Bayer is Making Bees Go Extinct

bee-colony-collapse-disorder-bayerOn April 27, 2012 stockholders at the multinational corporation Bayer will hold the fate of bees in their hands.  And it is not the first time. Pesticides produced by Bayer have been killing bees for several years now. The Coalition Against Bayer-Dangers has addressed the issue of bee killing for the past few years by directly offering countermotions at the annual stockholders meeting. Even beyond those efforts, Bayer itself has been aware of the dangers of its bee-killing culprit, an insecticide called neonicotinoids, for several years. Yet they have done nothing about it.  

Neonicotinoids were initially developed because they showed reduced toxic effects in mammals. Yet if their continued use wipes out bees, it will be humans that ironically meet a similar end. Bees are one of the world’s most important pollinators and without them the world’s food supply would cease to be. Bees pollinate 90 percent of plants and crops around the world, so without them humans would die either of starvation without crops or of oxygen deprivation without plants producing oxygen.

Neonicotinoids are chemically related to nicotine, and just like tobacco-use in humans, after many years of unregulated usage neonicotinoids also were revealed to have detrimental causal connections to severe health problems. In this case, instead of lung cancer in humans, neonicotinoids cause colony collapse disorder. The causal link is so strong that it has provoked the banning and limiting of neonicotinoids in several countries including France, Germany, Italy, and Slovenia.

Colony collapse disorder causes worker bees to neglect providing foods for eggs and larvae in part because of the breakdown of their navigational abilities. Colony collapse disorder causes massive bee die-offs, because of its proven effects on their immune system (see the 2010 study by Dutch toxicologist Henk Tennekes, the 2012 P. Whitehorn study, and most recently the 2012 Purdue University 2-year long peer-reviewed study). The most detrimental factor of neonicotinoid poisoning is that the levels of poison are so high and concentrated that a foraging bee in a field that encounters the chemical will contaminate the whole hive upon its return. Contamination occurs at such a high rate because neonicotinoids are so affecting to bees and the measurement of even mild exposure rates was calculated at 70,000 times of what would be considered lethal to a bee.

In the last ten to twenty years bee populations have been in decline worldwide, especially in countries with high consumption rates of neonicotinoid based pesticides.  Some species of bees have gone entirely extinct in recent years and the populations of bees in the United States are at 4 percent of their prior numbers.

Bayer has continuously disregarded such findings and continues to market products containing neonicotinoids around the world. While pressure has increased on Bayer to halt production of such chemicals for the sake of bees and humans, Bayer has neglected to do so in preference of making profits. If Bayer were to stop producing neonicotinoids it would prevent billions of bees from dying, but because Bayer is the largest producer of neonicotinoids they want to resist loosing their market advantage and profit margins.

More so, Bayer has influence over scientists and lawmakers because it produces its own studies denying the independent research that demonstrates the dangers of its pesticides.  In 2010 a document from the Environmental Protection Agency was leaked to reveal that the EPA had actually rejected the findings of a Bayer study that was used to justify the registration of a neonicotinoid, clothianidin. The EPA document also expressed concerns about the health of honeybees. In the United States clothianidin is used mostly on corn. In 2009 alone Bayer made $262 million in sales of clothianidin.

To call on Bayer shareholders to change their ways and save bees, sign the Avaaz petition. By signing you will be attempting to make the world a safer place for bees and therefore for humans. To really make a difference, boycott Bayer products (See the full list here)!

Photo credit: legis.wisconsin.gov/lrb/symbols/images/bee_tif.jpg

Why Saving The Bees Might Be Simpler Than We Think

You may already be familiar with the disappearance of our world’s honey bees, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and the grave dilemma it presents: one third of our food, including nearly all our fruits and vegetables, relies on bees for pollination somewhere along the chain of production.  Scientists have been unable to pinpoint a single cause of the declining bee population, which has been dying off at annual rates of around 30%.  Autopsied bees have shown a variety of diseases and health complications, but one Argentine beekeeper may just have a way of saving the bees from all of these problems.

Oscar Perone has been a beekeeper in his home country since 1964.  Concerned about the bees’ well being, he wanted to design a beekeeping system that would benefit the bees above anyone else.  Since bees have survived at least 35 million years without any help from humans, Perone turned to the wild to study how colonies functioned in nature.  From his observations he realized conventional apiculture which has been used for almost two centuries interferes with techniques the bees have perfected over eons of evolution.  While Perone doesn’t believe that apicultural practices are directly causing CCD, he argues that they lower a colony’s immunity to illness and toxins. 

In the wild a beehive consists of a large nest (usually located inside a giant tree) with pollen stored on the sides and honey stored above.  The honey serves as food and insulation from the cold.  In Langstroth hives – standard industrial hives – Perone claims the panels are not high enough to build the big healthy nest bees need to stay healthy.  The nest is further stressed when beekeepers use smoke to drive the bees deeper in the hive so that honey can be taken. Furthermore most beekeepers harvest all the honey, leaving nothing for the colony, which is instead fed white sugar and other processed chemicals lacking the nutrients found in the bees’ natural alimentation.  Additionally commercial hives are covered with plastic ponchos in the winter with the intention of keeping the bees warm and dry, but this causes excess humidity and a lack of ventilation within the colony, breeding ideal conditions for disease and pathogens.

Another big weakness Perone identifies in conventional apiculture is the use of synthetic stamped wax.  In nature bees construct their hive out of a waxy material they themselves excrete as a waste product.  The cells honeybees make are smaller than the cells of the synthetic wax.  Stamped wax with enlarged cells was first fabricated in 1893, with the idea that bees would grow bigger over time and produce more honey.  Commercial bees did enlarge but the change in cell size also gave the Varroa destructor better access within the hive.  Since the 1960s (1990s in the U.S.) this mite has been entering honeycombs, reproducing, and transmitting debilitating diseases to bees.    

Perone’s hives though have never had any trouble with Varroa destructors or CCD.  Since 2004 he’s been using his own system, “Permapiculture” (“Permanent” + “apiculture”) He never uses commercial “nuc colonies” but instead attracts wild swarms to his hives, which are made to simulate a natural beehive. 

In his latest design Perone stacks square wooden frames to a combined height of 57 centimeters.  The uppermost frame has wooden bars nailed across it with spaces in-between.  The bees use these bars to begin constructing their panels.  No manmade panels, wire, or synthetic stamped wax is used.  This 57 centimeter tall space is exclusively for the bees’ nest and honey reserves. “In order to maintain health, a hive needs three things,” Perone explains.  “Lots of space, lots of honey, and lots of peace.  The beekeeper must never disturb this part of the hive.”

Over the bees’ portion of the hive are three smaller frames interlaced with wooden bars.  These frames are for the beekeeper.  Believe it or not after the bees have filled their section of the hive with honey they will continue to fill these upper frames.  When Perone harvests he only moves the roof and these three upper frames and bars, leaving the bees in peace.  Mr. Perone’s hives yield on average 120 kilograms of honey: 100 kilograms are harvested from the beekeepers’ section and 20 kilograms are left in the bees’ section for their nourishment, insulation, and protection.  An average Langstroth hive yields between 20 to 60 kilograms of honey per year. 

Perone is currently sharing his work with scientists at the University Austral of Chile, in hope that they will research and possibly validate his ideas.  Until then he has the testimonies of numerous professional beekeepers throughout Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Columbia, and Mexico, all of whom have made the switch to PermApiculture within the past eight years.  Every one of them has the thriving hives needed to demonstrate that Perone’s method may be able to save the bees.   

Photo Credits:  José Miguel Rueda, Alexis Torres

Destructive Khapra Beetles in the U.S Once Again

The Khapra beetle, a difficult-to-exterminate insect, has once again made its way to the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials at Chicago O’Hare International Airport have reported finding a Khapra beetle larva in one of two 10-pound sacks of rice originating from India. As the destructive beetle increasingly makes appearances on U.S. soil, perhaps it is time for consumers to quit buying rice and grain from overseas sources and buy domestically grown crops instead.

Officials detected a Khapra beetle larva in a bag of rice that was packaged with other household items that was shipped from India to the U.S.

In the past, a Khapra beetle infestation caused extensive damage in California worth millions of dollars. Starting in 1953, Khapra beetles were found in barley storage warehouses in Tulare county. In 1954, Khapra beetles were sighted in numerous counties throughout the state, including Los Angeles, Imperial, and Riverside counties, and also in Arizona and New Mexico.

The Khapra beetle is very difficult to eliminate because of its tenaciousness. Originating from India, the tiny pests are usually 2 to 3 mm long and can easily hide themselves in small cracks. They can survive in places without food or water for long periods of time. Khapra beetles have even been found in non-food products like burlap bags, art pieces, cardboard boxes, and packing materials.

Researchers say at 90 degrees Fahrenheit, eggs of the beetle can hatch in less than six days. Once they hatch, it takes the larva to reach maturity in about 20 days. As adults, they live up to four weeks and can breed and lay eggs during this time period.

Researchers also report that Khapra beetles are very resistant to insecticides. In lab tests, a 2 parts per million dosage of malathion took 40 days to kill 26% of a Khapra beetle population while the same dosage killed 100% of a weevil test population in only nine days.

What worries officials is the exploding number of Khapra beetles sighted in the U.S. In 2005 and 2006, the number of Khapra beetles found was 6 times per year, then increased to 15 times per year in 2007- 2009. However, in 2010 and up to July of 2011, the beetle has been found in shipments at least 100 times.

U.S. Customs spokesman Brian Bell says another infestation of Khapra beetles is “going to disrupt our economy.” Due to the amount of grain and wheat exported by U.S. farmers, an infestation of U.S. crops would ruin the country’s clean reputation. As Bell says, “Countries know they’re getting a clean product (from the U.S.).”

This is a good reason to reduce our dependence on foreign goods. Not only is the threat of introducing foreign, destructive pests to our country eliminated, buying locally grown goods is also good for the community and the environment in a number of ways. Buying food locally and keeping food sources local is sustainable, assuming pesticides and hormones were not used on the crops. Instead of food being shipped from hundreds of miles away by truck, train, or even airplane, locally grown food comes from farms only a short drive away. This reduces energy consumption and transportation costs since less distance is traveled when delivering the food.

Locally grown foods drastically reduces the need to package foods. Foods that need to be delivered to far destinations need proper packaging and storage to keep from spoiling. This packaging is difficult to recycle and is rarely reusable. Sometimes packaging can even contaminate food, as seen with the numerous cases with plastic packaging containing bisphenol A (BPA). Exposure to BPA has been linked to various health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, infertility, and diabetes.

Buying locally grown goods also promotes healthy relationships within the community and between local farmers and customers. A trip to the local farmer’s market allows customers to communicate with food producers directly. Customers can learn more about farming, food, and agriculture while farmers will feel supported by the community.

As farmers and officials worry about another possible invasion of these pests, this Khapra beetle scare can also be seen as an opportunity to make changes for the better. Buying locally grown foods keeps foreign pests away and actually has numerous benefits for the environment. Start by visiting and shopping at a farmer’s market near you, which can be located using websites such as localharvest.org.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/86112481@N00/3642072038

Underappreciated but Ecologically Important, Spiders are Declining

According to a team of researchers at King Juan Carlos University (URJC) in Spain, it isn’t just cute and cuddly species that are being threatened by human activity and deserve protections to save them from extinction.  Spiders are also declining in habitats around the world—and though some people might be tempted to let them disappear, the truth is these arachnids serve important environmental and economic functions.  More broadly, the decline of spiders suggests groups of animals that have not been as closely studied as closely as mammals, birds, and reptiles are just as vulnerable to extinction as other species.

Scientists in the URJC Biodiversity and Conservation Department were prompted to study spider extinction when they noticed the arachnids seem under-represented on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “Red List” of threatened and endangered species.  The Red List is used by scientists and environmentalists to keep track of the conservation status of plants and animals, and lists species that have been studied and deemed to be “critically endangered,” “endangered” or “vulnerable.”

The great bulk of species on the Red List are vertebrates (animals with a backbone like birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish) and plants.  The absence of many spider species is particularly noticeable, so URJC researchers decided to study whether spider populations might somehow be more resistant than other species to the impacts of human activity.  Unfortunately for the eight-legged invertebrates, it turns out spiders have no special resistance to extinction.  More likely, their absence on the Red List is simply due to the fact that spider conservation hasn’t been a high priority, so the endangered status of most species has not been formally determined.

In the course of their research, the URJC team examined 173 scientific papers that look at the health of spider populations, all of them published since the year 1980.  “The technique used meant we could rigorously combine the results of a lot of studies,” say Samuel Prieto-Benítez and Marcos Méndez of URJC.  “This is regularly used in medicine in order to arrive at general conclusions about the effects of drugs, based on numerous trials with more limited coverage.”

The research team concluded that in fact spiders are rapidly declining, largely due to the impacts of human agriculture.  Agricultural practices like clearing forests and other native ecosystems, plowing the soil, and grazing livestock all destroy spider habitat—as well as that of countless other invertebrates.  Widespread use of pesticides in agriculture also hurts spider populations.  This is pushing many species toward extinction, with serious consequences for people.

Spiders may not be cute, but they play an important role in most land-based ecosystems.  Spiders are predators that help keep the populations of pest insects in check, and fewer spiders in the world will mean more insects that feed on crops and cause economic damage to the farming industry.  By killing off spiders and other predators, pesticides could actually have a counter-productive impact and lead to more agricultural pests.

Fortunately the URJC study also points to some ways to minimize the damage to spider populations.  For example organic agriculture, which avoids the use of pesticides and often involves less extreme alterations in the landscape, has fewer negative effects on spiders than traditional industrialized farming.  Organic agriculture of course has numerous other benefits as well, such minimizing reliance on fossil fuels and on synthetic compounds that could harm human health.    

Declining spider populations are a reminder that invertebrates and other less-flashy animal species are just as vulnerable to extinction as larger and better-known birds and mammals.  The importance of spiders in natural ecosystems also underlines the fact that even the most unpopular animals can be ecologically and economically very significant.  Spiders might not be cute or cuddly, but they have an essential role to fill in the planet’s natural systems, and protecting them is just as important as preserving larger and more charismatic creatures. 

Invasion of the ‘Zombie’ Ant

Researchers at Penn State University have discovered a startling fungus among the Tropical Carpenter Ant community. Infection by this new strand of parasitic fungus has been found to dramatically change the behavior of the Carpenter Ant, causing an ant to become zombie-like and die in a spot in which the fungus has optimal reproduction conditions.   

Using transmission-electron and light microscopes the research team was able to look inside an infected ant to determine what effects the fungus was having. They found that the fungus fills the ant’s body and head, eventually causing muscle atrophy and forcing muscle fibers to spread apart. It was found that the fungus effects the ant’s central nervous system as well.

Upon observation in the wild, researchers noticed that normal worker ants rarely leave their work trail, whereas ants infected with the fungus or “zombie” ants will walk in a random manner and will be unable to find their way home. Infected ants were also found to suffer from convulsions which cause them to fall from the canopy to the ground and be unable to find their way back up to the canopy again. This creates the perfect conditions for their fungus to thrive at about 9 to 10 inches above the soil where temperatures are cooler.

The strangest finding by the research team was found during solar noon, when the sun is at its highest temperature. The fungus began to control and synchronize individual ant behavior. Infected ants would crawl to the underside of a nearby leaf and bite into its main vein, causing the ants to break their jaws and remain stuck upside down from the leaf even after death. A few days later the fungus will grow through the ant’s head in a icicle like shape and release spores to be picked up by another wandering ant. 

Lead researcher David P. Hughes said, “The fungus attacks the ants on two fronts: first by using the ant as a walking food source, and second by damaging muscle and the ant’s central nervous system.” This results in an ant placing itself in the perfect conditions for fungal growth and reproduction. Future research is currently being conducted to determine how this newly found fungus can be used to control pest insects in both homes and farms.

Photo Source: ars.usda.gov

Mystery of Flea’s Jump Resolved

February 18, 2011- Nick Engelfried

Fleas are famous for their ability to jump vast distances in comparison to their body size.  However for decades the question of exactly how they jump so far as eluded scientists.  By examining the anatomy of dead fleas, researchers could make educated guesses about how the insects might propel themselves into the air, and came up with at least two viable hypotheses.  However the problem is that fleas are so small and move so quickly during a jump that it was impossible to observe their exceptional leaping in action.  Only now, thanks to modern high speed recording equipment, have scientists been able to solve the mystery of the jump of the flea.

Last year Malcolm Burrows and Gregory Sutton of Cambridge began studying the jump of the hedgehog flea using a high-speed camera.  Even with modern equipment it was difficult to capture the flea’s jump on film simply because the creatures wouldn’t hold still.  However eventually Burrows and Sutton realized fleas tended to be more active in the light, and by darkening the room they managed to slow them down until camera equipment could be set up.  Videos recorded by the researchers eventually showed the part of a flea’s anatomy essential to a successful jump is the tarsus—basically the insect’s toe.  This disproved a previous hypothesis that fleas rely on their knees to jump.

Of course, pushing of with the tarsus is just one part of what allows fleas to jump so far.  For many years scientists have known the power of the flea’s leap could be attributed to an internal spring made of a substance called resilin.  The mystery was in exactly how the spring is set off and what the flea’s final movements on the ground are before it takes begins a jump—and two widely respected scientists of the twentieth century had come up with competing hypotheses.  Henry Bennet-Clark predicted, correctly it turns out, that the toes were used to launch a flea into the air.  Entomologist Miriam Rothschild believed the knees were used.

As is so often the case in science, Burrows and Sutton ended up confirming the observations they made with high-speed photography by using a mathematical model.  The Bennet-Clark and Rothschild hypotheses each came with their own mathematical predictions about how fast a jumping flea would accelerate.  Burrows and Sutton compared those models to evidence from their own photographical observations, which largely agreed with Bennet-Clark’s formula. 

The extraordinary jumping ability of parasitic fleas allows them leap from one host animal to another, or to find their way back onto their host if they are dislodged.  Their ability to jump is especially important because, unlike most insects, fleas do not have wings and can’t fly.  Fleas can sometimes jump for a distance of up to four feet, although most of their jumps will be much shorter than that.  Once lodged on a warm-blooded animal fleas tend to hide amongst fur or feathers, using their piercing mouthparts to draw the blood on which they feed.

Though today fleas are regarded mainly as a nuisance in countries like the United States, once they shaped the fate of civilizations by transmitting diseases like the “black death,” or bubonic plague.  Modern medicine has led to cures for plague and many other diseases spread by fleas, and today’s sanitation systems make outbreaks of flea-born illness rare.  However these tiny insects apparently still have some secrets to share, as evidenced by the length of time it took to discover exactly how fleas manage to jump so far.

Photo credit: Jeff Keyzer