Humour Miscellany

A Little Humour

It’s one of those snowy days here in Ottawa. There’s lots to shovel but no gardening to be had for some months at least. So I thought I’d share a few giggles with you.

From the anonymous wits of Facebook.
Another argument against deforestation.
Could this be a sequel?
Moral of the story: don’t take your friends for granted.
OK, I confess, I’ve had a few car trips that looked like this!

Thanks to my brother Jon Last for sharing these gems.

Health Food & Agriculture

2023 January Health Update

Pollen from a variety of common plants: sunflower (Helianthus annuus, small spiky sphericals, colorized pink), morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea, big sphericals with hexagonal cavities, colorized mint green), hollyhock (Sildalcea malviflora, big spiky sphericals, colorized yellow), lily (Lilium auratum, bean shaped, colorized dark green), primrose (Oenothera fruticosa, tripod shaped, colorized red) and castor bean (Ricinus communis, small smooth sphericals, colorized light green). The image is magnified some x500, so the bean shaped grain in the bottom left corner is about 50 μm long. Image in the public domain courtesy of Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College.

Lowest pollen counts occur between 4:00 a.m. and noon

If you are allergic to pollen, you’ve probably wondered if certain times of day are better than others for going outside during pollen season. A new study presented at the 2022 American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Scientific Meeting in Louisville, KY suggests that early morning hours are better than later in the afternoon for dodging pollen. “People who have pollen allergies can generally benefit from knowing at what times of day pollen counts are highest,” says allergist Stanley Fineman, MD, ACAAI member and lead author of the study. “If you are someone who enjoys outdoor activities, you need to be aware of when pollen counts are lowest, and what times are best for you to be outside. Weather apps and websites are a good way to monitor pollen levels in your area.”

CU Boulder Professor Jill Litt checks on a plant at a community garden in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder.

Study shows gardening may help reduce cancer risk, boost mental health

Get more exercise. Eat right. Make new friends. As we compile our lists of resolutions aimed at improving physical and mental health in 2023, new CU Boulder research suggests one addition could have a powerful impact: Gardening. The first-ever, randomized, controlled trial of community gardening found that those who started gardening ate more fiber and got more physical activity—two known ways to reduce risk of cancer and chronic diseases. They also saw their levels of stress and anxiety significantly decrease. The findings were published in The Lancet Planetary Health. “These findings provide concrete evidence that community gardening could play an important role in preventing cancer, chronic diseases and mental health disorders,” said senior author Jill Litt, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder.

Honey bee pollinating a melon blossom. Photo: Dan Wyns. From Michigan State University Extension service.

How Does a Shortage of Pollinators Impact Food Supply & Human Health?

A recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives sought to answer this question. Animal pollination supports the production of healthy fruits and vegetables that provide key nutrients and protect against noncommunicable disease. The shortage of insect and animal (e.g., bats, birds) pollinators means that some crops don’t pollinated and thus don’t produce food. The researchers aimed to model the impacts on current global human health from insufficient pollination via diet. Segmenting data by climate grow zone, they estimated current yield gaps for animal-pollinated foods and estimated the proportion of the gap attributable to insufficient pollinators based on existing research. They then simulated closing the “pollinator yield gaps” by eliminating the portion of total yield gaps attributable to insufficient pollination. Next, they used an agriculture–economic model to estimate the impacts of closing the pollinator yield gap on food production, interregional trade, and consumption. Finally, they used a comparative risk assessment to estimate the related changes in dietary risks and mortality by country and globally. They also estimated the lost economic value of crop production for three diverse case-study countries: Honduras, Nepal, and Nigeria. Globally, they calculated that 3%–5% of fruit, vegetable, and nut production is lost due to inadequate pollination, leading to over 400,000 excess deaths annually from lost healthy food consumption and associated diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. The impacts were unevenly distributed. Lower-income countries lost more food, whereas impacts on food consumption and mortality attributable to insufficient pollination were greater in middle- and high-income countries with higher rates of noncommunicable disease. In the three case-study countries, they calculated the economic value of crop production to be 12%–31% lower than if pollinators were abundant. (See also: Loss of pollinators causing more than 400,000 early deaths a year: study)

Image in public domain. Photo by Dave Clubb on Unsplash.

Green environments in residential areas may impact the composition of sugar molecules in breastmilk

Living in a greener environment has an impact on the composition of mother’s breastmilk, which in turn may affect the infant’s health. The paper is published in the journal Scientific Reports. The research, conducted at the Departments of Biology and Public Health at University of Turku, examined the association between the residential green environment and the individual oligosaccharide profile in the mother’s breastmilk. Oligosaccharides are sugar molecules that are the most common component in breastmilk after lactose and fat. So far, approximately 200 oligosaccharides have been discovered and they form a very versatile group of different kinds of complex structures. The oligosaccharides in breastmilk can protect the infant from harmful microbes and reduce the risk of developing allergies and diseases. The oligosaccharides are also closely connected to the immune system and gut microbiota which also have an impact the infant’s health. “This could indicate that increased everyday contacts with nature could be beneficial for breastfeeding mothers and their children […]. The results imply that breastfeeding could have a mediating role between residential green environments and health in infancy,” says Lahdenperä. She continues, “The results highlight the importance of understanding the biological pathways that can impact health and lead to the development of different diseases starting from infancy.”

Climate Change Gardening

2023 Climate Change Round-up

Photo credit: Markus Spiske on Pexels.

It’s hard to stay on top of all the news about climate change and hard to stay optimistic when so much of it seems to be doom and gloom. I take hope from the ongoing work of so many scientists and activists, and from the success of previous international treaties. For example, earlier this month, the UN reported that the Ozone layer may be restored in decades. The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987, had countries agree to phase out production and use of ozone-depleting substances. If we could agree globally to save the ozone layer, I think we have a shot at a global agreement to save the entire planet from climate change. Here are a few more reports and news snippets of interest to gardeners.

From the NASA website on global climate change. Photo credits: left – Mellimage/, center – Montree Hanlue/, right – NASA.

The New Yorker reviews Three Climate Reports: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The good: the Biden Administration released an 83-page “blueprint” for decarbonizing the nation’s transportation systems, which are that country’s largest source of carbon emissions. The bad: the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm, estimated that US greenhouse-gas emissions grew by 1.3% in 2022, largely due to an increase in emissions from the transportation sector. This increase, according to the report, “was driven mainly by the demand for jet fuel,” as air travel rebounded from COVID. On the positive side, renewables now produce more electricity than coal in the U.S., and total emissions are still slightly lower than pre-pandemic levels in 2019. However, the US is falling ever further behind on its commitments. Last summer’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which authorizes some $400B in spending on clean energy, was a “turning point,” and could produce emissions cuts “as early as this year if the government can fast-track implementation.” Still, the group admonished, the U.S. “needs to significantly increase its efforts.” The ugly is the third report, from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, which notes that 2022 was the fifth-warmest year on record globally, and last summer in Europe “was the warmest on record by a clear margin.” In fact, , all of the past eight years have been among the eight hottest. 

A rainbow above the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg

Bloomberg offers a rosier perspective behind their paywall in an article by Leslie Kaufman and Laura Millan Lombrana called Six Climate Breakthroughs That Made 2022 a Step Toward Net Zero. They begin by acknowledging the almost incomprehensible damage wrought by climate change, and distressing policy decisions, such as rebounds in coal consumption. But they also note the following signs of hope:

  • The Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, which is the country’s most aggressive piece of climate legislation ever. Its provisions ensure that for decades to come billions of dollars will roll toward the energy transition, making it easier to deploy renewable energy, build out green technologies and subsidize consumer adoption of sustainable technologies.
  • The European Union started to make good on its pledge to cut emissions by introducing additional costs imposed on imported goods from countries without the EU’s restrictions on planet-warming pollution.
  • Agreement at COP15 helps to protect biodiversity.
  • The big breakthrough at the 2022 climate negotiations (COP27 in Egypt) sees developed countries agreeing to fund loss, damage and energy transition for developing nations.
  • Voters in Brazil ousted Bolsonaro and reinstated Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who won the presidency in part by promising to stop deforestation of the Amazon. Pro-climate parties also won big in Australia’s elections.
  • Following the recognition at COP26 in Glasgow of the dangers of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, 150 countries have pledged to act to reduce methane emissions.
Prosopis laevigata mesquite near the Chichimeco dam, in Jesús María, Aguascalientes, Mexico. Photo by Luis Alvaz, from Wikipedia.

Climate Change May Favor Nitrogen-Fixing Plants

In Death Valley National Park, which straddles the California-Nevada border, mesquite plants (genus Prosopis) thrive in extreme aridity. While most vegetation types must extract most of their nutrients from fertile soil, mesquites and similar plants receive additional nitrogen from symbiotic bacteria, which enzymatically fix atmospheric nitrogen into an easily absorbed form in exchange for sugars produced during photosynthesis. To determine how arid conditions affect the biodiversity of these types of nitrogen-fixing plants, University of Florida PhD student Josh Doby compared public data on soil, species counts, and aridity from 47 terrestrial sites in the US. Doby and his colleagues initially hypothesized that nitrogen-deficient soils would prompt an increase in nitrogen-fixing plant diversity. The results, however, showed “that aridity is actually the primary driver” of phylogenetic diversity, Doby says. As conditions became drier, the ratio of nitrogen-fixing to non-fixing plant species increased even as overall plant diversity declined. Because these plants have access to atmospheric nitrogen from their symbiotic bacteria, their leaves contain more nitrogen than other plants, and this buffers them against aridity by helping them retain water, says Mark Adams, an ecologist at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia who was not involved in this research. When plants open their stomata to take in carbon dioxide, water escapes, but nitrogen stimulates the production of enzymes that improve the efficiency of carbon uptake, shortening how long plants need to hold their stomata open, Adams explains. “And that’s the secret [of] nitrogen-fixing plants.” Doby’s research is published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography.

A dust storm. Photograph: Jason Davies/Severe Weather Australia

‘It was like an apocalyptic movie’: 20 climate photographs that changed the world: The Guardian UK offers recent  images that change how we see our world and how we understand climate change. From the iconic 1968 “Earthrise” photo that is credited with kick-starting the environmental movement to pictures of golfers “playing through” a forest fire in Oregon; a man pushing kids on a satellite dish through floods in Pakistan; and deforestation in the Amazon, these photos bring home the reality of climate change. Note, images of giraffes that died of thirst in Kenya and a starving polar bear are particularly upsetting.

Leaf them be. Photo by R. Last.

After those sobering images from The Guardian, it’s time for some more positive news. A recent Danish studies found that By leaving garden waste alone, Danes could store 600,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. This is wonderful news for those of us who already practice ecological gardening because there are so many other advantages to leaving garden waste where it lies. For example, fall leaf litter protects a multitude of over-wintering invertebrates. And of course, leaving the yard waste in place is much less work for us gardeners. Talk about a win-win-win!

Rhodo in Rebecca’s back yard. Photo by R. Last.

Climate crisis prompts RHS to plan for sending rhododendrons north

In an example of assisted plant migration, the Guardian reports that the climate crisis has prompted the Royal Horticultural Society to plan a move of its important collection of rhododendrons from its flagship Wisley garden in Surrey to Harlow Carr in North Yorkshire.

Visual abstract. Effect of climate change–impact menu labels on fast food ordering choices. Credit: JAMA Network Open (2022). DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.48320

In the category of things we can do, pushing for climate labelling just might be a good avenue to explore. A recent Study shows climate impact labels on food sold in fast food restaurants can change buying habits. A team of researchers affiliated with multiple institutions in the U.S. has found that placing labels on foods sold at fast food restaurants informing consumers of the negative impact of the production of such foods on the planet can alter consumer buying habits. In their paper published on JAMA Network Open, the group describes conducting an online survey using a fictional restaurant to learn more about consumer food buying choices.

From The Guardian, a wind farm in Texas. Photograph: Delcia Lopez/AP

Finally, in a lengthy piece in The Guardian, Rebecca Solnit writes that “Every crisis is in part a storytelling crisis.” Her article about how to tell the story of climate change (‘If you win the popular imagination, you change the game’: why we need new stories on climate) offers hope for new story-telling and useful tips on how to talk about climate change with your friends.

Biodiversity Citizen Science Climate Change Conservation Invasive Species

Happy Lunar New Year!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.

Today marks the Lunar New Year and the start of the year of the rabbit. While most gardeners are not fond of rabbits, Dr. Emma Sherratt, Evolutionary Biologist at The University of Adelaide, writes movingly of the plight of the once common bunny and its less common relatives.

In Australia, bunnies are a much-reviled invasive species that causes enormous ecological harm. Elsewhere, these long-eared animals fill diverse ecological niches. The long-eared animals we tend to call bunnies and the lesser-known pikas (small mountain-dwelling animals from Asia and North America) form a group of animals known as Lagomorpha. Science currently recognizes about 108 lagomorph species. These evolutionary cousins to rodents are found on all continents except Antarctica and are surprisingly close to primates on the Tree of Life. In 2013, researchers found that more than two-thirds of rabbit species were already threatened by climate change. Since then, the number of species that are endangered or critically endangered has risen from 13 to 16 on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. The rabbits need our help.

Water Rabbits

Water rabbits are not just an astrological fancy. The swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) and marsh rabbit (S. palustris) of North America are adapted to living in wetlands and are known to swim. Luckily these species are marked as least concern on the conservation IUCN Red List. Less luckily, the riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis), a majestic, reddish-coloured rabbit from South Africa that inhabits the banks of rivers and streams is critically endangered. This species faces both the effects of climate change and habitat destruction, and threats from other bunnies. Lepus hares, which are larger and are generalist feeders, out-compete and displace the riverine rabbits when resources become scarce.

Not all rabbits make endless babies

On two subtropical islands in southwestern Japan live Amami rabbits (Pentalagus furnessi), sometimes referred to as a “living fossil” because they have primitive characters like small ears and legs better for scurrying than hopping. The almost black Amami rabbits inhabit dense tropical forests, and are sadly endangered. Unusual among lagomorphs, Amami rabbits usually have only one – rarely two – offspring. That evolutionary adaptation worked well on for an island habitat where there were not predators. However, in 1979, Indian mongooses were introduced to combat snakes. The mongooses also ate a lot of bunnies. Authorities are now working on a mongoose eradication program to save the endemic rabbits and birds from extinction.

Mountain refuges

In times of climate change, mountains can become islands for alpine species. In the Annamite Range mountains of Vietnam and Laos lives another endemic rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi), striped in black and reddish-brown. This endangered species is among the least understood rabbits, but we do know it’s under threat from intensive poaching. In the mountains of Mexico lives the volcano rabbit (Romerolgaus diazi). One of the world’s smallest rabbit species, it is in trouble due to the effects of cattle grazing and land conversion for agriculture.

The tiny and adorable volcano rabbit is endemic to a handful of volcanoes in Mexico. Saúl Saldaña/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

Even the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), the only species to have been domesticated, is endangered in its native range, despite having been exported around the world by hungry humans who used them for food. In the Iberian Peninsula, where they are native, the European rabbit’s numbers have plummeted. Conservation measures are required because these bunnies are a key food source for  the Iberian lynx, which is making its comeback from being the most endangered cat in the world.

Protecting biodiversity

Many of the endangered lagomorph species have unique traits that are still to be uncovered by scientists. Limited geographical distributions and habitat preferences make them vulnerable to a changing environment and difficult to study. That is why citizen science is valuable for these species, because local eyes keenly spotting animals is one of the best methods for data collection. So make your Lunar New Year’s resolution to be a bunny advocate.

For example, you can go to the iNaturalist network to familiarise yourself with the diversity of species. And next time you’re on holiday and you see a rabbit, be sure to snap a picture and upload your sighting. In Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Federation offers information and tips on managing bunnies in your garden, and on indigenous species, such as snowshoe hares.

Biodiversity Climate Change Conservation

2023 January Biodiversity: COP15 and other news

Photo archives Agence France-Presse

COP15: Key outcomes agreed at the UN biodiversity conference in Montreal

Almost 200 countries have agreed to a new set of goals and targets to “halt and reverse” biodiversity loss by the end of the decade. The landmark deal was reached after two weeks of often tense talks in Montreal at the UN biodiversity summit, known as COP15. Observers hope that a strengthened mission, measurable targets and an “enhanced implementation mechanism” mean that the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), as it is formally known, will succeed where its predecessor – the Aichi targets, agreed at COP10 in 2010 – did not. Occurring two years later than planned due to the global pandemic, COP15 was characterised by the city’s frigid winter temperatures and sometimes-frosty negotiations. Tensions were high throughout the summit, with developed countries wanting to ratchet up the framework’s ambition, while developing countries sought assurance that developed countries would devote sufficient resources to allow them to do so. The final deal, reached in the early hours of Monday 19 December, included the oft-repeated headline target of “30×30” – an ambition to conserve 30% of the world’s land and 30% of the ocean by 2030. A second “30×30” goal also made it into the final package, with developed countries agreeing to mobilise $30bn for developing countries by 2030.

POST-COP 15 SUMMIT OPINIONS: The final outcome received wide news coverage alongside some editorials and columns. But, as opinion writer David Wallace-Wells wrote in his newsletter for the New York Times, it “received only a fraction of the press coverage lavished on the COP27 climate conference” in November. Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, wrote in a column for the Guardian that he left COP15 “feeling rather more optimistic than I did only a fortnight ago”. A Times editorial called the deal a “rare piece of good news in gloomy times”. Allison Hanes wrote in the Montreal Gazette that “the hoped-for ‘Montreal moment’ materialised”. Writing in the Scotsman, environmental campaigner and consultant Dr Richard Dixon said that the new framework is a “really big step forward for nature and human rights”, but that countries have been “slow to deliver on promised actions” and funding in past agreements. “The world has seven years to show it can do better for nature,” he concluded. (From Cropped email 2023/01/11).

The climate and biodiversity crises are intertwined. Credit: Chase Dekker/Shutterstock

Biodiversity treaty: UN deal fails to address the root causes of nature’s destruction, say professors

How historic is this deal, really? Judging from the effect of protected areas and major environment meetings over the last few decades, we should not get our hopes up. If there is anything that defines the history of mainstream conservation it is the steady rise of protected areas, covering about 2% of the globe in the 1960s to around 17% now. This progress was incredibly difficult, and still created many ineffective “paper parks” where species are protected from hunting and other threats in name only. Worse, it bred human rights abuses and violence as people were excluded from land that was declared off-limits. If it took 60 years to get to 17%, how realistic is a near-doubling of Earth’s protected areas over the next eight years? And how will it, despite the pact’s rhetoric of placing indigenous peoples at the centre of conservation, ensure that the violence of the past is not repeated? Perhaps, without these efforts, things could have been even worse for nature. But an equally valid argument would be that area-based conservation has blinded many to the causes of Earth’s diminishing biodiversity: an expanding economic system that squeezes ecosystems.

Roadmap to 2030: Delivering on Canada’s Land and Ocean Protection Targets

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) has for the first time released a report that sets out a pathway to get the country to within striking distance of its commitment to safeguard 30% of land and ocean in Canada by the end of the decade. This Roadmap identifies dozens of opportunities for protection across Canada, both on land and in the ocean, that include ongoing or already committed-to land use and/or conservation planning processes, including many Indigenous-led conservation initiatives.

Silverback mountain gorilla feasting on bamboo in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

Underlining the importance of plants to biodiversity, Tim Knight of Fauna & Flora International writes about Five amazing plants and the endangered animals that depend on them. Pandas aren’t the only ones that eat bamboo, gorillas depend on it also. Gibbons dine on the evocatively named strangler fig, which starts life high in the treetops, when a bird that has fed on fig fruit elsewhere deposits poo containing undigested seeds. Mangroves, which serve to protect coastal areas from storm surges and erosion, are also important habitat and food sources for a variety of endangered species, including the pendulous-nosed proboscis monkey, one of Darwin’s famous Galápagos finches, and the Utila spiny-tailed iguana, named after the single Honduran island where it is found.

Rebecca’s front garden. Photo by Jon Last.

Small spaces can make a big difference to wildlife, new study suggests

Gardeners should take heart that they too can make a difference. Scientists from Lancaster University in the U.K., as well as Michigan and Washington State Universities in the U.S., conducted a study looking at the effectiveness of smaller wildflower planting and pollinator habitat creation. The results from the field study plots show that the beneficial effects of small patches are only found where there are multiple pollinator-friendly plots relatively closer together. The benefits were significantly reduced when there are fewer small plots spread out within large landscapes, such as big areas of farmland larger than 15 hectares. This research is supported by similar studies of little patches of pollinator-friendly plots within city environments, which have also shown to add up across a cityscape to be a huge natural resource for wild bees. The results were published by the journal Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment.

Garden writer Lorraine Johnson, pictured above, used the outcome of COP15 to highlight how municipal bylaws can be weaponized against habitat and biodiversity in this editorial in the Toronto Star. While negotiators were meeting at the UN biodiversity conference, a resident of an Ontario city was negotiating with municipal officials to protect biodiversity in her front yard. Endangered monarch butterflies nourished by the milkweed in this naturalized garden were on their journey to Mexico. Bees were nesting in the stalks of goldenrods and asters that bylaw officials labelled “unkempt weeds.” These two negotiations — one global, one local — couldn’t be more different, but their implications for the future of biodiversity share a crucial similarity: human tenure on this planet rests on our ability to reconcile with nature, and the policies we construct, whether global agreements or local bylaws, will either facilitate our success in protecting biodiversity or create barriers that limit our chances. She notes that nature is inherently messy. Municipal grass and weeds bylaws are rife with vague language and they’re subjectively interpreted by enforcement officers in response to neighbours upset by landscapes that looks “different” or “unmanaged.”

Advice to residents seeking to garden on the “hell strips” that border their gardens is to speak to neighbours and landlords first. Here in Ottawa, the city is currently reviewing bylaws regarding the planting of rights of way, such as these hell-strips. The objective is to permit residents who would like to plant something other than turf and create habitat for native plants and insects.


More on Breaking Glass

Back on January 14, my post on Eye Candy, Oddities and Miscellany included a piece on the 2022 Wheelwright Prize lecture by Aleksandra Jaeschke. I subsequently received a very gracious email from Aleksandra including two photos of her work.

At the Poznan Palm House (Poland). Photo by Aleksandra Jaeschke.

Aleksandra also provided a link to her presentation on YouTube.

The second image she sent is eerie and highlights her project’s theme of seeking strategies for a more equitable “greenhouse ruralism”.

A greenhouse in the Netherlands. Photo by Aleksandra Jaeschke.

Thank you, Aleksandra for sharing your work!