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Don Gentile keeps honey bees, like this healthy bunch, in his Branford backyard apiary. Recently, one of his colonies experienced the deaths of thousands of bees, likely due to exposure to toxins in a mosquito control solution applied to a nearby property. Now, in his friendly way, he’s working to get the word out about pollinator-friendly options to help keep bees, and other pollinators, safe. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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A few weeks back, Don Gentile found thousands of his honey bees piled up, dead, at his Averill Place apiary in Branford. The culprit? Don believes it was non-pollinator friendly pesticides, sprayed as mosquito and/or tick control on a neighbor’s property by a commercial business. So, armed with a jar of honey, Don did the next logical thing: He went to visit his neighbor.
“I went up and saw them, and I brought them some honey. They didn’t know that I was a beekeeper,” says Don. “I explained the [pollinator-friendly] options, and they said that the company does have a more bee-friendly product, and they will try using that, and they’ll also try to let me know when [the company] is coming.”
If he has advance notice, Don may be able to cover his bee colonies, which is especially important if a nearby application is taking place during foraging hours. However, that creates the risk of possibly overheating the hive, which can also kill bees.
Don says some pesticides that are claimed to be safe for bees are safe, so long as the spray doesn’t get on the bees.
“It is safe, as long as it doesn’t get on them, and [companies] are supposed to do things like not spray things in bloom,” he explains.
But the most helpful thing anyone can do to help save the bees is to simply avoid using pesticides that are harmful to honey bees. Even some pest control products that can rightfully be described as “natural” are toxic to bees, including pyrethrins, which are derived from the Chrysanthemum flower and typically used in pest control products.
After successfully speaking to his neighbor, Don says his next thought was to spread the word a bit further afield.
“It prompted me to take a bit of community action. I went up and down the street, and I got everybody engaged in joining an Averill Place Facebook page,” he says. “On it, I promised I would give a jar of honey to anyone who [keeps their property] pesticide free,” says Don.
Don says he is hopeful his bee colony will recover.
Problem solved? Not quite. When you consider bees can search for pollen up to three miles from their hives, the ripple effect of non-pollinator friendly pest control applied to local landscapes is a daunting prospect, and in many cases invisible to most of us.
For Don, it was easy to see. He’s been keeping bees—Italian and Russian honey bees, to be exact—as a hobby for several years, in an apiary at the edge of his garden. The Russians were pollinating the day he believes his bees were struck by toxins. Don estimates he lost about a third of the Russian hive, probably some 3,000 to 4,000 bees.
“They sprayed on a Monday, and I went out there on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and it was heartbreaking seeing this pile of bees on the outside of the hive just getting bigger and bigger,” he says.
If it’s happening here, imagine the impact on other pollinators everywhere, from bees to butterflies and hummingbirds and even pollinator species of moths, flies, and beetles.
For the record, Connecticut is home to more than 300 species of bees alone, with honey bees being just one type. Other bees that pollinate here include, among many others, squash bees (specializing in squashes and related plants like cucumbers and pumpkins) and orchard mason bees, which pollinate many fruiting trees.
The Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) states pesticide application and pesticide “drift” (chemicals traveling from intended application areas to non-target areas) are believed to be killing bees and other insect pollinators, with the extent of damage not yet known. In 2016, Connecticut Public Act 16-17 was passed restricting the use of pesticides that cause serious harm to bees and other pollinators. The act reduces the spraying of neonicotinoid pesticides.
“In Europe, they’ve stopped using neonicotinoids, and the bee population has rebounded,” says Don.
While it may not be possible to completely eliminate pesticide use, impacts on pollinators can be reduced. Applying spray at dawn or dusk, when bees are less active, is another way to help. Avoid spraying flowering plants in bloom and consider using pesticides that are safer for bees, such as neem oil. There are also solutions like mosquito magnets that use a release regulating system to emit a small amount of CO2, and preventative tactics including removing standing water and gutter cleaning.
“Those are all bee-friendly things you can do,” says Don. “And secondly, let’s spray conditionally, instead of scheduled spraying. Spray as the condition requires.”
A dog owner, Don keeps ticks at bay outdoors with an organic tick solution that’s not toxic to pollinators, provided by a local natural lawn care company.
“I get it,” says Don of why people want keep mosquitos at bay. “I hate mosquitoes, too, and I don’t want to a get [mosquito-borne] sickness. But there are other options.”
In addition, why not invite pollinators to your yard with plants that will attract them, especially natives that bloom from early spring to late fall. DEEP recommends planting wild geranium, high bush blueberry, swamp milkweed, New Jersey tea, New England aster, and wrinkle-leaf goldenrod to assist. Native food plants will also encourage pollinators. Above all, keep any spaces created for pollinators pesticide free.
The Town of Branford’s own organic, pesticide-free program used for town parks and the Town Green is one reason why Don decided to join the Town Green Committee.
“The green is our yard,” says Don, who grew up in Branford. “It’s an amazing thing that we have. The town and the green all use pesticides that are pollinator-friendly. It’s a very progressive stance to take, and just really a cool thing to be a part of, and I’m glad to give back in that way.”
Don’s parents owned and operated the former TG (The Gentiles) Miniature Golf course at the top of Branford Hill (West Main Street/Route 1). The family property once also included neighboring land that was eventually sold to McDonald’s restaurant.
“My dad grew up on Gentile Place, and the McDonald’s was where their original farmhouse was,” says Don. “My dad and his family raised pumpkins and different things back in the day when it was an agricultural town. My mom’s family [Morse, Moss, and Coe] goes back hundreds of years, in Guilford, mostly.”
Don grew up in the antique home his parents purchased on Averill Place, which is now Don’s home with his husband, Jonathan Nichols. The couple raised three children and are enjoying grandparenthood, says Don.
Thanks to his own experience with becoming married, Don’s also a justice of the peace in town.
“About 10 years ago, gay marriage finally became legal, and when the law was passed, people were willing to [perform the ceremony], but no one was entering into it joyfully,” says Don. “So I decided to become a justice of the peace and specialize in gay marriage. Oddly enough, now, the gay marriage part of it is not the bulk of my business, but I think people see the old references [online], and I think that they really recognize somebody who’s open and affirming, and they want that to be a part of their lives.”
Don also serves on Branford’s board of the Academy on the Green and is a member of the Center Cemetery Association, which is where several members of his family tree, going back generations, rest.
“My parents are buried there, but it’s not only that—it’s about history and knowing where you came from, and it’s about preserving it so the future residents will know all about the town,” says Don, who’s working on creating an awareness project to help preserve some of the most elderly stones degrading in the cemetery.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to stimulate some interest in making that happen,” says Don, who also happens to be a marketing professional—he’s Yale New Haven Hospital’s marketing coordinator.
When it comes to creating awareness about keeping pollinators safe, Don says he’ll do his best to continue to get the word out to his neighbors and beyond, if possible.
“The only thing I can do about it is get on my little soap box, and utilize any opportunity, like this [article], to talk about it,” says Don.
“My mother had an expression, ‘You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,’” he says. “I think I’m going to modify it to, ‘You can save more bees with honey than you can with vinegar.’”
For more information on protecting pollinators, visit www.ct.gov/deep and search Pollinators in Connecticut.
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