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Chesapeake Bay News

May
12
2017

Photo of the Week: Humble bumblebees create big buzz

A carpenter bee hovers long enough for a closeup in the backyard of a District of Columbia resident on April 13, 2017. Carpenter bees can often be mistaken for their similar-looking relatives, bumblebees. Carpenter bees typically nest in pairs, boring holes in soft, unpainted wood—including decks, siding and outdoor furniture. On the other hand, bumblebees are social insects that typically nest underground in small colonies, venturing out in search of flowers from which to harvest pollen (for protein) and nectar (for energy).

Two of the bumblebee’s best-known characteristics are its fuzz and its buzz. Researchers recently discovered that the bees use their tiny, fuzzy hairs to detect electric fields, helping them navigate toward flowers. Once they find a suitable bloom, bumblebees practice “buzz pollination”: they huddle up against the bottom of a flower and vibrate their flight muscles, producing a buzzing sound and knocking pollen out of the flower and onto their hundreds of feathery hairs.

There are more than 250 known species of bumblebee across the world, although only about 20 of those are known to inhabit the Chesapeake Bay region. In the past, one such species was the rusty patched bumblebee, although its future in the region is now uncertain. Once a common sight across the watershed, the bee has been sighted just a handful of times in the region in the last 20 years. In 2014, a single rusty patched bumblebee was caught by a researcher near Front Royal, Virginia—the first time the insect had been seen in the eastern United States in five years.

The bee’s sharp decline led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place the rusty patched bumblebee on the Endangered Species List earlier this year, making it the first bee in the continental U.S. to be placed on the list. Pesticides, herbicides, loss of habitat, disease and climate change have all played a role in its disappearance, according to the agency.

Rusty patched bumblebees aren’t the only bees in trouble: a recent report from the Center for Biological Diversity found that populations of more than 700 bee species in North America are in decline. By planting native wildflowers, starting a pollinator garden and reducing the use of pesticides, you can help protect bumblebees and other pollinators.

Image by Will Parson

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the image as one of a bumblebee; the insect pictured is a carpenter bee. Learn about how to spot the differences between these similar-looking insects.

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.



May
08
2017

Report card shows steady recovery of Chesapeake Bay health

Bridges cross the mouth of the Susquehanna River near Havre de Grace, Md., on June 27, 2016.

The Chesapeake Bay continues to show signs of improved health, according to the most recent Chesapeake Bay Report Card from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). While the estuary’s “C” grade remains unchanged since 2012, the score of 54 percent in 2016 is an improvement from a 53 percent in 2015 and 50 percent in 2014.

“The 2016 Report Card again shows a steady improvement in a variety of ecosystem health indicators throughout the Bay,” said Nick DiPasquale, Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, in a release. “These improvements are accomplished by cooperation and collaboration at all levels of government and with the active participation and support of informed citizens."

UMCES researchers use several indicators of Bay health to calculate the Chesapeake Bay Health Index, including water clarity and dissolved oxygen, the amount of algae and nutrients in the water, the abundance of underwater grasses and the strength of populations like blue crabs and striped bass.

Many of these indicators improved or held steady from the previous year. The Fisheries Index, for example, improved from a 73 percent in 2015 to a 90 percent in 2016, with blue crabs in particular showing a marked increase. Phosphorus pollution also decreased across much of the estuary and its tributaries, and dissolved oxygen levels remained high.

Despite this progress, experts caution that more work is needed to see a fully restored Bay. Nitrogen pollution worsened from 2015 to 2016, as did populations of benthic organisms—the worms, clams and other invertebrates that live at the bottom of the Bay.

“We are happy to see that our beloved Chesapeake Bay continues its recovery. These scientifically rigorous report card results are telling us that we are indeed heading in the right direction,” said Dr. Bill Dennison, Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “We still have a long way to go to fully restoring the Bay, so we need to have our diverse partnerships of people and organizations continue to work together to reduce the runoff of sediments and nutrients into the Bay.”

Learn more.



May
04
2017

Photo of the Week: Glimpse geologic history at Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks rises above the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River in Pendleton County, West Virginia, after sunset on April 28. The only “true peak”—that is, inaccessible except by rock climbing techniques—on the East Coast, the site is popular with rock climbers. Today, a walkable trail of steps and switchbacks leads to an observation deck, allowing those who prefer not to rock climb an overlook of the river valley.

One of the best-known landmarks in West Virginia, Seneca Rocks sits on the western edge of the Wills Mountain Anticline—a geologic ridge formed more than 200 million years ago that extends from southern Pennsylvania, through Maryland and West Virginia, and into Virginia. The peak itself consists of layers of sedimentary rock that were upheaved and turned on their side, creating the characteristic sheer rock faces. Millions of years weathered away layers of softer rock, revealing vertical layers of the erosion-resistant Tuscarora sandstone characteristic of many formations in eastern West Virginia.

From a human’s perspective, geologic changes take place at an unfathomably slow pace, unlikely to be noticed over the span of one’s lifetime. At Seneca Rocks, however, one such change took place very quickly, in a highly noticeable way.

For years, a thin rock spire known as the Gendarme—French for “pinnacle” and a term used by rock climbers to refer to freestanding rock formations—stood precariously between the north and south peaks. But on October 29, 1987, at 3:27 p.m., the 25-foot-tall, 20-ton slab finally fell to the ground. No hikers were harmed, but witnesses in the area described seeing “a huge cloud of dust and flying debris” and hearing a sound similar to “the Navy fighter jets from Norfolk” that would frequently take practice runs over the area.

Learn more about Seneca Rocks.

Image by Will Parson

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.



Apr
28
2017

Photo of the Week: As waters warm, herring’s long journey begins

Alewives swim against the current in a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay in Cecil County, Maryland, where thousands of river herring gathered to spawn on April 20, 2017.

River herring—alewives and their close relatives, blueback herring—are anadromous: as adults, they live off the Atlantic coast, but they return to freshwater to spawn. For the most part, river herring return to the same streams in which they were born. Scientists aren’t quite sure how the fish manage this migratory feat, but tend to attribute their homing instincts to a sensitivity to polarized light, magnetic signals and the unique characteristics of the waters where they were born.

As water temperatures warm and days lengthen each spring, river herring are spurred to begin their spawning runs. Years ago, some rivers seemed to turn silver or appeared to flow backwards as millions of river herring migrated upstream. The river herring fishery was once one of the most valuable in the Bay—alewives can be eaten fresh, smoked, salted or pickled, as well as used for pet food, as bait for lobster and snow crab or in fishmeal and fish oil. But habitat loss, harvest pressure and migration-restricting barriers like dams and culverts led to a sharp drop in river herring abundance, resulting in harvest moratoriums in Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River, as well as other states along the East Coast.

These days, river herring populations continue to struggle, and adults must navigate a maze of obstacles to reach their spawning grounds. Sometimes their long journey ends at a dam or other barrier that blocks their access to upstream habitat. By clearing blocked waterways, or by installing fish ladders and lifts that help fish get over or around larger barriers, managers can help river herring recover. “Last month they were out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere,” said Jim Thompson, a fisheries biologist with the state of Maryland, as he observed last week’s spawning run. “That’s why it’s really important to build these [fish] ladders or take these dams out to get them over that last little speed bump so they can spawn.”

Learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Program’s work to open the region’s streams to the migration of fish.

Image by Will Parson

Stephanie Smith's avatar
About Stephanie Smith - Stephanie is the Web Content Manager at the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of the Midwest, she received her Bachelor’s in Professional Writing from Purdue University and Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan. Stephanie’s lifelong love of nature motivates her to explore solutions to environmental problems and teach others what they can do to help.



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