The world’s oldest winged insect is in trouble. How frightened should we be?

Read the full story from the Washington Post.

Mayflies are among nature’s best environmental sentinels — and their current message to us is grim.

Charles Henry Turner: The little-known Black high school science teacher who revolutionized the study of insect behavior in the early 20th century

Turner was the first scientist to prove certain insects could remember, learn and feel. Courtesy of Charles I. Abramson, CC BY-ND

by Edward D. Melillo, Amherst College

On a crisp autumn morning in 1908, an elegantly dressed African American man strode back and forth among the pin oaks, magnolias and silver maples of O’Fallon Park in St. Louis, Missouri. After placing a dozen dishes filled with strawberry jam atop several picnic tables, biologist Charles Henry Turner retreated to a nearby bench, notebook and pencil at the ready.

Following a midmorning break for tea and toast (topped with strawberry jam, of course), Turner returned to his outdoor experiment. At noon and again at dusk, he placed jam-filled dishes on the park tables. As he discovered, honeybees (Apis mellifera) were reliable breakfast, lunch and dinner visitors to the sugary buffet. After a few days, Turner stopped offering jam at midday and sunset, and presented the treats only at dawn. Initially, the bees continued appearing at all three times. Soon, however, they changed their arrival patterns, visiting the picnic tables only in the mornings.

This simple but elegantly devised experiment led Turner to conclude that bees can perceive time and will rapidly develop new feeding habits in response to changing conditions. These results were among the first in a cascade of groundbreaking discoveries that Turner made about insect behavior.

Across his distinguished 33-year career, Turner authored 71 papers and was the first African American to have his research published in the prestigious journal Science. Although his name is barely known today, Charles Henry Turner was a pioneer in studying bees and should be considered among the great entomologists of the 19th and 20th centuries. While researching my book on human interactions with insects in world history, I became aware of Turner’s pioneering work on insect cognition, which constituted much of his groundbreaking research on animal behavior.

Humble beginnings

Turner was born in Cincinnati in 1867, a mere two years after the Civil War ended. The son of a church custodian and a nurse who was formerly enslaved, he grew up under the specter of Jim Crow – a set of formal laws and informal practices that relegated African Americans to second-class status.

The social environment of Turner’s childhood included school and housing segregation, frequent lynchings and the denial of basic democratic rights to the city’s nonwhite population. Despite immense obstacles to his educational goals and professional aspirations, Turner’s tenacious spirit carried him through.

As a young boy, he developed an abiding fascination with small creatures, capturing and cataloging thousands of ants, beetles and butterflies. An aptitude for science was just one of Turner’s many talents. At Gaines High School, he led his all-Black class, securing his place as valedictorian.

Turner went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Cincinnati, and he became the first African American to receive a doctorate in zoology from the University of Chicago. Turner’s cutting-edge doctoral dissertation, “The Homing of Ants: An Experimental Study of Ant Behavior,” was later excerpted in the September 1907 issue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology.

Despite his brilliance, Turner was unable to secure long-term employment in higher education. The University of Chicago refused to offer him a job, and Booker T. Washington was too cash-strapped to hire him at the all-Black Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama.

Black and white photo of a large brick high school building.
Sumner High School in St. Louis, Mo., circa 1908. Missouri Historical Society

Following a brief stint at the University of Cincinnati and a temporary position at Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University), Turner spent the remainder of his career teaching at Sumner High School in St. Louis. As of 1908, his salary was a meager US$1,080 a year – around $34,300 in today’s dollars. At Sumner – without access to a fully equipped laboratory, a research library or graduate students – Turner made trailblazing discoveries about insect behavior.

Probing the minds of insects

Among Turner’s most significant findings was that wasps, bees, sawflies and ants – members of the Hymenoptera order – are not simply primitive automatons, as so many of his contemporaries thought. Instead, they are organisms with the capacities to remember, learn and feel.

Black and white engraving of a variety of bees from 1894.
Bees were not well understood at the turn of the 20th century. Illustration published by Popular Encyclopedia, 1894. mikroman6/Moment via Getty Images

During the early 1900s, biologists were aware that flowers attracted bee pollinators by producing certain scents. However, these researchers knew next to nothing about the visual aspects of such attractions, when bees were too far from the flowers to smell them.

To investigate, Turner pounded rows of wooden dowels into the O’Fallon Park lawn. Atop each rod, he affixed a red disk dipped in honey. Soon, bees began traveling from far away to his makeshift “flowers.”

Turner then added a series of “control” rods topped with blue disks that bore no honey. The bees paid little heed to the new “flowers,” demonstrating that visual signals provided guidance, when the bees were too distant to smell their targets. Although a honeybee’s ability to detect red remains controversial, scientists have determined that Turner’s bees were likely responding to something called achromatic stimuli, which allowed them to discern among various shades and tints.

Lasting legacies of an underappreciated pioneer

Turner’s astounding range of findings from three decades of experiments established his reputation as an authority on the behavioral patterns of bees, cockroaches, spiders and ants.

As a scientific researcher without a university position, he occupied an odd niche. In large part, his situation was the product of systemic racism. It was also a result of his commitment to training young Black students in science.

Alongside his scientific publications, Turner wrote extensively on African American education. In his 1902 essay “Will the Education of the Negro Solve the Race Problem?” Turner contended that trade schools were not the pathway to Black empowerment. Instead, he called for widespread public education of African Americans in all subjects: “if we cast aside our prejudices and try the highest education upon both white and Black, in a few decades there will be no Negro problem.”

Turner was only 56 when he died of acute myocarditis, an infectious heart inflammation. He was survived by two children and his second wife, Lillian Porter.

Turner’s scientific contributions endure. His articles continue to be widely cited, and entomologists have subsequently verified most of his conclusions.

Despite the colossal challenges he faced throughout his career, Charles Henry Turner was among the first scientists to shed light on the secret lives of bees, the winged pollinators that ensure the welfare of human food systems and the survival of Earth’s biosphere.

Edward D. Melillo, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of History and Environmental Studies, Amherst College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Volunteers studying pollinator plants at Shenandoah County landfill

Read the full story at Northern Virginia Daily.

At the Shenandoah County Landfill on Friday, local educator Hannah Bement was overjoyed to see a monarch butterfly.

“It gives me chills,” she said, watching as the orange-and-black insect fluttered over the plot of native wildflowers to land on a milkweed plant.

Monarchs, which make an approximately 1,000-mile flight each year from Mexico to the United States, rely on milkweed to provide a place for them to lay their eggs and for their caterpillars to have a source of food before they eventually make their flight to Mexico.

Without milkweed, there is no monarch butterfly.

Bement was joined on Friday by three other volunteers from the local nonprofit organization Sustainability Matters to identify and catalog how well the pollinator gardens, maintained through the Making Trash Bloom initiative, are doing.

Bees could be key to reducing fluctuations in food supplies and steadying prices, study suggests

Read the full story at Food Navigator.

While the benefits of pollinators to crop yield are well known, their effect on crop stability was poorly understood until now. Supporting and enhancing pollinators could help stabilise the production of important crops like oilseeds and fruit, reducing the sort of uncertainty that causes food price spikes, new research has shown.

The unexpected benefit of designing farms for the birds and the bees

Read the full story at Fast Company.

Sipping a coffee on your way to work is a ritual most people take for granted without thinking about how the delicious coffee beans reached their cup. You probably know that coffee comes from tropical regions. But what is less well known is that it is the product of an incredible partnership between the birds and the bees.

recent study researched how birds helped control pests and how bees helped pollinate coffee farms. The research showed how working with wildlife can help farmers make more money. But it is just one example of the benefits nature gives us that we take for granted.

Beloved monarch butterflies are now listed as endangered

Read the full story from NPR.

The monarch butterfly fluttered a step closer to extinction Thursday, as scientists put the iconic orange-and-black insect on the endangered list because of its fast dwindling numbers.

Bumblebees and honeybees aren’t the only key bees

Read the full story at Treehugger.

Although bumblebees and honeybees get all the attention, there are other bees that are just as important to a blooming ecosystem.

Researchers recently uncovered the importance of pollinator diversity and it goes way beyond the bees that are most often in the spotlight. They found that less common bees are more critical to ecosystem health than previously believed.

Organic farming or flower strips: Which is better for bees?

Read the full story from the University of Göttingen.

How effective environmental measures in agriculture are for biodiversity and wild bee populations depends on various factors and your perspective. This is shown by agroecologists. The research team found that when assessing the effectiveness of different measures, whether in the field (organic farming) or next to the field (flower strips in conventional farming), biodiversity benefits should be evaluated differently. Like-for-like comparisons of environmental measures could easily be misleading, according to the scientists.

‘Moth highways’ could help resist climate change impact

Read the full story from the University of Reading.

Real data gathered by volunteers was combined with new computer models for the first time to reveal which UK moth species are struggling to expand into new regions and the landscape barriers restricting their movement. Farmland and suburban moths were found to be struggling most, with hills or regions with variable temperatures acting as barriers. This has implications for British wildlife being forced to move to adapt to climate change, and habitat restoration in challenging areas could help wildlife movement.

Light pollution can disorient monarch butterflies

Read the full story from the University of Cincinnati.

Biologists say nighttime light pollution can interfere with the remarkable navigational abilities of monarchs, which travel as far as Canada to Mexico and back during their multi-generational migration. Researchers found that butterflies roosting at night near artificial illumination such as a porch or streetlight can become disoriented the next day because the light interferes with their circadian rhythms. Artificial light can impede the molecular processes responsible for the butterfly’s remarkable navigational ability and trigger the butterfly to take wing when it should be resting.