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The decline of insects and what it means

Monarch butterfly insects



The news over the past few weeks has been riddled with headlines like “Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’,” “Monarch butterflies are going extinct,” and “The insect apocalypse is here.” If it sounds bad, that’s because it is.

You probably know that bees and other pollinators are in trouble for several reasons — including increased overall pathogen loads, poor nutrition, habitat loss and pesticide exposure.

But these alarm bells over the broader state of emergency that insects are facing underscore the fact that yes, bees and other pollinators are in trouble. But they aren’t the only insects crucial to keeping an ecological balance, nor are they the only insects at risk.

The decline of the monarch

While honey bees are the most commonly discussed pollinator endangered by pesticide exposure, there is a very wide range of pollinators beyond honey bees — including about 4,000 types of bees, butterflies, bats and birds — that can be impacted by agricultural chemicals.

This year, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation reported that California’s monarch butterfly numbers are at an all-time low, declining more than 85 percent from 2017. And this massive drop comes after years of decline; 97 percent of monarch butterflies have already disappeared since the 1980s.

Scientists say the monarchs are threatened by pesticides, herbicides, and the destruction of butterflies’ milkweed habitat along their migratory route. Climate change is also a factor, with carbon dioxide from car and factory exhaust reducing a natural toxin in milkweed that feeding caterpillars use to fight parasites.

Where are the bugs?

Beyond the monarch news, another recent study has warned that insect populations are declining worldwide due to pesticide use and other factors, with a potentially catastrophic effect on the planet. The study warns that more than 40% of insect species could become extinct in the next few decades.

While insects are routinely depicted as mildly annoying at best and a downright plague at worst, they make up around 70% of all animal species and serve as the structural and functional base of many of the world’s ecosystems. Until now, the broad conversation around endangered species has largely focused on vertebrate species, but entomologist Don Sands shares that insects are “the small creatures that run the world.”

The decline of even one species of insect could have dire consequences for food and farming: “If we don’t have insects as moderators of other pest populations, we have insect populations that flare up and ruin crops and make them difficult to grow.”

Immediate action needed

Experts recommend taking radical and immediate action to prevent large scale insect extinction. These include overhauling existing agricultural methods. In particular, we need a serious reduction in pesticide use replaced with more sustainable, ecologically-based practices.

Integrated pest management is one such approach to sustainably managing insects, as it focuses on prevention rather than treatment, and uses environmentally friendly options to safeguard crops. The goal is not to eliminate insect pests entirely, but to keep their numbers at a point to which they no longer cause a problem.

Unless we change how we produce food, and move away from chemical pest management more broadly, we’ll be in big trouble. This shift in conversation around the importance of insects is an important first step.

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This study argues genetic modification could help quinoa, millet and other naturally stress-resistant plants become more productive

Translation: genetic manipulation will produce more short-term profit and please ignore that mono-crops raise the risk of total crop failures due to novel but predictable fungus, virus, or rust outbreaks. Notable_AndrewGrains_Main.jpg

Drought, extreme temperatures, salt in the soil: Because of conditions like these — which scientists call abiotic stresses — the fields that feed the planet yield just half the amount of food crops they have the potential to provide. With climate change, some of these stresses are worsening, even as rising population means more mouths to feed.

One solution to this challenge? Naturally stress-resistant plants, or NSRPs, which thrive despite difficult environments and challenging conditions. That’s the argument from a paper by a team of Chinese researchers in the academic journal Nature Plants. People already eat some NSRPs, and the paper contends that genetic modification of these crops could give them the boost they need to be produced more widely.

The researchers point to millets as one example. These edible grasses are a staple crop in parts of Africa and Asia, and they’re adapted well to one of the most formidable abiotic stresses: drought. Plus, millets can usually withstand high soil salinity and grow without much nitrogen fertilizer. An issue with millets, though, is that they often have low yields, the paper says, although scientists are working to change that.

Another NSRP suited for human consumption is quinoa, which tolerates high levels of salt in the soil and can grow in a variety of climates.

Higher yields would allow these and other NSRPs — such as amaranth, kaniwa and buckwheat — to be cultivated more broadly, the researchers argue. They say that advances in gene editing technology, such as CRISPR, can and should be used in conjunction with other techniques to keep the plants’ stress resistance and nutritional value in place while raising yields.

The paper doesn’t address potential limitations to the argument. The authors begin their plea for a turn toward NSRPs by quoting the often cited number that “food production must increase by at least 70%” by 2050, focusing on scientific and technological solutions. They don’t address political dynamics, the reality that government policies influence the distribution of existing food resources and the composition of people’s diets.

And commercialization of plants like quinoa holds the potential to funnel farmers’ resources toward a select few varieties of a given crop, at the expense of the very diversity that helps such crops withstand environmental change. Plus, some people still have concerns over genetic modification and CRISPR.

Still, as the human population climbs and climate change intensifies, the world will be looking for solutions. “For better food security and a healthier diet,” the paper’s authors write, “the world needs many more stress-resistant crops. As both researchers and global citizens, we look forward to a sustainable future with many stress-resistant, resource-efficient and nutrient-diverse grain, vegetable and fruit crops.”

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Court Ruling Aids Wolves’ Return to California

Court Ruling Aids Wolves’ Return to California

A judge’s decision to uphold California’s protections for wolves is a step in the right direction, but one lone wolf’s epic journey across state lines shows that federal protections are necessary to ensure the species’ continued survival.




A remote camera operated by the U.S. Forest Service snapped this photo of a wolf pup in California's Lassen National Forest in 2017. A recent court ruling upheld protections for gray wolves as they return to the Golden State.

A remote camera snapped this photo of a wolf pup in California’s Lassen National Forest in 2017. Recently a state judge upheld protections for California’s growing wolf population.

U.S. Forest Service via AP

The wanderer known as “Journey” is a lone wolf no more.

Recently, a California state judge upheld endangered species protections for gray wolves, ruling on the side of this iconic species as well as conservation groups represented by Earthjustice.

This victory raises the hope that the resurgence started by one wolf known as Journey will live on in California, and it strengthens our resolve to fight for the federal protections necessary to ensure wolves can thrive nationwide.

Journey, whose official radio collar designation is OR-7, is a legend among wolf enthusiasts. Back in 2011, he sparked national awe after trekking more than a thousand miles from northeast Oregon to California, where a wolf hadn’t been spotted in almost 100 years. As the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife tracked his movements, the large tan- and black-haired wolf moved through such wild areas as the Soda Mountain Wilderness, Crater Lake, and the Umpqua National Forest.

Remote camera photos clipped together of OR7 from May 2014.
USFWS/YouTube

Journey became the first wild wolf to set foot in the Golden State since 1924. He traveled back and forth between California and Oregon for a few years, finding a mate in Oregon in 2014. Soon after, they had three furry black pups and were officially designated the Rogue Pack, the first wolf pack established in western Oregon since the early 1900s. The following year, siblings of Journey’s had their own set of wolf pups in California, known as the Shasta Pack. And in 2017, California’s second known pack of wolves, the Lassen Pack, were discovered with three more pups in Lassen National Forest. These wolves, too, can be traced back to Journey, whose son is the breeding male of the Lassen Pack.

But Journey’s lineage extends even further across the West. He’s likely one of several offspring originating from a successful wolf reintroduction program launched in 1995 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That program involved transplanting several wolves from Canada to Yellowstone National Park, and later elsewhere in the Rocky Mountains. When wolves returned to Yellowstone, the ecosystem began to thrive as they helped restore the balance between predator and prey. Earthjustice is pushing for a similar reintroduction program of Mexican gray wolves in the American Southwest.

Members of the Shasta Pack captured by a California Department of Fish and Wildlife trail cam.

Members of the Shasta Pack captured by a California Department of Fish and Wildlife trail cam.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Together, Journey and his extended wolf pack represent a formidable comeback in a region — and a country — that has historically been no friend of wolves. There were once as many as 2 million of these highly social creatures in North America. By the 1980s, only a few small pockets of survivors remained in the lower 48 states after hunters and fur trappers got their way.

Today, anti-wolf groups and their friends in Congress are determined to repeat the mistakes of the past, returning us to the dark ages when wolves were hunted, poisoned, and killed. Beginning in 2011, legislators stripped gray wolves of federal protections in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Since then, trophy hunters and trappers have killed nearly 3,500 wolves. Now the administration wants to remove protections for wolves across the entire contiguous United States.

The law recently upheld in California makes it illegal to kill wolves within the state’s borders, and also makes state resources available to ensure their recovery. Even if wolves are stripped of the federal protections they currently receive under the Endangered Species Act, they will remain protected within the Golden State.

Journey’s epic travels underscore the need for protections not just in California, but across the United States. That’s why we’re continuing our efforts in court and on Capitol Hill to fight the many attempts by the federal government to remove protections for this endangered species. Without these protections, California — and the country — could be at risk of losing its wolves once again. Join our fight.

Take Action: Help defend the Endangered Species Act

Wildlife could soon be under fire due to a series of regulatory rollbacks to the Endangered Species Act. The Trump administration is seeking to remove protections for wolves across the entire contiguous United States. Urge your governor to stand up for the Endangered Species Act and for wolf recovery by opposing the national wolf-delisting plan.

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Conflict-driven hunger worsens; Middle East hit hard

yemenit child

A child in Yemen.

A new report to the UN Security Council shines a spotlight on hunger in conflict zones: The situation in the eight places in the world with the highest number of people in need of emergency food support shows that the link between conflict and hunger remains all too persistent and deadly, according to a new report released today by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP). The report was prepared for the UN Security Council which in May adopted a landmark resolution on preventing hunger in conflict zones.

We talked about the dire situation in Yemen back in 2011. Was anyone listening?

The situation in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Yemen worsened in the latter part of 2018 largely because of conflict, while Somalia, Syria and the Lake Chad Basin have seen some improvements in line with improved security. In total, around 56 million people are in need of urgent food and livelihood assistance across the eight conflict zones.

“This report clearly demonstrates the impact of armed violence on the lives and livelihoods of millions of men, women, boys and girls caught up in conflict,” FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva states in the report foreword. “I would strongly encourage you to keep in mind that behind these seemingly dry statistics are real people experiencing rates of hunger that are simply unacceptable in the 21st century.”

Violence against humanitarian workers is growing, the report states, sometimes forcing organizations to suspend operations and deprive vulnerable populations of humanitarian assistance. In 2018, aid workers and facilities were attacked in all the countries covered in the report.

“This report shows again the tragic link between conflict and hunger and how it still pervades far too much of the world. We need better and quicker access in all conflict zones, so we can get to more of the civilians who need our help. But what the world needs most of all is an end to the wars,” the World Food Programme Executive DirectorDavid Beasley states in the foreword.

Condemnation of starvation as a tool of war

The UN Security Council’s Resolution 2417 is an unambiguous condemnation of starvation as a tool of war. It calls on all parties to armed conflict to comply with their obligations under International Humanitarian Law to minimize the impact of military actions on civilians, including on food production and distribution, and to allow humanitarian access in a safe and timely manner to civilians needing lifesaving food, nutritional and medical assistance.

“The millions of men, women and children going hungry as a result of armed conflict will not be reduced unless and until these fundamental principles are followed”, the report states.

Unprecedented and unacceptable hunger

The growing number of protracted conflicts in the world is creating unprecedented and unacceptable levels of hunger.

Yemen’s three-year war is a stark demonstration of the urgent need for a cessation of hostilities to address the world’s largest food security emergency. In its country analysis, the report states that conflicting parties disregarded the protected status of humanitarian facilities and personnel which made scaling-up operations to prevent famine a difficult and dangerous endeavour.

In the second half of 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo had the second highest number (13 million) of acutely food insecure people, driven by a rise in armed conflict.

In South Sudan, where civil strife has persisted for more than five years, the lean season is expected to start earlier than normal, according to the report, pushing those in need of urgent support up to more than 5 million between January and March 2019.

Across the Lake Chad basin including north-eastern Nigeria, Chad’s Lac region and Niger’s Diffa, where Boko Haram militants are active, a major deterioration in food security is projected during this year’s lean season (June-August 2019), and 3 million people are expected to face acute food insecurity.

In Afghanistan, the percentage of rural Afghans facing acute food deficits is projected to reach 47 percent (or 10.6 million people) by March if urgent life-saving assistance is not provided. In the Central African Republic, armed conflict remained the main driver of hunger in 2018, with 1.9 million people experiencing severe food deficits.

Tired of Losing in Court, Trump Administration Amplifies Attack on Science

Tired of Losing in Court, Trump Administration Amplifies Attack on Science

The Trump administration is acutely aware of science’s role in pushing for effective government regulation, so it’s instituted a sneak attack on science.




Participants in the 2017 March for Science in Washington, DC., protested the Trump administration's anti-science attacks.

Participants in the 2017 March for Science in Washington, DC., protested the Trump administration’s anti-science attacks.

Molly Adams/Flickr

Several years ago, researchers studying environmental causes of childhood autism found a link to chlorpyrifos, a pesticide widely used across the U.S. on staple crops like corn, wheat, and citrus.

That study and others that followed led the EPA to ban the use of chlorpyrifos for most indoor applications, but agricultural use continued, poisoning farmworkers and others. Thanks to a series of Earthjustice lawsuits, the EPA finally proposed banning this brain-damaging pesticide in 2015. But as soon as President Trump took office, the chemical industry lobbied successfully to derail the ban. We sued, invoking the wealth of scientific data showing there is no safe level of exposure to chlorpyrifos. And in August, we won a resounding court order requiring regulators to finalize the proposed ban.  

This victory is just one of several wins Earthjustice has racked up against the Trump administration. We also had another recent court win to protect grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park from being hunted.

The results in these two cases, as in many of our cases, hinged on years of painstaking work by independent scientists. These wins prove facts still matter in court. They also underscore how much we depend on sound science to protect our health and environment. 

Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler

Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler has attempted to exclude consideration of sound science from EPA decisions.
Cliff Owen / AP

The Trump administration and its allies are acutely aware of science’s role in pushing for effective government regulation — which is why they’ve instituted a sneak attack on science. Their effort to disregard or disqualify any scientific finding that threatens corporate bottom lines has been glaringly apparent in the chlorpyrifos fight as the EPA continues to drag its feet. More sweepingly, last year former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt kicked independent scientists off key advisory boards, and acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has initiated new actions to exclude consideration of sound science altogether.

The administration’s other anti-science attacks include suppressing a report on formaldehyde’s health effects and halting a study on coal’s health risks. Recently, the president ignored findings by the world’s top climate experts, who warned we have less than 20 years to prevent a climate catastrophe. He also denied his own administration’s most recent climate assessment, which details debilitating consequences to our planet and ourselves unless we dramatically cut carbon pollution.

Just as fossil fuel interests have attacked good science to delay climate action, the chemical industry is trying to undermine and eliminate science that keeps us safe. Good science is the foundation on which our legal work stands, as well as the underpinning of our strongest environmental laws. We are taking every opportunity to defend the role of science in the courts. And, in the new Congress, we will be pressing for robust investigations of this administration’s unfounded attacks.

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Agency Nixes Fracking Leases on Pawnee Tribal Land

Agency Nixes Fracking Leases on Pawnee Tribal Land

The government admits it failed to follow its own rules when approving new oil and gas leases on Pawnee land, part of a broader pattern of agency misconduct.




Walter Echo-Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, discovered in 2015 that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management had approved oil and gas leases on Pawnee land without telling the tribe.

Walter Echo-Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, discovered in 2015 that government agencies had approved oil and gas leases on Pawnee land without telling the tribe.

Photo by Stuart Isett

It was a typical summer day in 2015 when Walter Echo-Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, discovered fracking operations near his home on Pawnee lands about 55 miles west of Tulsa.

After stumbling upon a work crew surveying for a proposed pipeline, Echo-Hawk called the oil company responsible to find out more information. The company stonewalled him. He then contacted several government agencies. Eventually, Echo-Hawk learned the truth: Two years prior, regulators had approved 17 oil and gas leases on Pawnee lands. They didn’t bother to notify the tribe.

Echo-Hawk immediately began mobilizing fellow tribal members to fight the leases. But regulators at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management said it was too late. The leases had already been approved. The agencies also claimed the Pawnee couldn’t take them to court because the tribe had failed to ask for reconsideration of those decisions when they were made.

The Pawnee, however, hadn’t been aware of the decisions because the agencies — in violation of their own rules — neglected to notify the tribe in any way.

A Confederate flag hangs from a Crown Oil fracking operation upstream from Echo-Hawk’s home.

A Confederate flag hangs from a Crown Oil fracking operation upstream from Echo-Hawk’s home.
Courtesy of Walter Echo-Hawk

Echo-Hawk was furious that federal agencies were treating Pawnee lands like “an oil and gas fiefdom.” After all, it was hardly the first time the U.S. government had run roughshod over tribal rights. In addition, the Pawnee were already gravely familiar with the threats posed by oil and gas drilling. Over the years, previous operations had left a legacy of contaminated groundwater and illegal wastewater dumping on tribal land.

“We aren’t against oil and gas production, but we are certainly against methods [that] hurt our land base, minerals and water,” wrote W. Bruce Pratt, president of the Pawnee Nation, in a press release.

In addition to water contamination, geologists have linked fracking to a surge in earthquakes, both in Oklahoma and across the country. In 2014, Oklahoma surpassed California as the most seismically active state in the lower 48. Oklahomans historically had felt an average of one or two sizable rumbles per year, but in the last few years, that number jumped to two or three per day.

A man takes photos of damage to a building in downtown Pawnee, Okla., following a 5.6 magnitude earthquake in 2016. Geologists have linked fracking to an uptick in earthquakes.

A man takes photos of damage to a building in downtown Pawnee, Okla., following a 5.6 magnitude earthquake in 2016. Geologists have linked an uptick in earthquakes to fracking.
David Bitton / AP

Despite this threat, government regulators didn’t bother to address the earthquake risk when approving the leases. Nor did they address the impacts of drilling near the Cimarron River, a 698-mile cinnamon- and paprika-colored ribbon of water that supports a native fishery protected under Pawnee tribal law. The government authorized the oil and gas company to suck millions of gallons of water from the Cimarron for fracking. Regulators also approved drilling operations on the river’s floodplain, where a spill of oil or fracking chemicals could contaminate the Cimarron, which tribal members like Echo-Hawk rely on to recharge their domestic water wells.

In 2015, the tribe requested that the agencies issue a moratorium on all new oil and gas approvals on tribal land while concerns about earthquakes and water contamination were addressed. Despite the Nation’s request, and the ongoing earthquakes, regulators continued approving new operations like water withdrawals for drilling on the leases.

“It became apparent that the agencies were not inclined to be accountable to tribal or U.S. law,” says Echo-Hawk. So the Pawnee decided to contact Earthjustice.

In early September 2016, the tribe’s fears about fracking were realized after the most powerful earthquake recorded in Oklahoma history struck the Pawnee area. The jolt was also felt by six neighboring states.

Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman

Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman represents the Pawnee in their lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management.
Matt Nager for Earthjustice

“My house is made of brick and stone, and it shook as though it were made of straw,” says Echo-Hawk, whose home was among the many houses and administrative buildings badly damaged in the quake. Since then, several studies, including one from the U.S. Geological Survey, have found evidence linking fracking wastewater injections to earthquakes across the country.

Shortly after, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management on behalf of the Pawnee Nation, as well as Echo-Hawk and other individual Pawnee members. Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman says the Pawnee situation illustrates a larger pattern where the federal government violates the law by approving oil and gas projects on tribal lands without telling the affected tribes. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, for example, has used a similar maneuver in recent years in New Mexico, Maine, and on tribal lands in Oklahoma

“Our government has run roughshod over the rights of Native Americans when approving oil and gas development,” Freeman said. “But the law requires federal agencies to respect tribal laws and sovereignty.”

In addition to the federal court lawsuit, Earthjustice asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reconsider its leasing decision through a legal mechanism known as an administrative appeal. In May, the agency’s internal review agreed with the tribe’s argument, determining that the Bureau of Indian Affairs violated the law by approving the oil and gas leases without informing tribal members and without examining fracking’s environmental impacts. The agency’s review invalidated three of the leases and declared another 10 expired and therefore no longer in effect.

Only four leases now remain, and the tribe, represented by Earthjustice, is elevating the issue to the national level by bringing the case to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, a federal review body. At the same time, Earthjustice’s challenge against the Bureau of Land Management’s drilling permit approvals is moving forward in district court.

While some drilling has been approved on the four remaining leases, Freeman said they have the same legal defect as the leases that were already invalidated.  As a result, he is hopeful the federal review board will strike down those four leases as well.

“The bureau has already admitted it violated the law in approving these four leases,” says Freeman. “They can’t now just turn a blind eye to those mistakes.”  

Walter Echo-Hawk

Walter Echo-Hawk
Photo Courtesy of Walter Echo-Hawk
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Fracking, Gas, Oil
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Looking to fungi, spiders and other natural insect killers for less toxic alternatives to synthetic pesticides

Mistake NUMBER ONE, 2, 3,4,,,? Thinking that humans know enough to outsmart nature’s means of dealing with imbalance of systems. Article_Biopesticides_Main2.jpg

In the 1940s, scientists discovered the insect-killing properties of synthetic chemical compounds, including DDT, chlordane and lindane. Such products were cheap to produce and very effective at protecting crops and fighting insect-borne disease. But by the 1960s, it was apparent that these chemicals which can persist in nature long after initial use were accumulating in the environment. Whats more, many were harmful to birds, fish, reptiles and mammals.

Much of this came to light through Rachel Carsons revelatory book Silent Spring, published in 1962, but scientists already had begun to look for less toxic pest control alternatives. Researchers at University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, Riverside, defined in 1959 the principles of what would later be called integrated pest management (IPM) an environmentally sensitive approach to controlling insects and other pests that relies on a combination of tools. Today, biopesticides are part of the IPM toolbox.

Biopesticides are pesticides made from substances found in nature that offer a less toxic alternative to man-made chemicals. As a class theyve been used for a long time, but most traditional biopesticides havent been able to compete with synthetic pesticides on cost and effectiveness. Researchers around the world now are working to change that by manipulating chemicals found in plants, animals, bacteria and fungi. Theyre discovering new ways to use natures arsenal to build better biopesticides and so reduce the need for less environmentally friendly pest control.

Niche Market

A lot of the pioneering research around biopesticides focused on insect pheromones chemicals that insects use to communicate with each other says Jim Seiber, a professor emeritus of food science and environmental toxicology at University of California, Davis. The use of these chemicals to alter insect behavior when sprayed on crops or used as bait traps, for example, worked to some extent, but not nearly as well as synthetic insecticides. Most people like instant results,says Seiber. You could spray DDT and see the dead insects out there and count them. You couldnt get those same results with biopesticides.

As a result, biopesticides became a niche market, today accounting for roughly 3 percent of the global annual market for pesticides. There have been a few commercial standouts, though. The popular insecticide spinosad, for instance, was derived from a kind of soil bacteria discovered at an abandoned rum distillery in the 1980s.

pesticides Australian Blue Mountains funnel web spider

Venom from the Australian Blue Mountains funnel spider contain substances that only kill certain insects, giving it promise as a source of an environmentally friendly pesticide. Photo courtesy of Graham M. Nicholson, University of Technology, Sydney

By the 1990s, scientists were documenting increasing problems with synthetics. Some had been used so extensively that insects were evolving resistance. Biochemist Glenn King turned to spiders for a potential solution.

Spiders are professional insect killers,says King, a professor at the University of Queensland, Australia. Venom from spiders, scorpions, snakes and other predatory animals contain a mix of biologically active compounds called peptides. These small molecules kill prey in various ways. Some affect the nervous system. Others injure the cells and damage living tissues in other parts of the body. Some are specific to specific prey animals.

The idea was that, unlike manmade chemicals, the venom peptides wouldn’t leave residues that could persist in the environment for years, and because they targeted specific types of insects, they wouldn’t harm fish, reptiles, birds or mammals. King discovered a few molecules in the venom of the Australian Blue Mountains funnel web spider that could kill certain insects but wouldnt harm other insects or vertebrates. In 2005, he founded a biotech company called Vestaron to turn these small molecules into biopesticides that farmers could use to protect their crops. The idea was that, unlike man-made chemicals, the venom peptides wouldnt leave residues that could persist in the environment for years, and because they targeted specific types of insects, they wouldnt harm fish, reptiles, birds or mammals. 

In July 2018, Michigan-based Vestaron began selling its first biopesticide derived from these peptides. The product, called Spear-T, kills aphids, mites, thrips and whiteflies common pests of greenhouse-grown veggies and ornamental plants. CEO Anna Rath says Vestaron plans to bring to market a family of peptide-based biopesticides in the next few years for use on field crops, too.

The company is also turning to bacteria to help expand where and how their products might be used, Rath says. It recently inserted a gene for producing a caterpillar-killing peptide derived from spider venom into a protein derived from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). When caterpillars chew on leaves that have been sprayed with the product, theyll eat a little of the protein, which pokes tiny holes in their gut, helping to increase the penetration of the insecticidal peptide.

Botanicals and Fungi

Other researchers are working to manipulate chemicals from plants and  fungi to build better biopesticides.

For the past few decades, farmers around the world have employed essential oils, including neem oil an extract from the Asian neem tree as insecticidal botanicals. Essential oils, including neem, break down quickly in nature. This makes them environmentally friendly, but not very effective. Recently, scientists have started to experiment with encapsulating these botanicals in nanoparticles that could help to protect the active compounds from breaking down as quicklyan idea thats been tried successfully with some medicines in the human body.

pesticides neem

Seeds from the Asian neem tree yield an oil that can help protect crops from insect pests. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Fungi are another particularly promising source of biopesticides. Theyre major disease-causing agents in nature,says Raymond John St. Leger, an entomologist at the University of Maryland. Many have evolved to parasitize specific insect hosts, devising gruesome methods for finishing them off. For instance, some ant fungi turn their hosts into zombies infecting the ants brain and causing it to move to an area conducive to fungal growth before killing it and releasing fungal spores through the top of the ants head.

That natural specificity is a boon, because it means scientists can search for a fungus with a specific host range for instance, one that kills bloodsucking flies but not bees or butterflies, says St. Leger.

But fungi work slowly, so St. Leger and University of Maryland Ph.D. candidate Brian Lovett now are working on ways to genetically modify fungi for a quicker kill. They and other colleagues have inserted venom peptide genes from spiders and scorpions into fungi. Theyve taken their experiment to Africa, where theyre testing its efficacy in aerosol form on malaria-causing mosquitoes in an enclosure specially built to prevent accidental release.

Challenges Remain

Despite the scientific excitement around new biopesticide technologies, most remain untested in the marketplace. When it comes to using in agricultural applications, in the end, all that matters is what farmers think,says King.  

None of the researchers sees biopesticides as a perfect replacement for synthetics, for either farming or public health applications.

“Chemicals are going to continue playing a role for a long time to come,”says St. Leger, who sees the recent innovation in biopesticides as creating more options for pest management, not a single solution. No one product will offer a long-term fix, since pests are constantly evolving resistance. These biopesticides are prone to resistance just like any other pesticide, so if they aren’t used appropriately and rotated with other forms of pest control, they — as synthetics before them — could contribute to harder-to-kill pests.

If history has taught us anything, St. Leger says, it’s that pest management requires constant innovation.

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Holy electric hotrod in a Chevy Camaro

electric camaro

My sister’s boyfriend drove a hotrod car in the late 70s and it was a Camaro. Anytime I hear the word Camaro I remember sitting the back seat on a Texas flag, the music blaring Pink Floyd or Metallica. Today, though Camaro is rejuvenating its image from the gas guzzling and racing days of yore and has surprised fans with a new electric version of its famous car.

While we do not advocate drag racing in the Middle East because it is dangerous, two motors in this new EV make for 700 horsepower and a quarter-mile time of 9 seconds. Get your green motors running. General Motors is making a comeback with its Camaro!

While still a concept car, called the eCOPO after the special Camaros in the late 60s, it looks like a regular Camaro from the outside. But inside is a different electric story. The engines are the same ones from the Daimler electric trucks, made by BorgWarner, and they draw power from an 800-volt battery pack (get parts to make your own concept car here www.bestpartstore.co.uk. This is double the power of a Chevy Volt.

chevy volt car

The battery mass in the concept car is weighted in several units throughout the car giving it a more balanced grip on the road as drivers launch the car into the stratosphere. Maybe this will be the first car to drive on Mars?

“This project exemplifies Chevrolet and General Motors’ commitment to engaging young minds in STEM education,” Russ O’Blenes, the director of performance variants, parts, and motorsports at GM, said in a statement. “It also represents our goal of a world with zero emissions, with the next generation of engineers and scientists who will help us get there.”