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Tech Tuesday

Bees, Cyber Threats and Invasive Species

Virus-fungus combo could be one-two punch for bees, cyber threat alerts issued for 2011 and USDA studies non-native plants on rangeland.

Whenever something bad happens these days it appears people want to point their fingers immediately at human-made causes. With the alert of colony collapse disorder for bees, the knee-jerk response by some observers pointed to crop protection products as a key culprit. Turns out, researchers at Texas Tech University think it may be a virus-fungus combination that's the culprit.

In a study published this month in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE, researchers note they're getting a better understanding of what may be behind the mysterious disorder. The research is preliminary, but scientists report that they have confirmed association between colony collapse disorder - or CCD - and the presence of both a virus and fungus.

To look into the issue, the researchers ground up dead bees that had succumbed to CCD and using spectroscopic analysis they found evidence of a moth virus called insect iridescent virus (IIV) 6 and a fungal parasite called Nosema. That insect virus is closely related to another virus that wiped out bee populations 20 years ago in India. However, unlike previous research that found the deaths may be caused by a virus with RNA, the IIV 6 contains DNA, which has scientists looking at the problem in new ways.

Though an association between exposure to the virus-fungus combo was found, scientists don't yet know if the two pathogens cause CCD or whether CCD colonies are more likely to succumb to the two pathogens.

Next step in the research is to isolate the virus and fungus from a bee colony and then reinfect with the same two pathogens. Isolating the virus from infected bees will help scientists monitor the issue as well.

While more work is needed, at least researchers are gaining some ground on a critical issue - what's killing our important pollinators.

Cyber Threats for 2011

The Georgia Tech Information Security Center released its Emerging Cyber Threats Report for 2011 this month and outlined three top areas of security risk and concern for consumer and business Internet and computer users. A key change in computing is the rising use of mobile and networked devices that provide an "enticing target" for cyber criminals to steal data and thwart the functioning of systems in a variety of venues from hospitals to utility providers. Here's a look at the three threats areas.

  • Cyber Threats Targeting Physical Systems - As infrastructure services including the electric grid and utilities become networked and connected to the Internet (sometimes called a "smart grid") they will face greater threat for disruption and misuse. Those potential cyber attacks are also a growing risk for healthcare systems too - yet updating security on these devices could be hampered by regulatory guidelines on their management.
  • Botnets - These are large-scale attacks that utilize more targeted malware to evade detection. For example, the malware/computer threat Zeus is more commonly popping up around the world. This constantly evolving "tool" is used by cyber hackers to steal data from individual computers. And cyber criminals are getting better at relaunching previously thwarted cyber attacks.
  • Mobile Devices and Social Networking - There's a rising number of open mobile device platforms as tools including smart phones and tablet computers (including the iPad) become more popular. These devices will become more attractive to attacks. Cyber criminals are already using Twitter and Facebook accounts to lure users into handing over personal and sensitive information.

What can you do to protect your on-farm computer systems? First, keep all anti-virus software up to date. Best way to do that is to set up automatic updates so you don't have to worry. The software will "improve" itself automatically when updates become available. Second, think before you send personal information - a Twitter or Facebook user shouldn't be giving up critical personal information to a "friend" without knowing who it is. A few simple steps can help keep your computers and smart devices clear of trouble.

Western Rangelands Under Threat

USDA released a study this month showing that non-federal rangelands in the Western United States are productive, but non-native grasses and shrubs pose a potential threat. The new study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment was the result of collaboration between two USDA agencies - the Agricultural Research Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service - along with the U.S. Geological Survey.

The study shows that less than 25% of non-federal rangelands have significant land degradation, but that non-native plant species now occur on nearly 50% of all non-federal rangeland. While some of these species have significant benefits for soil conservation, others have negative effects. The study looked at more than 10,000 field plots using National Resources Inventory data.

The study's authors developed a new system for collecting NRI data to provide land managers with a baseline for making objective assessments. The system, developed by ARS, NRCS and USGS and the Bureau of Land Management, is designed to help managers monitor western rangelands. The collected data can be used as a baseline to monitor rangeland health in future studies including the USDA Conservation Effects Assessment Project - a long-term effort designed to determine the environmental effects of conservation practices on ag lands. You can learn more by checking out an NRI report released by NRCS which is available at www.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/nri.

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