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Debris From Japan’s Tsunami Confirmed To Have Made Its Way To California

by Raul Buman

The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan may be over, but the after effects are still being seen to this day. As the natural disaster destroyed property in Japan, it dragged millions of tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, more than 1.5 million tons of which floated away from shore and is still being found over two years later.

Debris Floating To United States

In recent months, debris from the earthquake and tsunami has begun to find its way to the United States west coast and Hawaii. While some of the debris has come in fragments identifiable only by Japanese writing visible on its surface, in some cases, larger pieces are being found. In a few cases, entire boats have been found washing up on the shores of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, and Canada’s British Columbia. Most recently, a skiff covered in gooseneck barnacles was found in northern California, the first piece of debris from the tsunami to travel that far south.

Aerial view of debris following earthquake in Japan.

Environmental Impact

While gooseneck barnacles are common in the Pacific Ocean and may be found on almost any structure that drifts in the open ocean, other species of plants and animals found on debris from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami are not so benign. Scientists worry about the introduction of invasive species to North America. These species of plants and animals exist in a delicate balance in the Japanese ecosystem, but may lack natural predators or control by environmental factors in North America, where they are not native. If introduced, these species can reproduce uncontrollably, consuming resources, crowding out native plants and animals, and even acting as predators and destroying threatened native species.

Invasive Species

It is unknown whether the skiff that washed ashore in northern California contained any invasive species, but pieces of debris that do contain these threatening plants and animals have already been found along the American west coast. One Japanese ship that washed ashore in Washington contained live striped beakfish. These fish live in coral reefs in warm pacific waters around Japan and occasionally near Hawaii, but

Striped beakfish Image Credit – Wikipedia.org

should not be found in the colder waters of the Pacific Northwest, and may eat native species of fish. This black and white striped fish demonstrates the risks carried on floating debris; the fish survived a journey over two years long in a sealed compartment. Their trip is truly remarkable; yet it is disturbing to think about what other invasive species might also be able to survive such a journey.

Of the 28 pieces of debris that have washed ashore in North America and have been confirmed to be products of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, it is unknown how many have contained invasive species. It is known, however, that a single boat contained between 30 and 50 species of plants and animals that are native to Japan but may become invasive if introduced to North America. Sections of concrete docks containing potentially invasive invertebrates have been found as well. Scientists at institutions like California’s Humbolt State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working together to track debris, confirm its origins in Japan, determine whether the debris contains invasive species, and institute control measures as needed.

Natural disasters bring people together in the most unexpected of ways. Finding the remnants of destroyed Japanese property on the coasts of North America more than two years following the tsunami is a perfect example, and scientists are working to ensure that no unexpected hitch hikers came along for the ride.

Honey Is Discovered To Boost Bees’ Immune Systems

by Raul Buman

Bees may use honey as a source of energy to help them survive over long, cold winters, but that’s not all honey can do. Recent research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that honey has broader benefits for bees, including helping to protect them from infections and pesticides.

The honeybee population in North America has been in rapid decline in recent years, leading scientists to question the future of this beneficial species. The culprit appears to be colony collapse disorder, a widespread cause of death of entire hives of bees. It is not currently known what causes colony collapse disorder, but scientists believe that one or a combination of a variety of factors, including widespread pesticide use, parasites, and climate change, may be to blame. Bees die off suddenly and in large numbers, decimating the population of honeybees within a given area.


To help bees survive, especially during the winter months when pollen and other bee foods are not very available, bee keepers often provide bees with “bee candy.” It is well known that honey is the best and oldest bee candy, but because of cost, many bee keepers use other sweeteners instead. Corn syrup, sucrose, and powdered sugar may be provided to give bees enough energy to survive until pollen is available again. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, however, hypothesized that there may be more to bee feeding than just energy. They investigated the idea that honey may contain natural chemicals that help protect bees against the parasites and pesticides that are implicated in colony collapse disorder.

To investigate the beneficial effects of honey, bee researchers provided two groups of bees with slightly different versions of bee candy. One group of bees received commercial bee candy made of sucrose and powdered sugar. The other group received bee candy made with the same ingredients, but with some of the potentially beneficial components of honey added. They then studied the midgut, or small intestine, of the bees to see which genes were activated. The bees that received honey had higher levels of activation of genes in their midguts that are known to help break down harmful pesticides and protect the bees against parasites. In effect, the natural honey chemicals gave the bees an immune boost right at the level of their intestines, where they tend to be exposed to harmful parasites and pesticides.

While cost will still most likely prevent most beekeepers from feeding their bees honey alone, this study suggests that components of honey could help protect bees and prevent colony collapse disorder. In particular, one compound, p-coumaric acid, seems to be especially beneficial and to provide a key immune boost. The results of this study may lead beekeepers to include some honey in their bee candy. It may also encourage manufacturers of beekeeping supplies to produce bee candy that contains some of the protective components of honey in a corn syrup or powdered sugar base. For example, bee candy fortified with p-coumaric acid may be beneficial to bee colonies. More research is needed to determine exactly which compounds are helpful and why, but it may be that the best hope for the disappearing honeybee comes from the honey they produce in their very own hives.