While tempers flared over the local spread of the mosquito-born Zika virus in Miami, it was business as usual 40 miles south in Homestead, Florida.
“Out here, people work outside and so they are very aware of not wanting to have mosquitos,” said Louise King, a lychee and sapodilla grower and vice president of the Tropical Fruit Growers Association. “We are not feeling any effects of concern about Zika. We don’t have many mosquitos and we are a bit inland. Out here, people are outdoors and they make sure they are not creating an environment where the mosquito could breed.”
The previous evening, King met with fruit growers from the nearby town of Redland and said the consensus was that while Zika and its potential effects to the unborn are a public health concern, its potential to interfere with the agricultural workforce was unfelt.
Jim Stribling, manager for the Miami-Dade County Fruit & Spice Park in Homestead, said he is making sure there is no standing water.
“As far as any agricultural impact we aren’t seeing it yet,” he added. “We haven’t had any widespread aerial spraying so there’s no impact to our pollinators. Most of the concern is concentrated in the urban areas. In rural, agricultural areas we haven’t seen any impact.”
Conversation about Zika is common, said Jeff Wasielewski, commercial tropical fruit crops Extension agent with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) in Homestead. He had just left a county agricultural advisory committee meeting at which Zika was discussed.
“We spoke about it this morning and the importance of giving good advice to use repellents, cover arms and legs. At this point, it is not a major concern but it is being talked about a lot,” he said. “But at this point, it is not a major issue where I am getting a lot of phone calls where people are panicking.”
Calls to larger growers in other parts of the Southeast were unreturned or company representatives were unwilling to discuss whether the spread of the Zika virus could have an impact on agricultural workers.
“There’s obviously concern just like any place else,” said Mike Carlton, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association. “But it certainly isn’t having any impact on recruitment because finding labor for agriculture is already extremely difficult. I don’t think we are seeing anything other than what we normally see. There probably has been a significant increase in the usage of repellants and making sure growers are getting those in the hands of their workers, but beyond that we really haven’t heard much.”
Florida as Zika’s ground zero
Florida has been the only state to report local transmission of the Zika virus, although more than 3,000 “travel-associated” cases have been reported nationwide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. The 43 local cases reported by the CDC resulted from bites of the Aedes species mosquito, also known as Ae. Aegypti and Ae. Albopictus. The mosquitos become infected when they feed on an infected person.
Zika symptoms are considered mild, but pregnant women can pass the illness to unborn children potentially causing severe brain defects. Sorting out the virus’ true local presence created new tension in September. Florida officials were accused of undercounting the number of Zika cases by not including out-of-state residents who acquired Zika there. The Florida Department of Health reported 56 nontravel related infections in September, and 80 involving pregnant women.
Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County locals expressed concern about aerial spraying. Florida Gov. Rick Scott flew to Washington, D.C., to lobby congressional leaders for funding to fight the virus.
“We’ve known about Zika for a long time,” said CDC Spokesperson Benjamin Haynes. “It’s not until we made the connection with birth defects that this became a bigger issue.”
Mitigating mosquito bites
Fortunately, the Zika virus is not transmitted mosquito-to-mosquito, but Haynes noted knocking down the insect’s population is crucial for slowing its spread.
“The biggest thing is to prevent mosquito bites in the first place,” said Haynes, who points out that Zika infection was five times higher in U.S. territories where temperatures are warmer, the mosquito season is longer and air conditioning is not as prevalent.
No local transmissions have been reported in Georgia, but growers there continue to do their part to protect agriculture workers. A large vegetable grower in south Georgia, who asked not to be named, works with a local clinic to educate workers about prevention, symptoms and risks. To date, the company has not noticed any decrease in the number of willing workers due to threat of the virus.
Workers are encouraged to wear long sleeves and the company provides air-conditioned workrooms. In the main eating area, which is screened, blowers are located near doors. Screens to workrooms are monitored and fixed if broken. And, removal of any unnecessary standing water is the rule.
Dale Murden, citrus grower and president of the Texas Citrus Mutual, expected more outreach among growers and packers as the harvest season began this fall.
“At least here in south Texas, mosquitos are just a fact of life, but there are no talks of blanket aerial spraying because we have been relatively dry,” said Murden, who grows citrus and sorghum in Harlingen. “I think you will be seeing more outreach. We are right on the Rio Grande and you want to give your crews all the information they need to protect themselves. I got a mosquito bite last night, so it’s hard to protect yourself.”
Dry conditions have been helpful for mosquito management, but Murden said tropical storm season could change conditions quickly.
“You’ll have to react on the fly as conditions change,” he adds.
Zika fallout: Pollinators take hit from aerial spraying
The death of several million bees in South Carolina in September highlighted what can be an unintended consequence of efforts to prevent the Zika virus.
“Public health has got to be our No. 1 goal, but it’s (about) communication and allowing the beekeeper to take care of their bees prior to spraying,” said Steve McNeely, president of the South Carolina Beekeepers Association. “Communication is the most important thing we can do.”
For the first time in more than a decade, Dorchester County officials approved aerial spraying for mosquitos after learning of travel-associated infections of the Zika virus among local residents.
While officials claimed they posted notice of the planned spray online and alerted beekeepers who are part of the mosquito control registry by phone or email, word didn’t trickle down to everyone.
“They did notify me in the past when the spraying was done by truck,” said Nita Stanley, who initially estimated losing about 3 million bees among the 46 beehives at her Flowertown Bee Farm and Supply in Summerville. She now estimates that possibly three times that number perished. She knew of a few other hobby hives affected by the spraying.
The pesticide used by Dorchester County was naled, which is recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for control of the Aedes aegypti, a mosquito that transmits Zika virus. The pesticide, an organophosphate (OP) that has been registered since 1959, is toxic to bees. Many municipal users like naled because of its low toxicity to mammals.
Naled is banned in Europe and has been for several years. However, all aerial spraying is banned in Europe.
McNeely pointed out that the naled works “as it comes down in a wet form and kills everything it comes in contact with and when it hits the ground, it’s done.” Ground spraying technology, which is more common, uses a different chemical with lower dosage and is typically not sprayed on bees because of spraying times and because notice has been given and hives are somewhat protected.
“It appears to me it was a quick decision,” said Stanley. She has operated Flowertown for a year and said she is one of several generations of beekeepers. “They have apologized for not calling me, but that really doesn’t bring back my bees.”
Stanley leases her bees to area growers.
“I have clients who have ordered bees for pollination in the spring,” she said. “This has heightened the importance of manmade decisions. Bees are being driven toward extinction and a lot of that is the decisions we make. Think about the long-term effects of aerial spraying.”
Beekeepers and growers in the Southeast expressed concern about the threat of the local spread of the Zika virus via mosquito, although Florida is the only state to have recorded a local spread.
They also spoke about the delicate balance required to maintain balance in nature and between the many facets of the growing industry.
“This was a reaction to public health so they did it quickly and without any thought,” McNeely said. “That’s understandable but we’ve got to work together because we have to have bees to survive.”
Working together in growing associations is another way growing professionals can stay in the loop on spraying and other issues important to daily operations.
“If people who have bees would get involved in their local associations and become members, it’s easier to notify people when something is going on … we’ve got to be able to communicate and work together on every aspect of this. The unborn child is the one affected by the Zika virus,” McNeely said.
Stanley has the sympathy of area growers who understand the need for pollinators.
“We pay particular attention when we spray, and if we do it, it’s late in the afternoon,” said Walter Earley, who farms about 25 acres of strawberries and vegetables at Hickory Bluff Berry Farm in Holly Hill, South Carolina, and who has invested in a dozen beehives for pollination and honey. His vegetable offerings include squash, zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale.
“It’s a shame because there’s not a lot of honeybees to start with,” said Earley, who was not affected by spraying and whose farm is about 30 miles from Summerville.
“Everyone has a responsibility in everything they do and you can’t blame other people. Bees are a necessity if you want your crops pollinated.”
Growers may be giving more thought to the messages they share with farmworkers.
“When we talk about creating communication around a health topic, you need to be aware of the populations who aren’t going to receive the message in order to tailor it to everyone,” said Chelly Richards, senior project director for public health at Farmworker Justice. “Maybe these people need the information delivered in Spanish or in a more appropriate way so that they can understand it.” That means presenting the information in terms that anyone can readily understand.
“Sometimes if it is in English or higher level Spanish the message doesn’t get across,” Richards said. “Some workers have an indigenous first language. The message needs to get to them in a way that works.”
And, while women and their unborn children are at greatest risk with Zika virus, men infected with the illness are bringing it closer to home.
“We also know now that Zika can be transmitted in other ways, so there is a lot we are learning and everyone needs to hear information that is correct,” Richards said. “I think people feel a little scared, so they just need the right information to protect themselves.”