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U.S. beekeepers saw unusually high summertime colony losses in 2019



June 22 (UPI) — Beekeepers in the United States lost 43.9 percent of honey bee colonies between April 2019 and April 2020, but surprisingly, a majority of the losses were recorded during summer months.

Every April, researchers with the Bee Informed Partnership distribute flyers to beekeepers across the United States. Participants are asked to provide information about the colonies they managed over the past 12 months.

The results of the latest survey were released online Monday, showing summer was much worse than winter last year.

“They give us the number of colonies they managed at different times, the number of splits they made or new colonies they bought, or sold, etc., and from all that information, we calculate the ‘turnover rate,'” Nathalie Steinhauer, BIP’s science coordinator, told UPI in an email.

Researchers expect to see fluctuations in the turnover rate from year to year, usually with particularly bad years followed by less dramatic losses, and vice versa. But typically, winters are worse than summers — especially for small-scale beekeepers.

According to the latest results, losses over this past winter were down 15.5 percentage points from the winter before.

“We recorded high losses in the summer of 2019 on the other hand,” said Steinhauer, who is also a post-doctoral researcher in the entomology department at the University of Maryland. “And when we dig deeper into beekeeper categories, we realized it was mostly large sale migratory beekeepers that seemed to suffer the most that summer.”

The Bee Informed Partnership’s survey results don’t offer a colony-by-colony autopsy report, but the questionnaires distributed to beekeepers do inquire about the suspected cause of colony losses.

“We ask beekeepers their opinion as to what caused their colonies to be lost, but it is rather subjective, and mostly indicative of what the beekeepers perceive are the high risks factors,” Steinhauer said.

While understanding how beekeepers perceive risk can be useful, Steinhauer said there’s plenty of research highlighting the biggest threats to honey bee colony health.

The biggest threats to bee colony health include: parasites, particularly the Varroa mite; a variety of viral, bacterial and fungal pathogens; pesticides; and poor nutrition. All of these threats can be exacerbated by weather patterns and poor management practices, experts say.

According to Steinhauer, weather anomalies best explain the unexpected results from the latest survey.

“We have heard anecdotally from various sources that spring 2019 was particularly late and wet, slowing a lot of the development of colonies and queen rearing early in the year, which meant colonies did not grow as strongly as you would have wanted,” she said.

Despite alarmist stories about bee losses, honey bees aren’t on the verge of extinction. Bee keepers are usually able to replenish their colony stocks via hive splitting and other management techniques to replace annual colony losses. Still, there is plenty of evidence that both wild and managed bees are facing a litany of environmental threats.

“Some level of colony turnover is normal, but the question is how much is normal and how much is too much,” Steinhauer said.

The Bee Informed Partnership was largely started to help answer that question, but Steinhauer suggests there’s still not yet enough data to say for sure.

“We know from beekeepers that they think the current levels are really high,” she said. “Also, a lot of beekeepers tell us that they’ve managed to keep the colony numbers high, but they notice the colonies are not as ‘plump’ as they used to be. It’s hard because again, we don’t have historical data on those aspects either. So, generally, we say our goal is to improve honey bee health.”

In addition to continuing to collect data on colony losses, Steinhauer and other honey bee researchers are working on ways to combat the honey bee’s biggest threats, including pests, pathogens, pesticides and poor nutrition.

“Each of those can affect honey bees directly, and each of those impact the effects of the others,” Steinhauer said. “Nutrient deprived bees have lower capabilities to detoxify pesticides; infected bees will not collect as much food from their environment. It is all a vicious circle where one stressor makes it harder for bees to resist the others.”

Research suggests that when bees have access to a greater diversity of plants and live in generally healthier ecosystems, they’re better able to fight off parasites and resist disease.

“There is no single culprit which means there is no single solution. But if we generally improve the environment our bees — and we — live in, it might help more than the bees themselves,” Steinhauer said.

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World’s most pristine tropical forests remain vulnerable to deforestation



Aug. 10 (UPI) — An analysis of the planet’s healthiest, most-intact tropical forests suggests an overwhelming majority remain vulnerable to deforestation.

According to the new study, published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, just 6.5 percent of the “best of the last” tropical forests enjoy formal protections.

For the study, an international team of researchers, including scientists with NASA and the United Nations, used high-resolution satellite images to map the presence of high-quality forests across the tropics. Researchers focused on finding the most intact forests, and those with the high ecological value, not necessarily the largest.

“Every year, research reveals new ways that old, structurally complex forests contribute to biodiversity, carbon storage, water resources, and many other ecosystem services,” study author Patrick Jantz said in a news release.

“That we can now map such forests in great detail is an important step forward in efforts to conserve them,” said Jantz, a research professor at Northern Arizona University.

When researchers compared maps of currently protected tropical forests with their maps of intact, high quality forests, they found very little overlap. Historically, protection efforts have favored quantity over quality, according to the authors of the new paper.

The study determined just half of the Earth’s humid tropical forests boast high ecological integrity, the majority of which are located within the the Amazon and Congo basins.

Researchers also looked at deforestation rates and the human pressures currently threatening the tropic’s healthiest forests. Their findings suggest the best of the last tropical forests are exceedingly vulnerable.

Scientists say they hope their findings will help policy makers and forest managers better prioritize forest protection and restoration efforts. Of the 4.6 million acres of the humid tropical forests found around the globe, the authors of the new study suggest 41 percent be granted new protections.

The researchers suggest forest managers work reduce human pressures across another 19 percent. The study calls also calls for active restoration efforts in 7 percent of tropical forests.

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Peak viewing Tuesday night for Perseid meteor shower



The wait is over. For stargazers in North America, one of the most highly anticipated and reliable meteor showers will peak this week.

The Perseid meteor shower will peak on Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning, a reliable meteor shower that puts on a show year in and year out.

The Perseids are the most popular meteor shower as they peak on warm August nights as seen from the northern hemisphere,” the American Meteor Society said on its website.

This year, spectators across the Northern Hemisphere can expect to see between 50 and 75 meteors an hour under dark skies, which averages about one meteor every minute. Areas south of the equator will still be able to see some of the Perseids, but the hourly rates will be lower.

“The Geminid meteor shower in December produces about the same number of meteors. Both showers produce about four times more than any other shower during the year typically does,” AccuWeather astronomy blogger Dave Samuhel said.

One big difference between the Perseids and the Geminids is the weather.

August typically features more comfortable stargazing weather for the Perseids compared to December’s cold and often cloudy conditions around the peak of the Geminids.

As with every meteor shower, the best time to look is when the shower’s radiant point is highest in the sky. The number of meteors able to be seen will gradually increase as the radiant point moves higher in the sky.

“They are called Perseids since the radiant (the area of the sky where the meteors seem to originate) is located near the prominent constellation of Perseus,” the AMS explained.

Contrary to popular belief, sky watchers do not need to look at radiant point to see the meteor shower — shooting stars will be visible streaking across all areas of the sky.

The radiant point for the Perseids will rise above the horizon by around 11 p.m. local time and will continue to climb higher in the sky as the night progresses. However, the moon is set to rise by around 1 a.m. local time and will bring with it natural light pollution, making it more difficult to see some of the fainter meteors.

Because of this, the best window for viewing this year’s Perseid meteor shower will occur between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. local time.

“Even though the Perseids will be most active after midnight, I encourage people to start looking once it gets dark in the evening,” Samuhel said.

“You will be more likely to see a long-lived, bright meteor fly across a large portion of the sky during the evening.”

Onlookers staying out after 1 a.m. to watch the celestial light show should look to the darkest part of the sky away from the moon.

This year, most of the western and central United States will have cloud-free conditions for the peak of the Perseids. Favorable weather is also in the forecast for much of western Canada and the Canadian Prairies.

Folks east of the Mississippi River may have some clouds to contend with, especially across the Ohio Valley to the coast of the mid-Atlantic.

Other areas, such as the Deep South, northern New England and into the St. Lawrence River Valley will have some breaks in the clouds, which could provide opportunities to spot a few shooting stars throughout the night.

Meteors will continue to be visible in the nights following the peak, so those that find themselves under clouds on Tuesday night should plan for a night under the stars later in the week when weather conditions improve. However, the number of meteors visible will gradually decrease each night.

In addition to needing clear weather, a little patience is also required for watching the Perseids.

Dedicate a solid hour to doing nothing but looking for meteors,” Samuhel said. “If you look for only a few minutes, you might not see any.”

It is important not to look at any source of light while out looking for shooting stars this includes cellphone screens.

“Make yourself comfortable. Lay back on a lounge chair or a blanket on the grass. Don’t sit in a normal chair and look up, your neck will quickly get tired,” Samuhel said.

After the Perseids pass, the next moderate meteor shower will not occur until mid-October with the peak of the Orionids.

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Researchers, growers seek vanilla production in Florida



ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 11 (UPI) — Growers and researchers in Florida hope the aromatic vanilla bean can provide a lucrative, high-margin crop for the state’s farmers.

The University of Florida is heading research into vanilla, which comes from a tropical orchid and carries a hefty price around the world.

The goal is to determine how well the plants grow in Florida’s subtropical climate, where the dominant crop — citrus — has suffered from destructive diseases and hurricanes that have shut groves and put growers out of business.

Already, the university reports that hobbyists, bakers and breweries are calling to line up more vanilla production.

“The interest in this as a new crop is huge,” said Alan Chambers, assistant professor of tropical plant genetics at the university’s research station south of Miami.

“Our biggest problem right now is growers can’t find enough plants. We have people calling and asking to buy the beans we’re growing, and we say you have to wait a couple of years.”

Chambers knows that vanilla can grow in Florida because four native species of the vanilla orchid plants exist, but none of the native types produces authentic vanilla.

So, he’s started with the most common commercial species, vanilla planifolia, the beans from which Madagascar and Mexico export in large quantities. Chambers has 150 of the plants ready to distribute to community center gardens and other growers as far north as Tampa.

Florida will never be able to compete globally for vanilla due to the cost of labor, but there’s a big demand for specialty vanilla, he said.

“We’d be looking at extremely high quality, similar to the limited vanilla production in Hawaii,” Chambers said. “We’re hearing from brewers, herbalists, bakers and aroma extractors.”

Chambers also helped a Miami area grower, attorney Abrahm Smith, obtain 800 of the vanilla plants for Smith’s small, 8-acre farm. They take up about one-quarter of an acre.

“It’s a hobby farm for me, but if vanilla works, it will be great because it has a very high-profit margin,” Smith said. “I should be able to make as much from that quarter-acre as I do from 6 acres of fruit trees we’ve planted.”

That high margin is what drove the crop to become one of Madagascar’s top exports, but the bean is not processed on the island. Much of the bean crop is processed when it reaches the United States, where it is primarily used as a food and drink flavoring.

The price of vanilla has fluctuated wildly in recent years with weather conditions in Madagascar, from $600 per 2.2 pounds of beans in 2018 to $350 for that amount in June.

The United States is the largest importer of vanilla beans. Given the high value of the crop, and Florida’s struggles with citrus, the University of Florida funded Chambers’ research with a $75,000 grant.

Chambers also advises a separate project led by private industry that collects funds from interested growers to provide thousands of the vanilla plants from a nursery in Orlando.

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