Massacre at Flowertown
Mitch Yawn knew something was wrong long before he got to the hives.
“I got a phone call. I was at work—working on an air conditioner. And she was—oh my God, she was just devastated,” he says.
“She” was Juanita Mae Stan-ley, Yawn’s then-fiancée and co-owner of the Flowertown Bee Farm in Dorchester County, South Carolina. Yawn and Stanley had started the farm a year earlier, with the goal of raising bees to sell to honey makers and hobbyists across the South. So far, they had 46 hives—a modest size, as bee farms go. That means Stanley and Yawn owned somewhere around 2.5 million bees.
On this muggy morning in August 2016, most of them were dead.
It was a firefighter who noticed the dead bees first. Piles of them littered the ground near the firehouse, not far from the meadow near the small lake where Yawn and Stanley had established their apiary. He called Stanley, who called Yawn after seeing the carnage.
“There were just dead bees everywhere,” Yawn recalls. “They were sweeping them up by the panful.”
The bees were dead because, according to court documents, the head of the county’s Mosquito Abatement Division, Clayton “Scott” Gaskins, had ordered a plane to spray deadly insecticides over portions of the county. Gaskins in turn had been directed by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), which had ordered the use of insecticides to target mosquitos that could be carrying the Zika virus, and by the Dorchester County Council, which had ordered the aerial spraying after Gaskins reported that trucks and ground-based crews could not access some of the DHEC’s target areas.
The spray killed the bees, and with them Yawn and Stanley’s nascent business.
It’s a pattern that is now familiar to all too many Americans: To stop the spread of a potentially deadly disease, government officials took sweeping actions that had direct and devastating consequences for small business owners.
When the couple demanded compensation from the county for the losses, the courts rejected their suit. The legal justification? The “police power” doctrine, which enjoys decades of judicial precedent.
Over the last hundred-odd years, police powers have been cited to justify intrusive state-based vaccination requirements and invoked to shield local governments from having to compensate homeowners whose property was destroyed by SWAT teams or flooded by the Army Corps of Engineers. In short, the doctrine gives states and localities vast authority to act in the name of public health, regardless of the consequences.
At the moment it happened, the killing of millions of bees at the Flowertown Bee Farm had nothing to do with COVID-19, which was still years away. But those same police powers provided the legal justification for lockdown orders imposed during the pandemic, including the closing of restaurants, stores, and other “nonessential” businesses for arbitrary lengths of time. Police powers are the reason the Flowertown bees died, the reason their owners have yet to receive any recompense, and the reason those whose businesses and livelihoods were harmed by COVID-19 restrictions are currently unlikely to be compensated via the legal system.
Yawn and Stanley’s legal battle has dragged on for years, and it may well fail. But it also may already have opened a way forward for property owners injured by the exercise of police powers. Contained within one of the rulings in the Flowertown case is a reason to hope that courts will finally start offering greater scrutiny when governments abuse private property rights in pursuit of the so-called public good.
The Smell of Death
It’s hard to believe it happened more than five years ago, Yawn says.
“One of the things that I remember the most about [the bee farm] is that if you walked into that area, it would smell so fresh and clean. It had a different sort of atmosphere, you know? It was buzzing and alive,” he says. “The bees would just be zipping around. I don’t really have the words for it. All these bees were busy at work.”
It was quite the opposite when he arrived on the scene after Stanley’s phone call. A few days later, when the two beekeepers went down to the apiary to do the real clean-up—after some scientists from Clemson University arrived to take samples of the dead bees and soil—it was even worse. “There was the smell of death,” he recalls. “Rancid. Horrible.”
Massive honeybee die-offs are not unheard of. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a phenomenon in which worker bees will suddenly abandon a hive en masse, leaving a helpless queen behind to die. Beekeepers are familiar with this, even though scientists still aren’t sure why it happens.
But the collapse of a bee colony ends up looking a lot like the mysterious disappearance of the human colony on Roanoke Island in nearby North Carolina: The bees mostly vanish without a trace. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “sudden loss of a colony’s worker bee population with very few dead bees found near the colony” is the best indicator of CCD.
What happened at the Flowertown Bee Farm, less than an hour inland from Charleston, was no mysterious disappearance. The Clemson review was inconclusive—despite the fact that investigators found “bees with behaviors consistent with pesticide exposure”—probably because samples weren’t taken soon enough. Still, it didn’t take long to identify the culprit.
“Dorchester County is aware that some beekeepers in the area that was sprayed on Sunday lost their beehives,” County Administrator Jason Ward told local media outlets the day after Yawn and Stanley found their hives wiped out. “I am not pleased that so many bees were killed.”
In the morning hours on Sunday, August 28, a plane had zig-zagged across Dorchester County to spray Naled, a common insecticide that kills adult mosquitoes on contact by paralyzing their respiratory systems. Though it can be dangerous to humans in high enough concentrations—and has been banned by the European Union since 2012—Naled breaks down quickly after being sprayed and is generally harmless to mammals and birds.
Unfortunately for Stanley and Yawn and their 2.5 million winged employees, Naled is highly toxic to bees. They weren’t alone. “I just can’t wrap my head around the idea that we spray poison from the sky,” amateur beekeeper Andrew Macke told a local ABC affiliate a few days after the incident.
The aerial spraying was meant to stop the potential threat of the Zika virus, a blood-borne disease that can cause serious birth defects if transferred in vitro from mother to child. An outbreak of the disease in Latin America during 2015–16 raised alarm about transmission by mosquitoes within the United States, though the vast majority of Americans who were infected caught the virus while traveling abroad.
In response to the potential for a Zika outbreak, South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control “urged local jurisdictions to bolster their mosquito control programs heading into the summer months.” In Dorchester County, that responsibility fell to Gaskins. According to court documents, he had deployed two trucks to spray Naled but was concerned about potential mosquitos in parts of the county the trucks could not reach.
On Friday, August 26, county officials issued a press release announcing plans for aerial spraying of insecticides on Sunday morning. In court documents, attorneys for Dorchester County argued that Gaskins maintained a list of registered beekeepers and that he had made calls to them—not as a matter of policy, but as a courtesy—to warn of the upcoming aerial spray.
For reasons that remain unclear, Flowertown Bee Farm was not called, even though it was on the county’s list. The pilot who conducted the aerial spray on August 28, an Air Force veteran now working as a contractor for Allen Aviation, was provided with maps showing areas to be sprayed and areas to be avoided—including the location of known beehives in the county. He told investigators that he did not knowingly spray Naled onto the bee farms.
To limit the potential threat of Naled to bee colonies, the federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends spraying the insecticide between dusk and dawn, when bees are mostly inside their hives. Sunrise in coastal South Carolina during the final week of August occurs around 7 a.m. According to court documents, the spraying that occurred on August 28 took place between 6:30 and 8:30 in the morning.
In the end, a combination of a public health panic, an overly aggressive government response, poor timing, and a few other fateful mistakes along the way led to the deaths of Stanley and Yawn’s bees. Accident or not, they wanted compensation for the loss of
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