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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

May 2017

From penguins to pollinators — Earth Week at NIEHS

NIEHS observances of Earth Day began with a journey to Antarctica and concluded with ways to support pollinators and wildflowers.

In recognition of Earth Day, April 22, the NIEHS Environmental Awareness Advisory Committee (EAAC) hosted four presentations to foster better understanding and appreciation of the world and its complexity.

The series began April 14 with a journey to Antarctica, courtesy of Stephanie Holmgren, acting director of the NIEHS Office of Scientific Information. It continued April 19 with a talk by ecotoxicologist Frank von Hippel, Ph.D. (see story). On April 21, NIEHS was treated to a triple-feature presentation focused on pollinators and wildflowers. Another activity, planned for May 10, is a roadway cleanup, outside the NIEHS campus

Glaciers, penguins, and icebergs

This past winter, Holmgren realized her life-long dream to travel to Antarctica, on an 18-day cruise to subantarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. Aboard the ship were experts in the wildlife and ecology of the polar region, in the 1914-1916 Shackleton expedition. Two crew members took part in the reenactment film, “Chasing Shackleton.”

Holmgren’s talk, titled, “(Sub)Antarctica: A Story of –TIONS,” covered exploration, glaciation, faunation, and conservation in the region. Among the stunning photographs she shared were some showing the travelers participating in citizen science research. She explained that scientists regularly engage tours such as hers in collecting data and samples, due to the difficulty and expense involved.

Why plant wildflowers?

Wildflowers are planted every year on the NIEHS campus to enhance biodiversity by providing pollen and nectar for bees, and supporting butterflies and other insects. The NIEHS meadows are part of the Butterfly Highway, a statewide conservation initiative to restore native pollinator habitats.

In a talk titled “NIEHS Walks on the Wild Side with Wildflower Meadows,” Paul Poliachik explained the workings behind the flowering meadows and gave pointers on how to create a successful wildflower bed at home. Poliachik is part of the National Institutes of Health Office of Research Facilities, located at NIEHS.

Researching bees with citizen science

Mites, viruses, pesticide poisoning, and loss of foraging habitat all threaten the health of honey bees and their colonies. David Lehmann, Ph.D., who maintains bee hives on the NIEHS campus, discussed his citizen science research, involving beekeepers in reporting biomarkers as indicators of colony health. Lehmann, a toxicologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, named his project Hive Science.

In the winter of 2006-2007, beekeepers begin reporting an unusual, puzzling event. Most worker bees in a hive would disappear, leaving behind a queen, plenty of food, and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen. But without the worker bees, the colony could not survive. Many beekeepers lost 30 to 90 percent of their hives. This phenomenon has become known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

The good news is that hive losses attributed to CCD have steadily dropped — to 31.1 percent in 2013. Initial reports indicated that CCD caused no hive losses in 2014-2015. Yet the cause of this disorder remains unclear, and bees face other threats.

Bees — important pollinators, and honey, too

Because bees are important pollinators of food crops and flowers, problems with bees affect people, too. David Kurtz, D.V.M., Ph.D., is on the frontline in the battle to help bees survive.

He described the process of setting up and managing bee hives at home, in a talk titled “God Save the Queen: Trials and Tribulations of a Novice Beekeeper.” Kurtz, who leads the Quality Assurance Laboratory in the NIEHS Comparative Medicine Branch, also discussed other bee species, such as mason bees, which only need a hole made in wood to breed and survive.

(Laura Hall is a biologist in the Program Operations Branch of the National Toxicology Program Laboratory, and the lead organizer of this year’s EAAC Earth Week activities.)

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