Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The bees and the birds.

"Let me tell ya 'bout the..."
bees and the birds?

Bees have been in the news of late, and I am not referring to either Colony Collapse Disorder or the threat to agricultural production as pollinators decline.

The news I'm referring to relates to climate change, and how bees and the plants they pollinate may get out of synch as climate change affects dates when they emerge each spring. Biologists have theorized that food webs might be disrupted by climate change, but it is very difficult to detect. (I will be writing soon about recent findings regarding migratory birds and their food sources.) In the special case of bees and the plants they pollinate, there are a lot of interacting variables besides climate change affecting pollination:

There is growing recognition that plant–pollinator interactions can be drastically influenced by anthropogenic changes to ecosystems. Climate change, habitat fragmentation, agricultural intensification, urbanization, pollution, pesticides
and species’ invasions all have the potential to affect plant–pollinator interactions directly and indirectly.

Evidence for the consequences of climate change is difficult to tease out in complex ecological systems, but it is through long-term studies in pristine environments like Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory that we may be starting to see effects. A recent study conducted there, high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, got quite a bit of attention in the U.S., Canada, and the UK last week.

James Thompson, in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Toronto, has been studying glacier lilies and bumble bees at RMBL for 17 years. This pristine study site is free of the many confounding factors that affect pollination, allowing him to examine changes in bee activity and pollination success for glacier lilies over two decades.

Over that time, he found that both bee numbers and pollination of wild lily flowers have been declining. The change appears to be due, at least in part, to earlier flowering, before bumble bees have emerged from hibernation. And earlier flowering may be due to climate change:

The onset of blooming is determined by snowmelt, with the earliest years starting a month before the latest years owing to variation in winter snowpack accumulation. Fruit set is diminished or prevented entirely by killing frosts in some years.... When frosts do not limit fruit set, pollination limitation is frequent, especially in the earlier cohorts. .... This lily appears to be poorly synchronized with its pollinators. Across the years of the study, pollination limitation appears to be increasing, perhaps because the synchronization is getting worse.

Thompson is cautious in his summary of the study:
[He] admitted the evidence from the study was still weak but said the results were a warning that the phenomenon ‘might be widespread and needs more attention’.

‘It certainly suggests that people who have warned about the possible climate-change consequence of dislocated timing between interacting species have made a reasonable argument,’ he added.

While this is an alarming story, don't worry about glacier lilies. They are common and widely distributed in montane habitats in the western U.S. The bees (and the birds; that story's next) may not be in perfect synch with their flowers (or their insect food, in the case of birds) anymore, but it's not too late to prevent things from getting to the point of losing our favorite species. We still have time before the natural community diversity that exists in the Rocky Mountains is lost.

But we need to start reducing GHG emissions now. Personally, in our communities, and through our local, state, and national governments, we need to push to reduce our carbon footprints. Now is the time.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Our Dying Forests

(I posted this in a slightly different form at Daily Kos yesterday.)

Subhankar Banerjee has a post up on Huffington Post in support of Barbara Boxer's re-election campaign in California.
Banerjee's post is a good one, but the best part was sending us to his new website.

After the U.S. Senate killed the climate bill in late July, many of us were disappointed (but not surprised). We pointed our fingers to what went wrong and why our climate movement failed, but then we got to work to figure out how to move forward. Just a few days ago I founded ClimateStoryTellers.org that you can check out.

What a gifted writer! And what a story he has brought together about our dying forests, both here in North America and around the world.

The first post on this site is an essay by Banerjee, entitled 'Could This Be A Crime? U.S. Climate Bill Is Dead While So Much Life On Our Earth Continues To Perish'.

He begins by describing pinyon pine mortality around Sante Fe, New Mexico, over the last decade.
...In many areas of northern New Mexico, including Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Española, and Taos, 90 percent of mature piñons are now dead.

Under normal climate conditions, bark beetles live in harmony with their environment, laying their eggs in dead or weakened trees. However, when healthy trees become stressed from severe and sustained drought, they become objects of attack: the beetles drill into their bark, laying eggs along the way, and killing their host. Milder winter temperatures have ensured more of them survive the winter, and warmer summer temperatures have reduced the life cycle duration of the beetles from two to one year, and subsequently their numbers have exploded in recent years.

...During my childhood in India, I was fascinated by the detective stories of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series. Because of the forest devastation I witnessed daily, I took on the role of a self–assigned visual detective of a geographic region bound by a 5–mile radius around our home. I walked again and again the same three paths, each no more than 2 miles long.

Banerjee provides a link to a photo journal of the 'scene of the crime' from these regular walks, and also describes pinyon decline in prose. He's particularly eloquent in describing Native American use of pinyon pine nuts, and in reviewing the plight of pinyon forests in the last century. In addition to the threat from climate change, pinyon-juniper forests were threatened by development in the late 1800's and 1900's. P-j forests were cleared for ranching, an act which he calls 'ecocultural vandalism.'

Banerjee writes with similar eloquence about his travels to forests in the western U.S., in the Yukon, and the Siberian taiga. He adds notes about forest declines in India and Spain that he's heard about from colleagues and friends. The thread that binds these far-flung places is that decline of forests around the globe can be attributed to the same factors that led to decline of the pinyon-juniper forests in the southwest U.S.: drought and increasing temperatures as effects of climate change intensify.

He points out that our 3 largest global carbon 'sinks', the forests which sequester carbon in their growth [Siberian taiga, North American boreal forest, and Amazon rain forests], are declining in their ability to function.

He concludes with this thought:
Global warming is a crisis: for all lands, for all oceans, for all rivers, for all forests, for all humans, for all birds, for all mammals, for all little creatures that we don’t see... for all life. We need stories and actions from every part of our earth. So far, global warming communications have primarily focused on scientific information. I strongly believe that to engage the public, we need all fields of the humanities. It is to this end that I founded ClimateStoryTellers.
Climate Story Teller indeed. Please give him a read.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

News note!

I saw a western skink (Eumeces skiltonianus) out front today! There are only 40 documented sightings of this species in western Montana; none in the last five years. Here, it is a 'Species of Concern'.
Species of Concern are native taxa that are at-risk due to declining population trends, threats to their habitats, restricted distribution, and/or other factors. Designation as a Montana Species of Concern or Potential Species of Concern is based on the Montana Status Rank, and is not a statutory or regulatory classification. Rather, these designations provide information that helps resource managers make proactive decisions regarding species conservation and data collection priorities.
We're located in the Rocky Mountain lower montane, foothill, and valley grassland ecological system. The specific location was the gravel bed in front of the house (south-facing), between the house and the herb garden/ perennial flower and shrub bed.

What it tells me is that we have fantastic wildlife habitat on our little piece of Montana!