SUMMERVILLE — Mitch Yawn said his property here used to be vibrant — that is, before a yard full of honeybees there were accidentally killed by plane-sprayed pesticides ordered by Dorchester County.

The kill-off, in August 2016, became a national news story. Millions of bees perished and the episode shocked and saddened conservationists already concerned about globally declining bee populations. 

It's since sparked a lawsuit by co-owners Yawn and Juanita Stanley, who claim their land still is unusable for raising bees. Their business, Flowertown Bee Farm, is a shadow of the plans the two had laid in 2016. 

"We were at the very beginning of trying to open a business and get things in order and it just devastated us," said Yawn, who said 46 hives died off. 

The mass kill also underscored the importance of good communication between public health interests and the beekeeping industry, as pollinator populations continue to struggle against a host of threats. Bees are crucial to agriculture and help pollinate about a third of commercial food crops. 

Michael Weyman investigates bee kills for Clemson University's Regulatory Services Unit, a state agency. In 20 years of doing that work, he has never seen a die-off as extensive as the one at Flowertown Bee Farm. 

Dorchester County did everything that they were supposed to under state law, putting notices in local media before the flyover happened, he said. But they did not directly call the bee farm, something that Yawn said always happened in the past before a spray. If beekeepers have advance notice, they can cover their hives and potentially protect them from the chemicals. 

Two people involved in the spray each thought the other had called the beekeepers, but neither did, Weyman said. 

"It's so unfortunate," he said, "because the whole thing could have been avoided."

Dorchester County spokeswoman Tiffany Norton said the county has not sprayed aerially since the 2016 incident. Instead, it has used trucks, a method that Norton said is "cost effective and produces similar results."

Norton declined to comment directly on the incident at Flowertown Bee Farm because of ongoing litigation. 

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A worker bee from one of Woody Weatherford's hives collects pollen on his property in Ladson on Wednesday, October 17, 2018. Lauren Petracca/ Staff

World-wide challenges

When Dorchester hired a plane to spray pesticides over the county two years ago, they were reacting to an issue that public health officials worried might spread rapidly: the Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes.

But the contact chemicals that were dropped kill all kinds of adult insects, not just mosquitoes. They don't persist long in the environment like some now-banned micro-capsule formulations, Weyman said, but if they're sprayed during the day while bees are foraging, they can kill. 

Bee populations across the world have been on a steep decline for more than a decade as apiarists report mass die-offs, and pesticides can be a factor. The pollinators face a host of additional challenges: the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, parasitic mites, invasive beetles, loss of habitat and competition for pollen and nectar all play a role. 

"If it was one thing, we could focus on dealing with that one problem, but when there are multiple interacting factors, it becomes more difficult to tackle," said Jennifer Tsuruda, an apiculture specialist with Clemson University. 

According to a survey by the national Bee Informed Partnership, South Carolina's beekeepers reported losing 30.5 percent of their colonies over the winter in 2017, on average. 

Weyman said the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory groups also take the issue of bee loss seriously and are looking for ways to protect local populations. But when a problem like Zika pops up, priorities change.

"If you’re making an application due to a clear and present human health danger, we are going to put individual humans above the bees," he said.

But awareness of bee losses has helped transform an industry that was on the decline. Woody Weatherford, a third-generation beekeeper who lives in Ladson said that not long ago, keeping hives was "a dying profession." Now, the Charleston Area Beekeepers Association has about 100 members, most of whom are hobbyists with just one or two hives. 

"It's unreal," Weatherford said. "Ten or 15 years ago, I could probably name every beekeeper in the tri-county area." 

'A lot of heartache'

At Flowertown Bee Farm in Summerville, Yawn and Stanley had worked outside of their normal jobs each week to start the business, which was meant to supply other beekeepers. The spray meant they had to clean dead bees out of almost 50 hives, and scrap the materials they were made from, out of fear the chemicals had soaked into the wood. 

To this day, Yawn said he doesn't see the same biodiversity on the land. The birds, bats and butterflies have mostly gone. 

"We had little discussions about, you know, when we see the butterflies come back or whatever, we would start (keeping bees again)," Yawn said, "and we’re not ever seeing any of that."

The spray, he said, "caused a lot of heartache."

Stanley still keeps a few hives in Cottageville, where there isn't local mosquito spraying. Cottageville also is home to the attraction Bee City, which is in Colleton County and wasn't affected by Dorchester's 2016 spray.

The business in Summerville only consists of a few beekeeping supplies these days. 

Ultimately, the state found that Dorchester hadn't technically done anything wrong in the incident, which was the first time it hired a plane to apply insecticide. The county later apologized

Allen Aviation, the company that sprayed over Summerville that day, was never cited by state regulators, a decision that Weyman said caused "a lot of flak." The company is run by Al Allen, an Horry County Council member who also sprays along the Grand Strand. 

Shanda Allen, Al Allen's wife and the owner of Allen Aviation, declined to comment because her husband and the company are both named as defendants in the ongoing lawsuit. 

Improved communication

Weatherford, who has been tending bees for decades, said the die-off at Flowertown was alarming when it happened and provoked a lot of discussion in the beekeeping community.

His hives were unaffected because they're in Berkeley County. Still, he said Berkeley officials have gotten more diligent about directly warning beekeepers before a spray. Also, they usually spray at night, when bees aren't foraging. 

"The spraying has gotten a lot better now than what it was," he said. 

On the state level, Weyman's office has hired a liaison since the 2016 spray who is dedicated to educating pesticide applicators about the dangers to bees and beekeepers about how to protect their nests. 

One other option to minimize accidental sprays is a mandatory registry showing the location of bee hives. Some other states require that, but not South Carolina. Many counties have their own voluntary lists of hive locations, and Clemson has its own mapping program

Registries can backfire, however. Some beekeepers worry about nest vandalism if their locations are publicly available. Weatherford said he was skeptical about adding another layer of regulation to the industry.

As pollination costs have risen, the hives themselves have become hot commodities. In places like California, where bees are crucial to the state's large almond-growing industry, beekeepers watch the hives as they work so the boxes don't end up missing. 

But ultimately, beekeepers and pesticide sprayers need to communicate. Weyman said that two-way channel has improved since the kill-off at Flowertown Bee Farm. 

"The relationship dynamic between the applicators and the beekeepers has really begun to change," he said, "and it's no longer an adversarial relationship."

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.