Tag Archives: colony

Bee markets still in good shape despite pressures from parasites and colony collapse disorder

A new study led by researchers from Montana State University examines the economic impact of colony collapse disorders (CCD) among commercial honeybees.

This research traces back to several years ago when Randy Rucker, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics in the MSU College of Agriculture, started looking into the phenomenon of colony collapse to estimate its economic impact, along with members from North Carolina State University and Oregon State University. All in all, they report, CCD isn’t a very big threat to current commercial pollinator markets.

Not good, not terrible

“With colony collapse disorder, a beekeeper goes out and virtually all the worker bees are gone,” said Rucker.

“Twenty thousand, 30,000, 40,000 worker bees, just gone. There are very few dead worker bees on the ground near the colony, and the queen, the brood and all the food are still there. But the bees are just gone.”

CCD is still poorly understood. The phenomenon first came to the attention of the industry and the public during the winter of 2006-2007, when mortality rates among bees were estimated to be around 30% of the total population. Since then, it’s been stoking concern in conjunction with other pollinator health issues (such as the Varroa mite) among beekeepers and the public.

Rucker and his team set out to identify the economic effects of CCD by analyzing trends over four categories: nationwide number of commercial honeybee colonies, honey production, the price of queens and packaged bees, and pollination fees charged by commercial beekeepers.

Rucker explains that bee populations naturally fall during the winter months. Prior to the onset of CCD, overall winter mortality rates revolved around 15% — so beekeepers have a lot of experience replacing dead hives and dealing with bee loses. Typically, they handle these issues in two ways: splitting, or simply buying more bees.

Splitting involves taking half the bees from a healthy colony and moving them to a hive that’s struggling. A newly-fertilized queen (purchased for $18-25 and received through the mail, the team explains) is also added in the mix. In about six weeks’ time, both hives should be up and running healthily. Bees can also be purchased pre-packaged through the mail; such a purchase typically includes a fertilized queen and several thousand worker bees. These ‘reinforcements’ are placed in a dead hive in order to restart it.

The team notes that both methods are relatively easy and inexpensive to pull off for beekeepers, who have relied on them even after the onset of CCD.

“Beekeepers know how to replace dead hives,” said Rucker. “As winter mortality increased after CCD appeared and beekeepers worried about having enough hives to meet their pollination contracts in the spring, they responded by splitting more hives in mid- to late summer and would then end up with the number they needed.”

Despite the extra splitting and increased demand for bees from beekeepers, the price of queens or the insects has not increased dramatically, the team found. They say this is indicative of the fact that “the supply of queens and packaged bees is sufficiently elastic that any increases in demand associated with CCD have not resulted in measurable increases in price.” Similar trends were found for colony numbers and honey production figures. Both metrics saw downward trends before the onset of CCD, and they still do, but the rate of decline hasn’t increased. They explain that colony numbers in 2018 were actually higher than they had been over the last 20 years.

The only meaningful negative impact that the team found was in the fees asked for commercial crop pollination. Even there, however, only one commercially important crop showed a significant increase in price: almonds. With about a million acres of almonds in need of pollination each year, it takes about 70% of U.S. managed honeybee colonies to get the job done.

Fees for almonds rose from roughly $70 to almost $160 — adjusted for inflation — over the winters of 2004-2005 and 2005-2006. However, that’s before the onset of CCD, the team notes

“Almonds get pollinated in February or March, and it’s really the only major crop that requires pollination during that time of year,” said Rucker.

“Almond pollination fees did go up substantially, but they went up before CCD hit. You can’t attribute those increases to colony collapse disorder.”

The team says that the findings suggest CCD and other recent pollinator health concerns have little direct consequences on the health of commercial pollinator markets, which is good for both industry and consumers.

“When we started this project, we expected to find huge effects, but we found very small ones,” said Rucker. “The only effects we found on consumers, for example, is that they probably pay about 10 cents more for a $7, one-pound can of almonds at the grocery store.”

The effects of CCD are so small, Rucker explains, likely because most beekeepers expect some of their bees and honeybee colonies to die over the course of the year, and have traditionally developed methods of dealing with these disruptions. The framework was already there, and beekeepers were able to adapt it quickly and efficiently to overcome the extra disruptions caused, for example, by CCD or mites. But, there are still a lot of unknowns about the disorder, and the paper focused on the particular overlap of colony collapse disorder and economics.

Where wild pollinators are headed is impossible to say based on the results of this paper alone, the team cautions.

“The bottom line is that beekeepers are savvy [businesspeople],” he said. “Our research provides reason for optimism about the future ability of commercial beekeepers to adapt to environmental or biological shocks to their operations and to pollination markets.”

It says nothing, however, about non-managed pollinators. Data on those pollinators’ populations are sparse, and the impacts of maladies like CCD on their populations are not well understood. There is definitely much more work to be done to grasp the effects of CCD and other threats to bee health.”

The paper “Colony Collapse and the Consequences of Bee Disease: Market Adaptation to Environmental Change” has been published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.


Researchers want to vaccinate bees so we don’t run out of food

The world’s first bee-protecting vaccine raises new hope of saving these vital pollinators and preventing a global food crisis.


Image via Pixabay.

Finnish researchers want to push back against colony collapse disorder (CCD) by giving our buzzing friends tiny little vaccines. The Helsinki University team hopes their work will help tackle the dramatic decline bees have seen in the last few years. Even if only a few percent of their overall population is kept alive by the vaccine, the team will have “saved the world a little bit,” they say.


“If we can save even a small part of the bee population with this invention, I think we have done our good deed and saved the world a little bit,” said lead researcher Dalial Freitak for AFP.

“Even a two-to-three percent increase in the bee population would be humongous.”

Bees are, quite simply, the unsung heroes of farms everywhere. Our agriculture heavily relies on the work these animals provide for free — bees are directly involved in the pollination of three-quarters of the world. However, we don’t take particularly good care of them. In recent years, bee populations everywhere have been dying off from “colony collapse disorder“. This disorder is poorly understood and seems to be the work of mites, pesticides, virus, fungus, or some combination of these factors — however, no explanation has managed to impose itself thus far.

What we do know about CCD is that it is extremely deadly to bees as a species. Worker bees in a CCD-stricken hive will simply up and leave, abandoning the queen, the honey, the eggs, and a few nurse bees. The disorder is known to affect both feral and kept bees and is particularly troubling for the fact that those abandoned honey stashes are usually not robbed by other bees for a long time.

But the problem is best viewed in context. While the bees themselves are a key pollinating species, they’re not the only one — but all pollinators are struggling to cope with us. A UN-led 2016 study found that over 40% of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, are facing extinction (with CCD as a leading cause). The study also found that 16.5% of vertebrate pollinators, such as birds and bats, are under threat. Diseases just one of a number of reasons for the loss of pollinators. Pesticide use and intensive farming, which reduces the diversity of insects’ nutrition, are also weakening pollinators

We rely on these species to put food on our table. That’s why the team decided to try and heal the bees.

Their vaccine works pretty much like human ones: it gives bees resistance to severe microbial diseases that can be fatal for whole communities. Where it differs is in how it’s administered: insects don’t really produce antibodies like we do (and on which human-use vaccines rely).

However, previous research by lead researcher Dalial Freitak found that feeding certain bacteria to moths will allow them to pass immunity to their offspring. They could quite literally eat their way to resistance against disease. However, the underlying mechanism was unclear, and Freitak worked with co-author Heli Salmela to get to the bottom of it.

“I met with Heli Salmela, who was working on honey bees and a protein called vitellogenin. I heard her talk and I was like, ‘OK, I could make a bet that it is your protein that takes my signal from one generation to another’.”

The two collaborated and developed a vaccine against American foulbrood, a vicious bee bacterial disease spread around the globe. The treatment is administered to the queen bee via a sugar lump. The queen then passes the immunity to her offspring, spreading it through the bee community.

The team is also working on making these vaccines commercially available. While feedback has been “very positive”, Freitak admits that the process is very slow and cites four to five years to market as “an optimistic estimate”.

Hopefully, their efforts will bear fruit. If they do manage to get this vaccine out in meaningful numbers, the team is confident that protection against disease will make pollinator species stronger, and therefore better able to withstand other threats.


Honeybee clusters act as ‘super-organisms’ to keep everyone safe during bad weather

New research investigates how bees shape and maintain their temporary travel-homes.


Image via Pixabay.

Researchers from the Harvard University (HU) report that honeybees make a group effort to keep the colony safe during their travels. The study looked into the mechanisms by which the insects keep their temporary clumps intact during adverse weather conditions — and found a surprisingly complex system born from relatively simple beings.


Once every year, honeybee (Apis mellifera) queens leave the nest, with their subjects in tow, to establish new colonies. That’s faster said than done, however, and while the bees search for a new place of residence, they have to camp underneath the stars.

In order to keep everybody safe during these times, the bees draw together into masses usually referred to as clumps or clusters. These structures — constructed entirely out of living, buzzing bees clinging together — generally form into a cone-shape. When the weather takes a turn for the worse, however, these cones tend to change shape, previous research has shown. Most intriguingly, they seem to adapt their shape to the particular conditions they’re faced with — even if the bees, individually, have no way of knowing what shape would work best.

Curious to see how the bees knew what they had to do as conditions worsened, the HU team gathered wild bees and placed them in a container in the lab. Here, the bees were allowed to form a cluster from a movable apparatus that the team supplied for them.

After the cluster formed, the team moved their apparatus back and forth or up and down to pull on the cluster. These motions were intended to simulate the effect of wind pushing on the cluster’s support — for example a branch. The team’s cluster dutifully changed shape — in the case of back-and-forth movement, it flattened, slowly ‘hugging’ the device.

Honeybee clusters.

a) Bee clusters on a tree branch. b) The experimental set-up. c) The top panel shows the acceleration of the board versus time. The middle and bottom panels show how the bee cluster adapts its shape.
Image credits O. Peleg, J. M. Peters, M. K. Salcedo & L. Mahadevan, 2018, Nature Phys.

Such a shape is better suited to dealing with incoming wind, the team writes, just like a person lying on the ground versus somebody standing up in heavy winds.

The honeybees’ activity was recorded with slow-motion video cameras so that the team could track their movement on the cluster’s surface. By watching the insects’ movements, the team also came up with a hypothesis — the bees, after feeling themselves pulled from the ones they were holding on to, moved to a place of higher stress.

In order to test this idea, the group created a computer simulation of the honeybees and the cluster they form. Simulated bees on the outer surface were given the ability to feel stress and react to it by moving to a position of higher stress. In the end, the team writes, the virtual bees changed their cluster in the same way as real honeybees were observed to do in the lab — very strong evidence that the team’s theory was correct.

The simulations also helped explain why up and down movements didn’t elicit a shape-change from the cluster; these movements, the team reports, do “not lead to significant differential strains and thus no shape adaptation” — i.e. they don’t bother the colony enough to require a response.

“Together, our findings highlight how a super-organismal structure responds to dynamic loading by actively changing its morphology to improve the collective stability of the cluster at the expense of increasing the average mechanical burden of an individual,” the paper concludes.

The paper “Collective mechanical adaptation of honeybee swarms” has been published in the journal Nature Physics.

The Mars brick.

Turns out you can make harder-than-concrete bricks on Mars simply by compressing soil

Mars colonizers might use the planet itself to make their homes — a new technique has been developed which can turn Mars’ reddish soil into bricks without the need for ovens or any extra ingredients. All you need to do is press hard enough on it.

The Mars brick.

Made from compacted Martian soil, without the need for additional ingredients or baking, this simple brick could one day house our first colonists on the red planet.
Image credits Jacobs School of Engineering / UC San Diego.

We’ll need to design a new range of materials if we’re to colonize space. Not only because they need to resist the vicissitudes of whatever planet or body we’re aiming to settle on, but also to save on cash — shuttling things through space is really expensive. Mars is the likely candidate for our first colony.

The idea of using its soil to build the first homes up there isn’t new. But previous technologies were reminiscent of traditional brick-making back on Earth, requiring brick kilns (nuclear-powered, of course), or involved mixing the material with chemical mixes to turn in-situ organic components into binding polymers.

It seems that we don’t have to do any of those things — making bricks on Mars is as easy as compacting soil. The surprising technology was developed by a team of engineers at the University of California San Diego, who initially started work with Mars soil simulant to try and reduce the amount of polymers required in brick-making.

To their surprise, they found out that only two steps are needed to turn the red dirt into a resilient building material. First, you have to place the soil in a flexible container (the team used a rubber tube). Then, you press it really hard — for a small sample, roughly the same pressure generated by a 10-lb hammer droped from a height of one meter is enough, said Yu Qiao, a professor of structural engineering at UC San Diego and the study’s lead author.

“The people who will go to Mars will be incredibly brave. They will be pioneers. And I would be honored to be their brick maker,” Qiao, added.

Their process results in small, round soil pallets that are about one inch tall that can later be cut into individual bricks. It likely all comes down to the iron oxide in the soil, the team says. Qiao and his team studied the simulant’s structure with various methods and found that the iron oxide particles coat the larger basalt bits in the martian soil. This is the same substance that lends Mars its shade of red and forms flat particles with clean facets which readily binding together under pressure, basically performing the same task as any added polymers would.

When testing the bricks’ strength, the team was surprised to find that they were stronger and more resilient than steel-reinforced concrete even without any kind of rebar. Which is a lot. Quao’s team says their method may be compatible to additive manufacturing, meaning astronauts wanting to build a structure would simply have to lay down a layer of dirt, compact it, lay another layer and so on until they’re done.

Next on the list, they say, is to tailor the production method to create bigger bricks.

NASA is designing small away-from-home-ecosystems to make space exploration sustainable

Researchers at NASA and the University of Arizona, Tucson will be working together to bring long-term sustainability to our space pioneers — one greenhouse at a time.

NASA's Greenhouse.

The prototype greenhouse housed at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.
Image credits University of Arizona

Astronauts have already shown the world their green thumbs by growing plants and veggies aboard the ISS. But when going farther away from our blue cradle, crews will have to rely on on-site resources for food and oxygen. To make sure they’re well stocked with both on future journeys, NASA researchers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the University of Arizona (UA) are working out how to grow enough plants to feed and air a whole crew on a long-term journey.

“We’re working with a team of scientists, engineers and small businesses at the University of Arizona to develop a closed-loop system,” said Dr. Ray Wheeler, lead scientist in Kennedy Advanced Life Support Research, about the Prototype Lunar/Mars Greenhouse project. “The approach uses plants to scrub carbon dioxide, while providing food and oxygen.”

The prototype is an inflatable greenhouse specifically tuned to keep the plants happy and continuously growing and will provide food, scrub the breathing air while recycling both water and waste. They’re cylindrical, measuring 18 feet in length and more than 8 feet in diameter. They were designed and built by Sadler Machine Company, one of the project partners.

These greenhouses will maintain a waste-none, closed-looped process called a bioregenerative life support system. The CO2 astronauts exhale will be fed through the greenhouse so the plants can photosynthesize and generate oxygen. Water will either be shuttled along from Earth or sourced from “the lunar or Martian landing site,” NASA notes. The liquid will be enriched in gases and nutrient salts and will be pumped across the crop’s roots then recycled — basically, hydroponics in space.


The crops were selected to provide not only food, but air revitalization, water recycling and waste recycling.
Image credits University of Arizona.

Researchers at the UA are currently testing different species of plants to determine what would survive best, and what buds, seeds, or other material are required to make the greenhouses self-sufficient on a mission. Figuring out what to take and how to best use local resources afterward will be key, since deep space missions will be hard and pricey to constantly supply from home. So, NASA researchers are working on systems which can harness such resources — with an emphasis on water.

“We’re mimicking what the plants would have if they were on Earth and make use of these processes for life support,” said Dr. Gene Giacomelli, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona. “The entire system of the lunar greenhouse does represent, in a small way, the biological systems that are here on Earth.”

The greenhouses will likely need to be buried under soil or rock to protect the plants inside from cosmic radiation, which means specialized lighting will be required to keep them alive. Currently, the team has succeeded in using either electrical LED light or hybrid methods “using both natural and artificial lighting” — which involves the use of light concentrators on the surface to track the movement of the sun and feed its light underground through fiber optic channels.

What’s left to do now is to find out how many greenhouses will be needed per crew. Giacomelli says the next step on the agenda is to test with additional units and computer models to ensure a steady supply of oxygen can be produced from the lunar greenhouses.


Guillemot chicks leap from their nest, risking life and limb, before they can even fly — and know we know why

The seemingly death-inviting behavior of young guillemots (also known as murres, Uria aalge) — who leap from their nests hundreds of meters above the sea guided by their fathers — has been shown to be an efficient survival strategy for the birds, explaining the bizzare behavior.

Image credits Dick Daniels / Wikimedia.

Before their wings grow long enough to offer sufficient lift for them, young guillemots jump from the nest into the sea, relying on their fathers to steer them away from the rocks below. Naturally, scientists have long wondered what drives these hatchlings to take the risky leap — there must be an advantage to the species, else the instinct would have been purged by selective evolution.

One of the leading theories was that the hatchlings have to leave the nest when they reach about one-quarter of their adult size because at that age they’re strong enough to defend themselves from predators but too big for the parents to keep feeding them. But chicks who didn’t want to brave the dangerous high seas would simply hop out of the nest and remain close to the colony. In a way, this leap is a leap of faith — the chicks risk a deadly jump hoping to feed (although food resources near the colony aren’t very plentiful) while still benefiting from the colony’s protection.

That theory, however, ran into a lot of problems when scientists from McGill and Memorial Universities in Canada and Aarhus and Lund Universities in Denmark and Sweden, tracked the behavior of guillemot fathers and their chicks for six weeks in colonies off the coast of Newfoundland and in Nunavut, Greenland.

World’s #1 Dad(s)

The murres’ rearing behavior is pretty uncommon among animals: where most species delegate the responsibility to the mother, in the guillemots’ case the chick is raised by both parents for about three weeks, after which the father takes over. He will spend the next 5 to 7 weeks at sea feeding and caring for the chick by himself. The mom spends this time at the colony copulating with other males in search for a suitor to replace her male if he dies at sea and doesn’t return the next year — another bit of promiscuity in the animal world.


“The Arctic summer is short”, says Kyle Elliott, who teaches in McGill University’s Department of Natural Resource Sciences. “The mother must produce an egg quickly. Murres have the highest flight costs of any animal, and the female works hard at the front end flying back-and-forth to the colony, leaving her exhausted by mid-summer.”

“Nonetheless, we were astonished to see how hard the father worked through late summer, spending virtually every daylight hour diving to feed the chick.”

The team noted that mortality rates among guillemot chicks at sea and those in the colony were very similar. Secondly, the chicks at sea grew almost two times faster than those still near the colony, as their fathers had to fly shorter distances to feed them.

“Once you know that there are both higher growth rates for the chicks at sea, and similar survival rates compared with life in the colony, it then makes sense to see this seemingly death-defying leap as a win-win strategy when it comes to survival,” says Elliott.

“We would never have been able to discover this without using the kind of state-of-the-art recorders that are now available and provide a glimpse into the life of murres on the high seas.”

They’re such committed dads, aren’t they?

The full paper “Variation in Growth Drives the Duration of Parental Care: A Test of Ydenberg’s Model” has been published in the journal The American Naturalist.


Magnets anchored on Mars’ orbit would make the planet a second Earth, NASA says

Mars could be returned to its habitable glory days easier than you’d believe, NASA researchers say. All it would take is a man-made magnetic field to allow the red planet’s atmosphere to thicken and foster more Earth-like conditions.

Mars with an atmosphere and water wouldn’t be a half-bad place to settle.
Image credits Ittiz / Wikipedia.

Mars is a pretty desolate place. Blood red and bone dry at the same time, it’s either way too cold or much too hot depending on where you happen to be on its surface. There’s nothing good to breathe and it’s also pretty radioactive. In short, Mars isn’t much to write home about — unless you’re writing to complain about how unwelcoming it is.

But it wasn’t always like this, and it doesn’t have to stay this way. Scientists believe that Mars was once surprisingly Earth-like, with water-filled oceans and a surprisingly comfortable climate for an alien world. As the planet’s magnetic field weakened and finally collapsed billions of years ago, solar winds stripped it bare of its atmosphere leaving behind a cold and barren piece of rock.

That magnetic field is the key to NASA’s bold plan to making Mars an awesome place for future generations of human colonists.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s a magnet!

NASA simulations show that a powerful-enough magnetic shield propped up into space between the Sun and Mars could push away solar winds and allow the red planet to naturally regrow its atmosphere.

The results were presented at the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop last week, when Planetary Science Division director Jim Green said anchoring an “artificial magnetosphere” into space between Mars and the Sun should shield the planet in the magneto-tail (a teardrop-like shape or magnetic ‘wake’) that trails behind this protective field.

“This situation then eliminates many of the solar wind erosion processes that occur with the planet’s ionosphere and upper atmosphere allowing the Martian atmosphere to grow in pressure and temperature over time,” the researchers explain in an accompanying paper.

“Much like Earth, an enhanced atmosphere would: allow larger landed mass of equipment to the surface, shield against most cosmic and solar particle radiation, extend the ability for oxygen extraction, and provide ‘open air’ green-houses to exist for plant production, just to name a few,” they said during the presentation.

It would take surprisingly little time, too. Their figures show that in the absence of solar wind erosion, Mars’ atmosphere would go up to as much as one half of Earth’s atmospheric pressure in a matter of years.

The team agrees that at first glance, the concept may seem “fanciful”. But they point out to existing mini-magnetosphere technologies under development to shield astronauts and spaceships from radiation during deep space missions — technology which could be scaled up to protect a whole planet.

Still, it remains a highly theoretical plan with a high potential of not-going-according-to-plan. We don’t yet have the technology to make it happen, so we got our work cut out for ourselves. It would also be a huge engineering challenge to create, maintain, and properly place these magnets on the firmament.

But we understand what needs to be done and we could probably have the means to do so in a few years. If it does work, the magnets would turn Mars from a place where we’d need domed cities to Earth-like conditions in a few generations. That’s a huge payoff — a whole world’s worth of payoffs.

“It may be feasible that we can get up to these higher field strengths that are necessary to provide that shielding. We need to be able then to also modify that direction of the magnetic field so that it always pushes the solar wind away,” Green said.

“This is not terraforming as you may think of it where we actually artificially change the climate, but we let nature do it, and we do that based on the physics we know today.”

The team will continue refining the idea to get a more accurate estimate of how long the climate-altering effects would take.

“If this can be achieved in a lifetime, the colonisation of Mars would not be far away.”

The findings were presented at the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop.

NASA establishes first Space Technology Research Institutes to make Mars a self-sufficient colony

When going to space, pack light — that’s what NASA is planning for the proposed 2030 manned mission to Mars. In an effort to conserve space and keep payloads as light as possible, the agency is looking into new methods to manufacture various goods on Mars rather than shipping them from Earth.

One of NASA’s epic Mars recruitment posters shows space colonists will have quite a bit of DIY on their hands.
Image credits NASA / KSC.

Going to space is hard work, but staying there is even harder. So, NASA has decided to fund two STRIs (Space Technology Research Institutes) to help them with the task at hand. These novel multi-disciplinary research institutions led by universities will tackle issues essential to humanity’s expansion into space. NASA’s key concerns are to make sure that astronauts, and later colonists, can make it into space and be relatively self-sufficient once there — in other words, that they have the right materials to settle space and the tools to make whatever they need on-site without having to wait on shipments from Earth.

Explore, expand, exploit

Fans of 4x games will know that the faster you can access new resources and start secondary centers of production, the better. It seems that NASA has taken the lesson to heart since they’ve decided to invest a lot of money into two research bodies which will help humanity send humans to Mars in 2030, and establish a colony there and on more planets in the future.

For this purpose, the agency has selected the Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering Space (CUBES), which intends to focus on the production of food, fuel, and medicine for the mission, and the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design (US-COMP), concerned mainly with the development of building materials to be used on Mars. Each STRI will receive US$15 million in funding from NASA to help them reach these objectives.

And the best part about science? It’s the gift that keeps on giving. The fact that these STRIs are researching what is essentially space-tailored science doesn’t mean their work won’t be applicable here on good ole’ Earth.

“While the research goals of the CUBES institute are to benefit deep-space planetary exploration, these goals also lend themselves to practical Earth-based applications. For example, the emphasis on using carbon dioxide as the base component for materials manufacturing has relevance to carbon dioxide management on Earth,” a NASA statement reads.

“Results of [US-COPM] research will have broad societal impacts, as well. Rapid development and deployment of the advanced materials created by the institute could support an array of Earthly applications and benefit the U.S. manufacturing sector.”

Ah NASA… Researching space tech to make the US great again. I love it.

Getting blood from a stone

And because you can’t make new stuff without starting from raw stuff, the agency has also enrolled the help of University of Central Florida professor Sudipta Seal to develop a refining method called molten regolith electrolysis. This is actually a crazily awesome process through which astronauts and future colonists will shovel Martial soil (known as regolith) into a reaction chamber, heat it up to 3,000°F (1650 °C), and extract oxygen and molten metals. They can breathe or burn the first and use the second to 3D print the stuff they need.

A very big stone. Lots of blood to be had.
Image credits Reimund Bertrams.

“It’s essentially using additive-manufacturing techniques to make constructible blocks. UCF is collaborating with NASA to understand the science behind it,” Seal said regarding the research.

It’s not very different from a method used in ore refining here on Earth. At those temperatures, the chemical bonds between atoms locked in the regolith will be weak enough that two oppositely charged electrodes in the reaction chamber can detach oxygen from metal. On a planet where you’d have no idea how to start mining and there’s no free oxygen, this process might be a game changer. And the best part is that Mars’ soil is relatively abundant in both iron and oxygen — that’s why it’s so rusty red — so dirt-refining might be quite lucrative.

All this research will add up towards an essential goal — lighter initial payloads. It would be virtually impossible for today’s crafts to carry everything a burgeoning settlement will require, and constant shipping would be prohibitively expensive at its best or dangerously unreliable at its worst. Having the means to produce food, construction materials, and basic goods on-site should thus ensure that colonists want for nothing on alien planets.

Most ants don’t do much, and that makes the colony more efficient

Ant colonies increase their efficiency by letting workers take time off. New research shows that as the hive becomes more numerous, as many as 80% of workers could be doing nothing at a time.

Image credits Unsplash / Pexels.

We need a nice work-rest balance — although exactly what this ratio is varies wildly from person to person. Up to now, we’ve thought that we get the benefit of rest because we’re smart, while simpler beings such as ants slave away and then they die. We’ve got that one wrong, researchers at the Missouri University of Science and Technology say.

Ant colonies, they showed, can only function because a certain percentage of workers rest at any time.

“It has been a long-standing question in the field as to why large colonies of ants use less per-capita energy than small colonies,” says Dr. Chen Hou, assistant professor of biological sciences at Missouri S&T and lead researcher of the paper. “In this work, we found that this is because in large colonies, there are relatively more ‘lazy workers,’ who don’t move around, and therefore don’t consume energy.”

“We found that the portion of inactive members of a group increases in a regular pattern with the group size,” Hou says.

The team put together specialized computer-imaging software to look at an ant colony and track the motion trajectories of each individual. Previously, similar research only followed the ants for a few minutes. But the team’s algorithm allowed them to follow the movement of ants over large periods of time with better accuracy than anyone before them.

This way, they found that most of the colony ‘sleeps’ to conserve energy. On average, around 60% of workers in a 30-ant group were not moving about. This ratio jumped up to 80% for a 300-strong group of ants.

Rest harder, comrade

So what’s with the vacay? Well, they do it for the common good.

The colony becomes more efficient in the long term by keeping some of its workers on stand-by. While an all-hands-on-deck approach would maximize the speed of resource acquisition, it also requires huge energy expenditure (feeding the ants) and increases foraging time (as nearby resources are over-exploited and workers need to walk to more distant sources). The team explains that off-duty ants help conserve food, energy, and other resources — while the colony gains resources at a slower rate, forage time is reduced and energy expenditure is hugely reduced.

“The simultaneous energetic measurements showed that the per capita energy consumption in the 300-ant group is only 50 percent of that in the 30-ant group,” Hou says.

“We found that walking ants consume five times more energy than resting ants,” he added. “This means that energy wise, one walking ant is equivalent to five resting ants. Thus, if a group has 20 percent active members, this group would consume 180 percent more energy than a similar sized group with all inactive members.”

So the ants try to hit a balance between the need for new resources, and the need to conserve those already harvested. The ‘lazy’ ants are still an asset to the colony. Ants rest by rotation, so there’s always a pool of fresh workers to replace the ones on duty. They can also be called upon in an emergency, kind of like a reserve army or repair team.

“We postulate that ant colonies balance these two optimization rules [income and expenditure] by the coordination of the forager’s interaction.”

“It is intuitive that colonies have inactive members […] But it is unclear why the proportion of the inactive members is not a constant — why larger colonies have relatively more ‘lazy’ workers,” Hou concludes.

Observing how ants maximize efficiency by balancing some work with a lot of rest could help make our society more productive and sustainable.

Fingers crossed on that one.

The full paper “Heterogeneous activity causes a nonlinear increase in the group energy use of ant workers isolated from queen and brood,” has been published in the journal Insect Science.

Vegetables grown on Mars could be healthier than their Earth-grown counterparts

The plants grown by Wageningen University researchers in martial soil back in March have been analyzed and the results are scrumptious: at least four of the crops do not contain harmful heavy metal levels and are perfectly safe to eat, the University researcher’s report.

Image via inhabitat

If you’ve seen The Martian, you can remember how much Matt Damon got done living off of his poo-powered crop of potatoes. It just goes to show how important it is for a long-term colony to be able to grow their own food locally. We’ve taken one step closer to that goal in March, when Netherlands’ Wageningen University reported that they’ve managed to grow ten different crops in Mars-like soil.

However, growing food doesn’t do us much good if eating it kills us, and researchers were worried that these crops contained dangerous heavy metals like lead or cadmium, leached out from the soil stimulant. But future colonists rejoice, as lab analysis of the crops determined that at least four of them are safe to eat.

Led by ecologist Wieger Wamelink, the team tested radishes, tomatoes, rye, and peas. They looked at cadmium, lead, aluminium, nickel, copper, chrome, iron, arsenic, manganese, and zinc contents in the plants, and didn’t find any in dangerous levels. In fact, some of these veggies have lower levels of heavy metals than those cultivated in regular potting soil. The plants were also tested for vitamins, alkaloids, and flavonoids, with good results. While there are six more crops to test, Wamelink himself said that the results up to now are “very promising.”

NASA and Mars One are competing to be the first on Mars but both groups support the research.

“Growing food locally is especially important to our mission of permanent settlement, as we have to ensure sustainable food production on Mars. The results of Dr. Wamelink and his team at Wageningen University & Research are significant progress towards that goal,” said Mars One co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp in a press release.

A crowdfunding campaign is underway (and will be until the end of August) to allow the team to test the remaining crops, potatoes included. If all the crops test out safe, with concentrations of heavy metal lower than those stipulated by the FDA and the Dutch Food Agency as safe, Wamelink’s team will host a “Martian dinner” at the Wageningen greenhouse.

But I’ve seen the movie. Stay clear of the potatoes.

Elon Musk warns that settling Mars will be harsh, even deadly for the first colonists

Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk plans to get the first humans to land on Mars by 2025, and is really excited about the prospect of establishing a colony there. Pioneering a new planet isn’t going to be a walk in the park, he warns. Colonists will face harsh conditions, isolation, even death.

Image via youtube

“It’s dangerous and probably people will die – and they’ll know that. And then they’ll pave the way, and ultimately it will be very safe to go to Mars, and it will be very comfortable. But that will be many years in the future,” Musk told the Washington Post detailing his Mission to Mars.

Musk’s SpaceX is making history under our very eyes. The company has been at the forefront of space transportation for quite some time now, designing and building the first re-usable deep space rocket, the Falcon 9 (you can read all about the project’s ups and downs here.)

Musk received official approval from NASA to sent US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) starting from 2017, and currently has an ongoing US$2.6bn contract with NASA to routinely transport cargo to and from the ISS.

But the entrepreneur’s real goal is Mars. SpaceX plans to send regular unmanned spacecraft missions to the red planet starting 2018 to gather data about descending and landing on Mars for human missions in the future. The missions will take place every two years when Mars’ and Earth’s orbits bring the planets to their closest points.

“Essentially what we’re saying is we’re establishing a cargo route to Mars. It’s a regular cargo route. You can count on it. It’s going to happen every 26 months. Like a train leaving the station,” he said.

“And if scientists around the world know that they can count on that, and it’s going to be inexpensive, relatively speaking compared to anything in the past, then they will plan accordingly and come up with a lot of great experiments.”

The missions will also test if these autonomous crafts are safe enough for humans, the first manned missions will take place in 2025. But even at their closest, the two planets are still separated by 140 million miles of empty space, and it will take months for the ships to make the journey.

Musk admits the journey will likely be “hard, risky, dangerous, difficult” for the first pioneers who leave Earth. He points out however that they will be no different to the British who chose to travel across the sea to colonize the Americas in the 1600s.

“Just as with the establishment of the English colonies, there are people who love that,” he concluded

“They want to be the pioneers.”

Ant colonies behave as a single superorganism when attacked

Ant colonies are incredibly complex systems — the tightly knit, intensely cooperative colonies are closer to a single superorganism than to human societies. Researchers form the University of Bristol wanted to know how this single mind of the hive reacted to distress, and subjected colonies of migrating rock ants to differing forms of simulated predator attack to record their response.

Led by Thomas O’Shea-Wheller, the researchers subjected ants to simulated predator attacks to investigate the extent to which colonies of rock ants behave as a single entity.
Image via phys

By studying the ants responses, the team observed different reactions depending on where the attack was performed. When targeting scouting ants, that stay primarily at the periphery of colonial activity, the “arms” of foraging ants were recalled back into the nest. But when they targeted the workers at the heart of the colony, the whole body of ants retreated from the mound, seeking asylum in a new location.

The team was able to draw some pretty interesting parallels with human behavior. The first attacks could be compared to burning your hand on a hot stove, while the ones centered on the workers were more dangerous, kind of a ‘house on fire’ scare. And in each scenario, the ants reacted surprisingly similar to any animal with a nervous system — an involuntary reflex reaction to retreat from the damaging element in the first case, and a flight response from a predator that can’t be defended against in the later simulations.

“Our results draw parallels with the nervous systems of single organisms, in that they allow appropriate, location dependent, responses to damage, and suggest that just as we may respond to cell damage via pain, ant colonies respond to loss of workers via group awareness,” said Thomas O’Shea-Wheller, a PhD student in Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences and one of the authors of the study.

A hundred people shortlisted for one-way trip to Mars

Selected from more than 200,000 applicants, 50 men and 50 women have become the final contenders for a one-way trip to Mars. A Dutch not-for-profit company is planning to send groups of four people on a one-way trip to the red planet in about a decade to start a permanent human settlement – now, we can take a better look at those people.

A one-way ticket to Mars

Maggie, one of the 100 selected participants. Image via BBC.

We wrote about the Mars One project several times – the goal is to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars; naturally, for that, you need some people willing to take the one-way trip. They decided to sent 40 people there, which will be selected from this list of 100 people. The mission aims to send teams of four to the red planet every two years from 2025, until 40 people are living there. The controversial project attracted over 200,000 applicants.

“The large cut in candidates is an important step towards finding out who has the right stuff to go to Mars,” said Bas Lansdorp, Co-founder & CEO of Mars One. “These aspiring martians provide the world with a glimpse into who the modern day explorers will be.”

This will be the last selection stage – previously, these 100 candidates were selected from 660, based on how well they understand the risks involved in the mission, their team spirit and how motivated they are.

“We were impressed with how many strong candidates participated in the interview round, which made it a very difficult selection” said Dr. Norbert Kraft.

Artist’s impression of the Mars One camp. Image via Mars One.

Now, Mars One has to choose from 50 men and 50 women: 39 from the Americas, 31 from Europe, 16 from Asia, 7 from Africa, and 7 from Oceania. For the next selection stage, volunteers will be split into groups which will have to endure tough conditions in a similar environment to that on Mars. They will be judged based on how well they will deal with those conditions.

“Being one of the best individual candidates does not automatically make you the greatest team player, so I look forward to seeing how the candidates progress and work together in the upcoming challenges.” said Dr. Norbert Kraft.

The candidates

As mentioned above, candidates are quite varied, but they have one thing in common: they want to spend the rest of their lives on Mars, and they truly believe in the scientific value of this mission; it’s not just an extraterrestrial camping trip.

“I believe the potential benefits of the Mars One project far outweigh the potential costs it may have to me, personally”, wrote Christian O Knudsen, the top rated candidate. “I believe these benefits will be scientific progress, which can benefit all of us on Earth, if you compare the Mars One mission to the moon landing, I think scientific progress, on a similar scale to what we experienced following that endeavour, is a reasonable expectation.”

The project is still not a certainty though, as they need to raise around £4bn to send up the first group. So far it’s raised around £500,000 – not even remotely enough to start dreaming about it yet. Maggie Lieu, a 24-year-old from Coventry is another one of the finalists. She says that thanks to the internet, she’ll still be able to keep in contact with family and friends.

“It’s true I’ll never be able to see my family and friends ever again in person, but I’ll be able to see their pictures, I’ll still have access to the internet. I can write emails home and talk as humans do all over the world. That’ll be good enough for me because the people I’d go to Mars with I’d have spent 10 years with”.

She’s also very open to the idea of having a Martian baby – this, while interesting from a scientific point of view, is extremely dangerous and not recommended.

“I’m very open to having a baby on Mars. I think it would be really exciting to be the mother of the first ever baby born there. My baby could be the first ever Martian, we’d be the Adam and Eve of Mars. But I’m also pretty aware there are a lot of risks involved because you don’t know what the gravitational effects are.”

However, given the fact that one of the requirements of the mission is “no sex”, it’s not really clear how she plans to give birth to a baby. As for the food, it will be mostly a vegan diet, with some insect protein involved – at least that’s what Maggie believes.

“We’re going to grow our own food so it’s going to be pretty much a vegan diet. Lettuce has been experimented on and grown on Mars. Potentially we could be eating insects because they’ve got high protein so we could take an ant farm or something and eat ants. I don’t really crave much.”

Gunnar Prehl from Cairns, Australia was also extremely excited – he was brought to tears when he learned that he is among the last 100 contenders.

“It could be the biggest adventure humans have ever done, it could be the most inspiring thing I can imagine,” he said. “I mean who wouldn’t want to be the first to step on another planet?”

So, what do you think – would you be willing to live the rest of your life on Mars, or is this too big of a sacrifice? What do you think of the entire mission? Leave your opinion in the comments!


Watch: The Inside of a Huge Wasp Colony

Some wasps decided to build their colony next to the window of Youtube user Vang Tsal. Naturally, he was spooked – wasps are mean, and can be quite difficult to deal with. But instead of panicking and attempting to destroy the hive, he filmed it – and the results are spectacular:

The colony now offers a perfect perspective of wasp life – thankfully, from the safety of the inside of his house.

“Big wasps are building a huge nest in my window,” Tsal writes on his YouTube page. “I can observe its construction in real-time cross-section!”

Pretty incredible, huh? This actually reminds me of a an old episode of BBC’s The One Show, in which host George McGavin, entirely covered by protective gear, enters a wasp colony to document it with a tiny camera.

“What would be really great would be if I could open this up and examine the internal structure,” says McGavin, his voice overlaid atop what is nevertheless some really great footage of the nest’s crowded antechambers. “But there’s so many wasps in there I think it would be a bit dangerous.”

Tsal’s colony cross section offers the best of both worlds! Oh, and he promises that he wouldn’t destroy the colony anytime soon, documenting it as it continues to develop on his Youtube channel.

The emperor: major penguin colony disappears

It’s another bad omen for life on Earth, as a colony of imperial penguins from the Antarctica peninsula has disappeared, probably due to the warming of ice caused by global warming. It was expected that penguins would greatly suffer from the warming, but this is the first documented case ever of the disappearance of a colony.

First of all, let me just say that penguins are absolutely amazing creatures. I don’t know if you had the chance to see “The March of the Penguins“, but it is hands down one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, and it’s not only very informative, but extremely entertaining too. If you haven’t seen it, let me tell you a bit about their habits.

Ice is crucial to these penguins; most of them breed on sea ice (also called fast ice) that does not move with the wind or currents. When autumn comes, they go to their colony, where they mate, lay eggs and raise their chicks, but every single year, they return to the place where they were born.

“The one site in Antarctica where we have seen really big changes is the West Antarctic Peninsula,” Trathan said. For much of the 20th century, this region has warmed at an unprecedented rate, particularly in recent decades, the researchers write in a study published Feb. 28 in the journal PLoS ONE.

This in itself isn’t a worldwide catastrophe, but it is probably just the tip of the iceberg, and penguins all over the world have a pretty dire future ahead of them; time will tell.

Picture source

The fight for survival – a single bear vs a colony

As we enjoy our peace and quiet (or at least we should be), we shouldn’t forget that how the society we’ve built leads to an ever fiercer fight for survival. Here’s a movie that really touched me, with an ending you don’t (thankfully) see every day.

How house ants pick their dream home

Photo by Mark W. Moffet

Photo by Mark W. Moffet

Seeing all the available houses in the neighborhood and then choosing is not necessarily the best option, at least if you’re an ant. These house-hunting rock ants manage to make a decision together even without going through the options they have.

In this recent study conducted by Dr Elva Robinson and colleagues from the Bristol University, they put tiny radio-frequency identification tags on the ants; each of these small tags was about “1/2000” as big as a postage stamp. What they wanted to observe was how they made the difference between a poor house nearby and a better house further away. They were pretty surprised to find out the ants have a pretty sophisticated way of choosing, and location isn’t all that matters.

When a colony of ants decides there’s a need for a new nest, they first send out scouts to smell out the nearby nests. If the scout fancies the respective site, he, as an informed ant, briefs some other greenhorn. Then this greenhorn goes to the site and if he thinks it’s all good, he goes out to another and so on, until they reach a certain number. When they reach a quorum, they start moving the necessary materials for a new nest. This may result in a temporary split of the ant population, as some may pick a different place than the majority, or they can split into more than 2 places.

In the Bristol experiment, very few ants made actual direct comparisons between different options. They discovered that they choose the better place even if it’s location is 9 times further away.
Dr Robinson said:

“Each ant appears to have its own ‘threshold of acceptability’ against which to judge a nest individually. Ants finding the poor nest were likely to switch and find the good nest, whereas ants finding the good nest were more likely to stay committed to that nest. When ants switched quickly between the two nests, colonies ended up in the good nest. Individual ants did not need to comparatively evaluate both nests in order for the entire colony to make the correct decision.
“On the other hand, animals – including humans – who use comparative evaluation frequently make ‘irrational’ decisions, due to the context in which options are compared or by inconsistently ranking pairs of options, (for example option A preferred to B, B preferred to C but C preferred to A).
“The ants’ threshold rule makes an absolute assessment of nest quality that is not subject to these risks, and circumvents the necessity for memorization and comparison of every site visited. Thus, simple individual behaviour substitutes for direct comparison, facilitating effective choice between nest sites for the colony as a whole.”