Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The amazing Louie Schwarzberg - fantastic pollinator clips

Louie Schwarzberg
I owe big thanks to artist Valerie Knapp for bringing the TED talk by Louie Schwarzberg to my attention. Mr. Schwarzberg does stunning time-lapse and high-speed filming, and in his upcoming film "Wings of Life" he turns his eye and his camera to pollinators and flowers. The film already premiered in France as "Pollen" but I don't think it has had a North American premiere yet.

The only way to do justice to his artform is to watch it. Click on the TED talk link above. It has a minute or two of him talking about the work, then 5 minutes of the lushest, most amazing imagery of pollinators you'll ever see. Personal favorites: the bee showering herself in pollen, the hummingbird doing barrel-rolls in the air as it chases a bee away, and the bat hovering over a cactus flower.

Schwarzberg filming monarchs
I visited Schwarzberg's site and was interested by some of his new ideas coming up and other things he has done. In particular, I paid US$2.99 to buy a copy of his film of flowers in motion, "Naked Beauty".

p.s. the pictures here are from and are covered by whatever rights that site asserts.

Friday, January 6, 2012

bee-ing a foster parent with zombies

Prof. Robin Owen
While reading about the zombie-making fly Apocephalus borealis (see my previous post) I found that some of the basic research on the fly and its native hosts, the bumblebees, was done by Prof. Robin Owen at Mount Royal College in Alberta. Robin and his students found that in southern Alberta, the fly parasitized a fairly large proportion of bumblebees of several species. Up to 20% of workers and a higher percentage of males had fly larvae. This work tells us that the fly is present in Canada and reasonably abundant.

Previous work showed that the fly was present in BC, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. It's probably in the other provinces too but no one has looked for it. All of this tells us that Canada may not be immune to the problems this fly presents for honeybees, and the problems it may present for native bumblebees.

However, I don't like always being the bearer of bad news, so here is a wonderful CBC radio interview with Robin Owen about the "Bumblebee Rescue and Foster Parent Program" of the Calgary-based Community Pollinator Foundation. If you're in Alberta and you want to be a bumblebee foster parent, this is for you!
"Die Hummel", 1893, Sebastian Lucius

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Unintended Consequences II: a "safer" pesticide kills bees in new ways.

Beekeepers know that their hives are at risk when pesticides are sprayed anywhere nearby, and occasionally lose massive numbers of bees to unanticipated spray programs. But the problem seemed to be manageable even in the 1950's and 1960's when large scale use of highly toxic pesticides was at its peak.

Colony collapse disorder is a syndrome - a cluster of symptoms - not actually a single disease, so far as we know. In the last decade many beekeepers have discovered that their colonies suddenly drop in numbers to the point of collapse. Sometimes the dying bees are found, as in this amateur blogger's pictures. But it can be difficult to tell whether diseases, pesticides, or some other cause is responsible. What's clear is that there have been massive losses of honeybees for the last 10 years. This article has a chart showing that losses more than doubled in most parts of Canada in the last 5 years. This summer I bought honey from a farmer near Creemore, Ontario who was so discouraged he was thinking of getting out of beekeeping. He had lost 85% of his colonies last winter.

In my last blog I mentioned that a strange unintended consequence of large scale, industrial-level beekeeping may be serious harm to bumblebees. In this post, I want to talk about another unintended consequence of a well-intentioned change made by the pesticide industry about 20 years ago.

Nicotiana alata by Carl E. Lewis - CC 2.0
The "neonicotinoid" pesticides were created 20-30 years ago to reduce harms to birds and mammals from pesticides. The name means new-nicotine-like and is descriptive. Tobacco plants make nicotine not for your smoking pleasure but because it is toxic to insects. In fact 100 years ago tobacco extracts were sprayed on greenhouse plants as a natural pesticide.

Nicotine, and the neo-nicotinoid pesticides, bind to an important receptor in nerves. Insect nerves are more disrupted by this than nerves of mammals or birds, making these compounds fairly safe for you, your cat, or your budgie. As such they were a great advance over the older generations of pesticides.

We humans are rarely content with just some improvement; we want more and more. So the chemists modified neonicotinoids to be persistent (so a low dose would work longer) and soluble in water. This meant an even smaller amount could be applied as a coating on seeds and soaked up by the sprouting seedling. This meant no spraying, and even protection of all parts of the plant. As a result neo-nicotinoid pesticides are now the most popular and widely used commercial pest control substance, with billions of $$$ in sales each year.

treated corn seed
As a result, corn growers now find it almost impossible to buy commercial quantities of high-yielding corn varieties that are untreated. Almost all seed (99.8%) sold is treated with a combination of a fungicide and a neonicotinoid.

That's why the findings of a team led by Christian Krupke of Purdue University are so important. Prof. Krupke was called in when local beekeepers reported large bee die-offs around corn seeding time. Dead bees collected had measurable amounts of neonicotinoids. To determine if these could be a cause of death and how they might be getting into the bees, Krupke's team planted corn over two years using treated seeds and normal planting methods, as well as saved seed from the previous year (which was untreated).

Some of their results have been published online in the the journal PLoS One (available to anyone - click the link). They discovered that a lubricant used to keep the coated seeds from sticking to each other - talcum powder! - ended up highly contaminated with pesticides. The contaminated talc is blown away and ends up coating spring flowers and plants near the fields. This is the first way bees are exposed.

guttation drops, not dew
The second exposure comes when the corn seedlings are just up. Many plants exude small droplets of sap from leaf tips at night when the humidity is high, called "guttation drops". To you or me they look just like dew, but bees know that they are sweet and will collect them just like nectar first thing in the morning. It's been known for several years now that guttation drops from treated corn seeds are so toxic they kill bees in just hours. The risk to bees is highest in the first week after emergence.

The third point of exposure is one of the least expected. When corn "flowers", that is when the tassels mature, vast amounts of pollen is available. Beekeepers have observed for years that bees will avidly collect corn pollen. Krupke's team found that foragers bees from hives near fields of treated corn were bringing back large amounts of corn pollen with significant levels of neonicotinoids in it. This pollen goes to feed new larval bees and newly emerged nurse bees in the hive. Over the life of one young bee in the hive, she would consume an amount of pesticide equal to 1/2 of the lethal dose for bees. This might or might not be fatal, but Krupke et al's analysis of dead and dying bees found near their hives showed much higher levels of neonicotinoids than from healthy bees.

The fourth exposure method is not discussed much in their recent article. However in a talk I heard Krupke give at the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) 2011 conference, he told us that his colleagues found significant amounts of neonicotinoids in soils that had not been exposed to treated seeds for 2 years. Some estimates suggest these compounds may have a half-life of 15 years or more in the soil. This means that in fields planted with treated seed for 3 years out of a typical 4 year crop rotation, the "steady-state" level of neonicotinoids in the soil could end up several times higher than what is put on in any year.

So there's bad news and there's good news. The bad news is that even when the corn is long gone, the same fields may be producing flowers contaminated with neonicotinoids. The good news is that some of the contamination can be removed by improving seeding techniques - control that talcum powder!

dead honeybees - Clement Kent, CC 2.0
As one person at the NAPPC conference pointed out, the simplest, least debatable step would be for the manufacturers of neonicotinoids to tweak their formulas so that the pesticides are less persistent. This would give them something new to patent and help protect the environment. We can only hope that Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dow take this message to heart, before we have converted much of our agricultural landscape into a toxic mess that will last a generation.

Krupke, C.H., Hunt, G.J., Eitzer, B.D., Andino, G., and Given, K. (2012). Multiple Routes of Pesticide Exposure for Honey Bees Living Near Agricultural Fields. PLoS ONE 7, e29268.

Can you say "unintended consequences"?

Figure 2 from Core et al 2012
The unlovely creature at top left is a fly which parasitizes bumblebees in North America. In an article just published in the online journal PLoS One (accessible to anyone, follow the link) a group of researchers from San Francisco State University describe how this native parasitoid has recently jumped to honey bees.

Professor John Hafernik and his team found the larvae of this fly inside up to 10-15% of foraging worker bees in autumn. The fly larvae kill workers in about 7 days.Flies were found in samples from migratory bee colonies that travel over much of the US 48 states, so the problem is not restricted to California. Indeed moving the colonies may spread the fly.

Panel B shows the adult fly landing briefly on a bee and laying eggs - a process that takes only a few seconds. This seems to happen while the workers are collecting nectar and pollen.

After about a week, the 3-20 larvae feeding inside the worker have grown large. At this point infected workers abandon the hive, often at night, and fly away. They are attracted to lights where they seem disoriented and uncoordinated. Normal bees almost never fly at night. Up to 91% of the workers found at lights at night were infected with the flies.

Typically the next day the bee dies and some time later fly larvae crawl out of the bee (panel C) to pupate in the soil and later emerge as adults.

Hive abandonment is part of Colony Collapse Disorder, and this fly may be contributing to that syndrome. The researchers found that the adult flies may be carriers of several honeybee diseases, so may spread them from one hive to the next.

Although these flies are a native part of the large suite of parasites, parasitoids, and diseases which attack our native bumblebees, they pose a disturbing new threat to bumblbees. Why? Bumblebee colonies are much smaller than honeybee hives and are very small in spring and early summer, so the fly's native hosts are not as abundant. Flies may build up to much larger numbers by feeding on very numerous honeybees. The researchers showed the flies attack bumblebees and honeybees indiscriminately, so populations of native bumblebees may be diminished as an unintended consequence of keeping honeybees.

A further risk is that honeybees and to a smaller extent bumblebees are shipped between continents. If infected North American worker bees end up in regions where the fly is not native, damage could spread.

Because infected bees are uncoordinated, clumsy, and go out at night they have been dubbed "zombie bees". This may give some zombie movie fans a thrill, but this risk is a serious one because our pollinators are already at risk from pesticides, disease, and other parasites.

Core, A., Runckel, C., Ivers, J., Quock, C., Siapno, T., DeNault, S., Brown, B., DeRisi, J., Smith, C.D., and Hafernik, J. (2012). A New Threat to Honey Bees, the Parasitic Phorid Fly Apocephalus borealis. PLoS ONE 7, e29639.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Some links to while away your winter time with...

Wow - I have such a backlog of stuff to post here it's not funny at all! Just a few more days until I get the backlog of other stuff done and then I will post like mad...

In the meantime, here are three interesting links from around the world.

Colletes hederae - CC (1)
The first talks about a group of underground-nesting bees that line their tunnels with a mixture of silk and a previously unknown plastic. Better known as "plasterer bees", the genus Colletes has many members with varying lifestyles - but the bees this story is about have also been called "cellophane bees" and now "polyester bees". Makes you glad for the scientific name amidst all the confusion.

The second gives you a tour around the wildflower garden property of Christina Kobland in Pennsylvania. We don't all have 4 acres to play with but it's wonderful to see what can be done.

Birds killed by buildings. Copyright Kenneth Hardy
And the third is like the first - part of the growing trend to using bio-mimicry to make better, greener materials part of our lives. The researchers at Arnold Glas have figured out how to make a picture window that is transparent to you and me but looks like a spiderweb to a bird. Birds know to avoid flying through sticky webs and this helps prevent life-threatening collisions with windows.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sentinels on the Wing: the Status and Conservation of Butterflies in Canada.

That's the title of a talk by Peter Hall, Research Associate at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Ottawa, and co-author of The Butterflies of Canada. It will be presented on Saturday, November 19, 1:15 p.m. Room 110, Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories ( St. George Campus, University of Toronto, 25 Harbord Street, Toronto) with a reception to follow. Following the recent publication of Butterflies of Toronto, this is a great opportunity for Muddy York fans of some of our most beautiful pollinators to hear up to date information. Open to the Public.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

You need an artist to bring the science back to the way we live, to a human scale.

That's a quote from artist David Buckland, founder of Cape Farewell, a group promoting a cultural response to climate change. Long based in England, Cape Farewell is opening its North American office in Toronto with a benefit concert on Thursday November 10.

Mormon Fritillary & Showy Fleabane - David Inouye 2009
hummingbird and alpine delphinium - D. Inouye
flies pollinate alpine flax - David Inouye 2009
Why am I noting Cape Farewell's efforts in a blog on pollinator gardens? Well, pollinators depend on flowers and flowering dates are changing because of climate change. At the recent North American Pollinator Protection Campaign meeting in Washington DC, I heard a short presentation on this issue by scientist David Inouye. He has been tracking wildflowers and their pollinators for 40 years in the Colorado Rockies. There are many different stories of individual pollinator-plant interactions, but one example given by Inouye in a 2009 talk deals with the flower Erigeron speciosus and the Mormon Fritillary butterfly Speyeria mormonia. The butterfly is an alpine species and depends on alpine wildflowers. Inouye  and Carol Boggs of Stanford University have shown that earlier snowmelt in the Rockies is reducing butterflies, because flower buds are emerging earlier when frosts are still a high risk. As a result there are fewer flowers. Inouye has shown this trend for several early-blooming alpine flowers whose populations are declining. The pictures shown here (all from the 2009 talk) illustrate some of the flowers and pollinators.

Simon Potts et al. 2009

These unexpected interactions aren't confined to the mountains.This chart from a research report by Simon Potts and colleagues shows how blooming time of blackcurrants in England (green circles) used to coincide with emergence dates of a key pollinator (red triangles) in the 1970's. Now the flowers bloom almost a month earlier than the bees emerge, reducing fruit set.

So, going back to Cape Farewell - climate change and pollinators turn out to have interesting and non-obvious overlaps. Explaining these to the public takes time, patience, and a gift for presentation that artists and media people have more than most scientists. That's why we as people interested in pollinators and their plants should be learning from Cape Farewell's example.

In another blog to be posted soon, I'll be asking you the readers about celebrities and pollinators.

- Clement Kent

p.s. find out more about Cape Farewell and the Horticultural Society Vegetable Garden tour in this post