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Flying insects such as bees are important pollinators. Flickr / M I T C H Ǝ L L

German Nature Reserves Have Lost More Than 75% of Flying Insects

A new study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE adds more evidence that insect populations around the globe are in perilous decline.

For the study, researchers from Radboud University in the Netherlands, alongside their German and English colleagues, measured the biomass of trapped flying insects at 63 nature preserves in Germany since 1989. They were shocked to discover that the total biomass decreased dramatically over the 27 years of the study, with a seasonal decline of 76 percent and mid-summer decline of 82 percent, when insect numbers tend to peak.

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It’s Time to Ban Bee-Killing Pesticides

The Canadian government is banning plastic microbeads in toiletries. Although designed to clean us, they're polluting the environment, putting the health of fish, wildlife and people at risk. Manufacturers and consumers ushered plastic microbeads into the marketplace, but when we learned of their dangers, we moved to phase them out.

Why, then, is it taking so long to phase out the world's most widely used insecticides, neonicotinoids? Scientists have proven they're harming not only the pests they're designed to kill, but also a long list of non-target species, including pollinators we rely on globally for about one-third of food crops.

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Food

75% of World's Honey Laced With Pesticides

By Jessica Corbett

Raising further concerns about the global food production system, a new study found that bees worldwide are being widely exposed to dangerous agricultural chemicals, with 75 percent of honey samples from six continents testing positive for pesticides known to harm pollinators.

"What this shows is the magnitude of the contamination," the study's lead author, Edward Mitchell, a biology professor at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, told the Denver Post. He said there were "relatively few places where we did not find any" contaminated samples.

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A honeybee visits a coffee flower. Geraldine Wright, AAAS / Science

Buzz Kill: Climate Change Threatens Coffee-Pollinating Bees

By Marlene Cimons

The best coffee grows in the mountains, where it is cool. It needs low temperatures to thrive, which is why growers often put shade trees in their fields. But the mountains are getting hotter. And the higher you go, the less room there is to grow coffee. This is one reason scientists predict coffee will suffer in a changing climate.

New research suggests the fate of coffee may be worse than previously thought. Earlier projections underestimated the effects of climate change, specifically in Latin America, and failed to consider the consequences for coffee-pollinating bees, according to the study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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U.S. Air Force Is Spraying 6 Million Acres With Chemicals in Response to Harvey

By Whitney Webb

Amid statewide efforts to clean up the aftermath left by the historic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, the Pentagon announced last week that it had dispatched C-130H Sprayers from the Air Force Reserve's 910th Airlift Wing in order to "assist with recovery efforts in eastern Texas." However, these "recovery efforts" have little to do with rebuilding damaged structures or with the resettlement of evacuees. Instead, they are set to spray chemicals in order to help "control pest insect populations," which they allege pose a "health risk to rescue workers and residents of Houston."

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Turning Solar Sites Into Pollinator-Friendly Habitats Is the Sweetest Idea

A married couple in Minnesota found a genius use for the swaths of land occupied by solar systems—coupling them as pollinator-friendly habitats.

Travis and Chiara Bolton of St. Paul-based Bolton Bees partner with solar companies to host commercial bee operations. So far, the Boltons have established hives at Connexus Energy, the largest customer-owned power company in Minnesota, and at solar facilities in Farmington and Scandia owned by NRG Energy.

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Animals

Science Trumps Politics: Rusty Patched Bumble Bee Officially an Endangered Species

By Daniel Raichel

There are times—even today—when law and science triumph over politics.

Hard to believe, I know, but that's exactly what happened this week when the Trump administration backed away from its "freeze" on listing the rusty patched bumble bee as an endangered species.

The rusty patched bumble bee is the first bumble bee to receive endangered species protections and for good reason. Although common across the Midwest and the East Coast as recently as the mid-90s, since then, the bee's population has plummeted by about 90 percent.

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This City Just Set Aside 1,000 Acres to Save Honey Bees

By Julie M. Rodriguez

It's no secret that bee populations have declined in recent years. Last year, beekeepers across the U.S. reported losing a staggering 44 percent of their colonies over the course of the winter and summer.

The causes of bee decline vary—exposure to a variety of pesticides, fungus, parasites and rising temperatures being just some of the potential issues—but there's only one really effective way to fight back against the problem. Bees need open spaces to roam and collect pollen without being disturbed.

One city in Iowa has decided to do just that, in a major way: Cedar Rapids is planning to set aside 1,000 acres of bee-friendly open space. (Eventually, it's hoped, the project may expand to as many as 10,000 acres). This spring, they'll start by seeding a modest 188 acres with native prairie grasses and wildflowers, plants that will both nourish pollinators and prevent invasive weeds from spreading. So far, the initiative has secured $180,000 in funding from the state and the Monarch Research Project, an organization dedicated to restoring monarch butterfly populations and pollinator habitats.

Cedar Rapids isn't going to convert land used for other purposes for the project. Instead, they're simply repurposes public lands that are currently going unused, seeding them with 39 species of native wildflowers and seven species of native grass. The flowers will serve as an attractor for bees and butterflies, while the grasses will keep noxious weeds from invading the area. Some of the spaces that are being used for the initiative include far-off corners of public parks, golf courses, open areas near the local airport, sewage ditches, water retention basins and green space along roadways.

The project was proposed by Daniel Gibbons, the park superintendent of Cedar Rapids. According to Gibbons, over the past 100 years, Iowa's agriculture boom has resulted a loss of 99.9 percent of the state's native habitats. Converting these unused public areas back to their original state will do more than simply help bees—it's also going to help birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals who rely on native vegetation.

Converting these spaces back to native prairie isn't going to be a simple process. Right now, many of them are choked with undesirable vegetation that isn't bee-friendly. The invasive plants present in these areas need to be mowed down, burned and in some cases hit with doses of herbicide before the native seed mixture can be planted.

You Can Replicate The Cedar Rapids Experiment In Your Own Backyard

Most of us don't have 1,000 acres of unused space lying around, but if you want to do your part to help bees in the same way as Cedar Rapids, there's plenty you can do. If you have a garden or a place to leave outdoor planters, just a few square feet of wildflowers native to your area can help boost local bee populations. In Popular Science, pollination ecologist Stephen Buchmann suggests planting a diverse mix of wildflowers and heirloom crops that bloom in the spring, summer and fall.

If you do plant a pollinator garden, it's best not to use any herbicides or insecticides at all, as these are known to correlate with poor health in honey bees. If you must use these products, do it at night when bees are inactive.

Of course, simply providing a food source for bees does no good if they have no place to rest at the end of the day. You can also create nesting sites for native bees, if you can stomach the idea of a hive on your property. The Xerces society has compiled a helpful guide with information on how to provide nesting sites that allow bees to thrive. In many ways, the approach you'll need to take depends on the species of bees that live in your area—some prefer to nest in hollow wood, while others dig their nests in the dirt.

If we all make a small effort to create bee-friendly spaces, it's completely possible to replicate Cedar Rapids' experiment collectively in our own communities.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Care2.

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A radio-controlled flying robot equipped with animal hairs coated with a liquid gel pollinates a flower. Photo credit: Eijiro Miyak

Can a Drone Do the Work of Honeybees?

By Marlene Cimons

Ten years ago, Japanese chemist Eijiro Miyako was trying to invent a liquid that could work as an electrical conductor. But the sticky gel he created failed, so he shoved it into a cabinet in an uncapped bottle and forgot about it. Recently, during a lab cleanup, it was rediscovered—with the viscous stuff unchanged.

Motivated by concerns about climate change and the impact it was having on natural pollinators, especially bees and other insects, Miyako wondered whether the material he had made, still good after a decade, could pick up pollen. Ultimately, he jury-rigged a tiny, insect-sized remote-controlled drone that could carry his substance and use it to pick up and deposit pollen grains.

The artificial pollinator brushes a lily.Eijiro Miyak

"I think climate change is one of the terrible problems affecting our natural pollinators," he said. "Our technology and artificial pollinators could be hopefully promising for giving us a good solution against the pollination crisis for our beautiful planet."

Globally, an estimated 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices and medicines must be pollinated by animals, including apples, blueberries, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches, potatoes, pumpkins, vanilla, almonds and tequila, according to Pollinator Partnership. Pollination by honeybees, native bees and other insects produces $40 billion worth of products annually in the U.S., according to the group.

But pollinators have been in trouble in recent years, suffering from habitat loss, chemicals misuse, diseases and parasites, among other hazards. As a result, the nation has lost more than half of its managed honeybee colonies in the last ten years. Research has shown that the effects of global warming are shrinking the geographic home range of North American and European bumblebees, with the insects unable to adapt to the changing conditions.

Before tackling the honeybee problem, Miyako experimented with houseflies and ants.

He put the goop on the ants' bodies and let them wander inside a box of tulips. Compared with the insects that didn't have the gel on them, those that did were much more likely to have pollen attached.

Artificial pollinator top (left) and bottom (right).Eijiro Miya

Still, to devise an effective artificial pollinator, he needed some kind of flying machine to transport the pollen. He found an insect-sized, remote-controlled four-propeller drone, worth about $100 and attached horse hair to it in order to mimic the fuzzy exterior of a bee.

He and his research colleagues then slathered the gel onto the horse hair bristles so the pollen would stick to it. Furthermore, the horse hair generates an electric charge that keeps the grains in place.

They flew the little drones—with hair and gel attached—over the flowers of pink-leaved Japanese lilies. The little flyers picked up pollen and the researchers guided them to other flowers, where they deposited the grains, artificially pollinating the plants.

The artificial pollinator brushes a lily.Eijiro Miyak

He and his colleagues believe that robotic pollinators ultimately could learn pollination paths via GPS systems and artificial intelligence.

Nevertheless, Miyako acknowledges that much work remains before the tiny drones will have widespread application in agriculture, including improving how the small machines drop the pollen. Once stuck, the grains require some kind of additional physical force to release them.

Thus far, "desorption of pollens possibly happened by hitting materials with piled up pollens onto female flowers," he said. "Indeed, we have never characterized what kind of forces were actually effected on them. That is a future challenge, to improve the performance for dropping off pollens on our desired plant."

Miyako, a senior researcher with the Nanomaterials Research Institute of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Ibaraki, Japan, described his work in a study published in the journal Chem.

A radio-controlled flying robot equipped with animal hairs coated with a liquid gel pollinates a flower.Eijiro Miyak

He and his colleagues are the latest in a long history of those who have tried to find ways to help nature with pollination, efforts that go back thousands of years, at least to 2000 BC, when humans pollinated date palms by hand. More recently, people have hand-pollinated tomato flowers in greenhouses and, in some parts of China, apple trees in the absence of native pollinators.

Still, despite the urgency posed by climate change and other threats to insect pollinators, some experts believe artificial methods would be less effective and economically feasible to preserve bee populations. And they worry that attention and resources directed toward artificial pollination technology could discourage efforts to address the impact of global warming on natural pollinators.

"Fortunately, in most cases around the world, the ecosystem service of pollination is provided for free by native insects, so there has been no need to rely on artificial pollination," said David Inouye, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Maryland, who studies pollination biology and who was not involved in the study. "The new technology is interesting, but it's likely less expensive to take measures to encourage native pollinators than it will be to use drones."

Berry J. Brosi, associate professor in the department of environmental services at Emory University, who also was not involved in the research, agrees. "There is the possibility that such technology would reduce the incentives for pollinator conservation," he said.

Also, mechanical replacement of pollinators, while feasible at small scales, is very unlikely to be economically possible at the levels needed for crop pollination, Brosi said. "Japanese lilies, the plant species that was used for the proof-of-concept of this technology, have very large and showy flowers, in stark contrast to most crops," he said.

A bee pollinates a canola flower. Pixabay

For example, canola, an economically important pollinator-dependent crop, has very small blooms clustered on thin stalks that grow very close together in commercial canola fields, he said. "Current technology for mechanical pollination would have to advance tremendously in a number of dimensions to allow for this much more challenging application," Brosi said.

Moreover, he adds, replacing living pollinators with mechanical alternatives could produce societal inequities. "Research has shown that pollinator declines are likely to be associated with nutritional deficits in the developing world among smallholders, exactly the population that would almost certainly be unable to afford such technology," he said.

Beyond their role in crops, insects also pollinate more than 90 percent of wild flowering plants and trees, which in turn provide a range of ecosystem services that people depend upon, "including production of oxygen, water and air purification, prevention of erosion and scenic beauty among many others," Brosi said. "Creating a pollinator habitat within or adjacent to crop fields, can provide many other benefits, including providing habitat for natural enemies of crop pests, carbon sequestration, erosion control and support of plant and other biodiversity."

The Japanese researchers acknowledge these shortcomings and the obstacles ahead. Nevertheless they hope their continued research will be valuable, even if only to reduce the pressure put on bee populations by commercialization and other stressors.

With help from artificial pollinators, honeybees, for example, might be better able to do one thing the robots can't—make honey—while drones do the pollinating. Hopefully, the little robots can "help counter the problems caused by declining honeybee populations," Miyako said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

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