Friday, February 14, 2014

Help threatened pollinators...through lawsuits?

It's sad when lawsuits are the only way to get government to obey it's own laws, but at least this option exists in the US where the Xerces Society and the National Resources Defense Council have threatened to sue the government over it's failure to respond to a petition to protect the Rusty-patched bumblebee. I wonder whether the Canadian government's steadfast refusal to acknowledge scientific recommendations regarding the endangered status of bats can be challenged in court? Does anyone know?

The rusty-patched bumblebee is now protected in Canada, thanks to vigorous efforts by many Canadian researchers and friends of pollinators. It was proposed to be protected by COSEWIC, the scientific body that advises the government about species under threat, in 2010, although it hadn't been found in Canada since 2006. It was finally protected in 2012 or 2013.

And what about monarch butterflies? They are now at less than one tenth of the levels recorded in the nineties and dropping.

Contact your congressperson or member of parliament and ask for legal protections for these threatened pollinators!

Monday, July 15, 2013

A letter about the birds and bees

A Letter about the Birds and Bees

July 13, 2013
Dear Hort,

     I'm writing this aboard a train heading to Quebec. It's a gorgeous time of the year to ride the rails in Canada. Golden drifts of Black-eyed Susans brighten the side of the track, interrupted by occasional vivid orange flashes as we whip by a naturalized clump of daylilies. Pale tan giant cylinders of hay make mown farm fields look like a Magritte painting. In one area near the Kingston limestone flats I think I saw wild white phlox blooming, and every few kilometers brings a new ecozone with different flowers to enjoy. Zipping past a swamp, I saw a brilliant mound of what looked like Canada lilies growing on a bluff above the water...

   I'm on my way to Quebec City, whence a rental car and I will take a pleasant afternoon drive along the south shore of the St. Lawrence. We'll stop at Grand-Métis where my world-traveller cousin Paul [photo next email: Paul mugging it up with one of my giant heritage tomatoes] awaits us in a cabin looking out over the great river, which here partakes largely of the sea with two meter tides and fascinating tidepools just beside the deck. Tomorrow morning we will be off to celebrate Bastille Day at Les Jardins du Métis/Reford Gardens. I've brought my "Prince des Jardiniers" gardening hat from France along to shelter my balding pate from the hot July sun as we wander through the kilometers of gardens and landscapes of what is arguably Canada's finest grand garden. We have the promise of a personal tour from Alexander Reford, the gardens' owner, to look forward too, then dining at an auberge with a view of the sunset over the great river.

  But I'm visiting Grand-Métis for more than just garden tourism. I'll be giving a talk in the gardens about the birds and the bees, and if you know me you'll guess it won't be about sex, it will be about tobacco.

  Some of you may have caught my discussion with farmer and beekeeper Dave Schuit on Canada AM last week. [apologies for the ad - be patient, please!]. Dave and I were there to talk about the catastrophic losses he and other beekeepers are experiencing, as more and more of their honeybees die off over winter or during corn planting season. Dave and I agreed that although many diseases and pests are bothering the bees, the straw that breaks the camel's back is the widespread use of nicotine-based pesticides.

  Do you grow tobacco plants in your garden?   Last year I had three different species (I'm sending Nicotiana sylvestris, while the unusual blue leaves and golden tubular bells of Brazilian tree tobacco Nicotiana glauca gave foliage interest and flowers for daytime pollinators. But all tobacco species share one botanical innovation: the acutely toxic (to insects) nerve poison nicotine.
Nicotiana sylvestris
you several possible picture by separate emails you could use here). Some were sweet smelling and attracted night-flying moths, like the beautiful white

  Yes, that's right: nerve poison. The stuff is to most insects and water bugs as the horrible chemical nerve gases are to us. That's why chemists at Bayer, Monsanto, and other companies modified the structure of nicotine to make it last longer (up to years in some soils), reside permanently in the plant it is applied to, and be as toxic to bees as nerve gases are to us. These "neonicotinoid" pesticides now coat the
Two tobaccos
seeds of most commercial field crops, including corn, canola, soybeans, and even sometimes wheat. The manufacturers sell billions of dollars of product every year.

  If "neonics" (as most farmers and beekeepers call them) only killed corn rootworms, I wouldn't be talking about them in the gorgeous surroundings of Reford Gardens. But they go where they aren't meant to. Bees gather them up in pollen and in the sweet-tasting little droplets of sap young corn seedlings release at dawn. Birds eat them as they hunt for seeds that the sowing drill didn't get all the way underground. One droplet of seedling sap kills a bee, one coated kernel of corn can kill a blue jay, one grain of wheat can make a songbird sterile. Washed into streams and ponds, neonics kill the water bugs fish thrive on. And, just in case you don't care about the natural world at all, recent studies show small quantities cause abnormal development in the brains of newborn organism often used to test for possible teratogenic effects on human fetuses and infants. Mothers who smoke have children with ADHD more often than non-smokers - and nicotine is the reason. Do we want neonics in our food?

  This spring, for the first time in history, there weren't  enough honeybees to pollinate the California almond crop when the trees bloomed. The price of almonds is expected to double this winter. This summer, a landscaper was called in by a Target store in Oregon to get rid of pesky aphids in the trees around the parking lot which were shedding sticky honeydew on shoppers' cars. Problem is, a neonic pesticide was used ("knocks 'em right down"), the trees were linden trees in full bloom, and over the next day or so perhaps 50,000 dead bumblebees were found on the asphalt of the lot. Dave Schuit lost over 40% of his honey bees when neonic-treated corn was grown near his hives, and has had to sell his farm to recoup his losses (he had to choose between buying new bees or paying the mortgage, and opted for the bees).

  Some of us are old enough to remember Rachel Carson and her game-changing book Silent Spring. Dave and his fellow beekeepers in Ontario and Quebec are asking the federal government (which regulates pesticides) to follow the lead of the European Union in banning neonicotinoids before it's too late and we have silent springs, summers, and falls. We are well along this deadly path already. Numbers of birds like swallows and purple martins that depend on flying insects are down by 70-80% and still dropping. Please, will you consider writing to your M.P. and asking her or him to push the government to ban neonicotinoid pesticides to save the birds and the bees?

I close this letter with a silent prayer that future years will bring back the buzzing of the bees and the sounds of the songbirds.
Clement Kent

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!