SEP./OCT. 2007 VOLUME 110 NUMBER 2
State of the Hive | WHERE HAVE ALL THE HONEYBEES GONE?
iN MAY, ENTOMOLOGIST NICHOLAS CALDERONE DONNED full beekeeping regalia to host reporters at the Dyce Honeybee Lab a few miles east of Beebe Lake. For months, beekeepers across the country had been reporting mass disappearances-- entire colonies flying away and never returning, abandoning food stores and unhatched young still in their combs.
The phenomenon, called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has generated myriad theories, from the effects of parasitic mites to the disorienting influence of cell phone signals. By early spring, the agricultural world was abuzz with the prospect of too few pollinators for the nation's avocados, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, sunflowers, and watermelons. At the time, Calderone couldn't say what was causing the die-offs. And as summer reached its zenith, he still didn't know. In late July, Calderone hit the road to collect data throughout the Northeast to test the theory that pesticides might have contaminated the pollen bees ingest, affecting their ability to forage, orient, or develop properly. "We don't have a good data collection system in place to monitor the colonies," says Calderone, director of the lab since 1996. "There's clearly a big problem out there, but part of the problem is not being able to understand what's going on."
The honeybee--the fuzzy, black-and-yellow-striped Apis mellifera-- was introduced to North America by Europeans a few centuries ago. Back then, the continent supported thousands of native bird and insect pollinators; in New York State alone, more than 400 species of bees specific to everything from apples to pumpkins transferred the gametes of native plants. Even today, about a third of the American diet owes its cultivation to insect pollinators.
But with the rise of commercial agriculture's vast monocultures, the social, easy to manage Apis mellifera has become the star pollinator, garnering credit for what now amounts to one in four bites we bring to our mouths, a service whose annual value Calderone estimates at between $8 and $12 billion. Yet over the last two decades--and even before CCD came on the scene-- their numbers, and those of the professionals who tend them, have plummeted as mites, stress, and economic factors undermined their viability. This summer, Congress considered a pollinator protection act supplying more than $50 million for researchers to get to the bottom of CCD and better understand the role that other insect species play in food production. "Without human intervention right now you're not going to have honeybees," says Thomas Seeley, a professor of neurobiology and behavior who keeps research hives at the Liddell Lab, down the road from Dyce. "Things are precarious, and I say that from personal experience. If I don't treat my bees thoughtfully, carefully, and intelligently, they're not going to be around."
Seeley, who spent a month last summer on Shoals Marine Lab's Appledore Island studying the house-hunting behavior of bees, blames varroa mites--Varroa destructor, in scientific parlance, and a fitting appellation for the miniature bloodsuckers that have wreaked havoc on feral and domesticated colonies nationwide. Long a threat in Europe, mites were introduced here in the late Eighties, hitching a ride on an illegal shipment of honeybees. For a decade, the miticide fluvinate held the pinhead-sized bugs at bay; later, coumaphos did the trick. Now, with mites increasingly resistant to both, the search is on to expand the beekeeper's chemical arsenal. Disease, too, threatens larger operations, and antibiotic over-application has become a further threat."Big beekeepers are a little like a hospital," says Seeley. "It's a great breeding ground for resistant microbes, because so many antibiotics are used."
As biological pressures on Apis mellifera have intensified over the last twenty years, the number of beekeepers has halved.Maintaining a financially viable honeybee operation has become increasingly difficult, says University of California, Riverside, entomologist Kirk Visscher, PhD '85, Seeley's collaborator on Appledore. "Twenty years ago, keeping bees was a fairly simple enterprise," says Visscher. "A person without much knowledge could maintain a colony without doing much of anything. Now, a beekeeper who doesn't pay fairly close attention to his bees will lose them."
And while management costs have spiked, cheap honey imports have undermined the U.S. market, putting pressure on beekeepers to generate income via pollination services. That's where stress comes in. Feral colonies normally go dormant each winter, collect food from a variety of pollen sources, and leave the hive to die in the event of sickness. But when bees are criss-crossing the country in eighteen-wheelers, they work year-round, eat high-fructose corn syrup, and rely on chemical crutches to hold illness and parasites at bay. It's not a recipe for apiary health. "In the last fifteen years, the number of colonies in the U.S. has fallen by a third or a half," says Seeley. "There has been a clear, general decline."
The competing interests of agriculture and the bees themselves can be seen in California's $1.6 billion almond industry, where acre upon acre of the trees, collectively covering several square miles, are the only species allowed to take root. "In the process of making these huge monocultures," says Calderone, "you've destroyed all the natural nesting sites of the native pollinators." Delivered as the trees blossom, the trucked-in honeybees transfer pollen for about two weeks, then get hauled away before the fields are sprayed to kill pests. "It's not that honeybees are necessarily better pollinators than other bees or insects,"Visscher says. "It's just that if you want a million of them to show up this week and be taken out before you apply insecticide, it has to be honeybees, because they're portable."
The honeybees living in the twenty-five experimental hives tended by neurobiology and behavior postdoc Heather Mattila have an entirely different existence. They forage in a clover field a few miles off campus, close to the University's community gardens. When it comes to managing mites and other biological threats,Mattila--who published a paper in Science last summer on the reproductive strategy of queens--uses a light hand with chemicals to help prevent the evolution of resistant pathogens. As for colony collapse and the fate of the honeybee in North America, Mattila is reserving judgment, noting that her own hives have shown no symptoms of imminent disaster. "It will be worrisome if it continues for another year," she says. "What's going on is a real mystery."
-- Sharon Tregaskis '95
Good Buzz | REBECCA BARRY '90 GETS RAVE REVIEWS FOR HER TALES OF AN UPSTATE TAVERN
iN THE LATE NINETIES, UPSTATE NEW YORK NATIVE Rebecca Barry '90 was established as a freelance writer in Manhattan, contributing to such publications as the New York Times Magazine and Seventeen. But despite her success, something was lacking. She was drawn back home and realized what had been missing in her life: a good neighborhood bar. "I really loved drinking then--I needed it," Barry says. "I had been in New York for seven years and had gotten guarded."
Almost a decade later, the time she spent hanging out in Ithaca watering holes has paid off. In May, Simon & Schuster published Later, at the Bar, a book of interconnected short stories about a group of misfits who drink in the same local tavern. They don't always make good choices--one character goes to jail for stealing a box of chicken wings--and they get married and divorced as easily as they order the next round. But in Lucy's Tavern they form a family of sorts, offering a shoulder to lean on or a kiss to take your mind off your troubles. As New York Times reviewer Danielle Trussoni put it, "Amid the ruckus, Barry's prose seems remarkably sane. The stories are narrated in a whisper of longing, as if the town gossip--the most perceptive and garrulous of the group--had pulled you into a dark corner booth, pushed a beer your way, and decided to fill you in on her exasperating, charming friends."
Barry didn't initially intend to write short stories.When the Lansing native returned home, she planned to do a nonfiction piece about moving back. Going out for drinks as a reprieve from writing--she declines to say exactly which bars she frequented-- she found herself becoming absorbed in the stories she heard. "The more I talked to people, the more I felt like I was getting at the real juice of life," she says, "and getting much richer experiences than what I was writing about."
Barry began combining stories and conversations she heard in the bars with the characters she remembered from growing up.Many were what she describes as "wild cowboy types" with nowhere left to roam--farm hands, bus drivers, and tavern-keepers like Lucy, who "knows how to use both the gun and the baseball bat she kept under the bar." One character in particular captivated her so much that she decided she had to put him in a story. "A guy came in who had gotten drunk the night before and made this amazing soup, the best anyone had ever tasted in his years as a cook. But he had been so drunk he couldn't remember the recipe," Barry recalls. "You work hard, you get good at what you do, and then you create your masterpiece and it just goes off into the ether. That seemed like the perfect story to me, and it just kept going from there."
A similarly bittersweet current runs throughout the book, as each triumph is somehow tainted.When several characters attempt to rescue an injured goose, they careen off the road minutes later--reinforcing the notion that they are as much at the mercy of nature, and in need of saving, as the animal. The rambling Upstate landscape, a mix of wildness and crumbling old homes, is prominent in the stories; Barry sees nature as a force that both shapes and mirrors the lives of her characters. "We have these brutal winters and exuberant springs, and you're always living with the knowledge that life is on the verge of changing," she says. "That place where joy and sorrow meet is sort of a holy ground, because it's where we are our most fully human."
Because she has such a respect for her characters' ability to find happiness in hard times, Barry is surprised when readers see them as a bunch of down-and-out criminals and drunks.While she acknowledges that many of their actions are reproachable--more than one character gets arrested for driving under the influence-- she respects their desire to grasp joy wherever they can. The Times' Trussoni acknowledged this unconventional romanticism in her review, noting that "Barry, whose understanding of her characters' contradictions is proof of her skill as a writer, doesn't condescend to heal them. . . .They exist in the pristine cosmos of Lucy's Tavern, blindly burning through their allotment of grace, utterly uninterested in rehabilitation."
Now a mother of two living in Trumansburg, Barry admits she has not been back to her old haunts since writing the book. Does she wonder if some of her muses will recognize themselves? "I tried to fictionalize them and write about them with as much compassion as I could, but that doesn't always mean people will like it," she says. "That wakes me up at night sometimes."
-- Liz Sheldon '09
Road Scholar | PUNKER GREG GRAFFIN ROCKS TWO WORLDS
cRAMPED VANS, CHEAP HOTELS, and endless travel are familiar to most touring musicians. But for a lucky few, success provides a more humane life on the road. Case in point: Greg Graffin, PhD '03, singer for the iconic punk band Bad Religion. The group has sold more than 3 million records in a career dating back to 1981, and its worldwide popularity as a concert draw continues to grow.
That level of success has enabled Graffin to forsake sharing a bus with his bandmates and travel in style between gigs in the U.S. and Europe. "It's more civilized now," says Graffin. "I take a few days in each place and try to soak in the culture, visit libraries and book dealers. I definitely spend a lot more time learning, and I think it helps my academic pursuits. When the band needs me, they call and say, ‘We have soundcheck in twenty minutes,' and I jump in a taxi and zoom over to the venue."
Those scholarly pursuits have included a doctoral degree in zoology, which Graffin completed after returning to Cornell following a six-year leave of absence. For his dissertation, Graffin surveyed evolutionary biologists' attitudes toward religious beliefs.He posted a questionnaire online, mailed a survey to hundreds of scientists around the world, and interviewed a dozen in person. The result was Evolution, Monism, Atheism, and the Naturalist World-View, published by his own Polypterus Press. He estimates that it has sold more than 6,000 copies, though he acknowledges that "a lot of people are just buying it as a piece of Bad Religion merchandise."
Since then he's kept one foot in music and the other in academia. Last year, in addition to releasing his second solo album, he co-authored a book on science and religion. Entitled Is Belief in God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant? (IVP), the book is based on his e-mail correspondence with Preston Jones, an assistant professor of history at heavily conservative John Brown University; they tackled science, religion, naturalism, and Christianity, debating the pros and cons of each other's position. "I've heard from a steady stream of people saying they were really happy that they could see both sides of the argument," says Graffin. "They like how neither one of us was antithetic to the other." Exploring the inherent conflict between evolution and scripture played into Graffin's lifelong interest in the subject--plus, he notes, "my band has been called Bad Religion since high school."
Last winter, Graffin taught an introductory biology class at UCLA; he calls the field essential to understanding where we come from and what unites us as human beings. "There's no better way to learn that than through biology," he says. "Some would say religion, but I would argue that religion teaches you more about how we are divided. Biology gives you the foundation for a better life in that it teaches you not to believe in something unless it can be verified, unless it's based on a repeatable, observable foundation."
While at UCLA, Graffin spent his nights working on Bad Religion's fourteenth album, New Maps of Hell, which came out in July. Unlike its predecessor-- 2004's The Empire Strikes First, which was chock-full of punk fusillades aimed at the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq--the new album takes a more allegorical approach. "We're staying away from direct criticism of the government and its current policies, because I think it's boring. You'd have to be blind not to recognize what's inept about this administration," says Graffin, one of the band's two main songwriters. "I have a song called ‘Germs of Perfection,' which is pure metaphor for genetic engineering and the concept of eugenics, which most people think is a swear word.We never talk about it, even though we practice it every day when we try to improve crops or choose the best embryos."
The band, whose quarter-century of recording made it eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, is out on the road again this summer, headlining the Warped Tour, a festival of music and extreme sports. "The age difference doesn't feel that strange," Graffin says of playing to an audience of teens and twentysomethings. "It's the same as being a professor lecturing to students half your age: you hope you have something interesting to share with them, that can provoke them to use their minds."
-- Jim Catalano
Blog, Blog, Blog | OFFICIAL AND UNOFFICIAL WEB DIARIES GIVE INSIGHT INTO STUDENT LIFE
eARLY ON IN HIS COLLEGE HUNT, Daniel Rothenberg '11 had narrowed his choices to twenty schools. From there, it got tricky: the Quiz Bowl champ knew he wanted to study atmospheric science, but where was anyone's guess. So the Louisville, Kentucky, native turned to the Web for answers. He browsed forums and MySpace and even struck up an acquaintance with a Cornell student in his online gaming league, all without leaving his computer 700 miles away from Ithaca. "With the print sources, you see only one side of the story--the glossy brochure selling the school to you," says Rothenberg, who was accepted into Cornell early decision. "On the Internet, there's no censorship; it's much easier to find honest opinions."
In trying to reach students like Rothenberg, Cornell has come up with some creative approaches, including its year-old student blogging project, "Life on the Hill." Blogs, or online journals, cover topics ranging from celebrity sightings to everyday life, often inviting readers to participate by commenting on entries or sending in ideas. Dozens of Cornellians, using free software, have started their own unofficial blogs to chronicle their lives and interests. Though they generally don't garner much traffic, they do allow an intimate, if not always titillating, peak inside Cornell: Christian Montoya '07 blogged about the difficulty of Engineering classes and the thrill of guest lecturing, while Human Ecology student Alex Payne '09 dissected "the premier sport on campus," men's hockey.
About a year ago, the University decided to tap into the medium's buzz by creating a set of official student blogs aimed at prospective applicants and their families. These blogs have since been read by people all over the world, with more than 168,000 hits last January alone. The bloggers are uncensored, admonished only to "be smart" about what they write. That freedom initially concerned top administrators: the blogs are occasionally featured on Cornell's home page, and an errant diarist could be a public relations nightmare. To allay those fears, Office of Web Communications program manager Lisa Cameron-Norfleet limited the field of applicants to a trusted group of ambassadors, Cornell's famous backward-walking tour guides. "The odds of somebody doing something horrible out of this pool are very slim," she says, adding that the choice of tour guides as bloggers went a long way toward convincing Tommy Bruce, vice president for university communications, to "take a leap of faith."
Ben Crovella '07, the only senior in the original six-blogger pack, wasn't afraid to discuss the lighter side of Cornell life, including his fraternity and road trips.He also gave readers a peek into ROTC, touching on everything from drill competitions and Ironman training to the Navy Ball. But he and the other official bloggers got a tough education: within days of its launch, Cornell's unofficial blogosphere ripped into the project, with Elliott Bäck '06 calling it "just a watered down PR machine written by a gang of unfocused novice bloggers." It was harsh criticism, but it waned as the bloggers showed they were willing to skewer aspects of the school, as in one polemic entitled "Downfall of Cornell Hockey (Not the team…the atmosphere)." Now, Crovella says, "my best posts give a real taste of Cornell life-- even when it doesn't happen in Ithaca."
More official blogs have followed. Last August the College of Engineering launched blogs aimed at prospective students, including one written by an admissions officer who discusses what to expect when applying to the school. Cornell's symphony and chamber orchestras have a joint blog that mixes historical trivia with their touring schedules. Other organizations are looking into launching similar initiatives, Cameron-Norfleet says, and peer institutions are getting into the act: UCLA, MIT, and dozens of others have similar programs, though so far Cornell is the only Ivy League school with official bloggers.
Beyond these University-sanctioned blogs, however, lie a host of unofficial online diaries. The most notorious is Bäck's, which constantly pushes boundaries, whether he's announcing the names of the Slope Day performers early by linking to a poorly hidden, unreleased announcement or juxtaposing the news of an undergraduate's alcohol-poisoning death with Facebook quotes on the student's drinking habits. Some of the more popular Cornell blogs are anonymous. There is the acerbic fashionista with the pseudonym Blonde Belle who analyzes campus couture while bemoaning the dearth of good weather and decent shopping in Ithaca. The creator of a fake Facebook profile purporting to represent former President Jeffrey Lehman '77 writes a widely read blog where he comments on the intersections of social networking and higher education, often with a Cornell twist. Other students, such as Erica Mallare '08, simply write about their lives-- everything from summer vacation to a love of ellipses.
Though it's impossible to gauge the impact blogs have on applications or the University's image, the high readership of "Life on the Hill" was enough to get the program continued for at least another year, with the addition of three new students from a broader range of applicants. Meanwhile, the unofficial bloggers continue to grow in number, with one, Ivygateblog, aiming to become the Page Six of the Ivy League. The appeal for those who bare their personal lives, though, is often much simpler. "It is nice to write about such a light subject," notes Blonde Belle."My blog is the opposite of my daily class work."
-- Michael Morisy '07