Monthly Archives: January 2013

Bee Protection



Today, the European Commission will present a discussion paper to Member State experts at a meeting of the standing committee on pesticides. The aim is to exchange views on the range of policy options available, in light of the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) report findings published on 16 January, which assessed the effect of three pesticides on bee health. “Protecting the health of our bee population is of great importance not only for our European agricultural sector but also for our eco-system and environment as a whole.” The EFSA findings identified risks to using three neonicotinoids, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin, which are mainly used to treat seeds prior to sowing, on oilseed rape, maize and cereals.

There have been numerous reasons posited for the bee die-offs covered in the news over the past years – exposure to a cocktail of pesticides has been found to be one potential major culprit. This is probably not welcome news to those who rely on the pesticides, either in farming or in the chemical industry. It is also one of those spaces where decisions have to be made about what has more lasting importance – pollinators, or the way we have gotten used to farming over just the past few decades.

According to a report by the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: It is estimated that about one third of all plants or plant products eaten by humans are directly or indirectly dependent on bee pollination. More than half of the world’s diet of fat and oil comes from oilseeds such as cotton, rape, sunflower, coconut, groundnut and oil palm. Even though some of these have special pollinators belonging to other types of insects, these plants all depend on, or benefit from bee pollination to some extent. In addition, many food crops and forage for cattle are grown from seeds of insect-pollinated plants. The great value of bees as pollinators has been known for many years,
but unfortunately, this knowledge is not widely appreciated and understood.

The value of bee pollination in Western Europe is estimated to be 30-50 times the value of honey and wax harvests in this region. In Africa, bee pollination is sometimes estimated to be 100 times the value of the honey harvest, depending on the type of crop.

In a country like Denmark, about 3,000 tonnes of honey is harvested every year. It has a value of  60 million DKK or about €7.6 million. However, the value of oilseeds, fruits and berries created by the pollination work of bees is estimated to be between 1,600 and 3,000 million DKK, equivalent to €200 and €400 million.
The effectiveness of honeybees is due to their great number, their social life and their ability to pollinate a broad variety of different flowers. A colony can consist of 20-80 000 bees, and they will normally be visiting flowers over a distance of two kilometres when they are collecting pollen and nectar. If nothing is to find in the neighbourhood, they can fly even seven kilometres. A normal Apis mellifera honeybee colony will make up to four million flights a year, where about 100 flowers are visited in each flight.

There’s a petition to lend weight to those calling for pesticides to be more carefully controlled when it comes to honeybee exposure.

UPDATE: Neonicotinoids were banned in the EU for a period of two years, beginning December 1, 2013.

Public Transportation


We spent the weekend at one of our favorite places, Castle Elmau in Bavaria, a hotel not far from the Austrian border. The hotel is located in a quiet nature reserve, so there’s no traffic. In winter, there’s a deep silence all around, in spite of the numerous animal tracks that criss-cross the snow in the meadows and forest. I was out on a long walk down a valley path in the direction of a small lake, Ferchensee. Not a soul in sight, the air completely still. The only creature I saw was a small spider, carefully picking its way across the path, legs held high away from the snow (a snow-strolling spider is an odd sight, but you just never know what’s going to present itself).


Ferchenbach hiking path, Germany

Ferchenbach hiking path, Germany



I saw a roof appear through the trees, and as I got closer, I could see the lettering on the building – it was a small restaurant and hotel, presumably right on the lakeside. And then I noticed the bus stop sign. I was a bit surprised, since there didn’t seem to be any roads around for miles. I stood looking at the hotel, a bit stupidly I suppose to anyone inside the restaurant, and I wondered what kind of bus might stop here. There was a faint scent of food in the air, but no noise or sign of other people.

Then I heard bells, small bells. The kind farmers might put on goats where I live, or sheep so they can be found if they’ve gone astray. Tinkling bells, not the deep bells used for cows. Strange habit, I thought, to leave animals out in winter. The bells were getting louder in the winter solitude.




And, finally, it dawned on me. The winter bus was arriving at the bus stop.


Proximity to Magnificence


bear-skin-rugs-polar-bear-F1When I was a little girl in the 1960s, a friend of my parents brought over a few unexpected gifts for me. One of the gifts was a genuine Indian tiger skin, complete with claws, head, teeth, and glass eyes. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, also known as the Washington Treaty) wouldn’t come into force until 1975, almost a decade away, so there was nothing illegal about the gift.

I loved my tiger skin, and thought of it almost like a real animal or pet. It was a massive skin that covered almost the entire floor of my room, and I as a little girl, I liked to imagine that it protected me.

When I think back on how I felt, having the tatters of that splendid creature in my room, I feel guilt. And the guilt is mixed with an understanding for the appeal of these products.  It’s a proximity to and ownership, however imaginary, of the fierce magnificence of a top predator.

I’m sure that people made money all along the line that led from where the tiger was taken to where my parent’s generous friend finally bought the tiger skin. And the economics for each individual undoubtedly seemed viable – after all, the tiger was just walking around, not doing anybody any good while standing on its own four paws. But dead and skinned, it could bring in money for the trackers, the hunters, the shippers, and the middlemen. The tiger population was already under pressure back then, but that didn’t matter. And, unlike today, each of these transactions was legal.

When I read this week about the legal trade in polar bear products and the legal hunting quota for polar bear in Canada, I think back to that tiger skin. Sure, the trade is still legal, and for whatever reason, the government considers the annual hunting and sale of 600 polar bears economically viable and environmentally sustainable ‘enough’. The polar bear is not yet protected as an endangered species under CITES, it is only considered ‘threatened’ if its habitat continues to erode, if hunting continues at unsustainable levels.

Zambia recently banned the hunting of big cats within its boundaries – the amount of revenue brought in by hunting tourism is dwarfed by that of non-lethal tourism focused on observing live animals.

If the nations which allow polar bear hunting and the trade in polar bear parts were to find it economically more interesting to preserve their dwindling populations, would that make a difference to sustainable biodiversity and the survival of top predators?

The Economics of Polar Bear Hunting in Canada

Update: 7 March 2013 – The CITES conference fails to pass a ban on the export of polar bear products, handing  victory to Canada, which argued against the US and Russia-supported ban.

Human Harmonicity


Illustration of the score of EEG-fMRI music (Printed by Sibelius 4.0).
(a) Score of brain music of Subject A, (b) score of brain music of Subject B.

These two items seem to me to belong together: A study showing that the human brain is wired for harmonicity, and the translation of brain signals into music.

First, from ScienceNOW:

“Since the days of the ancient Greeks, scientists have wondered why the ear prefers harmony. Now, scientists suggest that the reason may go deeper than an aversion to the way clashing notes abrade auditory nerves; instead, it may lie in the very structure of the ear and brain, which are designed to respond to the elegantly spaced structure of a harmonious sound.

“Sensitivity to harmonicity is important in everyday life, not just in music,” noted researchers. For example, the ability to detect harmonic components of sound allows people to identify different vowel sounds, and to concentrate on one conversation in a noisy crowd. Because amusics don’t have problems with these tasks, even though they can’t distinguish consonance, further investigation of subjects with the condition should provide valuable information of the role of harmonicity in communication and perception, Demany says.”

A team led by neuroscientists Jing Lu and Dezhong Yao of China’s University of Electronic Science and Technology write:

“Music and language define us as human. Emotional expression and communication, through language or non-linguistic artistic expression, are recognized as being strongly linked to health and sense of well-being. Therefore, as an artistic expression, music may represent human mind or mood.

“We hope the on-going progresses of the brain signals-based music will properly unravel part of the truth in the brain.” In the new study, they added blood flow measurements from an fMRI machine to the mix. Combining EEG and fMRI allowed pitch and intensity to operate independently, a baseline distinction separating noise from music. To demonstrate, Lu and Yao recorded the brains of a 14-year-old girl and 31-year-old woman at rest.

Audio of the music above can be heard at WiredScience here.

So, we are programmed to seek harmonicity and our brains make music of their own. I like the sound of that tune.

Scale-Free Brain-Wave Music from Simultaneously EEG and fMRI Recordings

Grounds for Discussion

From: Information is Beautiful

From: Information is Beautiful

What I like about the work done over at Information is Beautiful is the effort they make to provide readers with two things. First, cool graphics which help readers better understand the topic at hand. In the case of the image here (this is only a small part of the much larger illustration), the topic is carbon dioxide, how many gigatons of the stuff are involved in various global cycles, and a number of relevant variables. The contribution a diagram like this makes is that the reader doesn’t necessarily have to know what a gigaton is, or have a working knowledge of global interactions to understand what the image is describing.

The beautiful part is that the graph allows almost any interested reader to understand, if not all the science and data and research, then at least the relationships. And that comprises the diagram’s second contribution: Informing readers so that they can inform others of these relationships.

This work makes complex information accessible, and the graphic is available as a downloadable .pdf for printing.

Flighty Birds


Our garden pic mar – Middle Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos medius)

The nervous and elusive woodpecker above comes around noon every day to feed at one particular birdfeeder in my garden. It’s a greedy thing, and when it’s there, none of the other birds are allowed anywhere near. They gather in the plum tree branches, fluttering and impatient, while the woodpecker calmly eats its fill.

I had wanted to get a picture of that from my office window, but the entire lot of them scattered every time I tried to crack the window and point the lens.

So I took a picture of the woodpecker in the cherry tree where it took refuge at the far end of the garden. A bit too far for my lens.

And then I waited. After three attempts, I sat with the window open and waiting, camera poised, but the sneaky little devil didn’t return, so I closed the window again. The temperature is right around freezing today, my hands were getting too cold to type.

A bit longer, and the woodpecker returned, but refused to feed while I was sitting there, so I left the room, and then snuck back in and cracked open the window for a shot.

This was the best I could do once it saw me again.


All I really wanted to do was say how I admire the various birds for being able to eat in any position, including upside down. And maybe show the whole flock of perhaps five different species hovering around while the woodpecker took its time at the feeder. Oh well.

At least this little guy wasn’t bothered by the sound of the window or the clicking of the camera. And for once, he had the birdseed to himself.

A mésange charbonnière
Long name for a tiny Great Tit (Parus major)


Future Tense

Image: 123rf

Image: 123rf

The concept of linguistic relativity posits that the structure of the language we learn to speak affects the way we see the world in concrete terms. Studies have been carried out to see whether the manner in which a language describes color impacts a speaker’s cognitive perception of color.

A recent paper offers another approach by asking whether language influences future-oriented behavior. In M. Keith Chen’s The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets, Chen looks across a spectrum of 39 languages and classifies them according to how they mark the future tense. In some languages, French for example, using the future tense is obligatory when talking about tomorrow, while in others (German) the present tense can be used in reference to the future (‘Morgen regnet es’ translates literally as ‘It rains tomorrow.’). What difference does it make?

Well, Chen suggests that by describing the future as distinct from the present, it is perceived as distinct and not necessarily connected to present. On the other hand, describing the future in present tense terms leads to a cognitive perception of the future as a continuation of the present. According to Chen, seeing the future as something separate from the present might mean that future-oriented behavior – in the case of the study, Chen used economic markers such as savings rates, etc. – would be less predominate. Seeing the future as contiguous with the present would encourage actions that are future-oriented because they are directly connected to the now.

Chen then compared national listings across the World Values Survey with the languages spoken in those countries and did indeed find a correlation. He even found a correlation within multi-lingual countries such as Switzerland, which showed different behavior patterns across the French-German linguistic divide. The German-speaking Swiss save at more than twice the rate of their French-speaking countryfolk.

Just as we have found that a language and culture must contain the concepts of equality or democracy before even beginning to embark upon their implementation, what might an examination of this concept across conservation and environmental values yield? Is the way we deal with the world around us determined by the language we speak? If so, how can we effectively communicate across languages?

Of Whisky and Frogs


We have a radio station programmed into our media player, a quirky French station called Swing FM, ‘la radio du Hot-Club de Limoges’. They play a round-robin mix of jazz, swing, gospel, boogie and blues, almost all of it American and much of it pre-1955. I had it playing yesterday and this great whisky song came up, just right for this blog:

I grew up listening to this kind of music, and I’d never heard this sweet tune or singer. If I have, I don’t recall, which is almost the same as not knowing in the first place. The American tune took the roundabout path to me, an American, via a French swing station that has its own perspective of what constitutes a worthy playlist.

It made me think of the recent announcement of a new kind of flying frog in Vietnam – Helen’s Flying Frog, to be exact. Rhacophorus helenae.

Helen's Flying FrogPhoto source:  Jodi J L Rowley/Australian Museum

Helen’s Flying Frog
Photo source: Jodi J L Rowley/Australian Museum

Sometimes it takes an outsider’s eye to recognize something within its own habitat. Australian researcher Jodi Rawley found a sweet hidden gem in the low-lying evergreen forest just outside Ho Chi Minh City. From what I gather, being a flying frog is nothing special, as frogs go. Over half of the 4,800 known frog species have evolved some mechanism for gliding over some distance. Still, this frog had not yet been identified as a separate species, in spite of its proximity to around 8 million people – of whom at least a few must be forest biologists or amateur herpetologists. And yet there was Rhacophorus helenae, just standing around on a log, unique and unnamed.

Need I even add that few specimens of the frog have been found, that researchers are searching in other similar terrains for other populations, and that the frog will likely be declared endangered? Or that we can only discover gems if the habitat is still intact? Or that this habitat is rapidly disappearing? Of course not. Any more than I need to mention how much I would miss Swing FM if it were to go off the airwaves.

Journal of Herpetology

It’s a start…

Map courtesy the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment

Map: Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks….

We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”

President Barack H. Obama, Inaugural Address, January 2013


131 years of global warming in 26 seconds