Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bee Spotter Network and National Pollinator Week focus attention on conserving insects we can’t live without

Bee Spotter Network and National Pollinator Week focus attention on conserving insects we can’t live without

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You may already know that times have been tough for honeybees in the U.S. since the 1980s. That’s when a parasitic mite that devastates honeybee colonies was accidentally introduced here. You may also know that this past year has marked a dramatic turn for the worse, with the onslaught of a phenomenon that has been labeled “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or CCD. CCD has led to steep losses of managed bees in more than 20 states. So far, about 1/4 of all beekeepers in the U.S. have been affected, and, on average, affected operations have lost a staggering 45 percent of their bees.

On top of this, wild pollinators, such as bumblebees, also seem to be in decline. A 2006 report issued by the National Academy of Sciences emphasized that researchers don’t even have enough information about populations of wild pollinators to track whether or how steeply their numbers are dropping.

In combination, the decline of wild pollinators and losses of managed honeybees constitute a potential nightmare, since ecosystems and human food production depend so heavily on bees for pollination.

Scientists are working busily to identify the cause or causes of CCD. But ordinary people can help conserve bees, too. At the very least, we can promote the well being of pollinators in our own back yards by limiting our use of pesticides and favoring native plants in our landscaping.

People who would like to play a more active role can lend a hand to scientists by joining the Bee Spotter Network recently established at the University of Illinois. Bee Spotter is a web-based project designed to engage citizens in the scientific effort to establish baseline information about the numbers of bumblebees and wild honeybees that are out there.

What does it take to be a bee spotter? You don’t need a degree in entomology. To be a spotter, you need only the capacity to photograph bees with a digital camera and upload your pictures to the Bee Spotter website. You need not be able to identify every bee yourself, although the Bee Spotter project provides some excellent tools for making identifications. Most bee spotters simply photograph bees when and where they see them, although the project also includes an option for setting up regular monitoring of a specific place, too.

A workshop on how to participate in Bee Spotter will be offered on next Wednesday evening, June 25th, at the Urbana Free Library. Participants will learn how to navigate the Bee Spotter website and get hands-on training in bumblebee identification.

The Bee Spotter workshop is one of many activities connected to the observance of National Pollinator Week in Champaign-Urbana, which will kick off with an opening ceremony at the University of Illinois Plant Biology Conservatory on Sunday, June 22nd, from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. That ceremony will feature a pollinator art exhibit, tours of the conservatory, and information about local pollinator conservation efforts, as well as a welcoming talk by May Berenbaum, head of the U of I Department of Entomology and brilliant, articulate, entertaining advocate for appreciation of insects.

For further details about National Pollinator Week and the Bee Spotter project, follow the links from the UI Department of Entomology website at

Thursday, June 12, 2008

How life copes with floods in streams and floodplains

How life copes with floods in streams and floodplains

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This spring’s heavy rains in the Midwest have resulted in all manner of difficulties for people, from the tragedy of lost lives to the pain and hardship of flooded homes and farm fields. This is where humans need to come together and help one another out.

The other forms of life that inhabit streams and stream corridors are also coping with the high waters, some more easily than others.

At the bottom of freshwater streams, unusually strong flows may deposit large amounts of sediment on top of mussels, which live hunkered down in sand and gravel. Mussels cannot survive if they stay buried completely, so they must make their way up to the new surface of the streambed in order to survive. Where the streambed is scoured away in flooding, some light-shelled mussel species may be swept up in the current, and then left high and dry when floodwaters recede. After the Mississippi River flood of 1993, scientists from the Illinois Natural History Survey found stranded mussels at densities of up to 1 per meter in farm fields more than a mile from the river. Individual mussels stranded on dry land can’t survive, but the problem of stranding doesn’t seem to have a long-term impact on the overall health of mussel populations

Creatures that live on and near the streambed--including crayfish, insect larvae, and other invertebrates--need access to stable refuges in order to ride out flood pulses. Such refuges may include rocks or logs that remain in place, as well as undercut banks and other streambed irregularities that create pockets of reduced current.

Farther up in the water column, fish use their mobility to cope with rising waters, and they even benefit from floods in some circumstances. Fish may ride out a short-term flood by seeking pockets of water that are protected from strong currents, or moving up into smaller tributary streams. In more extensive, long term floods fish take advantage of the opportunity to move out into areas that are not normally submerged. Slow moving water on a floodplain quickly becomes rich in microscopic life, which attracts minnows and other small fish. And where small fish go, the larger fish that feed on them follow. The rich soup of flood waters also offers a variety of seeds from trees and other plants, as well as drowned insects, and more. If water persists in the floodplain long enough, some fish will even take advantage of the opportunity to spawn there.

The trees common to floodplains are also adapted to occasional high water in fascinating ways. Willows, for example, are extremely flexible, so that they bend in strong currents rather than breaking. A willow that’s bent over far enough to be buried with sediment can even send up branches that then emerge from the ground like new trees. So when you see a straight line of little willows on a gravel bar, you may actually be looking at shoots coming up from the trunk of a tree laid down by a flood.

While flooding in the Midwest was once an entirely natural occurrence, it isn’t anymore. Our streams now rise higher and faster than they used to because we are so good at moving rainwater off of the land quickly, with drainage for agriculture and paving and building in cities and suburbs. The real challenge to us now is developing landscapes that will once again hold some water back.

Friday, June 06, 2008

A Field Trip to Turkey Run State Park in Indiana

A Field Trip to Turkey Run State Park in Indiana

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When chaperones are needed for field trips to natural areas, my children’s teachers know they can count on me. I’m motivated to help out, of course. But really, most days there is nothing I would rather be doing than walking in the woods, and being out with enthusiastic young people makes the experience all that much more enjoyable.

So last week I went along with my daughter and her classmates at Campus Middle School for Girls on a trip to Turkey Run State Park in west-central Indiana.

One of the foremost attractions at Turkey Run is Sugar Creek, and when our path approached it the students made a bee line for the water’s edge. On the day we were there the stream was low and crystal clear, perfect for investigating a gravel bar and the nearby shallows. We found rocks with a variety of plant fossils in them, as well as mussel shells, and even one live mussel. To their credit, when someone caught a toad the girls jostled with each other for a chance to hold it rather than shrieking or running away.

Turkey Run is distinguished from other natural areas in the region by its deep, sandstone canyons, which were carved by torrents of meltwater from retreating glaciers during the last ice-age. As you wind your way along a small stream there with rock walls towering above you it can be difficult to believe you’re still in the Midwest. Lush ferns dot the canyon floor, and carpets of moss cling to the damp cliff surfaces. Even as summer begins to heat up, cool breezes slip down the canyon walls to make hiking more comfortable.

Some of the trails at Turkey Run include ladders and wooden staircases for getting down to the canyon floor and back up. As you climb, it’s easy to appreciate the immensity of the trees surrounding you. Some parts of the forest at Turkey Run have never been logged, and others haven’t been disturbed for a century or more. Many of the giants there--tulip trees, American beeches, and various oaks--reach heights of more than a hundred feet.

You’d like to think a forest that has survived the past two hundred years in the Midwest has outlived the greatest threats it will ever face. But that’s not necessarily so.

The emerald ash borer, a recent arrival to the North America from Asia, has the potential to wipe out ash trees here altogether. At state parks in Indiana and throughout the Midwest, natural resource managers are doing everything they can to persuade people not to transport firewood from one place to another, since that is how the emerald ash borer spreads fastest.

But wait. This is a story about a field trip to Turkey Run State Park, not a lecture on invasive species. By the time our group made it back to the picnic area for lunch, the students were happy just to enjoy some time on the lawn.

Meanwhile the teachers and other parents who had come along were interested to see the red-headed woodpeckers that were feeding nearby. I think. Or maybe they were just too tired to get away from the dad who had brought his binoculars.