New Lead in Honeybee Deaths and Another Hot Year on Earth

A bee in Austria.

In a satisfying twist, meteorologists called out the public last week for being inaccurate. Weeks after introducing us to “polar vortex” — the term for a weather pattern that typically swirls above northern Canada or Siberia and sometimes sends cold air south — the nation’s forecasters grew tired of hearing it. The Weather Channel meteorologists Chris Dolce and Nick Wiltgen complained on their Weather Underground blog that the word had become a catchphrase, mistakenly used to refer to the cold air itself, and not the vortex, which “never really moves through the atmosphere above the United States.” So please, everybody. Chill.


Agriculture: New Suspect in Honeybee Deaths

The worldwide honeybee die-off has already been attributed to everything from stress to cellphone radiation. Now, researchers say it may be linked to a rapidly mutating virus that jumped from tobacco plants to soy plants to bees. Writing in the journal mBio, an international team says the animals may be passing around the tobacco ringspot virus in the pollen they pick up while foraging. (Bees mix saliva and nectar with pollen to make “bee bread” for larvae to eat.) Mites that feed on the bees may also play a role in transmitting the virus.

The virus is probably just one explanation for what is collectively known as colony collapse disorder, the researchers said; viruses, pesticides and other environmental factors probably contribute, too.

Climate: Does Anyone Feel Hot Here?

Last year was among the hottest ever recorded on Earth, two government agencies agreed last week, though they differed on where it ranked. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said 2013 was the fourth-warmest year since 1880, in a tie with 2003. NASA, which uses different methods to compile global temperatures, ranked it as the seventh warmest, in a tie with 2006 and 2009. Both agencies agree that the 14 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998.

Space: Mysterious Mars Rock

Ten years after it landed on Mars for a three-month mission, the Opportunity rover is still making news. At the moment, scientists are giddily arguing the origins of a mystery rock that showed up in a photo taken by the rover on Jan. 8. The problem is that the rock, shaped like a jelly doughnut, didn’t appear in a photo of the same spot taken just two weeks earlier. Was it kicked up by a rover tire, or did a meteorite happen to land nearby? Either way, the rock, nicknamed Pinnacle Island, provides an exciting research opportunity. “Pinnacle Island may have been flipped upside down when a wheel dislodged it,” NASA said in a statement, “providing an unusual circumstance for examining the underside of a Martian rock.”

A Comet Hunter Awakens

Two and a half years after it went into hibernation, as designed, the European Space Agency comet hunter Rosetta awoke to continue its mission, reported. The solar-powered spacecraft is seeking to rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May, then release a probe that will land on it. Rosetta first went into standby mode near Jupiter in 2011, about 501 million miles from Earth, where there was not enough sunlight to power its systems. On Jan. 20, after an anxious wait, Andrea Accomazzo, Rosetta’s operations manager, exclaimed via webcast, “We made it!”

Coming Up

In Orbit: Trawling for Space Junk

The space junk that set the movie “Gravity” in motion isn’t a Hollywood invention, and next month the Japanese space agency, JAXA, will try to do something about it, New Scientist reported. The agency has built an electromagnetic tether — an aluminum-and-steel net nearly half a mile long — that is to fly through space attracting metallic detritus. Once the net is full, it will fall out of orbit and its contents should burn up when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. If the test succeeds, JAXA plans to build a net more than 10 times as large.

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