Penny Thoughts

Month: March, 2013

Pesticides Wiping The Memories of Our Bees

This year, evidence has mounted supporting the idea that neonicotinoid pesticides are contributing to the dramatic falls in bee populations over the last few decades. I have already written two posts regarding this matter. If you are interested feel free to give them a quick read as I won’t be going over too much of the stuff I included. The first can be f0und here and delves into what effects neonicotinoids are having on bees and other pollinating insects. The second summarises the results of the EU vote against the ban of these pesticides and can be found here.

The proposed ban of neonicotinoids was rejected when put forward to the European Commission on the 15th March this year. One of the main arguments presented by opposers of the ban, including the UK environmental secretary, Owen Paterson, was that more data and research was required supporting the idea that neonicotinoids are negatively impacting bees, before a ban could be properly considered.

There has been a lot of response to this, including  a recent evaluation by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This report has suggested that neonicotinoids do not pose a serious threat to bees in a natural, real life setting. One of their main arguments is that the majority of the research that has been carried out has been done so in a lab based environment. They believe that the levels of neonicotinoids that most bees are exposed to in the wild are not comparable to those used in the lab based research and that the results are therefore over estimations.

This is a major punch in the face for supporters of the ban and researchers trying to investigate into this topic. With DEFRA being such a big name, it is likely that many people will be swayed due to this report. However, I have not.

This is a little irritating to me. Yes, a lot of the research was carried out in lab based environments, but I do not feel that this fact alone is enough to render these findings invalid. The huge majority of scientific work takes place in the most part in labs. Does this mean that all lab based work should be dismissed? NO.

The neonicotinoids are affecting bees and other pollinating insects in detrimental ways, whether that be in the lab or the field. It is likely that the lab setting may intensify these effects, but bees are being affected in the real world. Numbers are falling and something is causing that.

I found this very recent study published yesterday in Nature. This study is something different, it has lab AND field based experimentation. The researchers have shown that neonicotinoids actually impair the memory of bees which is impacting their ability to successfully forage and therefore pollinate the world’s plants. The study was led by Mary Palmer and her team and they state that it is known that neonicotinoids do impact bees, but that there is little empirical evidence to explain how and this needs to improve.

They successfully demonstrate how 2 neonicotinoids (imidacloprid and clothianidin) directly affect neuronal transmission within the nicotinic receptors in the brains of honey bees. They looked at the effects of neonicotinoids in bee Kenyon cells (KCs). KCs are neurons found in the brains of arthropods, including incsects. These KCs play an important role in learning and memory, particularly when it comes to smells.

The research team looked at the effects of sublethal levels of neonicotinoids on honeybees in the field and in the lab. They found in the lab group that the exposure led to a significant impairment of the bees’ abilities to learn and remember smells. This is particularly important as bees rely in part on the specific scents of certain flowers in their foraging and pollination behaviours. In the field, the neonicotinoids impair bees’ abilities to forage efficiently and navigate to and from the nest. Effects are being seen in the field.

These findings are worrying as they show that the levels of neonicotinoids that many bees are exposed to are impacting learning and foraging abilities. If bees cannot forage efficiently, then they cannot pollinate efficiently. This does not bode well for our already suffering global food security.

Another concerning finding is that these impacts are being exacerbated by other pesticides. This is very important as there is a lot of overlap in pesticide use and also regular switching of pesticides. This means that the majority of bees will be affected as they find themselves in ever increasingly common regions of extensive pesticide usage.

This study is great in showing an actual physiological change that results in the cells of bees in response to exposure to neonicotinoids. The use of research in a lab and field environment also helps with securing the accuracy and representativeness of their findings and reducing the opportunity to dismiss this important work. However, Mary Palmer and her team do state in the paper that improvements could be made. They explain that the cultured KCs do show marginally different levels of response to actual KCs and that future work could look into this disparity.

Regardless of the potential flaws, this study empirically shows neonicotinoids directly impacting bee learning and memory. I’m sure that this study will be just one of many similar studies appearing in the near future. The research is likely to be faced by a lot of opposition, with papers like the above being in the firing line of organisations who intend to undermine as much as possible.

This area is a hot topic and the demand for this type of research is ever increasing. Let’s hope that the methodology is a stringent as possible giving opposition very little excuse to dig their claws in and undermine very important work.

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Beaches Turn Red as Thousands of Langoustines Wash Up on Chilean Beach

Beaches in Chile have turned red with the presence of thousands of washed up prawns and langoustines and no one knows why.

Unfortunately the best photo I can get hold of is this screen grab of some footage, but more photos should be popping up online soon I’m sure.

Numerous beaches of the Concepcion Province are coated in a carpet of langoustines. Investigations are being carried out to attempt to find out the reason for this occurrence.  Tests of sea temperature, electrical conductivity and oxygen levels will be carried out to help to determine what has caused the deaths of thousands of langoustines. The main culprits at the moment are viruses of the langoustines, offshore oil exploration and poisoned food, but nothing has been confirmed as of yet.

This is not the first time living creatures have washed up on Pacific Chilean beaches, but this event is on a much greater scale and has perplexed locals and authorities in the area.

For a little more information watch this video from the Guardian.

There is concern that these events are becoming more common. Is this a chance event or is something happening in our oceans driving this kind of strange occurrence?

Hopefully there will be some more answers over the next few days..

Things are Looking Up: Sharks and Manta Rays

My posts have been pretty depressing recently so I thought I’d look for something slightly more positive to write about. It is relatively difficult to find positive stories when it comes to the state of our world’s wildlife, but I found some happiness in sharks and manta rays.

A Slightly Depressing Start…

The CITES conference that has taken place over the last couple weeks has featured quite a lot in some of my more recent posts. It was where the proposals for the legal trade of rhino horn and polar bear hunting ban were rejected. Generally I have had quite a negative slant on the outcomes of the conference so here comes a more positive outcome.

Sharks and manta rays are facing increasing levels of exploitation. Once again there is increasing demand for them in Asia which is only worsening due to the increasing wealth in this continent. China’s insatiable demand for shark fin for their soup and use of manta ray gill rakers for medicinal properties is tempting many people into the poaching industry.

The sharks and rays are common in coastal regions where many poor people live. The poaching provides a stable income on which many people rely on. 1kg of shark fin can be sold for over $100 on the black market, which is a large amount of money for many of these poachers.

The increasing demand for these products with Asia’s increasing wealth is tempting more people into poaching, but is having a huge detriment on the shark and ray populations. Inhambane is a coastal region of Mozambique and has seen an 87% decrease in shark numbers in the last 10 years alone. This region’s thriving sea life brought in tourists from all over the world, as people could see 7-8 sharks on one dive. Now however, it is a very different story. The chances of seeing even one shark are pretty poor and this has led to a huge decrease in the number of tourists being attracted to the area.

Some Good News I Promise…

This is the case in many regions where these sharks and rays used to thrive. Local economies have suffered and more and more people are turning to more environmentally damaging practices like poaching. It has been a vicious cycle and this has now been internationally recognized by CITES.

At the conference 2/3 of the CITES parties had to vote in favour of the proposal to protect shark and manta ray species. Success was seen, with 5 shark species and 2 manta ray species being granted protection under CITES. Some of these chosen few include the oceanic white tip shark, porbeagle sharks and 3 species of hammerhead sharks.

This is a great step in the right direction for conservation of these animals. The trading of these animals is a big problem but this action has been taken at a good time. It should hopefully ensure their protection in the future by targeting protection more effectively. With demand increasing, well thought out conservation should help to safe guard these animals from the ever increasing threats.

Research Progress for Rays and Sharks

To ensure effective conservation attempts more information is going to be needed. Research into the current population sizes and assessment of the market data would be a good start, and the good news is, this is already underway.

A team from Equipe Cousteau and The Deep have just finished the first phase of their shark and ray conservation project. The expedition was led by Nigel Hussey and Steven Kessel, both marine biologists from the University of Windsor and members of the Ocean Tracking Network.

The work was carried out at Dungonab Bay marine park in the Sudanese Red Sea. With the help of local conservation teams and fishermen, the team managed to successfully tag 22 manta rays with acoustic, satellite and GPS tags. This is the first time the manta rays have been tagged in such a way and is a huge step in increasing our knowledge of these amazing creatures. The acoustics will be monitored and the GPS tags will allow tracking of these rays enabling us to monitor their movements.

This will provide precious data about the rays which can hopefully work to enable better application of conservation measures especially on the back of the new CITES protection.

Genetic work has already found that the majority of the manta rays may in fact be the giant manta ray species rather than the coastal manta ray species which was previously believed. So already, this research is improving population data for these quite poorly researched animals.

They next phase of the research will be focusing efforts on sharks and hopefully equally promising results will be seen.

I feel that this is a rare glimmer of hope in an otherwise depressing world of conservation failures and needs. Fingers crossed more cases like this will begin to receive more support and media coverage to capture increased public interest. The state of the world’s wildlife is pretty tattered, but cases like this are helping to patch up some of this mess. There is no miracle cure for the state of the Earth, but a gradual and widespread recovery process is going to be needed to make the difference.

Rejection of the Pesticide Ban: What Now for Bees?

On Wednesday I posted about the proposed ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides across Europe due to the hugely detrimental effect they are having on bees. Feel free to read the article as it includes a lot more information about the ban itself and why it had been proposed in the first place.

The ban was proposed by the European Commission but was today rejected due to a majority decision failing to be reached. 13 EU governments voted for the ban and 9 voted against. I feel some kind of hope that more governments did vote in favour of the ban, it is just unfortunate that this number was not quite high enough for the ban to be approved. 5 countries abstained from the vote, and that included the UK and Germany.

There has been much media coverage surrounding this issue recently. The UK Environmental Secretary, Owen Paterson has received a lot of negative attention due to his responses relating to the ban. He has even received criticism from his position predecessor John Gummer who said: “If ever there were an issue where the precautionary principle ought to guide our actions, it is in the use of neonicotinoids. Bees are too important to our crops to continue to take this risk.” In my opinion I feel Owen Paterson acted rather cowardly by abstaining from the vote, claiming that he did so due to a need for more research into the area. You only have to type “bees and neonicotinoids” into Google to realise there is a wealth of research surrounding the topic.

Researcher Prof Dave Goulson led research in this field and has claimed that neonicotinoid over-reliance is posing an “unacceptable risk to bees”. I feel this is another case of politicians being ignorant to the findings of researchers. With only one MP in the country having a scientific background is this really surprising?

With nearly 3/4 of Britons voting for the ban on a poll by Avaaz, it is not only those in the field of science likely to be disappointed, but also a huge proportion of the British and European public. Iain Keith from Avaaz has voiced his opinion on the matter stating that “today’s vote flies in the face of science and public opinion and maintains the disastrous chemical armageddon on bees, which are critical for the future of our food.”

It is time for the large chemical companies like Bayer and Syngenta to accept that the world cannot continue their over reliance on their products forever. But as this case has shown, this will not be happening for a long time. These corporations are too concerned with the short term and give little to no interest to future gain from present loss. This isn’t exactly surprising, they are a business and they have money in mind. But will they be happy to be remembered in this way? I don’t really think they care, and that is a great shame.

This has all rather depressed me a bit. Sadly this is only one story in an enormous book of similarly grim cases that we can be certain is unfinished. But I do feel there is a light in the dark, a tiny glimmer of hope. That is the number of governments that did vote in favour of the ban and the huge public support that backed this ban. No, this was not enough to make a difference, but awareness of the state of our world is increasing and hopefully will continue to rise.

Killing Our Bees: The Pesticide Story

Bee numbers have fallen by 50% in the last 25 years in the UK and US. This is a huge problem as bees pollinate a third of the food we eat, and are therefore paramount to our food security.

There has been extensive research carried out to determine what is causing this rapid decline in these precious insects. Main culprits include the varroa mite, loss of habitat and increased pesticide use.

A recent study has found that certain pesticides called neonicotinoids are having hugely detrimental effects on our bees. It has been shown that bee colonies in regions with neonicotinoid pesticide use have an 85% reduction in the number of queens the nest can produce. This means that very few new colonies are being formed the next season. The researchers also found that the colonies were smaller in the presence of the pesticides and therefore at higher risk of death.

Other researchers have found that the neonicotinoids lead to changes in the brain functioning of bees. The neonicotinoid pesticides are altering the bees’ abilities to navigate back to the colony. This means that a huge number are not returning to the nest and if they do not find their way, they die.

All of these factors are having a hugely detrimental effect on the already diminishing bee populations.

With these discoveries, a proposal has been put forward calling for the ban of the use of three types of neonicotinoid pesticides across Europe. This ban would see the halting of use of these three pesticides on crops including oil seed rape and sunflowers. The decision will be made on Friday, when the members of the European Commission vote on the matter.

This proposal has seen enormous public support. The campaign group Avaaz set up a petition so the public could show their feelings on the matter. They have managed to obtain over 2.5 million signatures and a massive 70% of Britons have voted in favour of the ban.

However, regardless of this public support, the UK environmental secretary, Owen Paterson is not supporting the ban. He is also not alone. Germany and Spain are also opposing the ban and this outweighs the support from France, Poland and The Netherlands.

Knowing the state of bee populations in Europe and their predicted future decline, it seems very short sighted to ignore these warning signs associated with the neonicotinoid pesticides. This is again a case of our policy makers ignoring scientists’ push for urgent action to enable brighter futures. As the bee populations continue to crash the world powers are putting global food security at great risk by maintaining their ignorance towards these kinds of matters.

Instead of taking proactive action to maintain well-being for future generations, policy makers are acting with short term interests in mind. Yes, with a ban on these three pesticides there will likely be a fall in certain areas of crop productivity. But we have the technology and knowledge to manage this in a safer and more sustainable way so that this fall will not continue.

The over-reliance on these damaging chemicals is not a new problem, and it was hoped that lessons would have been learned from the DDT disaster and release of Silent Spring over 50 years ago.

It does seem that some nations are beginning to see the problems we are currently facing and will continue to face in the future. Some powers seem to be thinking in a more proactive manner, which is great. However, until the majority of nations are on board with this kind of approach very little can and will be done.

Pre-Coloured Silkworms

These strange balls of fabric are actually the raw starting material for silk; but they are normally never this vibrant. Silk is a hugely popular fabric with over $30 billion worth produced each year in China alone. Silk comes from silkworms which produce the raw material when they form cocoons. This is then removed and boiled to obtain fibroin which is the core ingredient for silk.

From here the process gets quite complex and expensive. The dying process requires huge amounts of water, dye and energy to complete and there is a lot of waste produced. However, researchers in Singapore think they have come up with a much more environmentally friendly and efficient method of producing the coloured silks without the harsh dying process.

Instead of manually dying the silk, the researchers came up with solutions that could be fed to the silkworms containing natural dyes. The dyes don’t harm the silkworms as they are natural based dyes and researchers found no negative effect on the worms. The silkworms then subsequently produce silk cocoons of the chosen colour. Not only can they make the silkworms produce different coloured cocoons, they can also provide fluorescent and glow in the dark properties to the dyes. This means the silks come straight from the silkworms in the chosen colour and potentially fluorescing.

This means no harsh dying process needs to occur. All that is needed is the extraction of the fibroin fibers and production of the fabric itself. The researchers demonstrated how this could be a potentially much more cost effective and environmentally friendly approach to silk production.

Currently most silk is harvested from silkworms in farm type environments. For this approach silkworms would have to be kept in more controlled lab-type environments so their specific diets could be provided. This could be a possibility, and silk production could take place on a much larger, commercial scale.

There’s not been too much progression with this work yet, but I still think it is pretty awesome. I like the idea of thousands of these multicoloured, fluorescing cocoons hanging around. With increasing pressure on companies to become more “green”, this provides a great opportunity to do so in the silk industry.

To Legalise or Not to Legalise? Rhino Horn Trade

SA rhino poaching at record high

This week the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) are meeting in Bangkok to discuss the current and future threats to wildlife. The ivory trade is set to be a hot topic at the conference. This has been proven already with the announcement of a ban on the trade of elephant tusk in Thailand last week. A highly controversial proposal is also being put forward this year, calling for the legalisation of the African rhino horn trade.

A ban on the trade of rhino horn has existed since 1977, but it is failing to protect the rhinos which are being illegally slaughtered for their precious horn. The demand for rhino horn is rapidly increasing as buyer countries like China and Vietnam become richer.  With the ban in place, the only way this huge demand can be supplied is by illegal poaching.

With rhino numbers ever dwindling and demand ever increasing, horn is becoming more and more expensive. One kilogram of rhino horn can fetch $68 000 in the illegal markets; this makes it more valuable than gold. This combined with the inadequate enforcement of penalties by often corrupt governments means the benefits of poaching far outweigh the potential risks. Wealthier poachers mean the use of more technologically advanced and efficient methods of poaching. The conservation efforts are struggling to keep up and therefore, rhino populations are falling dramatically.

A Legal Market

Dr Biggs and his colleagues at the University of Queensland believe that legal trade is the only way to supply the “insatiable international demand” for rhino horn, whilst simultaneously protecting the rhinos. They suggest that a highly regulated and monitored legal trade could fulfil these needs as the profits made from this legal market can go directly to the conservation of the rhinos.

The reason this legal trade could be possible is due to the fact that rhino horn is made of keratin and therefore constantly grows, much like our own fingernails. So this means that rhino horn can essentially be harvested. Most illegal poachers kill rhinos for their horns, but Dr Biggs and his colleagues state that “sedating a rhino to shave its horn can be done for as little as $20.”

This kind of approach has seen success in the crocodile skin market, but can it be applied to rhinos? The researchers believe it can, but there is concern that legalising will only increase the demand further so that the legal market alone is not enough.

However, Dr Biggs and his colleagues believe that if the trade is controlled solely by one central selling organisation (CSO), successful legal trade could be possible. They believe that selling in this way will enable much easier identification of changes in demand and the presence of illegal traders and suppliers.

Legal trading should drive down the high prices and tempt buyers away from the more risky illegal suppliers. This should in turn lead to a huge reduction in the levels of illegal poaching and enable more efficient protection of these unique animals.

Dr Biggs has stated that he believes the rhino horn trade “is an urgent issue, we must start the process of getting a legal trade evaluated and put in place soon.” It has been predicted that it could take up to six years to get this system into place. The big question here is whether the rhinos can continue to be exploited for that long.