Category Archives: Science

Everything I Know I Learned From Hermit Crabs

I’m a university scientist reaching the end of my career, and recently calculated that I’ve had 115 co-authors on research papers over a 45-year period. Clearly partnering with students and colleagues was a signature element of my research style, but my first experience collaborating was not auspicious, almost destroying a friendship and derailing my career before it really got started.

I was living and working in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1973 after graduating from Boston University with a B.Sc. degree in which my performance was considerably less than stellar. The “Hole,” as we called it, was home to the renowned Marine Biology Laboratory (MBL) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), both sources of the short-term research jobs that paid my bills for the next couple of years.

I worked as a research assistant investigating chemical orientation in lobsters, and then landed a summer job for the nearby U.S. Department of Agriculture Gypsy Moth Laboratory, evaluating the use of pheromones to confuse gypsy moths, a serious forest pest. I also had an opportunity to work with a professor in Mexico for two months who was studying wasp social behavior at various latitudes. I filled the in-between times with a few weeks of warehouse work here and there, and a three-week stint as a substitute teacher for high school biology classes.

Two years of this insecure work in varied underling capacities convinced me that I needed to go back to school if I was to ever rise above being someone else’s assistant. I decided to pursue a Masters degree in marine biology, and enrolled in the Boston University Marine Program, based in Woods Hole.

I soon was focusing in on a thesis topic, stimulated by conversations with a postdoctoral fellow at WHOI, Stu, to consider hermit crabs. Stu was loquacious, with an excellent moustache, a productive seaweed-fertilized garden and a young family that was exceedingly generous in inviting me over for meals.

We talked often about science, and one day he pointed out a research opportunity we could collaborate on, probing whether hermit crabs could recognize each other as individuals. This was a hot topic at the time, inhabiting the border between animal behaviour and psychology. Many researchers were convinced that even lowly invertebrates could distinguish one individual from another, a remarkable cognitive feat if true.

Stu and I designed an experiment to test whether hermit crabs recognized each other individually, or just recognized the general dominance state of the other crabs they encountered. We agreed that this would make an excellent thesis topic for me, and thought up a clever study in which we allowed crabs in small dishes to establish dominance orders, then switched individuals of equal dominance states.

We reasoned that switching crabs of the same rank would heighten aggressive behaviors in the dishes if the crabs recognized each other as individuals, but there would be no increase in aggression if they only recognized their place in the hermit crab pecking order.

Very excited, I got to work, collecting crabs in the field and spending many long days and late nights in the laboratory recording their behaviours. I forgot just about everything else, including Stu, in my fervor to get some results. Night after night I worked late, observing the crabs and recording their interactions, building up an array of data that would definitively prove or disprove our hypothesis.

One night my housemate and fellow student Mary, also a good friend of Stu, came in to the lab. She unloaded a diatribe filled with words my young daughter used to politely refer to as “swears.” Mary roundly and colorfully roasted me for how I had taken a fine collaboration and run it into the ground, cutting Stu completely out of the process.

I was devastated, seeing immediately that she was right; I hadn’t talked with Stu in weeks. While I had no evil intention, I had been carried away by enthusiasm to make the project mine, not ours, possibly destroying not only a professional relationship but a good friendship as well.

I went to see Stu the next morning, apologized profusely, and insisted on dumping out the crabs and finding some other topic for my thesis. Stu, wiser and more experienced than I, replied that the nuclear option wasn’t necessary, he just wanted me to include him in my enthusiasm, and bounce ideas about the project back and forth.

Considerably chastened but now wiser, I completed the research, sharing the results and my excitement with Stu, who had much to contribute in interpreting and analyzing what we were finding. We did eventually publish a paper in Animal Behavior together, “Dominance and effects of strange conspecifics on aggressive interactions in the hermit crab Pagurus longicarpus (Say),” indicating that hermit crabs recognized dominance but not individuality.

More significant than the publication, I had learned a valuable lesson. Collaboration is hard. There is no proper balance between individual achievement and the communal good, only choices we make as to where to position ourselves on that spectrum. I had fully intended the project to be collaborative, yet due to over-enthusiasm more than selfishness I found myself on the individualistic end of that continuum.

Perhaps it was that early experience that attracted me to the idea of collaboration, but I did move on from hermit crabs to spend the rest of my scientific career studying bees, particularly honeybees. They inhabit the most collaborative of societies, with colonies whose members are guided more by communal goals than solitary pursuits.

For me the satisfaction of collaboration has been much richer and deeper than any individual achievement, the relationships I built through working with others more meaningful than any personal accomplishment.

I’m forever grateful to hermit crabs, and then to bees, the vehicles for teaching me that “ours” is a much richer word than “mine.”

The One Room Schoolhouse

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It was a red brick former one-room schoolhouse, standing forlorn and isolated at the edge of a swatch of Midwestern prairie. I was similarly lonely, having just arrived in Lawrence, Kansas to take up graduate studies, with no place to live, very little money and no job to support myself.

That August was particularly hot and humid, even for a Kansas summer, quite a comedown from the Cape Cod sea breezes, salt marshes, sand dunes and ocean vistas I had left behind just as few days before. I had abandoned many friends, a developing career in marine biology and a classically quaint Cape-style cottage to pursue a different life, that of an entomologist studying bees.

It was a desolate moment, that arrival, but good fortune soon shifted my mood. Within hours I checked in at the Entomology Department, and a few minutes later the sympathetic Chair of the department had provided me with both a job and a free place to live. The job was bread-and-butter graduate student employment, working as a teaching assistant in a biology class, but the living arrangements were, well, unusual.

I headed out that afternoon to the edge of the city to take up my new residence, a former schoolhouse that had been taken over by the Entomology Department and nicknamed the bee house, a research facility used to study bees and wasps. All I had to do in return for a bed, a hot plate, a small refrigerator, worn wooden floors and blackboarded walls was inhabit the place to discourage vandals.

There were a few disadvantages the Chair hadn’t mentioned. For one, I couldn’t open the windows, in spite of the daily 100oF temperatures, because each window had a papery grey wasp nest hung on the outside, study colonies for a graduate student interested in how wasps organized their social behaviour.


(Photo by Bob Peterson, Creative Commons)

Lack of privacy was another tradeoff for no rent, with students coming in at all hours of the day and night, not only to record behaviors from the window nests but also to traipse around the basement, which was full of more wasp nests as well as colonies of halictid bees that nested in dirt.

The wasp-studying students were having an art contest, putting colored paper into plexiglass boxes for the wasps to use as building material, creating rainbow nests. The bee guys had taken a layer of dirt one bee width in diameter and sandwiched it between two sheets of plate glass, so that they could observe the bee behaviours.

Weekdays and many weekends I spent up the hill on campus, taking classes, reading journal articles, writing research proposals for funding, going to seminars and teaching undergraduate laboratories. Evenings I was alone, and after my hot plate dinners I often descended to the bee house basement for hymenopteran company, mesmerized watching the wasps build their nests of many colours and the bees bumping into each other as they navigated the tunnels they had carved into the dirt.

Graduate school is like that, lonely at first, an unbalanced full immersion experience with work predominant and social life suppressed. But as the bee and wasp nests died off and fall arrived, I physically and metaphorically opened the windows.

My evenings soon filled with friends, guitar playing, and student potluck dinners followed by dancing to country swing music at local clubs. Midnight often found us at the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and we met many a dawn at Jennings Daylight Donuts.

I also soon had a different job, a research assistantship spent looking through a microscope for hours and drawing bee mouthparts. The work provided the income I needed to go to South America for a year, to study killer bees in French Guiana for my doctoral degree.

Even while away I thought of the bee house as home, and felt cruelly uprooted when I returned to Lawrence a year later to find the schoolhouse no longer mine, taken over by the next impoverished graduate student who had arrived in my absence. Now I had to live like a regular person, renting an apartment with rooms and a real kitchen and no bees or wasps as co-tenants.

But perhaps my year in the bee house had primed me for a different way to thank about the meaning of home. A journalist asked me once to describe my first visit to a honeybee hive, and my responses was that “I opened the lid of that first hive, began pulling out combs of bees, and I felt like I was home.”

Living in the schoolhouse, I imprinted on the company of bees and wasps. Every new dwelling since has not become home until I connect with the local social insects. I’ve put a honeybee colony into the backyard, valued the wasp nest growing under the eaves, enjoyed the mating ants flying up from beneath the sidewalk or appreciated the neighborhood bees foraging on my lawn and garden.

Home is where the heart is, and my heart, still, is with the bees.

Comments welcome:



Poetry and science may seem to have little in common, but they do share one trait: building from fragments. I’m collaborating with a wonderful poet, Renee Sarojini Saklikar, on the Honey, Hives and Poetry project, in which we’ve been reading together at events from her poems and my prose, and writing some new material in response to each other’s work.

As Renee puts it: “One of my poetry obsessions is the fragment. Each time I read from my long poems I select fragments, further reducing the pieces, a reductive process that speaks to me of possibility . . .”

Scientific research is simultaneously reductive while discovering meaning by repeatedly recombining small bits of information in different ways. Experiments resemble poems trimmed down to their simplest bytes, expressing the scientist’s hope that disparate data might assemble into the fullness of story, revealing objective truth considerably more profound than its constituent parts.

So it was that words became a line and eventually a poem as we unraveled the identity and function of the honeybee queen pheromone over close to two decades of research. My chemistry colleague, the late Keith Slessor, had become interested in the retinue of ten to twelve worker bees that surround the queen, licking and touching their antennae to her furiously for one to two minutes each. Our hypothesis was that they were picking up the queen’s pheromones and transmitting them throughout the nest.

We had made extracts from dead queens to use in identifying her chemical signature, but had no way of determining whether worker bees responded. One day, in frustration, one of our students put a dab of extract onto a glass pipette and thrust it into into a cage of bees, exclaiming, “Take that, you bloody bees.” To her surprise, they formed a retinue around the glass as if it were a queen.

We had found our bioassay, but it still took tens of thousands of assays excising, macerating, extracting, eluting and observing over two decades to identify nine compounds that work in a synergistic mix, attracting worker bees to attend their monarch. Each individual pheromone we identified represented another fragment that then had to be tested in combination with the growing number of other compounds, until eventually the full poem of the complex honeybee queen pheromone grew from its nine simple words.

It’s a thing of beauty, this multi-fragment queen pheromone, an elixir of elegant function, reminiscent of the elusive perfection captured in the best poetry, where snippets of language weave together into a whole much more compelling than its individual parts.

I imagine writing poetry is like that, a mental image of Renee at work in her writing laboratory, testing combinations of words together, rejecting innumerable linguistic dead ends until the etymological data tell her the poem is done.

It’s fragments coalescing into meaning, at the junction where science and poetry intersect on common ground.

(In memory of Keith Slessor, a poet in chemistry)

Comments welcome:

From There to Here


(Yucatan cenote, Photo credit: / Foter / CC BY-ND)

Here’s the first piece of writing I published, back in 1974, in the academic journal Cytobios, from research I had done as an undergraduate student at Boston University:

Melatonin (5-methoxy-n-acetyl tryptamine) causes the blanching of vertebrate skin in those animals capable of rapid skin could changes, i.e. reversible alteration of the distribution of pigment granules in their melanocytes. Recent evidence suggests that a light-dark sensitive enzyme in the biosynthetic pathway of melatonin, N acetyl-transferase, regulates pineal gland production of melatonin which, in turn, affects the endogenous diurnal rhythms.

And here’s one of the latest, from my 2014 book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive:”

Walking into an apiary is intellectually challenging and emotionally rich, sensual and riveting. Time slows down. Focus increases, awareness heightens, all senses captivated.

Lifting my smoker, I am totally in the present but also connected to memories of friends, fellow beekeepers and innumerable long days in other apiaries when we shared periods of tedium, hard physical labor and occasional glimpses of wisdom. These moments of understanding, penetrating the complexity of our usually unfathomable natural world, still take my breath away.

The first was from the scientific research planet Academic, a globe that rotates around the star Jargon, a dense and impenetrable mass composed of the hottest of air. Academic is a planet of extreme irony, since scientific research purports to seek clarity rather than obfuscation, striving to precisely explain phenomena rather than making them more obscure.

The second piece was written four decades later, and while it used even more long multisyllabic words, its point is clear and the meaning easily accessible to readers who are not experts in bees or beekeeping.

I’m currently involved in a poetry project with bees at its centre, further pushing my comfort zone outside the boundaries of academic writing. I had coffee the other day with my poetry colleague Renee Saklikar, who asked an unexpected question about my transition from academic to public writing: How did I get from there to here?

I was caught short without an answer. I searched my memory banks for the moment I could point to where academic writing began shifting towards the comprehensible, but the origins of my interest in public writing remained clouded in the mists of the distant past.

Until, that is, our turtle died. Ismael was a Mexican turtle that a friend and I picked up while driving through Mexico. Mary Power (now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley) and I were on the scientific version of a vision quest, travelling through the Yucatan peninsula visiting the immensely interesting and unusual terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of that region, hoping to make observations about the natural world that might trigger topics for our graduate research.

Ismael went with Mary when she moved to the University of Washington for her doctoral studies, and she cared for him with great affection until his recent passing. Her email to me reporting his death triggered a cascade of memories from that 1974 trip, coincidentally the same year my melatonin paper was published.

But it was only today that I connected the dots from Renee to Mary, and realized 1974 was the year my writing began diverging from the academic because of a journal I kept from that Mexican trip, “Naturalist Notes.”

It was a small, black hardcover journal, not at all distinguished, but it looked to me like something a 19th century British naturalist might carry into the jungle to take notes. My inspiration was just such a naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, who wrote the 1863 book “The Naturalist on the River Amazons: A Record of the Adventures, Habits of Animals, Sketches of Brazilian and Indian Life, and Aspects of Nature under the Equator, during Eleven Years of Travel.”

Bates published “The Naturalist on the River Amazons” about his expedition to collect species not known to western science, and to provide evidence for the newfangled theory of evolution by natural selection. His book was brilliant, a readable and engaging mix of natural history and astute observations about the animals, plants and humans he encountered.

He described in compelling detail where and how people lived along the Amazon, what plants and animals they used for food and medicine and how the locals interacted with the Amazon river system and surrounding jungle. And he wrote about the exotic plants and animals he encountered, from towering buttressed jungle trees weighed down by vines to the tiniest of beetles and the colorful butterflies from which he developed his now-classic theories of how and why organisms mimic each other.

I was inspired by his keen observations and humanizing language to write clearly, with feeling, in my own naturalist-in-the-Yucatan notes. Copying Bates, I sought clear writing to find that simple formula through which complexity becomes accessible.

My own notes were never published, and certainly didn’t reach the heights of fine writing that Bates achieved, but I did reread them recently and was fascinated to see my very early attempts to emerge from academic jargon into the light of the comprehensible.

I wrote about the Yucatan’s unusual clear water mangrove swamps, the interminably deep limestone cenote sinkholes in which the ancient Mayans used to toss their sacrificial victims, the industrious dung beetles who could clean up fresh scat almost before it’s odour hit the air.

My naturalist notes were intertwined with Mayan history, an advanced civilization that precipitously collapsed, leaving behind ruins now largely taken over by jungle. But accents of their former prominence live on in colorful clothing and the Mayan language, still spoken and preferred by many over Spanish.

We held our breath and dove for lobsters off the coast with Mexican fishermen, astounded by how quickly we came up empty and how long they stayed down before surfacing with a large Atlantic lobster in each hand. We camped out on beaches or slept in cheap communal hotels, sometimes swinging in brightly coloured Yucatan hammocks large enough to fit entire families.

I was writing for myself, but with Bates looking over my shoulder I sought clarity and flow, learning from his example to favor approachable description over jargon. My notes were replete with questions rather than littered with the certainty expected from academic writing. Like Bates, I tried to pose simple questions with profound implications and copied his habit of illustrating with sketches, augmenting my still-forming language with the visual impact of pictures.

I’ve never stopped writing “naturalist notes,” although they eventually morphed into books and blogs, newspaper columns and magazine pieces. Getting from the “there,” academic writing, to the “here,” writing for the public, began for me with Bates, from whom I learned to pass writing through the filter of readability.

I wish all academic writing could evolve towards the model of more appealing writing that Bates provided. A Batesian rewrite of my melatonin paper might start something like this:

One of the most startling occurrences among animals is their sudden lightening of skin colour, sometimes taking less than a second to go from a dark to an almost clear tone. This process is mediated by the chemical melatonin, which in humans regulates our daily circadian rhythms. Remarkably, it’s a simple enzyme in other animals that triggers melatonin release almost instantaneously, regulating these extraordinary changes in skin coloration.

More accessible, right? Here’s an idea, academics: give Bates a good read before starting your next academic paper, and let the engaging writing flow.

Mouthparts of the long-tongued bees

mark's photo

At one point early in my career I was recognized as the world’s expert in the labiomaxillary complex of the long-tongued bees, at least among the half-dozen or so entomologists for whom bee mouthparts mattered.

I achieved this obscure recognition as a graduate student at the University of Kansas by dissecting, drawing and analyzing mouthparts from about 100 species across the thousands that make up this diverse bee group. The other bees have short tongues and were studied by another student, who ascended to the short-tongued throne. Tongue length makes a difference to bees, as it determines what flowers they can collect nectar from.

Admittedly obscure, and not generally seen as among my most stellar achievements, this study nevertheless transformed by scientific career, not so much for the scientific findings as for the cultural lessons I learned from my mentor in the project, the eminent bee biologist Charles Michener.

Mich was a prodigy, publishing his first paper on bees when he was 16 and going on to reach the highest levels of academia. In 1948 he had published a paper describing the evolutionary relationships between all the bees, a monumental achievement that formed the bible of bee taxonomy for decades.

What changed everything for me was the basistipital process, a tiny obscure protuberance found on some long-tongued mouthparts but not on others. What made this structure important was that it differed in the highly social honeybees and stingless bees. Tracing its evolution back through more primitive bees suggested that each group had evolved social behavior independently.

If so, this was a career-building discovery, as the evolution of complex social behavior is rare. The key implication of this finding was that sociality had evolved not once but twice among the bees.

Studies of insect social behavior were and still are important areas of research, in part because we too are a highly social species and can learn much about our own evolution and behavior by examining that of the bees.

I quickly realized the important implications of the basistipital process, but my next thought was more terror than exhilaration. If I was right, then Mich’s classic study was incorrect. I would have to tell one of the greatest biologists of our time that he was wrong.

It was with great trepidation, and after considerable procrastination, that I made an appointment to see Mich and brought him my findings. I was well prepared with specimens and my arguments, but was surprised by his reaction.

Mich was fascinated rather than defensive. Without the slightest sign of disappointment he said we needed to reexamine the honeybees and stingless bees to see if other evidence would support changing his 1948 conclusions.

We went on to look at other structures, particularly those on the legs used to collect pollen, and a wide range of social behaviors in the two groups. The evidence was strong, and we published a paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Science (PNAS) proposing the dual origin of highly social behavior among the bees.

I’m a big appreciator of how moments in life can have lasting impact. That appointment with Mich was one of those moments for me, when he was open to contradicting his own classic and much-cited work if the evidence supported it. He modeled for me how science is not a right or wrong polarity but a continually evolving examination of new data. When the data contradict the theory, it’s appropriate to dump even the most hallowed hypothesis.

I also learned from Mich to appreciate those moments of surprise in science when the evidence suggests the hypothesis you have based years of work on is wrong. My own students have been startled expecting me to be disappointed that their experiments have not proven my pet theory to be correct, and I treat their negative data as a eureka moment. It’s in the negative results that progress in science is born.

I learned one more lesson from Mich through the humble basistipital process. He let me write and be the first author on the PNAS paper, even though this was an important publication, I was an obscure student and he was, well, the Great One in bees. I still choke up recalling this incredible kindness, and hope I have emulated his generosity with my own students.

And there is a postscript: about ten years later new molecular techniques became available that allowed comparisons of proteins and even genes between groups of organisms. When applied to the long-tongued bees, the results suggested that Michener’s original taxonomy was correct, and our dual origin proposal perhaps was not accurate. It remains an ongoing issue in social insect biology, with no definitive conclusion yet possible.

My response? I would love to be proven incorrect.

Science at its best is not about ego but about exploration. I was fortunate to be taught that lesson by the mouthparts of the long-tongued bees, and a wonderful mentor.


For excruciating detail see:

Winston, M.L. and C.D. Michener. 1977. Dual origin of highly social behavior among bees. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 74: 1134-1137

Winston, M.L. 1979. The labiomaxillary complex of the long-tongued bees: a comparative study. Univ. Kansas Sci. Bull. 51: 631-667



Valuing Valuation


I learned ecology tramping around the salt marshes of Cape Cod in the early 1970’s, where I was a graduate student in the Boston University Marine Program in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. At that time the word “ecology” was mostly accompanied by “the science of,” and was only beginning to be adopted as the calling card for the then-nascent environmental movement.

Our ecology class spent long days at the Sippewisset Marsh tramping through microbial mats built on cyanobacteria, diatoms, and algae, as well as tough Spartina grasses that could withstand salt water and an incredible array of intertidal organisms supported by the twice-daily ebb and flow of the tide.

We used the word “web” incessantly, not as in “world wide web” but as in the “web of life.” There were just so many living things dependent on the marsh. Its high productivity was at the base of innumerable food chains, in the marsh itself and downstream as inhabitants were swept out into the ocean and fed upon by small fish that themselves were eaten by larger species. The three building blocks of biological interaction, predation, competition and symbiosis, were ubiquitous; everything was interacting and interrelated.

Our holy scientific grail was to perfect models explaining how organisms depended on each other, from the tiniest of bacteria to the largest of whales. The wave of ecologists from that generation transformed our understanding of ecology from observation-based natural history to a rigorous professional practice. Today ecology is a sophisticated science, and startling in the predictive capacity of its models.

The trend then was to organize information and find patterns. Today that continues, but ecologists also are emerging at the forefront of environmental policy by calculating dollar values on the services that habitats provide.

Numbers abound; forests are worth so many gazillion dollars for their carbon-sequestering services, marshes are valued financially for supporting shrimp fisheries, and wild bees considered to be worth tens of billions of dollars for their crop-pollinating services.

The valuations determined by ecological service models are useful in providing an economic rationale for preserving or restoring habitats, but the dollar values can be low or high depending on the assumptions and inputs ecologists put into their models. For example, the ecological costs of a pipeline will vary dramatically depending on whether climate change is considered a cost, on whether we economically value side effects such as restricted migratory routes for moose that disrupt subsistence hunting and on lost opportunity costs such as reduced tourism.

The idea of valuating common resources and charging industry appropriately for their use of ecosystem services may be a useful bridge between left and right positions on the political spectrum. For example, an eloquent spokesperson for charging industry a fee for its use of water is Preston Manning, a conservative Canadian politician best known for starting a right-wing political party and for his conservative think tank. Yet, he has proposed that we calculate the value of water as an ecosystem service in Alberta, billing the oil industry for its water use and for cleaning up pollution downstream from the Alberta tar sands.

Acid rain is another good example. When lake acidification became evident to ecologists, and the value of the ecosystem services provided by lakes made clear, it was the Conservative Mulroney government in Canada and the Republican Bush administration in the U.S. that forced industry to scrub airborne pollutants from their smokestacks.

Almost any ecosystem or service is amenable to economic valuation, but ultimately it’s values rather than valuation that determine how serious we are about protecting ecological resources. Whether we use solar power or oil for energy, managed honeybees or wild bees for pollination, farmed or wild salmon for food, depends more on how we want to live in the world than on any dollar amount we might ascribe to nature’s services.

Whether we exploit or harmoniously partner with nature may be the most fundamental decision we face in the 21st century. Ecologists are increasingly adept at telling us the costs and consequences of exploitation and the advantages and benefits of ecological partnerships, but knowledge is not worth much in a vacuum.

To take ecosystem services with the seriousness they deserve, we need to recognize that our prosperity and even survival depend on collaborating with nature as a partner rather than as a resource to extract, exploit and discard. Similarly, we might find that forging political collaborations across party lines around ecosystem issues might heal some of the deep animosity and gridlock that pervade politics today.

If we can do that, then our values and our valuations might converge, to our benefit and the benefit of the planet on which we coexist.

The Road Not Taken

We all have our life-fork stories, those crossroads where we could have gone one way but chose another.

I was reminded about one of my road-not-taken moments last week, at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) meetings in Portland, Oregon. My 1975 crossroads decision was whether to go to the University of Kansas and study killer honeybees in South America with Chip Taylor, or to Cornell University and work with Richard Root, studying the effects of crop diversity on beneficial insects such as unmanaged wild pollinators.

Killer bees won out, and I’ve never regretted that decision, but was intrigued to see a wave of studies presented at the ESA meeting demonstrating how habitat heterogeneity is important for the diversity and abundance of wild bees.

The role of habitat diversity as a key factor in maintaining wild bee populations has become one of those hot topics that attract the talented scientists who gravitate to the interesting questions. It’s a challenging research area, requiring sophisticated methods to measure and compare habitat heterogeneity with bee diversity and abundance, all in environments heavily altered by the human impact of farming.

Two research approaches have converged with the same result. The first, sampling bees in a range of simple to complex habitats, has clearly demonstrated that contemporary agriculture is barren for wild bees.

Industrial agriculture is a dead zone for beneficial pollinators due to vast acreages of monocropped plantings kept clear of weeds with herbicides, and limited natural habitats adjacent to farmland in which bees can feed and nest. Wild bees rely on plants whose flowering seasons adjoin each other to provide extended availability of nectar and pollen, as well as on undisturbed nesting sites, neither of which are found in and around today’s habitat-deforming farms.

The second line of research has been more experimental, planting bee-friendly hedgerows and ground cover at farm sites and examining whether wild bee populations increase and thrive. The results of these multi-year studies so far have been encouraging, often showing dramatic increases in pollinators as habitat diversifies.

There is another research direction that is difficult but necessary to make the case for habitat reconstruction to enhance pollinator populations: economic analyses. So far, there have been few studies asking that final dollar value question: Does increased diversity and abundance of wild bees lead to more pollen transferred between flowers, to better seed set, to heavier crop weight, and finally to higher yields and increased income sufficient to justify the costs of habitat improvements?

A student in my laboratory, Lora Morandin, did one such economic study a number of years ago in canola fields in northern Alberta. Her research demonstrated that a high variety of wild plants in and near farmland were associated with more diverse and abundant bee populations that increased canola yield. Farmers who planted their entire field earned about $27,000 in profit per farm, whereas those who left a third unplanted for bees to nest and forage in earned $65,000 on a farm of similar size, due simply to better pollination.

The causes of reduced plant biodiversity on farms are clear, and the solutions easily envisioned and implemented. The two most destructive factors for bees are overly large single cropped acreages and the use of herbicides that clean fields of weeds.

The solutions? Increase farm diversity through multiple crops, reduce herbicide use to allow more flowering weeds in farm fields and plant non-crop vegetation adjacent to farmland.

The encouraging news is that state and federal governments in the United States are beginning to fund bee conservation projects designed to increase bee diversity through habitat renovations. The dollar values are small, and the projects highly localized, but it’s a start.

Fundamentally, we’re faced with choosing between habitat-based farming that uses ecosystem services to pollinate crops, or chemically based industrial farming that harms habitats and requires managed pollinators, usually honeybees, to be brought into the crop to do the job that wild bees could probably do better.

If I were choosing today, biodiversity would be the cornerstone upon which I would build a research career. It makes more sense to enhance the natural diversity and services that ecosystems could provide than to stay on today’s treadmill of high input, low profit and environmentally damaging farming.

Corporate Influence

I enjoy congruence, when seemingly random bits of information on similar subjects converge.  Novel ideas are often inspired by news nuggets from diverse sources that connect by a common thread. Today’s blog about the influence of corporate contributions on academia and non-profit organizations was stimulated by three such converging influences.

The first was sent to me as part of an email list about bees, and covered the recent announcement that Bayer CropScience made a $750,000 donation to the University of Guelph to support and preserve pollinator health through sustainable pest management. Bayer, if you don’t know, sells neonicitinoid pesticides, the top-selling pesticides in the world today, which rightly or wrongly are receiving considerable blame for causing honeybee colonies to collapse and die.

Those who support Bayer will applaud them for their concern about pollinators, while those who accuse them of beeocide are undoubtedly livid at the university’s collaboration with the evil pesticide empire.

The second converged item was an article from the 12 May 2014 New Yorker, about how the head of the Nature Conservancy, Mark Tercek, has alienated environmental purists by pushing the Conservancy towards collaborations with industry to find win-win outcomes so that industry improves its bottom line by doing environmentally friendly things. The article starts with an example of how Dow Chemical, one of the planet’s worst polluters, is being encouraged to plant trees and preserve wetlands that absorb some of their outflow pollution.

Critics are quoted in the article as condemning the Conservancy’s “schizophrenic anti-biodiversity, anti-protected-areas rhetoric,” while Tercek defends their interactions with industry as realistic and effective.

My third converged moment was at a talk I attended describing Mitacs, a Canadian non-profit that fosters partnerships between government, industry and academia. Mitacs operates by placing graduate students with corporations and government who then conduct research useful to those organizations. The students eventually use the research towards their graduate degrees.

The clear concern here is that of intellectual property, and whether the students can publish results freely when there is proprietary information involved. According to Mitacs, they can, but cynics wonder about undue influence of industry in designing and interpreting student’s experiments in which negative results might inhibit product sales.

In spite of these many concerns about corporate influence, academia and non-profit organizations have many motives for accepting industry dollars. The key reason such funding is so tempting for academics and non-profits is that we don’t have enough of it, and corporations are awash in it.

But there are other temptations as well. Products are exciting, and who doesn’t want to be part of inventing something? There is that thrill and pride that comes from being part of a team creating something that has enough value to others that they purchase it. It’s seductive, and one reason we can be so easily drawn into the corporate mindset.

There also are good strategic and philosophical arguments to be made for collaboration with industry. It’s a positive social good for industry, government, academia and non-profits to work together towards common goals, each contributing a different set of skills and experiences towards solving knotty problems in health care, energy production, transportation, environmental protection and many other social needs.

The tradeoff in accepting corporate funding and the accompanying industry culture is the loss of independence, which is perhaps the strongest value that drew many of us to academic and non-profit pursuits in the first place.

We need to create an appropriate infrastructure that recognizes the broad spectrum of stakeholders who bring differing ideals and motives to issues, while protecting the sanctity of independent research by academia and analysis/commentary/opinion from non-profits, insulating both groups from being financially beholden to special interests.

The simple solution to mitigate potential conflicts between industry interests and those of the academic and non-profit worlds would be for government to provide more funding to keep independent bodies independent and balance corporate interests. One way to do that is for government to rebalance the structure of corporate participation to insure it supports independent systems.

Perhaps a tax used specifically to generate a broad range of independent opinions from academics and non-profits would serve citizens the best, particularly on issues where corporate activity has the potential to negatively impact human or environmental health.

Corporations have gargantuan impact on our environment and virtually every aspect of human life. They should be partners with the academic and non-profit sectors, but only if their funding is buying independent analyses rather than inflating the corporate bottom line.

We are far from achieving that balance yet, as those three converged moments I started with indicate. But we do need to have that conversation, and fast, as independent thought is becoming increasingly submerged in the sea of influence that is too easily brought to bear when dollars are not disconnected from products.

Unintended Consequences

Most of us are aware by now that antibiotics are overprescribed for human use and overused in animal feed to increase livestock weight. The consequences are tragic; disease-causing bacteria develop resistance when repeatedly exposed, and many antibiotics have become ineffective.

Physicians are left with fewer and fewer tools to combat serious bacterial infections. Thousands of patients die annually in Canada alone due to infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a medical travesty that could be avoided if we reduced antibiotic usage.

But I read an article in the New York Times on Sunday that slapped me in the face with an obvious realization that I had completely missed (by Pagan Kennedy, 8 March 2014, “The Fat Drug”). If antibiotics fed to livestock result in their gaining weight, what happens to our human weight when we ingest antibiotics?

Turns out there were studies performed in the 1950’s asking just that question. Antibiotics were fed to Guatemalan school children in one study, severely mentally disabled kids in Florida in another, and Navy recruits in a third, all with the same result of increased weight gain following weeks to a full year of antibiotic exposure. And it wasn’t just a minor weight increase; children showed up to three times the weight gain when fed antibiotics compared to those not fed drugs.

Leaving aside the reprehensible ethics of using third-world and mentally disabled children, and soldiers, for these studies, it’s tempting to attribute the current obesity epidemic in the developed world to antibiotics, at least in part. It turns out that there are known mechanisms by which antibiotics might lead to human weight gain, in addition to the obvious observation that it does so in other animals.

For one thing, antibiotics flip a switch in animal digestive systems that turn extra calories into fat, which is one mechanism leading to weight gain. Antibiotics also disrupt the diverse microbial flora in the gut that play a critical role in digesting food, again causing weight gain and possibly contributing to obesity.

Antibiotics have been on my mind lately because of the book about bees I’m working on (Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive,, due out in October). Beekeepers are like many farmers, overusing antibiotics to stimulate their animals’ weight gain. In the case of beekeepers it’s been colonies gaining due to the increased honey production that results by preventing the bacterial disease American Foul Brood (AFB).

But resistance finally developed, and AFB is now epidemic. The only “cure” is to kill the bees and either burn the entire hive or subject the comb and boxes to intense radiation.

It’s not surprising that antibiotic resistance arose, given how much drug beekeepers have been feeding to bees in sugar syrup or dusting into colonies a few times a year. But giving antibiotics to bees has had another unexpected impact, synergizing the effects of pesticides and making these agricultural chemicals toxic to bees at low doses thought to be benign.

Antibiotics fed to bees increase their susceptibility to many pesticides, including neonicitinoid insecticides, which many blame for colony collapse disorder. Essentially, antibiotics reduce the effectiveness of a component in bees’ immune systems that detoxify pesticides, lowering the dose at which a pesticide will harm bees.

Similar antibiotic interactions are well known in human medicine. For example, women have been surprised to get pregnant after taking certain antibiotics that neutralize birth control pills. Antibiotics also interfere with commonly used blood thinning medications and insulin; a simple web search reveals dozens of other harmful interactions.

There’s a bigger issue here, for bees and for us. We’re exposed to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of chemicals every day, from medicines to nutritional supplements, pesticides to industrial plastics, fertilizers to smog. We have some idea about the effects of each alone, but are mostly clueless as to the impacts of minute chemical exposures from multiple sources.

It’s the law of unintended consequences, a perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended. Whether it’s human weight gain from antibiotics or the demise of bees, we’re becoming increasingly aware of how little we understand the side effects of scientific progress.

We’re paying some serious penalties for own health and that of the environment around us. Perhaps it’s time for interactions to be more carefully studied before we release new dangers into the world around us.

Leonard Radinsky

leonard radinsky    Leonard Radinsky

It was a fossil skull and some latex that provided my first exposure to experiential learning in school, in which information and experience merge into creative ideas, values are probed and transformed, character molded, and motivation to contribute to a better world inspired.

The skull was a 50 million year-old fossil from Wyoming and its discoverer was Leonard Radinsky, a paleontology professor at the University of Chicago where I spent two years as an undergraduate student beginning in 1968. Embodied within that time in Chicago is much of what is wrong, and could be right, about how we teach.

It was a curious choice to spend most of my freshman year carefully scraping the sand and dirt from a fossil skull rather than attend classes. The University of Chicago was and still is considered one of the world’s most distinguished universities, renowned for its “Life of the Mind” curriculum, exposing students to the entire history of human thought in science, arts, literature, history, and politics.

While the university attempted to immerse we students in the great minds, the city outside was close to a state of war, convulsed with protests against the war in Vietnam, recent police brutality at the Democratic National Convention, and the horrific poverty and crime spilling over from the adjacent black ghetto on the south side of Chicago.

The curriculum suffered from being “the best of,” a survey of what a team of distinguished academics considered necessary to become educated. We grazed at history, literature, science, and art, reading The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, plays by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, and Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.

We saw innumerable slides of classic sculpture and painting from cave days through the Greeks and on to Picasso, and recited poems to each other by Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. We learned to write obtuse academic essays, and to nod sagely at each other’s witty insights without admitting that most of what we were writing and our discussions were lifeless.

It wasn’t the fault of the great books or art, which of course have much to offer. Rather, we were bouncing too quickly through the best of human thought, intellects trying to fire but without passion or life experience to provide context.

The flip side of my University of Chicago education was happening outside the classroom, at protests against the war in Vietnam and the university’s ownership of a three-block zone of abandoned buildings that buffered the campus from the surrounding ghetto. I sat in at the administration building, marched to end poverty and racism, and chanted clever slogans to show my solidarity with the oppressed.

These social and political experiences were engaging, considerably more so than the classroom. They provided the passion we students craved, but lacked the structured reflection that should be the bread and butter of a university education. We were enthused in the streets to change the world, a good thing in young and restless minds, but had no tools or skills to apply towards our good intentions.

Our professors missed the potential teachable moments, had little inkling that community and university could interact, and overlooked opportunities to connect academia with contemporary real-world events.

Lingering outside these two disconnected worlds of town and gown was a compelling personal reality: I needed to earn some money if I was to stay in school and maintain my student exemption from the U.S. military draft, which loomed as a heavy consequence of dropping out.

My salvation came in the form of an advertisement for a research assistant in the Department of Anatomy. Professor Leonard Radinsky was seeking an undergraduate student to assist in a project studying brain evolution in carnivores. I had no interest in brains, or carnivores, but it was a job, and since I was the only applicant, my lack of experience or any interest in the field were not barriers.

His project involved a narrow, highly academic topic of interest to but a few specialists, and no apparent relevance to the street protests that were engaging most of my enthusiasm. Radinsky studied the Tertiary era, especially 45-56 million year-old fossils from Wyoming, a time and place when the ancestors of current carnivores thrived while other then-populous lines of carnivores declined and disappeared.

His window into the information retained in fossils was to pour liquid latex into ancient skulls to create casts. He then examined the impressions on the solidified latex to deduce the size and fold structures of the long-ago brains. His work tested a theory rampaging at the time through the tiny community of brain paleontologists, that successful carnivores evolved larger brains and essentially out-thought the evolutionary losers.

Radinsky was deeply engaged in this esoteric line of work, yet also was politically and socially committed to social justice in the world beyond his laboratory. He moved effortlessly between expounding with great enthusiasm on an enlarged fold in the neocortex of an ancient mammal’s brain to why the university should provide free tuition to residents of the south-side Chicago ghetto that surrounded us.

My first fossil to clean and cast was from a line of carnivores that didn’t make it out of the Tertiary. Radinsky handed it to me casually, with no apparent concern that I would fumble and destroy this irreplaceable relic from an extraordinarily distant past. He put a higher priority on my learning than he did on the history that I might destroy in the process.

It didn’t look like much, covered by a concretion of sand and pebbles. I gingerly began to chip away and emerge the fossil within, feeling a responsibility for preserving the information embedded in the skull, focus and interest enhanced by the real consequences if my hand slipped or my attention wandered, infused with that sense of wonder and engagement that had eluded me in the classroom.

Slowly the fossil was revealed, after many weeks of meticulously slow and painstaking work, until I could pour in the latex and pop out the cast holding impressions made by the brain on its surrounding skull. It was a poignant moment, seeing the folds and valleys of an animal that not only was long dead itself, but whose descendants had gone extinct through the crucible of natural selection.

Radinsky brought the same qualities to politics that he lived in the laboratory. We went back and forth from brain evolution to what was happening in the streets outside, subjects not connected by topic but through a style of thinking based at the balance point between wonder and fact, emotion and information, passion and analysis.

Fossils and the Vietnam War held little in common, but the attitudes learned at the fossil trays through the tedium of slow, careful work on the specimens spilled over into dialogue about the tumult outside the laboratory walls.

Radinsky drilled down hard on developing ideas about the effective tools for political transformation, much as he probed the mechanisms of evolutionary change. Would taking over the administration building really advance the end of the war? Did we protesting students actually know anyone from the surrounding ghetto, or were we just as isolated as the official university from the community around us?

For Radinsky, revealing the secrets of ancient, now-extinct organisms was consistent with his political activism. He connected how science could and should serve humanity through systematic, rigorous probing and the wondrous information science reveals about how we evolved and our position in the contemporary world around us.

We need to find the equivalent of fossil skulls and latex for every student, connecting the rarefied intellectual discourse of the classroom and the emotional, issue-challenged world outside.

Our challenge is to expand learning beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries to inspire students to improve the world around them and provide the expertise and motivation to do just that.