Wildfires continue to beleaguer Western Canada

Wildfires continue to beleaguer Western Canada

Wildfires in British Columbia are common at this time of year due to rising temperatures, however, this year is the third worst year in the region for forest fires. To date 840 fires have broken out since April 1 of this year. Although it started slow, 2017 is shaping up to be a record breaking fire season if not for numbers of fires, then for the sheer amount of hectares burned. In an area where rainfall is the norm, to have days and weeks without rainfall is unusual and helps to create a hot, dry environment with plenty of underbrush that fires use as fuel.

Firefighting costs for the 426,000 hectares (1,052,668 acres) that have burned this fire season have hit $172.5 million. Close to 4,000 personnel are working these fires across the province and ground crews are supported by 200 aircraft.

Besides the actual fire, smoke becomes an issue when so many fires are in the area. An information bulletin from the BC Wildfire Service is calling for smoky skies on the coast as the wind is expected to shift and these conditions could remain for a better part of this week. It has always been known that smoke can be hazardous to your health but a new study from researchers at Georgia Tech found that particle pollution from wildfires, long known for containing soot and other fine particles known to be dangerous to human health, is much worse than previously thought. Naturally burning timber and brush from wildfires release dangerous particles into the air at a rate three times as high as levels known by the EPA. The study also found wildfires spew methanol, benzene, ozone and other noxious chemicals.

NASA’s Terra satellite collected this natural-color image with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, MODIS, instrument on July 31, 2017. Actively burning areas, detected by MODIS’s thermal bands, are outlined in red. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team, GSFC. Caption by Lynn Jenner with information from the BC Wildfire Service, and the Georgia Tech study.

‘Omnipresent’ effects of human impact on England’s landscape revealed

‘Omnipresent’ effects of human impact on England’s landscape revealed

Concrete structures forming a new, human-made rock type; ash particles in the landscape; and plastic debris are just a few of the new materials irreversibly changing England’s landscape and providing evidence of the effects of the Anthropocene, the research suggests.

The research, which is published in the journal Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, has been conducted by geologists Jan Zalasiewicz, Colin Waters, Mark Williams and Ian Wilkinson at the University of Leicester, working together with zoologist David Aldridge at Cambridge University, as part of a major review of the geological history of England organised by the Geologists’ Association.

Professor Jan Zalasiewicz, from the University of Leicester’s Department of Geology, said: “We are realising that the Anthropocene is a phenomenon on a massive scale — it is the transformation of our planet by human impact, in ways that have no precedent in the 4.54 billion years of Earth history. Our paper explores how these changes appear when seen locally, on a more modest scale, amid the familiar landscapes of England.”

Professor Mark Williams, from the University of Leicester’s Department of Geology, said: “These changes taken together are now virtually omnipresent as the mark of the English Anthropocene. They are only a small part of the Anthropocene changes that have taken place globally. But, to see them on one’s own doorstep brings home the sheer scale of these planetary changes — and the realisation that geological change does not recognise national boundaries.”

The Anthropocene — the concept that humans have so transformed geological processes at Earth’s surface that we are living in a new epoch — was formulated by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen in 2000.

The research suggests that some of the changes surround us in the most obvious and visible way, though we rarely think of them as geology.

Examples include the concrete structures of our cities, which have almost all been built since the Second World War, and are just one small part of steep rise in the global prominence of this new, human-made rock type.

Other changes need a microscope to see, such as fly ash particles that have sprinkled over the landscape — a fossil signal of the smoke that belched out during industrialisation — or the skeletons of tiny algae in ponds and lakes across England, the types of which dramatically changed as the waters then acidified too.

Larger future fossils include the shells of highly successful biological invaders such as the zebra mussel and Asian clam, which now dominate large parts of the Thames and other river systems.

There are subterranean rock changes too, as coal mines, metro systems and boreholes have riddled the subsurface with holes and caverns.

The research also shows how the chemistry of soils and sediments has been marked by an influx of lead, copper and cadmium pollution — and by plastic debris, pesticide residues and radioactive plutonium.

Two degrees of warming already baked in

Two degrees of warming already baked in

“This ‘committed warming’ is critical to understand because it can tell us and policy makers how long we have, at current emission rates, before the planet will warm to certain thresholds,” said co-author Robert Pincus, a scientist with CIRES at the University of Colorado Boulder and NOAA’s Physical Sciences Division. “The window of opportunity on a 1.5-degree [C] target is closing.”

During United Nations meetings in Paris last year, 195 countries including the United States signed an agreement to keep global temperature rise less than 3.5 degrees F (2 C) above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts that would limit it further, to less than 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 C) by 2100.

The new assessment by Pincus and lead author Thorsten Mauritsen, from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology is unique in that it does not rely on computer model simulations, but rather on observations of the climate system to calculate Earth’s climate commitment. Their work accounts for the capacity of oceans to absorb carbon, detailed data on the planet’s energy imbalance, the climate-relevant behavior of fine particles in the atmosphere, and other factors.

Among Pincus’ and Mauritsen’s findings:

  • Even if all fossil fuel emissions stopped in 2017, warming by 2100 is very likely to reach about 2.3 F (range: 1.6-4.1) or 1.3 degrees C (range: 0.9-2.3).
  • Oceans could reduce that figure a bit. Carbon naturally captured and stored in the deep ocean could cut committed warming by 0.4 degrees F (0.2 C).
  • There is some risk that warming this century cannot be kept to 1.5 degrees C beyond pre-industrial temperatures. In fact, there is a 13 percent chance we are already committed to 1.5-C warming by 2100.

“Our estimates are based on things that have already happened, things we can observe, and they point to the part of future warming that is already committed to by past emissions,” said Mauritsen. “Future carbon dioxide emissions will then add extra warming on top of that commitment.”

The research was funded by the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

‘Fossil’ groundwater is not immune to modern-day pollution

‘Fossil’ groundwater is not immune to modern-day pollution

Groundwater that has lingered in Earth’s depths for more than 12,000 years is surprisingly vulnerable to modern pollution from human activities. Once in place, that pollution could stick around for thousands of years, researchers report online April 25 in Nature Geoscience. Scientists previously assumed such deep waters were largely immune to contamination from the surface.

“We can’t just drill deep and expect to run away from contaminants on the land surface,” says Scott Jasechko, a study coauthor and water resources scientist at the University of Calgary in Canada.

Groundwater quenches the thirst of billions of people worldwide and accounts for roughly 40 percent of the water used in agriculture. Water percolating from the surface into underground aquifers can carry pollutants such as pesticides and salt along for the ride.

Jasechko and colleagues weren’t looking for contamination when they tested water from 6,455 water wells around the world. Their goal was to use carbon dating to identify how much of that deep water was “fossil” groundwater formed more than 12,000 years ago. Previous studies had looked at average water age, rather than the age of its individual components.

While there’s no C in H2O, carbon dating can still be used to date groundwater by examining the carbon dissolved in the water. Radioactive carbon atoms decay as the water ages. After around 12,000 years, only stable carbon isotopes remain. Comparing the relative abundance of these carbon isotopes in the various wells, the researchers discovered that over half of wells more than 250 meters deep yielded mostly groundwater at least 12,000 years old. How much older is unknown. Worldwide, the researchers estimate that fossil groundwater accounts for 42 to 85 percent of water in the top kilometer of Earth’s crust.

In a second measurement, the researchers looked for a common modern pollutant. They found that around half of wells containing mostly fossil groundwater had elevated traces of tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope spread during nuclear bomb tests that’s hazardous in very high concentrations. While the tritium levels weren’t dangerous, its presence suggests that at least some groundwater in the wells postdates the 1950s nuclear testing. That relatively young water may introduce other contaminants in addition to tritium, the researchers say.

How new groundwater enters deep wells is still unclear, Jasechko says. Old and young waters could mix within an aquifer or, alternatively, the construction and use of the well itself could churn the waters together.

No matter where the young water comes from, the new technique for identifying the percentage of fossil groundwater in a well could be an important tool for communities, says Audrey Sawyer, a hydrogeologist at Ohio State University in Columbus. The study raises awareness that even in wells with mostly older water “a fraction of that same water can be pretty young and susceptible to contamination,” she says.

Could Nano-sized Minerals Make Agriculture More Productive?

Could Nano-sized Minerals Make Agriculture More Productive?

 Every day engineered nanoparticles in common consumer products are washed down drains, belched out from exhaust pipes or otherwise expelled into the environment. These miniscule chunks of material, which are around 100 times smaller than an average bacterium, can find their way into the waste water treatment system, and it’s difficult to remove them because they’re so small. Since about 50 percent of treated sewage sludge in the U.S. is used as fertilizer, a lot of these nanoparticles can end up in farmers’ fields.

“We think that engineered nanoparticles have a great chance of getting into agricultural lands,” said Xingmao (Samuel) Ma, an environmental engineering professor at Texas A&M University in College Station. Ma is one of a growing cadre of scientists who study how nanoparticles affect crops. The work is important because nanotechnology is booming. By 2020, the value of nanotech products on the global market is expected to reach $3 trillion.

In a study recently published in the journal Environmental Pollution, Ma and his colleagues report that a common industrial nanoparticle could in fact have a positive impact on crops — helping canola plants that are stressed by salty conditions to grow closer to normal size. But the results should be interpreted cautiously. Other studies have found the same nanoparticle — cerium oxide, made up of the elements cerium and oxygen — can have both positive and negative effects, depending on the species of plant, how much cerium oxide it is exposed to and for how long, and other specific growing conditions, such as whether the plant was in soil.

“The idea of studying the salt stress combined with nanoparticles, this is good,” said Jorge Gardea-Torresdey, an environmental chemist at the University of Texas at El Paso who has researched the environmental impact of nanotechnology for decades. Salt stress will likely be a bigger problem in the future, since a combination of climate change and increased demand for food for a growing population may force more farmers to irrigate with salty water, he said.

Cerium oxide nanoparticles of the type Ma and his colleagues studied are produced in the thousands of pounds each year in the U.S. and are used to make sunscreen, microelectronics, polishing agents and catalysts to speed up chemical reactions. They are also added to diesel to help the fuel burn more efficiently.

Ma and his team tested the effects of the cerium oxide nanoparticles on canola, a generally hardy plant whose seeds are pressed to produce canola oil. They made 3 potting mixtures that contained sand and clay, with either zero, 200, or 1,000 parts per million concentration of cerium oxide nanoparticles. While the last two concentrations are substantially higher than most predicted levels of cerium oxide nanoparticles in the environment, Ma noted that many of the predictions are based on a uniform mixing of nanoparticles into the soil, which may not occur in real-life scenarios.

Half the plants they grew were also treated with salt solution. The researchers chose a salt concentration that fell within the average range for salty soil and brackish water reported in previous studies, they wrote.

Both groups of plants grew more slowly when exposed to salty water, but the plants grown with cerium oxide nanoparticles had bigger leaf mass, and higher levels of chlorophyll — the green pigment plants use to turn light into energy — than their salt-stressed, but nanoparticle-less peers. While the cerium oxide did not completely alleviate the stunted growth caused by the salt solution, it did help the plants flourish more than they normally would under such conditions. For the salt-stress-free plants, cerium oxide nanoparticles also increased plant mass, but the increase was primarily in the roots.

The results are encouraging, given the likely need to grow crops on marginal land in the future. Still, significant questions remain. It’s important to test whether the positive effect persists with different plants, different concentrations of salt and nanoparticles, and in different soil conditions, said Jason White, an analytical chemist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, a state agency that conducts agricultural research. White has worked with Ma on separate projects, but was not involved in the salt study.

Further research should also explore if nanoparticles make plants less nutritious, what happens to multiple generations of plants grown in nanoparticle-laced soil, and what’s happening on the molecular level when nanoparticles affect plant growth, White said.

White himself is looking at how nanoparticles move through the food chain, such as from plants to insects. Ma and his team are currently investigating how cerium oxide nanoparticles might turn specific plant genes on or off, which would point scientists to a more precise explanation for why the particles have the effect that they do.

“We are talking about something new and still unexplored. Every day we discover new aspects,” said Lorenzo Rossi, a postdoctoral researcher in Ma’s lab and a co-author of the paper.

Some companies are already using nanoparticles in products to help plants grow, Ma said, so a cerium oxide additive for farmers’ field is a definite possibility.

“I know for a fact that there are fertilizer companies in China who are adding cerium [nanoparticles] to their products,” White said.

This research, and the projects that follow up on it, could help scientists build an understanding of the potential effects, both helpful and harmful.

Hotter air may lead planes to carry fewer passengers

Hotter air may lead planes to carry fewer passengers

Air travel can be annoying. But research now suggests global warming could make it much worse. To get off the ground in really hot weather, planes may be forced to carry fewer passengers. That might mean a little more elbow room, which would be good. However, it also would make flying more expensive.

Average air temperatures around the world are rising. That global warming is happening because people are polluting the air with increasing amounts of greenhouse gases. These gases, such as carbon dioxide, are a byproduct of burning fossil fuels. Their rising levels help to hold in energy from the sun, causing ground-level temperatures to rise.

Those warmer temps can affect an airplane’s ability to fly. That’s because air molecules spread out more as the air warms. This generates less lift under a plane’s wings as it barrels down a runway. To compensate, a plane must be lighter to take off in hot weather than on cooler days.

It can even prove too dangerous for some planes to attempt a take-off. A record June heat wave in the American Southwest, for instance, caused flight cancellations in Phoenix, Ariz. One airline’s planes were cleared to operate only up to 47.8° Celsius (118° Fahrenheit). On June 20, Phoenix reached a blistering 48.3 °C (119 °F)!

Radley Horton is a climate scientist at Columbia University in New York City. Two years ago, he and graduate student Ethan David Coffel projected the impact of warming at four U.S. airports. The trajectory of expected warming could triple the number of days when planes face weight restrictions, they calculated.

Horton and his colleagues have now expanded on those earlier projections. They probed the impact of rising temps on five types of commercial planes flying out of 19 of the world’s busiest airports. In the coming decades, as many as one to three out of every 10 flights that take off during the hottest time of day could face weight restrictions, they found. In some cases, a typical 160-seat plane would have to jettison 4 percent of its weight. That would be the equivalent of taking a dozen people off the plane, the researchers calculated.

In Temperate Forests, Edges Hold More Carbon than the Middles

In Temperate Forests, Edges Hold More Carbon than the Middles

Almost everyone loves a vast, dense forest — including scientists. But in the temperate zone encompassing North America, Europe and much of Asia, farms, roads and housing developments have removed much of the forest, creating a patchwork quilt where there was once an unbroken green blanket.

In a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and presented last week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, a team of scientists report that such fragmented forests may actually fight harder against climate change. The paper authors found that New England oak forests grew nearly twice as fast around their edges than in their interiors.

“The growth and the size of trees near the edge of forest compared to what is just inside is pretty phenomenal,” said Nick Haddad, an ecologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh who was not involved in the research. “Through that lens, there can be a green lining around the big cloud of forest fragmentation.”

But the study authors also found that this surprising benefit will likely decline as the climate warms, and emphasized that further fragmenting forests will not slow climate change.

About half of a tree’s mass is the element carbon, and growing trees soak up carbon from the atmosphere via photosynthesis. This carbon can return to the atmosphere, however, if forests are burned or cut and left to rot, or when trees die naturally. Still, scientists have estimated that forests globally take up about a billion tons of carbon a year more than is lost to fire and deforestation.

While that is not nearly enough to offset the roughly 10 billion tons of carbon that human activities emit annually, scientists have suggested that by protecting existing forests and allowing forests to regrow where they have been cut down, countries can slow the pace of climate change as they transition away from fossil fuels.

But estimates of forests’ carbon-absorbing potential are based on a relatively small number of studies, many done in large, intact forests such as the Amazon rainforest. In studies of forests that have been penetrated by farms or roads, scientists have found that biodiversity and other measures of forest health usually decline, because forest edges are vulnerable to damage from wind, heat, invasive species and other factors. Recently, scientists found that tropical forest edges also contain substantially less carbon than the interiors, suggesting that the total amount of carbon held in tropical forests — which provide a portion of the world’s overall carbon sink — might be smaller than previously estimated.

Curious if a similar effect occurs in temperate forests, Boston University ecologist Lucy Hutyra and postdoctoral researcher Andrew Reinmann launched a study in oak-dominated forests in Massachusetts. The scientists used trees’ annual growth rings to measure their growth rates in study plots that extended from the forest edge to 30 meters into the forest. They found that trees at the forest edge actually grew new wood 89 percent faster. Though the study did not determine a cause for the growth enhancement, Hutyra and Reinmann suspect that added sun exposure at the forest edge plays a major role.

Unlike in the tropics, nearly all original temperate forests have been cut down, and many are now growing back, making temperate forests an outsized contributor to the total global carbon sink. They are also more fragmented: Hutyra and Reinmann found that nearly 18 percent of forests in southern New England — comprising the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island — grow 20 meters or less from an edge, indicating a level of fragmentation higher than almost any other forest on Earth. If the edge effect from their study held for all temperate forests, the global temperate forest carbon sink estimate, which accounts for around 60 percent of the total net forest carbon sink, would increase substantially.

However, Haddad noted that because Hutyra’s and Reinmann’s study plots were mostly next to suburban yards, trees on these forests’ edges were likely protected from disturbances, and possibly even aided by fertilizer applications to nearby lawns and gardens. This may have given them an edge, so to speak, over trees growing next to farms or roads. The authors “were looking, in some ways, at the most idealized landscapes,” Haddad said. “I suspect that the patterns will not be as strong in those harsher and more dynamic environments.”

Haddad added that carbon uptake in other temperate forest types, such as pine forests in the southern U.S., might respond differently to fragmentation.

By comparing growth rates with past climate data, Hutyra and Reinmann also found that the growth boost on the forest edge lessened substantially during hot years, suggesting that temperate forest edges are more vulnerable than interiors to heat stress. So as the planet warms, fragmented forests may sop up less carbon.

That is one reason that despite her team’s results, Hutyra recommends against trying to fight climate change by punching more holes in the forest. The other is that carbon lost from the removed trees would outweigh carbon taken up at newly created edges.

“We’re not advocating for fragmenting our forest,” Hutyra said, noting that before Europeans arrived, southern New England’s forests absorbed 31 percent more carbon than they do today. “If we just had forest and pasture … we’d be better off.”

When it’s hot, plants become a surprisingly large source of air pollution

When it’s hot, plants become a surprisingly large source of air pollution

Planting trees is often touted as a strategy to make cities greener, cleaner and healthier. But during heat waves, city trees actually boost air pollution levels. When temperatures rise, as much as 60 percent of ground-level ozone is created with the help of chemicals emitted by urban shrubbery.

While the findings seem counterintuitive, “everything has multiple effects,” says Robert Young, an urban planning expert at the University of Texas at Austin, who was not involved with the study. The results, he cautions, do not mean that programs focused on planting trees in cities should stop. Instead, more stringent measures are needed to control other sources of air pollution, such as vehicle emissions.

Benefits of city trees include helping reduce stormwater runoff, providing cooling shade and converting carbon dioxide to oxygen. But research has also shown that trees and other shrubs release chemicals that can interact with their surrounding environment, producing polluted air. One, isoprene, can react with human-made compounds, such as nitrogen oxides, to form ground-level ozone, a colorless gas that can be hazardous to human health. Monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes also react with nitrogen oxides, and when they do, lots of tiny particles, similar to soot, build up in the air. In cities, cars and trucks are major sources of these oxides.

In the new study, Galina Churkina of Humboldt University of Berlin and colleagues compared simulations of chemical concentrations emitted from plants in the Berlin-Brandenburg metropolitan area. The researchers focused on two summers: 2006, when there was a heat wave, and 2014, when temperatures were more typical.

At normal daily maximum summer temperatures, roughly 25° Celsius on average, plants’ chemical emissions contributed to about 6 to 20 percent of ozone formation in the simulations. At peak temperatures during the heat wave, when temperatures soared to over 30°C, plant emissions spiked, boosting their share of ozone formation to up to 60 percent. Churkina says she and colleagues were not surprised to see the seemingly contrary relationship between plants and pollution. “Its magnitude was, however, quite amazing,” she says.

The results, she notes, suggest that campaigns to add trees to urban spaces can’t be done in isolation. Adding trees will improve quality of life only if such campaigns are combined with the radical reduction of pollution from motorized vehicles and the increased use of clean energy sources, she says.

Bee hotels are open for business

Bee hotels are open for business

A new kind of hotel is opening for business around the world. Its guests are wild bees. Built by people, these hotels are going up in rural farmlands, in suburban backyards — even on city rooftops. They don’t offer maid service, but they do give bees a place to nest.

Bees are a big deal in the world of plant reproduction. They move pollen from one plant to another, which helps make seeds that will grow into new plants. Some bees make honey. But that’s true only for a certain few species: the honeybees. They live communally in hives, often tended by people. Most bee species are wild and live on their own. (That’s why they’re called solitary bees.)

Honeybees aren’t native to the United States. Europeans brought them here roughly 400 years ago. Most wild American bees were here long before honeybees arrived, notes Sandra Rehan. She’s a biologist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Estimates show there are about 20,000 species of bees worldwide. About 4,000 call North America home. These insects are incredibly diverse, Rehan points out. “They have lived in these areas and ecosystems for thousands, if not millions, of years.”

Honeybees may be the better-known bugs, but wild bees are crucial pollinators too. “That’s an incredibly important service that they’re providing,” says Daphne Mayes. She’s a graduate student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Some bees stop by many types of flowers. Others visit just one type.

Unfortunately, wild bee species have lost much of their natural habitat — the places where they would normally choose to live. Many of those species nest in crevices and holes in the ground. Other nesting spots include gaps under rocks or fallen trees, holes in trees or even cracks in some buildings. Large farms may now plow over such nesting areas. Bee habitats also can be destroyed as people erect cities and suburbs.

Handmade habitats

Bee hotels address one problem caused by that loss of habitat. They give bees a place to nest.

Most guests at hotels for people don’t stay more than a few days. When they leave, they take their stuff with them. But when bees check out of their hotel rooms, they leave their kids behind, observes Scott MacIvor. He’s an ecologist in Canada at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “You can think of a female — a mom — buying a house with several rooms,” MacIvor says. She lays her eggs and leaves food for them to eat after they hatch. By the time her young are ready to check out, they too are now adults.

“It’s actually quite easy to make a bee hotel,” notes Rebecca Ellis. She’s a conservation biologist at the Edmonton & Area Land Trust in Alberta, Canada. The group manages nine parcels of land that are set aside to protect plants and wildlife. Creating bee hotels is so easy that this group already has helped people set up more than 400 in and around Edmonton.

A hotel design can be as simple as paper straws or hollow bamboo stems stuck into a clean milk carton. “Another way is just to drill holes in a block of wood,” Ellis says. Ideally, the holes will reach at least several centimeters (an inch or so) deep into the wood. Female bees lay a line of eggs with food for their young. Then they seal off the hole.

Different species prefer holes of different diameters. Mayes, in Kansas, has been studying bees that nest in tallgrass prairies across the eastern part of her state. Her field stations have become a chain of bee hotels. Among the guests, she found, was a type of leafcutter bee. Called Megachile brevis (MEG-ah-cheel BREH-vis), they nest in holes 12-millimeters (a half-inch) in diameter. A resin bee, Heriades carinata (HAIR-ee-AH-dees KAIR-ih-NAH-tah) uses holes 6 millimeters (a quarter-inch) in diameter. The so-called mason bees will move into either size hole.

You could even add some thin, clear plastic tubes to your bee hotel, suggests Laura Fortel-Vitrolles. She’s an ecologist in France who recently got her doctoral degree from the University of Avignon. For one of her research projects, she studied guests checking into a large bee hotel. “We used [plastic] tubes,” she says. “And we were able to observe bees while they were building their nests!”

Site a bee hotel in your yard, on a balcony — even a rooftop. “Generally, you want it to get morning sun,” Ellis recommends. Being near native plants — species that evolved in the area, and therefore are suited for it (as the wild bees are) — also helps. Ellis has a bee hotel near some goldenrod and blue flax flowers at her home. “Even your vegetable garden is great, because the bees will help pollinate the vegetables, or your herbs,” she says. “The garden is helping the bees, and the bees are helping your garden.”

Managing a bee hotel is easy. The guests don’t need room service or fresh towels. Nor should they be dangerous to their human helpers. “Solitary bees are not aggressive,” notes Ellis. Leave them alone and they generally won’t bother you.

But keep in mind that any bee hotel is “going to require some management,” Mayes says. Pathogens are germs that can cause disease. And, she notes, “There may be opportunities for pathogens to move from one hole to another and spread.” When many bees visit one spot, they could spread germs just as people can in a crowd. To avoid that, just remove straws, stems or wood blocks from a container after all the bees have left. Then add new ones each year.

Surprise guests

Bee hotels can bring interesting visitors. Fortel-Vitrolles and researchers at the Paris-based French National Institute for Agricultural Research set out bee hotels at 16 sites near the city of Lyon. Over two years, 21 species had visited their hotel chain. But just 87 percent of the bees belonged to just two species. They were the red mason bee, Osmia bicornis (OZ-mee-uh By-KOR-nis), and the builder bee, O. cornuta (Kor-NU-tuh).

Those bees are what scientists call “gregarious” species. Explains Fortel-Vitrolles, “They do not interact much with each other, but they live next to each other.” Think of them, she says, as strangers willing to move into a “kind of an apartment block for bees!”

In this part of France, red mason and builder bees emerge from their nests earlier in the year than do many other species. “They nest everywhere they can,” Fortel-Vitrolles learned, leaving fewer nesting spots for the bees that come out later. Her group shared its findings, last year, in the Journal of Insect Conservation.

Another study showed that native bees probably won’t be the only insects at many bee hotels. MacIvor and Laurence Packer at York University, in Toronto, collected data from almost 600 bee hotels that had been set up around that Canadian city.

More than 27,000 bees and wasps checked into the hotels during a three-year period. About one-quarter were non-native bees. Native wasps made up more than a third. That’s not necessarily bad. “These are very docile wasps that exist all around us,” MacIvor explains. And the wasps are “very, very important” because they help control various pests. But their presence could surprise someone who didn’t expect them. His team published its findings two years ago in PLOS ONE.

Bee hotels also could have unintended consequences, MacIvor notes. For example, the large number of insects in one place could invite parasites or predators. And if holes aren’t deep enough, the ratio of male to female bees could change in an area. That’s because some bees lay eggs that will hatch into females if they’re deep in a nest, but males if they’re closer to the outside. If there aren’t enough females, that could be bad for pollination and for reproduction, MacIvor explains.

Not just habitat

These hotels don’t just give bees somewhere to nest. They also can help researchers learn about the behaviors of wild insects. In one study, MacIvor collected leaf bits left in vacated hotel rooms by three types of leafcutter bees. This told him what types of plants those bees preferred to use for nests. He published those findings in the March 2016 Royal Society Open Science.

For this research, her team placed 24 modified bee hotels in orchards and forests around Queensland. Each hole has a removable straw inside it. That lets Wilson or one of her colleagues sample material from one egg compartment in each hole. Then the straw goes back in the hotel, so the rest of the eggs can develop. The team recently began collecting data.

Bee hotels make it quicker and easier for researchers to get those data, Wilson says. “Instead of watching bees come and go from flowers for several weeks, we can take a small amount of pollen bread [the bee’s food] from each nest every few months and use genetics to figure out which plants those pollens came from.” And, she adds, bee hotels “mimic the nesting material that different species like to use.”

Rehan’s group has a large bee hotel at the University of New Hampshire’s Woodman Farm. For the projects they work on, her team usually doesn’t collect data from the bee hotel. Nonetheless, Rehan says, the bee hotel at the farm is good for the bees that use it. Giving the pollinators comfortable guest quarters also benefits the plants nearby. It even helps the farm’s human visitors learn about wild bees.

Making the public aware of these insects is important because they face plenty of problems. Loss of habitat is a big one. Solitary bees have fewer nesting places as people have been transforming the countryside. The bees also have fewer flowers and other food sources. “They just don’t have enough resources,” says Rehan.

Another problem: farm chemicals. Common pesticides that farmers use may be harming wild bees. One study last year reviewed 18 years of data. The English researchers found evidence linking pesticide use to a drop in the number of wild bees. The group’s study appeared in Nature Communications.

Scientists from three U.S. Geological Survey laboratories also have reported that pesticides pose a risk to native bees. They collected the pollinators from Colorado wheat fields and grasslands. Tests of these bees turned up residues — in some cases high levels — of 19 pesticides and breakdown chemicals. And even the insects roaming open grasslands had been exposed to these pest-killing chemicals. Michelle Hladik, Mark Vandever and Kelly Smalling shared their findings in the January 2016 Science of the Total Environment.

Bee hotels won’t solve all the problems facing wild bees. But they can help these insects and the plants that they typically pollinate. Those hotels also can be fun to craft. And watching as bees or other guests visit to lay eggs — and then emerge the next year as adults — can offer even more fun.

The hotels also help scientists and the public alike learn more about wild bees. Bees “do wonderful work,” Rehan says, yet even today “we just don’t know much about them.”

Contested National Monuments in Utah House Treasure Troves of Fossils

Contested National Monuments in Utah House Treasure Troves of Fossils

 Seventy-five million years ago, a family of tyrannosaurs fled through a forest engulfed in flames. The predators — an adult more than 30 feet long, an adolescent two-thirds its size, and a baby no bigger than a Shetland pony — emerged from the inferno onto a muddy shoreline and plunged into the lake, desperate to escape the heat.

That’s what Alan Titus thinks happened here. He picks up a lump of charcoal, a burned remnant of the once-lush forest, and crumbles it between his fingers. Inches away lies an exposed tyrannosaur bone, smooth and brown.

The landscape today is a rugged plateau of pale dirt, sagebrush and scraggly junipers. It’s matched by Titus’ stained khaki vest and the dry smile creasing his stubbled cheeks. A paleontologist with the Bureau of Land Management, he oversees all research on dinosaurs and other fossils in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

When President Bill Clinton proclaimed the now 1.9 million-acre monument in 1996, the decision infuriated many people in Utah — Titus included. At the time, Titus was teaching geology at Snow College, a small two-year college in the middle of the state.

“I was just as upset and shocked as anyone that this had happened, because I liked to take my students down here on field trips and collect fossils,” he says. The monument designation preserved many previous land uses, such as hunting and driving all-terrain vehicles, but it banned fossil collecting without a permit, says Titus.

But Titus’s perspective soon changed. The national monument designation led to new funding and resources for scientists to study fossils in Grand Staircase-Escalante, and what they found there was beyond all expectations. Rather than the familiar dinosaur species known from rocks of the same age in Canada and Wyoming, the Escalante rocks revealed a remarkable diversity of new species, upending scientists’ understanding of climates and habitats during the age of dinosaurs by revealing a brand new ecosystem.

“To a scientist, it doesn’t get any better than that, because you get into this business to make discoveries and contribute new knowledge,” says Titus.

Now, some paleontologists believe the same thing could happen in America’s newest national monument — at least, assuming it remains a national monument. In December, then-President Barack Obama proclaimed a 1.35 million-acre region that lies just east of Grand Staircase-Escalante as Bears Ears National Monument, reigniting outrage among some residents of Utah and their elected representatives. Now, Bears Ears lies at the center of a political debate over public lands and presidential power.

Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are among 27 monuments currently under examination, following an executive order issued by President Donald Trump in April. The order directs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review certain national monuments designated since 1996. Bears Ears is the only monument the order calls out by name, and on Monday, Zinke issued an interim reportrecommending that it be cut down in size.

Experts have questioned whether it would be legal for Trump to alter Bears Ears’ boundaries or its national monument status. If he tries, several groups have pledged to challenge him in court, according to reporting by the Salt Lake Tribune. On June 12, when Zinke announced his recommendation to shrink Bears Ears, he also announced the extension of the public comment period for the monument until July 10.

The rocks Titus is excavating in Grand Staircase-Escalante preserve the final chapter of the age of dinosaurs. Bears Ears, researchers believe, holds different stories from earlier times — how four-legged creatures first emerged from the sea, and how dinosaurs later rose to dominate the planet. The few paleontologists who have thus far explored in Bears Ears have made tantalizing finds, from plant-eating crocodiles to an amphibian whose skull is the size and shape of a toilet bowl lid.

But like Grand Staircase-Escalante 20 years ago, Bears Ears is in its paleontological infancy. The national monument designation, should it remain, could help researchers gain funding and support to uncover its secrets. If Bears Ears is cut in size, then funding, land use and access, and protections could change, although the exact impact on the preservation and excavation of fossils is unclear.

Rainbows and unicorns

Titus discovered the tyrannosaur site while exploring Grand Staircase-Escalante in 2014, after a rainstorm exposed a bit of buried bone.

“When I brushed it, it turned out to be the lacrimal, which is the big, scabby protrusion over the eye of an adult tyrannosaur,” says Titus. “I about wet my pants.”

Finding even one tyrannosaur is incredibly rare, since the Cretaceous period landscape held far fewer of the big, warm-blooded predators than it did of their plant-eating prey. But as Titus dug around the skull, he soon found the bones of at least two more individuals. This is only the third or fourth site in North America where multiple tyrannosaurs have been found together, and it provides evidence that this area’s species were social, says Titus.

There are many kinds of tyrannosaurs, and these bones belong to a smaller, more ancient relative of the famous Tyrannosaurus rex. The most likely species is Teratophoneus curriei, whose name means “monstrous murderer.” It is one of two tyrannosaur species discovered so far in Grand Staircase-Escalante. The remains could also represent a new species, but if they are Teratophoneus, the adult will be the first full-grown specimen ever found, says Titus.

Since the discovery of the site in 2014, Titus’s team has come back for 30-40 days of each year to expand the perimeter and depth of the search, as they did in May 2017. They have found more than 1,000 bones so far, and they expect to have the whole site excavated by 2019, says Titus.

The excavation site used to be at the bottom of a lake, and Titus and his team have found thousands of fish scales amongst the tyrannosaur bones. They have also found countless lumps of charcoal, and a few pieces of fossilized mud with imprints of burned wood, the rectangular crack patterns familiar to anyone who has watched a log shrink in a campfire. For Titus, the site paints a vivid picture of a family of tyrannosaurs caught in a fire.

Now, the paleontologist and his half-dozen volunteers crouch in the desert sun, using picks and brushes to remove rock and dirt in careful layers. A stuffed toy rainbow rests in the dirt beside them, while a pink unicorn perches in a tree, overlooking the scene with huge plastic eyes. The incongruous mascots are here because of an exchange between Titus’s field assistant and his former lab manager, which Titus now recounts.

“He’s like, ‘Hey, I hear Alan found this new tyrannosaur site. So what’s it really like? ‘Cause Alan, you know — with him, everything’s always rainbows and unicorns,'” says Titus. The field assistant reportedly answered, “Well, I’m afraid this time, it really is.”