Grossmann: The Bumblebee and Robo-Snake on Mars – The Facts

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24 October 2013

There’s a plan to colonize Mars.  Applications are now being accepted from would-be volunteers.  From these, four colonists will be chosen for a one way trip to the red planet.  No, this isn’t a NASA Project.  This project belongs to a Dutch company, “Mars One.”  So, when are the colonists scheduled to leave?  About 20 years from now.  When you consider that the estimated cost will be 6 billion dollars, you wonder how “Mars One” is planning to finance the project?   With a reality TV show.  But there’s yet another twist to the financing.  The 6 billion dollars will be raised by selling sponsorship/advertising for a reality TV show televised from Mars and staring the four “lucky” colonists who “won” their one-way ticket to the red planet.

Who would want to go on a one-way trip to Mars — 20 years from now?  Surprisingly, a lot of people — about 100,000 applicants, to date, have paid the $38 dollar application fee – each hoping (1) to pass the fitness screening to be eligible to make the trip and (2) to win the final selection lottery and be one of the four “lucky” colonists.  I’d like to call this “a plan,” but I’m not holding my breath.  It would take something more before I’d take a Martian colonial adventure seriously. [1]

But, then, “something more” happened.   Bumblebees and Wheeko, a robotic snake, volunteered for a mission to Mars.  This was a game-changer.  I knew these were real contenders for a successful colonial mission.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Bumbles and Robo-snake were being seriously considered by NASA and the ESA, respectively, rather than “Mars One.”  It also didn’t hurt that both Bumbles and Robo-snake are uniquely fitted to be Martian colonists.

In fact, a study published in Gravitational and Space Biology has demonstrated that bumblebees have “the right stuff.” [image] These, rather rotund, wild bees forage for food in the same wild grass and brush in which they build their nests.  I’m sure that, at first, no one saw them as particularly obvious candidates for a trip to Mars.  But, then, NASA identified an atmospheric pressure of 52 kilopascals (kPa) as “the ideal” for extraterrestrial facilities.  That’s a rather low pressure compared to earth’s normal sea level pressure of 101 kPa.  The search was on for fit space travelers and Martian colonists.  And “Bumbles” made the cut, and then some. [2]

While the bumblebee’s cousin, the familiar hive-dwelling honeybee, not only stopped working, but completely lost the ability to fly at an atmospheric pressure of 66.5 kPa, the bumblebee not only thrived at the lower 52 kPa atmospheric pressure, but continued its work, pollinating plants and collecting honey, at its usual pace. When the pressure was dropped below 50 kPa, “Bumbles” continued to work, but at a slower pace.   Then, when the pressure was dropped to 30 kPa, the bumblebees lost their ability to fly but, with an amazing display of mettle, these bees kept on working — foraging, pollinating, and gathering honey, more or less, on foot – crawling from bloom to bloom.  I think this the kind of bee we need to conquer the Final Frontier. [3]

Robo-snake, on the other hand, has the obvious advantage of being a robot.  [image] So, those conditions necessary to biological organisms are of little importance to this automaton.  However, Robo-snake is an odd contender, because he is being considered . . . before he exists.

Although the ESA (European Space Agency) is, more or less, including Robo-snake as a crew member on an upcoming mission to Mars, this particular robotic crew member has not been developed yet.  It’s a little strange.  But, on second thought, is recruiting a nonexistent crew member to go on a real mission to Mars any stranger than Mars One recruiting real crew members to go on a nonexistent mission to Mars? [4]

No matter, robo-snake’s older brother is standing-in for his sibling in futuro during the evaluation process.  Big brother (named Wheeko) is a robotic snake that looks and moves surprisingly like a real snake.  It’s modus operandi is beyond a brief and simple description, but one video is worth a 1,000 words. [video]   Wheeko, is composed of ten round metal balls, on the balls are rows of what appear to be smaller balls that roll with motive power and make Wheeko move.  With a camera on its “head,” (which is the lead ball), it makes the familiar serpentine movement of its namesake as it travels on the ground.

Wheeko is the subject of a current feasibility study by researchers at the SINTEF Research Institute in Norway and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.  Until now, the primary purpose of the development of a robotic snake was as a tool to be used on search and rescue missions.  As one of the project members, Aksel Transeth, explained, real snakes “can climb rocks and slide through small holes.”  It is hoped that a robot with these skills could be used “to find people in a fallen buildings.”

If Wheeko passes all the tests, what will its little brother, the future Martian colonist, be like?  Actually, little brother will be different if for no other reason than he has a sidekick.  Or, more accurately, he will be a sidekick.  But, instead of playing sidekick to his fellow bumblebee colonists, Robo-snake will play sidekick to the more familiar Mars Rover.  These vehicles are designed for off-roading in the rough Martian terrain.  Yet, however carefully they are directed, they do have a tendency to get stuck.  Enter Robo-snake. [image]

Instead of a lone player on the Martian surface, Robo-snake would be a deployable snake robot or an actual arm attached to the Mars Rover.  The Rover vehicle could detach Robo-snake to investigate the nooks and crannies of the terrain while allowing the Rover to maintain a safe distance from areas in which the Rover might get stuck.  And if the Rover gets stuck, one proposed design would turn Robo-snake into something like the Rover’s tentacle arm.  Such an amazingly versatile arm would be able to both push and pull to extricate the Rover if caught in too tight a spot.

So, together, the bumblebees and the Robo-snake may be the first Martian colonists.  Of course, they won’t be traveling together.  NASA is interested in “Bumbles” and the ESA is interested in Robo-snake.   But even if they don’t share the same flight to the red planet, they’ll probably meet when they get there.  Right now, Mars isn’t that crowded. 

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Grossmann: “Bye Bye Blackbird” – The Solution to the Bird Problem?

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5 September 2013

Prolog:  North American bird populations have been in continuous decline for decades.  These population losses are shared by all species of birds — both “common” and “endangered.”  A National Audubon Society report, “Common Birds in Decline,” documents that there has been as much as an 80% decline in populations of many “secure” species.  In spite of endless speculation, the cause of these declines remains a mystery.  However,some declines are less mysterious than others. [1]

Let’s pick up this story in the middle.  Just minutes before New Years, on December 31, 2010, birds began to drop dead out of the sky in Beebee, Arkansas.  Hours after dark, hundreds of Red Winged Blackbirds suddenly flew out of trees and brush and into the air.  No sooner were they airborne, than they tumbled back down to the ground dead.  In the morning, thousands of dead birds were found everywhere.  A major clean-up operation was required.

No one knew the cause.  The poor night vision of this variety of blackbird makes nocturnal flight extremely rare.  Some had speculated that fireworks had frightened the birds from their roost, but the county vet was doubtful.  Some blamed the frequency of thunderstorms during the previous week, but the last thunderstorm had ended days earlier.  Others remembered the death of a flock of ducks that had fallen to the ground dead near Hot Springs in 2001.  Those deaths were attributed to a lighting strike or, possibly, hail.  But, again, there had been no storm during the last flight of Beebee’s blackbirds. [2]

During the following week, “Several hundred dead birds” were found near Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky.  The birds were “scattered around” several city blocks.  “No one could determine the cause of death,” but speculation was that “[i]t could be something in the weather.” [3]

As the news spread, one woman, living in Marshall County, Kentucky, came forward to report that she had found dozens of dead birds on her property throughout that same Christmas season. [4]

Then, on January 5, 2011, just days after the mass bird deaths in Arkansas, 500 birds were found dead on a Louisiana highway.  The location was only about 300 miles away from Beebee.  The dead birds were of three species: blackbirds, starlings, and sparrows.  Louisiana officials believed the birds fell to their deaths after “flying into a power line.”  However, the reason why 500 birds would engage in this amazingly precise flying maneuver was “still a mystery.”  [5]

Although no one immediately concluded that the weather was to blame, soon a thunderstorm was discussed as a possible cause.  Again, however, the last thunderstorm had ended days before these birds’ last flight.  With the timing of the thunderstorm so far off the mark, attention turned to a rare weather phenomenon that could suck birds into the air, hold them and, then, drop the birds, in mass, at a particular location. [6]  The 2001 deaths of the Hot Springs ducks made another appearance in media reports to illustrate weather-related bird deaths.

Pathologists all agreed that trauma was the cause of death — a broken breastbone.  In other words, the birds died from the impact as they hit the ground.  However, the reason why the birds fell out of the sky and hit the ground could not be determined.

Stress was placed on the toxicology report.  These blackbirds, starlings, and sparrows hadn’t been poisoned.  However, it’s not clear whether pathologists checked for an unusual and expensive poison like DRC-1339, which affects only a small group of bird species.  This poison metabolizes quickly in a bird’s system so that insects and animals that scavenge the dead bird would not be affected.  DRC-1339 is marketed under the commercial name that says it all: Starlicide.  [7]

After all those stories about the “mysterious” decline in North American bird populations, it turns out that at least one factor is about as mysterious as the decline in insect populations after a visit by the exterminator.

This story ends in Yankton Riverside Park in the City of Yankton, South Dakota, on the morning of January 18, 2011 — just 18 days after the first mass death in Beebee, Arkansas.  Residents were puzzled and alarmed to find hundreds of dead birds in the park.  The event received substantial publicity and a police investigation began. [8]

Like the reports of other bird die-offs over the past weeks, this latest mass death remained unexplained.  Accounts of the mysterious deaths were repeated by mystified naturalists.  Environmentalists were sure that some enjoyable aspect of modern life was responsible and, of course, should be stopped.  Those with an apocalyptic streak even worried that these mass bird deaths were a sign of the end of world.

Then, the United States Department of Agriculture contacted the Yankton Police.  The USDA representative explained that the Department of Agriculture had poisoned the birds at a location south of Yankton — adding, pleasantly, that they were surprised the birds made it as far north as Yankton before dying. [9]

This story begins with a Nebraska farmer.  We’ll call him Farmer Jones.  He complained to the USDA that starlings were defecating in his feed meal.  The USDA investigated and concluded that the birds were causing “agricultural damage.”  Also, feed meal contaminated with bird poop was “a threat to human health.”

This confronted the USDA with a difficult decision.  They had to find the most humane, economical, and least disruptive means of dealing with the problem.  On the one hand, they could provide Farmer Jones with a cover for his feed meal.  On the other hand, they could obtain a deadly poison and begin a program of mass bird extermination.  Weighing all the factors, it was apparent that mass bird extermination was the only possible solution.

Quickly consulting their staff experts, the USDA obtained large quantities of DRC-1339, a deadly poison called Starlicide, and began the implementation of their new program. Thousands of birds were allowed to feed on the poison and die.  But the USDA felt this should be the start of something really big.  They made it so.

With amazing efficiency, and certainly great expense, the USDA had fatally poisoned over 4 million birds by the time of the Yankton Park die-off.  This was no idle boast.  These numbers were, and are, documented on the USDA website.  Better yet, the USDA has a name for the program.  It’s called “Bye Bye Blackbird.” [10]

This program of systematic poisoning is costing taxpayers a lot of money and bird lovers a lot of grief.  Black birds, starlings, farmers, and feed meal have been living together since — about forever.  Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it have been cheaper and more merciful to buy Farmer Jones a cover for his feed meal?

Epilog:  The residents of Beebee, Arkansas didn’t hold a memorial on the first anniversary of the mass bird deaths of 2010.  They didn’t need to be reminded because it happened again.

On December 31, 2011, Beebee’s police dispatcher began to receive multiple calls reporting, that “blackbirds [were] falling again and that [people] found blackbirds on the streets where they live or at [their] churches,” A spokesperson for Animal Control reported that there were “birds falling down on the street and people dodging and missing them.”  A Police spokesperson later explained that this second die-off wasn’t as bad as the previous year “when birds covered the streets.”  At least this year, the clean-up would be easier because the dead birds were scattered over a smaller area.

Initial suspicion, again, fell on fireworks with news reports confirming that fireworks had caused a similar event the previous year.  Even an unnamed expert expressed the opinion that the many blackbirds flew into the air and crashed down to their deaths because they were scared by fireworks.  [11]

However, the fireworks explanation faded away as later news reports refocused on the weather.  Although there had been no thunderstorms at the time of this latest death flight, there had been thunderstorms days earlier.  And, of course, the reporters remembered those ducks that were struck by lightening in Hot Springs in 2001.

Grossmann: “Clear Gold” – Aquifers, Promise and Hope

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10 October 2013

Groundwater made the news in September.  Rather, groundwater made the news under its more technical (and more fashionable) name, “aquifer.”  The month’s news included the discovery of huge aquifers in Kenya, and the release of a report with a conservation plan for a North American aquifer.

Of course, groundwater isn’t just useful.  It’s essential to irrigation.  And irrigation, in turn, is essential to agricultural production.  Still, discovering an aquifer isn’t the same as discovering oil or gold — or is it?  In North America, “fields” covered with wells continuously pump, not oil out of underground “domes,” but water out of “aquifers.”

This water is used to irrigate other “fields” — the great agricultural fields of Middle America.  If you take a long look at how groundwater is “extracted” from the earth, you have to wonder if plain old “water” needs a media face-lift.  Oil was once called “black gold.”  So, some have suggested that water should be called, “clear gold.”

In September of 2013, five enormous aquifers were discovered in Kenya’s Turkana County.  The discovery was reported by a firm specializing in natural resource exploration, Radar Technologies International, working in the African nation under the sponsorship of UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

All of the aquifers were discovered through advanced satellite technology.  Two of the five have been confirmed by drilling with the other three scheduled for drilling confirmation.  The exact size of the find is unknown.  Of the five, the two confirmed aquifers, the Lodwar and Lotikipi Basin Aquifers, are believed to be enormous.  The Lotikipi Basin Aquifer, alone, is estimated to be the size of the state of Rhode Island.  In terms of volume, these aquifers should contain about 66 trillion gallons of water.  That’s equivalent to Kenya’s normal rainfall for the next 73 years.

Why the celebration?  Turkana County has been long plagued by drought.  In fact, according to UNESCO, of Kenya’s 41 million people, 17 million lack access to enough safe drinking water, while 28 million are without adequate sanitation.  In the past, even violence has erupted among competing agricultural users over the nation’s previously scarce water supply.  In Kenya, the discovery of so much fresh water changes everything. With this single, amazing discovery, the course of Kenya’s future has suddenly taken a promising turn.  If the nation were a person, finding these aquifers would be like winning a multimillion-dollar lottery jackpot.

Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s Secretary for the Environment, Water and Natural Resources, explained that the discovery “opens a door to a more prosperous future” for the African nation.  Clean, safe drinking water will promote greater health.  Sufficient water for raising livestock and irrigation of crops will lead to relief from malnutrition.  So, there is something almost miraculous about the discovery.  A population with the greatest need suddenly discovers an unsuspected abundance right under their feet.

Secretary Judi Wakhungu also added that, “We must now work to further explore these resources responsibly and safeguard them for future generations.”  A wise direction to take considering the increasing awareness that, no matter how big or how deep, no reservoir is bottomless.

On a continent far from Kenya, many wells, covering many fields, continuously pump groundwater up out of a massive aquifer.  The Great Plains Aquifer of North America covers a vast area including portions of eight states in the Midwestern United States.  The aquifer bears the formal name, “Ogallala,” (perhaps in honor of the Native American tribe, the Ogallala Sioux).  This vast aquifer provides 30% of all water for irrigation in the United States in addition to providing water for residential uses.  That’s a lot of water.

Researchers from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, conducted a four-year study of the Ogallala aquifer published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  No one was surprised that more water is coming out than is going in.  In 1960, the aquifer’s water reserves had declined only 3% as a result of systematic use.  However, by 2010, the reserves had declined by 30 %.  And, with projected usage, a 69% decline would be expected by 2060.

The study’s lead researcher, David Steward, a professor of civil engineering at Kansas State University, explained that the great aquifer’s water reserves are declining, but no one can be certain how long the water will last.  If the aquifer is to remain a continuing source of water, pumping rates must be reduced.  The goal of the conservation plan is simple.  Use the least water possible.  And, use that water as efficiently as possible.

The researchers developed statistical models to project and describe possible patterns of water depletion over the next century.  As Stewart explained, “The main idea is that if we’re able to save water today, it will result in a substantial increase in the number of years that we will have irrigated agriculture in Kansas.”

Steward and his colleagues anticipate future technologies will help farmers irrigate their land more efficiently.  There is reason for optimism.  Through the use of “increased irrigation technology, crop genetics and management strategies,” Steward explained, “water use efficiencies have increased by about 2 percent a year in Kansas, which means that every year we’re growing about 2 percent more crop for each unit of water.”  Looking at their 100 year model, they believe that, with consistent improvements in water use strategies, it may be possible to continue to use the aquifer’s water and increase net agricultural production through the next century and, perhaps, beyond.

However, for both Kansas and Kenya, the future depends on what is done in the present.  As Secretary Wakhungu explained, Kenya’s challenge goes beyond the efficient use and management of the newly discovered reserves.  Vigilance is required to protect those reserves from unscrupulous and potentially destructive economic exploitation, which could rob the nation’s citizens of the full benefits of this amazingly abundant groundwater.

In Kansas, conservation efforts are needed to protect their aquifer from depletion. Serious mismanagement could do damage that would require a long time to fix.  According to Dave Steward, if tapped dry, a completely emptied Ogallala Aquifer would take 500 to 1,300 years to refill.  But the aquifer is far from empty and, with continued action to assure efficient use and management, the Ogallala may continue as a source of water for irrigation and residential use for the next 100 years and beyond.

Author’s Note: The University of Kansas report predicted that, without conservation efforts, 69% of the water in the Ogallala Aquifer would be used by 2060.  With conservation efforts, irrigation with the aquifer’s water could still be going strong, in 2110, along with increased agricultural production.  The report does not predict that the Ogallala Aquifer will run dry in by 2060 or 2110, although a remarkable number of articles seem to say that it does.

Grossmann: The Bumblebee – The Possible Return of the Hive-Less Bee

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29 August 2013

In the summer of 2012, bee enthusiast Megan O’Donald encountered a bumblebee in her mother’s garden in Briar, Washington.  In the distant past, this would have hardly been noteworthy, but after the disappearance of bumblebees from Washington state, almost ten years ago, the sighting was an event. [1]  In 2013, O’Donald saw another bumblebee in a goldenrod in the same garden.

When Will Peterman, a freelance writer and photographer, heard about O’Donald’s sightings, he decided to “launch an expedition.”  He identified several “patches of habitat” in small parks and unmown lots.  Investigation of the first three sites yielded nothing but, at the fourth, he struck gold. [2]

In Briar, Washington‘s Briar Park, he found and photographed several bumblebees.  Several days later, Peterman returned to the park with a group of bee experts (entomologists) and, together, they located and photographed several bumblebee queens.

It is estimated that the United States has lost almost half of its honeybee population in just the last seven years.  However, the many species of the relatively petite honeybee differ in appearance, behavior, and habitat from that group of species called bumblebees.

The relatively large and, somewhat, rotund bumblebee has also suffered a substantial disappearance in North America.  Not long ago, the bumblebee was common throughout the Western United States and Canada.  However, beginning in the late 1990’s, its numbers declined until it all but vanished from a vast area of its range extending from the Pacific Coast of California north into British Columbia.  Mysteriously, bumblebee populations remained relatively unaffected in the mountainous portions of this same range.

Unlike honeybees, bumbles are wild bees.  They are not kept by beekeepers.  However, their wild status makes them no less important to the agricultural industry.  These bees are specially suited to pollinate a variety of cash crops including tomatoes, cranberries, almonds, apples, zucchinis, avocados, and plums and their unique style of pollination accounts for about 3 billion dollars in produce each year.

Bumblebees are known for their characteristically loud buzz.  However, unlike hive-dwelling honeybees, bumblebees don’t just buzz when they’re flying.  They can, and do, produce that same buzz without moving their wings.  And it is just the vibration from this flightless buzz that makes them uniquely valuable pollinators of certain crops.

After landing in a blossom, the large bumblebee grabs the blossom and holds it tightly.  While maintaining this tight grip, it strongly vibrates while remaining stationary.  Nothing less than the bumblebee’s strong vibration will assure pollination by shaking loose sufficient quantities of the thick pollen produced by certain species of plants.  No other bee could do this job as consistently or successfully.

While the sighting of a few bumblebees in Washington state may not seem like much, Biologist Rich Hatfield, of the Xerces Society, believes that these few sightings hold the promise of a possible bumblebee repopulation of the their abandoned Western Range. [3]

Also, these sightings came at a time when bee watchers needed some good news.  Just a few weeks earlier, 50,000 bumblebees died, in mass, in an Oregon parking lot.  The cause of the die-off remains unexplained.  Even worse, these deaths came only one week before the beginning of the newly declared “National Pollinator Week.”

The challenges to bumblebee survival grow out of its peculiar lifestyle.  Unlike the petite honeybee, the bumblebee doesn’t maintain the familiar hive.  Bumble queens locate their 12-inch wide nests rather opportunistically, in “clumps of dry grass, old bird nests, abandoned rodent burrows, old mattresses, car cushions or even in or under old abandoned buildings.” [4]  Each bumblebee nest will be used for only a single year.  And a colony will begin and end within that same year’s time.  Each year, a new nest will be built and a new colony developed in a different location.  Most colonies number only a few hundred bees, though rarely, numbers can reach as high as 2,000.

The wild bumble’s nomadic lifestyle disburses its population.  This works to their advantage by protecting them from the rapid, plague-like spread of diseases so common in the perennial and densely populated hives of the honeybee.  Also, the freestyle foraging of this wild bee limits its exposure to systematically applied pesticides.

Bumbles certainly suffer some collateral damage from pesticides and are vulnerable to certain diseases.  However, pesticides and disease, the “usual suspects” in the disappearance of the honeybee, are less prominent contributors to the decline in bumble populations.

Inspired by the honeybee colonies, human attempts to create similar domesticated bumble colonies led to one of the few documented disease outbreaks among these bees.  When a few of the experimental, domesticated queens were imported from Europe to American, they brought with them a new fungal disease, which spread among some American bumblebees.

In spite of this incident, and the plentiful speculation about the possible role of disease in declining American bumble populations, there is little evidence that any disease played a significant role in the massive North American disappearance.  In fact, the healthy bumble population levels in the Western mountainous areas of North America and Canada argue against the disease theory.  These unaffected populations suggest another cause — one more often associated with animals than insects: loss of habitat.

Certain human activities have tremendously reduced the bumble’s natural habitat.  Modern land management, agricultural and aesthetic, continues to eliminate the open, unmown grasslands and areas of brush that bumbles need for nesting.

Over the past 40 years, agricultural planning and land-use have been revolutionized to provide maximum yields.  But these modifications have destroyed vast areas of potential habitat — especially those close to sources of honey and, therefore, locations in need of pollinators.

In the past, the typical farm included a substantial number of fallow tracts of land in which wild brush and unmown grass were allowed to grow.  These areas provided breaks between fields to slow or prevent the spread of disease.  Other uncultivated areas were buffers between different types of crops.  This separation was intended to prevent bleed-over of one type of crop into fields dedicated to another.  However, the practice of planting different types of crops was, again, a kind of insurance against the spread of disease.  While one type of crop might fall victim to disease, another would be less susceptible and survive to produce a much-needed yield at harvest.  And, finally, there was crop rotation.  Some fields were periodically left fallow to prevent a loss of fertility.  All of these uncultivated areas of the typical farm were ideal habitat for the bumblebee.

However, advances in pesticides and herbicides have so reduced the incidence of crop damage and disease that a new style of agriculture, sometimes called “monoculture,” dominates farm planning and geography.  The modern farm is a study in intensive land use and specialization.  All lands are cultivated and, often, with a single crop.  Any creeping wild brush or grass growth is eliminated, quickly and thoroughly, with extremely effective herbicides.  Chemical soil fertilization is just as effective and has made crop rotation a thing of the past.  The result is a modern farm with no place for bumbles.

Beyond our farms, today’s increasingly urban world is also working to eliminate unsightly brush and unmown lands.  Even road embankments and open park areas are regularly mowed.  This creates a more pleasing cosmetic effect, but at the expense of bumblebee habitat.

In notable contrast, the bumble’s habitat remains relatively intact in the less farm-friendly mountainous areas of the Western United States and Canada.  And it is in just these areas, less touched by modern farming or systematic public landscaping, that bumble populations remain strong.

At least one organization, the Xerces Society, named for the extinct California butterfly, Xerces Blue, is currently working to advance conservation of bumblebee habitat.  The society focuses on several conservation issues including the preservation of native pollinators.  In 2010, the society’s scientists developed a bee-friendly conservation strategy, the Yolo Natural Heritage Program, operated in Yolo County California.

Grossmann: Robotic Bees and Rumors of Other Robotic Insects

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17 October 2013

Scientists at Harvard are continuing to work on the development of the first robotic bee.  The goal is a robot that can pollinate flowers and crops just like a honeybee.  However, the goal is far away. [1]

Harvard’s “Micro Air Vehicles Project” is using titanium and plastic to fashion a robot that duplicates the functions, if not the appearance, of the familiar honeybee.  The robo-bee pops up, complete with wings, from a quarter-sized metal disk.  One day, it is hoped, these “bees” will be engineered to fly in swarms, live in artificial hives, and locate sources of honey. [2]

In the 1950’s, futurists predicted that we would all be operating flying automobiles by 1970.  Similarly, the prediction of working robotic honeybees may be an optimistic fantasy.  But if the goal is never reached, it will be for no lack of effort on the part of the Harvard scientists.  But there are many hurdles, challenges, and obstacles.

To hear some tell it, a robotic bee is perfected and almost poised to replace its natural counterpart in a brave new world full of disconcerting, mechanical replicas of the familiar and comfortable wildlife around us.  However, that future is definitely . . . in the future.

In order to create a robot that does what a honeybee does, the ‘bot must be the same size as a honeybee.  But that same, small size is the source of a number of problems.  Currently, no lightweight, portable power source exists with both the small size and large capacity needed by the robobee.  But even with a suitable power source, the ‘bot must also be equipped with a portable guidance system.  And there is no guidance system small enough, and lightweight enough, to do the job. [3]

After five years of work, researchers are only now figuring out how to guide the robobee in flight.  Until recently, these robots would just take off, fly in any direction, and . . . crash.  However, with the latest guidance breakthrough, the robobee can now be made “to pitch and roll in a predetermined direction.”  Progress has and will be made through a series of small advances over a long period of time.  So, the rumored release of a swarm of robotic bees to replace our honeybees is far, far away.  [4]

With robotic insects, flight itself is the biggest challenge.  While bird-sized flying drones are being perfected with relative success, flying insect ‘bots present a special aerodynamic problem.  It’s the size.  If you shrink a bird-sized drone down to the size of an insect — it won’t fly.  A roboticist at the University of California at Berkeley, Ronald Fearing, told the Washington Post that “the rules of aerodynamics change” with an object as small as an insect. [5] Unlike bird wings, insect-sized wings must move with amazing precision.  Replicating these precise wing movements is a formidable engineering challenge.  In fact, scientists only recently came to understand how insects fly at all.  Compounding the problems, these precision wing movements require yet larger supplies of portable power. [6]

So, the rumors that robobee will be shoving honeybees out of the way any day now — are only rumors.  Sort of like the persistent rumors suggesting that the U.S. Government secretly developed and used insect drones decades ago.  Given the substantial problems with the current development of controllable, insect-sized flying robots, it’s fair to assume that a robotic insect would have been impossible as far back as the 1970’s.  However, our assumption would be wrong.  These rumors are true.

The CIA’s simple dragonfly snooper was operational in the 1970’s.  The relatively unsophisticated “insectothopter” was the product of the CIA’s Office of Research and Development and rolled off the assembly line almost 40 years ago.  Its tiny gasoline engine was used to make its four wings flap.  However, the insectothopter was scraped because of its inability to fly in a crosswind.  So, with the shelving of the insectothopter, the development of robotic insects ended — only reappearing with the modern resurgence of robotic research.  Or did the U.S. Government secretly continue to develop insect drones?  Again, there are rumors. [7]

Is it possible that some agency has developed a secret, advanced version of the insectothopter?  Sources at the CIA have declined to comment.  When questioned about the possibility of the secret development of flying drone insects, an “expert in unmanned aerial vehicles,” retired Colonel Tom Ehrhard, simply said, “America can be pretty sneaky.”  [8]

On that less than comforting note, we can reconsider another rumor — the rumor of the dragonfly robots.  At recent political events in Washington D.C. and New York, several persons have reported sighting something that they described as a cross between a slightly oversized dragonfly and a miniature helicopter.  Perhaps, these witnesses have mistaken real insects for robots . . . or perhaps not. [9]

There are also rumors about a robotic fly.   But, first, why would anyone want to develop a robotic fly?  Bees are more than useful.  They are also one of the more “popular” insects.  No one can completely dislike a bug that produces honey.  But the fly?  It’s one of the most hated insects of all time.  But the robofly mystery may be more a question of nomenclature.  In other words, a robot’s name may depend, not on how it’s built or what it looks like, as much as what it does.

The only thing mysterious about robofly is the confusion caused by giving the same robotic insect two different names.  Robofly is the same machine as robobee.  [10]

So, what’s with the two names?  Although scientists were attempting to create a flying insect sized ‘bot that would do what a bee does, they actually used the fly as the basis for the design of the wings and flight movement. [11] But, again, what’s with the two names?  When is it called a bee, and when is it called a fly?

Again, the choice of name may depend on what the ‘bot does.  Look at it this way. Robobee is being developed to pollinate crops – a wholesome and useful activity.  The same robot, under the name robofly is being developed as a spy drone — to secretly watch and, perhaps, eavesdrop on some unsuspecting victims.  Surveillance is useful but, today, has developed an ugly reputation.  In other words, when a flying drone spies on “the enemy,” it’s  good.  When it spies on your neighbor, it’s a subject for public debate.  When it spies on you . . . it’s outright evil.

So, this robot is a cheerful “bee” when it’s pollinating.  But, when the same robot starts looking over your shoulder, it’s an unpleasant “fly.”  Just imagine what they would have called this same ‘bot if it had been adapted, not just to listen, but to attack?

They called it Robo-Mosquito.  Well, at least, that was the rumor.

Rumors spread that a new insect drone had been developed called the robo-mosquito.  The proof?  There were pictures.  Pictures of a ‘bot that looked a lot like robobee/fly except it had a sharp syringe-like protuberance, apparently, intended to suck something out of, or inject something into, a victim.  Then, another photo surfaced.  But the robo-mosquito in the new photo looked a bit more like a metallic version of an actual mosquito.  [12]

In fact, the first photo turned out to be robobee.  The photo was slightly retouched to add a syringe-like protuberance.  The second photo was of an actual mosquito retouched, with more than a little artistry, to create the effect of a metallic, mechanical-looking mosquito.  [13]

So, robo-mosquito was only a rumor that turned out to be a hoax.  But, again, the name seemed to follow the function.  At least one photo showed a ‘bot that looked little different than robobee.  So why the new name — mosquito — one of the most hated insects in history?  Perhaps because of what the drone was supposed to do: inject unsuspecting victims with deadly poison.  So, if the robotic insect is designed to do anything bad —  from the unfriendly, like eavesdropping, to the evil and deadly, like injecting poison, it’ll be named after an unfriendly, evil or deadly insect.  Ironically, robo-mosquito’s evil function, injecting unsuspecting victims with poison, has little to do with what a mosquito actually does, but a lot to do with what the “friendly” honeybee does when it stings.

All of these insect-inspired robots are being developed to perform a variety of practical functions.  However, as development continues, our insect robots seem to be gaining the names, if not the functions, of more and more unpopular and unwelcome insect pests.  Why can’t we do something aesthetically pleasing with robots instead of modeling them after ugly insects?  Well, all insects aren’t ugly, and neither are all insect-inspired robots.

A robot is a machine that “does work.”  By that definition, ChouChou the robotic butterfly is not really a robot but, rather, an animatronic device.  That is, a machine that is designed to look and move like a animal.  ChouChou behaves, and even flies, like a butterfly.  The manufacturers, aware of the too- short lifespan of these beautiful insects, promotes ChouChou as the butterfly that lives forever.  But don’t think that no one else is working on robotic butter-bots. [14]

At Johns Hopkins Department of Mechanical Engineering, the research of a student, Tiras Lin, is aimed at mimicking the movements of the Painted Lady Butterfly. [15] And Japanese researchers have developed the “ornithopter” — a flying ‘bot that mimics the flight pattern of a swallowtail butterfly. [16] The swallowtail is unique among butterflies because it remains airborne and propels itself forward only by flapping its wings.  So, is that unusual?

Well, in flight, the movement of the typical insect’s wings is extremely complex and difficult to duplicate.  In contrast, the swallowtail flapping is just that.  There’s nothing subtle or complex about it.  Not only could imitating this movement in a robot prove a much simpler engineering task, but the swallow tail may open the door (or rather the sky) to aircraft with moving wings — a thing most clearly imagined by Leonardo da Vinci’s in his drawings and experiments of five centuries ago.  [17]

 

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Grossmann: What Do the Birds Think?

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3 October 2013

While observing western scrub jays in the wild, UC Davis researchers were surprised to witness what appeared to be a bird funeral.  When a dead jay was spotted on the ground, another jay immediately began shouting out alarm calls to the other members of the flock.  This seemed to make sense.  If the discovery of a dead bird was interpreted as danger, the first bird “on the scene” might call out an alarm to the rest of the flock to warn them that a jay-killing predator was in the area.

However, what happened next was puzzling.  Instead of fleeing, the first bird landed beside the dead bird’s body while continuing its call.  The rest of the birds joined the calling jay with the whole flock gathering until they formed a circle around the body of the dead jay.

This seemed odd.  If a dead bird meant a predator was in the area, you’d expect the rest of the flock to retreat.  Instead, the flock gathered at the very location of the possible attack.  Stranger still, the surviving jays stopped foraging for food for the rest of the day.  The observers had to ask: Is this a funeral?  Is fasting for the remainder of the day a kind of mourning?  It sort of looked that way.

The researchers were so intrigued that they experimented by placing other objects in the area of the flock to observe the reaction.  Colored pieces of wood were ignored.  A stuffed jay was mobbed receiving the same treatment as a competitor from another flock.  More interesting was the reaction to a stuffed Great Horn Owl, the jay’s chief predator.  With the sighting of the owl, the birds made alarm calls and the flock gathered together — just as they had for the “funeral.”  However, once gathered together, the group attacked the stuffed owl, more or less, swooping down on it repeatedly.

So, perhaps the gathering wasn’t a funeral, but massing for a possible attack.  It may be that jays don’t flee or hide from predators.  Rather they locate the threat, call their numbers together, and counterattack.  But, that still leaves one question unanswered.  After the flock found the dead jay, why did they stop eating for the rest of the day?

The researchers admit that they don’t know what this behavior means.  All they can say is that “the jays see the presence of a dead bird as information to be publicly shared, just as they do the presence of a predator.”

Whether you call it animal intelligence, thought, self-awareness, or consciousness, the question is:  How do you know if an animal has “it.”

Forgive me for saying that the philosophical approach to the question seems the least enlightening.  Frankly, whenever philosophers define animal consciousness, their definition requires the animal to have an advanced degree in philosophy to make the cut.  I’m joking — but only a little.

My first encounter with the formal theory of animal intelligence came after I unexpectedly came into possession of two guinea pigs.  When I read up on the animals, I was shocked to discover that experts agreed that a guinea pig could never learn to recognize its own name.  I was surprised because my pigs, apparently, did know their own names.  At least, when I said one of their names, that particular pig’s nose would immediately poke up into the air, and I would get a direct look.  The other pig — the one I hadn’t called by name — would go about its business without any response.

A few months later, at a social gathering, I had an opportunity to speak to a credentialed “expert” on the philosophical theories of animal intelligence. When I described my pigs’ behavior and their, apparent, ability to recognize their own names, my expert laughed, condescendingly, at my “understandable,” but “naïve,” assumptions.

He explained what was “really” happening.  Each pig had developed a sort of conditioned reflex specifically to the sound of its spoken name.  Based on repeated experiences, each animal came to associate a particular sound with certain events.  When I spoke a pig’s name, that animal had become conditioned to expect me to pick it up, pet it, feed it, remove it from its pen, etc.  Of course, if my tone was harsh, the animal had become conditioned to stop whatever it was doing and put its head down — out of sight.

I was confused by this explanation because, as far as I could tell, this expert had just described “name recognition,” human or animal, to a tee.  Sensing my confusion, my expert quickly disabused me of my false notion.  In order to understand one’s name, I was told, one had a to have the conceptual ability to understand, not only abstraction but, the process of abstracting.  In other words, the animal would have to understand that the sound of a particular word was an abstract formulation intended to represent the animal, itself, as it existed within, though distinct from, its environment.

He continued with his explanation for a while.  Then, excusing myself to get refreshments, I avoided him for the rest of the evening.

Inspired by this experience, I hope the reader will forgive me if I avoid any further philosophical discussion of animal intelligence, and take a more visceral approach to the question of what the birds might be thinking.

Let’s begin with the mirror test.  If you check out a pet shop, you’ll find that small mirrors are sold as amusement devices for caged birds.  I used to think that a mirror might fool a bird into thinking it had a companion.  This may work with some birds, but not with others.

What can a mirror tell us about self-awareness?  The test is surprisingly easy.  What would you do if you passed a mirror and saw a dark smudge on your face?  You’d wipe it off.  Well, researcher Gordon G. Gallup marked the skin, hair, or feathers of an animal with a mark that couldn’t be directly seen, at least, not without looking in a mirror.

Then, the animal is observed as it observes its own reflection in a mirror.  If the animal begins grooming behavior directed at the mark — tries to remove it — this means that the animal is aware of itself.  In other words, the animal knows it’s looking at itself in the mirror and recognizes the image as its own reflection, rather than, another animal.

Chimpanzees, orangutans, pygmy chimpanzees, and gorillas, dolphins, elephants and, among birds, magpies pass this test.  Magpies were chosen for study because researchers already suspected that these birds might be self-aware.  Their suspicions were based on the magpie’s lifestyle and apparent displays of empathetic behavior, which is thought to be a precursor to self-awareness.

The mirror test has come under criticism, not because it’s not rigorous enough, but because of its anthropocentric bias: over-emphasis on vision as a criterion for self-awareness.  So, if the mirror only tests animals with a sharp eye, what about animal speech.

Researchers have listened to the speech (and sounds) of young children and infants in their cribs hoping to learn their thoughts and levels of consciousness.  This method of study is being adapted for the study of animal speech.  Some researchers propose that by passively listening to an animal’s voluntary speech, it is possible to learn about its thoughts and determine whether the animal is conscious.  These studies have tended to focus on one species of bird, the loquacious Macaw.  However, I’ve heard no word on the progress made by those scientists attempting to learn the Macaw language.

Another proposed criterion of self- awareness is suffering.  However, there is no agreement on the answers to two basic questions.  What is suffering?  — and — Does suffering demonstrate consciousness?  Until researchers can agree on the answers, there’s no “yard stick” with which to measure results.

So, research based on “suffering” provides speculative conclusions.  Some scientists believe that even plants have consciousness.  One researcher draws the line between shrimp and oysters.  Apparently, shrimp know what’s going on, but oysters are permanently out of the consciousness loop. Another researcher has gone so far as to speak of “the inner life of cockroaches.”

Using suffering as a test for consciousness is a problem because suffering is easily confused with the more universal experience of pain, which can be experienced without self-awareness.

On the other hand, the over-estimation of animal self-awareness is, perhaps, a reaction against the “official truth” of the past.  Until recently, scientific opinion confirmed that all animals were biological robots thoughtlessly moving through their daily activities.

When we think of consciousness, let’s start with the “gold standard.”  We humans haven’t lost our place at the top.  The sheer extent of human consciousness is unparalleled in the rest of the animal kingdom.  Even if some animals are “more conscious” than we thought, none can hold a candle to human beings when it comes to consciousness.  So much so, that the degree of human self-awareness is one of the primary characteristics that differentiate our species from every other species on earth.

So, when looking for consciousness in animals, we would expect other anthropoids, chimps, orangutans, or gorillas, to be the likely candidates.  But, there are, also, several bird species registering at the high end on “the consciousness meter.”  And, the self-awareness of birds is as interesting as it is unexpected.  You’d have go back almost 300 million years to find a common ancestor of both mammals and birds.  And during the last 300 million years, mammals and birds have developed very different types of brains.

The mammalian neocortex was once thought to be the neurological structure that was absolutely necessary to consciousness.  However, birds don’t have a neocortex.  So, based on our current understanding of brain structure, birds shouldn’t be conscious at all.  However, our fine feathered friends go right on demonstrating high levels of consciousness.

Researcher Irene Pepperberg has worked with captive African Gray Parrots.  One of the birds, Alex, has scientifically demonstrated the ability to associate a few human words with meaning.  These birds have also demonstrated the ability to work intelligently with abstract concepts of shape, color, and number.

According to Pepperberg and others, African Gray Parrots compare favorably in the performance of cognitive tasks with dolphins, chimpanzees and, even, human toddlers.

Of course, those who spend a lot of time with animals, or even one animal, have known for centuries that animals possess a degree of conscious self-awareness.

In 2012, at the The Francis Crick Memorial Conference, in Cambridge England, a number of scientists presented evidence that lead to The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness confirming that “Humans are not the only conscious beings; other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too.”

Dr. Marc Bekoff commented on the Declaration in an article most appropriately titled, “Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings.  Didn’t we already know this?  Yes, we did.”  I particularly appreciated the article’s reemphasis of the obvious with the comment, “It’s difficult to believe that those who have shared their homes with companion animals didn’t already know this.”

I’ve heard it said that Sir Isaac Newton “discovered” gravity — complete with the story of an apple falling down out of a tree.  However, Newton didn’t discover gravity.  Everyone already knew that objects fall down and not up.  Rather, Newton discovered a reliable scientific description of the laws of gravity.

Just as everyone knew about gravity before Newton, so most of us knew animals were conscious long before the Cambridge Declaration.  However, the Declaration is a landmark moment.  It affirms that the weight of formal scientific evidence has established that certain animals are conscious.

To most of us, the discussion of animal consciousness, self-awareness, and intelligence is both interesting and entertaining.  But the Cambridge Declaration isn’t just a decorative bow on top of a package of research findings.  The Declaration has potential ethical implications regarding the treatment of animals.  Specifically, the use and treatment of animals in scientific experimentation and animal husbandry must, now, be reviewed and evaluated in light of the scientific determination that certain animals are conscious.

But, even with the results of all this research, it’s still difficult to know exactly what’s going on in an animal’s head.  Some animals take notice of their dead.  Giraffes and elephants, for example, have been observed lingering near the body of a “recently deceased close relative.”  This suggests that animals may have a mental concept of death.  They may mourn the passing of those “close to them.”  But the question remains: What do the birds think?  Do jays hold funerals for their dead?

 

 

Grossmann: Bees? Who Needs ‘Em? — The “Sichuan Sentence” & The Bee Apocalypse

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26 September 2013

In a time when worldwide bee populations are rapidly declining, the possibility of a world without bees looms large in the popular consciousness.  How could agriculture, on any modern scale, survive in a beeless world?  Often, China’s Sichuan Province is presented as an example — a miniature world without bees.

The popular story of the Sichuan Province isn’t really a story.  It’s a sentence.  In the Sichuan Province, all pollination is done by hand because all the bees there were killed by pesticides in the 1980’s.  Is this the story of tomorrow’s beeless world?  A world in which human beings assume the bees’ “chore” of pollinating crops?

The history and description of Sichuan, in a single sentence, is misleading.  I found another, different story when I searched for the answer to an obvious question: If the Sichuan Province lost all of its bees in the 1980’s, why haven’t more bees been reintroduced?  Why haven’t Sichuan beekeepers restocked hives and started over?  And I was only one of many who had asked this same question.

The surprising answer is that the Sichuan Province is beeless because the Sichuan farmers don’t want or need bees.  A close look at Sichuan presents a surprising picture — one that is nothing like that single sentence suggesting a bee apocalypse.

In the 1970’s, Sichuan produced most of the pears in China.  But the pear harvests were modest and kept the residents living just above the poverty level.  Then, in the mid 1980’s, two new varieties of pear trees were introduced to the province.  With cross-pollination among these different species, both the production of pears and the farmers’ income dramatically increased.

Then, in 1983, the Chinese government introduced yet another variety, Jinhuali Pears, which sold for an even higher price.  However, Jinhuali presented a special problem because these trees flowered at a different time than the province’s other varieties of pear trees.  Again, pear trees require interspecies cross-pollination.  In simple terms, the Jinhuali tree will only bear fruit if its blossoms are pollinated with pollen from the blossoms of a different species of pear tree.  The farmers couldn’t coordinate the appearance of Jinhuali blossoms with the blossoming any other variety of pear tree.  They tried everything — everything but pollinating the Jinhuali by hand.  Bingo!  That was an idea.

When the other pear trees blossomed, the Sichuan farmers gathered and preserved the needed pollen and, then, manually pollinated the late-blooming Jinhuali as soon as its blossoms appeared.  They used sticks with chicken feathers or cigarette filters on the ends.

Not only did manual pollination work, it produced better quality fruit and larger yields than ever before.  Near poverty gave way to prosperity and, then, even more prosperity as pear trees replaced almost every other crop grown in Sichuan.  And honeybees became increasingly unnecessary to the province’s agriculture.

Manual pollination became the rule because it kept pear production strong.  However, within a few years this prosperity was threatened when, for the first time, insects attacked the pear crop.  To Sichuan’s farmers, pears were prosperity.  The farmers spared no expense in buying and applying pesticide.  Sichuan’s pear trees received, and continue to receive, more pesticide more often, than the trees of any other pear orchard on earth.

The pears were saved from insect damage, but the pesticide produced severe collateral damage to the superfluous bee population.  Of course, beekeepers complained but, from an economic standpoint, their complaints fell on deaf ears.  Bees were not part of pear cultivation and production in Sichuan, and pear production was everything.

After losing about half the bee population to pesticides, the beekeepers took their hives and left.  At least to date, the beekeepers and their hives have never returned to Sichuan — the most bee-unfriendly province in the world.

So, the story of Sichuan is not the story of an ecological or environmental disaster.  If it is, the disaster was fully intended, planned, and executed with, from the farmers’ perspective, the coldest of blood.

In fact, the farmers of Sichuan pushed the honeybees aside and rigorously engaged in hand pollination years before the use of pesticides.  Sichuan is not the story of an unexpected chemical disaster, but an engineered preservation of a cash crop at the expense of the province’s bees.  The only financial disaster came to those who were making a substantial income from beekeeping.

However, there’s another question.  Why is the real story of Sichuan so seldom told?  Even after acquiring a fair knowledge of bees, I labored for more than a year under the mistaken impression that Sichuan’s farmers were living with an environmental curse left by an unexpected disaster.  I wasn’t alone.

I’ve read several articles with references to the Huaxia Bee Museum established in Central China’s Hubei Province to commemorate the lost honeybees of Sichuan.  However, these references were inaccurate.  The Huaxia Bee Museum is about China’s bees, but includes nothing related to Sichuan.  In less than a minute, I could draw up over 100 articles that erroneously state that Sichuan’s farmers are “forced” to pollinate pear trees by hand because “pesticides wiped out the bee population” of their province.  Of course, no “force” was ever involved.  Not only were the farmers well established as better pollinators than the bees they replaced, but the rejection of the honeybee in favor of manual pollination happened years before pesticides were introduced.

Sichuan aside, the current decline in bee populations is a real and urgent problem.  Today, the named cause of North American bee disappearances and die-off’s is CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder.  Similar disappearances and die-off’s have been documented repeatedly throughout the past two centuries.  And judging from the surviving records, periodic bee die-offs go back to the dawn of recorded civilization.  The modern “European” (and American) honeybee was imported from Turkey after the disappearance of its European predecessor.

However, it’s a mistake to treat CCD as if it were “business as usual.”  There is one aspect of the modern statistics that is as unexplainable as it is ominous.  Historic bee die-off’s were local events confined to certain regions or countries or climates.  Today, however, domesticated bee populations are dramatically declining worldwide.  Even by the most conservative estimates, both the rate and absolute numbers of the decline are alarming.  A large population of healthy bees is indispensable to agriculture on a modern scale, and no group of people with feathers on sticks could replace our bees.

Still, our fear is not a world without bees.  Bee species will always be with us.  Rather, our fear is a world with too few bees — or only bees of those species that are less than efficient pollinators.  If the current population trends continue, it is possible to envision a world in which only the smallest fraction of our current agricultural yields would, or could, continue to be produced.  With a decimated honeybee population, a good portion of the world would begin to starve — quickly.

However, having taken care not to underestimate the value of the honeybee, I return to the earlier question: Why is the real story of Sichuan, the beeless province, so seldom told?  Perhaps the question can’t be answered without answering another:  What is the significance of the current die-off, not in terms of agriculture, but in terms of public perception?  Do bees play some special role in the public imagination?

Many articles about declining bee populations have a theme and tone that reminds me of those old sci-fi movies from the 1950’s.  Somehow, human technological tampering with nature is punished in some awful (and bizarre) way.  You can almost read this theme between the lines of more than a few articles — an echoed suggestion that some technological tinkering has angered Mother Nature.  (Of course, today, she has a name, Gaea.)  And we are being punished by the disappearance of our bees.  Then, domino-like, all of modern civilization will fall to ruins.

Viewed in this context, the mystery of the “Sichuan sentence” becomes more than just a misunderstanding or even a mistake.  If it’s only an error, perhaps, it’s an error of convenience.  The inaccurate impression of the Sichuan Province as the scene of a bee extinction fits almost too neatly into an increasingly pervasive, though less than articulate, mythology — the mythology of the bee apocalypse.

But why worry?  Isn’t a myth — the myth of a world without bees — a useful cautionary tale?  Isn’t a fable, so interwoven with the dangers of modern technology, a good thing?

In a word, no.

Why? Because the mythology of our current bee die-off as divine retribution from God or Gaea, heaven or earth, conceals the actual problem by confusing it with our own most personal hopes and fears about both our technology and our future.  Our bees and our agriculture — our food supply — are in real danger.  This should drive us directly toward an understanding of the problem and, then, to a solution.  And, most certainly, that solution will be technological and require more technology.

Technology is not “the enemy” . . . nor is it necessarily “the friend.”  Like any other resource, it can work for good or evil depending on how it is used.  Like everyone, I wish that we could develop a technology that would police itself by stopping all future misuses of . . . itself.  But that’s not likely to happen.  The responsibility for regulating and directing the use of technology falls to us:  All of us — every one of us.  If we leave the job to someone else, some group of “experts,” we’ll get exactly what we deserve.

No one knows if the common North American honeybee will survive, in significant numbers, into the future.  It may have to be replaced with a less efficient bee or a less agreeable bee — like its Africanized cousin.

At this date, no one is sure what role pesticides or herbicides play in the current die-off, though there is no end of press releases announcing that the “cause” has been found.  However, our only real hope of saving the honeybee rests with the same technology that is, sometimes, implicitly condemned as “evil” and, often, ignored as the most probable solution.

If we are to save our bees, we need to forget the myths and fables and remember the technology.  Yes, in some way, almost every technological advance brings with it both a blessing and a curse.  So, even if our technology is, in some measure, responsible for the problem of declining honeybee populations, that same technology will most certainly be the source of the solution.

Shakespeare wrote, “Our faults . . . are not in our stars, but in ourselves.”  Similarly, the fault is not in our technology, but in its developers, users, and regulators.  Who are these developers, users, and regulars?  Ultimately, dear reader, they are us.

 

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