Wild Ideas: Nature notes: Citizen science projects, climate change harbingers and hope for honeybees

A new strain of honeybees with strong grooming habits may help save colonies from destruction by the tiny parasitical Varroa mite, such as the one above pictured feeding on a bee pupa.
A new strain of honeybees with strong grooming habits may help save colonies from destruction by the tiny parasitical Varroa mite, such as the one above pictured feeding on a bee pupa. By Denis Anderson, CSIRO, via Wikimedia

I love diving deeply into the complexity of natural processes or the life history of species, or plumbing the mysteries of what I find in my forays into nature. But, in the process, I regret not sharing more of the flood of news and other information about nature that comes my way on a daily basis. I decided that I would periodically gather some of these nature tidbits together, including announcements about upcoming events and new resources, and put them together in one column, starting with this one.

Website announces citizen science projects

In its January newsletter, the website SciStarter (scistarter.com) lists several nature-based projects looking for citizen-scientist help in 2016. SciStarter, according to the site, is the place to find, join and contribute to science through recreational activities and citizen science research projects.” A citizen scientist is basically anyone who is not a professional scientist but enjoys participating in science projects. On the website, you can search on projects by name, activity, or topic.

Projects now looking for help include the following:

  • Animal Ownership Interaction Study. Help researchers understand how our behavior influences our dogs’ by contributing anonymously to the study. According to SciStarter, you’ll be joining a growing worldwide Canine Citizen Science Community and making “a significant contribution to saving the lives of dogs.”
  • NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive Satellite Mission. Collect soil samples from your area to compare with data provided by the SMAP satellite, which orbits the earth measuring soil moisture levels.
  • Drug Discovery from Your Soil. Submit a soil sample from anywhere in the United States, and researchers will analyze it for fungi that could create new medicines.
  • American Gut. Using a sampling kit, submit a sample of your own gut microbes to help researchers find out more about how these tiny wildlife influence our health, often in surprising ways.

Changes in bugs and weeds signal climate change

We can add the movements of a destructive bug and the thriving of invasive plants to the growing list of climate-change indicators, according to the Northwest IPM [Integrated Pest Management] Center’s January newsletter, Insights. (The information below is also available on the Center’s website, northeastipm.org.)

The bug, the potato leafhopper (Empoasca fabae), is a migratory pest that reproduces on more than 200 plants, including alfalfa, potatoes, beans, peanuts and woody ornamentals. The bugs are also known as hopperburners because of plants’ response to the larvae’s feeding on them, which causes the tops of the plants to yellow. Researchers in Maryland and New York looked at more than six decades of data, which showed that the bug has been arriving early, roughly a day for each year.

Increased carbon dioxide, considered the main cause of global warming, is also a boon to some invasive plants. Lew Ziska, a researcher with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland, has been studying the effect of the gas on plants for 25 years. He noticed that rising levels of it is causing invasive plants to thrive and inhibiting the herbicides used to control them, creating “a recipe for the perfect storm,” Ziska is quoted as saying.

Increasingly unstable weather, also thought to be the result of climate change, is simultaneously producing heavier than normal rains and higher winds. The rain washes away herbicides used to control weeds, and high winds thwart their application. CO2 might also be changing herbicides’ efficacy, apparently lowering its effect on invasive Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), for example, which, despite its common name, is not native to North America. Researchers are also finding that other invasive plants are thriving, including ragweed, which produces pollen that many people are allergic to, and nonnative Japanese stilt grass.

“There are an increasing number of studies suggesting that many invasive plants are capable of rapid genetic change and evolutionary adaptation, which may speed their spread,” says Ziska.

Fastidious honeybees give hope to stressed bee colonies

While colony collapse disorder seems to be dwindling as a major threat to honeybees, a tiny parasite has emerged as the real current threat, according to the website of the radio program “Allegheny Front” (alleghenyfront.org; search on “building better honeybee”). The program covers the environment in Pennsylvania and is broadcast on public radio stations.

The parasite, a Varroa mite (Varroa destructor) that is about 0.04 inches long, attaches itself to developing bees, feeding on their blood and transmitting a virus, varroosis, that suppresses the bees’ immune system. The most effective means of battling the mite has been to spray the bee colony with low-dose insecticides, which beekeepers hope will kill the mites but not the bees.

Last summer an experiment began that spells hope for a new weapon for fighting the mite that is safer—mite-resistant bees. In the experiment, funded by the USDA, a queen with a mother from a Vermont colony that has survived disease and cold winters was artificially inseminated by Purdue University scientists with semen from a colony that that shows a unique, mite-fighting grooming behavior (purdue.edu/newsroom; search on “bees defend against mites”). The bees with the grooming behavior bite the legs off and chew on the mite, resulting in the mite’s dying of blood loss.

While the resulting eggs should hatch into more queens with the desired mite-resistant traits, the ultimate success of this method depends on the bees. The gene pool of the hybrid bees could be diluted as the new queens fly off and mate with bees that may not pass along the mite-fighting genes.

Jeff Berta, the Pennsylvania beekeeper with the “all-star” queens, compares the attempt at “building a better bee” to a river, which is “always changing.” Scientists will need to constantly reselect and breed the bees with the desired genes, and Berta and other beekeepers have formed a co-op for swapping eggs and queens from their best colonies.

© 2015 Pam Owen

Nature Announcements

Botanical illustration talk: The Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society kicks off its 2016 Winter Speaker Series with “Art and Botany,” a talk by botanical artist Elena Maza Borkland on her work. Borkland has studied architecture at Catholic University and art at the Corcoran School of Art and Brookside Gardens School of Botanical Art and Illustration. No registration is required for this free event. Sunday, January 24, at 2 at the Tri-County Feeds Conference Room, 7408 John Marshall Hwy, Marshall, Va. For more information, contact vnps.org/piedmont or email piedmontvnps@gmail.com.

New biodiversity cartoon guide: ConservationBytes.com, a website devoted to biodiversity, has posted its 34th Cartoon Guide to Biodiversity Loss (conservationbytes.com/cartoons), a series of six cartoons that should make anyone who cares about the planet cry while they’re laughing.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 338 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”