Bee is for Boston

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

Boston’s Copley Square is the epitome of urban life. Surrounded by towering skyscrapers, people mull about the streets, shop in popular stores, take pictures in front of the Boston Public Library, and people-watch on the grass in the center of the square. But hiding in the midst of this metropolis are colonies of honeybees.

The hives nestled on the rooftop of the Fairmont Copley Hotel belong to a growing trend in big cities such as Houston, San Francisco, and New York. For the past few years, restaurants and hotels ranging from fashionable boutiques to large chains have joined individual city-dwellers in the beekeeping craze. In Boston, at least four restaurants and hotels are raising bees and harvesting honey.

Nationwide, the rise in urban beekeeping can be attributed to the “locavore” movement sweeping the country. People want to know where their food comes from, even if that means growing it themselves. When community and rooftop gardens took root in Boston, urban bees soon followed. After all, plants need pollinators and bees are the most efficient. Yet despite people’s excitement, a mysterious disorder threatens this phenomenon.

Noah Wilson-Rich, a behavioral ecologist and entrepreneur, is emblematic of an innovative and environmentally friendly generation. An expert in bee health, he saw an opportunity to bolster urban beekeeping in Boston and couldn’t resist. In 2010, Wilson-Rich founded Boston’s Best Bees, a beekeeping-consulting firm that’s responsible for over 200 hives in the city, including the apiaries in many bee-friendly restaurants such as The Fairmont Copley Hotel’s Long Oak Bar and Kitchen and The Gallows. Other establishments include The Seaport Hotel and The Taj Hotel.

“Most restaurants and hotels are changing their focus from imported exotic foods to more of a farm to table, local, organic, sustainable cuisine,” said Jessica Tardiff, Fairmont Copley’s sales manager and beekeeper. Last year with the help of Boston’s Best Bees, the Fairmont Copley installed three apiaries, which produced 150 pounds of honey its first season. Most of the honey goes to the restaurant for making honey butter, bread, and turkey brine, or is served during high tea.

This year however, the apiaries only produced 50 pounds of honey. “One of our queens died halfway through our season and one of our hives isn’t that strong,” said Tardiff. “The hives weren’t unhealthy, so we don’t know for sure what’s going on but we think it may have to do with Colony Collapse Disorder.”



In 2006, reports of honeybee disappearances began trickling in. Since then, the decline of bees has increased, which scientists are attributing to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which entire colonies disappear. Researchers estimate that approximately one-third of the world’s bee population has succumbed to the disorder. This is troubling because bees are responsible for pollinating one-third of the food we eat including over 130 fruit and vegetable crops, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The cause of CCD continues to elude researchers, but they speculate it’s a combination of factors including pesticides, disease, and climate change. While CCD affects bees that pollinate industrial crops most, urban bees are also susceptible. Harvard University Environmental Biologist Alex Lu believes certain pesticides, which compromise bees’ immune systems and leaves them vulnerable to pathogens such as mites and fungus, are the primary cause of CCD. “[The pesticides] are everywhere including residential areas,” said Lu.

One motivation for many restaurants maintaining hives is boosting suffering bee populations said Tardiff. Although urban bees fare better than their rural counterparts (62.5 percent vs. 40 percent survival rate), experts still worry. “Beekeeping in an urban setting is a good way to raise awareness,” said Lu. “But a handful of bee colonies don’t help the whole population.” If people really want to make a difference, he suggests lobbying congress to ban pesticides linked to CCD—something European nations like Great Britain have already done.

Mice Bombs Kill Snakes

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

The invasive brown tree snake should really watch what it eats... Photo courtesy of USGS
The invasive brown tree snake should really watch what it eats… Photo courtesy of USGS

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture dropped 2,000 dead mice laced with poison over the forests of Guam in an experiment aimed at killing an invasive snake species that has decimated the island’s bird population and thrown the ecosystem out of whack.

The tiny creatures were laced with 80 milligrams of acetaminophen–enough to kill brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis) but relatively harmless to most other animals–tagged with a radio tracking device, attached to makeshift parachutes and dropped into the trees. The idea was that the parachute would get tangled in the tree branches, creating an irresistible yet deadly meal for the snakes.

The brown tree snake arrived in Guam over 60 years ago, likely in the wheel wells of airplanes and the hulls of ships. Today, 2 million brown tree snakes call Guam home. So far, they are responsible for the extinction of nine of 12 of the island’s forest bird species, which has subsequently led to the degradation of forests and an explosion of spider populations. Researchers fear the snakes could invade the Hawaiian islands as well, and potentially cause an estimated $593 million to $2.14 billion in economic damage annually.

This is the fourth mouse bombing since 2010. A 2012 study by the USDA found that brown tree snakes indeed devoured the mice and that the bait were effective killers. Combining this method with traps, snake-sniffing dogs, and snake-hunting inspectors, researchers hope to eradicate the species and re-introduce native animal species that were obliterated by the snakes.

Print Your Own Museum

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

If you were ever one of those kids who wanted a dinosaur (me!) or an airplane growing up, you may just get your wish after all. Last week, the Smithsonian Institution launched the Smithsonian X 3D Explorer, a new tool that will one day allow the public to print scale models of any one of the museum’s 137 million artifacts that are otherwise hidden away in the archives. Some artifacts that are currently available for printing include a fossilized woolly mammoth, a supernova, and Abraham Lincoln’s face.

The Smithsonian began 3D scanning its collection in February and so far has only documented 20 items in its collection. Some artifacts are harder to scan than others are because of their size and intricacy. The woolly mammoth, for example, had to be scanned from 60 different perspectives so every bone and angle was captured. Günter Waibel, director of the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, said that even if they were able to digitize one object per minute, it would take 270 years of working 24/7 to scan the entire archive. Their current goal is to document 13 million items, but partnerships with other institutions could increase that number.

Overall, the project is an effort to make museums more interactive and science more accessible to research scientists, curators, educators, and the public. And with the increasing popularity and decreasing cost of 3D printers (they now cost around $1,000; cheaper than a MacBook), it’s possible to print yourself a fossilized dolphin skull. The Smithsonian not only hopes this gives people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to visit their museums a chance to experience its wonders virtually, but they also hope 3D printed artifacts will become learning aids in the classroom.

While you contemplate investing in a 3D printer, check out this interactive scan of the aforementioned woolly mammoth!

Credit: Smithsonian/Autodesk

The Push to Make Wind Farms Less Deadly

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

There is nothing more majestic than an eagle soaring through the sky, but the rise of renewable energy—especially wind energy—is encroaching on their airspace with deadly consequences. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed new permit regulations that would allow wind farms and other renewable energy industries to kill a set number of eagles over a period of 30 years. Previously, the permits only lasted five years. Critics argue the proposed changes weaken protection for eagles in favor of promoting the growth of the renewable energy industry. A final decision is expected before the end of the year.

Wind farms—clusters of turbines 30 stories tall with rotors 180 feet wide—kill more than 573,000 birds annually, including 83,000 predatory birds such as eagles, falcons, and hawks, according to a study published in March in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin. The spinning turbine blades can create wind vortexes up to 170 mph that suck birds into the blades, killing them.

A wind farm in southern California. Photo courtesy of Alex Ferguson, Flicker Creative Commons.
A wind farm in southern California. Photo courtesy of Alex Ferguson, Flicker Creative Commons.

As wind energy continues to be one of the fastest growing energy sectors, thanks to the $1 billion-a-year tax break provided by the government, concerns over bird deaths are becoming more urgent. Last year, turbines at wind farms in California, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, killed at least 27 eagles according to the Associated Press. That figure is substantially underestimated, according to scientists, because wind energy companies are not required to report eagle deaths.

The USFWS hopes to change that and believes the proposed regulations will not only encourage the growth of wind farms, but will also encourage wind farms to be more conservation-minded. Stipulations of the new permit include consultation with the USFWS during design phases, building turbines away from ridge edges to decrease eagle collisions, avoiding the use of structures attractive to eagles for perching such as transmission towers, and implementing advanced conservation practices such as shutting turbines down during the times of day or year when eagles are migrating. “If fatalities were occurring then we would require [wind farms] to implement experimental conservation practices to mitigate the deaths,” said USFWS Biologist and National Raptor Coordinator Brian Millsap. “Once we scientifically show that a measure reduces fatalities, then it would become a formal practice and we would require it as the regulation specifies.”

Some conservationists remain skeptical of the proposed regulations’ scientific rigor. “They need to set up a program that works, which means they need to immediately get started on gathering the data and research to do that,” said Katie Umekubo, a renewable energy attorney with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “There are a lot of data gaps right now that we need to fill,” she said.

However, finding the necessary research funds could prove to be an even bigger challenge.  A portion of the $36,000 per permit fee is intended for research, but that money combined with government funding won’t be enough—at least in this political and fiscal climate, according to Executive Director of the Ornithological Council Ellen Paul. “We are putting a lot of birds at risk. Those turbines will be going for 30 years and all that time people will be hoping to figure out what to do about mortality,” said Paul. “There isn’t enough research money and we don’t know if the research will help us devise meaningful management practices.”

An American bald eagle soars through the sky in one of the many national wildlife refuges in the U.S. Photo Courtesy of  George Gentry, USFWS.
An American bald eagle soars through the sky in one of the many national wildlife refuges in the U.S. Photo courtesy of George Gentry, USFWS.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature removed bald and golden eagles from the list of threatened and endangered species years ago, but the birds are still protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The five-year time-frame allotted by current permits was deemed too short by the USFWS for long-term energy projects to secure funding and other necessary assurances to move forward with construction. No wind farms currently hold permits and only one application is under review—something the USFWS hopes will change under the new guidelines.

Although the proposed permits last for three decades, they would still come with constant and intense oversight. The USFWS would treat the permit as if it were issued in five-year increments, examining data collected on deaths and determining what advanced conservation practices should be applied, Millsap explained. But if turbines continue to kill eagles and operators can’t get it under control, then the USFWS has the right to rescind the permits. Operators would have to decide to cease operation or operate without a permit and risk prosecution if an eagle is killed.

Though the guidelines call for better monitoring, the lack of transparency is troublesome, especially to the NRDC. “We’ve been told that the five year reviews will not be public,” said Umekubo. “One large concern is how we will ensure effective oversight and implementation of the best available science and adaptive management.”

Along with their partners, the NRDC has suggested using transparent adaptive management practices including placing eagle population data, permitting information and other pertinent eagle research on a publicly available website, using independent scientific advisory panels to recommend advanced conservation practices, and third party monitoring and data collection at wind farms.

What’s Melting Starfish?

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

Starfish along the shore in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington State. Photo Courtesy of NOAA.
Starfish along the shore in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington State. Photo Courtesy of NOAA.

If starfish could talk, we’d probably hear them screaming “I’m melting…melting!” Along the west coast of the U.S. and Canada, starfish are dying off in massive numbers, succumbing to sea star wasting syndrome—a mysterious illness that turns them into what scientists are calling piles of white goop.

In July, marine researchers from the University of California in Santa Cruz (UCSC) were doing fieldwork off the coast of Alaska when they noticed something strange: scores of starfish were losing their arms and developing white lesions on their bodies. The syndrome, which affects at least 10 different species, is swift. The time from infection to goop can be as short as a few days. In some regions, 95 percent of starfish populations have been wiped out.

Starfish are keystone species in many tidal ecosystems, responsible for maintaining biodiversity. A significant decrease in their populations could tip the scales, allowing other organisms such as mollusks to dominate and throw the whole system out of whack.

The culprit behind the outbreak continues to elude researchers, but suspects include viruses, bacteria, and/or environmental factors. In the past, scientists attributed starfish die-offs to warming water temperatures, which leave the multi-armed creatures vulnerable to disease-causing bacteria. But that’s not the case here. Water temperatures along the west coast are currently experiencing a cold period.

While research to identify the cause of sea star wasting syndrome continues, the good news is that starfish are resilient creatures. Although their populations are in shambles, they regenerate quickly according to UCSC experts. To learn more about current efforts to stem the disease, check out this interactive map from the UCSC Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring Program.

3 Chemistry Tricks to Spice Up Your Halloween

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

If you stayed up last night celebrating the Red Sox win and have to throw a badass Halloween party tonight, here’s three cool chemistry tricks using common items to help you out.

1. Borax/Boric Acid

Borax and boric acid contain the element boron, which burns in a green flame. Add some borax or boric acid, found commonly in insecticides or pesticides, into your jack-o’-lantern and some rubbing alcohol before igniting it very carefully for an eerie green fire in the pumpkin. Watch a video demonstration on Youtube embedded below by Anne Helmenstine who also wrote instructions for making a green burning jack-o’-lantern on

2. Laundry detergent

Laundry detergents commonly contain phosphors, or compounds that are able to absorb and re-emit light. Phosphors are placed in laundry detergents because they make your whites look whiter and brights look brighter in the sun due to the re-emission of light. But that also means that the detergent itself are able to do the same thing – many laundry detergents actually glow bright blue under UV or black light. For an easy house party decoration that will also clean your apartment afterwards, simply use laundry detergent to paint your walls or hang up sheets smeared with laundry detergent.

Laundry detergent glows under UV or black light. Photo obtained on


3. Tonic Water

Everyone knows that tonic water contains bitter-tasting quinine, but quinine also glows under black light. Light up your party drinks using tonic water ice cubes for punch or cocktails. You could also make jello with quinine as shown in Helmenstine’s Youtube video below or check out this article by Helmenstine on to make Glowing Hand of Doom Punch.


Happy Halloween!

Closing the Food Gap

Waste Not, Want Not from Cassie Martin on Vimeo.

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

On a Tuesday morning, volunteers at East End House—a food pantry in Cambridge—prepare for a special delivery. Trucks filled with boxes of fruits and vegetables arrive, which the volunteers eagerly unload. The produce was salvaged from grocery stores, wholesalers, and farmers markets by a few local non-profits, and will eventually end up in the hands of the hungry and food-insecure.

In the U.S., at least 49 million people suffer from food insecurity, 700,000 of whom live in Massachusetts, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, at least half of the food produced in the U.S. is discarded before it ever reaches a plate, according to a report released last year by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Diverting food waste that is destined for  landfills into the hands of the food-insecure already happens on a small scale in cities across the country, but if we want to see real change, it needs to take place on a national level.

Though the stereotype of “hunger” conjures images of sallow-cheeked children in Africa, the face of the problem in America is more subtle.  The hungry in America are often not starving, but food-insecure. They are working families who wake up in a house with no food, and no promise of three meals. They subsist on junk food because the 99-cent value meal is all they can afford. It’s not always easy to tell that a neighbor, coworker or classmate is undernourished.

We can address  America’s hunger problem by using food more efficiently, but first we need to re-examine and re-define our food system. In the Boston area, several non-profit groups such as Food for Free and Lovin’ Spoonfuls are doing that by linking food retailers with the hungry. These organizations collect fruits and vegetables that are edible but not pretty enough to be sold—the bananas with a few too many spots—and deliver them to food pantries.  But what sounds like a simple solution isn’t.

Food falls through the cracks at every level of the food supply chain. In developed countries like the United States, at least 10 percent of the total food supply is lost at the retail level thanks to industry standards that integrate waste into the business model and reinforce wasteful consumer behavior. For example, supermarkets overstock shelves to appeal to shoppers, damaging a lot of the product in the process.

But the major roadblock to decreasing waste for retailers is the limited flexibility of the system. Grocery stores receive produce in preset quantities and are often left with extra that will not sell before it expires. “Our food system is trying to serve a culture that expects everything all the time,” said Sasha Purpura, executive director of Food for Free. “It’s really easy to waste.”

Part of the responsibility for reducing waste rests on businesses. Although increasing donations bolsters non-profits, lobbying for a system that better caters to their needs will be more effective at stemming the waste flow.

Although food pantries offer a variety of fresh produce thanks to these non-profits, some people are still hesitant to take fruits and vegetables that they’re unfamiliar with and don’t know how to cook, such as beets or cabbage. In order to warm recipients’ attitudes toward produce, Tim Severyn of East End House provides simple recipes for the produce available in the pantry. “It’s a slow process to adjust food culture, but I think people are appreciating [healthy food] a lot more than they were a few years ago,” he said.

Food for Free and other non-profits have a sizeable impact on the waste and insecurity problem in Greater Boston. In 2012, Food for Free and Lovin’ Spoonfuls delivered nearly 2 million pounds of food and fed more than 50,000 people. But for all of the good that food rescues do locally, they hardly make a dent nationally. With no infrastructure to deal with the fundamental problems contributing to food waste and no money in the food rescue business, there aren’t many non-profits popping up. Even so, a handful of non-profits alone could not solve the problem of food waste and insecurity anyway.

Recently, the administration of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick proposed a bill that re-defines the Bay State’s food policy and recognizes the link between food waste and food insecurity—an acknowledgement that’s desperately needed to find permanent solutions. The proposal bans large institutions such as supermarkets, colleges, hotels, and hospitals from disposing of food waste and instead requires them to donate the food before converting what’s leftover into energy through anaerobic digestion. Ultimately, the state’s food waste would decrease by 30 percent in just six years, and decrease by 80 percent by 2050. This approach not only spares overflowing landfills and feeds the hungry, but as an added bonus also promotes alternative energy.

The NRDC estimates that reducing waste by just 15 percent would feed more than 25 million Americans annually, but for that to happen there needs to be more collaboration between businesses, governments, and consumers. Massachusetts’ newfound approach sets an example for the rest of the country to follow.

The Spooktacular Sounds of Halloween

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

The staples of any good Halloween are candy, cobwebs, skeletons and other scary creatures, and of course the eerie music of the theremin–the world’s strangest and spookiest musical instrument that has produced the signature sounds of this frightful holiday for decades. The instrument itself may as well be a ghost; you can see it, you can hear it, but you can’t touch a theremin.

The device is named after it’s creator, Russian scientist and KGB spy Leon Theremin. 
In 1919, Theremin was working in a lab on a gas density meter when one day he brought his hand close to the meter and heard a high-pitched squeal. As he moved his hand away from the meter, the pitch became lower. Intrigued, he began playing with the machine creating melodies. Based on this discovery, Theremin created a free-standing musical instrument which debuted in the U.S. in 1928. 

The theremin isn’t a gas density meter, but a circuit that uses the heterodyne principle–combining two or more frequencies to create a new frequency–to generate audio signals. The instrument has two metal antennas which sense the position of the performer’s (called a thereminist) hands relative to two oscillators: one that controls pitch and the other that controls frequency. Instead of plucking on strings, the thereminist waves his or her hands through invisible electromagnetic fields to create music.

Although the instrument didn’t catch on as it was difficult to play, it’s creepy out-of-this-world sound was perfect for the Hollywood horror genre and for psychedelic rock of the 1960’s and 70’s. Its music was featured in a range of films from sci-fi thrillers such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). The legendary rock band Led Zeppelin also sampled the instrument in performances of Whole Lotta Love and No Quarter. 

Sounds of theremin can still be heard today. While it’s a hallmark of the halloween music played in haunted houses, a few dedicated thereminists have made it their profession. And even though you might not follow this niche crowd, if you listen to electronic music then you’re listening to the legacy of Leon Theremin.

But whatever happened to the man behind the machine? Well, after the successful debut of his instrument in the U.S., Theremin abruptly disappeared for 30 years only to re-emerge in 1991, a few years before his death. Some people speculate he was kidnapped by the KGB while others think he fled back behind the Iron Curtain to escape his crushing debt. His life remains a mystery.

Plants To Dye For

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

Over the summer, I came across natural dyeing and a group of people who were doing it in Brooklyn, New York. It ended up being a video story for my internship at Bytesize Science, American Chemical Society, and The Chemistry of Natural Dyeing just came out this Monday. Watch the video below:

Definitely a must-try, do-it-yourself fun project. In fact, food waste items like yellow onion skins are also suitable for natural dyeing. You could also dye other things: my mum dyes her hair with beets. Here’s a link for a list of plants to use and some extra tips, like adding color fixatives and timing the soak. Have fun experimenting!

Is Food Porn Ruining Your Appetite?

Instagram photo of carrot cake waffle with orange cream cheese. Researchers found that looking at too many photos of a particular food can ruin appetites, according to a new study. Photo courtesy of Cassie Martin.

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

The hipster-chic food photos on your Instagram feed aren’t just annoying, they could also be ruining your appetite according to a Brigham Young University study published earlier this month in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Researchers recruited 232 people to look at and rate pictures of food. Half of the participants viewed 60 pictures of desserts while the other half looked at 60 pictures of salty foods. Both groups had to rate each picture based on how appetizing the food appeared. At the end of the experiment, each participant was given peanuts–a salty food–as a snack. The ones who had been looking at pictures of salty food all reported enjoying the peanuts less.

The results indicate that over-exposure to food imagery increases people’s satiation (feeling full, a loss of appetite). “In a way, you’re becoming tired of that taste without even eating the food,” said Ryan Elder, co-author of the study. “It’s sensory boredom – you’ve kind of moved on. You don’t want that taste experience anymore.”

That doesn’t mean that checking out a filtered photo or two of your friend’s latest treat will ruin your next meal. You’d have to look at a large amount of pictures of a certain food before you become turned off by it the researchers said.