Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book Review: Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Spiders

One resource that has been missing from the recent explosion of spider-related material coming from various publishers has been a book aimed squarely at the average homeowner or gardener with something other than an all-consuming passion for arachnids. "Dr. Eleanor" to the rescue with Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Spiders (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2018. 96 pp.).

Eleanor Spicer Rice, who already has several related titles under her belt, mostly about ants, has teamed up with Chris Buddle to deliver a nicely organized, thoroughly researched book on the spider species that the public most often asks about. You know, the eight-legged critter crawling across the kitchen floor, the infamous "shower spider," and the ones you always see in the (insert shed, basement, garage, or other appropriate venue).

The authors treat their subjects with accuracy, clarity, and brevity, while still managing to cultivate the same sense of fascination in the reader that they, as scientists and writers, have already found for themselves. This is no small feat. There is a dash of humor here and there as well, and they are not above poking fun at themselves. Color photographs, mostly by Sean McCann, complement the lively text and enhance the impact of the book. Whether arachnophobes will reach for it on the bookstore shelf, or over the online vendors remains to be seen. I hope they do.

Even if the book were a complete failure otherwise, it would bear recommending for this passage alone:

"Striped lynx spiders prefer biding their time in agricultural fields. When we plant our crops with only one or two types of plant per field, we humans essentially sow arthropod grocery superstores. In nature, any given species of plant is often mixed in with other plant species and so bugs that like a particular plant species may need to search to find the plansts they like. As a result, only a limited number of bugs can live in an area. It's like living in a town with a gas station-sized grocery store. In our human-planted superstores, however, tons of insects that like our crops can move into the giant all-you-can-eat buffet of a farm, filled with only their favorite foods. These insects become agricultural pests, gobbling up billions of dollars' worth of food we grow for ourselves each year."

Exactly. I have said the same thing myself in my own publications, about how humans are responsible for creating their own insect pests. Further, all the crop plants are equally vulnerable because they have identical genetics. Not so in nature. Watch a butterfly laying eggs. She won't oviposit on every plant; only on those a little weaker in their chemical defenses.

My only quibbles with the book stem mostly from the fact that I am a writer, too. There were a couple of bad word choices, but I see worse errors in other books. There was one implied assertion that is incorrect, however. In the Frequently Asked Questions part of the back matter, one FAQ concerns whether all spiders are venomous. The authors indicate they are. This is not true. Spiders in the family Uloboridae, common in North America, lack venom glands. Lastly, there are some common English names for certain spider species or genera that were apparently created just for this book. There is no such thing as a "Ceiling Spider," even though I would endorse that name for Cheiracanthium species because that is exactly where you encounter them.

Enough nit-picking. The "up sides" of this handy volume are much more numerous. It is a paperback, and of a size that is large enough to not lose easily in a stack of other books, and comfortable to handle for those of us who are all thumbs. Again, the text is a joy to read. Spicer and Buddle manage to give each spider a personality that reflects its biology. This style comes close to anthropomorphism, but I am all in favor of whatever it takes to win more arachnophiles. Spiders need all the friends they can get in Humanland.

One of my measures of the goodness of a book like this is whether it teaches me, a longtime naturalist, something new. This book did that, in spades. I love being surprised with new knowledge, and with that I heartily recommend Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Spiders.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Mark Your Calendar....

Time for updates on upcoming events, point out a new feature to this blog, and solicit additional sponsors. It may not feel like spring everywhere, but don't let it sneak up on you and catch you unprepared. Here are some things to look forward to, in Colorado and elsewhere.

Tiger Beetle Hunt, Lake Pueblo State Park, April 14
April, 2018
  • April 14 (Saturday), 9:45 AM - 3 PM (maximum): Second Annual Tiger Beetle Hunt at Lake Pueblo State Park, Colorado, USA, by the Mile High Bug Club. We can expect to see at least five species of colorful Cicindela tiger beetles.
  • April 18 (Wednesday), 6:30-8:30 PM: "The Magic of Moths,", presented by yours truly at Bear Creek Nature Center for the Aiken Audubon Society, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.
  • April 21 (Saturday), 9 AM - 3 PM: Mile High Bug Club at Garden of the Gods Park for Earth Day, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.
  • April 22-24 (Sunday through Tuesday), various times: daytime insect walks and evening presentation by "Bug Eric" for the Austin Butterfly Forum, Austin, Texas, USA.

"The Magic of Moths," Bear Creek Nature Center, April 18
May, 2018
  • May 12 (Saturday), 9 AM - Noon: "Tarantulas of Colorado" with the Mile High Bug Club for the Pikes Peak Birding & Nature Festival at Bear Creek Nature Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA. Register now for field trips and other activities!
  • May 14 (Monday), 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM: Mile High Bug Club membership meeting at the Gold Hill Division Police Station, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA. Come learn more about our education and conservation organization and what we have planned.
  • May 19 (Saturday), 11 AM - 3 PM: "Tarantulas of Colorado" with the Mile High Bug Club at the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, Woodland Park, Colorado, USA. We will have live examples of the three tarantula species found in Colorado, plus much more.

That's all for events as of now, but watch this blog for additions as the weather warms.

© Megan Miller
Tarantulas of Colorado, Bear Creek Nature Center, May 19

New! "How to Make an Insect Collection"

You may have noticed the new tab at the top of this page. Click on it and you will be taken to a comprehensive and highly organized text and graphic document on how to make an insect collection. This may prove useful to teachers, students, naturalists, and citizen scientists wishing to collect insects in a fashion that will enhance their historical and scientific value as preserved specimens. I recognize collecting is not for everyone. I know some people who only collect specimens they find already dead. Whatever your personal inclination, please understand that without specimen collections, our collective scientific understanding of the world would be non-existent. Thank you.

Sponsors and Advertisers Welcome

As always, I welcome sponsors and advertisers to support this blog. BioQuip and Tender Corporation are currently my only sponsors. I did apply recently for a grant, but am not assuming anything about the outcome. Long-term loyalty is what I am most looking for. Please contact me if your institution or business is compatible with the educational goals of this blog, and you would like advertising space.

Thank you, Donors!

I would like to publicly thank the many individuals who have contributed financially or in-kind to the endurance of this online publication. Your support is immeasurable and invaluable. I am considering adding another tab (page) to recognize donors by name. Please let me know if you think this is a good idea, an invasion of privacy, or whatever. I will not exercise this option without consent and consensus. Please comment below if you would be so kind. Thank you, and happy spring!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Odd Little Weevils

Over the eons....ok, decades, but it seems like eons, I have honed my search image for cryptic insects that other people overlook. Last week I was rewarded for discerning a pebble-mimicking insect from debris on the sidewalk. I will not disclose the number of times I have scrutinized some little object that turned out to be an actual pebble, bird poop, or other inanimate thing. This particular creature turned out to be a common but seldom-seen "bison dung weevil," genus Thecesternus.

These beetles, also known as "bison snout beetles," get their name from having first been discovered as habitually seeking shelter under chunks of bison dung on the North American plains. The weevils are nocturnal, flightless, and need protection from the searing heat of the day. Back in the day, "buffalo chips" were the most plentiful answer to that problem.

There are seven species of Thecesternus collectively found in the central, eastern, and southwest U.S. north to Alberta in Canada. They are only about six millimeters in body length, have a very truncated "nose," and are expert in feigning death by drawing in their face, antennae, and, to some degree, legs when frightened by a potential predator. It was difficult to get images of this particular specimen with its antennae extended, so sensitive was it to motion, vibration, and apparently even the camera flash. This represents only the third specimen I have found in Colorado, and one of the other two was dead when I discovered it.

What little we know about these beetles is thanks to the evaluation of one species, T. hirsutus, as a potential biological control in Australia for Parthenium hysterophorus, variously known as Santa Maria, Santa Maria Feverfew, Whitetop Weed, Famine Weed, and Bhajpa Weed, among other aliases. Native to the New World tropics, this plant is known for causing respiratory allergies, contact dermatitis, and genetic mutations in both people and livestock. It is not without redeeming attributes, too, but it has no place in regions where it did not originate. Consequently, several insects have been employed to control it.

Thecesternus hirsutus spends the winter in the larval stage, underground. Larvae hatch from eggs laid in the soil by the adult female weevils in the fall, when autumn rains trigger growth in plant life. The C-shaped grubs then burrow deeper and begin feeding externally on the roots of the host plant. Their activity stimulates the formation of a gall that eventually reaches about ten millimeters in diameter. Each larva encloses itself in an earthen chamber around its feeding site for protection from soil-dwelling predators. The cell is initially rather fragile, but is reinforced internally by anal secretions the larva applies to the interior walls with its mouth. The resulting "room" is quite durable.

The larvae feed into the winter months, reaching maturity between December and February (remember we are talking northern Mexico). The larvae remain dormant until early April when they molt into the pupa stage. Adult beetles emerge in April or May. The beetles feed above ground over the summer before starting the cycle anew.

In the laboratory rearing of T. hirsutus, a few young larvae were found in spring, indicating that some adult females may oviposit (lay eggs) at that time, resulting in a partial second generation of grubs during the summer months when it is usually adults that are present. Both of the living adult specimens I have encountered were found in April here in El Paso County, Colorado.

T. hirsutus turned out to be a poor candidate for control of Parthenium hysterophorus, but the rearing of the weevils demonstrated how well adapted they are to unpredictable weather patterns and volatile changes in climate. This may be a genus of beetles worth examining more in-depth as models of flexibility in the face of global warming and its attendant yearly extremes of heat, drought, and deluge.

The first specimen I discovered in Black Forest, Colorado

Sources: Arnett, Ross H., Jr., Michael C. Thomas, Paul E. Skelley, and J. Howard Frank, eds. 2002. American Beetles (vol. 2). Boca Raton: CRC Press. 861 pp.
Jacques, H.E. 1951. How to Know the Beetles. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers. 372 pp.
McClay, A.S. and D.M. Anderson. 1985. "Biology and Immature Stages of Thecesternus hirsutus Pierce (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) in North-eastern Mexico," Proc. Entomol. Soc. Wash. 87: 207-215.
Patel, Seema. 2011. "Harmful and beneficial aspects of Parthenium hysterophorus: an update," 3 Biotech 1(1): 1-9.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Pinyon Problems? Maybe, Maybe Not

I always seem to be caught off guard by the first insects to emerge in spring, and this year was no exception. The chance finding of a male scale insect prompted me to investigate an ornamental Pinyon Pine in our Colorado Springs townhouse complex, and that revealed yet another insect, or at least signs of one.

Walking in our neighborhood as I do most days, weather permitting, I happened upon what I figured must be a tiny midge or winged aphid, about one millimeter in length, on a wooden fence. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be a male scale insect of some sort. Scale insects generally give the impression of anything but an insect, a small, unmoving, button-like bump on a twig or branch. Mature male scale insects on the other hand often have wings and fly to find females. I was not aware they can appear so early in the season.

Male Pinyon Needle Scale

Back home, I took images of the specimen and tried to match it with something online. Male scale insects are so rarely noticed, let alone imaged, that I was not optimistic. Surprisingly, I found a close match in the genus Matsucoccus, family Matsucoccidae. This is a relatively new family, separated from its previous placement as part of the Margarodidae or "ground pearls." The tiny black and yellowish bug, with white waxy streamers emanating from its posterior, most resembled the Pinyon Needle Scale, Matsucoccus acalyptus, but I was hesitant to jump to conclusions. Our neighborhood is more in the high plains than a forest, though we do have many ornamental conifers.

Sure enough, I noticed a Pinyon Pine between two buildings in our townhouse complex. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I checked for sessile female scales, and managed to find a few. They are barely over one millimeter themselves. It turns out that the life cycle of this species is rather complex, with a lot going on at this time of year.

Adult female Pinyon Needle Scales

Mature females back out of the waxy covering that forms the "bean stage," and render themselves sexually receptive. As near as I can tell, the adult females have this mosaic pattern to them, whereas the "bean" stage does not. Once mated, the female crawls to an appropriate place to lay her oval cluster of yellowish eggs, encased in loose, white, silky webbing. Favored sites for egg laying include the root collar of the tree, in the crotches of large branches, the underside of large branches, or in deep fissures in the bark of the trunk.

"Crawlers" emerge from the eggs roughly five weeks after they are laid. This tiny, orange, first instar immature stage migrates up the tree to begin feeding on needles that grew the previous year. The insects use their piercing-sucking mouthparts to tap fluids inside the foliage. As they feed they begin secreting the wax coating that covers them. That coat turns black shortly after it is produced. The nymphs also molt into their second instar. This is the "bean" stage in which the immobile females pass the winter.

"Bean stage" of Pinyon Needle Scale

Second instar males crawl to the ground in October or November. There they go into a prepupal stage, wrapping themselves in white silken webbing beforehand. Three or four days later the males molt again into the pupa stage, spending the winter there. The female nymphs resume feeding the following spring, molt into adults, mate, and start the cycle anew.

The Pinyon Needle Scale is a native insect, but heavy infestations can severely weaken trees, making them vulnerable to subsequent attack by Pinyon Pine Beetles, Ips confusus, in natural ecosystems. Landscape trees are even more at risk because they are not always planted at appropriate elevations, in proper soils, with proper sun exposure. They are often planted in isolation, too.

Galls of Pinyon Spindle Gall Midge

While looking for the scales, I could not help but notice that many of the needles on the tree on our property were greatly swollen and yellowing. This is the work of an entirely different insect, the Pinyon Spindle Gall Midge, Pinyonia edulicola. It is a tiny fly in the gall midge family Cecidomyiidae. Its life cycle begins when a female lays several eggs in a developing needle in mid-summer. The larvae that hatch crawl to the base of the needle and their feeding activity stimulates the plant to grow needle tissue around them. From five to forty larvae occupy the resulting gall, continuing to feed and grow within it. They pupate in late spring of the following year. The adult flies emerge in mid-June to mid-July.

More Pinyon Spindle Gall Midge galls

Our Pinyon Pine tree seems to be doing ok despite the onslaught, and we tend to underestimate the resilience of plants in the face of insect attack. Our current drought is no doubt undermining the tree's natural defenses, but the insects feeding on it are also not immune to their own predators, parasites, and other enemies. It may be a good idea to keep tabs on the trees in your own yard, but resist the temptation to intervene at the first sight of some insect. Do your homework, ask for expert assistance, and then decide what, if anything, to do.

Sources: Cranshaw, Whitney. 2004. Garden Insects of North America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 656 pp.
Furniss, R.L. and V.M. Carolin. 1977. Western Forest Insects. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication No. 1339. 654 pp.
Phillips, Gene. 2018. "Pinyon Needle Scales, Matsucoccus acalyptus," Nevada Division of Forestry

Friday, March 16, 2018

Pollinator Drones Can Buzz Off

It has just been revealed to the media that Walmart filed an application on March 8 for a patent on miniature drones designed to pollinate crops grown by the retail giant for sale in its grocery stores. The company cited evidence of declines in bee populations and the need to supplement the pollination services provided by insects. It is the opinion of this writer and entomologist that this high tech response to a very serious organic and complex ecosystem problem is inappropriate, and troubling in many ways.

© Dave Simonds and
Drones are not alive

The idea of using tiny drones to accomplish the pollination of flowers, at least in agricultural systems, is nothing new. The Japanese built drones specifically for the cross-pollination of lilies. The videos of the machines in action only served to expose how clumsy and blundering they are compared to the direct and delicate maneuvers of bees. It seemed miraculous that the flower parts were not seriously damaged by the bulky and bouncy, propeller-driven craft.

Why are we so eager to replace complex living organisms with feeble facsimiles manufactured in robotics labs? Have we decided that it is acceptable to consider this as a viable “solution” to a much larger problem? I do not recall casting a vote for this myself. How long will we tolerate businesses and corporations to dictate the level of biodiversity we can do without? This is why science is getting an increasingly bad rap. Scientists are fast becoming beholden to investors, shareholders, and other private interests, and less accountable to the public. Independent, transparent, and government-sponsored research may soon be a thing of the past, if it is not so already.

The implied definition of “bee” in this particular instance is the Western Honey Bee, Apis mellifera. If that is not the case, then Walmart needs to speak up; but in the course of clarification, Walmart may expose a willingness to consider all solitary and native bee species as expendable, as long as we are able to pollinate the crops that feed us. Wildflowers and trees and shrubs are a non-issue in this scenario. They are not viewed as anything necessary to human civilization or financial prosperity. Emphasis on prosperity, as the business world tends to equate civilization with exponential fiscal growth.

Drones are not cute and fuzzy

Might it be cheaper to employ drones instead of honey bees? Maybe. Apiculture is itself an industry, with attendant expenses that are passed on to the customer. Many large-scale beekeeping enterprises involve the transcontinental movement of hives to fields and orchards where they are needed to effect pollination of almonds and other crops. This is not a cheap endeavor, and for all I know, some accountant has crunched the numbers for Walmart and declared that bees are inferior to drones from a simple cost-benefit analysis.

Replacing bees with machines cheapens our humanity in many other ways, though. There is no substitute for interactions with other living organisms, though we seem hell-bent on trying to make it so. We erect all manner of filters between ourselves and other humans, even. I am beginning to feel the need to apologize that you are reading this message from a static screen instead of hearing it from my lips, in person, with all the nuances of annunciation and emphasis, all the facial expressions that amplify my concern.

Drones are not specialized like this squash bee to pollinate specific kinds of flowers

Sam Walton’s heirs may literally prosper with every effort to simplify their business, and the lives of their customers, but I prosper most in the chaos that is wild nature. My psyche requires that if I am to be civil to my fellow man. A vast field of corn, uninterrupted by hedgerows, windbreaks of trees, or other hints of what used to be there, is a vast wasteland to my mind and soul. Indeed, farming practices that enhance biodiversity can be cost-saving, too. The more wild, unmanaged pollinators, the more predatory and parasitic insects, the more birds, the more wildflowers (you may call them “weeds”), the less need for fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and other chemical dependencies. The better state of mind of the farmer, too, the more adventures their children can have exploring the acres.

I could drone on, but you get the point. We can continue to impoverish our lives by distancing ourselves from nature, or we can choose to embrace it, despite its unpredictability. The future is in the latter approach. The former has no future.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

This Girl!

One sure-fire way to make me smile is by introducing me to any young person who is passionate about something. It matters little to me exactly what the subject of their fascination is, but that they are enthusiastic and eager to share what they know. Young people energize elders who have expertise but have become lethargic and cynical of the future in their fields of authority. Meanwhile, children learn even more from those willing to mentor them.

Earlier this month I had the occasion to meet Miss Abigail Nilson-Bartlett, brought to a membership meeting of the Mile High Bug Club by her dad, Ryan, on February 12. They travelled to and from a Denver suburb to our Colorado Springs meeting location. I am not sure who was happier they did: Me or them.

Abigail, at seven years old, firmly asserts that "I am an arachnologist," and I believe her. She can pronounce the word, and then back it up with information that is not widespread knowledge for anyone outside of arachnology. She keeps a couple of pet tarantulas at home, caring for them judiciously such that they are comfortable and healthy, and handled only occasionally. In fact, she wants people to know that "I have a caring for bugs. When they are hurt I care of them well until they are healed. I am a bug doctor and try to help when I can." Her favorite non-spider arthropod is the "rainbow stag beetle."

She considers her greatest accomplishment so far to be assisting her father in a search for wild tarantulas in southeast Colorado. She met Dr. Paula Cushing, one of the premier professional arachnologists in the world, when she accompanied Ryan to volunteer at the twentieth International Congress of Arachnology that was held in Golden, Colorado in 2016. Dr. Cushing is a tough act to follow, but at least I could provide Abigail with a signed copy of my field guide.

During the course of our Mile High Bug Club meeting I made a presentation entitled "Wasp/Not Wasp," an interactive PowerPoint in which the audience is invited to determine which of two images depicts a wasp. Most slides were of a wasp and a complimentary "mimic" like a fly or a moth, but some displayed two wasps, or two mimics. Abigail participated with great enthusiasm, and was often correct in her answers. After listening to me explain the "nth" example of some wasp or mimic that preys on spiders, she asked why it is that there are so many insects that kill her beloved spiders. I can totally empathize. I often ask that about crocodiles and mantids that are shown over-and-over in the media eating some animal I like a lot more. Anyway, I did my best to explain that every species has its role in the biosphere and we have to respect that even if we don't like it. "Like ecology?" she asked. All of us older people were dumbstruck because we were at least teenagers before we learned that word. "Yes," I replied after regaining my faculties, "that's the framework that everything fits in. Yes."

L-R: Amelia, Ryan, Abigail

Abigail's slightly older sister Amelia is an accomplished gymnast, but is also interested in natural history. Trips to far-flung gymnastic meets allow the whole family to explore new cities and have travel adventures along the way. They recently returned from Santa Fe, New Mexico, in fact.

It has been awhile since I have either made myself available to mentor students and children, or been afforded the opportunity, and I am grateful to the MHBC for providing a way to do that. We have other young people participating in club events, and I hope that continues to expand. I urge my readers to seek out organizations, events, and other avenues through which they can be mentors as well, whether in entomology or any other career or recreational pursuit. We need to repair trust to where it was when we were growing up. We are the village now, but we have to prove ourselves as responsible adults who truly have the interests of children and their families at heart.

Thank you, Abigail, for helping restore my faith in our next generation of human beings, regardless of whatever they become professionally when they "grow up." You already have a mature sense of self-confidence, and social skills I wish I had myself at your age.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

No Good Deed....

Look, I know that the curators at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science are genuinely appreciative of the donation of my insect collection. I am reasonably certain most professional entomologists also applaud my gift to the scientific community. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam could pretty much care less, thanks to changes in the tax laws, and that fact has me incensed.

Packing up
© Denver Museum of Nature and Science

I am a writer, and make an income that barely exceeds the poverty line most years. So, my wife and I file a joint income tax return. We have never itemized, as the Standard Deduction exceeds what we spend in charitable donations. Meanwhile, if you itemize your deductions, you can exceed the Standard Deduction, but only to a certain point (half of your Adjusted Gross Income, I believe).

The hardware alone in which my collection was stored, amounts to more than $13,000. This covers three storage cabinets, the 116 drawers in those cabinets and beyond, the "unit trays" inside the drawers that keep specimens organized, and the pins on which the insects are mounted. I am not even including the fifteen Schmitt boxes I used for temporary storage, which conservatively totals $450.

Claiming a charitable donation of over $5,000 in this case requires an independent appraisal of the collection, and here is where I have to admit mea culpa. In my defense, the collection was in a spare bedroom surrounded by many other items, making it a real challenge for me to get to it, let alone an appraiser. Also, appraisers charge for their services, and I have not had a lot of money to spare for that kind of expense. It could still be done, at the museum, but because of tax changes on the horizon, it is becoming apparent that the exercise would likely be one of futility. Oh, obviously, doing the math, a $5,000 deduction is less than the Standard Deduction, so it is not an option to do this incrementally starting with our 2017 return.

Away they go
© Denver Museum of Nature and Science

I was informed by a former tax preparer that beginning in 2018, the Standard Deduction for married couples filing jointly will nearly double to $24,000, though we will all lose our individual exemptions, so not as rosy as it seems. So, while an appraiser may or may not value my collection over that amount, would it be worth the cost of the appraisal to bother finding out? Not likely.

Part of the problem is that the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) uses only FMV (Fair Market Value) to assign value to donations. As you can imagine, animal specimens do not rank highly in that regard because so few species are in high demand in the marketplace. Yes, there is a flourishing consumer trade in preserved insect specimens, usually obtained through dealers, and mostly limited to tropical species from rainforests around the globe. Specimens like mine from temperate regions are rarely as glamorous in appearance, not nearly as large in size, and therefore not valued as much as gaudy "oh, my!" species. There is no catalog that covers all insect species with corresponding price tags.

Appraisers are then left to add value based on the physical condition of the specimen, whether it has valuable data denoting exactly where and when the specimen was collected, and by whom. If the specimen has been identified to species by a recognized authority, then that also adds a bit more value. It is still subjective in the eyes of IRS accountants, and even an exhaustive appraisal is no guarantee your deduction won't trigger an audit.

Arrival at the museum
© Denver Museum of Nature and Science

So, here's the thing. I don't want another invitation to a dinner reception for donors to the museum. The pretentiousness of such events I abhor. I also don't want pity for how this has unfolded so tragically for me in the financial sense, though at this point I truly believe I would have benefited more by insuring my collection and then setting it on fire. I want you to be angry, angry at where our society is placing its monetary values. The only thing I am even half good at is writing, and that sure as hell has no value either, except in advertising and fiction.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Book Review: Never Out of Season

Rob Dunn grabs your attention right out of the gate in his book Never Out of Season (Little, Brown and Company, 2017, 323 pp). Our monotonous diet, and utter lack of crop diversity is not just stunning, it is frightening. The book's subtitle, How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future, is a bit misleading. First, that applies mostly to Western cultures which are affluent enough to import fruits and vegetables from other parts of the world, continually. To his credit, Dunn addresses global agriculture and food security, going out of his way not to ignore Third World nations, poverty, war, and other factors that influence the ability of countries to feed themselves, let alone the rest of the world.

Indeed, Dunn's historical accounts demonstrate how time and time again human populations has been on the brink of starvation, yet are bailed out by individuals and organizations on the far side of the globe. It has been Russians and others who have had the foresight to save seeds in banks and vaults, preserving crop diversity even at their own personal peril. Meanwhile, governments and industries have blissfully ignored the lessons furnished by famines and crop failures.

Never Out of Season is in many ways a real-life thriller, but the reader is largely left to draw their own conclusions as to who the villains are. There are plenty of victims and heroes, but aside from a small group of henchmen who sabotaged a cocoa tree plantation by deliberately infecting trees with a fungal disease known as witches'- broom, few criminals. At least, they do not have overtly hostile intentions. The problem is, overwhelmingly, neglect, plus failure to learn from history and failure to properly invest in efforts necessary to avert future calamities.

The progress of the Green Revolution creates the narrative arc, from its beginnings around World War II through present day. Humanity quickly became dependent on pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals to increase crop yields and exploit marginal soils. From there, agriculture scaled up, and today it is largely the province of multinational corporations with a primary agenda of profit and patent protection over feeding people. Consumers are left with increasingly processed foods in the supermarket, the illusion of choice, poorer nutrition, and a widening disconnect with farmers. Dunn is less simple and direct in his presentation of the state of agriculture, and how we got here, but is captivating, entertaining, and educational in his language. His research is exhaustive and beyond reproach. The end notes take up forty-six (46) pages.

Readers looking for an unequivocal indictment of industrialized agriculture will have to search elsewhere. Never Out of Season presents a series of cautionary tales that inform, enlighten, and serve as examples of the kinds of catastrophes we are in for if we continue to devalue genetic diversity in our food crops. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are not painted as evil here, but powerful tools that can help advance agriculture provided we do not become as addicted to them as we did to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and phosphate fertilizers.

Dunn also offers hope at the end of the book, successfully energizing and empowering the reader to plant their own yards with vegetables and fruit trees, join in citizen science projects to enhance our collective understanding of agricultural ecology, and to purchase from local farmers those foods they cannot grow. The variety of approaches to agriculture is beginning to diversify, which is a positive trend, but it remains to be seen whether agri-business will respond favorably, or seek to bury smaller entities under patent-infringement lawsuits and other legal strategies.

Paul Ehrlich, in his own endorsement, states that "Everyone who eats should read Never Out of Season. This reviewer could not agree more. Even fans of fiction would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling page-turner replete with colorful and heroic characters, and an ending that only we, the reader, can finish by holding our leaders accountable for funding priorities, environmental regulation, making conservation of heritage seeds an overriding concern, and bolstering consumer protections. We can also shop smarter and grow our own.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Beehives and Detergent Pods

What do the vandalism of beehives and eating laundry detergent pods have in common, besides being dangerous to the perpetrator? They both have gotten undo attention thanks to traditional and social media. Destructive and dangerous behaviors like these tend to make the news precisely because they are unique. The problem is that they become more commonplace the more they are publicized.

Honey bee hives

I was under the impression that beehive vandalism is running rampant lately when in fact there have been only two (2) reported crimes, one in Sioux City, Iowa and the other in Prunedale, California. The number of individual honey bees killed is staggering, no question, but so far these appear to be isolated episodes. That is what the media will do. It will inflate or undermine the reality of what is going on. I wonder now exactly how many teenagers have been eating those laundry detergent pods. Maybe that has been overstated, too.

One other danger of social media and standard media hype is that it can add fuel to the fire. What was a single display of stupidity or vandalism can then result in copycat behavior by others, escalating the damage. I posited the question of what is behind the beehive vandalism to an entomology group on Facebook. One of the prevailing theories was that the Prunedale massacre could easily have been a copycat crime due to the widespread publicity of the Sioux City news story. Insurance fraud was mentioned as a potential motive, along with competing beekeeping businesses, but we may never know. While at least one video out there claims that beekeeping practices are "cruel" and honey bees are basically slaves to humans now, I doubt People for the Ethical Treatment of animals (PETA) or any other animal rights group would harm the bees themselves.

Another interesting point brought up by the entomology group was that we seldom hear about crime in rural areas, which makes a story like the destruction of the beehives all the more attractive to the media. Social media makes almost all geographical locations accessible to traditional channels of news and information, so the two tend to feed each other. Rural crimes, I am told, can be a matter of disgruntled neighbors, vindictive ex-spouses, bored teenagers, or any number of other stimuli.

While I by no means condone beehive vandalism, I lament that the media fails consistently in giving the entire story of apiculture. Honey bees are not native to the New World (North, Central, and South America), but have been introduced here. In the U.S., the first colonies of honey bees were brought by settlers to Jamestown in 1622. They needed the bees to pollinate the crops they imported, not knowing whether native North American bees could, or would, do the job. Furthermore, beeswax was an essential product back then. Honey was perhaps the least of it.

Since then, apiculture has become an industry, one that markets itself vigorously and creatively. It has become a giant enterprise because agriculture has scaled to the point where there is no other way to effect pollination. Indigenous plants and landscapes have been marginalized at best, removing native bees from the picture. The scale of agribusiness is what has taken us to the point where, and I exaggerate to make a point, one non-native species is all that stands between us and starvation.

That was my thought when I learned of the attacks on the hives. Should someone or some organization want to crash a lot of crops, decimating honey bees would be a good start. Fortunately, even with a great deal of ambition and manpower, that scenario is next to impossible to achieve.

More of these for NATIVE bees!

So, a twelve- and thirteen-year old have been arrested in connection with the destroyed hives in Sioux City. Besides fines, a criminal record, and potential incarceration, I wonder if they might be sentenced to community service in....apiculture. Indeed, maybe those kids we label as idiots for ingesting laundry detergent pods could start a youth beekeeping trend instead. Better yet, get them to work making "bee condos" for native, solitary bees that can be hung up around community gardens and local, small-scale farms. Get that activity on Youtube channels. Time for constructive, not destructive, initiatives my young friends.