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Chemical Sprayers—Buzz Off !

Updated: Jun 1

One recent afternoon, the sun was shining, and two bumble bees were engaged in a courtship dance as they buzzed around one another in my pollinator garden. But later, after returning from an errand, I spotted a dead bumble bee in the driveway. Had we run over it with the car?


Feeling guilty, I went inside and searched online to try to discover if cars are hazardous for bees—yet another way we are inadvertently endangering already endangered critters. What I came up with was a long list of businesses and home recipes for how to get rid of "pesky" bees.  Ugh!


Thankfully, a more reliable source sits by my bedside. According to Ed Yong, who writes about sensory perceptions in An Immense World, animals have vastly different ways of seeing, and perceiving. While a bee's visual acuity isn't as sharp as ours, they see faster.


This means that flying insects are among the animals that can process frames per second, or hertz, more rapidly than humans; this is called critical flicker-fusion frequency, or CFF. Yong writes that to a particularly speedy fly, a human boxing match would look like tai chi.

In good light, humans operate at about 60 CFF, but a bumble bee, according to the Journal of Apiculture, sees at 110 CFF. So did I kill the bee? Probably not, but we are killing our pollinators in other ways.

A few days later while walking the dogs, I spotted one of those mosquito prevention companies fogging a neighbor's yard. As the breeze propelled the chemical fog into surrounding areas, I waited at a distance for the air to clear before approaching. Despite the safety proclamations doled out by marketers, I don't want myself, the dogs, or our pollinators getting into the toxic vapors.


There are two ways to control mosquito populations: one is by killing the larvae and the other is by killing adult mosquitoes. Killing the larvae is considered the more environmentally friendly practice. Mosquito dunks, which contain Bti, are readily available. They work well in ponds, low-lying areas that collect water, and bird baths.


Targeting adult mosquitoes gives immediate relief, but the chemicals don't only affect these pests. According to Gene McMillen, an ISA certified arborist and a pesticide license holder through the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, it's important to consider the "mode of action" utilized by the chemicals.  


Generally, adult mosquito-control chemicals contain either neonicotinoids or pyrethroids. They work in two different ways, or in two different modes of action, McMillen says. "One locks the nerve synapse open so it's overloaded and the insect dies, the other blocks the synthesis. In other words, it blocks the receptor so that the chemical and electrical charge can't cross the nerve synapse. It's either locking it open or inhibiting it."


"Here's the important part," McMillen says. "That synapse works the same across a multitude of insects. So, there's no way that a person could make the claim. 'Oh, no—our product only targets mosquitoes.' That's just not possible."


So, on the day I skirted the mosquito-foggers with my dogs, a few hours later, a salesman with "Eco-Shield" on his shirt walked up my driveway. The dogs went haywire. When I got to the door and saw him ready to launch into his pitch, I waved him away. "I'm not buying. Your product hurts pollinators," I told him. He turned to leave, but then hesitated and started to approach again. He must have noticed my stern teacher glare because he stopped short.


Pollinators are not the only ones that suffer. Human illnesses such as Parkinson's Disease have been connected to the use of pesticides, which is an umbrella term that applies to any substance designed to control pests, including insecticides. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA has issued a Worker Safety Standard pertaining to pesticide use through private companies and agricultural operations to try to reduce the health impacts of pesticide exposure among workers.


Given all of this, I still wouldn't say we can never ever use insecticides. Sometimes mosquitoes spread diseases like the West Nile Virus, and some people are allergic to bee stings, but we can surely use these poisons less frequently. If you simply must spray an insecticide, consider doing it on a still day when temperatures are low, below 50F, and the pollinators are not active. Don't spray around flowers.


In many quarters, bees still have an image problem. Their services, pollinating plants and foods we need and love, are too often taken for granted as we fixate on a potential bee sting. But if you're not allergic, why not just give the bees some space?







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I hike along the Cynwyd Station Trail between Bala Cynwyd and the bridge to Manyunk. There are gardens alongside and those that are tended and weeded have signs that are visible. They alert people that the use of insecticides harms the bees and other wildlife that share the trail with us. They should put up gigantic signs along the roadways so people can be aware.

Jun 01
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Yes, it's amazing how many harmful products are marketed as "environmentally friendly."

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