Is the plague hiding in plain sight?

While we understand the plague, we understand how it is transferred, how it works, what we do not fully understand is how plague recurs after lying dormant.

Findings published in the journal emerging infectious diseases, suggest that the bacteria that causes plague could be lying dormant in common soil and water sources. Which would explain why plague suddenly re-emerges without warning in countries such as Madagascar and the United States. In Madagascar last year a violent outbreak left 202 people dead.

David Markman from Colorado State University who led the study notes that the origins of sporadic outbreaks of plague in many different parts of the world are still not well understood. One of the reasons there are so many unanswered questions is that the plague is present in so many different environments, from the desert to the jungle, making it difficult to find a singular mechanism to unite the different locations to explain when, where and why we have outbreaks.

David Markman’s team theorise that It could be due to amoebae, bugs which could be the culprits protecting the plague pathogens in the soil. Testing five species of amoebae with plague bacteria to see their reaction using a genetically altered strain of plague which glows bright green, they observed the amoebae ingesting the plague, with the pathogens alive and replicating well inside the amoebae.

Their research does not mean that this process occurs naturally, but it is an important theory getting us one step closer.




A low-tech pesticide alternative to transform British farming and the future of our countryside.

Current crop protection strategies are heavily reliant upon chemical pesticide, however researchers are testing an alternative pest control measure to move the industry towards ecological beneficial and sustainable farming.

At a farm of oilseed rape near Buckingham this solution is already in practice, the crop field has been striped with rows of wildflowers. The wildflowers, it is hoped, hold the solution.

Wildflowers play host to a variety of natural predators to common crop pests, such as parasitic wasps which feed on aphids. The trouble with parasitic wasps is the adults reliance upon pollen and nectar as the principle food source. For a single crop planted across acres and acres there simply is not enough food for these predators to survive. Farmers have been planting wildflower boarders for their crops for many years, more for biodiversity than pest control; the issues of predator resilience and sustainability persist due to the range limitations of predatory insects, beetles for example will rarely pass more than 50 meters from their winter refuge, making large tracks of arable fields beyond their reach when harboured in wildflower borders.

Strips of wildflowers on the other hand allow the small predatory insects to easily travel from one strip to the next, giving them scope to cover the whole field with ease, targeting the whole crop and all the crop pests. Strips of wildflowers also encourage sustainable numbers of pest predators and ensure their continued survival. This is all made possible from advances in farming technology, such as precision agricultural systems based on GPS mapping, which allow in-field habitats to be implemented with ease and protected throughout the year.

A similar study to the Buckingham site was conducted in Switzerland on fields of winter wheat planted with strips of poppies and other flowers. The study found a 61% reduction in leaf damage, estimations note that the right mix of wildflowers could increase yields by 10%, making this approach economically self-sustaining and profitable.

While researchers at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology say this will not necessary lead to pesticide free farming, it will reduce the number of pesticide sprays required by maintaining pest populations at low levels, making modern farming a kinder touch to our environment.

With technological advance we can rethink our approach to farming, moving towards a more ecological approach with active enhancement of the underlying ecological processes that benefit crop production. All through the planting of flowers.

How Artificial Intelligence can join with integrated pest management to protect crops.


One of the most promising future technologies to join with pest management is AI. Artificial intelligence is widely regarded as a means to increase efficiency and if used correctly a means to lower the environmental impact of pest management programmes.

Currently AI is very costly, limiting its implementation within agriculture, however firms such as Agrosmart are offering innovative solutions to lower the cost and bring AI implementation to a wider audience.

According the data from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation the losses suffered by Brazilian agriculture due to crop pests and diseases amounts to $55 Billion per year, an eye watering sum.

Agrosmart are hoping to provide a solution to this loss by using the internet of things (IoT) technology to create a connected application to help famers apply the right amount of agrochemical at the right time, combating pests more effectively, more cost effectively and with less environmental impact.

Artificial intelligence will be used to identify and quantify insects caught in strategically distributed pheromone traps equipped with sensors, these sensors will connect to an on-board electronic system which transits the data to an internet server where images are processed and insects counted and identified. This data is them presented to the farmer in a readymade report via smartphone or tablet, helping the farmer determine whether agrochemical should or should not be used. Unlike smart traps which use machine learning technology to identify tests, solutions such as that proposed by Agrosmart can be far more cost effective and thus more applicable to smaller scale farmers who often feel the economic hit of pest related damage the hardest.

The key challenge to overcome with these projects is internet access in remote rural areas, once this challenge has been met integrated pest management incorporating AI will become a viable and important step to reduce crop degradation from insect pests. Watch this space.



The Black Deaths impact upon European civilisation.

The plagues impact on European civilisation cannot be understated, nor confined to statistics on population reduction. The Black death was horrible, however it had benign economic effects, helping transform the economy of medieval Europe through influencing social relations, culture, religion and politics. Many argue that the black death helped ‘reset’ European civilisation, ending serfdom and contributing to the subsequent renaissance in later centuries.

Pre-plague Europe had enjoyed several prior centuries of expansion, both of population and economy. The Black death quickly put a sure cap on this period of growth through the removal of between a third to half of Europe’s population, with far fewer people working and consuming, economic activity entered a kind of post-plague recession. It is here that they full shaping effect of the plague came into force, laying the foundations for Europe’s next economic explosion. Severe depopulation and migration from villages to cities caused an acute shortage of laborers, with many villages abandoned for the largely agrarian economies of western Europe was nothing short of a disaster.

Basic economic theory suggests that with a decline in labour supply, wages and conditions increase, historians however clash on this point. Medieval governments were concerned about the growing power of labour after the first wave of deaths, various statues were imposed fixing wages at pre-plague levels, however unrest still forced the hand of change. Manorial records from the late 14th century note that some lords abandoned their holdings, others were forced to surrender to tenants on almost any terms offered.

John Gower, a friend of Geoffrey Chaucer laments in 1378 “labourers of olden times were not accustom to eat wheat bread…their drink was water…clothing plain grey. Then was a world of such folk well-ordered”, times had changed. The shortage of labour meant that wages rose, giving vast swathes of society more money to spend on consumer goods such as beer, clothing and furniture. However, Helen Robbins notes that there was a check to rising wages, an increase in the cost of living through inflation. Grain rotted in the fields due to a lack of harvesters, squeezing food supply, Robbins argues that the price of wheat increased in England by 150% from 1348-1351. With these rising prices, feudal lord’s profits remained robust. Things changed in 1375, a bumper harvest left crop prices to plummet while the cost of labour remained high after the epidemic of 1368-1371, faming revenues falling and systems changing.

Throughout this period workers were paying lower rents and had fewer obligations to their lord, labour services fading out to be replaced by purely monetary arrangements between employers and employee. This forced creation of monetised labour markets became customary, leading eventually to the dissolution of feudalism by the 16th century.

Higher labour costs also incentivised employers to improve economic efficiently, leading to the commercialisation of agriculture in North Western Europe; with fewer mouths to feed the focus could rest upon animal husbandry and cash crops like hops or sugarcane, over the staple crop of grain. A further example of labour saving innovation can be seen when looking at scribes copying manuscripts, in post-plague Europe this became incredibly inefficient leading to Gutenberg’s printing press, just over a century after the plague arrived in England. These plague induced labour saving technologies lead to far higher productivity.

A more speculative theory suggests that the death count of land encourages more Europeans to take the risks at sea, where death counts of long voyages were particularly high. This change in mentality could be cited as the start of colonialism, the spread of plague leading to the spread of Europe.

As the plague hit both the wealthy and poor, an important social change also took place in inheritance law; prior to the plague only the eldest sons inherited ancestral property, post plague all sons as well as daughters started inheriting property.

More people were drawn into the market economy within this period, trade networks grew, new labour saving technologies boosted productivity and tradable stock, new accounting methods born through necessity, such as double entry book keeping meant that money became available for investment at lower interest rates and became widely accessible. Living standards improved, wages rose and feudalism began to wind down to its end, all of which can be traced back to the Black Death.



What else is living in your house besides you?

Scientists selected 50 random houses from a list of volunteers who had filled out a survey about their residence and residents. All the homes in the experiment ranged in age, from 7 to 94 years old. Entomologists investigated every room, except attics and crawl spaces for safety reasons.

The team of entomologists then investigated each room, collecting insects from behind furniture, around skirting boards, ceilings and shelves. However, they did not look under heavy furniture, drawers or cabinets. All insects that were found were preserved in 95% ethanol.

After sourcing all the insects in the resident’s homes, the entomologists went on to research the insects they had discovered., and then inputting the data into tables. Many home owners like to think their home is sterile and bug-free living environment, however the information gathered told a very different story.

The study proved that nearly every single room contained at least one insect of various kinds. In total, the scientists found a minimum of 579 different species of insect. As not all areas of the house were investigated, the actual number of species in the house will more than likely be higher. As expected, bigger houses contained more insects.

Termites were found in 28% of homes and clothes moths 60%. In 10% of homes fleas were found, and mosquitoes in 82%. Unsurprisingly, 100% of ants and cobweb spiders were discovered in these homes. One house contained a very rare larval beaded lacewing, a parasite of termite nests. This insect gives off a chemical that paralyses termites, allowing them to eat them.

All these insects have been residents in our homes for a long while, and they have no intentions of leaving. As the proof shows, most of these insects cause us no harm, stress or aggravation.