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Corn turning French hamsters into deranged cannibals: research
By Marlowe HOOD
Paris (AFP) Jan 27, 2017

Unusual winter weather has bees behaving oddly in Texas
College Station, Texas (UPI) Jan 27, 2017 - For the most part, bees keep to their hives during the colder winter months. But researchers at Texas A&M University have been fielding a large number of calls from residents concerned about an uptick in bee activity.

"It's unusual this time of year to be getting calls about bee activity, but the warmer-than-usual temperatures this winter have allowed the bees to be much more active than they would be normally," entomologist Molly Keck said in a news release.

When it's cold, bees congregate at the center of the hive where honey reserves are stored. They constantly rotate positions, working their way from the outside of the cluster to the inside and then back out again. The honey sustains the bees, and the constant movement keeps the workers and the queen warm.

But if honey reserves are insufficient, bees must sometimes venture out to collect more food during winter months. The bees typically wait until warmer days to forage and to eliminate food waste from the hive.

"Honey bee activity increases on warm or sunny days after rainy or really cold weather," Keck explained. "When winter temperatures finally warm up, the bees, which have been cooped up trying to stay warm, leave to forage. Additionally, the rain we've had recently has also gotten some wildflowers to grow, so the bees now have an opportunity to pick up some pollen."

Keck says most of the concerned calls are worried about the threat of bee stings, but bees are rarely aggressive unless defending their hive.

"If you see bees around your trash can or some other area near your house and are worried about them being too close, you might try putting some sugar water out for them in a location that's farther away," she suggested.

Winter is a precarious time for bees. It's during the winter months that bee keepers are most likely to lose hives to colony collapse disorder. American bee keepers lost nearly half their bees in 2015.

A diet of corn is turning wild hamsters in northeastern France into deranged cannibals that devour their offspring, alarmed researchers have reported.

"There's clearly an imbalance," Gerard Baumgart, President of the Research Centre for Environmental Protection in Alsace, and an expert on the European hamster, told AFP on Friday.

"Our hamster habitat is collapsing."

More common farther to the east, Cricetus cricetus in critically endangered in western Europe.

The findings, reported last week in the British Royal Society journal Proceedings B, finger industrial-scale monoculture as the culprit.

Once nourished by a variety of grains, roots and insects, the burrowing rodents live today in a semi-sterile and unbroken ocean of industrially grown maize, or corn.

The monotonous diet is leaving the animals starving, scientists discovered almost by accident.

The problem is a lack of vitamins. In fact, one in particular: B3, or niacin.

Researchers led by Mathilde Tissier at the University of Strasbourg had set out to determine whether hamster diet affects their ability to reproduce in the wild.

- Baby hamsters eaten alive -

Earlier work had looked at the impact of pesticides and mechanised ploughing, which can destroy their underground homes, especially during hibernation in winter.

But the possible link with what they eat remained unexplored.

A first set of lab experiments with wild specimens compared wheat and corn-based diets, with side dishes of clover or worms.

There was virtually no difference in the number of pups born, or the basic nutritional value of the different menus.

But when it came to survival rates, the difference was dramatic.

About four-fifths of the pups born of mothers feasting on wheat-and-clover or wheat-and-worms were weaned.

Only five percent, however, of the baby hamsters whose mothers ate corn instead of wheat made it that far.

What was most disturbing is how they perished.

"Females stored their pups with their hoards of maize before eating them," the scientists reported. "Pups were still alive at that time."

The cannibal mothers showed other signs of abnormality.

The usually cute-and-cuddly hamsters ran in circles, "climbing and pounding their feeders," when scientists entered the room.

The females also had swollen and dark tongues, and blood so thick it was difficult to draw for samples.

The researchers recognised the symptoms, and had a hunch as to what was causing them.

Vitamin B3 deficiency has been linked to 'black-tongue' syndrome in dogs, and a condition in humans called pellagra, also known as the "3-D" disease: diarrhoea, dementia and dermatitis, such as eczema.

"Improperly cooked maize-based diets have been associated with higher rates of homicide, suicide and cannibalism in humans," the researchers note.

- 'Dementia-like' behaviour -

Pellagra is thought to have decimated some three million people in North America and Europe from the mid-18th to the mid-20th century.

Tissier and her colleagues thought of a simple way to find out if their corn-crazed hamsters were suffering from a similar condition.

In a second set of experiments, they offered hamsters corn-based diets, one of them with B3 added.

Sure enough, the vitamin-enriched diet was enough to eliminate the horrific symptoms, and prevent the female hamsters from eating their young.

The dire consequences of the B3-deficient corn diet, the scientists concluded, stemmed not from reduced maternal hormones, but rather a change in the nervous system that induced the same "dementia-like" behaviour diagnosed in humans.

"Knowing that these species already face many threats, and that most of them are in danger of extinction, it is urgent to restore a diverse range of plants in agriculture schemes," the researchers urged.

Baumgart, who has been fighting for years to protect the endangered rodents, agrees.

"Monoculture in agriculture is really bad for biodiversity," he said.

"Now we need to take concrete action."

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