Monday, April 29, 2013

A watershed victory for the Precautionary Principle - EU temporary ban on neonicotinoids

Side of temporary toilet, outside Vatican. Photo Clement Kent, CC 2.1
Breaking news - today, April 29 2013. The European Commission, by a vote of 15 in favor, 8 opposed, and 4 abstaining, has voted to approve a temporary ban on 3 neonicotinoid pesticides strongly suspected of harming pollinators, especially bees.

As reported in numerous sources (Guardian, BBC) the vote fell short of the required level to mandate a ban, leaving it to the Commission to decide whether to order a temporary one. Reports suggest the Commission will order a 2 year ban on the use of imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam for some uses, probably including seed treatment. During this period further studies will need to be conducted and reviewed, after which the decision will be revisited.

The "Precautionary Principle" is a relatively new generalization to the environment and public affairs of a very old idea, going back to the Hippocratic Oath's "never do harm" commitment. In medicine, this is often invoked as a reason to be very, very cautious in prescribing new, untried treatments, because the human body is so complex that only extensive tests and experience will make us reasonably certain that a treatment will not accidentally do more harm than good.

As extended to the environment, which is many times more complex than the human body and much less studied, the Precautionary Principle says that the burden of proof for those proposing to use or using the environment in new ways (e.g. new pesticides, new levels of pollution or new pollutants) should lie on the new users. That is, the default position of governments and regulatory agents should be "possibly guilty until proven innocent", just as a physician rightly insists of a new drug or surgical technique.

Bees, Palazzo Barberini, Rome. Photo Clement Kent CC 2.1
The World Charter for Nature (UN, 1982), the Montreal Protocol (1987-89), the Rio Declaration's Principle 15 (UN, 1992), and the Treaty of Lisbon (EU, 2007-09) have given the Precautionary Principle legal standing in many countries, particularly in Europe. And, a large number of recent publications, some of them discussed in this blog last year, and others in the last 6 months in the most prestigious scientific journals (1, 2, 3, 4), have greatly increased the evidence that this class of pesticide, as used now in agriculture, does do harm to bees of several types.

One of the earliest countries to take action on neonicotinoids was Italy, whose role I honor here with pictures of bees from the "Eternal City", Rome. France has also taken very positive steps, under pressure from the French public and beekeepers.

The European vote needs to be followed by still more research, as - surprise! - Syngenta, Bayer, and Monsanto are vigorously opposing attempts to declare neonics harmful to bees. No regulatory change has happened in Canada, where the government PMRA department involved has set itself a 2018 deadline to review evidence, but has been told by the Conservative government to cut their budget by 12%, fire scientists, and "streamline" pesticide registration. In the USA, beekeepers groups are suing the EPA to force action on neonics. In the midst of all this political turmoil, it will be very important to have clear, objective research done by farmers, beekeepers, and scientists without business ties to pesticide manufacturers nor to fringe advocacy groups.

Clement Kent, April 29 2013.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Living precariously in Hawaii

bee with deformed wings - Shawn Caza, CC 2.0 license
Recently researchers from the University of Sheffield in Great Britain threw new light on one of the potential causes of honeybee colony collapse disorder. They studied bee colonies in the Hawaiian islands, where the parasitic mite Varroa has only recently been introduced. Because the mite is so new to the islands, there are places where it's not present yet and others where it has been around for a varying number of years. The researchers sampled bees and mites from hives in different places and looked for levels of viruses that honeybees harbor. One virus, called deformed wing virus (dwv), was present in many bees before the mite arrived but rarely caused serious damage to the bees. dwv in mite-free areas was present as many mild strains. As mite infestation levels rose in an area, the mild strains of dwv disappeared, leaving only one strain which evolved to reproduce in the mites as well as in the bees. Bees bitten by mites carrying this dwv strain often had deformed wings, which makes them unable to fly and find nectar and pollen. You can see a good image here of a bee with deformed wings and a mite still clinging to its leg, along with lots of technical details, but for those of you in Canada I suggest going to look at Shawn Caza's post - Shawn is a beekeeper who has some very good pictures, one of which is reproduced above.

Jabuticaba or Brazilian Grape, from Wikipedia
I thought of Hawaiian bees when talking with Mike Marlin (who goes by "just Marlin") and Cynthia Verschuur who recently visited us from the Big Island. Marlin and Cynthia grow an amazing list of plants on a several decades old lava-ash flow, where every plant has to have a hole dug in the ash with organic matter added to get it started. In spite of all the labor, they have cacao, Sharwell avocado, 3 types of bananas, starfruit, dragonfruit, 2 kinds of sweet potatoes, soursop, lychee, jaboticaba (Brazilian grape tree Myrciaria cauliflora), 2 varieties of coconuts, coffee, 5 kinds of citrus (grapefruit, lemon, lime, tangelo, navel orange) , jackfruit, breadfruit, white fig, 2 kinds of mangos, brazilian cherry, white pineapple, papaya, strawberry guava and guaivi, 2 varieties of  passionfruit, kale, collards, basil, pepper, green onions, chives, rosemary, chard, arugula, eggplant, ginger, and many kinds of orchids.  They've made lots of mango wine, which has notes of citrus and strawberry. Sigh! My EnvyMeter just went off!! Not only that, but the idyllic country setting gives Marlin a peaceful place to create his amazing light and dance shows -
Hawaiian fruit fly: photo Kevin Kaneshiro

Some vegetables lead a precarious existence in their garden though. They said some of the many endemic Hawaiian fruit flies attack any large tomatoes they plant so they only grow cherry-style tomatoes. I'll note that there are invasive Asian fly species in Hawaii that attack fruit. The more than 500 Hawaiian fruit fly species are a textbook study in evolution and adaptation on islands - see the Natinal Academy of Science's Evolution in Hawaii: A Supplement to Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science.

Much as I envy Cynthia and Marlin's growing environment, I don't envy them living on the edge of a zone of active lava flows. Looking at their neighborhood from Google Satellite, they pointed out areas where houses had been destroyed by lava in the last 10 years - some of which are being rebuilt. It's a precarious but rich life, just like the precarious life of Hawaiian honeybees. Marlin told us he had a friend whose previously healthy hives had just collapsed. I looked at a map in the Sheffield researcher's Science magazine article, that showed which parts of the islands were infested with the mites in 2009. Sure enough, Marlin and Cynthia's part of the big island of Hawaii was infested then while more northwesterly parts had not yet been infested, so in their neighborhood there has been enough time for the damaging strain of the virus to become omnipresent. A Hawaiian government map from 2007 shows that the mite was not present on the big island then. So, in perhaps 2-4 years after the introduction of the mite, beekeepers have been seeing increased losses.

Varroa mite can't be the whole story in colony collapse disorder, because mites have been present in continental North America for about 30 years while colony collapse has been noticed in the last decade. But this story of invasive flies, mites, and lava flows helps us understand some of the many ways life can be precarious for farmers, pollinators, and home owners.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Luscious scents, beautiful flowers, odd pollinators

milkweed flower pickles
It's one of the best Canada Day weekends in memory! Warm but not roasting, lots of sun, and LOTS of milkweeds. Two weeks ago I blogged about cooking green milkweed flower clusters - delicious. I also pickled some flowers - this recipe at is for pods, but works equally well for green flower clusters.

We'll try them out tonight with our Canada Day dinner. I used the usual pickling vinegar, plus a spoonful of wildflower honey and some herbs from the garden. In another two weeks I should be able to harvest the young pods and pickle them too - as long as they are under 1.5 inches or about 3 cms long.

Buttefly milkweed early flowers and buds, High Park PG
Butterfly milkweed in full bloom
Today I'm celebrating three kinds of milkweed in bloom in our country pollinator garden. The flowers of Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, are in full gorgeous orange bloom today, but the picture I took about 5 days ago in our High Park Pollinator Garden caught an early moment in the opening of the blossoms when they look like the amazing Central American milkweed Asclepias curassavica with the colors reversed. I also planted seedlings in my city pollinator garden of the "Gay Butterflies" seed strain of butterfly milkweed which has bright gold and reds bred into it as well as the normal oranges. The seedlings were terribly puny, as well as the Purple Milkweed A. pupurascens I planted alongside, but hopefully in a year or two I can show you some of the range of colors available.Meantime, here's how the wild-type looks today.

"swamp" milkweed - a deeper pink plant
The next milkweed I want to celebrate (take a bow, please, A. incarnata) is the swamp milkweed. I've seen this rising up out of wet soil on little barrier islands of Georgian Bay, and it looks perfectly at home there and is the only milkweed to be found. I put seedlings into the very wet soil in my city pollinator garden pond, where they thrive, and in the merely continuously damp bog in that garden - where they thrive - but the pictures today are in the country pollinator garden with ordinary soil that bakes in the weeks between occasional waterings - where they thrive! That's why I always write the common name of this excellent garden plant as "Swamp" milkweed.

look hard to find honey bee and milkweed bug on this flower cluster
While Butterfly milkweed is golden-orange in nature, "swamp" milkweed varies between pale pink and fairly deep rose-red. Plant breeders haven't worked hard on this species, although they've produced the pure white cultivar "Ice Ballet".

Now normally, my butterfly or "swamp" milkweeds would be crowded with pollinators. But, the unusual weather this year has turned common milkweed Asclepias syriaca into a star. So many plants are blooming that a lush, heavily sweet fragrance hangs over the whole country garden in spite of the cool breeze from Lake Huron.

There are native bees,

honey bees and copper butterflies,


fritillaries and coppers (one large fritillary is so fast I have no picture but it chases any orange butterfly, whether a tiny copper or a big monarch, trying to force them out its milkweed patch!),

hummingbirds (same story - too fast, no pic) and ants and wasps and...

....this fly.

"Fly?" you say - "surely that's a wasp?" At a half a forefinger's length and jet black viewed from above, I thought the same thing at first - until I saw the over-chubby abdomen and the fly-like eyes and antennae. In fact, it's a Mydas fly - probably Mydas clavata, the Orange-Banded Mydas fly. 

Huge for a fly, these creatures look quite threatening but in fact can't sting. The one I saw visited many common milkweed flowers and drank repeatedly. Some references state that the adult fly catches other insects to eat but I saw no sign of this - just an apparently insatiable thrist for milkweed nectar.
Orange Banded Mydas fly Mydas clavata drinking milkweed nectar

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Helping Monarchs by building better stoves

finishing a stove - from MBF
I'm a contributor to the "Monarch Butterfly Fund" (MBF) which recently reported back to me on what they did with my donation. Their update tells how after helping villagers near the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico build 31 fuel-efficient stoves (reducing the need for wood  which may be taken from the forests where the monarchs overwinter), the villagers raised funds on their own to install an additional 60 stoves. That totals 91 sites where less wood needs to be burnt. The same villagers are helping to reforest cut slopes with native trees.

I blogged last year about Professor Isabel Ramirez, 2011 Pollinator Advocate of the Year Awardee for Mexico, and her work with the villagers to improve their water supplies. These are examples of small steps to help the people who live with the monarchs during their crucial winter roosting period to preserve monarch habitat and have better lives. This is a win-win situation.

At the MBF site, you can donate online to support the project. $10 buys 100 seedlings for a community/school-run tree nursery, $100 builds a fuel-efficient stove that uses less firewood reducing logging, or $1000 pays to reforest 9 hectares of forest with an 86% survival rate. They've raised about half the small amount ($15,000) budgeted for this campaign - why don't you consider helping them out too?

migrating monarchs in Ontario - Clement Kent, CC 3.0 license

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Double Duty Pollinators and Plants - Brillat-Savarin and Milkweed

live bees stole the show
Yesterday I helped out at the Pollinator Festival organized by Sabrina Malach at Evergreen Brickworks.

 I was in my ceremonial pollinator regalia, but the real stars of the show were the honeybees in a glass demonstration hive at the table next to us. Live bees trump top hats.

Bob Wildfong
Bob Wildfong of Seeds of Diversity was staffing the booth and we chatted about sundry matters relating to pollinators and seeds. Seeds of Diversity and like-minded groups work to keep old-fashioned non-patented plant varieties available to the public. Of course pollinators are an essential part of helping create many of these seeds each year. Which brings me to my main topic, food.

We visited The Encampment at Fort York a few days ago (part of the Luminato Festival). Just as the sun set a cloud of June beetles began to fly. This attracted a flock of gulls who swooped amongst the tents gobbling up beetles on the wing. It was a June food moment. I hope someone with a video camera caught that magic moment with white gulls swooping down the aisles of white tents with surprised and in some cases panicked people (a Hitchcock moment, perhaps?).

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
At any rate when I exited the Fort through the gift shop I was dreaming of yummy crunchy bugs. That's why I succumbed and bought two food books: Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste and Native Harvest: American Indian Wild Foods and Recipes by E. Barrie Kavasch. Today I alternated gardening and reading and preparing for dinner.

On the way to the cottage yesterday we stopped at a farmhouse and bought a pint of freshly picked, unsprayed strawberries. It has been a bit dry this spring, so the berries were not huge and plump the way commercial irrigated varieties are. However what they lost in volume they more than made up for in sweet, concentrated taste. A few weeks ago I watched native bees visiting the wild strawberry flowers in our cottage lawn, and now they are ripe too - tomorrow morning I will pick a few of the tiny but intensely flavorful berries for breakfast.

Sheila Colla, bumblebee expert

At the Pollinator Festival I ran into bumblebee expert Sheila Colla. She explained to some visitors to the Pollinator booth that we do indeed have two species of bumblebees that have become somewhat more common (perhaps aided by the decline of honeybees), but that we have many fewer of other bumblebee species. This set me to thinking of that bumblebee-pollinated fruit, the blueberry. It's a little early for fresh ones so I bought a bag of frozen wild berries from a store. They are much smaller than the huge but relatively flavorless commercial varieties. Tonight we will have strawberries, blueberries, and wildflower honey on vanilla ice cream as desert. Heaven in a mouthful!

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin extols sugar in his book but if he has anything to say about honey I must have missed it. Brillat-Savarin preferred meats, vegetables, and fats to carbohydrates; he warned that excessive consumption of sugars and carb-rich food led to obesity. So, it is to Native Harvests that I must turn for wonderful recipes using honey.

E. Barrie Kavasch
Barrie Kavasch notes that many tribes refined maple, birch, and other saps to get sweets long before Europeans brought honeybees to the Americas in 1622. Yet, once loose in the great forests with their abundance of tree hollows for nesting in, honeybees probably outran European settlers. They were present in the wild in abundance from about 1650 onwards, giving native tribes lots of time to incorporate honey into their cooking.

I have to admit that I got overexcited reading recipes such as "Hickory-Nut Corn Pudding" with its honey, nut butter, and goldenrod flowers, or the "Cranberry-Walnut Cakes" with honey, walnuts, cranberries, and cattail flour (which is actually pollen). Keeping in mind Brillat-Savarin's warnings about excessive sweets, I looked for other dishes for the main course.

It's early in the summer here at the cottage so we don't have spices for making barbecue sauce the way I like it (tragically, the Tabasco sauce got left at home). Nonetheless when I found pork side ribs on sale I felt I must do something with them. Weeding in the garden, I was thinning hundreds of Russian Red kale seedlings and decided to cook them with the pork. Kale is biennial; I always leave a few plants to overwinter and bloom the next June, and today I watched bees visiting their yellow flowers. Seeds from these plants will ripen and drop in the garden and give me seedling to transplant next spring. I've been doing this for 15 years and the garden is always full of kale seedlings.

Mature kale leaves become tough and bitter and need long slow cooking or frost to make them palatable, but seedlings are much tenderer. I harvested a large bunch of them, chopped them finely, mixed them with sage leaves, thyme flowers, and fresh fennel sprout and laid them in the bottom of a ceramic dish. Over them I laid the ribs, then another layer of kale. I poured balsamic vinegar over the mix and then dribbled 2 teaspoons of wildflower honey on top. Covered with foil, the ribs and kale cooked for 5 hours in the oven at about 225F. When served, the kale was delicious!

milkweed - use green buds. Wikimedia.

We have an outstanding display of common milkweed plants (Asclepias syriaca) in the field next to the garden. Near the summer solstice these are not quite in bloom, so at the perfect stage for picking the green flower bud clusters and the small tender leaves that shelter them. The tip of each shoot had 3 bud clusters; I picked only one, leaving two to form pods, some of which I will harvest and pickle in a few weeks. I rinsed the buds and boiled them for 8 minutes, then drained them. They were just as delicious as Kavasch had promised; I succumbed and had mine with a bit of mayonnaise.

I have been encouraging milkweeds for years as a food source for monarch caterpillars, but never imagined I could eat them too. The plants are full of bitter compounds, but boiling the young shoots, leaves, buds, or pods breaks down the bitterness.

Milkweed, kale,  honey, strawberries and blueberries; bees and monarchs; a feast to celebrate Pollinator Week!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Neonicotinoid pesticides under review in Canada

Health Canada just announced they are re-evaluating the safety of the neonicotinoid pesticides Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, and Imidacloprid.

The government of France recently proposed to ban thiamethoxam (Cruiser), which is used to treat canola seed before planting. France and Germany both banned some uses of imidacloprid in 2003 and 2008 respectively (see this balanced Wikipedia article for details). U.S. beekeepers and British environmental groups have called for their governments to ban these compounds.

A large number of recent scientific studies that show these pesticides can harm pollinators, including honeybees and bumblebees. These papers have come from a number of different researchers and many of them have been quite rigorous and published in high-profile journals where every article gets very careful peer-review. They include:
  • A study to be published this month from Harvard School of Public Health scientist Chensheng Lu fed honeybee colonies with high fructose corn syrup containing levels of imidacloprid found in the environment (corn seed is treated, and the pesticide travels throughout the plant). Colonies given the pesticide-laced syrup died suddenly, months later, in a manner reminiscent of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
  • Christian Krupke's group at Purdue University showed that treated seed releases pesticide into the environment in several different ways, that pesticide gets into bees, and that it harms them. I covered this report in a January blog entry.
  • Italian researchers showed small droplets of sap released by corn seedlings are highly toxic to bees when the seed was treated.
  • British researchers published in the top journal Science showing that bumblebee colonies exposed to realistic levels of these pesticides produced 85% fewer queens to carry on the species next year.
These are just a few of the many careful articles published in the last few years on this subject. The evidence that neonicotinoid pesticide as used in current agricultural practices can and does harm bees is overwhelming.

Of course Health Canada will take some time to come to a decision - this is a government bureaucracy after all. During that time the manufacturers of neonicotinoid pesticides will lobby the government vigorously. It's a good time to get a cool drink, a pen or laptop, and write a letter to your MP expressing your views on this issue.

Friday, April 6, 2012

What does NAFTA have to do with pollinators?

Melanie McCavour & Clement Kent - in the greenhouse
In February we went to Montréal to talk about pollinator gardens at Concordia University. It was delightful to talk with students and staff in the greenhouses on top of the Hall building in downtown Montréal. Volunteers create a variety of urban farming projects as a project of Sustainable Concordia. It was amazing to look out and see snow on the Mountain while being too hot to keep the tuxedo coat on. 

The audience looked very comfortable sitting in the afternoon sun among the plants! 

herbal greenhouse tea with science honey
After the talk we had herbal tea from plants grown in the greenhouse and a sampling of wildflower honey from our York University bees.

Melanie McCavour, Lecturer at Loyola International College (Biodiversity) and GPE (Plant Ecology) invited us to Concordia. I first met Melanie at the 2011 North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) conference in Washington DC, where she spoke about NAPPC’s efforts to have pollinator biodiversity protected under NAFTA. Because I had missed part of Melanie’s Washington talk, we sat down with her in the greenhouse to find out more about her work in Washington, Mexico, and Montréal to protect pollinators.

Melanie studies forest ecology. In 2009 she was an intern in R&D at the National Capitol office of the USDA Forest Service where she had the opportunity to work on projects on global change, bioenergy and invasive species certification.  In the same year, Peter Kevan, head of the CANPOLIN pollination research group asked her to be a reporter at the 2009 Round-table on NAFTA, Food Security and Pollination at the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C., which introduced her to efforts to use existing tri-lateral agreements under NAFTA between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico to improve pollinator protection, both native and non native bees (Apis mellifera) and other pollinators, such as bats and butterflies. NAPPC and others have recently released a policy statement on importation of non-native bees.  Since then she has been involved in efforts by NAPPC to work with the 3-nation NAFTA Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) to deal with pollinator issues. A few years ago, the CEC produced a report on the monarch butterfly, a pollinator who  migrates between our 3 nations, and is an obvious organization to further awareness of the value of pollinators and the necessity of trilateral protection in North America.

The CEC was created in 1994 to address questions about the environmental impacts of the NAFTA treaty. Each nation is represented on the CEC differently: Canada is represented by the Minister of the Environment or his designee, while the USA is represented by the EPA. Melanie notes that the EPA has a far more regulatory role than the Canadian or Mexican Minister of Environment and in the U.S., some political groups view the EPA with great suspicion, so it can be very challenging to add new language to US laws or regulations to improve pollinator protection. Hence she and her collaborators on the NAPPC NAFTA committee have been searching for ways to clarify ( through external statements perhaps) existing treaty or regulatory language to make clear the importance of pollinators and their protection. For example, given that NAFTA is focused on trade, and agriculture is the single biggest beneficiary (in trade terms) of pollinator services, how can national or tri-national agreements on agriculture be clarified to protect the vital role of pollinators?

At the most recent CEC Council meeting, on June 22nd, 2011, Melanie wrote and presented orally a statement on behalf of CANPOLIN and NAPPC to the CEC Ministers. Ministers Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, Lisa P. Jackson, and Peter Kent expressed enthusiasm for the statement and encouraged her to submit a proposal to the new NAPECA –a CEC funded community action grant. You can see Melanie’s presentation to the CEC and some of the news coverage it generated. Listen for her comment on essential products in which pollinators are involved, such as tequila and coffee. One of the themes of the CEC proposal I found interesting is to include pollinators and pollination within the “Payment for Ecosystem Services” (PES) document of the CEC.

Although Melanie did subsequently apply for a NAPECA grant for a review on pollinators and their value in N.A., it did not receive funding through NAPECA for the 2011-2012 year; it is hoped that this study might be funded by the Mexican Ministry or NAPECA next year.

Given some of these political challenges, one way forward has been for Canada and Mexico to cooperate to define and agree on positions and then bring them to CEC/NAFTA. This was the motivation for a Canada-Mexico meeting last year at the Cholula Ethnobotanical Gardens in Cholula Mexico.  I was delighted to receive as a thank you gift a bottle of honey for my laboratory’s collection from a local apicultural farm in Cholula and some locally produced tomato wine from Quebec.

Montréal en Lumières
After meeting Melanie and her colleagues at Concordia, we were able to enjoy some of the happenings going on in Montréal, including the Montréal en Lumières festival and ice skating on the Mountain. We thank our friends at Concordia for inviting us to visit la belle ville!