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Coronavirus Lockdowns Keep Bees at Home and Put Crops at Risk
By Ajit Niranjan
Coronavirus lockdowns that keep farmers from fields and suppliers from markets are restricting another cornerstone of the agriculture industry: bees.
Responsible for pollinating about a third of the plants we eat, bees are in short supply and their numbers are declining globally. In large, food-exporting countries like the U.S. and China, there are too few local bees to pollinate crops — so beekeepers truck hives thousands of kilometers to pollinate fields.
Now, travel restrictions to halt the spread of the coronavirus are hurting the pollination industry by keeping bees at home. They are also stopping some beekeepers from feeding their hives, grounding flights that could import bees from abroad, and making it harder to hire seasonal workers to transport them, said Etienne Bruneau of Apimondia, the international federation of beekeepers. Some farmers "arrive in the [pollinating] season without bees and nobody to help them."
In the U.S., which is the world's biggest agricultural exporter but has fewer beehives than Spain, farmers rely on bees trucked long distances on pallets and forklifted into fields. California grows more than 3 in 4 of the world's almonds and each spring about two-thirds of the country's bee population is mobilized to pollinate them. The bees are then loaded onto trucks and sent elsewhere to fields of cherries, apples, blueberries, cranberries, pumpkins and other foods.
Pollination services contribute $15-20 billion (€13.7- €18.3 billion) to the value of U.S. crop production and, for many beekeepers, it is more lucrative than making honey. When bees gather nectar, pollen sticks to their bodies and rubs off onto other plants they land on. Harvest losses without their help can range from 5-10% for grains like rapeseed to as high as 80% for almonds and cherries, said Bruneau.
Bees, together with pollinators like bats and birds, underpin the global food system. But their populations are dwindling and colonies collapsing as a result of human activity like building settlements, overusing pesticides, farming with monocultures and changing the climate through greenhouse gas emissions. A UN-backed assessment of life on earth last year found that pollinator loss threatens $235-$577 billion in annual crop output.
While experts say the food security risk from restrictions to bee movements is small, it represents yet another coronavirus-induced shock to a global food system already reeling from the pandemic. The World Food Programme warned last month that COVID-19 could double the number of people facing acute hunger — currently estimated at 135 million people — by the end of 2020.
Climate change, conflict and poverty have worked together to drive food crises.
Across East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, swarms of locusts have ravaged vegetation after a year of weather extremes that included abnormally heavy rains and strong cyclones. While African bees have not been greatly affected by lockdowns — unlike in North America and Asia, beekeepers typically use fixed hives and do not move them large distances — pesticides to fight locusts have, in turn, hurt pollination, said David Mukomana, Apimondia's Africa president.
"Many [farmers] resorted to aerial sprays that had serious effects on many pollinating insects, bees included."
Meanwhile, across Asia and South America, food security is particularly threatened by a growing dependence on pollinators, according to a study published in the journal Global Change Biology last year. Areas that are more biologically diverse encourage pollination, researchers say, but countries are farming in ways that hurt biodiversity.
What's more, the increase in pollinator dependency has not been matched by a rise in managed honeybees, the authors wrote, adding that this was an "alarm call" for pollinator-friendly farming methods such as targeted use of insecticide and planting hedgerows next to crops.
"The picture is worse for wild pollinators that are in decline in several regions," the authors wrote.
Learning From Bees
Even as lockdowns keep industrial bees grounded, wild bees may benefit from a drop in pollution and traffic as humans stay at home. A study published in the Journal of Insect Conservation in 2015 estimated that billions of pollinating insects were killed on roads each year in North America alone. A global fall in transport may have kept some bees safe.
Yet despite these short-term benefits, "lockdown will do virtually nothing to reverse the major causes of bumblebee declines, which are habitat loss and degradation," a spokesperson from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust said.
Bees also have their own viruses to deal with. Like people, honeybees live in large groups and thrive on social interactions.
"That poses risks when it comes to pathogen transmissions," said Adam Dolezal, an insect scientist at the University of Illinois. "If a pathogen evolves that can circumvent those risks, the bees have to respond or become more infected."
Honeybees may be in an "evolutionary arms race" with the deadly Israeli acute paralysis virus, according to a study published in the journal PNAS last month. While bees are known to socially distance from infected nest mates and touch each other less, the virus has evolved a way of sneaking sick bees past guards of other colonies and spreading itself into new hives.
In the wild, where beehives are sparsely spread and there is little interaction between colonies, this evolutionary trait offers little advantage. But in industrial farms — with up to thousands of bees per square kilometer — it gives viruses a greater chance of starting new outbreaks.
It suggests that intensive agriculture can increase the danger of pathogens that target insects, as well as humans and other animals. Modern farming practices have come under scrutiny since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic as scientists have sounded alarm bells about the dangers of habitat destruction and zoonotic diseases.
This doesn't mean we should stop keeping bees this way, but it does show how manipulating natural environments can give advantages to viruses, said Dolezal, who co-authored the study. "We should be on the lookout for places where pathogens can find chinks in the armor of the organism."
Reposted with permission from DW.
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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Towards the end of the final presidential debate of the 2020 election season, the moderator asked both candidates how they would address both the climate crisis and job growth, leading to a nearly 12-minute discussion where Donald Trump did not acknowledge that the climate is changing and Joe Biden called the climate crisis an existential threat.
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By Zheng Chen and Darren H. S. Tan
As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.