Talk About a Buzzkill

Honey bee, © Flickr user CygnusHigh fructose corn syrup—that bad boy of sweeteners—just got another line added to its rap sheet: colony collapse disorder. Linked to the nation’s obesity and diabetic woes, the ubiquitous ingredient is now suspected of compromising the immune system of bees around the world, say entomologists from the University of Illinois. 

Beekeepers began feeding the syrupy stuff to colonies back in the 1970s as a substitute for honey taken to market. High-fructose corn syrup is not itself toxic to bees, but with honey removed from their diet the bees miss out on important nutrients that help the bees fight off pathogens and the toxins found in pesticides. 

WHY CARE?

1/3 of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants—the humble honey bee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination. 

The scientists found that consumption of the compound p-coumaric, for example, turns on “detoxification genes” in bees. This nutrient is found in pollen, not nectar, and makes its way into honey inadvertently by sticking to bees’ legs as they visit flowers. The genes amplified by p-coumaric help bees to safely digest a common insecticide used by beekeepers to kill mites.

Scientists struggling to find a cause for colony collapse disorder—first noticed in 2006—have pointed to everything from pesticides to habitat loss to fungus to mites. The pesticide link recently led the European Union to propose a two-year moratorium on three chemicals by the end of the year. But the solution may be more complex given that a range of causes are likely at play, warn the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a report released in May. 

While the search for a solution continues, USDA officials are working under a Farm Bill mandate to identify and set aside foraging land for pollinators with the hope of giving bees a boost through improved nutrition and reduced pesticide exposure. 

Bat Breakthrough

Finally there’s a bit of good news on the bat front. U.S. Forest Service scientists have developed a more accurate test for white-nose syndrome, the devastating fungal disease that is spreading rapidly from eastern caves to the South and Midwest and has already killed millions of bats. Scientists can now identify the fungus in soils and on cave walls. Previously, tests detecting the disease depended on finding dead or dying bats and lacked sensitivity. The new test can detect a single spore of the fungus and could serve as a big step in controlling the disease’s spread.

Foresight and 40 Years Ago

Count these marine animals among the lucky—because they still can be counted.

Gray seals, sea lions and elephant seals rank among the recovered, thanks in no small part to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, according to a new University of Vermont report. 

The key purpose of the act—which was passed in 1972 and paved the way for passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) the next year—is to keep marine mammals at sustainable levels and to uphold their ecological role in the ocean. Together these laws have protected countless individual whales, seals and manatees from harm, the scientists write. In those 40 years, no U.S. marine mammal species went extinct and the current status of many populations—where data are available—is considerably better than in 1972. 

Defenders’ past litigation over ship strikes brought about the first-ever speed limits for ships entering and exiting ports in right whale habitat along the Eastern Seaboard.

Back then, many whale species sat on the edge of extinction from commercial fishing, fishing gear accidentally killed dolphins by the thousands, and seals, sea otters and walruses were declining. In the early 1970s, the U.S. Department of Defense still used sperm whale oil to lubricate military engines. The oil was also a component in automobile transmission fluid until the ESA finally banned its use. 

However, severely depleted species like the North Atlantic right whale still haven’t gained a strong foothold. When commercial whaling was outlawed in 1935, only a few dozen whales remained. Now newer threats—commercial fishing line entanglement and ship strikes—plague the 400 or so that ply the Eastern Seaboard. 

Yet, despite the threats from ship traffic, big fisheries, pollution and boat noise, biologists say it’s safer for marine mammals in U.S. waters than elsewhere thanks to these very effective laws.

 

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