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This week, we have a special feature from Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparks, for Firefly Fact Friday.
By Sara Lewis
Here in the Anthropocene, firefly populations worldwide are threatened by habitat loss and light pollution. Another less widely recognized threat is commercial harvesting of fireflies taken from wild populations. In Japan a hundred years ago, firefly wholesalers harvested millions of Genji fireflies and sold them for their luminous beauty. In the United States fifty years ago, millions of fireflies were harvested and sold to extract their light-producing chemicals. And in China, right now, commercial firefly harvesting is flaring up again in a dangerous new incarnation: firefly theme parks.
In June 2016, a story in the Taiwanese press reported that to entertain customers, North First Park in Chengdu released 100,000 imported fireflies from a large glass box. Hundreds of spectators enjoyed watching escaping fireflies fly up into the night sky and flicker down to the ground. Yet knowledge of firefly biology quickly reveals the ecological disaster behind this seemingly innocent entertainment. The spectators’ glee – along with the fireflies – was short-lived, because adult fireflies only survive for a week or so. Also, fireflies have very specific habitat requirements, so they are not likely to survive outisde their native habitat.
Where did these theme park fireflies come from? We don’t really know. In the past, Chinese organizers of similiar commercial firefly exhibitions have claimed that all the fireflies they released were raised in captivity. Yet to artificially breed 100,000 fireflies from egg to adult would be technically challenging and quite costly. Instead, it seems most likely that all these fireflies had been harvested from wild firefly populations somewhere in China.
Does harvesting a million fireflies matter? Yes. Based on past experience, we already know that overharvesting can put fireflies at risk. During the early 1900s Genji fireflies were nearly extinguished from the Japanese countryside by commercial overharvesting. In the United States, beginning in the 1950s many different firefly species were commercially harvested in massive numbers (surprisingly, this practice persists in some places. While a few very abundant fireflies species might be able to tolerate such heavy harvesting, less common and more localized firefly species would be driven to extinction.
China is a country imbued with much ancient wisdom, vast natural resources, and impressive technological expertise. Yet without some protection, rapid urban growth and economic expansion will inevitably put Chinese fireflies at risk. To conserve fireflies for future generations to enjoy, commercial harvesting from wild populations should be banned, both in China and in the United States.
Learn more about commercial harvesting of fireflies in the U.S. and in Japan in Silent Sparks.
On Earth Day and everyday we all need to focus on ways to be more environmentally conscious and responsible. In Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice, Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson draw on the most up-to-date science to provide a handy guide that links knowledge to action. In the process, they debunk commonly held misconceptions about sustainability. The first step in affecting positive change is awareness:
1. Sustainability challenges are largely a problem of consumption.
2. As we move toward more sustainable practices, precedence should be given to the environment; humans should be considered as negative pressures that put ecosystems at risk.
3. Better policies and technologies are all that is needed to meet the environmental challenges ahead.
4. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNI (Gross National Income) are useful metrics when considering sustainability.
5. Implementing sustainable practices means sacrificing profits.
As we work to meet the challenges posed by climate change and environmental vulnerability, it is important to educate ourselves so that we can arrive at solutions that will work over the long term. This Earth Day, Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson’s book is necessary reading.
On Monday, February 1 Oliver Morton, author of The Planet Remade, will partner with Katherine Mangu-Ward at a lunch hosted by Future Tense to discuss the potential role of geoengineering in climate change in Washington D.C.. If you would like to attend, RSVP here. In the meantime, learn more about the topic on the Future Tense blog, excerpted here:
In The Planet Remade, Oliver Morton argues that geoengineering, the process by which Earth’s systems are manipulated, can be used in a positive way to address the problems caused by man-made climate change. Geoengineering is nothing new. Chapter 7 of The Planet Remade describes how it was used in the twentieth century to feed a growing population. A summary:
At the end of the nineteenth century it became apparent that the yield of wheat would soon fall short of the demand. Sir William Crookes, one of the leading chemists of the time, gave a speech in 1898 on the subject. The number of people who wanted to eat wheat was increasing, but by that point there was no more land on which to grow it. The solution? Increasing the amount of nitrogen in the soil to increase the amount of wheat that a given parcel of land could yield. If this wasn’t done, Crookes warned, the world would face starvation.
Nitrogen was fixed on as the key to a solution because it is a necessary component of photosynthesis. It exists in the air we breathe in the inert form of two identical atoms attached to one another. In order to aid in sustaining life, it must be detached and fixed to some other element. This happens when bacteria in plants twist nitrogen molecules and insert hydrogen molecules into the resulting spaces, turning the nitrogen into ammonia. Later, the nitrogen is returned to its inert form. The process by which nitrogen is fixed and then unfixed makes up the nitrogen cycle. As this process has proceeded uninterrupted by humans for billions of years, it has been one component in supporting increasingly more complex life forms on Earth.
Crookes was hopeful that the problem could be solved. He called on scientists to figure out a way to fix nitrogen industrially. Fritz Haber, a professor at the University of Freiburg, rose to the challenge. He and his laboratory technicians created a process by which fixed nitrogen was created by passing a continuous stream of nitrogen and hydrogen over a hot catalyst at very high pressure. His colleague Carl Bosch scaled the process up so that it could be used on an industrial scale. The process was quickly adopted globally to produce more food. By the end of the 1960s, the amount of nitrogen fixed by the Haber-Bosch process exceeded that fixed by all the microbes in the world’s soil. Both men won the Nobel Prize for their efforts. Their discoveries have had profound implications beyond the world of agriculture.
The problem identified by Crookes had been solved, but at a cost. One cost can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. Between the 1960s and 1990s, the flow of nitrogen out of America’s heartland, through the Mississippi and into the Gulf has doubled. This abundant supply of nitrogen makes ideal food for photosynthetic algae to flourish, resulting in colossal algal blooms. As they decompose, they consume all the oxygen in the water, leaving none to support other life forms. As a result, large swaths of the Gulf of Mexico become dead zones every summer.
Does this episode in history prove that humans can’t be trusted with geoengineering? Or can it be used more responsibly in the future to address the challenge of climate change? To answer that question, check out The Planet Remade here.
For the next two weeks, representatives from countries around the world will be meeting in Paris to discuss nothing less than the future of our planet at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Climate change is one of the most important issues facing the world today, and it behooves all of us to educate ourselves. PUP publishes a number of titles that have the information you need to understand the repercussions of climate change, and make informed choices that will promote sustainability. Browse many of them below, and be sure to take advantage of the free chapters and/or introductions that we have posted on our website. For the next two weeks, check back here to follow our Conversations on Climate blog series, including posts from Victor Olgyay and Gernot Wagner.
Noah Wilson-Rich studies bees and the diseases that are depleting their colonies. He founded the Best Bees Company, a Boston based beekeeping service and research organization, has given a TED talk, and is now the author of The Bee: A Natural History, recently published by Princeton University Press. Today he shares with us the vital importance of urban beekeeping.
CITIES ARE KEY TO SAVING BEES
Nearly a decade after the start of Colony Collapse Disorder (C.C.D.), a bizarre phenomenon whereby honey bees simply vanished from their hives across the United States during 2006-2011, bees are still dying at unsustainable rates today. Across the country, about one in every three hives does not survive the winter. Germany shares this alarming statistic across their apiaries. Bee deaths seem higher in areas with harsh winters and in areas with monoculture agriculture use – but lower death rates in cities. In Boston, urban bees not only survive the winter at higher rates, but they also produce more honey than beehives in surrounding suburban and rural environments.
Bees are vitally important creatures. We tend to give honey bees (Apis mellifera) all the credit for pollination because most people are familiar with the old man beekeeper working his white painted beehives image. Yet, honey bees are only one species of bee from about 20,000 total species worldwide. Their contributions span far past pollinating around 100 fruit and vegetable crops that we rely upon, and an estimated $100 billion to the global economy each year. Of the $15 billion that bees contribute to the United States economy annually, the alfalfa bee alone contributes an estimated $7 billion. The alfalfa bee! (Cattle rely on alfalfa for feed.) If the future of humanity is to involve nutritious food, then we must consider bees.
Regardless of what caused or ended C.C.D., or why bees are thriving in cities, the discovery of urban beekeeping as a safe haven for bees gives us hope. The post-C.C.D. world still has myriad dangers for bees; they are still dying. The three leading hypotheses for what’s killing bees: 1) Diseases, 2) Chemicals (e.g., fungicides, pesticides, etc.), and 3) Habitat loss. The Typhoid Mary event for bees that opened the flood gates to a series of additive plagues was in 1987, when Varroa mites first came to the United States. In 1998, small hive beetles were added. In 2004, imported Australian honey bees brought with them Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. In 2006, C.C.D. began. In 2013, the fungus Nosema ceranae became omnipresent in all 200 hives that my laboratory sampled. And we haven’t even started on the pesticides, fungicides, and habitat loss yet.
Spring brings to light the brighter side of things. My beekeeping team was back out this year, tirelessly checking hives, maneuvering rooftop equipment on skyscrapers, trekking through waist-high snow drifts, looking for signs of life. One team returned to our Urban Beekeeping Laboratory and Bee Sanctuary in Boston’s South End, reporting that 100% of the day’s hives visited were alive. I assume they stayed around Boston or Cambridge that day, and my suspicion was right. The next day, another team of beekeepers returned from the field, their faces long trodden and forlorn, with only 1 out of 15 hives visited that day having survived the winter. I assumed they visited countryside beehives; I was right.
Policy makers are increasing their legislative actions to be more permissive for urban beehives, with beekeeping allowed in Seattle in 2008, New York City in 2010, Boston in 2014. San Francisco totally allows beekeeping unrestricted, while Denver limits to 2 hives in the rear 1/3 of a zone lot. Los Angeles is slated to be the next major metro area to allow beekeeping in residential areas. Even Washington, DC now has its first beehives at the White House grounds, in step with President Obama’s 2014 memorandum, “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.”
Urban beekeeping took flight in New York City in March of 2010. It was made illegal by the Giuliani administration in the 1990’s, along with a list of dozens of prohibited animals. In the years since its legalization, the island of Manhattan became a pollinator haven. After my recent talk at the March 30, 2015 meeting of the New York City Beekeepers Association, local beekeepers asked if there were too many beehives in the city. Beekeepers in London talk about this, as well. Is there a saturation point, with too many beehives in the City? That’s how common beekeeping is in New York and London. (One way to measure this is based on the Great Sunflower Project, whereby everyday citizens record the number of bees visiting a flower for 10 minutes each day, as a means of gathering data to measure pollinator abundance; this hasn’t yet been done for cities.)
Los Angeles is the only major city in the United States with illegal beekeeping. The pesticide policy came into effect long ago, way before “killer bees” gave the non-aggressive bees a bad rap. Rather, policy makers received bad info, that bees attack fruit – and decided that the best way to preserve our crops was to ban the bees. We now understand pollination. We know that more bees actually lead to more fruits and vegetables. Yet the law of the land remains, and Angelinos must kill beehives upon site. The future for beekeepers in Los Angeles may be bright, however, with City Councilor Katie Peterson and other policy makers working to legalize beekeeping as soon as within the next few months.
Access to urban beekeeping is a social justice issue. It gives everyone access to local, healthy food. What’s more is that is allows for a new avenue of corporate sustainability, with businesses opting to put beehives on their rooftops as a display of their commitment to the environment. For example, simply reusing a towel or having an herb garden on the rooftop is not necessarily enough these days for a hotel to rise to the top of the sustainability ranks. Beekeeping and pollinator protection are the next step for sustainability branding.
Urban beekeeping is happening across the globe, and it’s a good thing. We should change laws to allow more of it to happen and also educate the public so they can also raise bees on their rooftops to allow for a more sustainable future for both humans and bees, alike.
Noah Wilson-Rich, Ph.D. is founder and chief scientific officer of The Best Bees Company, a Boston-based company. His latest book is THE BEE: A Natural History.
Read the introduction here, and take a peek inside here:
From chapter 3 of The Battle for Yellowstone:
It is estimated that 30 million buffalo once inhabited the United States. In a matter of decades this number was reduced to 23 single animals. There were two main causes of this: first, they were the focus of mass hunting and second, the U.S. government ordered them slaughtered in order to starve the Native Americans as a military strategy. The 23 surviving buffalo made their home in Yellowstone and eventually swelled their numbers to about 4,000—today they make up the “Yellowstone herd.”
Yellowstone holds a special place in America’s heart. As the world’s first national park, it is globally recognized as the crown jewel of modern environmental preservation. But the park and its surrounding regions have recently become a lightning rod for environmental conflict, plagued by intense and intractable political struggles among the federal government, National Park Service, environmentalists, industry, local residents, and elected officials. The Battle for Yellowstone asks why it is that, with the flood of expert scientific, economic, and legal efforts to resolve disagreements over Yellowstone, there is no improvement? Why do even seemingly minor issues erupt into impassioned disputes? What can Yellowstone teach us about the worsening environmental conflicts worldwide?
Justin Farrell argues that the battle for Yellowstone has deep moral, cultural, and spiritual roots that until now have been obscured by the supposedly rational and technical nature of the conflict. Tracing in unprecedented detail the moral causes and consequences of large-scale social change in the American West, he describes how a “new-west” social order has emerged that has devalued traditional American beliefs about manifest destiny and rugged individualism, and how morality and spirituality have influenced the most polarizing and techno-centric conflicts in Yellowstone’s history.
This groundbreaking book shows how the unprecedented conflict over Yellowstone is not all about science, law, or economic interests, but more surprisingly, is about cultural upheaval and the construction of new moral and spiritual boundaries in the American West.
Today, Monday, June 15, 2015 is the 10th annual Nature Photography Day! Hosted by The North American Nature Photography Association, it is dedicated to encouraging appreciation for nature and raising awareness of the challenges faced by the natural world through the capturing and sharing of pictures.
Here at PUP, we have numerous titles dedicated to the natural world that are filled to the brim with beautiful pictures and illustrations of nature. Immerse yourself in different landscapes with books like The Arctic Guide, Britain’s Butterflies, and Birds of Botswana.
In December 2008, the United Nations passed a resolution officially recognizing June 8th as World Oceans Day. It is organized and coordinated by The Ocean Project, an organization that focuses its efforts on advancing ocean conservation in partnership with zoos, aquariums, and museums around the world. World Oceans Day aims to raise awareness of the current health of the ocean and educate people on the myriad ways that we rely on this complex ecosystem. To learn more about World Oceans Day and their events, visit the website.
If you’d like to learn more about the world’s oceans, Princeton University Press publishes a number of titles on the subject, including Climate and the Oceans, The Extreme Life of the Sea, and The Great Ocean Conveyor.
Today, Friday, June 5 is World Environment Day. Organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the honorary day is hosted by a different country each year. This year the host country is Italy, and the theme is “Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.”
So how is World Environment Day different from Earth Day? Earth Day was established in 1970 as part of a movement for greater environmental awareness in the United States, while World Environment Day was established in 1972 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. While Earth Day is a day to raise awareness for the environment as a whole, World Environment Day is thematic. Last year the theme was “Raise Your Voice Not the Sea Level,” with emphasis placed on the health of our oceans. This year UNEP has placed the focus on consuming resources responsibly.
Here at Princeton University Press, we publish a wide range of titles for those that appreciate our beautiful planet. These include A Pocket Guide to Sharks of the World, Birds of Australia, and Offshore Sea Life ID Guide West and East, among many others.
If you would like to follow along with World Environment Day, use the hashtags #WorldEnvironmentDay and #WED15 on Twitter, and don’t forget to tweet pictures to us @PrincetonNature. We’d love to see them!
The idea of cloning a mammoth, the science of which is explored in evolutionary biologist and “ancient DNA expert” Beth Shapiro’s new book, How to Clone a Mammoth, is the subject of considerable debate. One can only imagine what the animal kingdom would think of such an undertaking, but wonder no more. PUP staffers were feeling “punny” enough to ask their best friends:
Chester can’t get past “ice age bones”.
Buddy thinks passenger pigeons would be so much more civilized… and fun to chase.
Tux always wanted to be an evolutionary biologist…
Stella thinks 240 pages on a glorified elephant is a little excessive. Take her for a walk.
A mammoth weighs how much?! Don’t worry, Murphy. The tundra is a long way from New Jersey.