takes place are left completely in the dark.

In some parts of Croatia, 'fogging' dates and times are announced without any mention of precautionary measures. On Hvar, the Programme does not specify that the public needs to know about larvicidal actions. Very few people know that these poisonings even happen, never mind when and where.

The Medulin 'fogging' notice for July 2017, like many, carried a minimum warning to citizens and beekeepers, in Croatian only.

Prevention measures now the greater risk

The diseases which the insect suppression measures are supposed to prevent are rarities in Croatia, especially on the islands. Fatalities from insect-borne diseases are even fewer. West Nile fever42 appears sporadically in Europe, especially among horses and other animals. The virus often shows up on testing, without necessarily causing disease symptoms. In Croatia, West Nile Fever virus was first found in four horses in 2001-0243. Regular monitoring shows that in general very few cases are reported in humans among EU member states44. Human cases in Croatia numbered six in 2012, 20 in 2013, and since then one or two annually45, until 2018, when several cases were reported, mainly in inland Croatia. As at 15th November 2018, 53 cases were reported in Croatia, with no reported deaths, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Total cases in the EU to that date numbered 1499. The Croatian Health Statistics Yearbook for 2019 (p.174) reported a final count of 63 West Nile cases, with four deaths, for 2018, but no cases at all in 2019.

Dengue Fever was first reported in humans in Croatia in 2007, with six cases between then and 2010, all of which were imported, that is the victims had recently travelled in South-East Asia or South America, where the disease was endemic. The first case contracted within Croatia was in 2010, although testing in 1980 had revealed the presence of the relevant antibodies in healthy people in north-east Croatia, without any reports of actual disease46. Only one other case of Dengue Fever was identified on Pelješac where the first infection had occurred, when testing confirmed the disease after the patient had recovered. Fifteen people from the same area out of 126 tested were positive for Dengue Fever antibodies, but remained healthy. Nevertheless, mosquito control measures for disease prevention were introduced46. Dengue Fever cases have numbered one or two each year up to 2016, peaking at 3 in 2013, all of them apparently imported45. There was no major outbreak of Dengue Fever in Europe in 2018, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. In 2018 there were two reported cases, and five (all imported) in 2019 (Croatian Health Statistics Yearbook for 2019, p.191)

West Nile and Dengue Fever were two mosquito-borne diseases added to the list of transmissible infections in 2014. To put their figures into context, enterocolitis cases have consistently numbered over 4,000 annually since 2004, with a peak of 13,461/6 in 201645. Cardiovascular diseases were the biggest killers in Croatia in 2016, accounting for 23,190 deaths. By contrast, the total deaths in the same year from transmissible and parasitic diseases, which include a far greater variety than just the mosquito-borne illnesses, numbered 45747.

Thousands of people in Croatia get bitten by mosquitoes each year. Mosquito numbers are not being controlled by current practices. This is in keeping with the experiences of other countries which have recognised the problems, and in some cases actually suffered epidemics of those diseases. In Brazil, in areas where outbreaks of Dengue Fever are frequent, insect resistance to pesticides was found to be hindering attempts to prevent the disease, and alternative methods of controlling vectors were strongly encouraged48. Research from the island of Madeira showed similar problems and conclusions32. In China rice paddies are being treated with alternative methods of insect suppression49. From these examples, one can conclude that a policy of attempted total suppression of mosquitoes will not prevent an epidemic of mosquito-borne diseases, and might even cause greater problems in the longer term.

Scarlet darter dragonfly. Dragonflies are one of the natural predators to mosquitoes. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Conclusions

The Croatian insect suppression programme fails to take into account collateral damage to vital pollinators, especially bees. It is inevitably reducing the natural predators which would help to control mosquito numbers. On Hvar the dramatic decline in the numbers of insects, bats and birds has become all too apparent. Insecticides, along with all the other kinds of pesticides are certainly a major factor causing this Disrupting the natural chain causes damage to the environment, wildlife and human health, which may not be evident or provable for many years, if ever, by which time much irreversible harm will have been done.

Current methods relying on pesticides are not working, and are out of step with the latest scientific evidence. They are likely doing more harm than good. It is time for Croatia's Law on Protecting the Population from Transmissible Diseases to be updated, along with the Directive for implementation practices. The six extra categories of insect 'pests' added to the 2007 Directive alongside the disease vectors should be removed; non-invasive methods of insect control should be identified and used; and chemical insecticide use should be strictly limited, preferably totally eliminated.

© Vivian Grisogono, MA(Oxon), 2017, updated September 2021

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49) Hong-xing, X., Ya-jun , Y., Yan-hui, L.,  Xu-song, Z., Jun-ce, T., Feng-xiang, L., Qiang, F., Zhong-xian, L. 2017. Sustainable Management of Rice Insect Pests by Non-Chemical-Insecticide Technologies in China. Rice Science. Vol.24, March 2017, 61-72

Comment received via the Eco Hvar Facebook page:

ZP: It is sad that we persist with pumping more and more poison into our environment when science has determined non-toxic methods are as good without the nasty side effects.
Even in China - see for example
http://www.sciencedirect.com/.../pii/S167263081730001X -  Sustainable Management of Rice Insect Pests by… sciencedirect.com
Or do a search for "non toxic insect control" (26.09.2017., 08:43)

Eco-Hvar Many thanks, I've included the link you gave in the article, a very valuable addition. (26.09.2017., 09:51)

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    Last week, Shell walked away from 170 million barrels of oil off the coast of Shetland, declaring the “economic case for investment” too weak. As might be expected with such a politically sensitive venture, there has been much speculation about what other factors might have been at play, whether pressure from Nicola Sturgeon or from Whitehall. But let’s try another question: how did Shell ever decide that there was an economic case? After all, the energy giant does not deny that its entire business will have to change. It advertises its “target to become a net zero emissions” company by 2050, publishes a “sustainability report” and partners with environmental organisations around the world. Yet little of this environmental awareness shows up in the hard numbers.

    The company’s latest accounts features this disclaimer: “Shell’s operating plans, outlooks, budgets and pricing assumptions do not reflect our net zero emissions target.” In other words: whatever the oil giant says is not what it thinks.

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  • As the sea claims more of the west African shoreline, those left homeless by floods are losing hope that the government will act

    Waves have taken the landscape John Afedzie knew so well. “The waters came closer in the last few months, but now they have destroyed parts of schools and homes. The waves have taken the whole of the village. One needs to use a boat to commute now because of the rising sea levels,” he says.

    Afedzie lives in Keta, one of Ghana’s coastal towns, where a month ago high tide brought seawater flooding into 1,027 houses, according to the government, leaving him among about 3,000 people made homeless overnight.

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  • Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: This fallen giant, a victim of storm winds, is a gift to the soil and the curious walker

    The storm blew the old elm trunk down, a 15ft-high totem with the crumbling faces of the long dead looking westwards from the wood. The tree may have been more than 200 years old when it fell victim to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, but it still sent out a hedgeful of suckers for the future, and its disintegrating trunk stayed upright until now.

    Once a prominent tree, marking some forgotten boundary, it becomes another anonymous windthrow sinking into the earth. The duff that rotted from its heartwood is rich and peaty. To see if there is anything in it, I dig about with a stick into what would have been the core of the tree and a place that had not seen the light of day for centuries. There is a bone. A rib, from a lamb or fawn, perhaps. I pick it up. It feels well-preserved, and there is something uncanny about the way it appears.

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  • Outages hit Ireland and parts of UK after severe winds, rain and snow sweep in from Atlantic

    Almost 30,000 homes in Ireland and 500 properties in Scotland have been left without power after Storm Barra swept in from the Atlantic bringing severe winds, rain and snow.

    The latest outages came days after the final homes in Britain were reconnected after Storm Arwen, which caused “catastrophic damage” to electricity networks mainly in north-east Scotland, affecting 135,000 properties.

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  • Scientists working on the Search For The Lost Fishes project have spotted the freshwater Batman River loach, which has not been seen since 1974

    A freshwater fish that scientists thought was extinct has been found in south-east Turkey, after an absence of nearly 50 years.

    “I’ve been researching this area for 12 years and this fish was always on my wishlist,” said Dr Cüneyt Kaya, associate professor at Recep Tayyip Erdoğan University. “It’s taken a long time. When I saw the distinctive bands on the fish, I felt so happy. It was a perfect moment.”

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  • Harm included cell death and occurred at levels of plastic eaten by people via their food

    Microplastics cause damage to human cells in the laboratory at the levels known to be eaten by people via their food, a study has found.

    The harm included cell death and allergic reactions and the research is the first to show this happens at levels relevant to human exposure. However, the health impact to the human body is uncertain because it is not known how long microplastics remain in the body before being excreted.

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  • Farmers and rural business owners call for stricter rules and enforcement

    Fly-tipping incidents in England increased last year, with household waste accounting for by far the biggest proportion of the problem, which has been worsened by the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

    From March 2020 to March 2021 in England, 1.13m fly-tipping incidents were dealt with by local authorities, an increase of 16% on the 980,000 reported in the previous year, according to data released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Wednesday. Higher numbers of incidents were reached in 2007-09, but the way the data is collated has changed, so direct comparisons with years before 2018 are not possible.

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  • He became a household name in the 90s, then disappeared from view. But he never stopped protesting. Now the man known as the human mole is busier than ever

    Dan works in forestry. Clare is a school counsellor. Recently, they took their youngest son to a superhero film. Their middle son loves football. They miss their eldest, Rory, who left home a few months ago.

    The Hoopers are much like any other family with three children, or they would be if Dan did not have an unusual superpower. He is the best DIY digger of tunnels in the country. And for a quarter of a century he has burrowed passageways into the paths of new roads, runways and railways that destroy the countryside and add to spiralling carbon emissions and global heating. In this strange underland, Dan has another name: Swampy.

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