Bees Face ‘a Perfect Storm’ — Parasites, Air Pollution and Other Emerging Threats
By Jodi Helmer
Bees are facing a pandemic of their own.
A collection of threats — habitat loss, pathogens, pesticides, pollution and poor nutrition — have led to widespread decline in bee health and pollinator populations.
The threats add up: The number of commercial honeybee colonies declined by more than quarter million between April and June 2020, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Native bees are at risk, too, with 1 in 4 native species in North America at risk of extinction.
"Things are not going so well for bees," says Arthur Grupe, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado. "There's been a lot of research looking into the causes, and usually, humans try and look for the magic bullet — what is the one thing causing this problem that we can stop? And the research has shown that it's actually a collection of things."
A single-cell fungal pathogen called Nosema is one of the latest threats.
Nosema reproduces in the gut, where it ruptures, spreads out and then infects the cells of the digestive tracts. It leads to lethargy, reduced foraging ability, poor sense of direction and, often, death.
Although Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae — two strains of the fungi — have been regularly recorded in Europe, North America and Southeast Asia, the pathogen is now more widespread than ever, according to recent research published in the journal PLOS Pathogens. Grupe was the lead author.
Grupe notes that N. apis, once the dominant strain affecting commercial bee colonies, was observed to be seasonal, which helped protect against total colony collapse. The increasing export of commercial beehives from Europe, however, has expanded the distribution of the problematic pathogen.
USDA photo by David Kosling
At the same time, reports of N. ceranae have increased dramatically — and it infects hives all year long.
"Historically, it was thought that Nosema ceranae wasn't so much of a problem because its spores can't survive freezing or near-freezing temperatures," he explains. "But as winters have become milder these spores are able to persist and then cause infection, and Nosema ceranae has overtaken Nosema apis as the predominant infect of European honeybees."
Once a bee is infected with Nosema, it can contaminate entire colonies — where social distancing is not an option — and spread that infection to the wild. Infected honeybees can leave spores on flowers, transmitting the pathogen to other susceptible pollinators, including native bees. This "community spread" has led Grupe and his co-author C. Alisha Quandt to declare it a "pandemic" in their paper.
Research published this July in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution illustrates the threat. Field studies in upstate New York found that one in 11 flowers carried disease-causing parasites, including Nosema ceranae, N. bombi, Crithidia bombi, C. expoeki and neogregarines that were linked to declines in bee populations. Social bees, including honeybees and bumblebees, were more likely to be infected with parasites than solitary bee species.
"Bees visit hundreds of flowers a day and act as a 'shared food source' between the other foraging bees in the area which will feed from the same flowers," explains study co-author Peter Graystock, now a research fellow at Imperial College in London. "If a bee has been in contact with parasites or is suffering from an infection, they may shed some contagious parasite cells on the flower when they visit it, and then when a subsequent bee visits the same flower, the bee may become infected with those parasite cells or spores."
An endangered rusty patched bumble. USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab
Air pollution might also contribute to bee declines.
To understand more about that air-quality risk, Barbara Smith, associate professor at the University of Coventry, is working with beekeepers in the United Kingdom to set up sensors in their hives to record the level of air pollution and incidents of disease to determine whether there is a correlation.
"We know that air pollution is bad for humans and mammals, and we're interested to see if the same is true for invertebrates," Smith explains. "We have reason to believe that it could have an impact, because we know that we can record air pollution particulates in honey."
Indeed, previous research found that pollutants lingered on the bodies of honeybees in areas with high levels of air pollution; exposure to diesel exhaust interfered with their foraging ability; and that air pollution may affect the heart and immune systems of wild honeybees.
Smith hopes her research, funded through the British Beekeepers Association, will provide more data about the impact of air pollution on bee health and population decline. Even if the results are conclusive, she knows it's just one of the issues that needs to be addressed to restore pollinator populations.
"I don't think that these declines in pollinators are down to one thing," she says. "It's about a suite of things that are happening. It's like a perfect storm."
Addressing the Threats
The fact that bees are facing multiple threats to their health and survival means that coming up with a single solution is impossible, especially when researchers are still trying to collect data.
Grupe notes that most of the research on Nosema infections has focused on European honeybees. The pathogen also affects native bees, but few researchers have done environmental surveys to capture wild bees from native ecosystems and screen them for Nosema.
"There's only a handful of studies that have documented Nosema infections in native bees and the problem that needs to be addressed in the future," he says. "More work needs to be done to understand Nosema infections in native bee species and the potential consequences to native ecosystems, and if native bees suffer a similar fate as honeybees when infected."
To complicate matters, the manufacturer that made a chemical control for Nosema, which the company called its "bread and butter," went out of business in 2018, leaving beekeepers without access to a treatment. Grupe cites a mix of high prices and a complex supply chain that led to the discontinuation of the product.
But the cost for bees could be higher.
"All of a sudden we have these pathogens that are globally distributed, that are negatively impacting agricultural crops and negatively impacting native plant communities, and we don't really have any way to treat it." This could further imperil native bees if the pathogens continue to spread from commercial hives.
In the absence of treatment, Graystock promotes prevention. Increasing floral abundance and diversity, he says, could offer some protection against parasite transmission. His research showed that the incidence of parasites was higher when floral numbers were low and decreased as the number of floral resources increased.
Diverse plant communities may be especially important in urban areas where higher human populations are linked with fewer species of wild bees, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.
Rick Brohn / USFWS
Planting strips of native pollinator plants on farmland could even improve crop yields. Another study published this summer found that five out of seven crops in major crop-producing areas had lower yields and production due to pollinator limitations. Attracting wild bees and honeybees, especially in intensive production areas, could help bolster food security, the research showed.
All of this backs up Graystock's points.
"It's important to appreciate the vast diversity of our pollinator communities, not just in terms of bee diversity but also floral diversity," he says. "Frequently in ecology we find the solutions for maintaining the health of our wildlife are simply to support and promote our native wild communities above others."
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.