By Allison MacLachlan

I’ve just finished reading The Bees by Laline Paull. It’s a new novel that manages to present a well-researched and fascinating portrait of the honeybee through an anthropomorphized story.

I hadn’t thought much about bees before in this level of detail — I just suggested The Bees as my book club’s August pick because it sounded interesting and had been well reviewed. But taking such a deep dive into the world of bees has made me newly attuned to their beauty, organization, and amazing efficiency.

The Bees, a new novel that has garnered considerable attention, is being described as the Watership Down of bees. Image source:

The Bees, a new novel that has garnered considerable attention, is being described as the Watership Down of bees. Image source:

Somewhat serendipitously, recent weeks have seen considerable buzz about bees in the news.

The Globe and Mail reported on what appeared to be a precipitous decline in Canada’s honeybee population, possibly due to the use of neonicotinoids — a group of pesticides that farmers often apply to corn, canola, vegetables, and flowers.

This systemic pesticide travels to all parts of a plant, meaning insects pick it up when they gather nectar or pollen. Neonicotinoids can weaken a bee’s immune system, disorient them in flight, and cause reproductive problems, slowing the growth of a colony. This, in turns, means fewer insects to pollinate plants and help crops grow.

More recent analyses suggest the bee decline is less pronounced than initially signaled, and the issue may only be real in Ontario.

Despite the media attention of late, concerns about a declining supply of honeybees aren’t new. The issue was flagged even a decade ago, and scientists estimate that domesticated honeybee numbers may have been slipping for 50 years. In the past, threats like parasites and viruses were considered more significant.

We’re hearing about a bee decline this summer particularly because Ontario is the first province to propose regulating neonicotinoids. As the producer of most of Canada’s corn — attractive to bees because wind deposits pollen on corn – Ontario may soon require commercial growers to obtain licenses to use neonicotinoids.

Insects that transfer pollen and nectar from one plant to another, thereby fertilizing the plant, help 30 percent of the word’s crops grow. [] Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Insects that transfer pollen and nectar from one plant to another, thereby fertilizing the plant, help 30 percent of the word’s crops grow.  Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the United States, worrisome bee declines have recently led the federal government to set up a new Pollinator Health Task Force. Declines have also been observed in the United Kingdom and China, as well as in Europe, which put limits on the use of three common pesticides from the neonicotinoid family last year in a short-term trial.

Limiting use of neonicotinoids would certainly have economic implications: sold under a long list of different brand names, they make up 40 percent of the insecticide market, and corn is a key contributor to Ontario’s economy.

The Bees includes the threat of pesticides as a major plot point: foragers become coated in a strange, grey film from a neighbouring field. It throws off their finely tuned navigational sense and is often fatal. The issue is woven deftly into the story and, thanks in part to the anthropomorphism, the effect is to instill real sympathy for bees’ predicament.

It’s unique to find a work of fiction that also functions in many ways as a great piece of science writing. Yes, some fictional liberties are taken (for instance, like Watership Down’s rabbits, the bees talk). But I think credit is due for simply making readers more keenly aware of an issue in current science, and piquing interest in further exploring the facts.

Taking a close look at one uncommonly appreciated insect has been interesting for other reasons. In The Bees, I encountered several highlights of bee biology and behaviour I didn’t know about before. Each fascinated me. Humans have gathered a few insights already from bees. Each of these struck me as an idea that we can appreciate and gain more from:

Economize resources

Honeycomb is made of perfect repeating hexagons, mathematically proven to be the most compact structure and, therefore, the most efficient use of wax and energy to construct.

Use of hexagon is maximized in honeycomb for efficient use of work and resources.Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Use of hexagon is maximized in honeycomb for efficient use of work and resources.Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Focus energy

Forget multi-tasking. Within their colonies, each bee has one distinct purpose such as communication, construction, or defense, and channels immense energy into their one crucial niche.

Listen and give

Bees communicate using pheromones, vibrations, and dance. They must focus equally on taking in information that will help them succeed, such as the location of good pollen sources, and openly sharing what they know.

Cast a wide net

Bees forage for pollen in a large network of areas within about 3 kilometres of their hive, and are always open to exploring new terrain if it will deliver good results.

Adapt and change course

Bees observe closely to find out which plants have good pollen supplies, but they don’t cling onto stale possibilities. In case of bad weather, hazards, or poor results, bees swiftly change course — a mindset possibly worth adopting as we think about the challenges with neonicotinoids.


AllisonMacLachlanAllison MacLachlan (@a_maclachlan) earned her M.Sc. in science writing from MIT in 2011. She lives in Toronto, works at Owlkids, and enjoys writing about health, biology, and psychology.



By: Pamela Lincez

Since its discovery by Canadians Frederich Banting and Charles Best in 1921, insulin has been the primary and most sustainable therapy for the treatment of type 1 diabetes.

The autoimmune destruction of beta cells in the pancreas eliminates the patient’s ability to produce insulin to regulate blood sugar (glucose) levels. Most people must take about 1,450 insulin injections a year. Without Banting and Best’s discovery of insulin, patients would be completely helpless in treating their disease.

Over the course of almost a century, science and technology have forged incredible advances in the manufacturing and production of insulin and in personal glucose management, with the delivery of insulin through wearable insulin pumps. The design and wearability of insulin pumps has come a long way from the first ‘backpack’ insulin pump designed by Dr. Arnold Kadesh in 1963, where pumps are now fashionable and trending even in the swimsuit competitions of Miss USA pageants!

Insulin pumps offer immense relief for patients as they present an alternative to incessant insulin injections; but until the past year, insulin pumps have required human intervention. When the pump signals a change in blood glucose levels, the patient must push a button for the production of insulin. In a sense, patients are still not free from monitoring their disease. The artificial pancreas, an insulin monitoring closed-loop system in which patients would be free from involvement of their pump, has been a dream for many researchers over the past decade. Over the last year, this has materialized as a viable technology.

In November 2013, Medtronic launched the MiniMed Veo Paradigmdiabetes imagesystem, in the US. This artificial pancrea-like system was the first insulin pump device closest to an artificial pancreas that could provide both continuous glucose monitoring and direct the delivery of insulin when glucose levels wavered near a pre-set threshold. Medtronic’s system is a transformative step towards a true artificial pancreas, with the design of the automatic response at a pre-set threshold, but is still not a completely artificial system that does not rely on the human brain for intervention.

This past year, the American Diabetes Association’s journal, Diabetes Care published results from clinical trials testing the feasibility and safety of a true wearable artificial pancreas system known as the Diabetes Assistant (DiAs). The DiAs is a smart phone device that communicates wirelessly with insulin pumps and epitomizes the features of a true artificial pancreas. It is basically a portable pancreas iPhone hybrid.

Stepping up the game in ‘hands-free’ glucose monitoring, Dr. Steven Russell from Massachusetts General Hospital has published this past June in the New England Journal of Medicine, on the success of a bionic pancreas device. This device uses a removable sensor under the skin to automatically monitor glucose levels and two automatic pumps that output either insulin or glucagon as needed.

The DiAs and the new bionic pancreas are truly exceptional and revolutionary advancements in insulin management, however these technologies still do not solve the underlying autoimmune disease that will plague a patient’s life.

We are now arriving at a time where scientists and doctors are on a mission to prevent disease and circumvent the need for continuous insulin injections. Researchers across the world have toyed with many therapeutic prospects as insultin replacements: surgical strategies like islet and immune cell transplants, personalized and regenerative beta cell therapy and immunotherapy injections of inflammatory cytokines.

The difficulty in successfully treating type 1 diabetes lies in the complexity of the disease, as little is known about the events leading to the onset of disease. Specific genes and environmental factors, enterovirus infections, or combinations of thereof have been implicated as the culprits driving disease susceptibility and suggesting that ‘diabetes has gone viral’, yet a distinct target for a vaccine or cure still do not exist.

As the race to find a cure for type 1 diabetes continues, exciting technological and scientific advancements are emerging. Even filmmakers are jumping on board with the excitement. This past year, a 4-minute teaser video was released for the upcoming documentary film The Human Trial. From what I’ve seen in the teaser, there may not be a Matthew McConaughey Oscar winning performance, but I do anticipate a lot of drama. The film follows the rivalry between the top research labs, the role of the FDA, and Big Pharma. Maybe the road to a cure in a clinical trial is not so glamorous or dramatic, but as a scientist, I do appreciate the interest in documenting groundbreaking research as it happens in real-time.

From the murky canine insulin concoction Banting and Best discovered, to Dr. Kadesh’s backpack pump and the revolutionary DiAs pump currently being tested in clinical trials to an upcoming documentary film – type 1 diabetes research is entering an era that will bring us closer to a cure.

PLincezPam is a PhD candidate in Microbiology and Immunology at UBC in Vancouver. She is wrapping up her research this year on a new target for type 1 diabetes therapy. Her undergraduate studies in Biochemistry and Biotechnology, her work in various research labs from academia to industry and participation at a variety of Science conferences have exposed her to a diversity in scientific thought. Her participation in the Banff Science Communications Program and many Science Outreach programs have inspired her to communicate science from all fields and share her love for perfectly awkward science on her Perfectly Awkward Science website She is as her Twitter handle @PamLincez describes – a futurist, realist, optimist and traveler.


by Sarah Boon

‘Rewilding’ is a popular buzzword these days. Ecology books from 2013 that discuss rewilding including Canadian JB MacKinnon’s Once and Future World, American Emma Marris’ Rambunctious Garden, and the UK’s George Monbiot with Feral. Rewilding has even gone mainstream, with the city of Vancouver developing a plan for rewilding parks spaces, and Parks Canada talking about rewilding Banff National Park by reintroducing bison.

Muybridge Buffalo galloping [Credit: Wikipedia,]

But what exactly is rewilding, and what does it have to do with you?

Rewilding is a form of restoration that aims to restore wilderness from its current managed state into a wilder version of itself. Unlike most restoration efforts, which focus on the restoration of an ecosystem that dates to a historic baseline, most often as the pre-Columbian time period (just prior to 1492) in North America, rewilding often considers a prehistoric timeframe.

Rewilding was first introduced to the public in 2005, when a group of ecologists published a scientific paper in Nature outlining their ideas for prehistoric rewilding at the continent scale. This controversial – and out of this world – strategy is called Pleistocene rewilding, and involves restoring megafauna that lived 10,000-13,000 years ago. While we can’t bring back the now-extinct mammoths, sabre-toothed cats, giant tortoises, and short-faced bears of that era, we can substitute other species such as the Asian elephant, various species of large cat (bobcat, lynx, cougar, jaguar), the Bolson tortoise, and the grizzly bear.

Tusker debarking a tree in Kabini [Credit: Wikipedia,]

Why would we want to do this? Pleistocene rewilding advocates suggest that wilderness has been in a continual state of decline since that fateful moment 13,000 years ago when humans began to hunt megafauna. These animals were instrumental for food, and in physically shaping landscapes, and maintaining complex food webs and ecological interactions across continents. The mammoth, for example, is credited with controlling the spread of forests through a combination of eating trees (herbivory) and transporting seeds in their dung (seed dispersal). A modern-day example of the effects of elephant species on the landscape can be seen in Africa, where forest species are declining because of the concurrent decline in elephant populations and the loss of a key method of seed dispersal.

Rewilders argue that the 1492 baselines used in traditional restoration represents an environment that humans already substantially impacted and note that current environments are not synchronous with historic ones due to climate change and changes in ecological community structure. Rewilding – which focuses on key species rather than communities of species – is seen as a way to restore resilience and function to our planetary ecosystems so that they are better able to respond to challenges like climate change.

Supporters of rewilding also suggest that our relationship with the natural world will benefit both from the careful thought and consideration required to put rewilding plans into place, and from the more immediate relationship with nature we would develop. For example, if bison were reintroduced into Banff National Park, visitors would have to be alert for bison as well as other megafauna such as bears, making them more aware of – and more active participants in – the environment.

So what megafauna Vancouver is introducing into its parks to promote rewilding – the grizzly, perhaps? No, the rewilding plan that the city has in mind is on a much smaller scale, and designed more with the human element in mind. The plan is to create less tame (more wild?) natural spaces that the public can explore either on their own or with a guide to reconnect with nature away from manicured lawns, cell phone chatter, concrete and asphalt. These include developing a youth program called ‘Reflect Effect,’ designed to use art media to explore environmental themes and projects, or changing park mowing practices to support pollinators.

This is the kind of rewilding that you can practice in your own backyard or closest vacant lot: planting native species and non-invasive species adapted to your microclimate, providing habitat for birds, insects and butterflies, and being part of a city-wide network of rewilded urban spaces that help strengthen ecosystem resilience and response to human impacts such as air pollution, climate change, and development. All while giving people some nature to connect with – no mammoths required.

For more on rewilding, read this interview with George Monbiot, or watch this BBC documentary.

Sarah BoonSarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about the environment, science communication & policy, women in science and academic culture.

by Elizabeth Howell

How differently would you think of the world if you could access the Internet from birth? That’s the wonderful situation facing the so-called Generation Z, which is considered to be almost all people born after the year 1995.

For many of these folks, there was fast Internet access in the house as long as they could remember. Social media surpassed blogs while they were in elementary school. Instant-replay GIFs (animated images) are what they watch on Tumblr, instead of instant-replay videos on a television network.

In the style of a loosely strung together blog post of disparate thoughts, here are some of my reflections on Generation Z and journalism.

Moving pictures

The 45th anniversary of the first moon landing took place on July 20, 2014, and funny enough, the occasion illustrated this generational shift to me when Time magazine published a short piece titled “45 Years Later: 5 GIFs of NASA’s First Moon Landing.”

: Earthrise over the moon, taken by a member of the Apollo 8 crew in 1968. Credit: NASA

Some people on Twitter ridiculed the piece. I opened it up and thought to myself, no, this is actually pretty brilliant. Watching the Earth rise as a stop-motion film seems to me a great way to speak to a younger person just learning about the moon program (says the person who is part of that dreaded cohort, the “don’t trust anyone over 30” crowd, but still.

Those long pieces I was taught to write in journalism school may not cut it any more. In recent months I’ve tried to shift away from long narration and into more multimedia features, using pictures and videos and where I can, GIFs. I’ll admit that GIFs are hard on my eyes – they distract me when I’m trying to read something – but sites such as Buzzfeed use it to brilliant effect. They’re popular. I can and will adapt since resistance is futile. I am a Borg like everyone else. Or something like that, as it was it didn’t quite make sense.


In the space world, last summer I saw a member of Generation Z with a spectacular example of self-education. Abigail Harrison ran her own blog and social media updates on the mission of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who spent six months in space in 2013.

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano promoted his flight on the International Space Station in 2013 with the help of a member of Generation Z: Abigail Harrison, a Minnesota teenager. Credit: NASA

How did she get the gig? She ran into Parmitano in the airport, on the way home from a NASA event that both of them attended. Pure luck. But her passion and desire to succeed attracted Parmitano’s attention, and Astronaut Abby (as she called herself) got the gig by learning about his mission and promising to teach about it to even younger students.

The Internet brings us so many ways to learn, whether it be watching Khan Academy videos or making things through Instructables. Three years ago (an eternity ago in Internet-land), entrepreneur Penelope Trunk said the college degree would become “bourgeois”” as Generation Z pursues more self-education.

It might be good for me as a journalist to point to more of these learning opportunities in my articles. While I try to point people back to, say, a space mission website when I write about it, if there was a series of videos about that mission that would be a stronger way to show the concept.

Entrepreneurial thinking

My university was great at doing journalism teaching, but the way I learned about freelancing was through guest speakers, a CSWA conference session in 2006 and a lot of trial-and-error. I know universities are smarter about that kind of thing now, especially since the bottom fell out of the journalism market shortly after and many of those full-time jobs are no longer there.

For students, educational opportunities not only include hands-on learning, but sometimes creating their own businesses as well. Credit: NASA

But Generation Z is even better than that. If this Maclean’s article is right, they just assume that entrepreneurship is the way to go, sometimes as very young teenagers. Maybe it was looking at all those Etsy shops growing up. Moreover, they don’t see age as a barrier to success, in the sense that someone still in high school would be quite happy trying to write a blog to compete with established journalists.

That’s a little frightening for people like me, but also really exciting. I always read the stuff of other journalists to see what kinds of approaches they have. I try to put myself in the mind of a very young teenager, the age I first became interested in science, and write as an entrepreneur. Snappy headlines, eye-catching first sentences. Assuming they could click away at any minute.

And it looks like now I should be reading and watching more of what Generation Z is producing, not Generation X or Y, considering “Z” is already out there.

I think they would teach me more than I could teach them about these skills. What will the market look like when these people begin writing for journalism? I’m excited to see. Frightened at how quickly I could be left behind, but excited to see how they blend this thinking into their work.

While the principles of journalism should remain the same from generation to generation, the presentation perhaps should to reflect how people absorb the information. I’m excited to see what Generation Z will teach me about my work. And maybe a little worried about Generation…..what comes after Z?

Elizabeth Howell (@howellspace) is an award-winning science journalist who focuses on space exploration. Some of her favourite stories include covering three shuttle launches, and interviewing multiple astronauts concerning their space station missions. She has also done writing work in areas such as the environment, technology and business. Elizabeth’s work appears regularly in, Universe Today, LiveScience, Space Exploration Network and the NASA Lunar Science Institute, among other places.

Titian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Titian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

by Egiroh Omene

The story of Sisyphus in Greek mythology describes how the gods punished a malevolent and deceitful king by making him endlessly push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again.  One can’t help but see a parallel between Sisyphus’s futile endless struggle and the fruitless efforts of unsuccessful gym-goers and yo-yo dieters who, rather than gaining inches in their journey toward fitness, often end up gaining inches on their waistlines.

So will it be Jill Michaels — personal trainer to the stars —  to the rescue?  Nope, just a basic understanding of metabolism.

A more in depth understanding of the interplay between our fat storage process and our energy use process will quickly expose why going to the gym to burn fat is very inefficient.

The first thing to consider is a set of processes that people are only vaguely aware of: basal and daily metabolic rates.

Basal metabolic rate, or BMR, is defined as the amount of energy needed to sustain basic life processes at rest. For example, it is the energy you use to sustain yourself at 4 am, when you are asleep and in a fasted state (i.e., you haven’t eaten in a while and your body isn’t dedicating any energy to breaking down food).

While you are sleeping, 60 percent of your total energy needs are for powering your brain, liver and skeletal muscles, your heart and kidneys require 20 percent, and the remaining 20 percent is dedicated to miscellaneous processes.

Clearly, your body is busy at work even when you are not. So what does this work entail? Definitely not moving around. Imagine yourself at 4 am. You might toss and turn a little bit, but for the most part you are stationary.

The energy used by your organs while you are at rest manifests in a number of processes, all of which are not what we typically imagine when we think of energy use. In fact, roughly 90 percent of this energy use is for biochemical reactions! This includes anabolic reactions (e.g, building proteins from amino acids) catabolic reactions (e.g., breaking down glycogen to glucose). In addition, it entails maintaining ionic gradients within the cell, mostly in the form of the Na+/K+ pumps and Ca+ channels that sit in the cell membrane. Together, these processes keep the cells of your organs alive and functioning as they should, so that these organs can perform their vital roles and sustain life.

Most of your daily energy use is not for moving around with muscles. It’s for moving ions across cell membranes (~90%) By BruceBlaus (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Most of your daily energy use is not for moving around with muscles. It’s for moving ions across cell membranes (~90%)
By BruceBlaus (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to overlook energy use at rest if you are predisposed to thinking of energy use in terms of moving around, be it walking, running, lifting weights or shoveling your driveway. After all, the notion that 90 percent of our energy use is dedicated to biochemical reactions while we are sleeping is one thing, but what about when we wake up and get going? The energy we use for physical activity surely must amount to more than the energy we use for biochemical reactions!

False. This is where we need to flip our intuitive notion of energy use upside down and face the facts. The average total daily energy expenditure for a physically active person (the type that might go to the gym three to four times a week, hit the elliptical and read Cosmopolitan magazine) is ~2500 calories. Of that 2500 calories, only 30 percent is used for physical activity, and this includes the energy used during that hour on the elliptical. Another 10 percent or so is used to digest food. That leaves a whopping 60 percent of energy use dedicated to our basic life processes, the same at rest processes described above. It doesn’t take a doctorate in advanced mathematics to see that the greater part our daily energy use, even if we religiously go to the gym, is for biochemical reactions.

Just fueling the basic processes that keep us alive, even at rest, requires more energy than you could reasonably use while working out! This brings us to the second thing we need to consider, a concept we all know well: excess calories from food will inevitably form fat stores.

Fat storage represents a mismatch between energy availability and energy use. It’s a valuable tool evolutionarily — just ask your friendly neighbourhood grizzly bear who eats as much as possible during times of plenty in order to store fat for sustenance during hibernation. While hibernation is an extreme form of energy scarcity, fat stores equip all animals for times when there is nothing to hunt or nothing to graze on. In fact, fat storage is a mechanism that largely evolved to anticipate periods of starvation. It’s primary function is to fuel the body, including all those microscopic biochemical processes, when there’s nothing to eat. The majesty of this mechanism is that it applies to humans just as much as it applies to foraging deer when the grass isn’t all too green or the wolf pack on the hunt when prey is elusive or scarce.

It’s a simple relationship: eat food to build fat stores, don’t eat food to deplete stores. Again, this turns conventional wisdom on its head: don’t we need to eat every day to fuel our body? No. For 99 percent of our evolutionary history we ate irregularly, with times of feast and times of famine, and we adapted accordingly. It does not compromise our health to go without eating a day or two —  it’s a pattern of behavior that is in line with our evolutionary design, unlike eating three meals a day on fixed intervals. We metabolize fat stores during times of fasting, our liver stores enough fat soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) to last three weeks; water soluble vitamins (B and C) need to be replaced after two weeks. And — to dispel the biggest myth — we don’t use our own proteins as an energy source until true starvation, which occurs approximately after 40 days of fasting. Finally, in periods of fasting the body looks inward to dispose of and recycle defective cells in a process called autophagy or ‘self-eating’, freeing up precious biomolecules and ridding the body of broken down cells — addition by subtraction.

Again, after a day or two of fasting,* our bodies are using fat stores primarily to fuel processes that having nothing to do with moving around. (*Most studies of fasting have been done on animals.)

There are many strategies to diet, exercise and weight loss. If we bring the conversation back to how exactly our body uses energy, and if we view our dietary and eating patterns ‘under the light of evolution’ there is a strong argument to be made that fat loss happens easiest when we are fasting doing nothing!

Final note: Of course it goes without saying that even though working out is an inefficient weight loss strategy, exercise is by no means useless. Physical activity is an essential component of health and well being; after all, we are built to move. Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of physical activity in curtailing many of the diseases of affluence that plague us today, including diabetes and coronary artery disease.


1) Boron, Walter F., and Emile L. Boulpaep. Medical Physiology, 2e Updated Edition: with STUDENT CONSULT Online Access. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2012. – Chapter 10, Metabolism

2) Food Intake and Starvation Induce Metabolic Changes:  (Describes energy use. Dispels protein metabolism myth. Differentiates starvation from fasting.)

3) Poehlman, ERIC T. “A review: exercise and its influence on resting energy metabolism in man.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 21.5 (1989): 515-525.

—A breakdown of daily energy expenditure.

—The Biochemistry of metabolism:

4) Seyfried, Thomas. Cancer as a metabolic disease: on the origin, management, and prevention of cancer. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

—Chapter 4:

“Metabolic Homeostasis”  (Describes how 90% of energy use is for maintaining ionic gradients.)

 —Chapter 18:

“Therapeutic Fasting and Cancer Prevention”  (Differentiates starvation from fasting. ”

Autophagy and Autolytic Cannibalism” – A Thermodynamic Approach to Cancer Prevention. (Describes the role of the fasted state and the initiation of autophagy)

5) Recommended Reading: Eat Stop Eat, Brad Pilon: Effectively integrate resistance training and intermittent fasting for overall health and well-being.


EgirohOmeneEgiroh Omene is a senior medical student and avid NBA and hip hop fan. A philosopher at heart, which connects me to science from all disciplines.



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