Tag Archives: bees

On Rachel Carson’s birthday


Researchers Rachel Carson and Bob Hines, 1952

Rachel Carson, the American scientist and environmentalist who wrote the classic Silent Spring, was born 107 years ago today. Charles Mandel, who reported on Carson’s life and the impact she made, writes:

I believe if she were still alive, she’d be singularly unimpressed with the progress – or lack thereof.

Governments are still wrestling over bans to cosmetic pesticides. When Manitoba enacts a ban in 2015, it will bring to six the number of Canadian provinces shunning the use of such products. It seems like a hard-won, slow process overall. More contentious still is the controversy over pesticide-coated corn and soybean seeds, which are being blamed for the demise of bees. Europe has banned the use of neonic pesticides, but according to the CBC, Bayer CropScience – the company that developed the seed – and Health Canada maintain proper planting practices minimize risk to the bees. 

Twelve years ago, Edmund O. Wilson wrote in the afterword to a new edition of a book about Carson that if she were alive she would have given America a mixed-grade.

These days I suggest the writer and environmentalist would be less generous given all the time we’ve had to correct the errors of the past.

Read Mandel’s archived story, Pesticides prevail decades after Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” here. (Public access) 

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F&O Weekend

This F&O weekend ranges widely: bringing wolves back from the dead to the role of 3D printers in killing industries;  greenwashing to Europe’s role in Ukraine’s mayhem; a eulogy for a Canadian swan to a macabre American hospital mystery.

No Going Back. Column, By Jim McNiven (Subscription)

When we read about the Great Recession of 2007-11, there seems to be an assumption on the part of commentators that as soon as the economy ‘turned around,’ we could get back to normal. That’s not how it is turning out — and that should not be surprising. There is no going back.

Wild Bees Catch Infections. Science dispatch, By Deborah Jones (Subscription)

Disappearing Honey Bees

© Greg Locke 2013

Agricultural crops from almonds to zucchini are necessarily pollinated by bees, both managed and wild — but colonies of all bees have been collapsing, for reasons that are likely complex and but dimly understood. That’s why it matters, and not least to human food security, that researchers have now found that two infections common in domestic bees can spread to wild bees. Global trade may be worsening infection rates, suggests the study published in the February 20 edition of the science journal Nature.

Roads paved with good intentions Column, By Chris Wood (Subscription)

Ronald Reagan, in a lucid moment, famously characterized his approach to nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union as: “Trust — and verify.” Much the same, it turns out, might be said for the green boasts of business. If we’re honest about it, most of what threatens our natural security is the result of our own appetites. Boreal forests are turned into tar pits to push our comfort pods from driveway to the mall. Mountains are crushed to expose the copper and rarer metals that ignite the digital fire in our smartphones. Rivers are emptied to grow our out-of-season salad. But what if we could have our smart-phones and February salads and cars without any of that destruction?

Europe carries blame for the Ukrainian violence. Column, By Jonathan Manthorpe (Subscription)

European leaders should not congratulate themselves too heartily for mediating the compromise agreement that, with luck, will end the demonstrations and appalling violence on the streets of Ukraine’s capital Kiev and other major cities. It is, after all, sins of commission and omission by Brussels that have played a large part in stirring up the political chaos in Ukraine as its people try to decide if their future should be with the European Union (EU) or their old political overlord in the Soviet Union, Russia.

China’s role in North Korean atrocities complex. Column, by Jonathan Manthorpe. (Subscription)

By emphasizing China’s complicity in the unparalleled atrocities by the North Korean regime of its people, United Nations investigators have doubtless ensured Beijing will use its Security Council veto to block further action. Beijing has reacted angrily to the commission’s findings and recommendations, which are highly critical of China’s treatment of North Korean refugees who have fled across the border.

Winter Swan Essay in words and photos, By E. Kaye Fulton (Public access)


© E. Kaye Fulton

This has been a hard, hard winter for wildlife  – the worst, locals say, in 70 years. For a month or more, the mute swans of Wellington, Ontario, have been buffeted by howling winds and driving snow. Unable to forage the frozen shorelines and bottom of Lake Ontario for food, they fend off starvation by curling themselves into snowy white mounds, immobile and defenceless on the impenetrable surface. Two nights ago, in search of easy prey, coyotes crept across the ice to claim two sleeping swans huddled at the end of the line formed by their 26-member flock.

Wolves as Ecosystems Engineers. Column, By Deborah Jones (Subscription)

gray wolfRed Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs have a lot to answer for: thanks partly to fairy tales, wolves have a ghastly and global reputation as big and bad, terrorists of young girls and small pigs, good for nothing but their pelts. But science offers redemption — and one fair wolf tale can be found in Yellowstone National Park in the western United States. Alas, it’s a tale without an end. Free Range column by Deborah Jones

Hidden in a Heart. Justice dispatch, By Marshall Allen, ProPublica (Public access)

Linda Carswell thought her quest to recover her husband’s heart had come to an end. Finally, after almost a decade, she would be able bury it with his other remains. She could have peace of mind. Instead, the saga has taken a macabre twist that she calls, “beyond belief.”

Findings: social media matters By staff (free blog)

The big picture matters. A heart-wrenching photo on Twitter spread wildly this week. It appeared to show a little boy separatedfrom his family as they fled Syria’s violence: “UN staff found 4 year-old Marwan crossing desert alone after being separated from family…”   But the photo showed only a tiny portion of a crowd, which included the boy’s family. And therein lies the sting.


  • ProPublica, the not-for-profit American investigative journalism news organization, was awarded a 2014 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, which recognizes creativity and impact. The $1 million U.S. is very nice – ProPublica said it will add the money to its reserve, “laying the groundwork for an expansion of its investigative newsroom.” Equally important is the recognition from the globally-prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. ProPublica is one of just seven non-profits around the world to win the  one-time grant. The others are the Campaign Legal Center, the National Housing Trust, NatureServe, and the University of Chicago Crime Lab —  all in the United States, and the Citizen Lab in Canada and the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative in Nigeria.
  • Mavis Gallant died this week. Her last name was graced with serendipity: she was a woman with the guts to quit a perfectly good journalism job, move to Paris on a wing and a prayer, and write fiction. And, boy, did she Write. “I have lived in writing, like a spoonful of water in a river,” she penned in Selected Stories, highlighted in an interview with The Guardian. The New Yorker offers a selection of stories  published by that magazine. F&O’s Frontlines blog about Gallant, here, includes a link to the excellent CBC radio documentary portrait of her, and selected readings including her own short stories in the New Yorker.
  • Recommended: Below the city of New York lies heaven … if you’re a geologist. The New York Times reports on the city’s latest wave of excavations, and the bonanza they provide for scientists.
  • Recommended: The Disintegration of Kiev, a photo gallery in Europe’s Der Spiegel
  • Recommended: This Old Man, Life in the nineties, a glorious treatise on aging and love by American baseball writer Roger Angell, in his natural habitat of the New Yorker.

Last but not least:

The woman flying in the Twitter photograph below is Husna Sari, a Turkish journalist. Poynter interviewed her about her encounter with security forces who used firehoses to quell demonstrators and the country’s journalists. Sari told Poynter: “Turkey is now a country of censors but in that demonstration people didn’t protest the internet censorship. It was a demonstration set up to stop the unfair imprisonment of scientists, soldiers and journalists.” In his last F&O column on Turkey (subscription required) analyst Jonathan Manthorpe wrote of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s desperate efforts to stay in power and the contentious roles of the military and Islamists in Turkey.


Have a good weekend.


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Pesticides prevail decades after Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”


More than 50 years ago a storm erupted when aquatic biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. The book, gathered together from scattered information on pesticides, offered a powerful narrative about the harm chemicals caused people and the environment.


Marine biologists Rachel Carson and Bob Hines conduct research in the Atlantic Ocean, 1952. Photo: United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Silence” was the price mankind paid for poisoning spring birds with pesticides.

Before the book’s publication, one anguished woman wrote to Robert Cushman Murphy, curator emeritus of birds at the American Museum of Natural History. Before the elm trees in her village underwent repeated sprayings for several years, she said, the area teemed with bird life, cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches. After the DTT applications, she reported in 1958, the neighbourhood’s entire nesting population appeared to consist of one pair of doves and a catbird family.

Other, similar reports came from across the United States. A woman in Alabama reported a disturbing scene after the federal government unleashed a massive spraying program against the fire ant. She awoke one morning and “there was not a sound of a song bird. It was eerie, terrifying. What was man doing to our perfect and beautiful world? Finally, five months later a blue jay appeared and a wren.”

Those stories, and many others on the dangers of pesticides, appeared in Silent Spring. The pesticide industry heaped abuse on the Springdale, Pennsylvania author for her book. According to Linda Lear’s introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of Silent Spring, just released by Houghton Mifflin, the chemical lobby called Carson “a bird and bunny lover,” a woman who kept cats and was therefore clearly suspect. She was a romantic “spinster” who was simply “overwrought about genetics.” The industry spent $250,000 trying to discredit her research, but failed, notes Lear, author of Rachel Carson, The Life of the Author of Silent Spring.

In its time, Carson’s book sparked federal and state investigations into pesticide use, and led to a ban against the domestic production of DDT in the U.S. It was banned in Canada in 1969. Today, Silent Spring is a modern classic. In Time magazine’s special issue, “100 Most Influential People of the Century,” Peter Matthiessen wrote: “Even if she had not inspired a generation of activists, Carson would prevail as one of the greatest nature writers in American letters.”

Rachel-Carson profile

Rachel Carson. Photo: United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Decades later, what is the impact of Silent Spring? Have its lessons been taken to heart? It all depends on where you look.

Forty years after the book was published, in Prince Edward Island, nearly 5,000 trout were poisoned in the Wilmont River, a small waterway on the southeast of the Island. It wasn’t the first time a large number of fish have died in rivers in the Canadian province. In 2000, thousands of fish succumbed in the Mount Herbert, Indian and French rivers. In 1999, nearly 10,000 fish died in nine separate incidents. In every instance, pesticides were blamed. The fish in the Indian River, for instance, died from exposure to the insecticides edosulfan and azinphos-methyl, both confined to the restricted use list by the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency. The chemicals flowed past buffer zones from an agricultural field into the river.

To readers of Silent Spring, the fish kills are disturbingly familiar. Carson devoted a chapter in her book to several such incidents in New Brunswick’s Miramichi River, one of the world’s great salmon waterways. In 1954, the Canadian government sprayed the forests of the Northwest Miramichi with DDT to prevent a budworm infestation. Within days, Carson reported, dying salmon and brook trout littered the banks of the river. An entire year’s worth of spawning salmon were killed.

“If the runs in the Northwest Miramichi are still in relatively good condition,” Carson wrote, “this is because spraying was done one year only.”

Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada and now leader of Canada’s federal Green Party, recalls she campaigned hard in the 1970s to prevent budworm spraying in Cape Breton, where she’d moved from her home in the U.S.

“I think largely the reason it never happened, that they never did spray with any chemical from the air on Cape Breton, is because I had Silent Spring with me.”

May remembers reading Carson’s book in Grade 10, in 1970. At the time she was living in Bloomfield, Connecticut, a community that had a lot of mosquitoes and where pesticide fogging wasn’t uncommon. Several years earlier, two of May’s pet sheep mysteriously died, a ghastly scene that traumatized May’s family.

“They both died with nervous twitches and shakes. They died quite horrifically, because I remember riding in the back of the truck to get the sheep to the vet, with all four legs gyrating and their eyes looking wild.”

The pets’ deaths were sufficiently serious to the May family that they had an autopsy done to find out what killed them. Veterinarians couldn’t find any explanation; they checked the sheep’s stomach contents for poisonous berries and came up negative.

After May read Silent Spring and its descriptions of organic phosphate poisoning, she wrote to city officials asking if anything had been sprayed about the time the animals died. It turned out the city had used heptachlor.

“They died with symptoms described in Silent Spring as relating to those kinds of chemicals,” May says. “I was against pesticides ever after that.”

“We are still poisoning the air and water and eroding the biosphere, albeit less so than if Rachel Carson had not written” – E.O. Wilson


Remarkably, Silent Spring almost wasn’t published. It was a Canadian resident, Martin Haase, who helped persuade publisher Houghton Mifflin that Carson’s book was a ground-breaking work and that it would gain a wide audience. Haase, who made Chester, Nova Scotia, home but at one time lived in Belmont, Massachusetts, had his own run-in with pesticides that first led to his interest in the subject.

In the 1950s, a company came to his house to spray a tree against Dutch elm disease. It was outside Haase’s window and he was near it at the time. When the pesticides drifted in, he immediately became shaky and disoriented. His wife called several doctors, who were unable to diagnose the problem. Finally, a third doctor contacted the tree firm and asked them what the active ingredient had been in the spray. It turned out to be DDT.

Haase, who had helped publish a booklet on pesticides by Beatrice Trum Hunter called Gardening Without Poison, said publisher Houghton Mifflin was concerned about publishing Carson’s Silent Spring. Paul Brooks, then an editor with the publishing house, told him the firm was worried Carson’s book would lose money, attract lawsuits and was too controversial.

“They actually hesitated and almost didn’t publish it,” Haase recalled in a 2002 interview. “But I was one of those who urged Brooks to press for its publication and he did. Of course, it not only turned out to be an important book, which we all knew, but it turned out to be a big money-maker for Houghton Mifflin, and Brooks went on to become editor-in-chief.”

Haase also met Carson. He remembers her as a soft-spoken but strong-willed woman who never realized what a fight she’d face from the chemical companies. “I think the great thing about Carson,” he says, “is not only did she write the book, but she stood up — even though she was ill (with breast cancer) — to the tremendous onslaught of the chemical industry against her and this book, trying to label her as a quack and everything else. She didn’t take it lying down.”

While Haase calls Silent Spring a watershed book and credits it with waking people up to the dangers of pesticides, he laments the fact that pesticides are still as prevalent as ever, and worries that the great increase in cancer in the human population comes from all the chemicals that have spread through the food chain. “The book, of course, is still in print,” he says, “but sadly the chemical companies are still running strong.”

Carson died in 1964 in Silver Spring, Maryland.

In an afterword in the new edition of Silent Spring, Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson opines that if Carson were alive today “she would give America a mixed grade. The increased public awareness of the environment would please the educator in her; the ranking of her book as a literary classic would astonish the writer; and the existence of new regulatory laws would gratify the frustrated government bureaucrat.”

Wilson says Silent Spring continues to command our attention because the examples and arguments it contains are timeless lessons. “They are also timely, because the battle Rachel Carson helped to lead on behalf of the environment is far from won. We are still poisoning the air and water and eroding the biosphere, albeit less so than if Rachel Carson had not written.”

Copyright © 2013 Charles Mandel

Adapted from a piece published by The Ottawa Citizen, December, 2002

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