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One of the things about humans which troubles me greatly is how anthropocentric our worldview is.  Even among close friends and clever scientists, I am shocked at how many people regard animals as, I don’t know..soulless machines made of meat.  This haughty view breaks down somewhat when it comes to talking about mammals, who are, after all, our immediate family and self-evidently share our preferences and our dangerous cunning (and our limbic system), but it is still disturbingly widespread in reference to reptiles or fish, to say nothing of poor invertebrates.

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A group of eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) hanging out together

That is why I cherish the subject of today’s post.  Scientists at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada recently conducted a clever study which established that snakes have friends.  To be more explicit, the study demonstrated that eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) have social preferences for particular eastern garter snakes.  The young serpents seek out the company of these preferred associates (apart from any mating or hunting needs).  After obtaining snakes from heterogeneous sources and carefully marking them, the researchers established their sociability by carefully filming their behavior in a large terrarium.habitat.  You can check out their methodology and conclusions over at National Geographic, but their work seems to have definitely established the existence of snake social preferences.

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Speaking of preferences, eastern garter snakes are a lifelong favorite of mine, ever since childhood when the colorful little snakes would bask in a climbing rosebush beside a stone wall in our front yard in Cape Cod.  It is particularly gratifying (albeit somewhat unsurprising) to hear that they are in the vanguard of studies concerning reptilian emotions and social niceties.  I am looking forward to learning more about the behaviors and feelings of reptiles.  After all, humankind shares kinship with them too (since today’s reptiles share distant reptilian ancestors with us). I wonder what people will make of this garter snake friendship study.  Nobody has commented on my post about rat compassion (a subject which I found very moving and troubling), so perhaps the sociability of particular snakes will not move people’s hearts much either.  Yet as more and more of these studies emerge, scientists are shedding some of their own cold aloofness and acknowledging how prevalent fellowship, compassion, and complex emotions are among our fellow living beings.  What we fire-wielding apes, selfish, angry, and tragic, will make of such wisdom remains anybody’s guess… Friendship implies ethical choices and didn’t somebody say knowledge of right and wrong was a sole province of humankind?  Clearly that was a self-aggrandizing lie.

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Honeybee on a Cherry Blossom by digiphotolover

Since 2006, beekeepers in Europe and North America have been reporting mysterious mass die-offs of honeybees.  Although this has been a problem which has sometimes affected beekeepers in the past, the worldwide scale of beehive failures subsequent after 2006 was unprecedented.  Worldwide bee populations crashed.  Since bees are directly responsible for pollinating a huge variety of domestic crops–particularly fruits and nuts—the threat to our food supply and agricultural base extended far beyond the honey production which people associate with bees.  An entire community of free-wheeling apiarists came into the limelight.  For generations these mavericks would load up their trucks with hives of bees and drive to orchards in bloom.  For the right…honorarium…they would release the bees to pollinate the almonds, broccoli, onions, apples, cherries, avocados, citrus, melons, etcetera etcetera which form the non-cereal base of the produce aisle (as an aside, I find it fascinating that there is a cadre of people paid to help plants reproduce by means of huge clouds of social insects—if you tried to explain all this to an extraterrestrial, they would shake their heads and mutter about what perverts earthlings are).

A truck of bee hives to ensure that food crops are pollinated

As bees have declined, honey has naturally become more expensive, but so too have a great many other agricultural staples.  Not only has the great dying hurt farmers and food shoppers it has also affected entire ecosystems—perhaps altering them for many years to come.  “Pollinator Conservation” (an article from the Renewable Resources Journal) opines that “Cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive.”

Scientists have been rushing to get to the bottom of this worldwide problem, pointing fingers at varroa mites (invasive parasitic vampire mites from China), pesticides, global warming, transgenic crops, cell phone towers, habitat destruction, and goodness knows what else.  The lunatic fringe has leaped into the fray with theories about super bears, aliens, and Atlantis (although I could add that sentence to virtually any topic).  So far no theory has proven conclusive: exasperated entomologists have been throwing up their hands and saying maybe it’s a combination of everything.

An extremely cool illustration of Imidacloprid acting on insect nerves from Bayer (the original inventor/patent holder of the compound)

Yesterday (March 29th, 2012) two studies released in “Science” magazine made a more explicit link between colony collapse and neonicotinoid insecticides.  The first study suggested that hives exposed to imidacloprid (one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide) produced 85% fewer queen bees than the control hives.  The second study tracked individual bees with radio chips (!) to discover that bees dosed with thiamethoxam were twice as likely to suffer homing failure and not return to the hive. Suspicion has focused on neonicotinoid poisons as a culprit in hive collapse disorder for years (the compounds were hastened into use in the nineties because they were so benign to vertebrates), however the rigorously reviewed & carefully controlled studies in “Science” bring an entirely new level of evidence to the problem.  Unfortunately this also brings a new variety of problems to the problem, since neonicotinoids are tremendously important to agriculture in their own right (sorry Mother Earth) and since they are such handy poisons for, you know, not killing us and our pets and farm animals.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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