The delicate balance between carbon and Earthworms


worms eye view of grass
Worms help keep our soil fertile, but they play a much bigger part in our environment | Photo by Christina Pirker on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 21th, 2019

Earthworms are essential to the health of our soil, fertilizing gardens and fields. But their relationship with the earth is complicated–and the link between earthworms and carbon is being continuously investigated by scientists.

North America used to have earthworms; its native species was wiped out thousands of years ago during an ice age. European settlers brought their own variety to their new home, and the continent has been populated ever since.

Earthworms are simple organisms, but they greatly affect the health of our soil. Some feed on topsoil, while others burrow down, coming up to eat dead leaves on the surface. All varieties help fertilize the ground–but sometimes, if the location isn’t right, earthworm activity does more harm than good.

This is especially true for earthworm activity in North American boreal forests, a network of coniferous (evergreen) trees that normally don’t house these small creatures. As the worms dig down through the soil, they release carbon that’s been packed into the forest floor. Boreal forest floors are essentially carbon sponges, and the spread of earthworms to these previously worm-less regions threatens to release all of that stored carbon, further accelerating our current climate change.

Exactly how these earthworms have spread from their more natural habitat to the evergreen forests of North America is a bit of a mystery, with multiple factors–warmer weather, invasive plants, agricultural practices–at play.

Even as these tiny organisms increase in all the wrong places on our side of the pond, in the UK, topsoil feeders are beginning to disappear, threatening the island’s agriculture. Worms, carbon, and our global food supply are all part of a delicate ecosystem that may slowly be unraveling if we don’t step up to figure out why.

American Bumblebee at Risk of Extinction


Bumblebees declining number are worrying scientist (Flickr)

Sthefany Nóbriga| May 16, 2019

 A new research study from the University of Vermont and York University found that the lack of plant diversity, climate change, and agricultural expansion could harm the American bumblebee, bringing them to extinction. 

Scientists found that Bombus pensylvanicus, commonly known as the American bumblebee, is rapidly declining in the northern part of the continent.

Moreover, this is due to accelerating threats from agricultural expansion, such as widely used insecticides, and the danger of harsh winters throughout the northern region. 

According to the study the number of areas where bumblebees can be found decreased by 70% from historical rates. In Canada, the bumblebee population has dropped approximately 89%

American bumblebees are a keystone species and are vital for the function of ecosystems where they reside, and if they go extinct, the plant reproduction and plant yield could plummet significantly, according to CNN.

Bumblebees use their jaws to rattle flowers until pollen is released, and this process is vital for food crops such as tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, peppers, and potatoes, and so much more.  

However, already one bumblebee species is on the list of endangered species for unnatural extinction. Also, considered for stated listing are four additional species native to California. 

It’s Invasive Species Awareness Month!


3118419058_48f78f773b_z.jpg
Familiarize yourself with invasive Garlic Mustard, pictured here,  so you can pull it when you see it (flickr). 

Julia Poska| May 10, 2019

Invasive species often travel across continents via human transportation vessels and the cargo they carry. These species often have no natural predators in their new homes, so their populations explode. The native species that the invaders in turn prey upon are not adapted to defend themselves against these new predators, giving the invasive species an advantage over the native predators that now must share their prey.  The result is a devastating chain reaction that can ripple through entire ecosystems.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds declared May Invasive Species Awareness Month to encourage the public and private sectors to join forces and amp up the fight against ecosystem invaders. Invasive species in Iowa harm agriculture and seriously degrade state parks, which are a source of tourism revenue.

One of Iowa’s most problematic invasive pests is the Emerald Ash Borer, a beetle from east Asia that has killed millions of ash trees across the country in the last 17 years. Another common offender is Garlic Mustard, a tasty herb which is spreading rapidly through Iowan woodlands and crowding out native plant species. A full guide to problematic invasive plant species found in Iowa’s woodlands can be found here.

Gardeners will be familiar with many invasive bugs and weeds, like the Japanese Beetle, the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug and bull thistles. These pests and others can pose real threats to Iowa farmers, and many are tracked by the Iowa State Ag Extension Office.

How can you help?

  • Do not buy or sell firewood from outside your county. Firewood can contain and spread invasive insects like the Emerald Ash Borer.
  • Scrub shoes and clean clothes before and after trips outdoors to avoid spreading seeds, especially when visiting public lands.
  • Remove invasive plants where you recognize them. Some groups and parks host volunteer days to pull invasive species.

Flooding bring disease filled mosquitoes to Western Iowa


animal-biology-blurred-background-1149668
Mosquitoes that can bring disease.  (pexels).

Ayotoluwafunmi Ogunwusi | May 9th, 2019

Western Iowa has been suffering from flooding since march and some unwanted guests have flown in. Mosquitoes are very common insects the fly around during the summer period and according to new research from Iowa State University, western Iowa has the largest presence of mosquitoes carrying the west Nile virus.

The West Nile Virus can be transmitted by the Culex tarsalis, a type of mosquito. These mosquitoes usually gather and breed in pools of water and the flooding may have helped them gather is large amounts.

Iowa state professor and entomologist Ryan Smith believes that the virus is concerning as it is the leading cause of mosquito-born diseases in the United States.

The virus could affect one in five people bitten by the mosquito, and could lead people to develop fevers or potentially fatal diseases. The number of human cases in Iowa fluctuate every year, and scientists are still trying to find out the factors that influence yearly transmission rates.

There are many ways to prevent the disease, such as, by spraying insect repellent or wearing long sleeve shirts. This is the time of the year when the mosquitoes rise in number, early summer to early fall. The importance of our health and safety is number one.

 

 

Monarch Butterflies Migrating to Iowa


Monarch Butterflies Migrate to Iowa Every Year (Flickr).

Sthefany Nóbriga| May 8, 2019

 Researchers from Iowa State University predict that this spring Iowans will see the largest population of monarch butterflies in over a decade. 

The monarch butterflies migrate every winter to Canopy Forest in central Mexico. During the winter of 2013 to 2014, the monarch population plummeted, covering less than 2.5 acres of the forest, the lowest point of the population in the past two decades. This is partly because of the loss of summer breeding habitat and pesticide use. 

However, this past winter scientist noted Mexico’s most significant overwintering monarch population since 2007. Almost 200 million adult monarch butterflies were recorded, and now they are migrating up north.

According to the researchers from Iowa State University, the reason for the increase in the monarch population is due to mild winters in Mexico, and southern parts of the United States in comparison to other years. 

Scientists are hopeful and want to maintain the monarch population and preserve their numbers. But it is reported that there is a shortage of potential breeding habitats in Iowa to maintain a steady population. 

In order to maintain this population, there must be approximately 480,000 to 830,000 acres of habitat over the next 10 to 20 years according to Iowa Public Radio. 

If the weather stays favorable, Iowans will be seeing a large monarch population starting at the end of May or even early June. 

On The Radio- Endangered Insects


135555544_20947c31fe_o.jpg
contrabandbayou/flickr

Kasey Dresser| April 1, 2019

This weeks segment is not an April fools joke; bugs could disappear within the next century.

Transcript:

At their current extinction rate, insects could completely disappear within a century. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Insects are disappearing eight times faster than mammals, reptiles, and birds. One in three species is endangered, and the world’s total mass of insects has been dropping 2.5 percent annually, according to a new scientific review. 

It’s well known that losing bees will reduce pollination for some of our favorite fruits and nuts, but devastated insect populations will leave other critters hungry as well. Insectivores and their predators will starve if insects disappear. 

Researchers from the University of Sydney and the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences analyzed 73 previous studies to assess the state of global insect populations and determine the cause of decline. 

They believe intensive agriculture is the main driver. Wildland is increasingly converted to farmland, and new pesticides like neonicotinoids seem to “sterilize” the soil, killing larvae before they can move to safety, one researcher told the Guardian News.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

On The Radio- Crops increasing, biodiversity decreasing


3623153374_cc4e8eba62_o.jpg
Corn fields (flickr/ Tom)

Kasey Dresser| March 25, 2019

This weeks segment looks at decreasing biodiversity in crops around the world. 

Transcript:

The number of crops grown around the world has increased, yet crop biodiversity has declined. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Species richness, the number of unique species present in a defined area, often represents true biodiversity poorly. It discounts species evenness, which measures the relative proportion of each species’ population in the whole community. 

Even though 156 crops are grown globally — up from the mid-20th century — overall biodiversity is low because just four types of crops cover about 50 percent of cropland. A new study from the University of Toronto found that corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans dominate industrial agriculture around the world despite differences in climate and culture.

This impacts the affordability and availability of culturally significant foods in certain areas and leaves the global food supply increasingly vulnerable to pests and diseases. 

Increasing crop variety will make our food supply more resilient to pests and potentially reduce hunger.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.