The real reason to worry about bees

Sep. 10, 2013 — Honeybees should be on everyone’s worry list, and not because of the risk of a nasty sting, an expert on the health of those beneficial insects said in Indianapolis today at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).Set aside the fact that the honeybee’s cousins — hornets, wasps and yellow jackets — actually account for most stings, said Richard Fell, Ph.D. Despite years of intensive research, scientists do not understand the cause, nor can they provide remedies, for what is killing honeybees.”Some estimates put the value of honeybees in pollinating fruit, vegetable and other crops at almost $15 billion annually,” Fell said. “Without bees to spread pollen from the male parts of plants to the female parts, fruit may not form. That would severely impact consumers, affecting the price of some of the healthiest and most desirable foods.”Farmers use honeybees to pollinate more than 100 different fruit and vegetable crops around the country in an approach known as “managed pollination.” It involves placing bee hives in fields when crops are ready for pollination.”The biggest impacts from decreased hive numbers will be felt by farmers producing crops with high pollination requirements, such as almonds. Consumers may see a lowered availability of certain fruits and vegetables and some higher costs,” explained Fell.He discussed the ongoing decline in honeybee populations in the U.S. and some other countries — a condition sometimes termed colony collapse disorder (CCD). Although honeybees have been doing better in recent years, something continues to kill about 1 in every 3 honeybees each year.”There is a good bit of misinformation in the popular press about CCD and colony decline, especially with regard to pesticides,” Fell said. He is an emeritus professor of entomology at Virginia Tech, and an authority on colony decline in bees. “I think it is important to emphasize that we do not understand the causes of colony decline and CCD and that there are probably a number of factors involved. …

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‘Insect soup’ holds DNA key for monitoring biodiversity

Aug. 5, 2013 — Scientists at the University of East Anglia have shown that sequencing the DNA of crushed up creepy crawlies can accelerate the monitoring and cataloguing of biodiversity around the world.Research published today in the journal Ecology Letters shows that a process known as ‘metabarcoding’ is much faster than and just as reliable as standard biodiversity datasets assembled with traditional labour-intensive methods.The breakthrough means that changing environments and endangered species can be monitored more easily than ever before. It could help researchers find endangered tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea, discover which moths will be wiped out by climate change, and restore nature to heathlands in the UK, rubber plantations in China, and oil-palm plantations in Sumatra.Lead researcher Dr Douglas Yu, from UEA’s school of Biological Sciences, said: “Every living organism contains DNA, and even small fragments of that DNA can be used to identify species.”We collected lots of insects and other creepy-crawlies, ground them up into an ‘insect soup’, and read the DNA using sequencers that are now cheap enough to use weekly or even daily.”We compared our results with high-quality datasets collected in Malaysia, China and the UK which combined more than 55,000 arthropod and bird specimens and took experts 2,505 hours to identify. These kinds of datasets are the gold standard for biodiversity monitoring but are so expensive to compile that that we cannot use them for regular monitoring. Thus, conservation biologists and environmental managers are forced to work with little information.”We found that our ‘soup’ samples give us the same biodiversity information as the gold-standard datasets. They are also more comprehensive, many times quicker to produce, less reliant on taxonomic expertise, and they have the added advantage of being verifiable by third parties.”The findings are important because they show that metabarcoding can be used to reliably inform policy and environmental management decisions.Dr Yu added: “If the environment changes for the better or for the worse, what lives in that environment changes as well. Insect soup becomes a sensitive thermometer for the state of nature.”For instance, we showed that if the UK Forestry Commission ploughs up some of the grass-covered trackways that run between our endangered heathland habitats, populations of rare spiders, beetles, and other creepy-crawlies can reconnect along those trackways, helping to stave off extinction.”We are now working with the WWF and Copenhagen University to apply the method to bloodsucking leeches to look for endangered mammals in Vietnamese and Laotian rainforests. By creating a ‘leech soup’ we can get a list of mammals and know more about whether park conservation is working.”Each soup combines hundreds to thousands of insects caught using insect traps. The numbers captured amount to a tiny fraction of their overall populations and pose no threat to endangered species.The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council UK, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation of China, and the Yunnan provincial government.’Reliable, verifiable, and efficient monitoring of biodiversity via metabarcoding’ is published in the journal Ecology Letters on August 5, 2013.

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Reduced brain volume in kids with low birth-weight tied to academic struggles

June 10, 2013 — An analysis of recent data from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of 97 adolescents who were part of study begun with very low birth weight babies born in 1982-1986 in a Cleveland neonatal intensive care unit has tied smaller brain volumes to poor academic achievement.More than half of the babies that weighed less than 1.66 pounds and more than 30 percent of those less than 3.31 pounds at birth later had academic deficits. (Less than 1.66 pounds is considered extremely low birth weight; less than 3.31 pounds is labeled very low birth weight.) Lower birth weight was associated to smaller brain volumes in some of these children, and smaller brain volume, in turn, was tied to academic deficits.Researchers also found that 65.6 percent of very low birth weight and 41.2 percent of extremely preterm children had experienced academic achievement similar to normal weight peers.The research team — led by Caron A.C. Clark, a scientist in the Department of Psychology and Child and Family Center at the University of Oregon — detected an overall reduced volume of mid-brain structures, the caudate and corpus callosum, which are involved in connectivity, executive attention and motor control.The findings, based a logistic regression analyses of the MRIs done approximately five years ago, were published in the May issue of the journal Neuropsychology. The longitudinal study originally was launched in the 1980s with a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (National Institutes of Health, grant HD 26554) to H. Gerry Taylor of Case Western University, who was the senior author and principal investigator on the new paper.”Our new study shows that pre-term births do not necessarily mean academic difficulties are ahead,” Clark said. “We had this group of children that did have academic difficulties, but there were a lot of kids in this data set who didn’t and, in fact, displayed the same trajectories as their normal birth-weight peers.”Academic progress of the 201 original participants had been assessed early in their school years, again four years later and then annually until they were almost 17 years old. “We had the opportunity to explore this very rich data set,” Clark said. “There are very few studies that follow this population of children over time, where their trajectories of growth at school are tracked. We were interested in seeing how development unfolds over time.”The findings, Clark added, provide new insights but also raise questions such as why some low-birth-weight babies develop normally and others do not? “It is very difficult to pick up which kids will need the most intensive interventions really early, which we know can be really important.”The findings also provide a snapshot of children of very low birth weights who were born in NICU 30 years ago. …

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