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A staple of summer — swarms of bugs — seems to be a thing of the past. And that’s got scientists worried.
Pesky mosquitoes, disease-carrying ticks, crop-munching aphids and cockroaches are doing just fine. But the more beneficial flying insects of summer — native bees, moths, butterflies, ladybugs, lovebugs, mayflies and fireflies — appear to be less abundant.
Scientists think something is amiss, but they can’t be certain: In the past, they didn’t systematically count the population of flying insects, so they can’t make a proper comparison to today. Nevertheless, they’re pretty sure across the globe there are fewer insects that are crucial to as much as 80 percent of what we eat.
Yes, some insects are pests. But they also pollinate plants, are a key link in the food chain and help decompose life.
“You have total ecosystem collapse if you lose your insects. How much worse can it get than that?” said University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy. If they disappeared, “the world would start to rot.”
He noted Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson once called bugs: “The little things that run the world.”
The 89-year-old Wilson recalled that he once frolicked in a “Washington alive with insects, especially butterflies.” Now, “the flying insects are virtually gone.”
It hit home last year when he drove from suburban Boston to Vermont and decided to count how many bugs hit his windshield. The result: A single moth.
The un-scientific experiment is called the windshield test. Wilson recommends everyday people do it themselves to see. Baby Boomers will probably notice the difference, Tallamy said.
Several scientists have conducted their own tests with windshields, car grilles and headlights, and most notice few squashed bugs. Researchers are quick to point out that such exercises aren’t good scientific experiments, since they don’t include control groups or make comparisons with past results. (Today’s cars also are more aerodynamic, so bugs are more likely to slip past them and live to buzz about it.)
Still, there are signs of decline. Research has shown dwindling individual species in specific places, including lightning bugs, moths and bumblebees. One study estimated a 14 percent decline in ladybugs in the United States and Canada from 1987 to 2006. University of Florida urban entomologist Philip Koehler said he’s seen a recent decrease in lovebugs — insects that fly connected and coated Florida’s windshields in the 1970s and 1980s. This year, he said, “was kind of disappointing, I thought.”
University of Nevada, Reno, researcher Lee Dyer and his colleagues have been looking at insects at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica since 1991. There’s a big insect trap sheet under black light that decades ago would be covered with bugs. Now, “there’s no insects on that sheet,” he said.
But there’s not much research looking at all flying insects in big areas.
Last year, a study that found an 82 percent mid-summer decline in the number and weight of bugs captured in traps in 63 nature preserves in Germany compared with 27 years earlier. It was one of the few, if only, broad studies. Scientists say similar comparisons can’t be done elsewhere because similar bug counts weren’t done decades ago.
“We don’t know how much we’re losing if we don’t know how much we have,” said University of Hawaii entomologist Helen Spafford.
The lack of older data makes it “unclear to what degree we’re experiencing an arthropocalypse,” said University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum. Individual studies aren’t convincing in themselves, “but the sheer accumulated weight of evidence seems to be shifting” to show a problem, she said.
After the German study, countries started asking if they have similar problems, said ecologist Toke Thomas Hoye of Aarhus University in Denmark. He studied flies in a few spots in remote Greenland and noticed an 80 percent drop in numbers since 1996.
“It’s clearly not a German thing,” said University of Connecticut entomologist David Wagner, who has chronicled declines in moth populations in the northeastern United States. “We just need to find out how widespread the phenomenon is.”
Most scientists say lots of factors, not just one, caused the apparent decline in flying insects.
Suspects include habitat loss, insecticide use, the killing of native weeds, single-crop agriculture, invasive species, light pollution, highway traffic and climate change.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts, and that’s really bad news,” Wagner said.
To Tallamy, two causes stand out: Humans’ war on weeds and vast farmland planted with the same few crops.
Weeds and native plants are what bugs eat and where they live, Tallamy said. Milkweeds, crucial to the beautiful monarch butterfly, are dwindling fast. Manicured lawns in the United States are so prevalent that, added together, they are as big as New England, he said.
Those landscapes are “essentially dead zones,” he said.
Light pollution is another big problem for species such as moths and fireflies, bug experts said. Insects are attracted to brightness, where they become easy prey and expend energy they should be using to get food, Tallamy said.
Jesse Barber of Boise State is in the middle of a study of fireflies and other insects at Grand Teton National Park. He said he notices a distinct connection between light pollution and dwindling populations.
“We’re hitting insects during the day, we’re hitting them at night,” Tallamy said. “We’re hitting them just about everywhere.”
Lawns, light pollution and bug-massacring highway traffic are associated where people congregate. But Danish scientist Hoye found a noticeable drop in muscid flies in Greenland 300 miles (500 kilometers) from civilization. His studies linked declines to warmer temperatures.
Other scientists say human-caused climate change may play a role, albeit small.
Governments are trying to improve the situation. Maryland is in a three-year experiment to see if planting bee-friendly native wildflowers helps.
University of Maryland entomology researcher Lisa Kuder says the usual close-crop “turf is basically like a desert” that doesn’t attract flying insects. She found an improvement — 70 different species and records for bees — in the areas where flowers are allowed to grow wild and natural alongside roads.
The trouble is that it is so close to roadways that Tallamy fears that the plants become “ecological traps where you’re drawing insects in and they’re all squashed by cars.”
Still, Tallamy remains hopeful. In 2000, he moved into this rural area between Philadelphia and Baltimore and made his 10-acre patch all native plants, creating a playground for bugs. Now he has 861 species of moths and 54 species of breeding birds that feed on insects.
Wagner, of the University of Connecticut, spends his summers teaching middle schoolers in a camp to look for insects, like he did decades ago. They have a hard time finding the cocoons he used to see regularly.
“The kids I’m teaching right now are going to think that scarce insects are the rule,” Wagner said. “They’re not realizing that there could be an ecological disaster on the horizon.” (VOA)
The US researchers have discovered a class of immune cells that plays a role in miscarriage, which affects about a quarter of pregnancies.
Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco found that the recently discovered subset of cells known as extrathymic Aire-expressing cells in the immune system may prevent the mother's immune system from attacking the placenta and fetus.
The researchers showed that pregnant mice who did not have this subset of cells were twice as likely to miscarry, and in many of these pregnancies fetal growth was severely restricted.
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"When you're pregnant, the immune system is seeing the placenta for the first time in decades -- not since the mother made a placenta when she herself was a fetus," said Eva Gillis-Buck, from UCSF.
"Our research suggests that this subset of immune cells is carrying out a sort of 'secondary education' -- sometimes many years after the better-known population of the educator cells have carried out the primary education in the thymus -- teaching T cells not to attack the fetus, the placenta and other tissues involved in pregnancy," she added. The findings are published in the journal Science Immunology.
The immune system has to be educated not to attack one's own tissues and organs to prevent autoimmune disease. But pregnancy presents a unique challenge since the fetus expresses proteins found in the placenta as well as proteins whose genetics are distinct from the mother.
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"It was a conceptual leap to link Aire-expressing cells, which are critical for preventing autoimmune disease, to pregnancy," said Tippi Mackenzie, Professor of Surgery at UCSF's Center for Maternal Foetal Precision Medicine.
In the thymus, Aire-expressing cells begin interacting with other immune cells very early in life to teach them what not to attack. The thymus begins to shrink and is nearly gone by adulthood, by which time most immune cells have been educated. But as the thymus shrinks, the population of eTACs in lymph nodes and the spleen expands, the researchers explained.
The study suggests a healthy pregnancy may depend on having these cells around, they added. (IANS/KB)
The tiny emojis being shared on billions of devices worldwide can play a major role in digital communication, with most people saying that emoji compels them to feel more empathy towards others, according to an Adobe report.
Adobe's global emoji study found that emoji even helps people overcome language barriers and form connections that would otherwise be difficult to do.
"We were surprised and delighted by the discoveries made in the survey, most notably how enthusiastic respondents were for emoji as a means to express themselves," the company said in a statement.
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Emojis sometimes get criticized for being overly saccharine, but this sweetness is key when it comes to diffusing some of the heaviness of online communication.
"Many of the emoji are focused on positive emotions, so it's easy to insert them into our conversations and lighten the mood," the Adobe study said.
It's not surprising that over half of those surveyed feel more comfortable using emojis than talking on the phone or in person.
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This applies to less intense situations too. Dating, for example, can be tricky — especially when it's online or via digital apps, as it often is now.
The study also found that emoji even helps people overcome language barriers and form connections that would otherwise be difficult to do.
In celebration of World Emoji Day on Saturday, Adobe's '2021 Global Emoji Trend Report' surveyed 7,000 people in the US, the UK, Germany, France, Japan, Australia, and South Korea. (IANS/KB)
Following the grand Richard Branson show where he carried Andhra Pradesh-born Sirisha Bandla and fellow space travelers on his shoulders after successfully flying to the edge of space, it is time for Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos to applaud Sanjal Gavande, one of the key engineers who designed the New Shephard rocket set to take Bezos and the crew to space on July 20.
Billionaire Bezos is set to fly to the edge of space aboard what is touted as the world's first unpiloted suborbital flight. Born in Kalyan, Maharashtra, Gavande is a systems engineer at Blue Origin who always dreamt of designing aerospace rockets.
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After completing Bachelor's in mechanical engineering from the University of Mumbai, she flew to the US in 2011 to pursue a Master's in mechanical engineering from the Michigan Technological University. She also applied for an engineering job at the US space agency NASA but finally landed her dream job at Blue Origin
Sirisha flew to the US in 2011 to pursue a Master's in mechanical engineering from the Michigan Technological University.IANS
Bezos, his brother Mark, aviation pioneer Mary Wallace 'Wally' Funk, and other passengers are set to liftoff from west Texas and travel just beyond the edge of space on July 20. Blue Origin announced this week that Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old high school graduate from the Netherlands, would join the crew.
Oliver is the son of millionaire Joe Daemen, Founder, and CEO of the Dutch investment company Somerset Capital Partners. Blue Origin, however, did not reveal how much Daemen paid for his son's trip to space. Bezos chose July 20 as the launch date to honor the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
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The launch site for Blue Origin's first human flight will be in a remote location north of Van Horn, Texas, from where the firm had launched New Shepard for previous flights. Blue Origin has received final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to carry humans on the New Shepard rocket into space.
On July 12, Bandla touched the edge of space with three others, including Virgin Galactic's billionaire CEO Richard Branson. Bandla vaulted into space onboard VSS Unity 22. After the successful spaceflight, Branson carried the Indian-American on his shoulders while celebrating their flight to space, at Spaceport America in New Mexico. (IANS/KB)