Hartley Magazine

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The night sprayers

As late as 2020, gardeners could just walk into a shop and buy neonicotinoids over the counter. A century on, we’re still paying the price.

Zilla pressed the canister to her ear. ‘They’re barely buzzing – and it’s so hot again. You sure they’re OK?’ Inside the porous container, she could just make out the scurrying sound of tiny hairy legs. ‘They’re good – they just haven’t picked anything up yet. These bumbles were bred for nights like this – they only get grumpy over 35°,’ said Rafe, as he strapped his night-visor to his forehead. ‘It’s only 29.’ It was pitch dark, and they were ready to set off.

‘OK, Zil: checklist. Sniffers calm and watered?’


‘Seekers charged and loaded?’


‘Phones receiving and online?’


‘Night-visors on?’


‘Water bottles full?’


‘Tyres pumped?’


‘OK, let’s ride!’

Gardens, allotments, parks and every scrap of green space were now protected and dedicated to stabilising and rebuilding wild populations, especially of insects.

They’d been on night patrol together now for three weeks. Having breezed the Nature Advocacy & Protection Programme, Zilla was among the new ‘nappers’ shadowing a night rider. Although their sniffers had only given false buzz alerts since she’d joined Rafe, she loved the nocturnal work, and craved action. The nights were truly dark since the Darkness Act had halted the crash in wildlife numbers caused by artificial lighting. Goulson’s Law had come in alongside it, banning the use of pesticides and weedkillers in towns and cities, which were now the only refuge for wildlife that had all but disappeared from the polluted agrilands. Gardens, allotments, parks and every scrap of green space were now protected and dedicated to stabilising and rebuilding wild populations, especially of insects.

Ding. ‘That your nan, Zil?’ Rafe asked as they stopped for water. ‘Yup. She’s off to the cooler. Kent’s back on Night Killer Alert,’ said Zilla, reading her nan’s text. ‘Drink, Zil, she’ll be fine.’ Rafe smiled, proffering the tube from her water bottle. ‘The CoolCentres are working well; she’ll be in safe hands until it cools off again. Old folk like chilling out together,’ he said, winking. Zilla sucked hard, nodding, then drew a deep breath. ‘I know. I just worry, that’s all. This is the twelfth Lucifer in a row. I mean, we can’t even call them killer heatwaves any more, just ‘Lucifer events’.’ Ding. Zilla’s eyes shot to Rafe’s blue-lit face. ‘Action?’

They were briefed as they cycled across town, rubber squeaking on soft tarmac. Napper intel was reporting illegal pesticide use in a cluster of gardens on … ‘You’re kidding me, right?’ said Zilla. ‘Nope, Hive Street’s real. It’s where most of the honey here came from until the ’noids wiped the hives out in the late 2000s.’ Zilla felt a vibration in her backpack as they pulled up at the end of the street. ‘Not much doubt, but let’s double-check,’ Rafe said, handing Zilla the canister. She pressed the luminous button. A fan drew the thick, humid night air into the canister of sniffers, which then thrummed in her hand. ‘They can smell it loud and clear. You wanted action, Zil, we got action. Drink.’

Zilla knelt on the pavement, the row of terraced houses in front of her a black silhouette against the Milky Way, and opened the box of seekers. Whispering, Rafe explained how this job was probably linked to sales of ’noids on the black market; farmers – who could still legally use rationed pesticides under strict regulation – making extra cash by selling them to renegade gardeners. ‘The sniffers don’t usually get this buzzed up – must be a nasty one they don’t make any more. Those seekers ready to fly, Zil?’

As each of the dozen tiny drones powered up, the yellow stripes on their metallic abdomens glowed for a few seconds and the propellers on their backs began their barely audible whirring. ‘They’re just locking onto the chemical trace,’ said Zilla. Her heart pounded as green dots appeared next to each of the metallic bees.

‘Okay, Zil: launch time. Better check the night-visor link’s working. Don’t forget, we’ll see everything the seekers do, and it might not be pretty.’ Ding. ‘Enforcement riders aren’t far off now. Once we’ve recorded enough evidence, we bring the seekers back, then we scoot. Enforcement will knock on the doors.’ As the last green dot lit up, Zilla rubbed her hands together. Action! ‘All locked on, Rafe. I’ll switch them to seek mode!’ As each seeker took off from its dock, Zilla and Rafe felt a brief, cooling downdraft as it rose and then hovered overhead. ‘Turn your night-visor on, Zil, and let’s go see what’s happening.’

The row of terraced houses in front of her a black silhouette against the Milky Way.

As the bumblebee-like seekers, their abdomens now unlit, glided up and over the roofs, Rafe and Zilla saw in their visors what the drones saw with their night-vision eyes. ‘Let’s hold them here for a bit,’ said Rafe, tapping the control panel on his phone. The back of each of the terraced houses had a long, narrow garden, some with lawns, others with greenhouses, sheds, fruit and vegetable patches. Bats and moths sped through the claggy air, but the movement on the ground was slower. Four shirtless, sweating men, wearing only knapsack sprayers – and night-vision goggles – were moving around their gardens, dousing everything in sight. ‘Why spray everything? Surely they’re not going to eat that stuff?’

Rafe shrugged. ‘Always beats me. I guess they’re worried about being caught, so everything gets a quick soaking. Trouble is, this stuff stays in the soil for years.’ Ding. ‘The feeds to base are good; the recording’s fine. Let’s get closer.’ Another tap and the seekers began to descend. ‘Look,’ said Zilla, ‘there’s another one, in that shed.’ In the monochrome picture playing before their eyes, they saw a man in string vest, shorts and wellies, taking liquid from a large tub. ‘Get a seeker to zoom in on that, Zil. It’ll be solid evidence if we can record any labels.’ She tapped her screen and a drone closed in on the shed.

They watched the men at work. As each knapsack was emptied, it was taken back to the shed where a full one was waiting. Neighbouring gardens – unbeknown to their sleeping owners – were also getting a dose of ’noids. ‘We’ve got enough footage, Zil – time for samples. Try the runner beans, they’re the tallest.’ Three seekers moved through the darkness, hovering quietly above the dripping bean plants. As their metallic, pin-like legs touched the leaves, each one sucked up some of the spray. ‘Good stuff. We’re almost done, Zil. Let’s go closer and try for some face shots.’

As the seekers descended to head height, Rafe and Zilla saw the sprayers’ flushed, sweaty faces. ‘They must be – whoa!’ Zilla jumped back as a pair of goggled eyes peered straight into hers, then jumped again as a hand swiped in front of what felt like her nose. ‘Damn, they’ve rumbled us, Zil. No worries, we’ve got more than enough evidence. Let’s get the seekers out – they know we’ll be nearby.’ Rafe tapped his phone and the drones quickly rose upwards, hovering high above the night sprayers. A couple of them cursed, striking at the darkness with their hoes. Zilla caught Rafe smiling. ‘What? Aren’t we gonna recall them?’

‘You know, Zil, it’s a real shame the neighbours can’t see what’s happening.’

‘How could they – it’s so dark, and everyone’s asleep. The sprayers won’t risk waking anyone.’

‘They won’t, but… there’s nothing stopping us.’ They looked at each other, and smiled. Rafe tapped the screen. The sprayers looked up as one, bemused, as a dozen now glowing, yellow-striped abdomens began to circle above them. Two of them ducked into the shed, just before the whole area was bathed in dazzling white light, beaming in wide arcs from the heads of the seekers. Dogs barked. House lights went on. Curtains parted. Back doors opened. Owls scarpered.

The enforcement riders arrived just as the last seeker landed on its dock, its propeller slowing. ‘Top night, Zil, you did great. Now, the sniffers need some nectar, and we need breakfast.’ Ding. Zilla blew out a breath. ‘Nan’s doing fine. Not slept so well, but says she’s well chilled.’

Text and images © John Walker

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener