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So does everybody remember Pope Benedict XVI, the German guy who was pope until last month? While I was doing research on Papal tiaras, I happened to come across his personal coat of arms. Holy smokes! Tiaras will have to wait—check out this puppy! Not only does it feature a number of ferrebeekeeper themes–mollusks, mammals, and crowns—it is ridiculously gothic and insanely colorful to boot. The coat of arms features a moor’s head wearing a crown (and how is that an appropriate thing in the modern world?), a bear wearing a backpack (!), and a large scallop shell. The scallop shell is an allusion to pilgrimages and also an allegorical story about Saint Augustine walking on the beach and having an epiphany about divinit. The moor’s head is a traditional symbol of medieval German nobility (as an allusion to beheaded Moorish foes and to suzerainty over Africa): this particular example is apparently the “Moor of Freising” from the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. The bear with the backpack is “the bear of St. Corbinian” but I have no idea what he is doing. Maybe he is going to grade school?
This papal coat of arms is unusual in that it is surmounted by a bishop’s miter instead of the traditional three-tiered papal tiera (a symbol of kingship which the papacy has been phasing out, but more about that in another post). The truly important element is there however—the fancy gothic keys of Saint Peter which (according to the Catholic Church) grant access to heaven. Now if only there were a catfish… Speaking of which, below, as a special bonus, I have included the coat of arms of the infamous Urban VIII (who poisoned the birds in the papal garden because their singing disturbed his plotting) which includes the Barberini bees, and the coat of arms of the futile and immoral Pious VI, which shows a weird boy throwing up on a lily.
Justin Orvel Schmidt (pictured above) is an entomologist who specializes in insect defenses. His greatest expertise is in the stings of hymenopterans—the bees, wasps, sawflies, hornets, and ants (although he also researches the toxic/chemical defences of other arthropods). In the early 1980’s Schmidt attempted to systematize the different medical and physiological effects of insect stings. This work led him to coauthor one of the comprehensive tomes on the subject of insect venom Insect Defenses: Adaptive Mechanisms and Strategies of Prey and Predators. Unfortunately for Schmidt, in the course of his researches, he has been stung/bitten innumerable times by various aggressive and toxic insects (and other creepy crawlies) from around the world.
Based on these experiences, Schmidt attempted to categorize the algogenic (i.e. pain-inducing) effects of hymenopteran stings in the now world-famous Schmidt sting pain index. This index is a captivating blend of subjective pain analysis, horrifying real world experience, and inventive poetry. The lowest sting on the Schmidt index is a 0—betokening a sting which has no effect on humans. The highest rating is a 4 which describes an experience of maddening absolute agony. The index became famous because of an interview with Outdoor magazine. Schmidt has since conceded that his descriptive efforts lack an empirical basis and that stings vary depending on body location and the amount of venom injected. Because of such admissions, Wikipedia took down its remarkable table of stings–which is a shame because the subjective descriptions gave the index its visceral power. Here is a sampling copied verbatim from “Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog”:
1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.
1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.
3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.
3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.
4.0 Pepsis wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.
4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.
While the work lacks rigorous empirical criteria, even the most relentlessly analytical critics seem to aver that being stung by over 150 different species of arthtopods gives Schmidt a certain robust validity. The literary merit of the metaphors is certainly genuine (although one hopes that the good Doctor Schmidt never actually dropped a hair dryer into his bubble bath or let misanthropic vaudevillians torture him with fire). Personally I have only been stung by sweat bees, honey bees, and yellow jackets, so I cannot testify to the more esoteric sting ratings (thankfully–since yellowjacket stings nearly did me in), however something sounds completely right about the yellowjacket sting description. I recall a moment of warmth which metastasized almost immediately into a sour panic-inducing pain which spread through my arm and then my body.
In conclusion, I salute Justin Orvel Schmidt as a man of science and a masochistic poet/performance artist. If he claims that a bullet ant sting is the worst hymenopteran sting, I see no cause to contradict him and I never want to think about it again.
One of the ongoing horror stories from when I was in middle school was the invasion of the Africanized killer bees. In retrospect, it all sounds like a xenophobic horror movie from the 1950s, but people were truly alarmed back in the 80s. There were sensationalist news stories featuring the death of children and animated maps of the killer bees spreading unstoppably across America. The narrative was that mad scientists in South America had hybridized super-aggressive African bees with European bees in an attempt to create superbees (better able to survive in the tropics and produce more honey). These “Africanized” bees then escaped and started heading north, killing innocent humans and devastating local hives as they invaded.
The amazing thing about this story is that it is all true. In the 1950s a biologist named Warwick E. Kerr imported 26 queen bees (of subspecies Apis mellifera scutellata) from the Great Lakes area of Africa to Brazil. A replacement beekeeper allowed the queens to escape in 1957 and they began to interbreed with local bees (of the European subspecies Apis mellifera ligustica and Apis mellifera iberiensis). The resulting hybridized bees were indeed better able to survive the tropics and quicker to reproduce, but they were also more defensive of their hives, more inclined to sting, and more likely to swarm (i.e. get together in a big angry cloud and fly off somewhere else when they felt unhappy). The killer bees (for want of a better term) could more readily live like wild bees in ground cavities and hollow trees. The hybrid bees out-competed local honeybees and spread across the continent. Sometimes aggressive queens would enter domestic hives and kill the old queen and take over!
Although Ancient Egypt may have been an early adapter of apiculture, Sub Saharan African societies did not practice beekeeping but hewed to the ancient tradition of bee-robbing. The African subspecies of honeybees came from a more challenging environment than the European subspecies. Forced to contend with deep droughts and fiendish predators (like the infamously stubborn honey badger), the bees are more defensive and more mobile than their northern counterparts. Apis mellifera scutellata is famous for not backing down from raiders but instead stinging them with dogged determination until the intruder flees far from their hive. This has led to unfortunate instances of children, infirm adults, and people with bee allergies falling down and being stung to death (which sounds like a really bad end) by the American hybrid. The sting of an Africanized bee is no more puissant than that of a European honeybee (and it also results in the death of the bee) but dozens—or hundreds—of stings can add up to kill a healthy adult.
The entire Africanized bee event was really a case of anti-domestication. Imagine if everyone’s dogs were suddenly replaced by wolves or if placid white-and-black cows were supplanted by ravening aurochs. If you follow that bizarre thought to its logical conclusion, you will anticipate what actually happened. Although initially dismayed, Brazilian beekeepers began to discover more placid strains of Africanized bees and started to redomesticate them. The hybrid bees do indeed produce more honey, survive droughts better, and it is believed they have a greater resistance to the dreaded colony collapse sweeping through honey bee population. Perhaps in the fullness of time we will learn to love the infamous killer bees.
Tamandua is a genus of arborial anteaters with two species, the southern tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) and the northern tamandua (Tamandua mexicana). Tamanduas have prehensile tails which help them grip the trees, bushes, and scrub where they hunt for ants, termites, and bees (which they vacuum up through a tubular mouth or capture with a 40 cm long sticky tongue). The two species inhabit a large swath of the Americas—the northern tamandua ranges from Mexico down through Central America and west of the Andes through coastal Venezuela, Columbia, and Peru. The southern tamandua inhabits the entire area surrounding the Amazon basin and ranges from Trinidad, through Venezuela, the entirety of Brazil, and into northern Argentina. Tamanduas weigh up to 7 kilograms (15 pounds) and grow to lengths of about a meter (3 feet).
Tamanduas have immensely powerful arms which they use for climbing and ripping apart ant and termite colonies. If threatened they hiss and release an unpleasant scent (they can also grapple by means of their formidable arms and huge claws). The creatures spend much of their time in trees and they nest in hollow trees or abandoned burrows of other animals. Tamanduas can live up to nine years. They are widespread but comparatively scarce.
Here in New York the weather outside is February gray. The buildings are gray. The sky is gray. The trees are gray. The people are dressed in gray and black. Fortunately we can beguile away this monochromatic tedium by contemplating the Euglossini, also known as the orchid bees!
Despite their Latin name, the Euglossini are not uniformly eusocial. This means that most species of orchid bees live solitary lives (in marked contrast to honeybees–which live in vast hives more ordered than the strictest totalitarian state). The orchid bees live in Central and South America, apart from one species which ranges into North America. They are notable for their brilliant iridescent blue and green coloring. The females build nests out of mud and resin.
The most remarkable aspect of Euglossini behavior is the male bee’s obsession which the aromatic compounds produced by various tropical orchids. Male orchid bees have a rarified ability to sense these fragrances even in small quantities (like many heady floral/fruit scents the chemicals produced by the orchids are usually complex esters). The bees harvest the molecules with front legs specially modified to resemble little brushes (and in doing so they generally pollinate the orchids, which are wholly dependent on the bees). Astonishingly, the male bees store the chemicals in a cavity on their back leg which is sealed off and protected by waxy hairs.
The male bees appear to use these compounds when trying to attract a mate but no female attraction to the odors has been proved. On the other hand, many Stanhopeinae and Catasetinae orchids are absolutely dependent on the male bees to reproduce. Different species of these orchids rely on specific species of orchid bees to successfully pollinate far-away partners in the rainforest. Charles Darwin wrote about this pollination system after observing it in the wild and later referred to the highly specialized orchids as proof of the ways in which species adapt to their environments.
In October of 2012, Beekeepers in Ribeauville (a town in the Alsace region of France) were shocked to find that bees were producing vivid green and blue honey. The hard-working insects were not mutants or abstract expressionists. They had apparently found a source of colorful sugars which they pragmatically incorporated into their preparations for winter.
Shocked by the unnatural shades of the sweet honey, the town’s apiarists combed the local countryside until they found the apparent source—M&M candy fragments. A local biogas plant (a sort of industrial recycling plant) was processing candy fragments from a nearby Mars Candy plant. The adaptable bees discovered barrels filled with the sugary waste and began converting it to honey and stocking up their honeycomb. French law however is stern concerning what constitutes saleable honey (honey must be transparent to brown & produced from plant products) so the wacky carnival honey will never see market. Additionally workers at the biogas plant have enclosed all the candy dust so that the industrious insects don’t take over their jobs.
Here’s another strange painting from contemporary master of surrealism, Mark Ryden. The subject is the “tree of life” a subject which comes up in religion, philosophy, science, and art. A tree of life from Greek myth even found its way onto this blog several Octobers ago. In Ryden’s interpretation, a princess with a bouquet and a baby sits suspended in a sentient tree. Hidden among the boughs are the seven platonic solids. Beneath her a bear and a monarch symbolize some unknown dualism.Somehow this painting combines Crivelli’s creepy diagram-like realism with half of the topics from Ferrebeekeeper. Seriously there are hymenopterans, crowns, trees, mammals, a snake, and garden flowers (not to mention all of the colorsfrom a master’s palate). The only things missing are a Chinese spaceship and an underworld god (and even the latter is hinted at by the death’s head and the tree’s occult eye).
As always I am moved by Ryden’s realism and by his eerie milieu, but I am at a loss as to the cohesive meaning. Perhaps there isn’t one and the piece is meant to convey atmospheric mystery and sacredness of a renowned tree which does not actually exist anymore than does platonic perfection.
Hey, look at that! It’s a delicate pale blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) from Europe and northern Asia. What could this ethereal creature have to do with the horror theme which this blog has been following as a lead-up to Halloween? In fact, what does the butterfly have to do with any of Ferrebeekeeper’s regular themes? Butterflies are lepidopterans rather than the hymenoptera we favor here.
As it turns out—the butterfly has a lot to do with hymenopterans. Maculinea arion, or “the large blue butterfly ” to use its not-very-creative English name, may look innocent as a butterfly, but in its larval stage the creature is both appalling and remarkable. Alcon caterpillars are myrmecophiles—which means the caterpillars live in association with ants. Despite the Greek meaning of ”myrmecophile” (to love ants) the relationship is anything but loving on the part of the Alcon caterpillar–unless love is meant in the same way as “to love ham”.
M. arion caterpillars are relentless predators of ant larvae. The way they obtain this fragile foodstuff is remarkable for sophistication and ruthless guile. When a caterpillar hatches, it lives for a few days on wild thyme or marjoram plants. The caterpillar then secretes a sweet substance which attracts red ants which carry the larva back to their tunnels.
Inside the ant hive, the caterpillar produces pheromones and chemical scents which mimic those of the ant queen. It also scrapes a small ridge on its first segment to produce the same noise as the ant queen. The ants are deceived by the caterpillar’s mimicry and they take it to the chamber where they rear their own larvae. The ants wait on the caterpillar as though it were the hive monarch and they even feed it ant larvae—their own undeveloped siblings. Once it pupates, the butterfly scrapes the inside of its chrysalis to continue the deception. When the butterfly emerges from its cocoon the hapless ants carry it outside and guard it as its wings harden—whereupon the butterfly departs to mate and lay eggs on wild thyme or marjoram plants.
The Maculinea Arion is not the only caterpillar to make use of this strategy. The Phengaris alcon butterfly acts in almost exactly the same way. Here is where the story becomes impressively crazy. A parasitoid wasp, Ichneumon eumerus, feeds on the alcon caterpillar inside the ant hive. The wasp infiltrates the hive by spraying a pheromone which causes the ants to attack each other. While they are busy fighting, the wasp lays its eggs inside the caterpillar. The wasp larvae hatch into the body of the caterpillar (which the ants think of as a queen) and they eat the caterpillar host safe in the cloak of this deception.
If an ant hive becomes too saturated with caterpillars it will die and all three species inside the hive will likewise perish). The red ants in this scenario are constantly evolving new pheromone signals to outcompete the caterpillars and wasps—which in turn coevolve with the ants. It’s strange to imagine the troubling world of deception, chemical warfare, and carnage just beneath the ground.