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3 Problems With Obama's Plan to Save the Bees

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3 Problems With Obama's Plan to Save the Bees

The Obama administration’s Pollinator Health Task Force announced Tuesday the federal government’s plan for improving pollinator health. Unfortunately, the plan fails to tackle the most urgent need for protecting bee populations—getting dangerous pesticides off the market.

Bees and other pollinators are in rapid decline.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

The White House must stop favoring corporate interests by protecting the pesticide industry rather than the pollinators on which our food system depends. The task force’s reliance on voluntary proposals to pollinator protections is an unacceptable concession to pesticide industry interests. We have seen these types of loose standards fail to protect human health and environmental well-being before.

While the goals laid out in the White House Task Force’s strategy to promote pollinator health are vitally important, the approach is insufficient. Domestic bee losses have risen to an unprecedented 42.1 percent of colonies this year, which demands urgent action to drive those numbers down. The task force calls for more research and assessment of the impacts on pollinators of a pesticide class called neonicotinoids. Two years ago, the European Union passed a two-year moratorium on three of the most widely used neonicotinoids.

Voluntary management practices, insignificant label changes and weak state pollinator plans will not do enough to reverse the decline of pollinator populations. The White House must step up and suspend the use of neonicotinoids and other systemic insecticides that are linked to bee declines, which is a serious threat to biodiversity and our food system.

In March, Food & Water Watch was part of a coalition of beekeepers, farmers, business leaders, environmental and food safety advocates that delivered 4 million signatures to the White House, pressing President Obama to issue meaningful recommendations that would protect bees and other pollinators. Among other things, advocates have called for an expedited review of the registration process for neonicotinoids and strengthening of risk-assessment requirements, closure of loopholes that allow dangerous pesticides to be approved without adequate review, improvements in the oversight of neonicotinoids use in seed coating, upgrades to the Environmental Protection Agency’s bee- and bird-killing incident reporting system and a mandatory national pesticide use reporting system to improve data collection, and government compliance with the Endangered Species Act to protect the most vulnerable creatures from systemic pesticides.

The European Academies Science Advisory Council recently released a paper that evaluated over 100 peer-reviewed papers published since 2013 and concluded that the widespread prophylactic use of neonicotinoids has severe impacts on non-target organisms, including pollinators and other beneficial insects important for pest control. Other recent research has shown that bees become addicted to water spiked with sugar and neonicotinoids due to its nicotine-like effect on their brains.

While the focus on the potential for federal agencies to increase habitat for pollinators and to ramp up research on bees and other pollinators is useful, it does not make up for the fact that pollinators are being hurt by widely used pesticides the federal government allows to remain on the market. Tuesday’s announcement shows that the federal government still has much to do to actually protect pollinators.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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