Thursday, August 26, 2010

Campus Bike Project promotes sustainable transportation

Campus Bike Project promotes sustainable transportation

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As he drove home from the grocery last weekend, Don Keefer of Urbana noticed a bike near the street, set out by a neighbor hoping someone would take it away. Keefer obliged. He saw in that red ten-speed an economical replacement for the bike his 11-year-old daughter had outgrown. But he also saw that it needed work—a new back tire, at least—and he was told by the former owner there was some problem with the pedals.

Keefer realized that he probably didn’t have all of the knowledge or tools needed to make the bike roadworthy. But he had seen a little place near his office on the U of I campus where he thought he might find those things.

The Campus Bike Project, which opened this past spring, occupies garage space off of Pennsylvania Avenue that was donated by the Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability and converted with a grant from UI student sustainability funds. It’s a collaboration between the University and the Urbana Bike Project, which operates as a non-profit membership-based bicycle repair shop.

So, before going in to work on Monday morning, Keefer wheeled into the Campus Bike Project with his find and bought a family membership. That gave him instant access to lots of cool stuff, including specialized bicycle repair tools, collections of free spare parts, and space and a bike stand to work at. Beyond that, membership gave him access to expertise, in the person of Carl Stewart, the Campus Bike Project manager.

Over the next few hours, Stewart provided Keefer with advice and an occasional extra hand as he installed new tires, replaced crank bearings, and adjusted the brakes and derailleurs on his daughter’s new bike. Most of these operations were new to him, and the process took longer than expected (a partial day’s leave, it turned out), but in the end the red bike was fully restored. [Photo: Keefer at work (right) with Stewart lending a hand.]

I was visiting at the shop while Keefer was working, and during that time other people dropped by with various projects of their own. Among them were two sisters from the Chicago suburbs. The older one, a U of I Junior, needed to replace a leaking inner tube, which she did herself with a little coaching. The younger, a freshman, needed to buy a bike to get around campus, and she picked up a hybrid that had been refurbished by Bike Project staff for only $75. A worker with campus building services, who bikes recreationally, came in for advice on how to switch cleats from an old pair of cycling shoes to a new pair, and a student who was riding by on her way to class took time to put air in her tires and align her front wheel.

It should be understood that the Campus Bike Project is not intended to compete with full service bicycle stores, such as Durst and Champaign Cycle, which play such an important role in our community. It is, rather, to facilitate the reuse of bikes and bike parts, and to provide tools, guidance, and a convenient space and for people who wish to do some maintenance and repairs on their own.

You can learn more about the Campus Bike Project on the Web at

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Annual cicadas enliven dog days with love song

Annual cicadas enliven dog days with love song

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Even if the heat and humidity of recent weeks have limited your time outdoors, I bet you’ve been hearing a familiar insect song. It’s the mating call of dog day cicadas, loud enough to rise above the drone of air conditioners and so persistent and widespread that people who hear can hardly miss it.

I say, “dog day cicada” I mean the insect (pictured right) that goes by the two-part scientific name, “Tibicen canicularis,” which is the most common species of forest dwelling cicada that occurs in the eastern U.S. and Canada, one that has also adapted well to life in urban and suburban settings where enough trees grow to support it. These cicadas have bulky, bodies about an inch and a half long that are dark on top with green and white markings, and entirely white below. At rest their clear, heavily veined wings close over the back like a pitched roof and add another half inch to their length.

Some people call these and other cicadas locusts, a name that was first applied to them by settlers of European extraction for whom the emergence of large broods called to mind the plagues of the Bible. But the name locust is more properly applied to certain grasshoppers. Other people know cicadas by the name “harvestfly,” which derives from the fact that they emerge as adults at the same time crops are maturing.

The singing of dog day cicadas is one of the loudest insect noises on earth, sometimes exceeding 110 decibels up close. This means the song of a cicada perched your shoulder would be plenty loud to damage your hearing. The song is often compared to the whirring of a circular saw, although I think that comparison ought to be reversed, since cicadas have been around far longer than power tools. The earliest fossil record of a cicada dates back 65 million years.

The fact that dog day cicadas are also called annual cicadas sometimes generates confusion about their life cycle, but do they live for more than a year. They start out as tiny nymphs, which hatch from eggs laid in tree branches. These nymphs drop to the ground and burrow down to find a root they can latch onto for nourishment, and there they remain, probably for something like two to five years. (Scientists aren’t sure exactly how long, and the span probably varies according to conditions affecting the cicada’s development.) Some annual cicadas emerge as adults each year because their generations are staggered, which sets them apart from periodical cicadas, generations of which mature in synch, on 13- and 17-year cycles.

It is a common misperception that adult cicadas do not feed, but the fact is they have all the mouthparts needed to extract liquid from plants, and they’re not afraid to use them. Dog day cicadas do no damage to trees as they feed, and no measures to control them are warranted.

The only warm-blooded predators that pose a significant threat to cicadas are birds, but there’s another insect that specializes in them, the cicada killer wasp. A female cicada killer stings a cicada to paralyze it, then carries it back to her burrow still alive. There she seals the unlucky creature in a chamber with one of her eggs, to become nourishment for the grub that hatches.

But that’s not where I want to leave you. Let’s get back to cicadas singing their love song in trees, and appreciate how that enriches our summer.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant promotes proper disposal of unwanted medicine to benefit wildlife, people

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant promotes proper disposal of unwanted medicine to benefit wildlife, people

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In a recent column I noted that for all the good they do, sewage treatment facilities are not designed to remove human medications from wastewater, but that the presence of medications in lakes and streams is a growing cause for concern.

To follow up on that, I checked in recently with Susan Boehme, a scientist who has been working on this issue in cooperation with many colleagues at the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Program, which is headquartered on the U of I campus in Urbana.

Boehme pointed out that the use of pharmaceuticals has grown remarkably in recent years. In 2009, for example, Americans spent more than $300 billion on prescriptions, which represents a 5.1 percent increase from the year before. Boehme also cited a United Nations study that projects a 3-fold increase in prescription use worldwide over the next 25 years.

As many people are already aware, pharmaceuticals are now found regularly in waterways. A widely-cited 2002 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found 95 different pharmaceutical chemicals in streams that were tested, and 80 percent of those streams contained one-third or more of the chemicals in question. Further studies have begun to show the impacts of those chemicals on aquatic creatures, including such disturbing things as the widespread development of female sex characteristics in male fish.

It’s not just wildlife that’s exposed to medications in streams and lakes, either. Studies commissioned by the Associated Press in 2008 found a variety of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, mood stabilizers, and hormones in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.

Pharmaceuticals enter the environment by a variety of paths. Some chemicals are released at the plants where drugs are manufactured, and others through the waste we excrete after taking them. Still more are released into the environment when people dispose of unwanted medications improperly, especially by flushing them down the toilet. (I know, I know that really was what you were supposed to do, but it’s not anymore.)

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant educators have been working around the state to promote the proper disposal of medications by informing people about this problem and giving them the tools to address it. They have done so by providing high school teachers, 4-H leaders and others, with a compilation of multidisciplinary, standards-based classroom lessons, sample stewardship activities, and background information. Young people who have taken to heart the message of these lessons have been instrumental in establishing programs that allow individuals to dispose of unwanted medications properly—everything form one-day collection events to permanent collection sites at pharmacies and police stations.

The most important thing people can do individually to help reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals in the environment is to dispose of unwanted medications properly. This means not flushing them down the toilet, and not putting them into the trash, but instead getting them to a designated collection center. In east central Illinois Carle Rx Express currently provides drop boxes for this purpose at locations in Champaign, Urbana and Danville (information at

Individuals and communities not served by these locations might be interested in a toolkit developed by Sea Grant that provides guidance for establishing unwanted medicine collection programs at