Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Dano on Bees - Lack of Same

“What gets measured gets managed” is a common phrase that we’ve all probably seen before. In ecology, that proposition is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, there is no question that botanists, wildlife biologists, oceanographers, and glaciologists need much more data to understand the “natural” world. On the other hand, more information allows humans to act and manage, and it is clear that human action is not always best – for whatever situation you find yourself in. The spate of recent wildfires is partially a result of past human action: putting out all fires in order to preserve the forest fiber resource (for human use). The trees that are going up near Yosemite – and especially the trees near the sequoia groves – are a good example.

The situation we find ourselves in right now is that we have appropriated vast swathes of the earth’s land surface to grow our food (and food for our food). We have also moved around bees to help pollinate a good portion of the food we eat – and the food our food eats (e.g. alfalfa for beef cattle). In addition, bees are part of the pollinator population that moves genes around via pollen. We need to have genes move around the environment so plants can have genetic diversity – the more diverse your gene pool, the better chance you have to adapt to surprise (in ecology, surprise is called “emergent properties”). One look at royal families across the globe shows us the importance of needing new genes.

In order to produce more food, developed nations have embraced “efficiency” – industrialized agriculture, refrigerated distribution, picking fruit when unripe and using ethylene later on to “ripen”. We also move bees around on trucks and even have attempted to breed “Africanized” bees to more efficiently pollinate crops.

What is starting to happen now is that our management is running up against limits. Our western forests cannot be managed to exclude fire, include homes, supply water, provide fiber. Our built environments are managed in such a way to include vegetation as well – for greenery, cooling, quality of life. Managed landscapes need to be…well, managed. Management of landscapes in the midst of people means managing conflicts – pests, visibility, infrastructure damage.

Recently we heard about the effects of managing some trees in Oregon. These trees were planted to provide shade for parked cars, and to mitigate the extra heat caused by the car park (parking lot). These particular trees – lindens (Tilia spp.) – tend to attract aphids, which feed on the tree and then excrete a substance we call ‘honeydew’. This honeydew sticks to cars and makes car owners sad, and they complain to the mall management. Mall management often tracks such complaints to see if they affect sales numbers. So the management company of the property where these trees were planted asked the landscape maintenance contractor to spray the lindens to kill the aphids. The maintenance crew should have said no, but instead they chose a product called Safari to apply; Safari has been shown – via measurements – to be effective at aphid control. This product resulted in the deaths of several tens of thousands of bees that were visiting the linden flowers.

Another common urban tree, the ash (Fraxinus spp) is being attacked in the eastern part of the United States by the emerald ash borer (EAB). Our British friends have their ashes under attack, but by a different pest. Anyway , our response has been…well…interesting. Many cities have chosen simply to cut all the ash down, infected or no. The combination of preventive cutting and post-attack cutting has removed millions of trees. Researchers are just now starting to quantify the effects of these trees being cut down – removed trees reduces pollution filtration and absorption by leaf surfaces and human cardiopulmonary health is negatively affected. Another response has been to use a treatment called a “soil drench” with a product called imidacloprid. Those of you following bees and colony collapse disorder may know this product – it is now banned in the EU because of the suspected effect on bees. Turns out there are some initial reports coming out of Canada about a recent massive bee die-off near fields of corn possibly planted with seed treated with imidacloprid. Some researchers in the US still aren’t convinced of the relationship, however.

So our management appears to have some unforeseen effects that bode ill for the future if we can’t get pests under control. Bees may be an excellent indicator for ecosystem health, especially in human-managed ecosystems. Bees are certainly an excellent indicator for what we know, what we don’t know, and how far we have to go to have good data for policy. Yet the EU has acted out of precaution. Who will be next?


Fixed Carbon said...

Alarmist bunny, you are. Love, Whatmeworry.

Lionel A said...

A few years back I purchased this book


and passed it on to local bee-keepers from whom I purchase my honey.

The book tells an alarming story and the web site


has updated information which hits some of the buttons in the article.

Another book that I read and passed on is 'A World Without Bees' by Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum.

Tony Juniper in his recent book 'What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?: How Money Really Does Grow On Trees' also touches on pollinators and bees providing a wider context.

So in short Fixed Carbon, yes you should be worried when 'you can't put food on your family'.

Hank Roberts said...


When I started my little hobby restoration project (40 acres after a severe forest fire, on my favorite hang gliding mountain), I sent soil samples to Dr. Ingham's lab just to get some rough idea of microbiology. The most interesting result was from long abandoned logging grade roads across the site from probably the 1920s. Aside from the change in slope they looked just about the same as the hillside above and below. Same bunchgrasses and post-fire manzanita growing; same remaining topsoil after the fire (about 2/3 of an inch, at most; most of the topsil had burned off much of the site).

The old road grades had maybe a tenth the total microorganisms. That's after about 70 years of being left alone to go back to nature.

When I was a youngster, farmers and the occasional field biologist would taste the dirt to get some idea how well it was doing. I doubt anybody does that nowadays.

Hank Roberts said...

The link behind "Some researchers in the US still aren’t convinced" is broken

Sandra said...

Hank Roberts,

Do you and/or the soil labs know why the microbiology is still so different? Compaction seems likely, as the roads are still visible. Anything else?

Hank Roberts said...

> know why the microbiology is
> still so different?

Nope, no idea at all. That's one long-ago observation on one site.

Look at Elaine Ingham's work and that of NRCS and some of the ag groups -- the area's changing fast as we become able to use PCR probes to find out what's living where.

Look at all the people working on this stuff: http://www.academia.edu/People/Environmental_microbiology

Russell Seitz said...

When I was a youngster, farmers and the occasional field biologist would taste the dirt

Adds a whole new dimension to the term terroir:

Next at The French Laundry, a $150 tasting menu of Napa Valley vineyard soils, with vintage loma preta for dessert.

EliRabett said...

Hell, you can take a course in tasting dirt

Bryn said...

The long-term microbiology of soils is of particular interest to us geoarchaelogists.

I teach my students to smell soils, as they excavate, to get an idea of the nature and degree of soil biological activity and of any modern contamination. Soil fungal activity is particularly relevant to the survival of archaeological strata - and nasally identifiable.

Just like a fine wine a soil has a "nose" which can be recognised by those who sniff them long, hard and often enough. Presumably Bunnies develop such skills too - given all those hours spent running around dark tunnels underground.

My kids use to think I'm mad. Now they accept this to be true but understand that it is an honourable form of madness shared with field scientists everywhere. And that it pays for their extravagent lifestyles (ha!).

Some knowledge you can't get online and deliver in Tablet form.

Universities - Wake up and smell the podsols!

Anonymous said...

Hank, I'd suggest compaction is a big factor. The Wilderness experiments at Rothamsted indicate arable areas that are left to revegetate naturally have soils much higher in micro-organisms than the adjacent arable fields a(see e.g. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2389.2010.01339.x/full ). Though historic soil treatments that alter the chemistry of the soil (such as pH) can have far-reaching consequences on the botanical makeup of the resulting woodland (see e.g. http://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/resources/LongTermExperiments.pdf).

As regards the OP, of course we should do nothing to our agricultural ecosystems for fear of the consequences, though how we then go on to feed everyone I don't know...



David B. Benson said...

Having for awhile owned and managed a 40 acre woodlot I am quite sure that compaction is a big factor in the change of the microbiology of the old roads. But it is also the case that the best topsoil was scraped off whilst making the skid roads. All that would grow on mine were volunteer Ponderosa pines. Those would start because there was no grass. The Douglas fir (vastly preferable) refused to cooperate.

Dano said...

o An old GF of mine worked for the Forest Service one summer as a field biologist. She did a little paper on plant regeneration on old logging roads. Her findings were interestingly similiar to what I talk about in urban ecology - we scrape and compact and it takes decades to recover - a paper out of Utah recently says it takess 50-70 years in cities for soil to recover and start acting like it did before.

o Don't know what happened with the link, here is the sentence:

Some researchers in the US still aren’t convinced of the relationship, however.

Might have been a space in there that threw off the tag.

o I smell soil as well - yesterday working on a project with a couple contractors, one asserted the soil was saturated for a long time - I picked it up and smelled it and it smelled rich and healthy. That's one of the first things we were taught in soil science.




Mal Adapted said...

Hank Roberts: "The old road grades had maybe a tenth the total microorganisms. That's after about 70 years of being left alone to go back to nature."

David B. Benson: "I am quite sure that compaction is a big factor in the change of the microbiology of the old roads. But it is also the case that the best topsoil was scraped off whilst making the skid roads."

A couple of ideas:

1) If the topsoil was scraped off the skid roads, how much organic matter is left to drive microbial productivity?

2) Aside from reduced supply of fixed carbon, there's the loss of living plants with their mycorrhizal symbionts.

Some testable hypotheses there, maybe?

Anonymous said...

I'm dredging up from my undergrad transect days now, but there are quite a few reasons why old unpaved roads host different communities compared to their shoulders. Compaction, as has been mentioned above, is one and the loss of carbon from biological sources is most certainly another.

When the roads are originally cut the surface soil horizons may be removed (or replaced with anther base) which can have a profound effect on subsequent recolonisation. Whilst the road is in use the exposure of the bare substrate to the elements can result in different chemical and physical weathering profiles compared with the intact soils around it. In particular leaching of soluble compound from the soil may be significant, and all the more so if there are no roots and /or worms to transport any back to the surface from lower horizons. A long-used road's soil profile may even change as a result of chemicals deposited by the traffic using it.

These changes can persist for many centuries (and even millenia) after the last human use of such structures, and it's a boon to archaelologists who use geophysics to visualise historic disturbances even in the absence of more substantial artefacts.

Bernard J.