Thursday, March 19, 2009

Shedding light on the benefits of compact fluorescent bulbs

Shedding light on the benefits of compact fluorescent bulbs

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Compact florescent light bulbs have been such a darling in efforts to fight pollution and curb global warming that it hardly seems necessary to tout their benefits. They provide light just was well as the incandescent bulbs most of us grew up with, but they use only about one-fourth of the electricity.

Since lighting accounts for an average of 20 percent of domestic electricity use, replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents throughout your house can yield a 15 percent savings on your overall bill for electricity. Fifteen percent. On a bill you pay month after month, year after year. For a very modest one-time investment in new light bulbs, and with no further sacrifice in comfort or convenience.

The cumulative impact of many people switching to more energy efficient lighting is also impressive. According to the U.S. EPA, “If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars.”

Currently compact fluorescent bulbs are available for just about every home lighting application you can think of, and they don’t suffer from the slow start up or unpleasant colors that sometimes turned people off when they were first introduced.

The only real drawback to the current generation of compact fluorescents is that they contain mercury, which is an issue in two ways.

First, if a bulb breaks in your home you need to take special care as you clean up the pieces. Recently some folks who are bothered by the push for energy conservation as a response to climate change have seized on this as evidence that environmentalists care more about the welfare of the planet than the health of individuals. They point out that in the worst-case scenario, EPA recommends throwing away bedding or clothes if a broken bulb winds up on them.

That’s enough to give one pause. But context is important here. I’ll hazard that few people will ever actually have to throw away a shirt or a blanket because they have broken a light bulb on it. On the other hand, everyone benefits from the long-term reductions in pollution that come from conserving electricity with compact fluorescent bulbs. Those reductions include a significant net decrease in environmental mercury and the other pollutants associated with the generation of electricity, including greenhouse gases.

Because compact fluorescents contain a small amount of mercury, it is also best that they not wind up in landfills when they burn out. Some cities, including Urbana, offer programs for recycling them. But more importantly, retailers that sell lighting have begun to do their part, as well. In Champaign, Tepper Electric on South Neil Street now accepts compact fluorescents for recycling at no charge, and Home Depot does the same at its stores nationwide. Fortunately, with compact fluorescents there are fewer bulbs to dispose of, since they last about eight times as long as incandescents.

People who are informed about climate change and the varieties environmental degradation that go with most prevalent forms of generating electricity know that switching to compact fluorescent lights in our homes is not a panacea. It is, however, a painless step in the right direction.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

University of Illinois scientists study, promote awareness of bees

University of Illinois scientists study, promote awareness of bees

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Few of the environmental changes now taking place have the potential to affect human existence as much as the continuing apparent decline in insects that pollinate plants, a group that includes both wild bees and domesticated honey bees.

Scientists at the University of Illinois have been busy working to understand the extent and causes of declines in bee populations to provide a foundation for acting to reverse them.

The U of I lab headed by entomologist Sydney Cameron is cooperating with Dr. Leellen Solter of the Illinois Natural History Survey and a team from the USDA Bee Biology and Systematics Laboratory in Logan, Utah in an effort to understand the extent and causes of decline in several species of North American bumble bees. According to Cameron, the U.S. is just beginning to collect the quantitative data required to determine the extent and potential causes of population decline in some of its species.

Over the past year Cameron, Solter and the Western team have compiled specimen records of more than 50,000 bumble bees from natural history museums in the west and Midwest, and they are initiating a similar effort in eastern states. [Photo by J.B. Whitfield: UI professor of entomology Sydney Cameron collecting bumble bees at Bluff Spring Fen near Elgin IL last summer.] The historical records allow them to compare current bumble bee distributions, determined from their ongoing surveys, with historical distributions established from the museum records. This effort will generate robust measures of the status of targeted species and the degree to which they have or have not declined over the last half century.

Within the next year they expect to complete their surveys of species distributions, along with extensive work on genetic diversity and pathogen prevalence across the U.S. in an effort to find out why some of our native bumble bees appear to be disappearing.

May Berenbaum, head of the U of I Department of Entomology, has been among leaders of the international effort to understand Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. This malady, which was first recognized in Fall 2006, has caused large-scale losses of managed honey bees in Europe and North America. According to Berenbaum, although a definitive cause has not been pinpointed, investigators across the country have identified a wide range of stresses that may be contributing to losses, including extensive pesticide contamination of hives, pathogens new to the United States, and nutritional deficiencies associated with certain beekeeping practices.

Berenbaum adds that U of I investigators have recently identified a possible genetic marker for the condition, which may be a useful tool for beekeepers in reducing colony losses.

In addition to their scientific efforts, researchers at the U of I are also active in efforts to engage the public on the subject of bees and other pollinating insects.

Coming up on April 4th professor of entomology Gene Robinson and others will conduct a one-day course on bees and beekeeping. Participants in this course, whether they are beginners or advanced beekeepers, will learn about everything from bee biology to mite control, sting allergies, and queen rearing.

As spring progresses, the public will be invited to check out the newly established “Pollinatarium” on the U of I campus in Urbana, which is billed as “the first free-standing science center in the nation devoted to flowering plants and their pollinators.”

People are also invited to join the “Bee Spotter Network” a Web-based effort through which individuals are helping scientists establish baseline information about the numbers of bumble bees and wild honey bees in Illinois.

More information about all three of these efforts is available through the University of Illinois’ Department of Entomology Web site at

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Appreciating Illinois amphibians and habitats that support them

Appreciating Illinois amphibians and habitats that support them

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It may be too early in the year to contemplate April showers bringing May flowers. But in much of Illinois heavy rains in late February and early March trigger an astonishing and ancient natural phenomenon—the annual congregation of amphibians in the waters where they breed.

The participants in the initial phase of this aquatic love fest, which begins in water cold enough to stun people, include frogs that are known by their vocalizations—spring peepers, whose once-per-second ascending peeps [IDNR audio] can be heard day and night, and western chorus frogs, whose call is often compared to the sound produced by running a stick over the teeth of a comb [IDNR audio].

These vocal frogs are joined in the frigid water by other more secretive amphibians. To me, the most fascinating of these are the eight species of salamanders that are known collectively as mole salamanders.

In central Illinois the most common member of this family is the six-inch-long smallmouth salamander [pictured], a blackish creature with blue and grey markings that give it a marbled appearance. The eastern tiger salamander can be found here, too, although I have to admit I’ve never seen one. A tiger salamander may grow to more that a foot in length, and it is marked by yellow spots that cover more and more of its body as it ages. You may or may not remember it, but the tiger salamander was elected the official state amphibian of Illinois in a 2004 contest sponsored by then Lieutenant Governor, Pat Quinn.

As their group name suggests, mole salamanders spend most of the year underground. There they move about in natural gaps, and the tunnels and burrows created by small mammals. They feed on a variety of invertebrates, including earthworms, slugs, and insects.

In the spring, though, as the earth thaws and the ice recedes, rainy nights bring mole salamanders above ground, and they trundle overland seeking the ephemeral pools where they were born. Ephemeral pools are wetlands that hold water far enough into the summer for amphibian larvae to mature, but which dry up at some point in most years. This characteristic prevents fish from becoming established there, and that’s important because fish eat amphibian eggs and young. [Pictured is an ephemeral pool at the Urbana Park District's Busey Woods.]

If you were to shine a light into such a pool on a spring night you would be amazed at how many salamanders you can see, and surprised at how gracefully they swim. You might also be interested to see how many other forms of life are active in such cold water—delicate, inch-long fairy shrimp, ferocious diving beetles, and more.

Looking into an ephemeral pool during the day you might see amphibian eggs, held together in a mass with a jelly-like substance, and attached to twigs or other underwater structure.

While it is still possible to find ephemeral pools where you can witness the springtime congregation of amphibians in Illinois, it’s not easy. More than 90 percent of the wetland acres that once existed in the state have been lost to agriculture and urbanization, and only a tiny fraction (0.05%) of the state’s historic wetlands persist in relatively undisturbed condition.

Whether future generations have the opportunity to experience the springtime awakening of life in ephemeral pools depends on whether our generation acts to preserve and restore them.