Documentary: The Sagebrush Sea

Last month I posted a few photos of some of the weeds and wildflowers of the Boise Foothills. In that post I touched briefly on the ecology of the foothills, and a few readers expressed interest in more posts about this topic. It is definitely a topic I would like to explore further, but it is not one that I know a ton about. In fact, despite spending the majority of my life residing in this high desert, sagebrush-dominated ecosystem, it has only been in the past few years that I have really gained an appreciation for it. Perhaps that’s understandable. This landscape, which initially appears drab, lifeless, and boring, is not easy to love at first…until you do a little exploring, at which point you find it teeming with life, loaded with diversity, and worthy of admiration.

That is one of the themes of a new PBS Nature documentary, The Sagebrush Sea, which debuted on PBS in May 2015. The film is an intimate view of what’s really going on in this vast, seemingly empty landscape that many of us simply ignore, passing through on our way to somewhere else. It is an introduction to a fascinating ecosystem, shaped and formed by extreme events and inhabited by plants and animals that have unique adaptations that allow them to survive the harsh conditions of the high desert. Some of these plants and animals can be found nowhere else on earth. For anyone looking to learn more about the ecology of the Boise foothills and/or the larger ecosystem of which they are a part, this is an excellent place to start.

The-Sagebrush-Sea

The sagebrush steppe is a plant community dominated by sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata and its various subspecies) and bunchgrasses. At one point it covered as many as 500,000 square miles of western North America – hence “the sagebrush sea” – but human activities have reduced it to half that size. The plants and animals in this ecosystem have been coevolving together for at least 2 million years. Sagebrush is, as the narrator of the film says, “the anchor of the high desert,” living up to 140 years old and helping to ensure that the desert doesn’t become a dust bowl. Sagebrush also provides food and shelter for a great number of species.

The Sagebrush Sea was produced by the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so while lots of other plant and animal life get adequate screen time, the birds of the sagebrush steppe dominate the film. One species in particular, the greater sage-grouse, is the star character, driving the film’s narrative and speaking for the protection of this threatened and underappreciated ecosystem.

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Sage-grouse are endemic to the sagebrush steppes of the intermountain west. They are sensitive to disturbances and are “tied to unbroken expanses of sage.” Their breeding grounds (leks) are large patches of open ground, but when they aren’t breeding (which is the majority of the year) they are taking refuge in the sagebrush and grasses. The females make nests below sagebrush, where they blend right in, camouflaged from predators. Sage-grouse consume various plants and insects throughout the year, but their diet consists mainly of the evergreen leaves of sagebrush. Just 200 years ago there were up to 16 million sage-grouse in the sagebrush sea, today that number has been reduced to around 200,000. Due to such a steep decline, they may soon be added to the endangered species list.

Because sage-grouse are so reliant on healthy, intact, widespread sections of sagebrush-steppe, they are considered an umbrella species. Taking measures to protect them will simultaneously spare and even improve the lives of numerous other species with similar requirements. To begin with, there are a handful of other bird species that nest nowhere else except in sagebrush, specificallly the sagebrush sparrow, the sage thrasher, and the brewer’s sparrow. Other animals feed on sagebrush and rely on it to make it through the winter, such as pronghorn and mule deer. Sagebrush is also considered a nurse plant, providing shade and moisture for grass and forb seedlings growing below it.

The sagebrush steppe is threatened by the usual cast of characters: habitat fragmentation, urban and agricultural development, invasive species, climate change, etc.  Some specific activities like cattle ranching and oil and gas drilling also come into play. While The Sagebrush Sea briefly introduces some of the major threats to this ecosystem, it does not dwell on any single issue or point fingers in any one particular direction. For one, it is hard to place blame when there are so many factors involved; but more importantly, the filmmakers wanted the film to be accessible to everyone in order to foster a greater appreciation for the sagebrush sea and a consequent desire to protect it. The debates regarding this part of the world are heated enough, and those directly involved are already well aware of the issues.

This is a beautiful film. The images it captures are captivating and at times breathtaking. Apart from the sage-grouse, various animal families are introduced throughout, each one stealing your heart. My only complaint is that, at only 53 minutes, the film is too short. Luckily, the world they depicted is right outside my door, and I am now even more inspired to explore it.

To learn more about sage-grouse conservation, visit Sage Grouse Initiative.

Year of Pollination: More than Honey, etc.

When I decided to spend a year writing about pollinators and pollination, I specifically wanted to focus on pollinators besides the honey bee. Honey bees already get lots of attention, and there are loads of other pollinating organisms that are equally fascinating. But that’s just the thing, honey bees are incredibly fascinating. They have a strict and complex social structure, and they make honey – two things that have led humans to develop a strong relationship with them. We have been managing honey bees and exploiting their services for thousands of years, and we have spread them across the planet, bringing them with us wherever we go. In North America, honey bees are used to pollinate a significant portion of our pollinator-dependent crops, despite the fact that they are not native to this continent. In that sense, they are just another domesticated animal, artificially selected for our benefit.

It’s common knowledge that honey bees (and pollinators in general) have been having a rough time lately. Loss of habitat, urbanization, industrial farming practices, abundant pesticide use, and a variety of pests and diseases have been making life difficult for pollinators. Generally, when the plight of pollinators comes up in the news, reference is made to honey bees (or another charismatic pollinator, the monarch butterfly). News like this encourages people to take action. On the positive side, efforts made to protect honey bees can have the side benefit of protecting native pollinators since many of their needs are the same. On the negative side, evidence suggests that honey bees can compete with native pollinators for limited resources and can pass along pests and diseases. Swords are often double-edged, and there is no silver bullet.

In a recent conversation with a budding beekeeper, I was recommended the documentary, More than Honey. I decided to watch it, write a post about it, and call that the honey bee portion of the Year of Pollination. Part way through the movie, another documentary, Vanishing of the Bees, was recommended to me, and so I decided to watch both. Below are some thoughts about each film.

more than honey movie

More than Honey

Written and directed by Swiss documentary filmmaker, Markus Imhoof, this beautifully shot, excellently narrated, meandering documentary thrusts viewers into incredibly intimate encounters with honey bees. Cameras follow bees on their flights and into their hives and get up close and personal footage of their daily lives, including mating flights, waggle dances, pupating larvae, flower pollination, and emerging queens. In some scenes, the high definition shots make already disturbing events even more disturbing, like bees dying after being exposed to chemicals and tiny varroa mites crawling around on the bodies of bees infecting them with diseases – wings wither away and bees become too weak to walk. This movie is worth watching for the impressive cinematography alone.

But bees aren’t the only actors. The human characters are almost as fun to watch. A Swiss beekeeper looks out over stunning views of the Alps where he keeps his bees. He follows a long tradition of beekeeping in his family and is very particular about maintaining a pure breed in his hives, going so far as flicking away the “wrong” bees from flowers on his property and crushing the head off of an unfaithful queen. A commercial beekeeper in the United States trucks thousands of beehives around the country, providing pollination services to a diverse group of farms – one of them being a massive almond grove in California. He has been witness to the loss of  hundreds of honey bee colonies and has had to become “comfortable with death on an epic scale” – the grueling corporate world grinds along, and there is no time for mourning losses.

Further into the documentary, a woman in Austria demonstrates how she manipulates a colony into raising not just one queen, but dozens. She has spent years breeding bees, and her queens are prized throughout the world. A man in Arizona captures and raises killer bees – hybrid bees resulting from crosses between African and European honey bees (also known as Africanized honey bees). Despite their highly aggressive nature, he prefers them because they are prolific honey producers and they remain healthy without the use of synthetic pesticides.

Probably the darkest moment in the film is watching workers in China hand pollinate trees in an orchard. Excessive pesticide use has decimated pollinator populations in some regions, leaving humans to do the pollinating and prompting the narrator to reflect on the question, “Who’s better at pollinating, man or bees? Science answers with a definite, ‘not man.'”

Also included in the film is an intriguing discussion about bees as a super-organism with a German neuroscientist who is studying bee brains. The narrator sums it up like this: “Without its colony the individual bee cannot survive. It must subordinate its personal freedom for the good of the colony… Could it be that individual bees are like the organs or cells of a body? Is the super-organism as a whole the actual animal?”

Vanishing-of-the-bees

Vanishing of the Bees

Colony collapse disorder is a sometimes veiled yet important theme throughout More than Honey, and it was certainly something that drove the creation of the film. In the case of Vanishing of the Bees, colony collapse disorder is the reason for its existence. Narrated by actor, Ellen Page, and produced in part by a film production company called Hive Mentality Films, this movie came out on the heels of the news that bee colonies were disappearing in record numbers throughout the world. It tells the story of colony collapse disorder from the time that it first appeared in the news – one of the film’s main characters is the beekeeper that purportedly first brought attention to the phenomenon – and into the years that followed as scientists began exploring potential causes.

This film contains lots of important information and much of it seems credible, but it is also the type of documentary that in general makes me wary of documentaries. Its purpose goes beyond just trying to inform and entertain; it’s also trying to get you on board with its cause. I may agree with much of what is being said, but I don’t particularly like having my emotions targeted in an effort to manipulate me to believe a certain way. It’s a good idea not to let documentaries or any other type of media form your opinions for you. Consider the claims, do some of your own research and investigation, and then come to your own conclusion. That’s my advice anyway…even though you didn’t ask for it.

That being said, colony collapse disorder is a serious concern, and so I’ll end by going back to More than Honey and leave you with this quote by its narrator:

The massive death of honey bees is no mystery. What’s killing them is not pesticides, mites, antibiotics, incest, or stress, but a combination of all these factors. They are dying as a result of our civilization’s success, as a result of man, who has turned feral bees into docile, domestic animals – wolves into delicate poodles.

Documentary: Know Your Mushrooms

Earlier this month, the 33rd annual Telluride Mushroom Festival took place in Telluride, Colorado. This is an event that draws in hundreds (thousands, perhaps?) of fungi enthusiasts. As a budding fungi enthusiast myself, I get excited when I hear tale of gatherings such as these, and while I did not make it out this year, the Telluride Mushroom Festival is high on my list of things to attend sometime in the years to come.

My fascination with fungi started shortly before I headed to graduate school in Illinois in 2009. I had just read about mycoremediation in a book called Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, and that, along with what I had learned about soil fungi in my college soils courses, had me very curious about the world of mycology. I have yet to spend the kind of time that I would like to on this subject, but it remains of great interest to me.

A couple years ago I was writing weekly recommendations on my previous blog, the juniper bends as if it were listening. One of my weekly recommendation posts was about a documentary film called, Know Your Mushrooms. I am reposting that review  here in honor of this month’s mushroom festival in Telluride, and because I think it’s a film worth watching. No, it is not about plants per se, but it is about a kingdom of living things that regularly interacts with plants. Not only that, but it’s about a major player in the ecology of practically every ecosystem on earth. Bottom line: if you are at all interested in the natural world, you will be interested in this film.

know your mushrooms

Mushrooms freaks, fungiphiles, and myco-fanatics alike are all probably well aware of this fantastic documentary film by Ron Mann entitled, Know Your Mushrooms, but for uninitiated folks and novices like myself, this is a great introduction. This film will acquaint you with a peculiar crowd of mushroom lovers and fungus aficionados, where you will marvel in their uniqueness and their vast knowledge concerning the fascinating world of mycology. Mann bases his film around his visit to the Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado, where mushroom fans have gathered annually for many years now to celebrate and revel in the fungal world. Mann converses with several mushroom experts and enthusiasts, but spends most of his time with self-proclaimed guru, Larry Evans. Alongside Evans, Mann explores numerous mycological topics, including mushroom hunting, mushroom cooking, poisonous mushrooms, psychedelic mushrooms, mushroom folklore, mushroom health benefits, and the ecological and environmental benefits of fungi (mycoremediation!). This is a very well-produced and well-directed film, maintaining the interest and attention of the viewer as it transitions from one aspect of mushroom culture to another, simultaneously providing education and entertainment throughout. If your viewing experience is anything like mine, by the time this film is over, you will be wishing that you were as knowledgeable about mushrooms as the folks featured in this film. As a result of watching Mann’s documentary, I have vowed to redouble my efforts and commit myself to the study of mycology so that one day I can join fellow fungus freaks in a celebration of this magnitude. Perhaps you will join us…

Morels harvested on the forest floors of Illinois

Morels harvested on the forest floor of Illinois

Documentary: What Plants Talk About

Earlier this summer I posted a review of a book called, What a Plant Knows, by Daniel Chamovitz. It’s a book that describes plant senses – senses that are similar to human senses (i.e. seeing, hearing, smelling, etc.). Plants are much more aware of their surroundings than we might initially think, and so I recommend this book to anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of plants and their “awareness”. However, I also understand that this can be an intimidating subject – especially for those who haven’t spent much time studying plants and their biology. Chamovitz wrote his book with the intention of making this subject accessible to everyone. Anyone with even a limited understanding of biology should be able to understand the basic concepts in Chamovitz’s book. However, the subject can still be challenging.

Luckily, a recent documentary by PBS explores similar concepts. It simplifies things even more – exploring the ways in which plants communicate with the world around them, even without having the organs we typically attribute to communication and awareness (i.e. brains, ears, eyes, etc.). The documentary is called What Plants Talk About. I watched it recently and was reminded of Chamovitz’s book. They fit together so well. If you have any interest in this subject at all, I recommend both. If all you are after is a simple introduction, watch the documentary. If the documentary intrigues you, read the book.

There is a lot more to learn about plants and their “awareness,” but these sources are a great start. Watch the documentary and/or read the book and then let me know what you think in the comments below. Meanwhile, we wait in anticipation of what science might discover next concerning this remarkable aspect of the plant kingdom.