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7 things British Columbians did to make the world a better place in 2022

From a heroic water rescue to saving bees and protecting people from mosquito-borne illness, British Columbians have been busy trying to make the world a better place this year.
Ocean Wise Plastics Lab researchers loading washing machines in preparation for testing at their Vancouver, B.C., laundry research facilities.

As British Columbians approach the end of 2022, they have much to be proud of — least of all their neighbours. 

From scientific breakthroughs to figuring out a better way to do things — for both themselves and the rest of the planet — this year, residents of this province gave a lot back. 

Here are seven stories about B.C. residents who made the world a better place in 2022. 

Vancouver lab finds better way to wash clothes

Everyone needs to wash their clothes at some point. But where does all that post-Christmas gravy- and cranberry-stained water go? 

Everywhere, it turns out. 

Microplastics are everywhere — in Arctic microorganisms, dead seabirds on far-flung islands and even on the peaks of the world's tallest mountains. Some beaches have already had their sand replaced with plastic debris. 

It's not clear what microplastics' impact is on wildlife and humans. But many scientists say the signs aren't good. 

"It's a really significant problem," said Charlie Cox, Ocean Wise's manager of microplastics solutions. "Synthetic textiles are the main source of microplastic pollution in the ocean."

That's what makes a one-of-a-kind Vancouver lab's findings this year so important. In November, nearly two dozen researchers from Patagonia, Samsung and Ocean Wise came together to assess how synthetic clothing sheds microfibres when passed through the wash, rinse and spin cycles. 

What they found: setting your washing machine to its gentle wash cycle can lower the shedding of microscopic plastic particles by 70 per cent. 

Describing the results as "a game-changer for ocean health," the researchers called on other washing machine manufacturers to produce products with built-in gentle, low-agitation wash cycles. 

"What we're encouraging now is for other washing machine manufacturers to follow Samsung's example and start designing low-shedding settings and to meet that standard," Cox told Glacier Media.

B.C. scientist offers himself up as mosquito bait

Dan Peach has no problem pulling back a sleeve or exposing an earlobe for science. But this year, the mosquito researcher called on all British Columbians to slap and send him mosquitoes in the mail. 

It's all part of an ambitious mapping project that aims to uncover the range of the 51 mosquito species already known to exist in B.C.

From there, Peach will use the maps, combined with projected shifts in temperature and rainfall, to model how mosquitoes and the diseases they carry could spread on the back of a changing climate. 

"We think these things have already been heading further north," said Peach. "As climate changes and some of these conditions shift, where will they be in the future?" 

After Glacier Media ran the story in June, emails started flooding in from B.C. residents anxious to help.

"Everyone should hear this story," wrote one reader. "Got stabbed three bloody times while gardening yesterday and could have saved the carcasses." 

What started as one scientist slapping bugs to make the world a better place has turned into an army of British Columbians doing their part. As Peach put recently, there have been so many responses "we're having delays processing them."

B.C. researcher finds better way to recycle — it starts with pictures of cute animals in distress

The banana peel is easy. Organics, right? But the dirty napkin? Is it garbage? Does it join the compost heap? 

Recycling can seem unnecessarily complicated. But do your part, and the benefits can add up. 

Enter cute animals. In May, B.C. researchers teamed up with some Austrian counterparts to test the influence seeing photos of struggling sea life could have on recycling habits. 

In a highrise office building in downtown Vancouver, the researchers randomly changed the recycling stations on eight floors into a mix of standard bin signs, one advertising a pledge to protect ocean life and another with images of turtles ensnared in blue plastic or dolphins trailing bags on their fins. 

They waited six weeks. When they returned, the pattern was clear: the signage with animal images had the most significant effect, reducing plastic waste by 17 per cent, wrote UBC researcher and lead author Yu Lou in a study published in the journal Environment and Behaviour last April.

Interestingly, most employees didn't even notice they had changed their behaviour. When the researchers interviewed them, only five per cent said they had seen the posters.

Armstrong farmer finds Styrofoam 'protection' helps prevent bees from ejaculating to death

An untold number of honeybees perished during the June 2021 heat wave in what one farmer described as death by ejaculation.

Wait, what?

It turns out bees can't sweat. So when the record-breaking heat hit, they went looking for water. They fell to their death at some point between the kiddie pools and the bee hives at Emily Huxter's Armstrong, B.C., home. 

When she found carcass after carcass, she noticed something odd: in the grips of heat stress, the petite livestock's sex organs had exploded out of their bodies. 

"It was unbelievable," said Huxter, recounting the scene. "They have got all of their man parts out."

Such extreme heat threatens more than bees or the honey they produce. The Armstrong bee farm is part of a network of beekeepers that provide pollination services for crops worth an estimated $5 billion annually in Canada. 

Every year, Huxter drives her colonies across the Okanagan Valley, helping to pollinate cherry, apple and plum trees near the U.S. border in Osoyoos up to Vernon. 

A second-generation beekeeper, Huxter's farm also rears queens for other beekeepers across Canada, helping to backfill the winter losses colonies experience every year in the Prairies or Ontario. 

It's all part of a push to make the industry more self-sufficient and wean Canadian beekeepers off queens imported from places like Australia or the United States. 

Rising temperatures, said Huxter, are threatening that vision. So after the June losses, the beekeeper thought, "How can we do things better?" 

With researcher Alison McAfee of the University of British Columbia BeeHIVE Research Centre, Huxter put together an experiment to figure out what works best. 

In the lead-up to another heat wave, Huxter fitted several hives with thermometers. In some, she set up a steady drip of sugar syrup — something her neighbour had tried. In others, she placed a two-inch-thick piece of polystyrene insulation on top. 

While the drip did little to keep hive temperatures down, the Styrofoam cover dropped average daily highs by 3.8 C, a "significant reduction," wrote McAfee in the beekeeper industry newsletter "Hivelights" earlier this year. 

"It's one step towards getting better at managing the colonies under these extreme conditions that we should really only expect to increase in the future," McAfee later told Glacier Media. 

The Canadian company using drones to replant B.C.'s burned forests

When the six rotors of these heavy lift drones buzz to life, they propel over 1,500 seeds into an automated swarm that some hope marks the start of a revolution in tree planting. 

With promises to rejuvenate forests from the air, tree-planting startups are looking to supplement shovels and long days of labour with swarms of seed-bearing aerial drones. A growing target: B.C.'s burnt forests.

Last spring, in its first commercial planting season, Flash Forest planted 150,000 trees, almost entirely in B.C. forests hit by wildfire. That included land scorched in the 2021 White Rock Lake fire east of Kamloops, as well as wildfire scars near Quesnel, 100 Mile House and in northern B.C. 

In October, Canada's Ministry of Natural Resources said it would back Flash Forest with a more than $1.3-million grant. Within two years, the government has tasked the company to plant more than a million trees. 

So far, the company has completed 37 projects involving 22 different tree species. But Flash Forest's ambitions are much bigger — as Canada's largest company of its kind, it plans to quadruple the number of trees it plants every year so that by 2028, it will have planted one billion trees across the country. 

If carried out under the auspices of the federal government, that would represent half of Canada's target to plant two billion trees by 2030. 

"Reforestation is arguably the best solution we have for pulling carbon out of the air," said Bryce Jones, a graduate of the University of Victoria and co-founder and CEO of Flash Forest.

Humpback whale gets helping hand 

A whale entangled in prawn fishing gear received a helping human hand in October after the marine mammal rescue team came to the rescue. 

Humpback populations have made a major comeback in B.C.’s waters in recent decades. But as their numbers grow, they are also facing a challenge. 

“Debris is a real problem for marine wildlife,” Lara Sloane, a DFO communications advisor, said in an email after the rescue. 

The fishing gear — lines from a buoy — appeared to be attached to the whale’s mouth. 

Sloane said the public can help prevent entanglements by cutting packing material, banding, rope and other looped material before disposing of it, and by not dumping those materials in the marine environment.

An emergency test for a seasoned ocean swimmer

In another water rescue, swimmer Emilyn Golden was hailed as a hero after she dove into the ocean to save a teen who was being swept out to sea off West Van's Dundarave Beach in October. 

The choppy water proved to be too much for the teenager, who Golden was told had autism and didn’t swim.

“Finally, I saw a little black dot, and I said ‘Is that him?’” she said. 

By the time she reached him, his lips were purple, and he was nervous as she came closer. 

His mom had popsicles waiting at the beach, Golden said. So she smiled and told him he was a very good swimmer, “and we were having a race.”

Slowly, the two began swimming to shore together. But the teen couldn’t go on, and Golden held him up. 

Finally, a zodiac from the Kitsilano Coast Guard station arrived and fished the two out of the water about 150 metres from shore. 

When they arrived on shore, the boy’s mother came to hug Golden, sobbing.

Golden attributed their survival to her habit of regularly swimming in the ocean throughout the winter.

“That’s truly what enabled me to stay calm and in control of that situation,” she said.