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Monday, July 30, 2012

Give BEES a Chance

From the New York Times:

2 Studies Point to Common Pesticide as a Culprit in Declining Bee Colonies

Scientists have been alarmed and puzzled by declines in bee populations in the United States and other parts of the world. They have suspected that pesticides are playing a part, but to date their experiments have yielded conflicting, ambiguous results.
In Thursday’s issue of the journal Science, two teams of researchers published studies suggesting that low levels of a common pesticide can have significant effects on bee colonies. One experiment, conducted by French researchers, indicates that the chemicals fog honeybee brains, making it harder for them to find their way home. The other study, by scientists in Britain, suggests that they keep bumblebees from supplying their hives with enough food to produce new queens.
The authors of both studies contend that their results raise serious questions about the use of the pesticides, known as neonicotinoids.
“I personally would like to see them not being used until more research has been done,” said David Goulson, an author of the bumblebee paper who teaches at the University of Stirling, in Scotland. “If it confirms what we’ve found, then they certainly shouldn’t be used when they’re going to be fed on by bees.”
But pesticides are only one of several likely factors that scientists have linked to declining bee populations. There are simply fewer flowers, for example, thanks to land development. Bees are increasingly succumbing to mites, viruses, fungi and other pathogens.
Outside experts were divided about the importance of the two new studies. Some favored the honeybee study over the bumblebee study, while others felt the opposite was true. Environmentalists say that both studies support their view that the insecticides should be banned. And a scientist for Bayer CropScience, the leading maker of neonicotinoids, cast doubt on both studies, for what other scientists said were legitimate reasons.
David Fischer, an ecotoxicologist at Bayer CropScience, said the new experiments had design flaws and conflicting results. In the French study, he said, the honeybees got far too much neonicotinoid. “I think they selected an improper dose level,” Dr. Fischer said.
Dr. Goulson’s study on bumblebees might warrant a “closer look,” Dr. Fischer said, but he argued that the weight of evidence still points to mites and viruses as the most likely candidates for bee declines.
The research does not solve the mystery of the vanishing bees. Although bumblebees have been on the decline in the United States and elsewhere, they have not succumbed to a specific phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, which affects only honeybees.
Yet the research is coming out at a time when opposition to neonicotinoids is gaining momentum. The insecticides, introduced in the early 1990s, have exploded in popularity; virtually all corn grown in the United States is treated with them. Neonicotinoids are taken up by plants and moved to all their tissues — including the nectar on which bees feed. The concentration of neonicotinoids in nectar is not lethal, but some scientists have wondered if it might still affect bees.
In the honeybee experiment, researchers at the National Institute for Agricultural Research in France fed the bees a dose of neonicotinoid-laced sugar water and then moved them more than half a mile from their hive. The bees carried miniature radio tags that allowed the scientists to keep track of how many returned to the hive.
In familiar territory, the scientists found, the bees exposed to the pesticide were 10 percent less likely than healthy bees to make it home. In unfamiliar places, that figure rose to 31 percent.
The French scientists used a computer model to estimate how the hive would be affected by the loss of these bees. Under different conditions, they concluded that the hive’s population might drop by two-thirds or more, depending on how many worker bees were exposed.
“I thought it was very well designed,” said May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
But James Cresswell, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Exeter in England, was less impressed, because the scientists had to rely on a computer model to determine changes in the hive. “I don’t think the paper is a trump card,” he said.
In the British study, Dr. Goulson and his colleagues fed sugar water laced with a neonicotinoid pesticide to 50 bumblebee colonies. The researchers then moved the bee colonies to a farm, alongside 25 colonies that had been fed ordinary sugar water.
At the end of each year, all the bumblebees in a hive die except for a few new queens, which will go on to found new hives. Dr. Goulson and his colleagues found that colonies exposed to neonicotinoids produced 85 percent fewer queens. This reduction would translate into 85 percent fewer hives.
Jeffery Pettis, a bee expert at the United States Department of Agriculture, called Dr. Goulson’s study “alarming.” He said he suspected that other types of wild bees would be shown to suffer similar effects.
Dr. Pettis is also convinced that neonicotinoids in low doses make bees more vulnerable to disease. He and other researchers have recently published experiments showing that neonicotinoids make honeybees more vulnerable to infections from parasitic fungi.
“Three or four years ago, I was much more cautious about how much pesticides were contributing to the problem,” Dr. Pettis said. “Now more and more evidence points to pesticides being a consistent part of the problem.”

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Neonicotinoids cause massive honeybee deaths

by Heather Pilatic
In the last few weeks beekeepers have reported staggering losses in Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio after their hives foraged on pesticide-treated corn fields. Indiana too, two years ago. What's going on in the Corn Belt?
No farmer in their right mind wants to poison pollinators. When I spoke with one Iowa corn farmer in January and told him about the upcoming release of a Purdue study confirming corn as a major pesticide exposure route for bees, his face dropped with worn exasperation. He looked down for a moment, sighed and said, "You know, I held out for years on buying them GE seeds, but now I can't get conventional seeds anymore. They just don't carry 'em."
This leaves us with two questions: 1) What do GE seeds have to do with neonicotinoids and bees? and 2) How can an Iowa corn farmer find himself feeling unable to farm without poisoning pollinators? In other words, where did U.S. corn cultivation go wrong?
The short answer to both questions starts with a slow motion train wreck that began in the mid-1990s: Corn integrated pest management (IPM) fell apart at the seams. Rather, it was intentionally unraveled by Bayer and Monsanto.
Honey bees caught in the cross-fire
Corn is far from the only crop treated by neonicotinoids, but it is the largest use of arable land in North America, and honey bees rely on corn as a major protein source. At least 94 percent of the92 million acres of corn planted across the U.S. this year will have been treated with either clothianidin or thiamethoxam (another neonicotinoid).
As we head into peak corn planting season throughout the U.S. Midwest, bees will once again "get it from all sides" as they:
  • fly through clothianidin-contaminated planter dust;
  • gather clothianidin-laced corn pollen, which will then be fed to emerging larva;
  • gather water from acutely toxic, pesticide-laced guttation droplets; and/or
  • gather pollen and nectar from nearby fields where forage sources such as dandelions have taken up these persistent chemicals from soil that's been contaminated year on year since clothianidin's widespread introduction into corn cultivation in 2003.

GE corn & neonicotinoid seed treatments go hand-in-hand
Over the last 15 years, U.S. corn cultivation has gone from a crop requiring little-to-no insecticides and negligible amounts of fungicides, to a crop where the average acre is grown from seeds treated or genetically engineered to express three different insecticides (as well as a fungicide or two) before being sprayed prophylactically with RoundUp (an herbicide) and a new class of fungicides that farmers didn't know they "needed" before the mid-2000s.
A series of marketing ploys by the pesticide industry undergird this story. It's about time to start telling it, if for no other reason than to give lie to the oft-repeated notion that there is no alternative to farming corn in a way that poisons pollinators. We were once -- not so long ago -- on a very different path.
How corn farming went off the rails
In the early 1990s, we were really good at growing corn using bio-intensive integrated pest management (bio-IPM). In practice, that meant crop rotations, supporting natural predators, using biocontrol agents like ladybugs and as a last resort, using chemical controls only after pests had been scouted for and found. During this time of peak bio-IPM adoption, today's common practice of blanketing corn acreage with "insurance" applications of various pesticides without having established the need to do so would have been unthinkable. It's expensive to use inputs you don't need, and was once the mark of bad farming.
Then, in the mid-to-late 1990s, GE corn and neonicotinoid (imidacloprid) seed treatments both entered the market -- the two go hand-in-hand, partly by design and partly by accident. Conditions for the marketing of both products were ripe due to a combination of factors:
  • regulatory pressures and insect resistance had pushed previous insecticide classes off the market, creating an opening for neonicotinoids to rapidly take over global marketshare;
  • patented seeds became legally defensible, and the pesticide industry gobbled up the global seed market; and
  • a variant of the corn rootworm outsmarted soy-corn rotations, driving an uptick in insecticide use around 1995-96.
Then, as if on cue, Monsanto introduced three different strains of patented, GE corn between 1997 and 2003 (RoundUp Ready, and two Bt-expressing variants aimed at controlling the European Corn Borer and corn root worm). Clothianidin entered the U.S. market under conditional registration in 2003, and in 2004 corn seed companies began marketing seeds treated with a 5X level of neonicotinoids (1.25 mg/seed vs. .25).
... and in the space of a decade, U.S. corn acreage undergoes a ten-fold increase in average insecticide use. By 2007, the average acre of corn has more than three systemic insecticides -- both Bt traits and a neonicotinoid. Compare this to the early 1990s, when only an estimated 30-35 percent of all corn acreage were treated with insecticides at all.
Adding fuel to the fire, in 2008 USDA's Federal Crop Insurance Board of Directors approved reductions in crop insurance premiums for producers who plant certain Bt corn hybrids. By 2009,40 percent of corn farmers interviewed said they did not have access to elite (high-yielding) non-Bt corn seed. It is by now common knowledge that conventional corn farmers have a very hard time finding seed that is not genetically engineered and treated with neonicotinoids.
Enter fungicides
In 2007, what's left of corn IPM was further unraveled with the mass marketing of a new class of fungicides (strobilurins) for use on corn as yield "boosters." Before this, fungicide use on corn was so uncommon that it didn't appear in Crop Life's 2002 National Pesticide Use Database. But in the last five years, the pesticide industry has aggressively and successfully marketed prophylactic applications of fungicides on corn as yield and growth enhancers, and use has grown dramatically as a result. This despite the fact that these fungicides work as marketed less than half the time. According to this meta-analysis of efficacy studies, only "48% of treatments resulted in a yield response greater than the economic break-even value of 6 bu/acre."
Back to the bees. Neonicotinoids are known to synergize with certain fungicides to increase the toxicity of the former to honey bees up to 1,000-fold, and fungicides may be key culprits in undermining beneficial bee microbiota that do things like make beebread nutritious and support immune response against gut pathogens like Nosema. Fungicide use in corn is likewise destroying beneficial fungi in many cropping systems, and driving the emergence of resistant strains.
As with insecticides and herbicides, so too with fungicide use on corn: Corn farmers are stuck on a pesticide treadmill on high gear, with a pre-emptively pressed turbo charge button (as "insurance"). Among the many casualties are our honey bees who rely on corn's abundant pollen supply.
Keeping us all tethered to the pesticide treadmill is expected behavior from the likes of Monsanto. But what boggles the mind is that all of this is being aided and abetted by a USDA that ties cheap crop insurance to planting patented Bt corn, and a Congress that refuses to tie subsidized crop insurance in the Farm Bill to common-sense conservation practices like bio-intensive IPM. Try explaining that with a waggle dance.

Heather Pilatic is Co-director, Pesticide Action Network North America

Thursday, February 2, 2012

New Pesticides May Be Killing Off Honeybees

by Molly Cotter, Inhabitat.com

Since 2004, the number of honeybees in the U.S. has been nearly cut in half. While similar massive declines are prevalent around the world, scientists are still trying to figure out what exactly is causing the disappearance of the honeybees. A new study by the U.S. government’s premier bee expert Dr. Jeffrey Pettis suggests that nicotine-based chemicals found in popular pesticides have a dangerous effect on exposed bees and could be a major contributor to the missing bee mystery.

Bees pollinate 70% of the world’s crops, and their diminishing presence is detrimental for farmers all over the world. Dr. Pettis spent months researching bees exposed to neonicotinoid chemicals and found even the tiniest amount made them three times more vulnerable to infection. The pesticide chemical attacks bees’ immune systems, weakening their bodies and often times confusing them, leading bees to wander away and lose their colonies.

The chemicals are very popular, and they were considered an environmental breakthrough because they can be applied to the seeds of a crop rather than the plant. While this and other studies bring pesticide issues to light, others believe the bee population decline to be related to weather, developmental, or evolutionary survival issues.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Global warming and the death of Canadian forests

by Dr. Reese HalterConservation biologist, broadcaster

All is not well in the semi arid, warming oil sands of Alberta -- the second largest hydrocarbon reserves in the world; only Saudi Arabia has more. To get at the oil sands and supply the Keystone XL pipeline, its leaving Canada with a colossal carbon footprint, which has increased by 120 percent since 1990. Of all the industrial nations, Canada footprint has increased the most during this time.

An overheating climate has enabled mountain pine beetles -- nature's emissary of massive ecological change to march north and east like never before in modern or prehistoric times.

Recent data from the International Energy Agency shows that governments in developing countries pay $310 billion subsidies to oil, gas and coal companies.

So far both politicians and the public has a burgeoning disdain for climate and biological sciences that overwhelmingly shows that burning carbon-based fuels are forcing the climate and causing climate disruption, globally. Moreover, many politicians and the public are grabbing at whatever denial statements they can -- analogous to the behavior of an addict.

They can run but they cannot hide from some conspicuous and startling facts across western North America. Indigenous bark beetles, on an epic feeding frenzy fueled by rising temperatures, have killed over 60 million acres of mature pine forests. In just over a decade the beetles have killed billions of trees or enough wood to make a city of 8 million homes.

Entire hillsides and mountains are red. Those dead forests are ripe for wildfires that are costing taxpayers billions of dollars and perilously placing over four million homeowners who straddle the urban/wildland interface at high risk.

These are the irrefutable facts whether you fly, drive or peddle your bicycle across the West, I guarantee that you will encounter the wrath of the unintended consequences of spewing 82 million metric tons, daily, of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere -- death of our wild forests.

What's more is that when forest ecosystems become destabilized by rising temperatures ranging in the Northern Rocky Mountains by 2.4 degrees F to 3.6 degrees F in the Southern Rockies some organisms, like the trees -- loose; while others, like the mountain pine beetles -- win.

It's not that the bark beetles are just killing the trees but rather in less than a decade they have completely and perfectly adapted to enter Earth's northern most contiguous forest type -- the boreal or emerald crown of our planet.

Up until very recently the ecological "cold curtain" prevented the ravenous bark beetles from crossing the great continental divide. Beetles quite simply couldn't exist on the northern, eastern side of the Rocky Mountains or if they did they reproduced within 2 years and populations never reached an epidemic.

In central British Columbia over the past decade and a half the mountain pine beetles have single-handily devoured half the commercial forests or an astounding 39 million acres (enough wood to build 5 million homes). As if that weren't bad enough as those forests decay they will be releasing 250 million metric tons of greenhouse gases or the equivalent of five years of car and light truck emissions in Canada. Essentially, 39 million acres of British Columbian lodgepole pine forests that once sucked CO2 out of the atmosphere are now dead, decaying and bleeding CO2 into an ever-rising pool of accumulating heat-trapping gases.

The plot thickens, considerably. At least thrice in the last decade billions of bark beetles were sucked up into the lower stratosphere and spat out onto the eastern side of the Northern Rockies. Millions lived and successfully reproduced within a year (because temperatures have risen that dramatically) enabling populations to reach an epidemic.

In fact, in the summer of 2006, my faithful companion, "Naio", a Chesapeake Bay retriever and I were on a road trip in Northern Alberta near Grand Prairie. We were exploring a pine forest when the sky rained bark beetles on us. In almost 3 decades of working in wild forests around the globe, I've never experienced anything like it.

Mountain pine beetles carry blue stain fungi, bacteria and micro-organisms which help them overcome the tree's autoimmune system. The beetles have quickly found a strain of blue stain Leptographium longiclavatum that is adapted to the colder eastern Rocky Mountain temperatures. Furthermore, the beetles have reduced their body size and have successfully adapted too much thinner living bark spaces of the diminutive Jack pines.

Tree scientists and entomologists knew that mountain pine beetles could exist in lodgepole/Jack pine hybrids in Alberta. In the last half-decade the beetles have successfully transited from the hybrids into pure Jack pines -- an a priori.

The coast is now clear for them to march across northern Canada to the Atlantic coast and into the Jack pines of the Lake states.

Earth's natural systems for absorbing CO2 are rapidly breaking down. Let me remind you that 40 percent of the oceanic phytoplankton is missing because warming currents are preventing upwelling of cold waters carrying essential nutrients requisite for growing green life and supporting the base of the entire marine ecosystem.

The time for subsidizing toxic and life threatening carbon-based fuels is over. Imagine the breathtaking innovations in new green energies if we made available $310 billion per annum to all centers of concentrated brainpower - our colleges. And then imagine the millions of long-term jobs those green industries will create.

Politicians and the public can sneer at climate and biological sciences but how long can they turn a blind eye to the death of Mother Nature?

Earth Dr Reese Halter is a science communicator: voice for ecology and distinguished conservation biologist at California Lutheran University. His latest books are The Insatiable Bark Beetle and The Incomparable Honeybee.

Source: HuffPost

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Harlem Grown a garden of learning

NYC's poor kids invigorated by their own garden

by Alex Budman, Undergraduate student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland

The same hands that are opening the limousine door for celebrity clients such as Edward Norton, Matt Damon and Tom Hanks are planting the seeds of change in the Harlem Success Garden. Tony Hillary is the brains behind the limousine company T.Z.Z Transportation with an all-star clientele, as well as the founder of the non profit organization Harlem Grown. How Tony seamlessly brought these two worlds together is where the story gets interesting. Let me explain.

Roderick with Harlem Grown founder Tony Hillary

Tony Hillary started his own limo company T.Z.Z Limos in 1999. Over the next eleven years he built the business up to one that serves many Hollywood VIP'S. Tony developed personal relationships with many of his clients, and the airport pick-ups usually led to lively discussions about current events. In the 2009 recession, Tony saw a massive decline in bookings, resulting in his spending more time at home, brooding about his future.

Feeling depressed and watching his business go down the drain, Tony needed something to fill his time. He started reading about the American education system. He decided that he wanted to get involved working with children. He also made a life choice; he decided, "If I can't be rich, I might as well be happy." Tony was about to experience a new form of richness in his life, one that is not based on monetary rewards.

Tony started volunteering at the public school PS175 at 134th and Lennox, in the heart of Harlem. He instantly became a father figure to the students at the school. For many of them, Tony is the only constant male figure in their lives; very few of them live with their fathers.

The majority of these children live in government housing; approximately 10 percent live in homeless shelters. Many of these students suffer from obesity; healthy options are too expensive and hard to find in the streets that are saturated with fast food restaurants. It is hard to believe that all of this 'just above the poverty line' living takes place just 30 blocks north of the swanky Upper East Side.

After volunteering at the school for a few months and becoming a regular fixture there, Tony started to take interest in a fenced in area across the street. When he asked in the neighborhood about the purpose of the space, Tony found out that it was a locked up Green Thumb Garden, one of the 500 communal garden spaces throughout New York City. Whoever was in charge of the garden had turned it into a neighborhood dump and drug haven. The local school children would cross the street to avoid walking past it; they thought that it was haunted.

This is how Harlem Grown, the non-profit organization that Tony founded, was started. He decided that he wanted to reclaim this space and make it a safe place for children to learn. With the help of some money and a phone call from Edward Norton, Tony convinced the New York City Parks department to allow him to reclaim the garden. So there Tony was with a fenced in dump and a twenty-five thousand dollar start-up fund to turn this forgotten space into the home of Harlem Grown.

Immediately, Tony hired Sean. Sean was born in Georgia and grew up on a farm; he has been harvesting crops since he was a little boy.

Together, Tony and Sean cleaned out the garden. They pulled out the piles of trash that had accumulated over the years of its neglect. After the space was cleaned, the two became Google Gardeners. Self-taught, they came up with ways that they could plant a garden that would eventually grow before the children's eyes.

They started off by growing tomatoes and lettuce; in the past year and a half they have added over eight varieties of vegetables and fruits, from tomatoes to melons. The latest addition is a small herb garden. The garden is so inviting that at least eleven different bird species nest and fly through this space. The birds' songs are a welcome change from the harsh noises of the congested streets of Harlem.

The garden is now a beautiful green space for all of the community to use; as a result, everyone is thankful to Tony for reinvigorating this space. Yet the most astounding thing about the garden is the effect that it has had on the children from PS 175. The 400 children who come through the garden monthly have learned so much from the green space and associated programming that it is hard to fully recap, but here are the main points that I noticed after volunteering there for a month.

In the garden, the children gain a respect for nature and the environment. They study about earth sciences and insects, gaining insight into the fundamentals of nature. This space is so far removed from the concrete jungle of the projects that is home to these children. Through their experiences, they learn to understand the need to preserve and protect nature. In the garden there is a composting system and recycling program. Recently Tony brought that same model into the school cafeteria. He assigned "Recycling Ambassadors" who monitor how people dispose of their garbage after lunch. In addition to having a smaller environmental impact, the children now have a sense of responsibility and pride, turning the cafeteria into a hub of social and environmental stewardship.

This appreciation and respect for the earth has manifested in the children's respect towards each other. The principal of P.S175, Ms. McClendon, observed that fights in the school were down eighty percent. When the garden was first opened, each of the 400 students planted an individual seed. Therefore each child takes ownership in the growth and development of the garden, as one of those seeds is their own. This teaches the children to respect each other's space, and by doing so the children can respect each other in the classroom.

Harlem Grown teaches students about healthy lifestyles. When I started volunteering, I noticed that many of the children's packed lunches consisted of a soda and bag of chips. Tony has partnered with Wellness in Schools to change all of this. He now has a chef come to the cafeteria and cook with the fresh grown vegetables from the garden, showing the children that healthy food is delicious. It is also breaking the stigma that vegetables or un-fried foods are poison.

To tackle the current obesity problem in the school, Tony is implementing a "thousand pound challenge" where the student body will collectively lose a thousand pounds. Sean Combs', (also known as P. Diddy) trainer Mark Jenkins will introduce a physical activity program that will teach the children how to maintain a healthy weight.

"Mr. Tony," as the children call him, has created an organization that provides a physical space for learning to take place, as well as programming and mentorship that positively impacts the Harlem community at large. The garden is a labor of love, it has taken hard work and dedication to keep it going; Tony is no professional grant writer and has seen his own wallet shrink drastically. Yet the optimism and smiles of the community involved make him realize that it will all work out. As the fresh vegetables and initiatives at Harlem Grown continue to grow, Tony's life has been immensely enriched and he is looking forward to the changes that will occur as the program blossoms.

Source: HuffingtonPost.com

Friday, September 23, 2011

UK elephant Karishma a charming artist

Asian elephant paints colourful artworks, now on display

DUNSTABLE, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 20: Karishma, a 13 year old female Asian elephant, paints at an easel in her enclosure at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo on September 20, 2011 in Dunstable, England. A selection of Karishma’s artwork will go on display at the Zoo this weekend to celebrate Elephant Appreciation Day. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

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