Wednesday, February 15, 2017

It's All Up in the Air

Published as a podcast on Friday 17th February on iTunes, Stitcher and

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a bee? Is it a robot bee? Or could it be a flying car? 

Honey bees on brood comb
Yes, it’s Friday 17th February and here's this week’s edition of the Sustainable Futures Report with me, Anthony Day,  with bees and robot bees, with flying cars and robots to help you park. Was Einstein right? There’s more about diesel and  emissions tests and the implications of self driving cars for manufacturers. On the energy front Flamanville is in flames and Toshiba is in the news. The BBC is to measure the carbon footprint of every programme. Who said they were denialists? 

Transport News
In the US this week eighteen car companies have written to President Trump urging him to abolish the fuel efficiency target set by the Obama administration. The plan was that all new cars would have to achieve 54.5mpg by 2025. Quite a target, since the US gallon is some 17% smaller than the Imperial gallon used in the UK. This would save American motorists $1.7 trillion dollars over the lifetime of their cars but would cost the motor industry $200 billion over 13 years. 

In the UK a new pressure group, Doctors against Diesel, is calling on Prime Minister Theresa May to take action to get diesel vehicles off the road as soon as possible. Particulates and nitrogen oxides from diesel vehicles cause up to 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year, but they also cause lung disease and health problems in children.  Just as well, then, that the EU has issued proposals for tighter controls for the testing of road vehicles. They make it quite clear that this initiative was partly driven by the Volkswagen scandal, when it was shown that cars from VW and certain other manufacturers had been programmed to give favourable results when running in a test environment. 
The briefing paper is on the EU website: 
The proposals are to tighten up the testing regime, make the testers completely independent of manufacturers and centralise control within the European Commission. According to the Commission, the expected reduction in non-compliant and unsafe automotive products on the EU market would deliver €13 billion of benefits a year, and the regulatory level playing field would benefit EU businesses.
There’s a long way to go before this becomes EU law and by then the UK may no longer be an EU member. Of course, any vehicles manufactured in the UK for sale in Europe will still need EU Type Approval.

There are some interesting statistics in the briefing paper. For example it starts by saying that the automotive industry is a major player in the European economy, accounting for 6.4% of gross domestic product and 2.3 million jobs in the European Union (EU). A chart shows that while Germany has the biggest car industry by value, the UK has by far the biggest automotive supply chain in Europe. In the UK there are 730 companies involved with vehicle or component manufacture: far more than France or Germany which each have fewer than 200. Presumably the UK exports components to Europe. Hopefully it will continue to do so after Brexit.

Just thinking aloud about self-driving cars. You can now get an app to use your ordinary car to help you find vacant parking space. This is improves the utilisation of parking spaces substantially and reduces the mileage involved in searching for them. When all car parks have been enabled for this technology the application will be integrated with your on-board satnav as standard. Now consider building this into a self drive car. The car will drop you at your destination and then go away and park itself. Consumers may decide that it's not worth owning a car when you can call one up whenever you want. In that case the only car that you need is the one that's nearest the door in the parking garage. These garages will no longer need access to each individual parking bay and there will be no need for pedestrian entrances, stairways or lifts. It has been estimated that the space required for parking in a given number of cars could be cut by up to 60%. And if the self-drive car becomes the taxi of the future, will we need them to be changed every three years? I’ve had my car for nearly 12 years and it’s as safe and reliable and performs as well as new. It’s also a hybrid, so it’s still far more economical than most newer cars on the road. If we treat our cars like taxis and not as must-have fashion statements to be upgraded nearly as often as a phone then we are going to need far fewer of them. Serious implications for a major industry. But much cleaner air.

Let’s Fly
Mind you, future may be the flying car, and it’s a lot closer than you think!

Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) announced on Monday that flying cars would be launched in the state in July this year. The flying car was exhibited at the World Government Summit in Dubai this week and the chief of the RTA said a summer start date for flights is envisioned.
The Ehang 184 (made in China) is fitted with a touchscreen to the front of the passenger seat displaying a map of all destinations in the form of dots. It has preset routes and the passenger selects the intended destination. The vehicle will then start automatic operation, take off and cruise to the set destination before descending and landing in a specific spot. A ground-based centre will monitor and control the entire operation.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands PAL-V have announced a vehicle which will not only fly but run on the road as well. According to reports it will achieve 31mpg on the road and have a range of 817 miles. That means it will need to carry 120 litres of fuel, which sounds like an awful lot for a two-seater three-wheeler. In the air the vehicle has a range of 310 miles.  At around $500,000 I don’t fancy going up in one any time soon. With all that fuel I don’t think I’d be very happy to be underneath one, either. 

Carbon footprints at the BBC

The BBC has announced that from April this year all of its TV programming within factual, comedy, drama, entertainment and daytime will have to track their carbon footprint using the Albert carbon calculator. This, says the BBC, marks its commitment to reducing its environmental impact and is part of its wider sustainability plan.

I hinted earlier that the BBC are denialists, which is not really fair. There is a problem, though, in that they always seek balance and give equal weight to both sides of the climate debate as though the credentials of both were equal. For example they may balance a former Government Scientific Advisor with someone like arch-denialist Lord Lawson. Lord Lawson has very strong views against the idea of man-made climate change and is presented as an expert. In fact he has no scientific qualifications and all he has to offer are unfounded opinions. The time has long gone for campaigners against smoking to be put up against smokers. That science is accepted. The same should be true of global warming.

Of course you could say, “Anthony Day has no scientific qualifications. Why should we take any notice of what he puts in the Sustainable Futures Report?” My answer is that when I quote facts I aim to quote them from people who are qualified to know the scientific truth. Wherever possible I include links to my sources and you can find them on the text version of the Sustainable Futures Report at

Energy News
A quick update on energy. As I said at the start, Flamanville has been in flames and Toshiba is in the news.

You will remember that Flamanville is the site of the new nuclear-power station being built to the same design as the proposed station at Hinckley C. As a result of technical difficulties it is seriously delayed and vastly over budget. There is already a nuclear power station operating on the site which is in Normandy, in Northern France, not far from the Channel Islands. Residents of Guernsey were concerned last week to see smoke rising from the site. An explosion injuring five workers had occurred and caused a fire. This had nothing to do with any part of the nuclear process, but the reactor was shut down in any case as a precaution. This comes at a time when there is controversy in France over the future of nuclear power. France has a higher proportion of nuclear electricity than almost any other country and has had to take all its stations down one after the other for extended maintenance following faults discovered as part of the construction process at Flamanville. There are proposals to cut back France’s nuclear power to 50% of national generation by 2025, from over 60%. Apart from the technical difficulties and the enormous cost of replacing the ageing nuclear fleet, it was pointed out that France has no uranium. 36% of the world’s uranium comes from Kazakhstan, with another 27% from Australia and Canada.

The news about Toshiba is that it plans to build no more nuclear power stations outside Japan. This follows news that its nuclear business, seen as its core activity, led to a $6.3bn write-down this week, and the resignation of Toshiba’s president. The company may be bankrupt: the story continues to unfold. This comes as unwelcome news to NuGen, the company responsible for building a new nuclear power station with Toshiba at Moorside in Cumbria. They say they are confident that the project will go ahead, but Toshiba has said that while it will continue to be involved in the development of the Cumbrian plant, it will not be willing to take on any construction risk. Delays seem inevitable and raise further doubts over the British government’s long term plans for keeping the lights on.

What about the Swansea Bay lagoon? We’ll talk about that next time.

The Bees
Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, “If the bee disappeared from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!”

He almost certainly never said it: the earliest reference to the remark dates from the 1990s, some 40 years after the great man died. Also, it’s not true. Although bees and other insects are vital to the pollination of many food crops, the staples like wheat and other cereals are pollinated by the wind. 

I’m a beekeeper and I am very concerned that bees should be preserved. I'm currently nursing three colonies through the winter and looking forward to them pollinating all manner of plants and producing honey next summer. My reaction this week to the report in Cell Press of a robot bee was partly incredulity and partly anger.

Robot Bee
Yes, as the pictures in the paper showed, Japanese researchers have developed a drone-based unit which can carry pollen from flower to flower. The risk is that everyone will think that the panic is over, we don't need bees and we don't need to worry about them. The robots will do it all. That’s why I’m angry, because that’s just not true.

It seems that the unique element of this Japanese research was the creation of a gel which will pick up pollen and also allow it to be deposited on other plants. The picture in the paper showed the drone hovering over one of those enormous lilies that you get at weddings and other special occasions. A large flower with pollen-laden stamens which stick right out.

Now let's compare this with what happens in nature. In the height of summer each of my beehives will contain around 60,000 bees. Of these, some 20,000 will be regularly leaving the hives on foraging trips to collect pollen and nectar, and incidentally pollinating the flowers they visit. The rest of the bees have other duties within the hive. From this you can see that attempting to pollinate flowers by using drones is totally impractical. Quite apart from the number of drones that would be needed, will they ever build a drone small enough to pollinate apples and pears and cherries and oranges, and beans and peas, courgettes, raspberries, strawberries, aubergines, gooseberries, blackcurrants and all the rest? Drones will never manage to penetrate the tiny flowers of heather, and they will certainly never make any honey!

Threats to Bees
We probably won’t starve if the bees die out, but we will have a very plain diet. We need to take action to preserve them. What’s the problem? Colony collapse disorder is frequently mentioned; a situation where bees just abandon their hives and disappear. It happens widely among bee farmers in the US but seems to be less common here in the UK, at least among hobby beekeepers. It could be something to do with the way that bee farmers treat their bees in the US. They make much more money from hiring out their bees to farmers who need their crops pollinated than they do from producing honey. First is the almond harvest, so the hives are loaded onto trucks and driven across the country. The bees successfully pollinate the trees but almond trees produce very little nectar. The farmers feed them on corn syrup instead, which is not their natural diet. Once the almond blossom is over it's back on the truck for another journey to the blueberry fields or the apricot groves or whatever else needs pollinating. Typically they will be transported to at least four different locations in a season. As long as they can fly, they are worth money to the farmer. For the sake of hygiene, beekeepers in the UK will change the wax combs in each hive every two or three years. As I understand it, bee farmers whose main business is pollination just use the same frames until they fall apart.

Quite apart from how they treat their bees, beekeepers on both sides of the Atlantic are faced with pests and diseases. Varroa is a parasite which lives on bees, preferably on developing larvae, which means that when they develop these larvae may be infected or deformed. Twice a year, when there is no honey on the hive, we medicate the bees to keep the varroa down. Some of the bee diseases, but not many, can be treated. Veterinary medicines for bees are expensive and very carefully controlled, not least to make sure that the honey is never contaminated. In the worst cases all the bees in an infected hive must be killed to prevent them spreading disease to other colonies and then the hive is burnt. 

The latest threat comes from the Asian hornet. This is a non-native species which has been moving steadily northwards through Europe and a nest was found in the UK in 2016. The Asian hornet predates on honey bees. It hovers outside the hive and attacks and carries off bees. When it finds a hive it will recruit reinforcements from its nest and between them the Asian hornets will strip the hive clean. They also have a very nasty sting so they are a threat to the beekeeper as well as to the bees. Various traps and a range of baits are recommended to keep the Asian hornet under control. We will learn from experience in the coming season whether any of them works.

Probably the most controversial issue regarding bees is the question of neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonics are systemic, which means that they are applied to the seed as a dressing and their active ingredients are transferred into the sap of the plant and probably the nectar as well. Studies have shown that neonicotinoids can affect the nervous system of the bee and in particular its navigation, which means it may fly out and never find its way back. Studies have not yet shown whether bees can get a sufficient dose of neonicotinoids from foraging in treated plants to affect them in this way. Some say that we should adopt the precautionary principle and ban neonicotinoids until such research is complete. The farmers say that without such pesticides their crops, principally oil seed rape, are at risk. The problem is that if neonics are banned the farmers may go back to spraying, which could have a far worse effect on bees - and other pollinating insects. It is open to question how this issue will be resolved particularly post Brexit. Politicians need to take the best advice. Not just the loudest. Avaaz, the international campaign organisation, is currently urging people to lobby the Canadian government to ban neonics. Friends of the Earth has also been very active in this area.

Warm Bees in Winter
I mentioned earlier that I am currently nursing three colonies of bees through the winter. This amounts largely to leaving them to their own devices. I have wrapped the hives in wire netting to keep out the woodpeckers and I've put a grill along the front to keep out the mice. Normally, bees would live on the honey that they've gathered during the summer. I've pinched that, so in the autumn I gave them lots of sugar syrup which they took down and stored in the hive. When the weather gets cold the bees all cluster together around the Queen. They do this to keep her as warm as possible and they consume honey and shiver their wing muscles to develop heat. Unfortunately, if it gets very cold the bees remain tightly in their cluster and if they have consumed all the honey close by they can fail to access the honey in other parts of the hive and in the colony will starve. My job is to watch out for this, and if necessary to put sugar fondant in the hive directly above the cluster so that the bees can find it.

In a recent paper published in the International Journal of Biometeorology, author Derek Mitchell suggests that clustering is not a natural behaviour of bees and occurs only as an emergency response to cold temperatures. 
In his research he measured the temperature and humidity inside various types of hive - wooden hives, polystyrene hives and even a dung-coated straw skep. He also made a mock-up of a nest inside a tree-trunk, the sort of place where bees in the wild would naturally live. The results showed that the tree-trunk was by far the best insulated of them all, and that there was nowhere on earth cold enough - even in Siberia - to drive bees living inside a tree into a cluster. They were always able to maintain the ideal temperature and humidity, because the thickness of the wood retained the heat. Indications were that these conditions reduced the breeding success of the varroa mite by 98% and there was a smaller incidence of nosema, a common bee disease. The next best hive was the skep made of twisted straw and coated with dung. Behind that came the polystyrene hives and a very long way behind them came the traditional wooden hive which I and everyone I know uses. Given that the walls in a wooden hive can be less than 20mm thick, it’s a struggle for bees in winter to maintain their normal temperatures in excess of 30℃. Even in summer UK temperatures rarely reach 30℃, so the bees are having to expend energy, which could otherwise go into honey production, to keep the hive warm.

Derek Mitchell has built hives from 50mm Recticel, an insulating board used by the construction industry. He finds that this can give the same results as a nest within a tree. I’ve looked into building my own hives from this material, but the key thing with bees is that dimensions are crucial and I haven’t got the equipment for accurate cutting. Still, I may look into making covers for my wooden hives for next winter.

There has been controversy among beekeepers for years over whether it’s better to keep bees warm in winter. Mitchell’s research strongly indicates that it is. If we can remove one more stress factor from our bees by keeping them warm, maybe we can reduce the occurrence of colony collapse. And safeguard our apples and pears and all our other lovely summer fruit.

Here we are again at the end of another edition of Sustainable Futures Report. This is Anthony Day thanking you for listening and promising to be back next week with more news, opinions and ideas. Thanks for the feedback. It's been suggested that I should look at social issues relating to sustainability, and renewable energy, among other things. Keep the ideas coming and I’ll do my best to keep up. Oh, and do tell your friends to listen or look at the blog on There’s no charge. I make nothing out of this except the knowledge that I’m able to inform like-minded people.

That’s it then, for this episode of the Sustainable Futures Report. I’m Anthony Day and thanks for listening.

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