Understanding My Place in the World

I’ve always considered myself a lover of nature. I think I realized how much I cared for the environment when I picked up my first fishing rod around age 4. I remember how it would always bother me to see garbage in the water or dead fish. My parents wanted my brother and I to see as much of the world as possible, we were always going on weekend trips to local forest preserves, or Wisconsin or Michigan. We would go blueberry picking, apply picking, or morel mushroom hunting. They got my brother and I into cub scouts and eventually boy scouts and we found that with each new adventure, our love for the outdoors continued to grow. When it came time to decide on colleges, I knew that my major had to have something to do with the environment. Working a 9-5 desk job was never going to cut it for me. I wanted to be out in the field getting my hands dirty with the environment as my office and the limit to my imagination as my cubicle. All of the excursions and exposure to the outdoors as a kid has most definitely played a large role in who I am today. Today, I am a freshman studying Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois. Without the immersion in nature and the outdoors as a young kid and throughout my life thus far, I don’t think I would be the same person.

Being in Puerto Rico for the last 10 days has been incredible. It has given me the opportunity to see life in another country first hand and how different it can be compared to my life in the states. In addition, through my observations there, I was able to use to my love for the outdoors and the environment to further my understanding of some of the issues being faced by the country of Puerto Rico as well as provide clues to my true identity in this world and what I’m on this Earth to do

One thing that I noticed in Puerto Rico almost everywhere was the amount of litter. Even with plenty of trash receptacles in cities like Old San Juan, there was still plenty of trash on the sides of streets. Even when we were up in the mountains, I saw beer cans and trash on the side of the road walking up to breakfast every morning. Although littering is illegal, it is still something that is evident all over the world. What people don’t realize is how long it takes for some of those things to disintegrate and break down. A plastic bag is said to take around 1000 years to decompose. The thing is, there isn’t one person dropping a plastic bag on the ground, its millions of people around the world and eventually all of the trash that throw on the side of the road or on the side walk really adds up. The problem is that people often operate under the out of sight out of mind approach. If they can’t see it anymore, then it isn’t a problem that they have to deal with. I think that is one of the major problems with the world today. People need to realize that just because they can’t see something, it doesn’t mean it won’t still cause problems. I think that’s where people like me come in. It’s up to people like me who love the environment and truly understand its necessity to teach the other people how to protect it and make sure that the Earth will be protected for years to come. If I can teach one person the importance of recycling and the problems associated with littering, then they will teach their kids the same thing and those kids will teach their kids. I can effectively start a chain reaction to ensure that the environment remains as pristine and perfect as it was before. I think I’m in the world to not only protect it, but to also make sure that others do the same.

The bioluminescent pools also offered valuable insight into just how fragile the environment is and the impact that people have had on Puerto Rico. Michael, our guide on the Kayak tour, told us that 10 years ago, the bioluminescence used to be 10 times brighter, but with all of the tourists and all the people that interact with it now, it was slowly dying. I’ll admit, going on that tour was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip but from a standpoint of protecting the environment, it was a bad decision. The mangroves and the bay are such a fragile ecosystem. In fact, the bay is one of the only places on Earth with the bioluminescent factor. Mangroves all over the world are threatened everyday by places like large resorts that cut them down to ensure that they have the nicest more pristine beaches in the area. What people don’t realize is the amount of habitat that mangroves offer to countless species of fish as well as their vital importance to the preservation of the bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico. I was glad to hear that PR is generating funding to help protect the mangroves and the bay before it is gone forever. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve told about mangroves and how important they are to different types of saltwater species such as the Tarpon and Snapper. They also protect the soil from erosion with their root systems.

I feel like I am on this Earth to alert people of the weight of the decisions they make when it comes to the environment. Through my love for the environment and the world in which we live, I can teach other people to love it as well. Through a collaborative effort, we can all make the world a better place. A place that will sustain countless generations to come. It’s the people like me, the ones who truly understand how important our ecosystem is to giving us things like clean water, and air, and food to eat, who have the moral responsibility to teach others the importance of all that is sustainability and environmental health. This trip has taught me to protect what is rare and fragile on this Earth and ensure that I continue to fulfill my role in maintaining the sanctity of our home.

The Plight of the Honeybee

During the time that we have spent in Puerto Rico so far, I’ve been able to understand a lot of the problems that they face here as well as identify, to a greater extent, some of the problems that we face back in Illinois.
One of the coolest things so far on the trip has been the sheer amount of different plant species here in Puerto Rico. We have seen plenty of fruit trees, tons of woody shrubs, various types of palms, and of course, a massive number of different flowers. The sheer amount of biodiversity on the island is astounding.
In Illinois, while we don’t have nearly as many species of flora that PR has, we have a large amount and are one of the major agricultural producers in the country. We grow everything from corn to peaches, and all of it wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for a little flying insect called the honeybee. Bees play an incredibly vital role in countries all around the world and especially in places like Illinois which rely of them for the production of plenty of crops which our state uses for both food and sale. While the reduction in the population of honeybees hasn’t been too bad in Puerto Rico it is a very pressing and seldom talked about issue facing Illinois and much of the continental United States.
I think it’s important to first introduce what got me into learning about bees in the first place. A few years ago, my mom took some classes at the local community college and picked up beekeeping as a way to destress and also help the environment. She always asked for my brother and I’s help with it. We would prepare the bins that the frames went into, help paint the hive and hand her things while she was working in the hive. She told us all about the bees and just how cool the little creatures are. They are very precise creatures and some of the smartest insects in the planet. She also alerted us of the plight that the bees have faced in recent years regarding colony collapse. Hearing all of this, I began to research more into the bees and learned plenty of very interesting things about them. In my opinion, the problem of dying honey bees may be one of the most important of our generation. It affects everyone on Earth.
In the time between 1985 and 1997 there was a 57% decline in the amount of bee colonies in the US. Part of this decimation of the population had to do with the application of various pesticides by farmers and homeowners (Richard). Each year bee populations continued to face losses until in 2005 when they faced one of the worst losses in decades. California is one of the largest almond producers in the world and they lost so many of their bee colonies that the US opened its borders to other countries to ship more bees into the states. It was the first time that bees had to be shipped in from other countries in over 50 years (Richard). As honeybees are responsible for over 1/3 of the food that we eat, the problem of colony collapse disorder was finally brought into limelight and the loss of bees was finally brought up in discussion. Colony collapse disorder or CCD occurs when “the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen” (EPA). CCD has been long thought to be the major problem of bee endangerment but in recent years it has subsided. The amount of bee colonies that don’t survive through the winter are still high though.
A major problem that the bees also face is due to intruders and parasites into the hive. Something called the Varroa mite has been particularly deadly to the bee colonies across the country and plays a key role in CCD. In fact, my mom has found that the varroa mites have led to the deaths of some of her hives over the year. The varroa mites attach onto the bees and eventually kill them. They give the bees a disease called Varroosis and suck the blood of the bees and the bee pupa. This shortens lifespans of the bees and also leads to defects in the newly developed bees such as missing limbs and deformed wings (Bessin).
Although bees have been officially declared endangered a few weeks ago, there is still precious time to reverse their path towards demise. Researchers have begun looking at wild bees to understand how they have been able to withstand attacks from various parasites like the varroa mite. One of the major reasons why the parasites have been so deadly to bee colonies is the proximity between colonies. In nature, colonies are around a half mile away, so when one hive is faced with a parasite, the parasite has a lot of trouble spreading out after killing the colony (Gebreyes). The reason why the parasites are so deadly to cultured bees is because the hives are located very close to each other which greatly increases how fast parasites can move from colony to colony. An easy solution to this would be to increase the space between each hive. This wouldn’t have to be a great distance like a half mile. If the hives were all separated by say 20 feet, it would greatly increase the amount of time that the parasite would take to spread and allow the bee populations to begin to grow back and increase before the parasites could claim more colonies.
In order to see if this option does in fact provide satisfying results, a basic test using 4-6 bee hives could be performed. As a control group for the experiment, put two hives a foot away (about how far hives are from each other in a traditional setting) from each other and introduce varroa mites into one of them. Then measure the amount of time it takes for the varroa mites to spread to the second hive. Repeat this same test but increase the amount of space between the hives by 5 feet, then 10 feet, then 20 feet, etc. If the time does in fact increase by a great enough factor, then this technique to deal with parasitic colonies can be enacted and will hopefully play a role in protecting the future of our honeybees.
This does come with some drawbacks though. While it provides a temporary solution to the problem at hand, it is just slowing down the inevitable. It may take longer for the parasites to travel between colony but they will still get there at some point. In addition, this option could also introduce the other problem of exposing the bees to more pesticides when the distance from the chemical safe location in the field is increased. My mom and I have seen firsthand how fertilizers and pesticides can affect bees. Moving the bees affects their flight path and could introduce them to chemicals that they otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to. We lost a colony last year because our neighbors sprayed a large amount of pesticides on the flowers that were right in the flightpath of one of our hives. They had most likely collected most of their pollen from those flowers and the effects of the pesticides were devastating to both the pests and the pollinators. It is important to look at every option in order to give the bees the best chance of thriving and ensuring the future of our food supply.
The other option that is also looking very feasible goes into the genetics of the wild bees compared to the cultured colonies. In other words, asking what chemically makes the wild bees less susceptible to various parasitic attacks. By doing so, the gene for parasitic tolerance can be isolated and we can breed bees that can better combat the diseases spread by the varroa mites and other parasites. To test this, one could breed cultured bees with the gene that helps with parasites and introduce a parasite into a colony of the selectively bred bees. The number of surviving bees after a specified amount of time could then be counted and compared to a hive of standard bees (without the special gene) that has also been exposed to the parasite. The number of survivors could then be compared and from there, a consensus as to the success of the selective breeding can be created. This option also represents a risk because we don’t know how the parasites will adapt and it could lead them to become stronger than before. That’s the problem with genetics, it often yields satisfactory results at first but eventually it leads to the strengthening of the threat they were created to protect against. This was seen with the Round Up ready plants from a couple years ago, eventually, the weeds adapted to favor the strongest of the species and many were able to survive the round up and mooch more nutrients from the plants compared to before the round up plants were created. Eventually, the weeds became “super-weeds” (Wilkerson/Chow). What’s to say that changing the genetics of the bees won’t develop super parasites?
While these are just two options to begin solving the problem of the disappearing bees, many more options are still being looked at. It’s important that people start understanding the true severity of this problem. Many places in the world already face food shortages. Imagine reducing the number of food they have by 1/3, it would lead to massive amounts of starvation around the world. States like Illinois have been hit particularly hard by this issue because of how much we produce in terms of both food and feed in the country. As the problem begins to spread, it will surely be felt by more than just the producers in our country. By creating change today, and doing everything in our power to reduce this problem, we can ensure food security for the future of both our state, our country, and the world.


Richard, Michael Graham. “Who Is Killing Nature’s Precious Bees?”TreeHugger. N.p., 15 Aug. 2006. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
“Colony Collapse Disorder.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 16 Sept. 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
Bessin, Ric. “Varroa Mites Infesting Honey Bee Colonies.” Varroa Mites Infesting Honey Bee Colonies | Entomology. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
Gebreyes, Rahel. “Finally, Some Good News About the Future of Bees.” The Huffington Post. N.p., 3 June 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
Wilkerson, Jordan, and Brian Chow. “Why Roundup Ready Crops Have Lost Their Allure.” Science in the News. N.p., 12 May 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.

The Pursuit of Happiness

In the world today, I think it’s so important to be as cultured as possible. The term cultured is often hard to define as it can mean so many different things. In this instance, I think it’s easiest to describe it as having exposure to many different cultures and using that exposure to better understand how the world works and how it affects the lifestyles of people around the world. For me personally, I think this trip played a big role in my understanding of the culture in Puerto Rico and understanding the different way of life here.
One of the things that has exposed me greatly to the culture here in PR has been the music. In America, music plays a large role. We have plenty of festivals like Lollapalooza, Coachella, Bonnaroo, Summerfest, etc.. I believe that here in PR, it plays a much larger role in pulling people together. In America, everyone has their favorite type of music and they usually only listen to that genre, but here while people listen to whichever type of music is their favorite, they also are no stranger to interacting with any type of music they hear. In the majority of the places we have gone, we have seen plenty of different types of music being played. No matter what type it is, people are never afraid to dance and laugh and sing along with it. We’ve heard karaoke sang by people that are clearly no beyonce but they do it because they love the music. I don’t know how many nights there have been where I am trying to make a phone call and it seems almost impossible because of all the music that’s playing around where were staying. There is always some type of music playing no matter where we are. It’s almost enlightening to see everyone being connected through it. Even with everything going on in the world, there’s no problem just taking a few moments to dance around and hum to the beat of a song.
I’ve also seen this same thing when it comes to street musicians. The majority of the musicians we saw were in San Juan and, unlike in the states, passersby don’t fear making eye contact with the performers or taking a moment to stop and take in the music.
I think seeing this in a great way for me to become more cultured and better acquaint me with the different way of life here. I now have a better respect for music and its ability to connect people.
Along with the music, I think the speed that everything is done here is generally much slower than what we’re used to back home. In the states, it seems that everything is always moving fast, at restaurants, the key is to get the food to the table as fast as possible. On roads, everyone speeds to get to their destination. It’s the norm to go at least 5 mph over the speed limit. With technology, people always want the fastest internet and they want to constantly be connected. On the island of Puerto Rico, this constant rushing isn’t the case. The service of any restaurant other than a fast food chain, tends to be much slower. This in turn also affects how fast you eat and you spend more time savoring the food than scarfing it down. It’s almost as if the consumption of the food is more of an experience than a chore. The void which is the stomach doesn’t have to be filled, but tamed. In terms of the roads, the speed limits here are much slower than back at home. We’ve seen many 35 mph limits here whereas at home, it’s not uncommon to see a 50-55 mph limit on the same type of road. It’s more about getting to the destination safely and comfortably than as fast as possible. Granted, the lower speeds may relate to the low quality of the roads but we’ll say that’s beside the point for the time being. Finally, when it comes to technology and things like internet connection, having the fastest wi-fi and most up to date phones is not the priority. It seems that many people here are more concerned with enjoying life and letting it happen at the speed it happens as opposed to trying to speed everything up. The people here recognize that speed and rushing doesn’t always make everything better. I can’t tell you how many complaints I’ve heard from my fellow travelers regarding how slow the internet is. At home, we’re so used to having things load instantly and having what we want at our fingertips; sharing a constant connection to everyone we know and the things we want to know. But being here and observing all of these different idiosyncrasies, I am forced to learn the new customs and live and abide by them. I’m not saying that I hate having to make the change from what I’m used to. In fact, it’s almost enlightening. Sitting here writing this, the internet problems have led us all to be more social with one another. Dr. R is playing dominoes with Kai, Alisha, and Ariel. Bridget is strumming a guitar quietly in the other room. Living with the slower pace here has taught me to better enjoy the time that I spend and take in more of what this beautiful country has to offer. In addition, the music here and observing how the people interact with it has shown to me its connective capabilities. It can completely eliminate the language barrier too. Sure, we don’t all speak Spanish, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still feel a beat and bop our heads to some music.
Even with the short amount of time that we’ve spent here, I feel that I’ve grown by leaps and bounds culturally. I’ve lived in and observed the way of life here and am now able to fully understand it. People don’t have to speak the same language to communicate and they don’t always have to live life at the will of two hands that rotate in a circle. It’s a louder life here, a slower one, but a happier one.

700 Year Old Trees and Coconut Shenanigans

Every moment so far on our trip to Puerto Rico has been a blast but there have been a few that have stood out as some of the best of the trip. In particular, the day that we hiked through the dry forest and saw the beach in Guanica. The hike ended up being about twice as long as planned because the day we went ended up being Three Kings day which is a popular holiday in Puerto Rico. This meant that the person who usually unlocks the gate in the morning took the day off so instead of just having to hike from the entrance to the trail farther up the mountain, we had to make the hike all the way up and around part of the mountain first. This proved to be much harder than we all imagined as most of the climbing was at a 30-45 degree incline. Pairing that with the blaring hot sun didn’t make things too comfortable. Making it to the beach became everyone’s goal as the hike progressed. Being in such an interesting ecosystem made things a lot more manageable. With the climate in that region being so arid, it has led to the creation of something called a dry forest. It can be compared to the chaparral of southern California and the Mediterranean. The soil was very rocky and sandy and there were plenty of woody bushes and cacti growing in the area. Professor Rodriguez told us that the area only receives about 10 inches of rain every year, meaning that every plant has adapted to live on very small amounts of water. On the hike, we also were able to see one of the oldest trees in Puerto Rico. It is estimated that the tree was around 700 years old! Its roots sprawled out on different levels and gave all of us a great place to sit and stop for a quick snack. After the side trail and seeing the ancient tree, we were back on the main path and inching closer and closer to our first beach day in Puerto Rico. As we descended down the mountain we could finally see what we’d all been waiting for. The water looked perfect, the only problem was how far away it still was… After 25 minutes and dodging out of the way of plenty of cars we scaled down about 5 huge rock steps and finally stepped onto the sand of the beach. The hike was completely worth it, the views were breathtaking and the water was so blue it didn’t look real. People could hardly wait to get in the water and bags were dropped just as quick as shoes could be taken off. The water was the perfect temperature, and just what we all needed after a long hike in the hot sun. There were some bits of sea weed in the water but we didn’t mind. We did mind when the huge waves blew us down and tumbled us over a large bed of sticks either. Sure, a couple people got some cuts but no one really cared. The experience was all worth it. The waves were huge, and if you met one just right, you could body surf about 20 feet! I hadn’t been in the ocean for a while and was surprised at how salty the water actually was. This, of course, meant that when everyone got out, they were dying of thirst. We made camp around the base of a large shade tree. Its limbs spread out far and provided much needed protection from the intense sunlight. After drying off to some extent, I started my quest to find a perfect coconut washed up on the beach. I knew the key was to shake they to listen for the water inside and not to get one that felt too heavy because that meant they were water-logged and most likely bad. Surprisingly enough, I found one that seemed perfect only about 100 feet from where all of our stuff was. I brought it back and began the very tedious task of extracting the cannonball-sized nut from inside the husk. I began this operation by first removing the 3 sections of outer husk. The coconut had been out in the sun for some period of time so the husk had dried and cracked along each of the three sections. I was able to slowly spread them apart and remove 2 of the sections. Keep in mind, this was a VERY exhaustive process. The hardest part was definitely removing the 3rd and final section of husk. On the beach, I found a concrete cylinder with some iron pieces coming out of it. My best guess would say that it used the be the base of an old sign post. This tool proved to be imperative to my coconut breaking endeavor. I hit the coconut with one husk section remaining on the iron piece that came out of the tool and was able to slowly work the section piece away from the nut. Once enough space was created I slowly ripped the fibers until the section was finally removed. From there, I cleaned off many of the remaining hairs and was finally ready to break it open and try what I had worked so hard for. I slammed the coconut once, hard, onto the metal and it plunged a perfect, golf ball sized hole. I flipped it over and was able to keep some of the milk from leaking out. Emma, Emily, and I were the first to try it and needless to say, it tasted better than the fancy store-bought organic kind. One more hit on the rock and it cracked right down the middle exposing the sunscreen scented meat. Dr. Rodriguez pulled out his trusty pocket knife and we began cutting off pieces and trying it. It tasted incredible! It wasn’t as sweet as packaged coconut, but it just tasted more… real. That whole day was definitely one of my favorites. From the awesome hike through a very rare ecosystem to seeing a 700 year old tree to body surfing on 8 ft waves to successfully cracking open and trying my first coconut, all were memories that I will never forget. This trip has already been so fun and interesting, I can’t wait to see what the rest of it has to offer.