TIME Environment

Invasive Species: Not Always the Enemy

Endangered bird in invasive species
The California Clapper Rail has come to depend on invasive Spartina cordgrass Image courtesy of Robert Clark

The usual policy with invasive species is to eradicate them whenever possible. But in a changing world, that may not be possible

By some estimates, invasive species are the second-biggest threat to endangered animals and plants. Which is a problem, because invasions are on the rise, thanks to increasing global trade, climate change and habitat loss, all of which are turning the planet into a giant mixing bowl as invasive species spread across the globe. So it’s not surprising that many conservationists treat invasive species as enemy combatants in a biological war. The federal government spent $2.2 billion in 2012 trying to prevent, control and sometimes eradicate invasive species, in an effort that involved 13 different agencies and departments.

But un-mixing the global mixing bowl may be impossible—human activity has simply altered the planet too much. And as a new study in Science suggests, some invasive species have become so embedded in their environment that they could only be removed at great cost. Take them away and an ecosystem might collapse, in the same way that pulling a single thread can cause an entire tapestry to unravel.

Researchers from the University of California-Davis examined the relationship between the California Clapper Rail—an endangered bird found only in San Francisco Bay—and the invasive saltmarsh cordgrass hybrid Spartina. The Army Corps of Engineers originally introduced the grass Spartina alterniflora into San Francisco Bay in the mid-1970s in an effort to reclaim lost marshland. Unsurprisingly, though, the introduced species didn’t stay in its niche—it hybridized with native Spartina grass and began spreading, displacing the native Spartina and eventually invading more than 800 acres. That was a problem for the clapper rail, because the bird depended on the native Spartina as a habitat. So the Spartina casebecame a classic example of an invasive species causing trouble for an endangered native, which is why efforts began in 2005 to eradicate it. Those efforts were successful—more than 90% of the invasive Spartina has been removed, though the native plant has been slow to recover.

But something unexpected happened: Between 2005 and 2011, populations of the federally endangered clapper rail fell by nearly 50%. That’s likely because the bird came to depend on the invasive Spartina for habitat just as it had on the native. And since the population of the native grass wasn’t rebounding, the eradication of the invasive Spartina left the clapper rail that much more vulnerable. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to prohibit further eradication of the invasive Spartina, while transplanting nursery plants of the native Spartina.

As an invasive species, though, the hybrid Spartina was still marked for death—the question was how to complete eradication of the plant without accidentally eradicating an endangered species as well. The Science researchers modeled out possible interventions and found that the best solution was to slow down the eradication of the invasives until the native plants could recover and the ecosystem could return to something like its natural state. The default reaction to invasives is to stamp them out whenever possible, but the Science study demonstrated that the collateral damage would simply be too great.

“Just thinking form a single-species standpoint doesn’t work,” said Alan Hastings, a UC Davis environmental science and policy professor and a co-author of the paper, in a statement. “The whole management system needs to take longer, and you need to have much more flexibility in the timing of budgetary expenditures over a longer time frame.”

This isn’t the only example of a conflict between eradicating an invasive species and protecting an endangered one that has come to depend on it. In the Southwest, a program to eradicate invasive Tamarisk was eventually scaled back when it was discovered that the tree provided a nesting habitat for the endangered Southern Willow fly-catcher bird. And as the pace of invasions around the world gains speed—and efforts to fight those invasions scale up—we can expect those conflicts to intensify.

That’s one reason why a small but growing number of wildlife ecologists have begun to question the wisdom of fighting an open-ended war against invasive species. In 2011, 19 ecologists co-authored an influential article in Nature arguing that we should judge species not by their origin, but by their impact on the environment. That piece produced serious pushback by mainstream ecologists accustomed to the eradication paradigm, but in a planet that has been so fundamentally remade by human beings—the ultimate invasive species—it’s clear that an all-out war can’t go on. “The planet is changing,” Mark Davis, a biologist at Macalester College and the lead author on the Nature article, told me not long ago. “If conservation is going to be relevant, it has to accept that.”

TIME health

Why Your Doctor Probably Has a “Do Not Resuscitate” Order

Doctors know that aggressive end of life care can be a waste of money—and painful. Yet that's exactly what happens when Americans die

The greatest success of the American medical system is also its greatest failure. Thanks to amazing advances in biomedicine, doctors can keep you living long after you would have passed away in earlier years. Today a 65-year-old man can expect to live past age 82, and a 65-year-old woman can expect to live even longer. But those extra years can come at a terrible cost. Millions of Americans spend the last few years of their lives in and out of hospitals, racking up huge medical bills. A quarter of the total Medicare budget is spent on the last year of recipients’ lives, with 40% of that money going to their final 30 days. Worse than those billions, though, is the physical and psychological pain that accompanies aggressive end-of-life treatment. Intubations, dialysis, feeding tubes, invasive tests—for far too many Americans, the last phase of life is spent in a hospital intensive care unit, hooked up to machines.

It’s a terrible fate, as doctors only know too well. That’s why it shouldn’t be surprising that researchers in a new study in the journal PLOS ONE found that 88.3% of doctors surveyed reported that they would choose to forgo this kind of treatment if they were dying of a terminal illness. Yet even though they know how painful and futile those treatments are for dying patients—and would refuse them if the situations were reversed—doctors still find themselves carrying out those procedures on their own patients. “Physicians know it’s not the right thing to do, but we find ourselves participating in treatment that causes pain and suffering for our patient,” says Dr. VJ Periyakoil, the director of the Stanford Palliative Care Education and Training Program and the lead author of the paper. “Families are traumatized and there is a huge financial cost to the individual and the nation.”

Doctors aren’t alone. Periyakoil notes that surveys have found that more than 80% of patients say they wish to avoid frequent hospitalizations and high-intensity care at the end of their lives. So why then are so many Americans dying in exactly opposite the fashion that they and their doctors desire? Blame the same medical technology that has helped Americans live longer than ever before. Hospitals and doctors are reimbursed for carrying out procedures, whatever the end result. “The default of the medical system is to doing all possible technological care,” says Periyakoil. “It simply doesn’t make it easy to do the right thing.”

Medical schools bear some of the blame as well. Periyakoil notes that students are taught to extend their patients’ lives if at all possible, but they’re not taught how to speak to their patients and families about the reality of end-of-life care. That’s especially important because elderly, terminally ill patients are rarely in a position where they are capable of expressing their wishes, which too often leaves the decision up to the closest family members. And it’s hardly surprising that, faced with the possibility of losing a loved one, family members opt for whatever care is needed, no matter the financial or human cost. Periyakoil herself has spoken with the family of a terminally ill patient and gently suggested withdrawing extreme treatment, only to have the family push back. “We can present the options, but ultimately I have to defer to them,” she says.

Periyakoil says she published the study in part to show ordinary people what their doctors actually thought about intensive end of life care, with the hope that they would reconsider the need to extend the lives of their loved ones at all cost. This is fraught territory—just look at the hysteria over the so-called “death panels” during the initial Obamacare debates in 2009. But these conversations must be had, on the national level and the personal one. It’s projected that 26.1% of the U.S. population will be 65 or older by 2030, up from 12.8% now, and if intensive care remains the norm, costs will continue to balloon, while the elderly and the terminally ill will continue to suffer—as will their doctors standing witness to that pain.

“My goal is to prolong life—not prolong the dying process,” says Periyakoil. “We have to fix this.”

TIME Environment

Why ‘Global Warming’ Is Scarier Than ‘Climate Change’

Climate change versus global warming
"Global warming" may be a more engaging term for activists than "climate change" Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

The two terms may seem synonymous, but one generates much more engagement than the other

A quick check of the TIME.com archives reveals that I’ve used the term “global warming” in 545 posts, videos and articles—not counting this one. And the term “climate change”? 852 times. That’s not surprising. While the two terms are largely synonymous—which is why there are 472 posts where I use both—”climate change” has become the preferred term for scientists because it better describes the long-term changes in the planet’s climate, which go well beyond simple temperature increase. Scientists use it, and so have I, but most of the time I simply rotate the two terms for variety’s sake.

But it turns out that global warming and climate change evoke very different reactions in ordinary Americans—and for those trying to motivate the public to act on greenhouse gas emissions, using “global warming” could be more effective. In a new report by the Yale Project on Climate Communications, researchers led by Anthony Leiserowitz surveyed Americans and found that “global warming” is used much more commonly than “climate change,” both in conversation and in Internet searches, and that “global warming” is significantly more engaging than “climate change.” That’s because global warming generated more alarming associations, causing survey respondents to think of disasters like melting ice, coastal flooding and extreme weather, while “climate change” generated more banal associations with generation weather patterns. “Global warming” was also associated with:

  • Greater certainty that the phenomenon was happening
  • Greater understanding that human activities were the primary driver of warming, especially among political independents
  • A greater sense of personal threat, as well as more intense worry about the issue
  • A greater sense that people are being harmed right now by warming, and a greater sense of threat to future generations
  • Greater support for both large and small-scale actions by the U.S. (although “climate change” generates more support for medium-scale efforts, especially among Republicans.)

That last bit is especially important. As the report’s authors note, some environmentalists have come to think “climate change” is a more effective term to use with Republicans, precisely because it doesn’t seem as catastrophic as “global warming.” (If there’s one thing conservative climate skeptics like to argue, it’s that environmentalists are constantly overstating the threat of climate change.) But the Yale report found that Republicans don’t really care which term is used, though “global warming” will sometimes generate stronger negative feelings among conservatives. Not that it much matters—a recent Gallup poll found that 65% of conservatives said they were skeptical of climate change, compared to just 24% of moderates and 9% of liberals.

But the Yale report also found that the term “global warming” actually seemed to reduce engagement with Democrats, independents, liberals and moderates:

African-Americans (+20 percentage points) and Hispanics (+22) are much more likely to rate global warming as a “very bad thing” than climate change. Generation X (+21) and liberals (+19) are much more likely to be certain global warming is happening. African-Americans (+22) and Hispanics (+30) are much more likely to perceive global warming as a personal threat, or that it will harm their own family (+19 and +31, respectively). Hispanics (+28) are much more likely to say global warming is already harming people in the United States right now. And Generation X (+19) is more likely to be willing to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take action to reduce global warming than climate change.

Scientists take great pride in the precision of their language, sometimes to the point of jargon-filled incomprehensibility. But language matters in politics, too. Just look at the difference between estate tax and death tax, two terms that refer to the same legal act—taxing wealth left over after a citizen dies—and yet connote two entirely different things. The difference between global warming and climate change isn’t that large yet, but environmentalists who want to nudge as much of the public as possible towards action should be careful which one they use.

TIME Environment

Your Ant Farm Is Smarter Than Google

Ants carry leaves to their nest
As a collective, ants are efficient and surprisingly intelligent Moment Select via Getty Images

Ant colonies are surprisingly efficient at forming intelligent networks that can rapidly spread information, according to a new study

Ants may have the largest brains of any insect, but that doesn’t mean a single ant on its own is all that smart. As individual ants leave their nest in search of food, they walk in what appear to be random paths, hoping to come across something to eat. The behavior of hundreds of scout ants circling their nests on a hunt for sustenance can be chaotic as it looks, like drunks stumbling about the house in search of their keys. The ants will search for food until they’re exhausted, then return to the nest to briefly eat and rest before heading back out again.

But as a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences makes clear, something amazing happens when an individual ant finds a food source. The ant will take a bit of the food back to the nest, leaving a trail of pheromones behind them to mark the path. A wave of ants will then attempt to follow the path back to the food source, but because pheromones evaporate quickly, their behavior will still look chaotic as they attempt to home in on the food.

Over time, though, the ants will organize their search, optimizing the best and shortest path between the food and the nest. As more ants follow the optimal path back and forth, they leave more and more pheromones, which in turn attracts more and more ants, creating a self-reinforcing efficiency effect. The chaotic, seemingly random foraging of individual ants is replaced with organized precision. Working as one, the ants create the sort of distribution networks a traffic engineer could only dream of.

“While the single ant is certainly not smart, the collective acts in a way that I’m tempted to call intelligent,” said study co-author Jurgen Kurths of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Reseaerch, in a statement. “The ants collectively form a highly efficient complex network.”

That’s not all the study found. The researchers also discovered that individual ants differ in their ability to find food. Over time older ants gather more experience about the environment surrounding their nests, which makes it easier for them to forage effectively, even though their age means they tire faster than young ants. The young ants are more like interns—their lack of experience means they can’t contribute much to foraging, but they are effectively learning on the job. (No word on whether they get course credit.)

Even though individual ants can get smarter over time as they learn more about their surrounding environment, the real ant intelligence is in the collective. Just how advanced are their search capabilities? Good enough to rival our best technology, at least. Google’s search engine forages for information on the Web in much the same way an ant colony looks for food. Google’s webcrawlers scour the Internet, bringing data about individual pages back to Google’s servers, where that information is indexed, sharpening the company’s picture of the ever-evolving Internet as it is—just as ants learn more and more about their environment over time. Google’s search algorithms use hundreds of signals to find the most efficient and accurate answer to any search query—just as the ant colony quickly organizes itself to find the most efficient path to a food source once it has been discovered by scouts.

But Kurths believes that ants are actually much more efficient at organizing data than a collective of human beings using the Internet could ever be, as he told the Independent:

I’d go so far as to say that the learning strategy involved in that, is more accurate and complex than a Google search. These insects are, without doubt, more efficient than Google in processing information about their surroundings.

Which doesn’t mean you should ask the closest ant colony, rather than Google, when you want to find out what time the Super Bowl is on. But in a digitally connected world where the network is quickly becoming smarter and more efficient than any individual, ants are apparently ahead of the game.

TIME Environment

The World’s Most Endangered Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises

Slow and steady may win the race, but on World Turtle Day, these animals are struggling to survive

Is there anything more harmless than a turtle? (Unless, I suppose, you’re a nice, leafy vegetable.) Turtles and tortoises—the main difference is that turtles dwell at least partially in water, while tortoises live exclusively on land—are slow-moving, peaceful animals whose main form of protection from the outside world is a hard shell. Not for nothing do we have the fable of the slow and steady tortoise winning the race. Turtles have existed in some form for more than 220 million years, outlasting their early contemporaries the dinosaurs. Long-lived turtles and tortoises are symbols of perseverance in the natural world.

Unfortunately, the rules of the race are changing. Turtles and tortoises are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates, with about half their more than 300 species threatened with extinction. Only primates—human beings expected—are at greater risk of being wiped off the planet. The threats are many. The animals are collected by traders, eaten in the wild and in fine restaurants, used as pets or for traditional medicine, and sometimes simply killed. The very adaptations that once made them so successful—their long adult life span and delayed sexual maturity—has made them vulnerable as the world around them changed, mostly thanks to human beings. Climate change threatens them as well—a recent study found that as the water warms, more and more sea turtle hatchlings are being born male, which could eventually make it impossible for the species to reproduce successfully.

A 2011 report from the Turtle Conservation Coalition makes it clear: we need to act now if we’re to save the turtles and the tortoises:

We are facing a turtle survival crisis unprecedented in its severity and risk. Humans are the problem, and must therefore also be the solution. Without concerted conservation action, many of the world’s turtles and tortoises will become extinct within the next few decades. It is now up to us to prevent the loss of these remarkable, unique jewels of evolution.

As we mark World Turtle Day on May 23, spare a thought for these armored but endangered creatures.

TIME Environment

Top 10 New Species for 2014

The best of the best when it comes to new life

It may seem a bit early to declare the top 10 new species of 2014—after all, the year is less than half over. But keep in mind that scientists discover an average of 40 new species a day, so there have already been plenty of freshly uncovered life to choose from. This year the list is being released by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s International Institute for Species Exploration—and the timing isn’t coincidental. Tomorrow is the 307th anniversary of the birth of the Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus, who laid down the groundwork for classifying life.

And as the list shows, life is diverse. The collection includes a dragon tree, a skeleton shrimp, a gecko and a microbe that likes to hang out in the clean rooms where spacecraft are assembled. But there is still far more life to be discovered—scientists estimate that there are 10 million species remaining to be named and classified, five times the number we already know about. We’d better hurry though—while we discover about 15,000 new species a year, we may be losing up to 100,000 annually to extinction.

TIME Environment

China’s Food Safety Problems Go Deeper Than Pet Treats

Pet food retailers in the U.S. are pulling Chinese-made dog and cat treats from their shelves out of contamination fears

PETCO became the first national pet food store to halt the sale of Chinese-made treats this week, due to concerns over contamination—but it won’t be the last.

Already the rival retailer PetSmart has announced that it will follow suit in taking Chinese pet treats off its store shelves. Over 1,000 dog deaths have been linked to problems with the imported jerky treats, but this problem goes back years. The Food and Drug Administration has been investigating thousands of reports of pet illnesses linked to jerky treats going back to 2007, most of which involve Chinese products, though there’s been a spike since last October.

It’s still not clear exactly how the treats may be contaminated, or exactly how the products may be hurting the dogs and other pets that eat them. But this is hardly the first time that tainted Chinese-made food products have made the news. There was a massive pet food recall in 2007 that implicated Chinese producers, and there were worried that those ingredients could have made it into the human food supply. There have also been concerns about lead paint on Chinese-made toys exported to the U.S.

But any worries about contamination in Chinese exports pales compared to the danger that homegrown Chinese food poses to the country’s own citizens. Food safety scandals are rampant, and by some estimates as much as one fifth of the country’s soil is contaminated. Chinese who can afford it buy imported food whenever possible—and those who can’t just hope they’re lucky. Tainted pet food may get the headlines in the U.S., but food safety is far worse—for animals and people—in China itself.

TIME Environment

How I Almost Got to Decide the Next XPRIZE

XPRIZE CEO Peter Diamandis
XPRIZE CEO Peter Diamandis takes the stage at Visioneering Donald Norris for XPRIZE

Some of the smartest and most influential people gathered in outside L.A. this weekend to brainstorm the next great innovation contest

Pro-tip: if you’re trying to pitch a winning concept for an XPRIZE contest, get NY1 news anchor Pat Kiernan on your team. I’m pretty sure Kiernan’s presence — and his smooth, TV-honed baritone on stage — was the main reason why the idea designed by Pat, myself and TIME’s Siobhan O’Connor made it to the finals here at XPRIZE Visioneering. We didn’t win — in what I would describe as grand larceny, we lost out to a contest focused around developing forbidden sources of energy. But for three journalists with pretty much zero experience in the digital innovation field, I’d say we did pretty well.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was in sunny Palos Verdes in southern California for XPRIZE Visioneering. It’s a now annual summit that brings together some of the smartest and most influential people in the world — and a few journalists like myself — to brainstorm what could become the next multi-million dollar XPRIZE concept. XPRIZE was founded in 1995 by the engineer, entrepreneur and relentlessly positive futurist Peter Diamandis, to incubate prize-driven contests meant to inspire innovation. The first XPRIZE is still the most famous — the Ansari XPRIZE, which offered $10 million to the first privately-financed team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 62 miles (100 km) into space twice within two weeks.

It took 26 teams investing more than $100 million dollars for eight years before the prize was won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which completed their flights in the custom-built SpaceShipOne. Private space travel was a dream before Diamandis established the XPRIZE — today, the industry is worth more than $2 billion, as entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and his SpaceX company successfully put satellites in orbit without NASA’s help. “It used to be only governments and big companies that could play on a scale like this,” Diamandis has told me before. “But times have changed and accelerated in the direction where agents of change are small entrepreneurs who are enabled by new technologies to do extraordinary things.”

As you might be able to tell from the buzzwords, XPRIZE is extremely Silicon Valley. The contests the foundation has formulated unleash digitally-empowered entrepreneurs on some of the very problems where the government has failed, like ocean health and oil spills. Diamandis himself isn’t shy about the scale of his ambitions. “This is where we imagine the future and create the future,” he told the audience at the opening of the Visioneering conference. “We’re living in a world where you can solve ideas and not just complain about them.” It’s a vision where doing good also means doing well, where an intractable problem like child poverty isn’t a failure of global will, but a market failure. Those who can innovate successful solutions won’t just help the world, they’ll be helping themselves — starting with the multi-million dollar checks that come with an XPRIZE win.

But such contests actually aren’t new. Before centralized government and corporate R&D boomed in the post-WWII era, one of the best ways to encourage innovation was through a prize contest. Some group or person — the government or an individual tycoon — would set out a challenge with a cash reward. The British government did this back in 1714 with the Longitude Prize, to be awarded to the first person who could develop a way for a seagoing ship to measure longitude. The prize was won not by a navigator or ship’s captain — the class of experts who had been trying and failing to discover a solution — but by a clock maker named John Harrison. The 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927 in order to win a contest established by a hotelier named Raymond Orteig. (It was the Orteig Prize that directly inspired the Ansari XPRIZE for space travel.) Lindbergh took home the $25,o00 winnings — and everlasting global fame — but more importantly, the prize kicked off global air travel, seeding an industry of vastly greater value. “Within 18 months of the contest, air passenger traffic had gone up 30 times,” says Chris Frangione, the vice president of prize development at XPRIZE. “This is why prizes are so powerful — they leverage resources.”

The point of the Visioneering conference was to brainstorm the next contest. No one thought small. Bill Gross, the CEO of Idealab, urged the audience to try to solve Beijing’s killer air pollution problem. Shaifali Puri, the executive director for global innovation at Nike, told us to aim for a “moon shot for girls,” to find a way to ensure that tens of millions of girls around the world received the education and protection they needed to flourish. Ratan Tata, one of India’s richest men, said we should focus on the malnutrition and housing woes that still hold back the developing world. “It’s not just tech and it’s not just start-up companies,” he said. “It’s making a difference for disadvantaged people.”

To do that, we needed ideas, and we slotted ourselves into different tracks for brainstorm sessions. I took the future of cities on the first day, where New York University’s Paul Romer, who told us that “cities are where the action is.” We were broken into groups and asked to devise, bit by bit, a new contest that could produce an innovation that would improve life in cities, for the poor and for the rich. Once we’d completed that task — a process that used a lot of Post-It notes and whiteboard space — we pitched our ideas to the larger group, and voted on which one would move to the next stage. I should have known that my group’s idea — loosely centered around finding a way to provide infinite water to urban households — might be in trouble when we began debating whether to play Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” during the pitch. (Our title: “What a Watterful World.” I know.) We did not advance.

But that experience was useful for the next day’s session, on disaster prediction and response. The seismologist Lucy Jones — whom Los Angeles residents know as the “Earthquake Lady” for her ubiquity on TV every time a temblor strikes Southern California — told us the unsettling fact that the next big quake that strikes the San Andreas Fault could essentially cut off water to L.A. for months. We were broken into groups again, and tasked with designing a contest that would help cities prepare and bounce back from the next big natural disaster.

I roped in Siobhan, who had come to Visioneering as my guest, and NY1’s Kiernan, who had also come as a guest and who had only landed in L.A. that morning. None of us were disaster experts, unless you can count living through Superstorm Sandy in New York City. But between the three of us — though sleep-deprived and inexperienced — we managed to come up with a pretty decent idea. We’d called it Web in a Box: to win our proposed contest, a team would have to design a piece of technology capable of providing backup internet service on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis in the event of a sustained blackout following a disaster. Our rationale was that the Internet is now the most important communication hub we have, as vital a resource in the aftermath of disaster as food and water — and not just because you can’t tweet about a disaster if you can’t get online.

We honed our pitch and made it through the initial stages, where the entire Visioneering conference is brought together to vote on different ideas. We were even one of the five pitches that went up against each other in the finals on Saturday night—but no fault of Pat’s, we eventually went down in defeat, as the entire conference cast their votes in what felt a bit like a high school election contested by very rich and powerful people. The winner was a contest that offered $20 million to anyone who could prove an effective, entirely new form of energy. Ambitious, but I still say we were robbed. (We also came out behind a contest that offered prize money to develop a water cleaning system capable of filtering out the microscopic amounts of prescription drugs that are now found in our drinking water. This pitch memorably featured the actress Patricia Arquette asking the audience if they’d taken Viagra that day.)

The winning Visioneering idea won’t automatically become the subject of the next contest, but it will get automatic consideration by the foundation’s board as they decide the subject of the next XPRIZE. The winners also received a trophy created by a 3D printer, which might be the most XPRIZE thing that happened all weekend. We live in a strange age where we seem beset by enormous problems that seem to have no realistic solution: climate change, global inequality, the Alzheimer’s epidemic. As a society, we seem helpless in the face of those ills, gridlocked before looming catastrophe. Sometimes it’s hard to share Diamandis’s relentless optimism. And yet, he’s not wrong: the spread of information technology and education has made it possible as never before for anyone to put forward their solutions — and to be heard. “There is no problem that can’t be solved,” Diamandis said at the close of the conference. “We are heading towards an extraordinary world.” That’s a prize we can all share.

TIME Environment

Honeybee Deaths Are Down, But the Beepocalypse Continues

Honeybee Deaths Decline
Honeybees at the bee hives at Hudson Gardens in Littleton, Colo. on June 6, 2013. Seth McConnell—Denver Post/Getty Images

A new survey found that nearly a quarter of honeybee colonies died over the winter—and that's an improvement over last year.

How bad are things for the honeybee? Almost a quarter of U.S. honeybee colonies died over the past winter, according to new numbers released this morning—and that represents an improvement. The Bee Informed Partnership—a network of academics and beekeepers—along with the Apiary Inspectors of America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveyed 7,183 beekeepers from around the country over the past year. Those beekeepers are responsible for about a fifth of the managed colonies in the U.S., and after a year in which nearly a third of honeybee colonies died, this past winter was a reprieve of sorts. The loss rate of 23.2% was significantly lower than the 29.6% average loss beekeepers have been experiencing since the partnership began the annual survey in 2006.

(COVER STORY: The Plight of the Honeybee)

Yet even if honeybees had it comparatively easy this past winter, the numbers were still much worse than the 10-15% loss rate that beekeepers used to think of as normal—before honeybee colonies started dying off or simply disappearing thanks to colony collapse disorder, which began occurring with troubling frequency around the middle of the last decade. And there’s also the strange fact that 20% of honeybee colonies died during the spring and summer period last year, even though bees usually thrive in the warm weather. There’s no explanation for that anomaly—the survey began tracking summer losses only this year—which has researchers puzzled. “The combination of winter and summer losses was around 30%,” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland and one of the leaders of the bee partnership survey. “That is still troubling.”

Just as troubling: we still don’t know exactly why the honeybee has been struggling in recent years. Actually, it’s not just the honeybee—native wild bees have been dying off in even larger numbers. It’s gotten so bad that yesterday the Xerces Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the U.S. government to list one wild bee species—the rusty patched bumble bee, which is now gone from 87% of its native habitat—as endangered. Bees of all sorts provide invaluable service to farmers; the honeybee alone adds $15 billion in value to crops each year by pollinating everything from apples to zucchini. But as I wrote in a cover story for TIME last year, it’s as if there’s something about the world today—the world human beings have made—that has become toxic to one of our oldest domesticated species. “Too many bees are dying,” says Lisa Archer, the food and technology program director at the non-profit Friends of the Earth. “This is not sustainable over the long term.”

(MORE: The Mystery of Animal Grief)

Many experts put much of the blame down to infestations of the Varroa destructor mite. Varroa are microscopic vampire bugs that burrow into the brood cells and attach themselves to baby bees, sucking out the bees’ hemolymph—their blood—with a sharp, two-pronged tongue. The varroa directly weaken the bees they infest, but the bugs can also introduce bacteria and other viruses, which in turn makes the bees that much more vulnerable to any other kind of shock. Varroa infested hives often need to be replaced every one to two years, while clean hives survive for as many as five years. Back in 1987, when varroa first arrived in the U.S., beekeepers managed more than 3 million colonies. Now they’re struggling to maintain about 2.5 million, and the bad economics are driving some beekeepers away from the profession altogether, partly because the struggle seems like such a losing one. The chemical miticides that beekeepers use on the varroa can be dangerous to their own bees—and then it’s only a matter of time before the mites adapt, and the miticide becomes useless. “Varroa destructor is a modern honeybee plague,” said Jeff Pettis, the bee research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at a Congressional hearing on pollinator loss last month. “What beekeepers truly need are long-term solutions to varroa mites.”

The USDA and other groups are working on some of those solutions, including efforts to breed honeybees that are naturally resistant to varroa. But the mites can’t take all the blame. Honeybees are starving as open land—which has the sorts of flowers and plants that serve as a buffet for bees—is filled up with monocultures of corn and soybeans that offer little nutrition. A number of other diseases are afflicting honeybees, including the tobacco ringspot virus, a plant disease that was implicated by researchers earlier this year. What’s more, commercial honeybee colonies may be trucked thousands of miles for work, including the massive and lucrative spring almond pollination in California, which requires billions of bees. The stress of travel can’t be easy on them.

Then there are what are known as neonicotinoid pesticides, which are injected directly into the seed of a future plant. That means traces of the insecticide may always be part of the plant tissue—not at all the case when pesticides are sprayed on crops and can disspiate. A growing but still controversial body of research has implicated neonicotinoid in the death of honeybees, leading the European Union to ban three classes of the pesticides over concern about their impact on bees and other pollinators. Several members of Congress have put forward a bill that would extend that ban to the U.S. A study released last week by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health claimed to find a link between neonicotinoid exposure and low survival rates during cold winters. There’s particular concern that neonicotinoids might have sub-lethal effects on bees—not killing them, but causing enough damage to make them vulnerable to an assortment of other ills. But don’t expect a ban on neonicotinoids any time soon—an EPA review of the pesticides won’t conclude until 2018.

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The chemical companies that make neonicotinoids are, unsurprisingly, skeptical that their products are behind the plight of the honeybee. “Extensive research has shown that these products do not represent a long-term threat to bee colonies,” David Fischer, the director of pollinator safety at Bayer, said in recent Congressional testimony. But the very purpose of pesticides is to kill insects, and no one would deny that such chemicals are almost certainly one of many factors hurting honeybees today. (It’s notable that a recent study found that the diversity of pollinators like bees was 50% higher on organic farms than on conventional farms.) Many independent experts, however, doubt that neonicotinoids should get all the blame. Australia still uses neonicotinoid pesticides, but honeybee populations there are not in decline—something that may be due to the fact that varroa have yet to infest the country’s hives. The recent neonicotinoid study from Harvard has been criticized for feeding honeybees levels of neonicotinoids they never would have experienced in the wild. “[The study] just confuses the issues,” says vanEngelsdorp. “It doesn’t have any bearing on what’s going on.”

Despite the ruinously high levels of losses of recent years, beekeepers have managed to keep the number of colonies in the U.S. stable—and they’ve managed to keep meeting the pollination needs of farmers. Be glad they have; honeybees are responsible for one out of every three mouthfuls of food you’ll have today. But it’s expensive and dispiriting to keep replacing dead honeybees year after year, as researchers scramble to figure out just what’s killing them. Improving trends notwithstanding, we lost a quarter of our honeybee colonies over the winter—and that shouldn’t be good news.

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