Give Bees a Chance

by Mark Powers and Karen Lauterbach, Extension Master Gardener Volunteers

Last summer we noted with concern the rapid proliferation of roadside signs advertising spraying to rid yards of mosquitoes and ticks.

Photo by Mark Powers

We have kept honey bees for several years and shuddered to think of the risks these chemical ‘treatments’ would pose to our hard working bees. Last week, we saw the signs nearby, with one across the street from our hives.

Honey bees face multiple challenges in 2019, the worst being the parasitic varroa mites that invaded North America in 1987. These mites attach to honey bee larvae and adults, drain them of vital fluids, and infect them with destructive viruses. We test and treat for mites on a regular basis to control this blight and keep our hives alive. We don’t need another insult to our honey bees, especially one that is man-made.

There are safe, effective ways to control mosquitoes, such as removing any standing water from your property.  North Carolina State University’s Dr. Michael Waldvogel, an Extension specialist in Entomology and Plant Pathology, points out some of the risks of chemical treatments. Pyrethroid pesticides, he explains, do not selectively eliminate mosquitoes and ticks. They kill all insects, including beneficial species like ladybugs, butterflies, and honey bees. Pesticides may knock down mosquitoes for short periods of time. For some application methods this is measured in hours. Mosquitoes don’t respect property lines, and ticks may return on the hides of passing deer and squirrels soon after a yard is sprayed. The $40 a month for spraying can buy little.

Honey bees forage for their nutrition as far away as three miles during daylight hours while plants are blooming. Spraying during these hours is most hazardous to pollinators. If bees forage on toxin-coated plants, they may not make it home. If they do, they could share chemicals with their hive mates.

An online resource, DriftWatch, aims to inform pesticide sprayers about locations of beehives across North Carolina. Homeowners can view the locations of hives near them, and all beekeepers should be sure to register their hives.

As the weather warms, signs advertising spraying for mosquitoes and ticks will sprout like dandelions. But think before you act. If you use practical and nontoxic pest management strategies, you can avoid sprays that indiscriminately kill the insects in your yard and introduce toxins into your environment. Many of our bugs are helpful.

Give bees a chance.


Sources & Further Reading

An article by Dr. Michael Waldvogel describing safe, effective ways to control mosquitoes:

Drift Watch:


Bites and Stings

By Ann Barnes, EMGV

The past week has been a tough one for this gardener. First, I disturbed a hidden fire ant mound and received multiple stings on both ankles. Two days later, while weeding near my mailbox I came too close to a new wasp nest and was stung through my garden glove. Fortunately, I have a well-stocked first aid kit handy and was able to treat the stings and return to the garden. Are you prepared for bites and stings that may happen when you’re outside?

Mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers bite in order to feed. While their bites can cause itching and may carry disease causing organisms, these insects are not venomous. To avoid bites from these insects, use repellent and wear clothing that covers the skin. Remove ticks promptly. Itchy bites can be treated with an anti-itch cream. Seek medical attention if you have symptoms of a mosquito or tick borne illness (such as headaches, fever, nausea, and muscle aches).

Bees, wasps, and fire ants sting as a defense, injecting venom with each sting. While bees can only sting once, wasps, yellow jacket, hornets, and fire ants are capable of multiple stings. Stingers are modified egg-laying structures, so only females are capable of stinging.

Fire ants swarm when their mound is disturbed. Many ants may climb onto a person, attach to the skin with their mandibles, and will begin stinging within 10 seconds. Fire ant venom causes a burning sensation. After several hours, white pustules develop at the site of the stings. If you are stung, quickly move away from the area and brush all ants from your body. Carefully wash the area and apply cold compresses. To reduce the chance of infection, avoid breaking the pustules open. Pain can be treated with over the counter analgesics, and itching with an anti itch cream.

The best defense for fire ant stings is avoidance. Wear protective clothing and avoid visible mounds. Be alert for foraging ants when weeding gardens or walking in tall grass.

Bees, wasps, and other related insects are not deterred by insect repellents, so avoidance is the best protection from stings. Protective, light colored clothing is also recommended. Avoid wearing perfumes or using highly scented soaps when working outside. Do not swat at bees or wasps. Picnic areas and garbage cans can attract some kinds of stinging insects, while others are fond of flowering plants. Be cautious and observant when near areas that wasps and bees may find attractive. Wasps, in particular, can be aggressive in guarding their nests, particularly in late summer and fall.

Bee and wasp stings can be very painful. Other symptoms include redness, swelling, and itching. If you are stung, try to remove the stinger by scraping, NOT squeezing, the area. Squeezing or using tweezers could cause more venom to be released. Ice the area or use cold compresses to reduce swelling. A topical analgesic or anti itch cream can be used if necessary. Oral analgesics or antihistamines can be taken if necessary.

Be prepared, be observant, but don’t let the fear of insect bites keep you from enjoying the outdoors!

Warning: if you or another person is stung by an insect and has any of the following symptoms:
difficulty breathing (wheezing or shortness of breath)
difficulty swallowing
loss of consciousness


The Buzz About Insect Bites and Stings

Using Insect and Tick Repellents Safely

Fire Ant Stings

Bees and Wasps

Non-Honey Bee Stinging Insects in North Carolina

Other things that might bite if you encounter them in your yard:



Caterpillars and Wheel Bugs

The Basics for Maintaining Your Rain Barrel

by Wendy Diaz

The recent international health alert of the Zika virus1, which is transmitted by infected mosquitoes, has me pondering all the rain barrels in Durham County that were installed after the 2007 drought and whether or not they are sufficiently maintained to avoid them becoming breeding vessels for mosquitoes.  According to the best surveillance estimate by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), North Carolina is within the potential range2 of the Aedes aegypti mosquito; the species of mosquito most likely to spread viruses like Zika.  The CDC cautions that the maps they provide “do not necessarily mean that there are infected mosquitoes in the area” so don’t panic yet.  According to the CDC, no local mosquito-borne Zika virus case has been reported in mainland United States but there have been travel-associated cases.  I am using this news item to remind gardeners and homeowners that their rain barrel requires some light maintenance so they continue to operate optimally as a useful supplemental storage for our watering needs and to prevent them from becoming a health and safety hazard!

Mosquitoes need standing water to complete their life cycle3.  Most species of mosquitoes require at least 10 to 14 days to complete the aquatic stage of their life cycle (egg-larva-pupa).  Modifying or eliminating breeding sites is the only long-term solution to severe mosquito problems3.  To prevent adult female mosquitoes from laying eggs in your rain barrel some routine maintenance3,4 is recommended.

Basic maintenance

  1. Drain your rain barrels regularly.
  2. Clean gutters of debris as needed and at least seasonally so they drain well and don’t accumulate water.
  3. Wash and flush gutters annually5
  4. Check mosquito screens periodically to make sure they are secure without gaps and are not blocked by debris.  Replace the screens if they have any holes.
  5. Seasonally drain sediment-laden water through the bottom valve especially after pollen season.
  6. Check gutter connections after intense rainfall or storms for damage and check gutter connections every 3 to 4 months for damage.
PastedGraphic-1 (1)
Debris accumulation on the screen of a rain barrel after a light rain. Photo by Wendy Diaz April 12, 2016

It is not recommended that bleach be added to your rain barrel because it can be damaging to other aquatic life if you use your rainwater for multiple purposes other than watering plants (e.g. fish pond or bird bath) and there are less harmful methods available that are more environmentally friendly6.  If you check your rain barrel and see larvae or “wrigglers” you can do one of the following7:

  1. Pour a few teaspoons of vegetable oil in the water.  This will suffocate mosquito larvae on the surface of the water.
  2. Put mosquito dunks in the rain barrel water.  This solid commercial formulation is a larvaecide and contains the bacteria (Bti, Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis) and it kills feeding mosquito larvae and does not harm humans, animals or plants.

Basic Safety:

  1. Label your rain barrel to remind others that the water is for non-potable/outdoor water use only and Do Not Drink!4
  2. Rinse thoroughly if you bleach your barrel to remove algae.  I use a dilute solution of laundry solution after pollen season in late April.

Most rain barrels purchased commercially and those adapted from other uses do not have a overflow or outflow in sufficient diameter to release water when the barrel reaches its capacity resulting in overflows during a major storm.  A ‘waterfall effect’ can cause erosion of the soil beneath the rain barrel.  And for this reason, make sure the overflow is aimed away from the foundation of your house.7  To avoid this, the rain barrel overflow must be able to handle the same flow as the gutter system feeding into the rain barrel4

No doubt, over the years you have learned the limitations of your rain barrel collection system or it is old and is not performing optimally and realize it is time for some upgrades to decrease maintenance and increase sustainability.  A leaf eater or some sort of filter will help divert debris and leaves from your rain barrel.  A first flush diverter reduces the level of pollutants and debris in your rain barrel.  A first flush water diverter diverts the first few gallons of rainfall (the most polluted) from your gutter and away from your rain barrel9.  

Figure Source: online at

Basic Upgrades:

  1. If you have a light-colored barrel consider painting it a dark color or covering it with wood-like wrap to prevent sunlight penetration and algae growth.
  2. If you use corrugated piping to connect overflow to your rain garden use a smooth sided flexible piping so that water does not accumulated in the creases and provide habitat for breeding mosquitoes.
  3. Install a first flush diverter or a leaf eater to block debris.

Does your rain barrel set-up have the components shown in the figure below8?  If not, consider some upgrades and don’t forget your basic maintenance.  Harvest rainwater without your rain barrel becoming a mosquito nursery!

Fig. 1: A Large Rain Barrel (Van Giesen and Carpenter 2009). Figure Source online at:
Fig. 1: A Large Rain Barrel (Van Giesen and Carpenter 2009).
Figure Source online at:


  1. Herald-Sun, The (Durham, NC); February 24, 2016.  Keith Upchurch Spring to bring Zika-carrying mosquitoes.
  5. 2011_Annual_Meeting_Handouts/MONB10_From_Catchment_to_Reuse_Designing%20and%20Implementing%20RAinwater%20Harvesting%20Systems.pdf


Further reading: