Daily Archives: November 8, 2011

Is it a Virus? Navigating the theories behind Colony Collapse Disorder

To some, it is not pesticides or fungicides, but rather viruses, and in particular the Israeli Acute Paralytic Virus, that play an important role in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). How is one to plot a course around all these differing opinions?

In this age where an abundance of information is at our fingertips, it is easy to give in to a natural desire to jump to conclusions when it comes to suggesting the causes of  Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  CCD  is a complex synergistic phenomenon where a number of factors have been identified as contributing to the decline of the bee colonies.  On this point everyone in the scientific community agrees, says Renee Johnson, specialist in agricultural policy for the Congressional Research Service.   As part of my research to date, I have focused on pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids, that, lacing the pollen, end up being stored in the hive, and on fungicides that wreak their havoc in the heart of the hive,  destroying the bee’s intestinal flora.   Among the other factors identified as playing a role in CCD are viruses.

Viruses behave in a similar manner whether they infect bees or humans.  According to Beeologics, an international firm that focuses on protecting bees from viruses, viruses will infect the host in a variety of manners: through varroa mite bites, through the alimentary track during feeding, or through trauma on the body.  They will spread throughout the colony either horizontally — from bee to bee, from fecal matter or infested food –, or vertically — from the queen to her eggs.  Just as in humans, viruses will strike a colony more effectively when it is weakened by stressors such as overcrowding, lack of forage diversity, pesticide-laden pollen, or the reduced genetic pool of the queen bees.  Furthermore, bad flying conditions that relegate the bees to their hive and lead them to defecate in the hive also have an effect on the spread of disease.

Honeybee with deformed wings-- Courtesy of Klaas de Gelder/ Flickr Creative Commons

Among the many viruses that affect honey bees, the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) has been given particular attention across scientific disciplines.  Given how bees and humans transmit viruses in similar ways, there has been, according to  Science News article, ” Virus Implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder in Bees,” a  “profound synergy within the [research] group bringing together entomology, microbiology, and bio-informatics.”  Closely related to the Acute Bee Paralysis Virus, IAPV, transmitted by varroa mites, is, as Beeologics points out on its website, “the most consistent  indicator of Colony Collapse Disorder.”  First identified in Israel in 2004, IAPV, as science reporter Roxanne Khamsi points out in a News scientist article, causes “bees to develop shivering wings and eventually become paralyzed, leading to death just outside the hive.”   The U.S. strain of IAPV is distinct from the Israeli one and seems to be rapidly changing and spreading throughout the U.S.

Beeologics is very involved in researching this virus.   In a phone interview on November 8, 2011, Eyal Ben-Chanoch, CEO of Beeologics, discussed the experiment his researchers had conducted  on hives to ascertain the role of IAPV in CCD:  “we were able to show in controlled trial that when we inoculate healthy hives with the virus, we get similar symptoms to CCD.  It’s not necessarily a one to one [cause and effect] because other things can do it too, but we showed that when you inoculate the virus into a healthy bee hive after very short period you get CCD-like symptoms.”

Even though the results of this scientific experiment point to the very important  role of IAPV in the decline of honey bee colonies, Ben-Chanoch stressed that this is only one small step in understanding the nuances of the issue.   In discussing the spread of the virus among bees, he underscored the complexities involved in studying infectious diseases: “[The spread of infectious diseases] is not well understood in any infectious disease.  Again, it is science in progress, but if somebody will tell you that they know, they just make statements that are irresponsible.”

Jeff Pettis, Research leader for the United States Department of Agriculture speaks about IAPV and underscores the fact that the findings concerning the correlation between IAPV and CCD are not conclusive:

In my October 27 post, I highlighted the conviction of some people in the industry that pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids, played, without a doubt, a crucial role in CCD.  Today, my research led me to viruses and in particular to IAPV which, in the view of researchers at Beeologics, for instance, play a salient role in CCD.

How are we to navigate amidst so many firm convictions?

Professor Donald Steinkraus, entomologist at the University of Arkansas, stresses the need to distinguish between speculation and science when reporting on potential causes of CCD. He hearkens back, in a phone interview with me on November 8, 2011, to the basic experimentation principles of Louis Pasteur, and in particular to the importance of testing hypotheses on randomized samples.  As a scientist he does not like to speculate:

As we continue to explore the factors possibly contributing to CCD, Donald Steinkraus reminds us that science is not a discipline of rapid solutions driven solely by passion but rather a field driven by hypotheses, data, and patient analysis.

Bugs: More than Splatter on a Windshield

The world around us is extraordinarily complex and every organism plays a critical role in nature’s balance. For example, although bugs may seem small and insignificant, through biomimicry their contributions can help our society in a multitude of ways—from inspiring bug-robots to making shots at the doctor’s office less painful. One particularly important biomimetic advancement that bugs have contributed to is water harvesting. As many countries struggle with locating drinkable sources of water (and many groups try to help them), finding new and innovative ways to collect water has become a priority.

Inspiration from an Insect

The Namib Desert, HKervasdoue/Fotopedia Creative Commons

A desert is defined as a region that receives less than 50 cm of rain every year. The Namib desert is one of the driest deserts on Earth as it receives less than 2 cm of rain-water a year. The source of water, and therefore life, in this region is fog; consequently, organisms in the Namib desert have adapted accordingly.

One bug, the Namibian beetle  (Stenocara gracilipes), has developed a practical method to stay hydrated in these harsh conditions. The only equipment necessary is the beetle’s shell.

Namib Desert Beetle, Stenocara gracilipes, JBihn/Flickr Creative Commons

The shell is cool and covered with bumps. When fog rolls in, the beetle climbs to the top of the sand dunes and leans into the fog so that moisture from the fog condenses on the top of each bump on its shell. These bumps are completely smooth, like glass, and are hydrophilic–they attract water. Because of the hydrophilic nature of the bumps, the wind cannot blow the water away. When the droplet becomes large enough, it slides off the bump into the hydrophobic (water repelling) and waxy crevasses in the shell. In this way, water is funneled to the Namibian beetle’s mouth.

The Beetle’s Contribution

QinetiQ is a research company that has created sheets of film that mimic the Stenocara gracilipes’ shell and effectively harvests water from fog. These sheets, either made of glass balls in wax or a specific pattern printed on plastic, have been found to be an efficient alternative to harvesting fog with a net like FogQuest. When using a net, droplets can fairly easily fall through the net. By utilizing solid sheets, fog harvesting becomes much more effective.

The applications for this technology are endless. When these sheets were tested on cooling systems in an attempt to recollect water that is usually lost as vapor, tests showed that the film could recover up to 10% of the water that is generally lost from cooling systems. Since it uses no energy, the film can help lower energy costs. Moreover, this film can be placed on buildings and tents to harvest water from fog and water vapor, providing water for those in need. The collected water can be used for farming or even for drinking in environments where rain is scarce. This technology benefits everyone from hikers in the desert to people in refugee camps.

As Janine Benyus, biomimicry expert, so beautifully suggests, “…let the entrancement of the last 350 years of western science, where somehow we convinced ourselves that we’re the only one with the answers, let that fall away. And go outside and realize that we’re surrounded by genius.”

Or, in other words, remember to stop and appreciate the insects.

Nomad Rights

In my previous two posts, I covered the two main policies, modernization and grassland fencing affecting the Tibetan environment. According to Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), the largest Tibetan activist group, these policies have failed to acknowledge Tibetan traditional practices and address the needs of the locals. This week’s post will cover the perspective of Tibetan nomads from the organization Nomad Rights, which operates under SFT.

I met with a few Tibetan activists from SFT in an environmental justice rally in front of the United Nations building. They argued that the Chinese Government is using their concern for climate change and sustainable modernization in the name of protecting the fragile environment, improving living standards, and accusing nomads of ‘over-grazing land’ as a facade to forcibly relocate the Tibetan nomads off their land. SFT claims that  social, political, and economic goals of the Chinese government is to secure greater political control over Tibetans and the exploit Tibet’s natural resources like minerals and water.

Chinese government claims that the grassland degradation in Tibet is caused by Tibetan nomads’ unsustainable use of the land through over-grazing. Their policy, Tuimu Huancao, is supposed to be a solution for the degradation through engaging in responsible environmental conservation and creating vast nature reserves that have global benefits.

(Image: Food and Agriculture Organization of UN) This photo was taken in Central Tibet. The brown grass areas the ungrazed region fenced by the government.

SFT counter-argument to the government’s claim is that the nomads have lived sustainably on the grasslands for almost 9,000 years. Their traditional practices of mobility and skills ensured the grasslands were not over-grazed as revealed by a recent scientific study led by China Academy of Sciences calculated that climate change was responsible for 81% of grassland degradation near the headwaters of the Yangtze on the Tibetan plateau. The study supported that the degradation of grasslands is also linked to the disastrous collectivization policy from the 1960s to 1980s when nomads were forced to live in communes and increase herd sizes to intensify meat production

Chinese government goes on to claim that the nomads need to be removed from the grasslands to reduce their affect on Climate Change and to protect the headwaters of the Chinese civilization, Tibetan Plateau. Tibet is extremely fragile; according to the Tibetan Autonomous Region Meteorological Bureau, Tibet is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. If this current trend continues then two thirds of the Tibetan glaciers will disappear by 2060. The government has fenced large areas as regions for treatment to reverse desertification and degradation of the rangelands.

SFT also recognizes the significance of the Tibetan waters, however, it blames these climate effects on the government’s modernization policies. According to Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology, academic institute specializing in understanding the ecosystem of the Tibetan Plateau under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, by fencing areas and not allowing livestock to graze the ecosystem is affected as invasive exotic species take over and the natural biodiversity is lost. Chinese scholar such as Wang Xiaoyi from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Liu Shurun from Inner Mongolia Normal University note the flaws behind the environmental policies by the Chinese government because even after years of investments to tackle desertification in Inner Mongolia there is no sign of degradation coming to an end or even slowing.

Chinese government has viewed the traditional Tibetan nomadic lifestyle as backwards on the grasslands which led to Open up the West policy. They want to improve the livelihood of Tibetans by resettling them into state-built housings which will provide necessities such as electricity, primary education for children, and transition to the modern economy.

(Clip from Nomad to Nobody, directed by Michael Buckley, investigating the affects of resettlement on Tibetan nomadic communities)

SFT claims that these relocation projects mainly lead to unemployment, poverty, loss of social cohesion, community and family breakdowns, alcoholism and crime, as was the case of in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang when the government settled the nomadic people in the 1950s and 1980s, revealed by Feng YongFeng from Beijing University, in his 2008 article “Tibetan Plateau: Plight of Ecological Migrants“. These social problems rooted in population displacement also applies to other relocation projects in other parts of China most famously the 1.5 million displaced for the 2008 Beijing Olympics constructions. Furthermore, according to Human Rights Watch, although the nomads are promised compensation, provision of survival rations, vocational training, schooling for their children, access to electricity and urban services, in reality in many of these resettled communities there are no schools for children and vocational training for adults.

State-built housing for resettled Tibetan nomads (Image: rukor.org)

As I mentioned in my last post Professor of Sociology Tanzin Lundrup stated, from China Tibetology Research Center, the policymakers do not involve the locals in the decision making table. Moreover, International Campaign for Tibet, based in Washington DC advocating for human rights in Tibet, writes in ‘Tracking the Steel Dragon’, “Resettlement policies are generally implemented without consultation or consent, and local people have no right to challenge them or refuse to participate. This is despite the fact that Chinese law requires that those who are to be moved off their land or are to have their property confiscated must be consulted, and, if they are moved, compensated for their losses.”

As a global citizen, regardless of whether one sides with the perspectives of the Chinese government or those of the Tibetan activists, initiatives of capacity building and agency to the locals have proved to be the key to protecting the environment. The extent of ramifications from the degradation of the Tibetan Plateau affects billions of people living in Asia. In order for the government and the locals to make amends, they must collaborate, restructure, implement, and dissolve various environmental policies, practices, and institutions before it is too late.

Taking a Leaf Out of Europe’s Compost Heap

What can the United States learn from Europe’s treatment of organic waste?

When it comes to sustainability, Europe is generally far more advanced than the United States is.  The situation in the arena of composting is no different; the countries across the Atlantic are clearly winning, with many more extensive composting programs in place, programs that America could use as models to raise itself to a new level in the global fight for sustainability.

The largest compost heap in Europe, Brentford, England. Photo courtesy of ajschu/Flickr Creative Commons

According to the European Compost Network, “source separation of organic residues from households and gardens is a success story of most European countries, thereby helping to meet recycling and climate change targets and market requirements.”  E. Favoino’s report “Composting across Europe” separates European regions into four categories of participation when it comes to composting, with Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands having “strategies and policies [that] are already fully implemented nationwide.”  Next come Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Catalonia (a nationality of Spain), and Norway, where policies are “fully outlined” but the programs themselves are still being developed.  In Finland, France, the United Kingdom, and Wallonia (a region of Belgium), programs are just getting started but may already have written policies.  The remainder has not yet shown any inclination to begin a source separated organic waste disposal program.  While composting has not yet reached its full potential in Europe, when one considers that the same practice is largely a personal one in the United States with only around 90 municipalities currently implementing programs, it becomes clear that Europe’s organics are being treated much more sustainably.

A biogas purification plant in Lund, Sweden. Photo courtesy of P1r/Flickr Creative Commons

In addition to your average composting, Europe is also a forerunner when it comes to anaerobic digestion, the breakdown of organic materials in an oxygen-free setting that allows for the production of carbon dioxide and methane, the main component of natural gas.  These byproducts of the decomposition process are known as biogas, a form of renewable energy that can be used to replace global climate change-causing fossil fuels.  Anaerobic digestion is also a means of capturing greenhouse gases that if produced in a non-controlled anaerobic environment like a landfill would be released to the atmosphere, where they would contribute to global warming.  A plant in Amiens, France claims to be the first in the world to subject organic waste to anaerobic digestion.  It deals with the waste stream of two cities and has been selling the biogas to Gaz de France since 1987.  Many other European areas have since begun similar programs, such as Salzburg, Austria, Zurich, Switzerland, and Elsinore, Denmark.  According to Albert Morales of Renewable Energy World, “higher energy prices and government incentives have spurred widespread adoption of this technology [in Europe].”  Biogas in the United States, on the other hand, “has never had the sort of political support or constituent base to mobilize action in Washington.”  American biogas receives only $1 of subsidy per unit of energy (mmbtu) generated, compared with $2 for solar and wind and $8.55 for biodiesel from agri-fuels.

Global sustainability is not a competition; ultimately there is one Earth that both “winners” and “losers” will have to share.  At present Europe is far ahead of the United States, but it is not in the lead because it’s an Olympian – it’s in front because we’re standing in our own way.  Achieving a more sustainable country – partially through an increase in composting and anaerobic digestion – will not be easy and may very well require a restructuring of our government’s priorities, but Europe is proof that all the pieces exist and are perfectly capable of fitting together to form a fully functioning, ecologically sound system.

Environmentalist Art and Climate Change

Cape Farewell is an organization dedicated to pioneering a “cultural response to climate change.” They bring artists of all kinds together with scientists on expeditions to the High Arctic and other places to explore climate change. The trips are led by scientists doing research, and the artists follow, learning the facts and creating responses through art.

U-N-F-O-L-D is their latest exhibit, showing until December 15 at The New School for Design to show their work from trips to the High Arctic in 2007 and 2008 and to the Andes in 2009.

The exhibit aims to make visible the invisible, as the gallery observer and greeter, a BA/BFA student at The New School, explained to me.  He believes that the responsibility of activist artists (an identity he proudly claims) is to expose issues that are hard to see or hard to understand fully and bring them to the general public in ways that resonate deeply. David Buckland, the founder of Cape Farewell and one of the curators of U-N-F-O-L-D, describes his motivations for asking artists to address climate change in a video on Cape Farewell’s website:

Climate change is such a strange gray subject, an amorphous subject. You can’t go head on at it. And you understand it—oh, yeah, we got to do something about it, because the science says we have got to do something about it. But at the end of the day, it’s a cultural responsibility. It’s the way we live that is causing climate change.

The Exhibition

The strength of the exhibition was in its diversity, both in the variety of responses to the issue of climate change and in their presentation. The variety of media (including media that required advanced technology) made the exhibit hopeful. It was saying, “Look! we have a problem. But look also at the incredible creativity displayed here. We are creative enough to be able to rethink this and make real change.”

Visual Art

Adrienne Colburn’s “Forest for the Trees” was featured prominently across from the entrance. It is a floor to ceiling installation of paper cuts, prints and metal, “a meditation on the complex relationship between nature and industry; sustained land vs. commodified land; matter on the surface of the earth vs. the matter below ground; the morphing of the forest into an industrial landscape; and the fine lines between use and exploitation” (artist’s statement). It seemed that some of the paint of the forest floor had been applied directly to the wall, which added another dimension to it—the wall and therefore the building became part of the piece: What does it mean to be making art about the relationship between nature and industry in a building in the middle of Manhatten?

Clare Twoney, Specimen (Un-fired China Clay) 2009

Specimen is made of unfired China Clay flowers. Because they are unfired, they are extremely fragile and have been falling apart as they move from installation to installation.

David Buckland, The Great White Sale(Photographic Print, Perspex Mounted) Text by Amy Balkin 2008

The artist’s statement reads, “These images are made in a short window of time when the power of the video projector matches the light of dawn, when there is both message and ice. This fleeting moment of human excess is so short, two hundred years, but for the glacier it is barely a single breath taken.” The art emphasizes the liminality of this moment in history and therefore the urgency of it.

Other Media

Shiro Takatani, Ice Core(Media Installation) 2005

“Ice Core” showed scrolling photographs of parts of an ice core drilled in 2005 at Dome Fuji in Antarctica. The ice itself was beautiful and showed the little air bubbles that scientists use to understand carbon cycling. It created an interesting interplay between the beauty of this ice and its utility for science.

This video of Lemn Sissay performing “What If?” played nonstop in the corner of the exhibit. Its strong beats created a sense of urgency and rhythm for the entire exhibit, and by the time I left, I had memorized most of the words, which can be found here.

Another interesting piece showed a diamond on the head of a pin. The plaque said that the diamond has been made using a special process from the carbon of a polar bear bone. The gallery observer pointed it out to me saying, “so it asks the question: Which is more important or valuable, the polar bear or the diamond?”

“The instability is where artists belong”

David Bucknell understands the collaboration between artists and scientists as making perfect sense—artists like societal transitions, and that is what is necessary here. He says that if you sees this as a challenge for how to advance in a new, sustainable way, that means a shift and “if you get a shift, you can always find an artist in that place, because that’s their territory. They like it when it is unstable and exciting going forward.” The scientists tell us that we have a problem, and the artists ask the questions about envisioning and creating inspiration for the future.