Penny Thoughts

The Ramblings of a Biology Lover, with a Few Surprises on the Side

Greenpeace Activists Reach New Heights as they Climb the Shard

A group of Greenpeace activists are climbing the tallest building in Western Europe today in a protest against oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.

At 4.20am this morning, police were called to the Shard as people reported climbers scaling the side of the building. The team, made up of 6 women, although from varying corners of globe, are all united in the fight against gas and oil drilling in the Arctic.

The protesters main target is Shell, who’s headquarters surround the Shard. Shell have recently announced that they are going ahead with their plans to expand gas and oil drilling in the Arctic. This fragile continent is already dramatically impacted by climate change and therefore there is enormous concern about the direct and indirect impacts that this drilling will have.

Updates on the progress of the climb are being covered by Greenpeace on twitter. Pictures and accounts of the women scaling the sides of the 310m high Shard are regularly being posted alongside pleas for support and plans to contact Shell. These women are clearly skilled climbers if they can keep their twitter up to date while clinging to the side of the glass fortress that is the Shard.

Already over 33 000 people have signed up to show their support for the climbers and their disgust at Shell and numerous other gas and oil companies’ plans. A live broadcast by Greenpeace is also covering the event and getting in contact with scientists, conservationists and Shell.

Shell have acknowledged the event and accept Greenpeace’s opinion, however are showing no sign of changing their plans. A spokesman said that “If responsibly developed, Arctic energy resources can help offset supply constraints and maintain energy security for consumers throughout the world”. The spokesman also claims that Shell do take action to reduce environmental impacts, however no specific examples were given.

A spokesman from the Metropolitan police announced that they are doing all they can to ensure the safety of the protesters, the public and those working in the building. The climbers are currently at 150m; just under half way. All climbers are wearing harnesses and are attached to the building, with a maximum of 6m fall if an accident were to occur.

Once they complete their climb the protesters will be hanging a piece of unknown artwork to emphasise their message.

Everyone please get involved, join the fight, use the hashtag (#iceclimb) and follow the journey of these brave women!

Bells Ring out for Biodiversity

With recently finishing my degree (fingers crossed) I’ve been trying to make the most of being a student in London while I still can. Myself and a few friends decided to escape our rather sheltered lives in West London to explore the city. I found a cheeky voucher for a rooftop restaurant near Bank called Coq d’Argent. Considering this restaurant has the French word for money in the title I felt I’d done pretty well with a voucher getting us 2 courses for £15.

After reaping all of the food benefits we could we decided enough was enough and to save our expanding waistlines we’d go for a walk about. We ended up a St Paul’s and this is where I noticed something that has spurred me on to write this post.

Near the old cloisters of St Paul’s was a strange looking sculpture and after having a little read it was the “Robert Hooke Biodiversity Bell”. I wouldn’t really say I have an eye for good art, but this bell certainly caught my eye and its message only pulled me in further.

The upside-down bell sculpture is a scale model of a bell which will be installed on the Isle of Portland; the home to the limestone that makes up St Paul’s Cathedral and the plinth to the sculpture. Once in place the bell will be rung every time a species is officially announced as extinct in the world. Although a poignant message, my first thought was, “well they’re going to be ringing that bloody regularly”.

The trouble with extinctions is that they are very difficult things to officially announce and therefore, the extinction lists that exist are massive underestimates.

Firstly, the world is a very big place and officially determining that a species has gone extinct is a bit of a guessing game. This isn’t so much the case for species like big mammals that people pay a lot of attention to. However, when it comes to announcing the extinction of for example a species of snail as big as someone’s finger nail, it becomes very difficult to make accurate estimations of current population sizes. Often species are announced as being extinct, and then they are found again in the wild.

Another difficulty is that there are millions of different species in the world and we know very little about them. It is predicted that we have only recorded about 10% of the species that exist on our planet; with over 91% of the species of the oceans unknown to us. It is unbelievable how little we really know about the species that we share the planet with.

It is not just the species that we are aware of that are suffering as a result of natural and manmade impacts. There are an incredible number of species at risk of extinction that we don’t even know exist yet. The number of announced extinctions is therefore an enormous underestimate of what is actually going on in our world.

For a species to become extinct it has to be found, identified as its own species, recorded and then noticed to have gone extinct. A huge number of species are going extinct without us realising as we haven’t even found them yet.

These bell ringings that will occur on the Isle of Portland, will in fact be accompanied by a constant and huge background level of extinctions that we are blissfully unaware of.

Predictions of the real number of extinctions occurring estimate that 20 species will go extinct each day. This is one species every 1 hour and 20 minutes.

The message of the Biodiversity Bell is still very important for increasing the awareness of species loss around the world. However, if the bell were to be rung every time a species really went extinct, it is likely that the inhabitants of the Isle of Portland would be sick of their new bell by the end of the week.

Sustainability: Fashion or Function?

As I’m currently doing a project on the maintenance of biodiversity in urban areas, words like “sustainability”, “ecosystems”, “biodiversity” are popping up all over the place. These terms are generally all wonderfully defined, fully equipped with a visual aid and chart of the writer’s choice.

After reading my first few reports and papers I started to realise that people are throwing these words around like their going out of fashion. It seems that saying that you’re being “sustainable” is the new cool. People like these words; it makes them sound future-thinking, caring and wordly. Really I think it’s a whole load of crap.

In most cases these words are being thrown out with really very little understanding of what is going on. It seems that the sustainability club is the new jock club of political life. Politicians absolutely love it. As much as I like Boris Johnson it seems that he can hardly go 2 minutes without mentioning being  “sustainable”, and “green”.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it is brilliant that politicians and policy makers are being more considerate of the environment; it sets a good example for our future. But really they’re just trying to stick a tiny tiara of “sustainability” on the massive turd that is our past. Maybe they think that if they say sustainability enough times the huge damage we humans have done to our environment will vanish in a poof of smoke.

I came across a google program called Ngram Viewer where you can type in a word and see how much it has been used in literature over time. If you want to have a play follow this link. I typed in these new environmental buzzwords and found something rather funny. There has been no mention of these words anywhere up until about the 1960s and 1980s.

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These words are getting people ever so excited; everyone wants a piece of them. They are  like the shiny, new iphones of the word world.. people can’t wait to show off just how sustainable they are being and how much they truly care for these ecosystems they know very little about.

Hopefully there will be some substance behind the politician’s new favourite words. But it still seems to me that the people who are actually making the difference are the conservation charities and organisations. Governments and councils are still realistically more interested in developing their growing economies than helping out the natural world that we have been shitting on for the last few hundred years.

Duck Feeding, Dog Poo and Goldfish Dumping: The Nightmares of Public Parks

I must apologise.. I have rather been neglecting my blog recently. I got back to university and have had to jump immediately into my final year project.. so I have been a little overwhelmed.

I’ve been doing tonnes of research so as soon as I come to terms with the endless pages of notes I’ll try to get posting regularly again.

My dissertation is on what works to maintain biodiversity in urban areas. Being that I live in London while I study, it has been something I’ve thought about since arriving at Imperial two and a half years ago. I’ve always looked at the paved streets and concrete buildings and thought that you couldn’t really be further from nature. The idea of looking into the horizon is pretty unexciting when I am at home in Leicester. However, in London I find that I go 8 weeks without really seeing the horizon at all.

It all sounds a bit depressing, but don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love living in London. The constant hustle and bustle and vibrancy of the people and surroundings keeps me busy wherever I go. But there is no place in London I prefer than Hyde Park.

Being at Imperial has its perks; I’m probably only ever a 2 minute walk from Hyde park. Recently with the weather picking up I’ve been nipping there at lunch times to enjoy the sunshine in a more green and pleasant place than my computer labs.

Being that part of my dissertation is about how London parks manage their grounds to maintain biodiversity, I feel I have some kind of excuse to spend a little more time there than I probably should.

But saying all that, this week I have learnt a lot about how much work goes into maintaining the urban parks of our world. The constant pressure from the incessantly growing urban matrix means our parks are hugely vulnerable and are in a constant war against pollution and people.

Things that I’m sure we are all guilty of doing can have really detrimental effects on our much beloved parks and green spaces. Feeding the ducks, letting our dogs poo all over the place, littering, building dens, making fires, going off the paths, and trampling through meadows and bushes are things that many of us do with only the smallest tingling of mild guilt.

However, these relatively minor behaviours have big impacts on our parks that are already under constant fire from the “big problems” of air, noise and water pollution.

Something I have found surprising is just how bad feeding the ducks is.. I mean I thought I was helping them out. Apparently if you feed park birds and mammals too much bread it fills them up very quickly and means they don’t eat other food. The bread basically leaves no room for the animals to eat the foods that actually provide them with the nutrients they need. Also excess feeding leaves a lot of food on the ground and this attracts pests like rats and foxes, and nobody wants that.

I am not a dog owner so the idea of picking up a dog’s poo has never really been something I’ve worried about. We all know that dog poo is damaging to the environment in many ways; yet I seem to spend my life hop, skipping and jumping these piles of joy whenever I’m walking around London.

In many of the parks in London they have acid grasslands. These are basically ecosystems that are made up of plants that require very little soil nutrient content to survive and thrive. These are rare habitats in urban areas and are being managed to maintain their existence and to enable this ecosystem to thrive in our challenging urban environment.

Dog poo is a big threat to these grasslands as they provide nutrients to the soil, like a stinking, doggy  fertiliser. This added nutrient alters the soil and makes it increasingly unsuitable for the acid grassland plants. It also means that more common species of plants (often weeds) can colonise the area now that there is more nutrient in the soil. If this continues, these less specialist species can spread and take over the rare acid grassland. This is only one example of the damage to the natural environment that can occur when people let their dogs release their load in our green spaces.. pick up your poop.

Not only do we humans let our dogs do their business all over our urban parks, we also discard of our unwanted pets in them.. what a great idea! I’m sure some people probably think they are doing their poor neglected pet a favour by releasing it into a natural environment.. this is not true.. at all.

I spoke to a wonderful lady at Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park about her experiences in the urban-based park and she shared some brilliant insight into the difficulties of maintaining these precious spaces. She mentioned that one big problem they have is people releasing unwanted pets like goldfish and terrapins into their lakes and ponds. As multiple goldfish had been dumped they bred and now have increased rapidly in number. Some of their lakes are riddled with these household pets. Yes, goldfish are lovely, but that is when they are in a fish tank fully equipped with fake shrubbery and bubbling treasure chests. The lakes and ponds on Greenwich Peninsula are not where these fish belong and they are eating everything.

The staff at the ecology park are doing their best to control these unwanted gold guests, but with their continued breeding and people’s continued ignorance it is proving relatively difficult. Working with locals and informing them about where they should take their unwanted pets is helping; so hopefully this amazing wetland will be goldfish free in the near future.

These are only a couple examples of how our behaviours can directly damage the areas we love so much. Urban parks and green spaces keep us happy and provide an oasis in an otherwise grey and polluted environment. Let’s respect these places we love; they are struggling enough as it is.

 

See You in Week…

I’m off to Rhodes for a week so won’t be able to do any blogging until I’m back. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say when I return. Have a good week.. I’m going to go and enjoy some sunshine (hopefully) 🙂

The Mysterious Caged Tree

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Yesterday was a lovely day so I thought I’d go to Kew Garden with my mum. I’ve been once before but the weather was a bit grim so it was nice to go back with some good weather.

We had a good potter around and then my mum pointed out something a bit odd. It was a tree caged in iron bars. Looked a bit odd so we wandered over to see why this tree was locked up behind bars.

Turns out the tree is a Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis) and was considered extinct for 2 million years. There are a lot of fossils of this tree and it was thought that there were no living specimens until 1994 when it was discovered in Australia.

Living trees were found in a deep rainforest gorge in the Blue Mountains in west Sydney. The basically unexplored gorge contained these trees and now about 100 mature Wollemi pines exist there. 

Obviously this finding made the trees very collectable and at risk of over harvesting and extinction. To help to prevent this, researchers at Kew have helped to conserve this species by running a propagation programme. Lots of these trees are being grown and can now be bought in the Kew shop.

I found this a bit odd.. if the trees can be bought in the shop and all over the place, why is this tree still locked up?

We never found the answer to this question. My guess is that it may be an early specimen that they are trying to maintain so that specimens can be grown from its seeds. The trees are likely still relatively expensive so it is also likely to prevent people sneaking into Kew and chopping the poor thing down.

New Hope For Corals: Self-Recovery

A study publsihed this week in Science has shown that coral reefs can in fact recover themselves after disaster, when under the right conditions.

Scott reef is an isolated reef found 250km from the coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean.  It suffered a mass bleaching event in 1998 in which over 80% of the coral cover was lost. Dr James Gilmour, the lead author of the study stated that, “The initial projections for Scott Reef were not optimistic”.

Before this paper, it was believed that seriously damaged corals could only recover in the presence of nearby coral reefs. Planula are the gametes of corals; they are what forms when the male and female gametes of the corals fuse together, much like our eggs and sperm. These planula are free-swimming and can reach neighbouring reefs and settle. Before the findings of this study were published, this process was thought to be the mechanism by which damaged reefs could recover.

Scott reef was monitored for 15 years by the researchers and the findings were very much unexpected. The researchers did not have much faith in the reef recovering to its pre-bleaching state in the near future. However, over the years of monitoring they observed the reef recovering at a surprisingly fast rate considering its isolation and level of damage.

Instead of the reef relying on propagules from other healthy reefs, the researchers found that the very few surviving corals were producing planula at high enough rates that self-replenishment was taking place.

It was soon realised that these few survivors were growing at such high rates because of the conditions existing in this isolated reef. Because Scott reef is so isolated from other reefs and so far offshore, the levels of human influence are reduced. The water quality at Scott reef is much better than other near shore reefs which receive higher levels of pollutants from the coast.

Water quality is linked with the health of reefs and meant that Scott reef had an increased ability to cope with and recover from the bleaching. The reef also received reduced levels of fishing and sedimentation compared to other reefs helping with its surprisingly speedy recovery.

The isolation that was initially considered a hindrance for the reef was actually enabling its survival.

This work proves that coral reefs can spring back from extreme damage. However, this recover is dependent on conditions. These findings are great for those reefs similar to Scott reef; isolated and with reduced human pressure. However, the majority of reefs do not have these qualities and are still at threat from the ever increasing human pressures. Non-isolated reefs are relatively safeguarded by neighbouring reefs sending propagules, but there is only so much these reefs can take.

Even conservative estimations predict that all coral ecosystems could be lost by the end of this century. So although this paper is good news in that it shows another way in which corals can recover after severe damage, the pressures facing coral reefs are ever worsening and need to be addressed.

Sandalwood Road Photography: Nature and More..

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A little bit of shameless self-advertisement here.. apologies. I have set up a new blog today for my photography escapades. I’ve recently managed to get my hands on an old camera from my Grandpa’s house and it has spurred me on to get back into photography.

I had a brief stint when I was about 16 but studies have always limited what I’ve been able to do.. until now! Nearing the end of my degree I hope to get a little bit of time to pursue some of my other loves, and what better place to present my work than on another blog?!

There will still be glimmers of my interests and loves. I love taking photos of nature, whether it be landscapes, animals or plants, I’m sure they will feature pretty commonly. Feel free to go and have a look.. there isn’t much on there at the moment but give it a bash 🙂

Hope you all enjoy!

sandalwoodroad.wordpress.com

Fabrics of the Future: Hagfish Slime?

Clothes are important to anyone; whether you’re an avid fashionista or more of the practical sort, we all need clothes. However, the materials and fabrics of choice may be straying from the ordinary to the extraordinary in the not so distant future. The source of the  fabric for your new dress or coat could be swimming at the deep, dark depths of our ocean floor.

Research led by Atsuko Negishi at the University of Guelph in Canada has suggested that hagfish slime could be used to create a super stretchy, lycra-like fabric. The team managed to collect this slime from the hagfish and realised that it could be treated and then spun into threads much like silk.

This does seem a bit odd and gruesome, but it really is very logical to put these materials that nature provides to good use.

The majority of the fabrics we rely on today, are oil-based polymers which basically means that the materials are petroleum based. With our ever decreasing supplies of petroleum the demand for alternatives to these products is high.

Hagfish are ancient, bottom-dwelling animals that have been around for over 300 million years. If you’ve done some evolutionary biology in your time, you should definitely remember these weird creatures. When these strange, eel-like creatures are approached or attacked they release this sticky slime as a deterrent. The slime contains mucous and huge amounts of certain protein fibers that belong to a family of protein fibers called intermediate filaments. These filaments are great for making fabrics as they can be deformed and stretched to shapes and sizes very different to their original form.

The researchers aren’t quite ready to produce full on items of clothing, but they intend to pursue this concept further to hopefully create the basis for more environmentally friendly fabrics of the future.

If you want to read the original paper it can be found here.

 

Poisonous Rhino Horns: The Answer to a Difficult Question?

This year over 200 rhinos have been illegally slaughtered to feed the incessant demand for rhino horn coming from the East. The huge majority of this demand is coming from China where the horn is used for traditional medicine and the ivory for numerous products including artworks and weapon handles.

One kilogram of rhino horn can fetch up to $68 000 on the black market making it worth more than its weight in gold. This clearly lucrative business attracts a lot of people and devalues the potentials costs associated with being part of an illegal industry.

There have been endless attempts to try to control this illegal poaching but with very little success. The number of rhinos being poached is rising each year and the future is looking ever darker for rhinos around the world. A ban has existed since the 1970s but is providing little protection to these heavily targeted creatures. Due to this, alternative approaches have been considered.

I have already written a post about the attempt to legalise the ivory trade to enable more control of the industry. This idea was based on the fact that rhino horn is made out our keratin, like our finger nails and therefore can regrow. So essentially rhino horn harvesting could take place. If you want to read more about this really interesting idea follow this link.

This year, another alternative method of control is being carried out in a game reserve in South Africa; Sabi Sands. It is targeting the medicinal use of the rhino horn which is ingested. The rhino horns are being injected with a mixture of parasiticides and an inedible pink die. If ingested, this cocktail of chemicals will make the consumer very ill, leading to “nausea, stomach ache, [and] diarrhoea.”

Andrew Parker, chief executive of the Sabi Sand Wildtuin Association has stated that the poison will not kill people just make them very ill. The pink dye will also be very obvious and therefore should act as an obvious visual deterrent. This dye will also make it very obvious to poachers that the rhino horn is poisoned and should prevent continued hunting of rhinos in those regions. It will also serve as a very good indicator for border control forces who will rapidly be able identify rhino horn in its whole or powder form.

So what is actually in this poisonous cocktail of chemicals. The parasiticides used are generally used to control mites on livestock like horses, sheep and cattle. This is mixed with the dye and injected into a hole that is bored into the rhino horn when the rhino is sedated. This “toxification” has already been carried out on over 100 rhinos in South Africa, and work is continuing to toxify even more.

This process does seem like a good idea, however, it does bring up some moral concerns. This process is acting with the intention of causing harm to consumers. Yes, these consumers are acting illegally, but does that justify this kind of action? In my opinion it does. These people aren’t going to die, but it will serve as a lesson to not consume this illegal product. The lesson may be harsh, but the current “weaker” attempts are not working. Maybe these consumers deserve this kind of action and considering the product will be bright pink they would have to be pretty stupid to go on and eat it.

Another concern is that this may not bring an end to poaching or even reduce the levels, it may simply displace the poaching to other places. Poachers may be put off from poaching in certain regions due to this action, however, these people are likely to just target other areas to obtain their income. This method could be effective if carried out throughout a

ll/the large majority of the rhino’s distribution; unfortunately, this is really not a possibility. Many rhinos do reside within reserves and parks, but a large proportion of these parks do not have the people, the materials or the funds to carry out this kind of work. Also, many rhinos do not live in parks and therefore it would be extremely complicated to toxify all rhinos.

Maybe with significant funding and support, a campaign could be carried out; this is unfortunately pretty unlikely too. A huge amount of lobbying and campaigning would be required, with research and trials to determine whether this method would be a possibility. This would all take quite some time, and maybe too much time for the rhinos.

There is also concern that the rhino poachers simply wouldn’t care. These people are criminals, if they can still fetch a decent amount of money it is very likely that they will continue to poach these rhinos until the horn completely devalues. Devaluing may occur if this toxification can be rolled out across the world driving down global demand, but as has been mentioned, this is a lot easier said than done.

The Sabi Sands reserve want to tell poachers that they have no place being in their park as their rhinos are pointless kills. I do worry about this message; a few years ago some parks were shaving the horn off rhinos so that the poachers had no access to the horn and therefore, no profit. However, the poachers retaliated and many rhinos were slaughtered in response.

Overall, I think this is a good idea. Measures in place aren’t working and so new, alternative measures are having to be considered. This approach does come with some ifs and buts, but in my opinion, every little helps. However, it may reach a point  where our greed seals the fate for rhinos, where investing effort into saving them would be rendered pointless. Some people already think this is the case. I do still think there is some time, but that window of opportunity is ever shrinking and action needs to be taken now before it’s too late.

Two-Headed Animals: Dicephalia From Sharks to People

In 2011, fishermen caught an adult bull shark in the Gulf of Mexico. The adult was pregnant, and they soon realised that one of the foetuses was a lot more interesting than first thought.

The foetus had developed normally in all aspects, except that it had two heads. This bizarre phenomenon is known as dicephalia, and is when a single fertilised egg develops into a foetus with two heads. Dicephalia is something that occurs across nature and we humans generally refer to it as conjoined twins.

So the idea of a two headed animal is not hugely novel, however, the occurrence of this phenomenon in chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish) like sharks, rays and skates is very rare.

C. Wagner and his team from Michigan State University managed to get hold of this truly unique shark and tried to understand the mechanisms of development that caused this two-headed marine animal. They released a paper this week that discusses the finding of this unusual shark and delves deeper into the interesting science behind the development of dicephalia.

The two-headed foetus was not the alone in the womb, with other normal foetuses having been found. The foetuses had developed enough that they were severed from their umbilical cords and released back into the wild. The two-headed foetus died soon after it was severed from the mother and was preserved in 70% ethanol to enable the research on this unique creature.

Other Examples of Dicephalia

This finding got me delving into other dicephalic creatures that have been found, so I thought I’d share some of the cases with you. I find it all really interesting except some of the science behind it is pretty complex, so if you do end up looking into it I wouldn’t get too bogged down in all the detail.

This is Abigail and Brittany Hensel, these are the most well known human dicephalic twins. Each twin has its own set of main organs (heart, liver, lungs etc.) but can only control one half of their body. So each twin has control over one leg and one arm. This meant that learning movements that required coordination between both halves was very difficult as it requires cooperation. This meant that walking, running clapping etc were highly difficult things to master.

This two-headed albino Honduran milk snake is an example of dicephalia in reptiles. Other two-headed snakes have been known to live up to 20 years in captivity. However, in the wild it is likely that survival is reduced due to the difficulty that comes with two heads controlling one body.

Another two-headed reptile; but this time a baby tortoise. Apparently this individual shows little difficulty in carrying out normal functioning and just goes about its daily business like any other tortoise.

 

An example of dicephalia in felines. This pair are from Massachusetts and are called Frank and Louie. They hold the world record for the longest living two-headed cat. Seems a pretty niche category.. but I swear most world records these days are a bit ridiculous.

 

Hope you enjoyed looking at some of the world’s weird and wonderful creatures, even if they do have more heads than normal.

Pesticides Wiping The Memories of Our Bees

This year, evidence has mounted supporting the idea that neonicotinoid pesticides are contributing to the dramatic falls in bee populations over the last few decades. I have already written two posts regarding this matter. If you are interested feel free to give them a quick read as I won’t be going over too much of the stuff I included. The first can be f0und here and delves into what effects neonicotinoids are having on bees and other pollinating insects. The second summarises the results of the EU vote against the ban of these pesticides and can be found here.

The proposed ban of neonicotinoids was rejected when put forward to the European Commission on the 15th March this year. One of the main arguments presented by opposers of the ban, including the UK environmental secretary, Owen Paterson, was that more data and research was required supporting the idea that neonicotinoids are negatively impacting bees, before a ban could be properly considered.

There has been a lot of response to this, including  a recent evaluation by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This report has suggested that neonicotinoids do not pose a serious threat to bees in a natural, real life setting. One of their main arguments is that the majority of the research that has been carried out has been done so in a lab based environment. They believe that the levels of neonicotinoids that most bees are exposed to in the wild are not comparable to those used in the lab based research and that the results are therefore over estimations.

This is a major punch in the face for supporters of the ban and researchers trying to investigate into this topic. With DEFRA being such a big name, it is likely that many people will be swayed due to this report. However, I have not.

This is a little irritating to me. Yes, a lot of the research was carried out in lab based environments, but I do not feel that this fact alone is enough to render these findings invalid. The huge majority of scientific work takes place in the most part in labs. Does this mean that all lab based work should be dismissed? NO.

The neonicotinoids are affecting bees and other pollinating insects in detrimental ways, whether that be in the lab or the field. It is likely that the lab setting may intensify these effects, but bees are being affected in the real world. Numbers are falling and something is causing that.

I found this very recent study published yesterday in Nature. This study is something different, it has lab AND field based experimentation. The researchers have shown that neonicotinoids actually impair the memory of bees which is impacting their ability to successfully forage and therefore pollinate the world’s plants. The study was led by Mary Palmer and her team and they state that it is known that neonicotinoids do impact bees, but that there is little empirical evidence to explain how and this needs to improve.

They successfully demonstrate how 2 neonicotinoids (imidacloprid and clothianidin) directly affect neuronal transmission within the nicotinic receptors in the brains of honey bees. They looked at the effects of neonicotinoids in bee Kenyon cells (KCs). KCs are neurons found in the brains of arthropods, including incsects. These KCs play an important role in learning and memory, particularly when it comes to smells.

The research team looked at the effects of sublethal levels of neonicotinoids on honeybees in the field and in the lab. They found in the lab group that the exposure led to a significant impairment of the bees’ abilities to learn and remember smells. This is particularly important as bees rely in part on the specific scents of certain flowers in their foraging and pollination behaviours. In the field, the neonicotinoids impair bees’ abilities to forage efficiently and navigate to and from the nest. Effects are being seen in the field.

These findings are worrying as they show that the levels of neonicotinoids that many bees are exposed to are impacting learning and foraging abilities. If bees cannot forage efficiently, then they cannot pollinate efficiently. This does not bode well for our already suffering global food security.

Another concerning finding is that these impacts are being exacerbated by other pesticides. This is very important as there is a lot of overlap in pesticide use and also regular switching of pesticides. This means that the majority of bees will be affected as they find themselves in ever increasingly common regions of extensive pesticide usage.

This study is great in showing an actual physiological change that results in the cells of bees in response to exposure to neonicotinoids. The use of research in a lab and field environment also helps with securing the accuracy and representativeness of their findings and reducing the opportunity to dismiss this important work. However, Mary Palmer and her team do state in the paper that improvements could be made. They explain that the cultured KCs do show marginally different levels of response to actual KCs and that future work could look into this disparity.

Regardless of the potential flaws, this study empirically shows neonicotinoids directly impacting bee learning and memory. I’m sure that this study will be just one of many similar studies appearing in the near future. The research is likely to be faced by a lot of opposition, with papers like the above being in the firing line of organisations who intend to undermine as much as possible.

This area is a hot topic and the demand for this type of research is ever increasing. Let’s hope that the methodology is a stringent as possible giving opposition very little excuse to dig their claws in and undermine very important work.

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