Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The bats and the bees

Another mystery die-off has begun:

A mysterious malady is killing thousands of hibernating bats in New York and Vermont, with yet another outbreak reported in a Massachusetts mine. Scientists are working desperately to unravel the cause. The disease is called “white-nose syndrome,” because a fungus appears around the muzzle of some affected bats. Researchers do not know whether the fungus is causing or contributing to the deaths or is merely a symptom of another problem.

Bat Conservation International has established a fund that is accepting donations to help finance this critical research. BCI is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and other agencies to help find solutions to this critical problem.

Like the bees, the bats are an integral part of our ecosystem, no less for being mostly unseen. I wonder how this die-off is going to affect things, and if we'll notice it here as much as back East.

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is the descriptive name given to the disappearance of bees all across North America at least, and possibly related disappearances world-wide, observed since late 2006. There is some evidence that it may be related to Israel acute paralytic virus, but as far as I know, that is still speculative. So CCD is really just a name, not an explanation.

My friend Emma, who is very generous with donating the fruit from her garden for a number of projects, observed in early 2007 that she thought it would be a poor year for her fruit trees, due to the lack of bees. Her prediction was borne out--when Terry and I came over to collect fruit for jam for the Medicine Wheel Society Elders' Dinner, there was barely one tree-full of ripe plums the entire season. By contrast, the year before, we had gone back many times and filled up buckets, boxes, and bags (hey, alliteration!). At Terry's, we had made over 100 jars of plum jam; Emma had made her own batch of jam, too; we had eaten plums all summer long; and we had packed boxes of plums to donate to the zoo, where the sun bears and gorillas had feasted on them. Even at that, we couldn't keep up with the plum tree's fecundity--the very last time we went over there to get plums for the bears, fruit had fallen off the tree and was beginning to spoil underneath. We decided it was no favor to the bear keeper to bring in fruit that might get the bears drunk and give them diarrhea, so we missed out on the last batch because we simply couldn't keep up with the tree.

While this anecdote has a severe n of 1 problem, of course, it was consistent with what we know about the bees' role in pollinating fruit. So it will be very interesting to see what happens this year, both with the bees and with the fruit. I think I won't explicitly seek out bee news before the plum harvest, just in order to not bias my observations about the quantity of the fruit.

With the bats, I don't know how the effects of a die-off would show up--more insects, maybe?

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