Friday, February 16, 2018

Book Review: Never Out of Season

Rob Dunn grabs your attention right out of the gate in his book Never Out of Season (Little, Brown and Company, 2017, 323 pp). Our monotonous diet, and utter lack of crop diversity is not just stunning, it is frightening. The book's subtitle, How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future, is a bit misleading. First, that applies mostly to Western cultures which are affluent enough to import fruits and vegetables from other parts of the world, continually. To his credit, Dunn addresses global agriculture and food security, going out of his way not to ignore Third World nations, poverty, war, and other factors that influence the ability of countries to feed themselves, let alone the rest of the world.

Indeed, Dunn's historical accounts demonstrate how time and time again human populations has been on the brink of starvation, yet are bailed out by individuals and organizations on the far side of the globe. It has been Russians and others who have had the foresight to save seeds in banks and vaults, preserving crop diversity even at their own personal peril. Meanwhile, governments and industries have blissfully ignored the lessons furnished by famines and crop failures.

Never Out of Season is in many ways a real-life thriller, but the reader is largely left to draw their own conclusions as to who the villains are. There are plenty of victims and heroes, but aside from a small group of henchmen who sabotaged a cocoa tree plantation by deliberately infecting trees with a fungal disease known as witches'- broom, few criminals. At least, they do not have overtly hostile intentions. The problem is, overwhelmingly, neglect, plus failure to learn from history and failure to properly invest in efforts necessary to avert future calamities.

The progress of the Green Revolution creates the narrative arc, from its beginnings around World War II through present day. Humanity quickly became dependent on pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals to increase crop yields and exploit marginal soils. From there, agriculture scaled up, and today it is largely the province of multinational corporations with a primary agenda of profit and patent protection over feeding people. Consumers are left with increasingly processed foods in the supermarket, the illusion of choice, poorer nutrition, and a widening disconnect with farmers. Dunn is less simple and direct in his presentation of the state of agriculture, and how we got here, but is captivating, entertaining, and educational in his language. His research is exhaustive and beyond reproach. The end notes take up forty-six (46) pages.

Readers looking for an unequivocal indictment of industrialized agriculture will have to search elsewhere. Never Out of Season presents a series of cautionary tales that inform, enlighten, and serve as examples of the kinds of catastrophes we are in for if we continue to devalue genetic diversity in our food crops. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are not painted as evil here, but powerful tools that can help advance agriculture provided we do not become as addicted to them as we did to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and phosphate fertilizers.

Dunn also offers hope at the end of the book, successfully energizing and empowering the reader to plant their own yards with vegetables and fruit trees, join in citizen science projects to enhance our collective understanding of agricultural ecology, and to purchase from local farmers those foods they cannot grow. The variety of approaches to agriculture is beginning to diversify, which is a positive trend, but it remains to be seen whether agri-business will respond favorably, or seek to bury smaller entities under patent-infringement lawsuits and other legal strategies.

Paul Ehrlich, in his own endorsement, states that "Everyone who eats should read Never Out of Season. This reviewer could not agree more. Even fans of fiction would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling page-turner replete with colorful and heroic characters, and an ending that only we, the reader, can finish by holding our leaders accountable for funding priorities, environmental regulation, making conservation of heritage seeds an overriding concern, and bolstering consumer protections. We can also shop smarter and grow our own.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Beehives and Detergent Pods

What do the vandalism of beehives and eating laundry detergent pods have in common, besides being dangerous to the perpetrator? They both have gotten undo attention thanks to traditional and social media. Destructive and dangerous behaviors like these tend to make the news precisely because they are unique. The problem is that they become more commonplace the more they are publicized.

Honey bee hives

I was under the impression that beehive vandalism is running rampant lately when in fact there have been only two (2) reported crimes, one in Sioux City, Iowa and the other in Prunedale, California. The number of individual honey bees killed is staggering, no question, but so far these appear to be isolated episodes. That is what the media will do. It will inflate or undermine the reality of what is going on. I wonder now exactly how many teenagers have been eating those laundry detergent pods. Maybe that has been overstated, too.

One other danger of social media and standard media hype is that it can add fuel to the fire. What was a single display of stupidity or vandalism can then result in copycat behavior by others, escalating the damage. I posited the question of what is behind the beehive vandalism to an entomology group on Facebook. One of the prevailing theories was that the Prunedale massacre could easily have been a copycat crime due to the widespread publicity of the Sioux City news story. Insurance fraud was mentioned as a potential motive, along with competing beekeeping businesses, but we may never know. While at least one video out there claims that beekeeping practices are "cruel" and honey bees are basically slaves to humans now, I doubt People for the Ethical Treatment of animals (PETA) or any other animal rights group would harm the bees themselves.

Another interesting point brought up by the entomology group was that we seldom hear about crime in rural areas, which makes a story like the destruction of the beehives all the more attractive to the media. Social media makes almost all geographical locations accessible to traditional channels of news and information, so the two tend to feed each other. Rural crimes, I am told, can be a matter of disgruntled neighbors, vindictive ex-spouses, bored teenagers, or any number of other stimuli.

While I by no means condone beehive vandalism, I lament that the media fails consistently in giving the entire story of apiculture. Honey bees are not native to the New World (North, Central, and South America), but have been introduced here. In the U.S., the first colonies of honey bees were brought by settlers to Jamestown in 1622. They needed the bees to pollinate the crops they imported, not knowing whether native North American bees could, or would, do the job. Furthermore, beeswax was an essential product back then. Honey was perhaps the least of it.

Since then, apiculture has become an industry, one that markets itself vigorously and creatively. It has become a giant enterprise because agriculture has scaled to the point where there is no other way to effect pollination. Indigenous plants and landscapes have been marginalized at best, removing native bees from the picture. The scale of agribusiness is what has taken us to the point where, and I exaggerate to make a point, one non-native species is all that stands between us and starvation.

That was my thought when I learned of the attacks on the hives. Should someone or some organization want to crash a lot of crops, decimating honey bees would be a good start. Fortunately, even with a great deal of ambition and manpower, that scenario is next to impossible to achieve.

More of these for NATIVE bees!

So, a twelve- and thirteen-year old have been arrested in connection with the destroyed hives in Sioux City. Besides fines, a criminal record, and potential incarceration, I wonder if they might be sentenced to community service in....apiculture. Indeed, maybe those kids we label as idiots for ingesting laundry detergent pods could start a youth beekeeping trend instead. Better yet, get them to work making "bee condos" for native, solitary bees that can be hung up around community gardens and local, small-scale farms. Get that activity on Youtube channels. Time for constructive, not destructive, initiatives my young friends.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Mate Guarding and Oviposition in the White-spotted Sawyer, Monochamus scutellatus (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae)

Please do not let the title of this post intimidate you. This would be a typical title for a paper in a scientific journal, but I promise to keep the language understandable, lively, and captivating. I also hope that you will be more likely to visit scholarly publications to learn more about the insect or arachnid subjects that interest you.

An impressive male M. scutellatus

I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a small sawmill in Black Forest, northeast of Colorado Springs, in June of 2016. The property owners, perhaps begrudgingly, gave me permission to look for insects in the stacks of Ponderosa Pine logs there, and it proved to be a "Beetle Bonanza." I visited on several occasions and found scores of jewel beetles (Buprestidae), longhorned beetle (Cerambycidae), checkered beetles (Cleridae), and a few bark beetles (Curculionidae: Scolytinae).

Among the more abundant species among the logs was the White-spotted Sawyer, Monochamus scutellatus. These are fairly large insects, 15-27 millimeters in body length, and members of the longhorned woodborer beetle family. The long "horns" refer to the antennae of these beetles. Males have antennae that may be twice the length of their bodies or even longer. The front pair of legs is also longer than in the females, and the front tarsi ("feet") are expanded to better grip the female during mating.

Male guarding a female

What I observed in one pair of sawyers prompted me to read about the mating behavior of the species, if only to confirm my hypothesis that the male guards the female he has mated with to prevent rival males from usurping his genetic investment in her offspring. It turns out there is even more to the story than I imagined, and I hope to observe those other behaviors at some point, too.

White-spotted Sawyers breed in dead, dying, injured, fire-scorched, or recently-felled pines, true firs, and Douglas fir, and spruce. Such resources are rather scarce in a forested landscape, so it pays males to stake them out with the understanding that eventually females will visit in order to lay their eggs (oviposit). Surprisingly, the males emit a pheromone that draws additional males to an oviposition site. The airborne chemical cue is called an "aggregation pheromone." Despite their size and ungainly antennae and legs, sawyers are accomplished fliers and easily make their way to the source of the pheromone.

Jaws of female Whitespotted Sawyer

Once there, the largest males with the longest antennae may square off in one-on-one duels for possession of the oviposition resource, which is the area of the tree trunk with greatest circumference. They lash at each other with their oversized antennae, and may grapple by locking their jaws and biting. Smaller males generally back off, giving way to larger rivals based on antenna-length alone. The dominant male mates with incoming females that may then disperse to lay their eggs. This is not what I observed, but the reference I am reading goes on to describe what I did record.

Mating, while female chews oviposition hole

I witnessed copulation between a male and female M. scutellatus, during which time the female was "multi-tasking," chewing a small cavity in the bark. At the conclusion of mating, the female turned around to deposit at least one egg in that cavity while the male continued to grasp her in a loose but protective embrace. She then turned again and appeared to resume chewing the bark cavity, but perhaps she was grinding sawdust to cover her egg.

Female ovipositing while male guards her

Fret not about the smaller male beetles, they may achieve mating success by protecting a less optimal tree bole; and they may profit from the expensive production of aggregation pheromone by other males. Smaller males are usually more agile and vigorous than their larger conspecifics.

The entire life cycle of the White-spotted Sawyer takes from one to two years as the larva that hatches from the egg bores first under the bark, then tunnels deep into the wood, sometimes reaching the heartwood. It eventually pupates in a cell near the surface, metamorphosing from a larva into an adult beetle. Once it leaves the pupa, it remains in the pupal cavity while its new exoskeleton hardens. It then chews its way to freedom, a journey that is clearly audible to the human ear.

Female resumes gnawing, covering her egg?

It is important to note that this species, like the overwhelming majority of other longhorned beetles, is not a forest pest. Yes, it can negatively impact logs in situations like the sawmill, before they are cut, but they do not kill living trees outright like the invasive Asian Longhorned Beetle, Anoplophora glabripennis. Sawyers are an important and charismatic part of the invertebrate fauna in coniferous forests across Canada and the northern U.S., and major mountain ranges farther south.

Sources: Coin, Patrick. 2004. "Species Monochamus scutellatus, Whitespotted Sawyer,"
Furniss, R.L. and V.M. Carolin. 1977. Western Forest Insects. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication No. 1339. 654 pp.
Wang, Qiao (editor). 2017. Cerambycidae of the World: Biology and Pest Management. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press. 628 pp.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Insects in the News

One of my unfortunate duties as a blogger of truth and science, here and at Sense of Misplaced, is that I must occasionally dispense bad news. There are plenty of awful stories these days, but bear with me and I'll conclude with something uplifting.

The insect story getting the most press right now, by far, is the "Insect Armageddon" opinion piece in the New York Times, and the follow-up article about the German citizen scientists who made the observations. It appears that there has been a precipitous decline in insect abundance in many parts of Europe, up to 75% over the last twenty-five years. Should the numbers hold up to repetition, this is indeed alarming, if not catastrophic. Insects are the foundation of all major biological processes. You can do the math, use your imagination, and draw the obvious conclusions.

There are plenty of places to point blame for the demise of insect populations, and wildlife declines in general, but accusations and rhetoric are not likely to reverse the course of events. We have to act personally, and locally, to go about changing things for the positive. That means resisting the urge to grab the over-the-counter insecticides, planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers in our urban and suburban landscapes, growing our own vegetables without using chemical treatments, putting up "bee condos" for solitary bees....There is no end to what we can do, and it does make a difference. You are setting an example, for one thing.

jAmerican Burying Beetle, ©

Meanwhile, our very own government agencies are against us here in the U.S. Make no mistake about it, the current edition of the federal administration is out to ruin public lands in many ways. I already wrote about U.S. Fish & Wildlife granting permission for the construction of a strip mall known as "Coral Reef Commons" on globally endangered pine rockland habitat near Miami, Florida. The President's directive to shrink Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is further proof of the overriding policy to open public lands to private interests, namely those in the natural resource extraction industries.

It is also quite probable that a lawsuit filed by The Independent Petroleum Association of America, American Stewards of Liberty, and Osage Producers Association will result in the de-listing of the endangered American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus. This is in spite of the fact that there is grave concern as to whether the species is truly "recovered." It is found only in a handful of isolated locations whereas its historical range was over most of the eastern U.S. It also remains largely a mystery as to why it disappeared in the first place. Until a better understanding is reached, any action toward removing the species from the endangered list is premature at best, and irresponsible at the least. God forbid any creature, Native American population, or other sacred entity stand in the way of short-term profits for greedy corporations.

Oh, well, two can play the lawsuit game, and recently the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas filed suit against the federal government to block construction of the border wall, which would cut right through that private preserve. Take that! I have visited this area and can attest to the rich diversity of all organisms there, thanks to the caretakers who are so devoted to it. Many, if not most, United States records for mostly Mexican butterfly species are recorded from the National Butterfly Center. It is on every naturalist's bucket list of places to visit. A wall cannot be erected there, or through the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge....

Bee-mimicking clearwing moth, Heterosphecia tawonoides, © Marta Skowron Volponi

Ok, I promised some good news, and here it is. It was recently revealed that a spectacular species of clearwing moth was rediscovered after a gap of 130 years in the scientific record. Known previously from only a single specimen housed in a museum in Vienna, Austria, Heterosphecia tawonoides was observed in the Taman Nagara rainforest of Malaysia. It just goes to show how little we know about a planet we are hell bent on destroying in the name of "progress."

Resolve for the new year to get involved, get outdoors, document, record, and report what you find. You never know where your personal discoveries will lead; or whether you are the only thing standing between a lone population of some creature and its potential extirpation. I'm facing that right now myself, but more on that later.