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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.
The Portuguese man o’ war (Physalia physalis) is not a jellyfish, in fact it is not a discreet animal at all, but instead a siphonophore—a colonial medusoid made up of specialized animal polyps working together as an organism. These siphonophores have stinging tentacles which typically measure 10 metres (30 ft) in length but can be up to 50 metres (165 ft) long. Being stung by a man o’ war does not typically cause death, but sailors and mariners who have survived the experience assert that it taught them a new definition of agony.
But the fearsome man o’ war is not the subject of this post. Instead we are concentrating on the animal which feeds on the man ‘o war (as well as other siphonophores which drift in the great blue expanses of the open ocean). One is inclined to imagine that men o’ war are eaten only by armored giants with impervious skins and great shearing beaks (and indeed the world’s largest turtles, the loggerheads, are the main predators of siphonophores), however another much less likely predator is out there in the open ocean gnawing away at the mighty stinging colonies. Glaucus atlanticus, the blue sea slug, is a tiny shell-free mollusk which lives in the open ocean. The little nudibranch only grows up to 3 cm in length but it hunts and eats a variety of large hydrozoans, pelagic mollusks, and siphonophores (including the man o’ war).
Although not quite as gaudy as its lovely cousins from tropical coral reefs, Glaucus atlanticus is a pretty animal of pale grey, silver, and deep blue with delicate blue appendages radiating out from its six appendages. The little mollusks live in temperate and tropical oceans worldwide. They float at the top of the water thanks to a swallowed air bubble stored in a special sack in their gastric cavity. Because of this flotation aid, the slug is able to cling upside down to the surface tension of the waves. Since it is entirely immune to the venomous nematocysts of the man o’ war, the sea slug can store some of the man o’ wars venom for its own use. The tendrils at the edge of Glaucus atlanticus’ body can produce an extremely potent sting (so it is best to leave the tiny creatures alone, if you happen to somehow come across them).
Each and every Glaucus atlanticus is a hermaphrodite with a complete set of sex organs for both genders. Incapable of mating with themselves they ventrally (and thoroughly) embrace another blue sea slug during breeding, and both parties then produce strings of eggs. The hatchling nudibranchs have a shell during their larval stages, but this vestige quickly disappears as they mature into hunters of the open ocean.
In ancient Egypt the sky was a gleaming blue, the sacred lotuses had blue petals, the pharaoh’s battle crown was blue, beautiful women wore chokers made of blue stone, and, above all, the life-giving Nile was blue. The ancient Egyptians needed azure pigment to portray these essential elements of life within their sacred art, but the only natural blue pigments were from turquoise and lapis lazuli—semi-precious stones which were rare and expensive. To provide a sufficient supply of blue pigment for painting, jewelry, and sculpture, the Egyptians therefore invented the first synthetic pigment which today is appropriately known as “Egyptian blue” (well, it is also appropriately known as calcium copper silicate–CaCuSi4O10 or CaO·CuO·4SiO2—but I’m going to keep calling it Egyptian blue).
Egyptian blue was synthesized in the 4th Dynasty (c.2575-2467 BC) when the newly created pigment was first used to color limestone sculptures, beads, and cylinder seals. Its use became more prevalent in the Middle Kingdom, and then increased again during the New Kingdom when blue was used for the production of numerous everyday objects. Throughout the Hellenic and Roman age, Egyptian blue was a mainstay of the nascent chemical industry, and it found its way into all sorts of art, jewelry, crafts, and artisan wares. Then, in the fourth century the secret of its manufacture was lost. Only in the beginning of the nineteenth century did interest revive as the English and French pioneers of the chemical trade rushed to synthesize useful compounds. As one might surmise from the fact that the manufacturing process was lost for a millennium and a half, the method to make Egyptian blue is surprisingly involved. Citing a British Museum publication, Wikipedia describes it thus:
Several experiments have been carried out by scientists and archaeologists interested in analyzing the composition of Egyptian blue and the techniques used to manufacture it. It is now generally regarded as a multi-phase material that was produced by heating together quartz sand, a copper compound, calcium carbonate, and a small amount of an alkali (plantash or natron) at temperatures ranging between 800–1000 °C (depending on the amount of alkali used) for several hours. The result is cuprorivaite or Egyptian blue, carbon dioxide and water vapor…
The Egyptians were clearly people who took their pigments seriously, and thankfully so–the blue tints they crafted have lasted for thousands of years (and helped us find our way to synthesized pigments). It is strange to think of the subtle ways that the Nile still flows through our lives.
The brightest star in the night sky is Sirius. Only 8.6 million light years from Earth, Sirius A is 25 times more luminous than the sun. Because of its brightness, the star was well known in ancient times—it was named Sopdet in Ancient Egypt and it was the basis of the Egyptian calendar. After a 70-day absence from the skies Sirius (or Sopdet) first became visible just before sunrise near the Summer solstice—just prior to the annual Nile floods. Greek and Roman astronomers philosophized and speculated about Sirius, (which they called “the dog star” because of its closeness to the constellation Canis Majoris). Arabs knew the star as Aschere “the leader”. Polynesians used it as a principle focus of their astonishing oceanic navigation. Over countless millennia, Sirius has worked its way deep into human consciousness as one of the immutable landmarks of the night sky.
So imagine the shock when it was discovered that Sirius is not alone. The bright star we know is actually Sirius A, a star with twice the mass of the sun. In 1844 the German astronomer Friedrich Bessel hypothesized a tiny companion for Sirius based on the irregular proper motion of Sirius. Then, in 1862, as the American Civil war was being fought an American astronomer in Chicago first observed the tiny companion, Sirius B (thereafter affectionately known as “the Pup”). Sirius B has nearly the same mass as the sun (.98 solar mass) but it is only 12,000 kilometers (7,500 mi) in diameter—nearly the same distance around as Earth.
Today Sirius B is the closest white dwarf star to planet Earth. However it has not always been so, Sirius B began its life as a luminous blue B-type main sequence star with a mass five times that of the sun. About 124 million years ago—as the dinosaurs grazed on the first magnolias—Sirius B fused its way through the hydrogen and helium in its mass. As Sirius B began to fuse together larger elements like oxygen and carbon it expanded into a red giant star with a diameter 10 to 100 times that of the sun. Then Sirius B ran out of nuclear fuel. Without the heat generated by nuclear fusion to support it, the star underwent gravitational collapse and shrank into a hyper dense white dwarf star. These tiny stars are extremely dense and hot when they are formed, but since they generate no new energy their heat and radiance gradually radiate away over billions of years until the stars are completely black and dead.
Although Sirius B is largely composed of a carbon-oxygen mixture, its core is overlaid by an envelope of lighter elements. Hydrogen, being lightest, forms the outermost layer (which is why the little star currently appears uniformly white).
The Common Teal (Anas crecca) is a gregarious dabbling duck which is widespread throughout temperate Europe during all seasons. Further east, great flocks of teals live in Siberia during the summer and then migrate to India and China for the colder months. But why is this duck being mentioned on Ferrebeekeeper? Well, as it turns out, this is a post about color–and the common teal gives its name to one of the most widespread colors, teal, a middle tone blue-green. The male common teal has a blue-green patch of feathers around his eyes–and these feathers are what the color was named after.
Situated half-way between blue and green, teal is a handsome tone which appeals to people who like both those colors. Teal featured prominently in the Plochere Color System, a color methodology favored by interior designers since the late forties. Additionally, teal was one of 16 original HTML web colors formulated in 1987, so if you are a web pioneer or came of age in the nineties you may also have seen quite a lot of it. But, even if you are somehow not an aging interior designer or an old school computer geek, you have still been inundated with the color teal by a different industry.
In order to make scenes comprehensible, television and movie producers (and visual artists for that matter) need to make the people in their shots stand out from the background. Most actors range in hue from pale to dark orange. As you can see in the color wheel which I have very helpfully included above, orange is opposite on the color wheel from teal. The easiest way to make actors contrast with the background and thereby have shots with adequate color contrast is to portray orange actors against a teal background. Of course gifted directors use a whole range of techniques to provide contrast to their shots—talented filmmakers utilize light and shadow, wide-ranging color contrast, and subtle visual cues to make shots comprehensible. But terrible directors (or producers running behind schedule) can simply have the digital effects technicians make everybody look like John Boehner running around in a swimming pool. It’s shocking how many movies (especially bad movies) do in fact look exactly like that.
Woodblock prints of ages past show giant octopuses ripping apart boats and feasting on sailors like popcorn. These artifacts of ancient sea-lore make for rousing images, but they are quite wrong: octopuses are fierce and cunning hunters but they present little danger to humans—with a noteworthy exception. The truly dangerous octopuses are not giant monsters (perhaps the artists of yesteryear were thinking of the mighty giant squid?) but rather tiny jewel-like beauties from the genus Hapalochlaena which includes only three or four species. Known as blue-ring octopuses the tiny creatures swim in tide pools and shallows of the Indo-Pacific Ocean from Japan down to Australia (where they are most prevalent). Blue-ringed octopuses live on shrimp, crabs, minnows, and horseshoe crabs. They are tremendous hunters who use camouflage, stealth, and guile to catch their prey. However, these tools pale before their greatest weapon: the little octopuses are among the most poisonous creatures on planet Earth.
Like the flamboyant cuttlefish, the blue-ringed octopus does not like to bite without giving warning but advertises its toxicity with vivid coloration. The octopus can conceal itself with tremendous prowess however, as soon as it becomes aware of a predator or some other threat, it dials up its coloration changing from muted reef tones to brilliant yellow with iridescent blue rings. If you see something like this in the ocean, for heaven’s sake don’t touch it. The octopus’s warning colors let ocean predators know to leave it alone but immediately attract humankind’s magpie urge to grab shiny things. Although blue-ringed octopuses are good natured and have been known not to bite people who were provoking them rather intensely, their bites have caused more than seventy recorded fatalities in Australia. The octopus has a tiny beak and often a victim does not realize they have been bitten until they began to fall into paralysis and their respiration starts to fail.
The venom of the blue ringed octopus is a complicated pharmacological cocktail which includes tetrodotoxin, 5-hydroxytryptamine, hyaluronidase, tyramine, histamine, tryptamine, octopamine, taurine, acetylcholine, and dopamine. The most active ingredient tetrodotoxin blocks the sodium channels which conducting sodium ions (Na+) through a cell’s plasma membrane. This causes total paralysis for the octopus victim, however if clever and persistent rescuers are present at the time of the bite they can rescue the unfortunate soul with continuous artificial respiration. This is no small matter as bite victims are often rendered completely unresponsive by the paralytic victim. Although completely conscious they are unable to communicate in any way or even breathe. If artificial respiration is initiated immediately and continued until the body can metabolize and eliminate the toxin, bite victims can survive (although it sounds like rather an ordeal).
Blue ringed octopuses are tender and solicitous mothers. The mother octopus lays a clutch of approximately 50 eggs in autumn which she incubates beneath her arms for about six months (during which time she is unable to eat). When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies. The baby octopuses reach sexual maturity in about a year. Despite their cleverness and beauty, the animals are as ephemeral as they are deadly.