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What is wrong with bees?

Posted on April 30th, 2009 in General by Robert Miller

It may seem a bit odd writing about honeybees just when a worldwide influenza pandemic is rapidly building up around us, with a new virus that hasn’t been seen before (though it seems to be susceptible to some of the antiviral agents that we have in supply). But unless we view the plight of the honeybees as something requiring an equivalent sense of urgency and action, our food supply could be in danger of contracting due to the lack of nature’s best pollinators. As a followup to the breaking news about the plight of the European honeybee and the recent loss of more than 13 million hives in Europe, Leon Kreitzman , writing in Olivia Judson’s column in the Times, has explained in more detail the social networking behaviors of bees and the delicate nature by which newly discovered nectar locations are transmitted to the bees through their “waggle dance” within the hive.

The renowned animal behaviorist Karl von Frisch won a Nobel prize for figuring out the nature of the bee “dance” and since then new findings have only further astonished us about the complex, nectar location behavior of bees. The information transmitted through the “waggle dance” provides accurate cues about the vertices of nectar sources that are accurate up to about 15 km from the hive. Bees detect location through their ability to see the plane of polarized light, which together with internal circadian rhythms that are reset each day to the solar cycle, allows them to provide information to their hive mates about new food sources, the direction and distance of the source, which are transmitted and compensated for the changing time of day.
Not only are bees accurate at finding their sources of nectar, but they have internal timing cycles or clocks which tell them when they should go onto another flower bed that will be opening and more advantageous as a target. These tireless wonders essentially have their own built-in global positioning satellite by extracting this information from the sun and correcting for movements of the sun during the day. When we see failures in the social hive to adapt and survive in what we believe is the normal environment of the bee, we must recognize that this is not just the canary in the mine telling us to get out. In the first place, we have no where to go unless we want to join G.W Bush on his first trip to Mars, all expenses NOT paid. The fact that bees are disappearing in prodigious numbers means that the environment that we have modified or created by whatever means, is incompatible with the normal lifespan of the bee, meaning that it is also incompatible with a lot of planetary humans, as the food supply could face a dramatic retreat without effective pollinators to carry out their essential tasks. This should be viewed as a national emergency, every bit as dramatic and needy as that of a pandemic flu episode, not merely a failure of the free market system to properly gauge the true value of bees! However, now that you mention it, that is also true. The free market had underestimated the value of bees and pollution. What did they get right that’s truly important?

Europe has a bee crisis too: where are the robotic bees?

Posted on April 28th, 2009 in ecology,Environment,Food & Wine,Nature,Politics,Science by Robert Miller

While the new swine flu epidemic is causing an appropriate level of alarm, more subtle aspects of environmental failure are beginning to surface, that, in the long run, will pose a more serious problem to our food supply and very likely escalate the cost of food. Europe is far more advanced than the United States in regulating the chemical industry and several herbicides that are toxic, such as Atrazine, have been banned from use in Europe, but are still used  widely in the United States. It’s ironic that the research showing Atrazine’s toxicity (it gets in the ground water and causes feminization of male frogs–if it does that to frogs what does it do to our own reproductive functions?) was done here in the United States. But, under the Bush administration, the EPA approved the use of Atrazine for United States agriculture.
As I was scanning the paper this morning, mostly focusing on reports about swine flu, I came across a more obscure but troubling article. A report in the New York Times today points out that Europe, like the United States, has a major bee problem. The currently high level of bee mortality in Europe could permanently wipe out bees in that region within 8-10 years, according to Apimondia, an international bee organization. Last year alone about 30%, or more than 13 million of Europe’s bee hives died out. The loss of bee hives was much higher in some regions, reaching 80% in southwest Germany. This problem is potentially far more serious than swine flu, since about 35% of Europe’s food supply depends on pollination and no one pollinates as effectively as bees.
We have already heard about the bee crisis in the United States where mobile bee hives have been used for farm pollination for many years. In this brave new world of our farm economy, farmers pay for massive numbers of bees brought to their farms in trucks, where they are released, sting a few people, and then serve as pollinators for the region for a set period of time before the bee keeper moves on to his next contract.  The near complete absence of local bees makes this arrangement a necessity. No magic bullet seems to explain the mounting decline of bee hives, either in Europe or the United States.  The cumulative effects of mite infestation, pesticides and herbicides have been blamed for this crisis, but no simple solution or cure is available. The bees leave the hives to forage and pollinate, but they don’t come back. A colleague of mine working on the problem of bee vitality  here at the University of Minnesota has concluded that the bees are simply stressed by too many excesses and over stimulation from their environment. One popular idea is that the stimulation by the chemical environment leads them to spend too much energy reliably identifying their to and from path and this stress leads to infestation with mites and an early death. But, stress is one thing, early death is another.

It is alarming to see that Europe is suffering from the same problem that we have here in the United States, since they have been better about regulating their chemical industry. Indeed representatives from Europe have appeared in this country giving lectures to major manufacturing establishments to tell them what chemicals they can and cannot use if they expect to export their products to Europe. And, they are all taking careful notes, because they can’t lobby their way into avoidance, like they do here. Fortunately for us, we are still enjoying benefits of a free market economy approach to the chemical industry–if it doesn’t smell too bad, go ahead and use it. I suppose what we need are large numbers of robotic bee colonies that only have to come back to their hives to get their little lithium batteries recharged.  Would a robotic bee project be a suitable challenge for the summer students at MIT? Or, should we take a stab at a biological approach? Where is the genome of the  honey bee when you need it most?


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The hype and hubris over Pakistan

Posted on April 26th, 2009 in Books,Environment,War by Robert Miller

You may have noticed a rash of articles in the press recently, suggesting that Pakistan is in imminent danger of falling to the Taliban extremists that once ruled Afghanistan and now control some regions of Pakistan in the Northwest Tribal areas. Their recent capture of Buner, a city just sixty miles from the Pakistani capitol of Islamabad, has prompted a new alarm about the dangers of Pakistan becoming a radical Islamic state.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appearing before a House subcommittee this past week, expressed mild panic about the  advancement of the Taliban and the possible collapse of the country by Islamic radicals. And,  anytime you think about Pakistan falling to radical forces, the next image that pops up relates to the fact that whoever rules Pakistan, has a finger on the nuclear option, and one can quickly go from there to an image of an apocalyptic Armageddon, as World War III gets underway, with the U.S. at the epicenter of the conflict over Afghanistan. Apocalyptic visionaries flourish in Washington and are given sway in the mainstream media. I saw a report recently where one of the comments was “Pakistan is gone.” But, even the more cautious in Washington are trying to connect the dots as follows: since the Taliban now rule regions of Pakistan within sixty miles of Islamabad, the situation is nearing crisis proportions, if not already defining a state of  imminent collapse of the present government. So look for another Washington-sponsored military coup sometime soon (but hopefully not).  Horrors! There are many in Pakistan who refer to this conflict as “the American’s war.”  Who knows?

So, how imminent is the Taliban threat to Pakistan?  Not too long ago, we were only talking about the Taliban as a threat to Afghanistan, but suddenly a new worry is on the horizon. Are they on steroids or something? But, about the time that new war drums start to beat, or a national panic sets in, or Washingtonian hysteria creeps over the horizon, then we should try to search for knowledgeable and objective sources that don’t make a living by rattling swords and removing them from their scabbards. But to whom should we direct our request for objectivity? My perennial favorite  for objective information on Islamic threats and regional history is Juan Cole, who is one of our best informed historians on Islam and a professor of history at the University of Michigan. His most recent posting on Pakistan is reassuring about the makeup of the country that guards against an imminent Taliban sweep and the possibility of a extremist nuclear holocaust. As he points out, the Taliban come from the Pushtun tribal areas that are close to Islamabad and stretch along the border with Pakistan. Indeed many Afghans belong to the large Pushtun tribes, so it is sometimes difficult even to put a strict “Pakistan” identity to the Taliban. But the Pushtuns represent only a small regional part of the Pakistani population: 85% of Pakistanis live in Punjab or Sindh and are largely represented by religious traditionalists, including Sufis, Shiites, Sufi-Shiites, or urban modernists. While these regions also have some Islamic fundamentalist groups, the Pakistani population as a whole has marched towards a more modern society, though serious problems persist. The middle class of Pakistan has doubled since 2000. Furthermore, the military of Pakistan is a large, effective fighting force of 550,000 men who are well trained and well equipped (as they have to be since they have faced off against India for many confrontations). In contrast, the Pakistani Taliban force amounts to a few thousand fighters who don’t have tanks, armored vehicles, or an air force. Last fall the Pakistan military had a major military engagement with the Taliban in Bajaur Pakistan,  where 1000 extremists were killed in a fierce battle in the area. Some identified groups in the area were non-military tribal leaders who were fighting the extremists and also declared that they would fight Americans with the same ferocity if they came across the border into Pakistan. Drug money in the Pushtun tribal areas helps maintain the extremists in arms and ammunition. But even in the Pushtun region of Buner, there was substantial opposition to the Taliban and their recent imposition of Shariah law.According to Cole, the popularity of the Taliban and al-Qaeda plummeted after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Cole’s best guess is that the alarm for the imminent collapse of Pakistan to the Taliban is being fed by those in Pakistan that want our help in restoring a military dictatorship or want to milk the U.S. for more money. The idea that Pakistan could fall to the Taliban is ranked by Cole as about as likely as Mexico retaking Texas (my interpretation).

But the pessimism about Pakistan’s future won’t go away. A recent article in the Times paints a grim picture of the methods and determination of the Taliban and how their strategy, in the absence of reliable government support for the opposition, can lead to demoralization among local citizens who don’t want the Taliban in the region, but don’t have the means to resist, and don’t receive sufficient outside support from the government. In contrast, one of the largest recent public demonstrations in Pakistan was the turnout in favor of returning the Supreme Court justices to their positions, after they had been dismissed by the military dictatorship–hardly the act of pro-Taliban populists. At the Federal level last year, Pakistanis voted largely for the Pakistan People’s Party or the Muslim League, neither of which are fundamentalists. So, the country as a whole does not seem to be  enchanted by extremists. One must also remember that any military coup that might take place, like the last one, was done with prior approval from Washington. Where would the international support come from if a military coup in Pakistan was initiated by the Taliban? China? Not likely. Iran? No, they are the sworn enemies of the Taliban (in fact Iran let the U.S. use Iranian air bases for our attacks against the Taliban after 9/11).
A different question than one directed towards the internal threats serving to destabilize the government of Pakistan, is whether our presence in Pakistan, with our drones making missile strikes against suspected terrorist groups in the Northwest tribal areas, represents a source of destabilization to the region and the country. Every time a missile fired from a drone hits a wedding party rather than a terrorist camp, our actions contribute to a new recruiting opportunity for the Taliban. To me, it is hard to argue that our campaign in Afghanistan, which has spilled over into Pakistan, has been anything other than a successful recruiting tool for new Taliban fighters.  It seems equally clear to me that the war in Pakistan is indeed America’s war. With support from drug money and new fighters recruited by our own bombings and increased visibility in Pakistan, we continue to dig a much deeper hole for ourselves than the one we had just a few years ago. Polls in Pakistan show that the majority want the United States out of the country completely and they want the U.S. to honor the sovereignty of the Pakistani state. Our presence there further destabilizes the unpopular leadership of Asif Ali Zardari, following the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto in 2007. If our presence in Pakistan serves to re-introduce a military dictatorship, then that too will not serve the best interests of the developing civilian government or the U.S. The question we must ask ourselves is this: in order to stabilize Afghanistan, a country of 30 million people, are we willing to risk destabilizing Pakistan, a country of 165 million people and a country with a nuclear arsenal? Isn’t this continued war the creation and propagation of American Hubris on steroids? Haven’t we recited the wrong narrative to ourselves for far too long? Didn’t we learn anything from Korea, Vietnam or Iraq? We have continuously propagated a fictional version of our results in those conflicts in order to preserve a mythical vision of America as an undefeated superpower, a vision that cannot withstand simple tests of reality. But this tiresome, redundant version of our history can only be bought and sold in America. People outside of America now mostly know the truth.

If there is a silver lining to this false version of our own history, least it is one thing we will never outsource and it does provide a significant element to our economy. That way it seems easy for us to continue to purchase military hardware that was designed to confront the Russians during the Cold War (we will see if the F-22 fighter jet will truly be cancelled–it was designed to confront Russian MIGs). We continue with our metaphor of inventive deceit when we hide from our own citizens the reality that, for most of the conflicts we have been engaged in since WW II, we have been big losers; yet the image we portray of ourselves is one of standing up to the evils of communism and finally defeating the multi-headed monster through the triumph of the Cold War. And, then we defeated terrorism  in Iraq even if that country had nothing to do with 9/11. Any other version of our history is perverse and must be one promoted by a bunch of losers who only want to destroy America, not those who want to promote its best interests. The truth is, if we had been honest about Korea, we would never have fought Vietnam or Iraq.

Today, al-Qaeda in Pakistan is apparently reduced to a few hundred fighters who help the Taliban but do not have an operational force that we need to worry about. Unfortunately, Obama has turned the Afghanistan conflict into his own brand of warfare, and while he has smoothed some of the rough edges off of the conflict in Afghanistan, it’s still a brand based on America’s delusional history of itself, with the added expense and long-term commitment towards nation-building. We persist in applying an American model of what we think the region should look like. Yet, our experience in Iraq, if we were honest about what and how we accomplished what exists today, has been that we didn’t really bring democracy to the country, we simply exchanged a Sunni dictatorship for a Shiite government whose closest ally is Iran. If you tell Americans that we fought hard and drained our treasury so that Iran could become a more powerful player in the Middle East, they might have a very different attitude towards what we are doing today in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But in a nutshell, that’s what we accomplished.

We do indeed get to pick our wars when we invade other countries, but we don’t get to pick the outcome and we never have. Not knowing our own history is a feature that most Americans share with the citizens of ancient Rome.  If you have followed the recent events in Iraq, you realize that the country, destroyed beyond any possibility of short-term repair, with dispersion of millions of Iraqis that are not coming back to the country, remains as a tinder box, ready to explode if the displaced Sunni minority isn’t brought back into some form of power sharing in the al-Maliki government.
As a country, we have allowed ourselves to be driven to the brink of an economic collapse, with our unwavering insistence on global military hegemony as an non-debatable part of the equation we apply to the world. In somewhat more knowledgeable parts of the country, the argument goes that we have created so many enemies, due to countless blowbacks that are waiting to hatch in the nursery of our future, and possibly carry with them the use nuclear weapons, that, at all costs to our own economy, we must persist in maintaining our military posture. And we need examples like Afghanistan and Pakistan to prove it!
When discussions about Pakistan take place in government today, these apocalyptic story threads we hear about probably seem very plausible to those who ponder the next step in our official response to these “threats.” At the very least these decisions seem to be done to avoid the least resistive among the political options. You can’t make a U-trun when you’re driving on a freeway. But, in the light of day, when we engage in major wars against a few hundred people, destroying millions of lives in the process, if we don’t recognize that the road we are building to our future is the same one that the Romans built to theirs two thousand years ago, then we will surely continue to go down the road we are on that can only lead to more economic hardship and military commitments that we can’t afford. The current trolley car ride of emulating ancient Rome, is void of any vision about who the new Goths or the Visigoths in our future will be–those that sacked Rome after its capitulation. But, let’s face it, we already know the answer to that question as well. The threats of war and external instability that are always over-hyped and over-cooked prevent us from marshaling the resources and focus on the issues we will need to address in order to save the planet and the environment. We know who the Goths are–they are the Republicans!


Note added: recent reports have suggested that reinforcements into the Buner area forced the Taliban to move their forces back into the Swat area, reversing their recent achievements in Buner.

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