Arxiu d'etiquetes: bees

How would it be a world without bees?

In recent years, the idea of a world without bees has transcended numerous social and political spheres. The scientific community has been warning about the disappearance of bees during years without any consequence. But now, it has become an issue of major concern, acquiring a media relevance like never before. At the end of 2017, the EU decided to take matters into its own hands to prevent this tragic ending for bees.

Why would it be a problem that bees disappear from Earth? And which measures has the UE take in order to address this problem?

The DDT and Rachel Carson

The use of pesticides has been a common agricultural practice from the very beginning of agriculture. At the beginning, the use of organic chemicals derived from naturals sources, as well as inorganic substances such as sulphur, mercury and arsenical compounds, was very common. However, they eventually stopped being used due to their toxicity (especially, phytotoxicity). The growth in synthetic pesticides accelerated in the mid-twentieth century, especially with the discovery of the effects of DDT, which became one of the most widely used pesticides of all time. DDT became famous due to its generalist insecticidal effects and low toxicity to mammals and plants, being used to eradicate household pests, fumigate gardens and control agricultural pests.

Picture above: cover of a March 1947 brochure on DDT from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (source). Picture below: kids being showered with DDT during a campaing against poliomyelitis, which was believed to be transmitted by a mosquito (source).

DDT resulted to be very effective against insect vectors of deadly diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and typhus, thus becoming even more popular.

However, the overuse of this and other pesticides eventually began to cause severe human and environmental health problems, because some of these products started to contaminate soils, plants and their seeds, and to bioaccumulate within the trophic nets, finally affecting mammals, birds and fishes, among others. The indiscriminate use of pesticides and their effects were denounced by Rachel Carson through her most famous publication, “Silent Spring”, which was distributed in 1962.

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson (source).

From Carson to the neonicotinoids

Since Carson denounced the abusive use of pesticides, the world has witnessed the birth of many new substances to fight crop pests. Since then, researches have focused on finding less toxic and more selective products in order to minimize their impact on both human and environmental health. Could we say it has been a success?

Yes… and no. Although their use stopped being so indiscriminate and famers started betting on the use of more selective products, there were still some open fronts. Fronts that would remain open until today.

Between 1980 and 1990, Shell and Bayer companies started working on the synthesis of a new assortment of pesticides to face the resistances that some insects have acquired to some of the most widely used substances those days: the neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine; they effect the insect nervous system with a high specificity, while having a very low toxicity to mammals and birds compared to their most famous predecessors (organochlorides, such as the DDT, and carbamates). The most widely used neonicotinoid nowadays (and also one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide) is the imidacloprid.

However, far from getting famous for their effectiveness, the use of neonicotinoids began to get controversial for their supposed relationship with the disappearance of bees.

How do these pesticides affect bees?

For some years now (2006 onwards) the neonicotinoids are in scientists’ spotlight as one of the main suspects of the disappearance of bees. However, it has not been until now that something that scientists had been denouncing for years has finally been assumed: that neonicotinoids cause a greater impact than it was thought.

Dead bees in front of a hive. Public domain.

Unlike other pesticides that remain on plant surfaces, some studies state that neonicotinoids are taken up throughout their tissues, thus being accumulated in their roots, leaves, flowers, pollen and nectar. Also, that nearby fields are polluted with the dust created when treated seeds are planted and that plants derived from these seeds will accumulate a major amount of pesticide than sprayed plants (as it is explained in this publication of Nature). This causes bees (as well as other pollinating insects) to be exposed to high levels of pesticides, both in the crops themselves and in the surrounding foraging areas. These same studies have revealed with less support that these products may persist and accumulate in soils, which may affect future generations of crops.

Some of the negative effects on bees that have been related to neonicotinoids are:

In addition to the effects of neonicotinoids, other important causes must be taken into account: climate change, less food sources and changes in soil uses.

What would happen if bees disappear?

Colonial bees (like honeybees) are the most famous among bees. However, they only represent a mere portion within the great diversity of known bees, most of which have solitary life habits and build their nests inside small cavities. The ecological importance of solitary bees is equal to or greater than that of honey bees, but effects that neonicotinoids have on them are still poorly studied. Together, bees are among the most efficient pollinating organisms.

Solitary bee entering in its nest. Public domain.

According to this study carried out in German territory and published in POLS One at the end of 2017, a large part of flying insect diversity (including numerous pollinators) and up to 75% of their biomass have decreased in the last three decades due to the interaction of several factors. And if that was not enough, the authors say that these numbers can probably be extrapolated to other parts of the world.

What would happen if both colonial and solitary bees disappear?

  • Disappearance of crops. The production of many crops, such as fruit trees, nuts, spices and some oils, depends entirely on pollinators, especially on bees.
  • Decrease in the diversity and biomass of wild plants. Up to 80% of wild plants depend on insect pollination to reproduce, as it happens with many aromatic plants. A decrease in the vegetal surface would lead to serious problems of erosion and desertification.
  • Less recycling of soil nutrients. With the disappearance of the plants, the washing and deposition of soil nutrients would go down.
  • Less biological pest control. Some solitary bees are parasitoids of other solitary bees and other groups of insects (natural enemies); their absence could trigger the recurrence of certain pests.
  • Negative effects on higher trophic levels. The disappearance of bees could cause a decrease in the diversity and biomass of some birds that feed on pollinators.
  • Disappearance of bee-derived products, such as honey or wax.

The UE bans the use of neonicotinoids

Facing this reality, several governments have tried to limit the use of pesticides as a part of the measures to stop the decline of bee populations and the resulting economic losses. To give some examples, since 2006 the biomass of honey bees has decreased by 40% in the US, 25% in Europe since 1985 and 45% in the United Kingdom since 2010, according to data published by Greenpeace.

To date, the more restrictive measures limited the use of neonicotinoids in certain situations or seasons. But at the beginning of 2018, the EU, after preparing a detailed report based on more than 1,500 scientific studies carried out by the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), decided to definitively ban the use of the three most used neonicotinoids in a maximum period of 6 months in all its member states after demonstrating that they are harmful for bees: imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

Will the objectives of this report be accomplished? We will have to wait …

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Although slowly, the fight against the abusive use of pesticides is paying off. However, we will have to see if the gap left by some products is filled with other substances or if governments commit to adopt more environment friendly agricultural models.

Main picture obtained from [link].

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Symbiosis: relationships between living beings

Predation, parasitism, competition… all living beings, besides interacting with the environment, we relate to other living beings. What types of relationships in addition to those you know? Do you feel like to know them?

INTRODUCTION

The group of all living beings in an ecosystem is called biocenosis or community. The biocenosis is formed in turn by different populations, which would be the set of individuals of the same species occupying an area. For survival, it is imperative that relations between them are established, sometimes beneficial and sometimes harmful.

INTERESPECIFIC RELATIONSHIPS

They are those that occur between individuals of different species. This interaction it is called symbiosis. Symbiotic relationships can be beneficial to a species, both, or harmful to one of the two.

Detrimental to all the species involved:

Competition: occurs when one or more resources are limiting (food, land, light, soil …). This relationship is very important in evolution, as it allows natural selection acts by promoting the survival and reproduction of the most successful species according to their physiology, behavior …

Las selvas son un claro ejemplo de competencia de los vegetales en busca de la luz. Selva de Kuranda, Australia. Foto de Mireia Querol
Rainforests are a clear example of competition between vegetals in the search for light. Kuranda rainforest, Australia. Photo by Mireia Querol
One species has benefits and the other is detrimented:
  • Predation: occurs when one species (predator) feeds on another (prey). This is the case of cats, wolves, sharks
foca, león marino,
Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) jumping to depretade a marine mamal, maybe a sea lion. Photo taken from HQ images.
  • Parasitism: one species (parasite) lives at the expense of other (host) and causes it injury. Fleas, ticks, pathogenic bacteria are the best known, but there are also vertebrate parasites, like the cuckoo that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which will raise their chicks (brood parasitism). Especially interesting are the “zombie parasites”, which modify the behavior of the host. Read this post to learn more!
    Carricero (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) alimentando una cría de cuco (Cuculus canorus). Foto de Harald Olsen
    Reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) feeding a cuckoo’s chick (Cuculus canorus). Photo by Harald Olsen

    Parasites that live inside the host’s body are called endoparasites (such as tapeworms), and those who live outside ectoparasites (lice). Parasitism is considered a special type of predation, where predator is smaller than prey, although in most cases does not cause the death of the host. When a parasite causes illness or death of the host, it is called pathogen.

    Cymothoa exigua es un parásito que acaba sustituyendo la lengua de los peces por su propio cuerpo. Foto de Marcello Di Francesco.
    Cymothoa exigua is a parasite that replaces the tongue of fish with their own body. Picture by Marcello Di Francesco.

Kleptoparasitism is stealing food that other species has caught, harvested or prepared. This is the case of some raptors, whose name literally means “thief.” See in this video a case of kleptoparasitism on an owl:


Kleptoparasitism can also occur between individuals of the same species.

One species has benefits and the other is not affected:
  • Commensalism: one species (commensal) uses the remains of food from another species, which does not benefit or harm. This is the case of bearded vultures. It is also commensalism the use as transportation from one species over another (phoresy), as barnacles attached to the body of whales. The inquilinism is a type of commensalism in which a species lives in or on another. This would apply to the woodpeckers and squirrels that nest in trees or barnacles living above mussels. Finally, metabiosis is the use of the remains of a species for protection (like hermit crabs) or to use them as tools.
    El pinzón carpintero (Camarhynchus pallidus) utiliza espinas de cactus o pequeñas ramas para extraer invertebrados de los árboles. Foto de
    The woodpecker finch (Camarhynchus pallidus) uses cactus spines or small branches to remove invertebrates from the trees. Picture by Dusan Brinkhuizen.
    Both species have benefits:
  • Mutualism: the two species cooperate or are benefited. This is the case of pollinating insects, which get nectar from the flower and the plant is pollinated. Clownfish and anemones would be another typical example, where clown fish gets protection and food scraps while keeps predators away and clean parasites of the sea anemonae. Mutualism can be optional (a species do not need each other to survive) or forced (the species can not live separately). This is the case of mycorrhizae, an association of fungi and roots of certain plants, lichens (mutualism of fungus and algae), leafcutter ants

    Las hormigas Atta y Acromyrmex (hormigas cortadoras de hogas) establecen mutualismo con un hongo (Leucocoprinus gongylophorus), en las que recolectan hojas para proporcionarle nutrientes, y ellas se alimentan de él. Se trata de un mutualismo obligado. Foto tomada de Ants kalytta.
    Atta and Acromyrmex ants (leafcutter ants) establish mutualism with a fungus (Leucocoprinus gongylophorus), in which they gather leaves to provide nutrients to the fungus, and they feed on it. It is an obligate mutualism. Photo taken from Ants kalytta.

INTRAESPECIFIC RELATIONSHIPS

They are those that occur between individuals of the same species. They are most beneficial or collaborative:

  • Familiars: grouped individuals have some sort of relationship. Some examples of species we have discussed in the blog are elephants, some primates, many birds, cetaceans In such relationships there are different types of families.
  • Gregariousness: groups are usually of many unrelated individuals over a permanent period or seasonal time. The most typical examples would be the flocks of migratory birds, migration of the monarch butterfly, herds of large herbivores like wildebeest, shoal of fish

    El gregarismo de estas cebras, junto con su pelaje, les permite confundir a los depredadores. Foto tomada de Telegraph
    Gregariousness of these zebras, along with their fur, allow them to confuse predators. Photo taken from Telegraph
  • Colonies: groups of individuals that have been reproduced asexually and share common structures. The best known case is coral, which is sometimes referred to as the world’s largest living being (Australian Great Barrier Reef), but is actually a colony of polyps (and its calcareous skeletons), not single individual.
  • Society: they are individuals who live together in an organized and hierarchical manner, where there is a division of tasks and they are usually physically different from each other according to their function in society. Typical examples are social insects such as ants, bees, termites

Intraspecific relations of competition are:

  • Territorialityconfrontation or competition for access to the territory, light, females, food can cause direct clashes, as in the case of deer, and/or develop other strategies, such as marking odor (cats, bears), vocalization

    Tigres peleando por el territorio. Captura de vídeo de John Varty
    Tiger figthing for territory. Video caption by John Varty
  • Cannibalism: predation of one individual over another of the same species.

And you, as a human, have you ever thought how do you relate with individuals of your species and other species?

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY

REFERENCES