For the Conservation Curious

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Bee Kind to Bees April 23, 2014

Last night at my Rotary club meeting we heard from a fellow club member, who talked about his beekeeping hobby. This is a fascinating occupation and one with a lot of conservation value, so I thought I would blog a bit about it today.

Egyptians may have been the first people to raise their own domesticated bees. Jars of honey were found within Tutankhamun’s tomb, and as stories would have it, the honey was still edible. According to my Rotarian friend, as long as no water gets into the honey, it can stay edible. If water gets in the honey ferments… although to me that sounds like a good problem to have. Mead anyone?!

Anyway, many cultures over the years domesticated bees and created different hive structures. Yet it wasn’t until the 18th century and the creation of the moveable comb hive that made apiculture (i.e. beekeeping) more sustainable. Why is that, you ask? Well the original forms of bee hives had to be destroyed in order to get at the honey, killing the bees in the process. Now you can easily open up the different combs of the hive, taking the honey you want and leaving the rest intact. In fact, I learned last night that there is a queen bee excluder, a metal grate that keeps the queen bee from laying eggs in most of the hive. This keeps the edible honey bee brood-free yet allows her to lay enough eggs in a portion of the hive. I guess I never thought that deeply about honey before, but know I am glad to know about the excluder!

Why is beekeeping important for conservation? There are more than 20,000 species of wild bees out there, but they’re not doing so well. With the way we tend to grow crops in the U.S. and elsewhere – a monoculture of genetically-engineered corn or soy, with lots of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, for example – native bees can’t find enough pollen to bring back to their hives to make honey. No honey, no food for any of the bees, the hive dies. We have also paved and built over a lot of prime bee food habitat – meadows and other grasslands – further reducing their pollen supply.

Colony collapse disorder is a major concern for bee colonies. It was first documented in 2006, according to the USDA, and showed up to 90 percent mortality among affected hives. The population of managed honey bees in the U.S. has declined from five million in the 1940s to less than 2.5 million today. What causes colony collapse disorder? While no one has an exact answer, scientists believe that it is a combination of Varroa mites, fungi and viruses, pesticides, lack of food and other stressors. It may be the perfect storm of problems for honeybees worldwide. And since honeybees and their pollination skills contribute $15 million annually towards the economy, losing the bees will harm us in our stomachs and pocketbooks. Like almonds? Then you should really be concerned… all almonds must be pollinated by bees. No bees, no almonds!

Beekeeping is a challenging hobby, but also very rewarding. Not only do you get tasty honey, but you can help support populations of healthy honeybees for the future. Don’t have the room or desire to have a hive or two of your own? Not to worry… you too can assist native bees by planting native, flowering plants like bee balm, purple coneflower, goldenrods and milkweeds. To learn how to plant a pollinator garden (that will attract butterflies as well as beneficial bees) go to http://beespotter.mste.illinois.edu/topics/beegarden.

Bees are fascinating insects. From the queen to her female worker bees to the male drones, the hierarchy of the hive and the important tasks each bee is born knowing how to do will astound you. I encourage you to learn more about both native and imported bees so that the next time you see one you won’t be so quick to squash it. Instead admire it from a distant and thank it for the great job is does pollinating our flowers and crops. Without that little bee, your dinner wouldn’t be quiet as diverse and tasty.

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Trees do so Much April 9, 2014

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized — newdomino @ 1:15 PM
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Trees are terrific! Can anyone argue with that? Well, I guess I should add a caveat to my statement, “MOST trees are terrific!” There are invasive tree species out there that are the bane of many people’s existence, including mine, like Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Norway maple (Acer platanoides), Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) and Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), to name just a few. And some trees are more terrific than others. Trees native to your specific area are generally better than non-natives, although if you live in an urban area you may need some non-invasive, non-native trees to withstand road salt, the urban heat island effect and the other tough growing conditions found in urban areas. Trees like Goldenraintree (Koelreuteria paniculata), Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulate) and Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova serrate) will grow well under tough conditions, yet not grow uncontrollably like an invasive.

Spring is a great time to plant trees, but you need to make sure you’re planting them in the proper site, with the proper techniques. Check out the TreeVitalize program website to learn all about proper tree selection, siting, installation and maintenance – http://www.treevitalize.net. Plus, if you live in certain parts of Pennsylvania you can download a coupon to save $15 off the purchase of a tree at participating nurseries. Municipalities and non-profits can even apply for grants to help defray costs on bulk tree plantings.

redbud_paul wray
(Photo of Eastern Redbud by Paul Wray, Iowa State U., http://www.forestryimages.org)

I live in a city center, surrounded by a lot of pavement. In such situations adding tree canopy cover is essential. Trees provide us with cleaner air and cleaner water, shade to lower heating bills and make sitting outside on a hot day more enjoyable, and aesthetic beauty. There was already a Japanese maple in my backyard when I purchased my home, but I added a native Eastern redbud tree too. It has grown a lot over the last three years, even given the poor quality city “soil” and is just plain beautiful in the spring with its pinkish-purple flowers. The flowering dogwood in front of my house provides food for the squirrels (they love to eat the fruits, sometimes to my chagrin) and blocks some prying eyes from being able to look into my living room window. Trees do so much for us!

 

Human – Animal Interface April 4, 2014

Sometimes the people most passionate about wildlife conservation are accused of not caring about the human element that lives side by side with the animals in question. Critics say that these conservationists would rather have the people lose their homes and way of life, rather than negatively impact a species and its habitat. Yet rarely is it that black and white.

Yes, in many cases a species comes under threat because of the actions of people. Indigenous people hunting rare animals for bush meat, villagers killing animals that threaten their livestock or agricultural fields, poachers hunting animals for traditional medicine, farmers withdrawing too much water from a river… the list goes on and on.

Many times conservationists do come into a country from abroad, with the plight of an endangered animal in the forefront of their mind. But if they don’t take into consideration the views, lifestyles and concerns of the surrounding populace, their efforts are almost certainly doomed to fail. The conservationists will leave that country at some point; the locals will remain. They can either be allies in the conservation effort or undermine it every step of the way. A heavy hand is not always the most effective means to get your way.

Conservationists need to think about the reasons behind the threat and ways to deal with those reasons. Why are villagers relying so heavily on bush meat? Are they having a difficult time raising their own livestock? Are they too far away from other villagers where they can buy and trade food goods? Is it a tradition that is passed down from generation to generation? Once these problems are identified the conservationist should work with some of the well-respected locals to create solutions that both aid the people and the animals. Can someone come in to teach them animal husbandry techniques? Can they focus their hunting on more common, non-threatened species? Can they find hand-made goods that would be marketable for trade with other local villages?

The solutions won’t always be easy but they will be more effective in the long-term than when a conservationist comes in laying blame and accusations at the locals’ feet without offering realistic ways for the people to live in harmony with the natural world. There will always be a balancing act between people and all other animals and plants on the planet. We have the brain power and strength to dominate the natural world, bending it to our will, but we also have the resourcefulness and creativity needed to get what we need from the planet without destroying it for all other life forms. We just need to be willing to use that creativity for the greater good.