Resolving a Real-Life Rivalry Between Bears and Honeybees
By Corey Binns
Dressed in a white beekeeping suit, Zack Strong tried to ignore the honeybees buzzing around his hood as he pounded fence posts into late summer's rock-hard ground about 20 miles southwest of Columbus, Montana. The native Montanan and advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) Land and Wildlife program had made the trip from his home in Bozeman to these endless, rolling plains stretching north and east of the towering Beartooth Mountains to resolve a conflict between a storied pair of rivals, bees and bears. Black bears had recently bothered bee yards in this area, jeopardizing business for local apiarists in the nation's second-largest honey-producing state.
As anyone familiar with Winnie the Pooh will know—and as Dr. Alex Few, a biologist with U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, will attest to—conflicts between honeybees and bears are not new. Both black and grizzly bears love honey and will also eat bees and their larvae. But now that bear populations are expanding, conflicts are cropping up in new areas, Few noted.
Luckily, because bee yards are fairly compact, usually comprising 40 or fewer beehive boxes, electric fencing provides fairly simple and inexpensive protection. And as Strong pointed out, not only do the fences keep business buzzing—they are also "keeping bears alive and out of trouble."
Building five electric fences in two days to protect commercial honeybee yards from intruding bears requires a dedicated team. On this particular occasion, Strong was joined by NRDC field technician Josh Ross, NRDC environmental fellow Angela Hessenius, and an experienced crew from Defenders of Wildlife, Montana honey producer Sunshine Apiary, and USDA Wildlife Services. Together they installed posts and stretched wire in 90-degree heat, until the sun set behind the mountains and a cooling thunderstorm rolled in.
Sunshine's owners, Patty and Lance Sundberg, welcomed the help on their property. "Most beekeepers love wildlife, but, unfortunately, when a bear becomes a problem, they do not go away," Patty said. The Sundbergs have had their apiary since 1980 and say they've seen bears encroaching into new territory over the past decade. They plan to continue building some 5 to 10 new fences a year—an investment of its own, Patty noted, but a worthwhile one given that each bear bandit costs Sunshine up to $8,000 in lost damages. The Sundbergs' own expertise in bear behavior also helped inform the conservationists' fence design, since, over the years, they've seen what works and what doesn't.
NRDC wildlife advocate Zack Strong and Sunshine Apiary staff member Buddy DeHaven pound posts to anchor an electric fence.Alex Few / USDA Wildlife Services
Why Montana is seeing an uptick in reports of Pooh bears getting caught with their paws in the honey pot is a mystery. Strong said expanding grizzly bear populations may be displacing black bears into new and less familiar habitats. Eventually, Yellowstone-area grizzlies (which were recently removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species) might also expand into this project area, Strong said. So while the bee fences were added mainly in response to recent black bear conflicts, they can also serve as a deterrent for grizzlies.
In fact, in 2010 Defenders of Wildlife launched its Electric Fence Incentive Program primarily as a grizzly bear conservation tool. Since then, the group has built more than 280 electric fence projects to safeguard chicken coops, fruit trees, gardens, small livestock and bees, primarily on private lands.
People resorting to lethal methods—guns, poisons, and traps—to resolve conflicts with wildlife pose one of the greatest obstacles to grizzly bear recovery, said Russ Talmo, Rockies and Plains program associate at Defenders of Wildlife. As an incentive to participate, the program subsidizes the cost of electric fences (up to a maximum of $500) and provides technical assistance to landowners and producers interested in adding them to their properties. The program appears to be working toward its goal of not just reducing conflicts, said Talmo, but also "fostering greater tolerance for bears on the landscape."
Over their two days of pounding T-posts and moving fence panels on the Montana plains, the team of wildlife advocates and apiarists bonded. "It felt like a bunch of friends coming together for a weekend work project, like building a neighbor's barn," Few said.
A permanent electrified panel fence protects one of Sunshine Apiary's bee yards from bears in South Central, Montana.NRDC
In recent years, NRDC and Wildlife Services have partnered on related projects, including installing electric fencing called fladry to protect cattle and sheep from bears and wolves in the northern Rockies. The organizations have had differences in the past regarding predator control practices, so their united efforts are meaningful, said Strong. "I hope and believe that our collaborations will continue and expand in Montana and beyond," he added.
Montana's diverse and abundant wildlife is one of the things that make the state special, Strong said, even though it can present challenges. By supporting projects that mitigate wildlife conflicts, NRDC can help foster win-win solutions, good for businesses and communities, and for wildlife and natural landscapes, too.
Strong counts hundreds of bee yards in bear country throughout Montana that still lack bear-proof fencing. There are plenty of posts left to pound into the ground. "But with every fence we build, we create a more bear-friendly landscape," he said. His hope is that as the fences build up a record of success, more and more honey producers will be interested in partnering—making better neighbors out of the bears and the bees, and Montanans, too.
Corey Binns is a science and health writer based in Northern California. Her work has appeared in publications such as Popular Science, Marie Claire, TODAY.com, Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today, Women's Health, the New York Times, and msnbc.com. Binns was also named Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Health Journalism Fellow by the Association of Health Care Journalists in 2009.
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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
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