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The Waggle

Issue 64

Project Regeneration
Honey bee gathering nectar from a blue-violet flower.

A honey bee's brain, measuring a mere cubic millimeter in size, consists of a million neuronsthat support their complex "waggling" style of communication. 

Flash Dantz / Unsplash

 The Mind of a Bee  • Paul Hawken

Karl von Frisch discovered the honey bee waggle dance—a form of communication indicating nectar sources by distance, abundance, and direction. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1967 for his research. We know much more today about animal communication. Zoologist Lars Chittka of the University of London has spent a lifetime studying insects, particularly bees, which is wonderfully shared in his book, The Mind of the Bee. The diversity and adaptations within the insect world may be more profound than we have come to believe. Could insects be sentient, aware, conscious of us, and capable of feeling? No studies confirm that is true, nor have any such investigations been attempted. Concerning bees, however, much is coming to light. Chittka’s studies show that honey bees (Apis melifera) can count, make contrasting distinctions, and learn by observing others. They experience pain and pleasure, are aware and conscious of their knowledge, and recall past stories, as do we. That may seem unimaginable in a brain that weighs 2-3 milligrams, a tiny fraction of the million-milligram human brain. However, each nerve cell in the bee brain can make connections with 10,000 other cells, providing more than a billion connection points in the bee brain at any given moment.

Inside active hives is a din of buzzing. When researchers injected small probing microphones inside, the cacophony turned out to be short bursts of encoded information that alert bees to nectar location, food quality, and distance above the ground. Chittka, who has devoted his life to studying bees, believes that their sense organs perceive the world in such profoundly different ways from what we can grasp that they “might be accurately regarded as aliens from inner space.”  They have near wraparound vision with their opposing bulbous eyes. Their entire diet is contained within a flower; the range of color spectra they can see far surpasses our own; they have a magnetic compass in their tiny brain and protrusions on their head, which can extend two feet that taste, smell, hear, and sense electric fields. And they are precision pilots. Chittka asks the unanswerable—what is on their mind? We might well ask that question of the entire animal kingdom. © 2024 Paul Hawken

 First Ratification of UN High Seas Treaty  • Anna Steltenkamp

The Chilean Senate unanimously voted to ratify the UN High Seas (Global Ocean) Treaty this past week, becoming the first country to do so. Regarded by some as the most significant multilateral environmental deal since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, this treaty plays a crucial role in achieving the internationally agreed-upon target of protecting thirty percent of the world’s oceans by 2030 (the 30x30 pledge). The UN Secretary-General called it “a victory… for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing ocean health now and for generations to come.” Although 84 countries signed the Treaty in 2023, it will only enter into force if ratified by at least 60 countries. Here are ten changes we could see if that happens – each significant because only 1.2 percent of the high seas are now officially protected. The UN Treaty illuminates the complexities and opportunities resulting from collaborative endeavors to preserve and regenerate our shared commons. As Nature Conservancy’s ocean policy lead, Andreas Hansen, states: “A damaging status quo is driving the climate and biodiversity crises facing our world… states now have the opportunity to move beyond business-as-usual and into a new, nature-positive era… that represents our collective life-support system.” Learn more about the Treaty’s prospective impact and how to advocate for its ratification (before the 2025 UN Ocean Conference) with the High Seas Alliance.​

 Arizona's New Urban Heat Office  • Claire Krummenacher

Last year in Phoenix (the largest hot city in the U.S.), David Hondula was named director of the newly established Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, the nation’s first-ever of its kind. Since being appointed, Hondula has worked to ensure that summer heat, expected to be exacerbated in 2024 by El Niño conditions, is factored into relevant city policies and processes. This helps improve safety, not only for residents of Phoenix but also for other cities endangered by rising temperatures, who can also learn from the adaptation and mitigation strategies. Top on the docket include plans to open more shelters and cooling centers with extended hours to serve the unhoused (who are especially vulnerable to the deadly effects of heat waves), a “cool roof” program for residential areas, and the installation of reflective asphalt. To learn more, see our Buildings Nexus.​

 River Restoration After Largest Dam Removal  • Scott Hannan

A spillway, left, is filled with water at Iron Gate Dam where modifications to an existing tunnel are underway on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023 in Klamath, CA. The tunnel will be used to drain the lake in 2024.
Klamath dam removal. A spillway (left) is filled with water at Iron Gate Dam where modifications to an existing tunnel will allow the lake to be drained in 2024.

The Klamath River, which runs through Oregon and California before emptying into the Pacific Ocean, is beginning to flow freely for the first time in over one hundred years. Removing the Iron Gate Hydroelectric Dams, long advocated for by tribal communities and ecologists, is the first major step in restoring riparian ecosystems and reestablishing ancient salmon runs and breeding grounds. Because the damage to the Klamath watershed has been going on for over a century, further action is needed to restore its vitality, including reestablishing the health of its tributary rivers and reintroducing native flora along its banks. Members of the Yurok tribe view it as a generations-long effort that will restore the river, its salmon, and a significant part of their cultural heritage. Experts will keep an eye on the success of the dam removal to inform upcoming projects, such as the Lower Snake River dam removal in Washington state. These efforts are increasingly hopeful signs of a new approach to conserving rivers and nurturing the ecosystems and cultures that rely on them.​

 Rethinking Forest Carbon Credits  • Courtney White

This month, environmental news service Mongabay published a five-part series on forest carbon credits, examining the withering criticism recently received by the $2 billion voluntary carbon marketplace. In 2023, analyses by The Guardian and other organizations revealed that carbon credits are not delivering on promises to offset greenhouse emissions, allowing wealthy individuals, companies, and nations – often in the Global North – to continue polluting as usual. In particular, rainforest carbon credits were determined to be ineffective and misleading. These revelations contributed to a recent slump in carbon credit prices. Mongabay’s series confirmed many of these charges and offered some important recommendations for improving forest carbon credits going forward. First, decision-making around forest carbon projects must include local and Indigenous communities, a practice that has rarely happened thus far. Second, companies need to cut their own greenhouse gas emissions before purchasing forest carbon offset credits rather than continuing to dodge their responsibilities. Third, governments and corporations should replace carbon ‘neutrality’ claims and goals with added-value contributions to forest projects that support ecological and economic resilience. And last, governance bodies need to step in and begin regulating the marketplace to ensure quality carbon credits. Many of these changes are under consideration as the carbon marketplace rethinks its future. See Offsets Nexus and Onsets Nexus. ​

 Inuit Insight Informs Permafrost Research Juliana Birnbaum

Traditional and indigenous communities have long been environmental scientists, observing and collecting data on ecosystemic patterns. Increasingly, these groups have taken on a more active role in the global-scale gathering and sharing of climate data to inform policy.  I discovered a recent example in permafrost research undertaken in the Canadian Arctic, reported in the top-notch digital magazine Undark out of MIT. Permafrost is ground that stays continually frozen for at least two years and underlies somewhere between 15 and 25 percent of the Northern Hemisphere, storing up to 1.6 trillion metric tons of carbon. The Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the world, and while scientists know that permafrost is disappearing, the rate of change has yet to be accurately measured. Two new initiatives in the region are working to address this by working with local Inuit people, engaging them in research that monitors the permafrost and documents the wide-ranging environmental and cultural impacts of the changing conditions. “Quantitative data is great in showing ‘what’ is happening, but I think the power of this project and community-based research is in the ‘so what’,” said Emma Street, a primary researcher on one of the studies. Through pathways such as these, indigenous groups are empowered to partner in environmental governance, countering the drivers of climate change and offering a more nuanced view of the interrelationship between people and nature.​

 Protecting Thailand's Otters and Mangroves  • Jonathan Hawken

A family of Asian small-clawed otters.
One of my favorite apex predators, the exuberant otter, plays a pivotal role in maintaining ecosystem health, though in a place you may not expect. According to this piece on Mongabay, the degradation of Thailand’s mangroves has diminished otters' natural habitats, exposing them to threats such as vehicle collisions, conflicts with fish and shrimp farmers, the illegal pet trade, and snares set by local hunters. Conservation actions are deemed urgent, emphasizing the importance of protecting natural habitats such as mangroves (see our Mangrove Nexus).

A team of researchers conducted a five-year camera-trapping study in the coastal wetlands of southern Thailand to document the distribution of two otter species: smooth-coated otters and Asian small-clawed otters. The study reveals that while Thailand's otters can adapt to human-modified landscapes, they still rely heavily on natural habitats. It further highlights the importance of additional research, including population density studies and genetic comparisons between wild and confiscated otters, with the ultimate goal being to create a zoning management plan for otters in southern Thailand, addressing gaps in knowledge and ensuring the long-term survival of our playful crustacean-eating friends. 

Take Action on Nexus
Learn how to decarbonize the maritime shipping industry and reduce its environmental impacts by implementing changes throughout the supply chain of internationally traded goods in our Maritime Shipping Nexus.

Photo Credits
1. Flash Dantz / Unsplash
​​2. Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images
Rebecca Campbell / Unsplash

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