Radar antennae reveal how disease and pesticides are harming bees navigation

The Telegraph – Sunday 28th July

Government funded research in Hertfordshire and Germany has developed technology that enables the study of flight paths taken by individual honeybees, and consequently the impact pesticides have on their navigation. This groundbreaking research offers a concrete picture of how bees are reacting to controversial neonicotinoids, which many scientists think are at the root of declining bee populations and colony collapse.

Using lightweight radar transponders that are glued to the backs of bees, it was found that bees who ate syrup contaminated with neonicotinoids became confused and were unable to find their way back to their hives, failing to use their ‘landscape memory’ effectively. Professor Randolf Menzel, an insect neurobiologist who headed-up the experiment, believes that the bees exposed to neonicotinoids struggle to locate food and bring it back to the hive. In addition, the exposure appears to weaken the bee’s ability to cope with both disease and poor weather conditions.

Honeybee populations have more than halved over the last 25-years, and although the EU has voted to ban (temporarily) the use of neonicotinoids, the UK government did not support the ban. Research such as this is extremely important in evidencing the impact of neonicotinoids on this most vital species and will hopefully lead to a permanent ban on the pesticides.

Kew’s growth strategy: hybrid crops without the genetic modification

The Independent – Sunday 28th July

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew is leading a global project to track down and store wild relatives of common crops, in order to have a diverse store of wild varietals that could be used to create hybrids better suited to a changing climate. Such work is incredibly important as crop diversity has critically declined with the rise of industrial farming and genetic modification.

Experts behind the scheme have argued that crossing staple crops with their wild cousins provides a safe, natural alternative to genetically modifying plants in the lab, as the technology is better understood and holds less risk of unexpected interactions between genes. Wild-domesticated crop hybrids could be more resistant to floods, droughts and temperature extremes, and could boost agricultural production, with a potential worth of up to £128bn to the global economy.

Herbicides linked to farmer depression

Grist – Monday 29th July

Grist reports on a study of more than 700 French farmers, which has found that those who used herbicides were 2 ½ times more likely to develop depression than those who did not. It was found that the higher the exposure to weed killers, the greater the chance of being treated for depression, although researchers are unable to state whether chemicals in the pesticides actually caused the depression.

These findings are a real cause for concern as herbicides make up about 65% of all agricultural pesticide use in the US, and the EPA is increasing the amount of weed killer allowed in American food. Apparently the effect that environmental contaminants have on psychological health has been generally under appreciated, and according to Weisskopf, the study’s lead author, this research reminds us how “we should not be ignoring herbicides” when considering pesticide hazards.

The British at table

The Economist – Saturday 27th July

Using some surprising facts and figures, this article takes a look at the evolution of British cooking, eating and dining practices over the decades. It’s nice to hear that the sociability of eating has largely survived. Even though we spend less time eating, we still like to eat together. However, what we eat has changed significantly, and not in a good way.

Over the last fifty years or more, Britons have rapidly replaced green vegetables with ready meals and salty snacks. The piece cites the downfall of vegetables like cabbage and the mighty brussel sprout, which was a staple in the 1970s. Consumption of fresh vegetables has fallen steadily since then from around 400g per week to less than 200g per week. That’s a woeful comment on our eating habits.

We’ve been asking the wrong questions about conservation

The Guardian – Monday 29th July

James Watson, director of the Global Climate Change program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, argues that we need to think carefully about how the changes we make as humans in response to climate change affect other species, and not how other species will react or adapt to climate change. Humans are the dominant species and what we do affects every other living thing on the earth.

Recent examples such as the construction in Papua New Guinea of seawalls in response to sea level rise, which subsequently destroyed diverse coral reefs, highlight the unintended negative effects of seemingly rational decisions. These unforeseen impacts can be both positive and negative – on the flip side, in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, efforts to control wildfire incidents associated with a drying climate, are having a positive impact on threatened species like the Jaguar. Demonstrating how indirect threats can often be significant, Watson argues that understanding how humans are going to be affected by climate change is more important than understanding the response of other animal and plant species to it. Watson argues that a failure to do this will lead us to reactive, emergency responses that are likely to be inadequate to the threat that climate change presents.

Sugar Love (A not so sweet story)

National Geographic

There is growing evidence that sugar is much, much worse for us than we ever thought it could be. The theory that sugar is just ‘empty calories’ is proving misguided in the extreme, and as our fat consumption decreases, obesity continues to increase, with sugar looking like the main suspect. This detailed and brilliantly written article argues that it is sugar, not saturated fat and high cholesterol, which is to blame.

This is a great piece on both the history of human sugar consumption and its current impacts. Read it and weep.

Genetic engineering: Do the differences make a difference?

Grist – Wednesday 24th July

Following on from last week’s discussion about the difference between natural breeding and genetic engineering, Grist columnist Nathanael Johnson illustrates how this perceived difference varies depending on people’s values. He begins by explaining that in the GM debate, there are fundamentally opposed values present and they impact on the way we see the same things.

Using the example of double stranded RNA that is commonly created in genetic engineering, he provides opinions from both sides of the argument – the magnitude of risk that this presents and our subsequent response to it varies radically. As Johnson puts it “…one side sees huge dangers in technologies that alter our surroundings. The other sees technological advances as a defence against nature.” Johnson asks us to set aside the polemic of which position is right or wrong and come to the table with an open-mind, ready to persuade, but also to be persuaded.

Photograph by Tambako

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