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Brian May is an astrophysicist who pursued a career in music. He is the guitarist for the rock band Queen and he is more famous for writing “Fat Bottomed Girls”, “We Will Rock You”, & “Who Wants to Live Forever” than for anything he wrote while obtaining his Astrophysics degrees. Brian was popularizing Galaxy Zoo on his blog (Galaxy Zoo is an online project which seeks public help in classifying vast numbers of galaxies. A Dutch fan, Hanny van Arkel (a schoolteacher by trade), became interested in the project and started working on the site when she spotted a huge weird glowing green thing below spiral galaxy IC 2497. She presented her findings to professional astronomers, who were also perplexed by the ghostly shape. They duly named the object in her honor “Hanny’s Voorwerp” (which is Dutch for “Hanny’s thing”).
So what is Hanny’s Voorwerp? The leading theory is that the supermassive black hole in the center of IC 2497 created huge jets of energy and gas as it (messily) devoured great masses of matter at the center of that galaxy. These esoteric plumes interacted with an unrelated stream of gaseous matter hundreds of thousands of light years long (which is longer than our galaxy). The thin clouds of glass then fluoresced like a krypton sign or a Scooby-Doo ghost.
Thanks Brian May and Hanny! This is one fancy voorwerp.
The 85th Annual Academy Award Show just happened this past Sunday. While memories of Hollywood magic are fresh in everyone’s mind, this is an ideal time to present a list of fantasy crowns from various movies and TV shows. I borrowed the concept (and a couple of crowns) from this online gallery, however I certainly found crowns everywhere on the silver screen & the small screen. Something about the theatric pomp of royalty makes royal headdresses a favorite part of costume & fantasy dramas.
As is often the case with movies, some of these crowns look far better than actual crowns (which tend to be bizarre medieval or colonial relics). It is funny to think that rhinestones, paste, foil, and gold paint sparkle more brightly than actual gold and gems (in fact, there is probably a broad moral somewhere in that fact). Of course that is in only relevant the cases where there is even a physical actor—there were so many cartoon princesses and kings that I only included a smattering here.
Imagine having a thick luxurious beard which would make an Assyrian king proud. Pretty appealing! OK, now imagine if that heavy beard were composed of tens (or hundreds) of thousands of live bees. Aagh! The loveable little black and yellow creatures are instantly transformed into the stuff of horror! What is wrong with people?
With their complex societies, compound eyes, elaborate gendered castes, and preternatural work ethic, bees can sometimes seem quite alien, but nothing the insects do strikes me as so strange as the behavior of the humans involved in the activity of bee bearding. Since the ancient beginnings of apiculture, beekeepers have put bees on their own bodies to demonstrate their command over their “livestock”. This practice took a dramatic leap forward in the early 19th century when a visionary Ukranian beekeeper named Petro Prokopovych started popularizing some of his innovations by coaxing large numbers of bees to cover his face and neck in large numbers! The practice was subsequently adopted by numerous 19th century carnival folk, showmen, and honey sellers in order to stir up interest and make some money, and it continues to this day.
In order to create a bee beard, a beekeeper separates a group of bees from a hive and puts them in a box for two days (making sure to feed them with plenty of sugar water). The beekeeper then puts a tiny cage containing a young queen bee underneath his/her chin, and waits with quiet, calm determination as the carefully released workers follow the queen’s strong pheromones and surround her en mass. In effect the bee-bearder is creating an artificial swarm—a state of affairs when bees abandon their traditional defensive behaviors.
Undoubtedly you are wondering what it is like to wear an entire colony of flying, stinging insects like an otherworldly scarf. The Toronto Star asked bee beard expert Melanie Kempers to describe the experience and she said;
It’s kind of like monkeys in a barrel. The original bee holds onto the face and they hold on to each other. It’s kind of little claws, holding on to the skin, If I try to move my face, they hold on with all their might, it feels like a sunburn. The skin is tight.
That’s a pretty blasé way to describe wearing a lot of living things—and bee beards can be made up of truly huge numbers. In 1998, the record holder, an American animal trainer named Mark Biancaniello, wore a beard (or maybe a body suit) consisting of 350,000 bees–which together weighed just under 40 kilograms (about 87 pounds).
As in many other matters, Chinese beekeepers have been pursuing this record. Although the East Asian apiarists have not beat the record yet, they have done a good job coming up with impressive bee beard stunts. In fact, a pair of Chinese beekeepers, Li Wenhua and Yan Hongxia, were wed while wearing matching bee swarms! The real trick behind bee beards is safely removing them. Apparently the wearer leaps straight into the air and comes down in a jarring fashion which knocks the bees loose. Then assistants spray the remaining bees with white smoke as the beekeeper removes stragglers with gentle shaking motions. That is what I have read at any rate, I have no intention of trying this myself!
Even though honey bees they mimic humans in some ways (for example with their rigidly hierarchical hive organization), they are alarmingly alien in many respects. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the lives of honeybee drones—the male bees which play a role in reproduction but are otherwise alarmingly superfluous to the workings of a bee hive.
Drones are born from unfertilized eggs either laid by queens or by laying worker bees (which can only lay drones). Because the drones develop from unfertilized eggs they have only one set of chromosomes (a reproductive process known as arrhenotokous parthenogenesis) and each drone produces genetically identical sperm. A fertilized queen can lay female worker bees which have two sets of chromosomes (diploid). Worker bees are extremely closely related as sisters since they share identical genetic information from the father (as opposed to most other animals where male sex cells are not all genetically identical).
Drones are different in appearance from female bees. They are slightly larger than worker bees but smaller than the queen. They have extremely large eyes, perhaps to help them find a queen while flying. Additionally, drones lack stingers (which are really modified ovipositors and thus unique to female bees). Drones from different hives congregate at certain locations not far from a given hive (it is unclear how they choose or mark these locations).
Drones do not engage in the useful toil so characteristic of the workers. Male bees do not gather nectar & pollen, take care of larvae, or build the hive. Lacking stingers, they do not act as soldiers. Their only purpose is to mate with a queen—though only one in thousands will fulfill this destiny. Mating is accomplished in midair and proves fatal to the drone. His reproductive organs break off inside the queen and the contusion proves mortal. Drones have no place in an austere winter beehive. As winter approaches in cold weather locations, worker bees cast all of the drones out of the hive to perish.
In the Northern Hemisphere today is the first day of winter. As always, this change of season occurs on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Last night was actually the longest evening of the year—so I suppose we can now look forward to the gradual return of the sun bit by bit (even as the weather worsens for the true cold of January and February).
To celebrate winter (admittedly my least favorite season), here is a gallery of winter personifications. Each wears an icy crown and most of them look cold, haughty, indifferent, or cruel. I am including these ice kings and queens under Ferrebeekeeper’s mascot category even though they are not really cheering for a team or a product. “Personification” seems close enough to the definition of mascot to ensure that I won’t get in trouble from WordPress (although, as ever, I invite any comments or aeguments below).
I would hang around and make some funny comments about all of the monarchs of winter but all of the white hair and piercing eyes are starting to weird me out a little (to say nothing of Katy Perry’s vacuous stare). Have you ever noticed how summer, spring, and fall are not represented as maniacal tyrants with wicked crowns? I’m looking forward to getting back to those other seasons. In the mean time have a wonderful winter!
In the classical Roman world, crowns did not represent monarchy in the same way they later came to during the Middle Ages. Instead crown and wreathes were granted as an award to individuals who had distinguished themselves–much like a trophy or a medal. Strangely, this ancient tradition continues today in the world of beauty pageants. Contests like the Miss America contest, the Miss Universe pageant, and numerous other beauty pageants invariably present a crown to the victor (although the Roman custom has been sadly watered down and winners don’t keep their crown but give it to their successor).
The crowns for the Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss World pageant are gaudy affairs made of crystal and synthetic gemstones, however Mikimoto the world’s great manufacturer of cultured pearls also makes pageant crowns and promotional crowns out of their peerless cultured pearls, and some of these headdresses are strangely lovely and striking.
Pearls are formed when the internal mantle tissues of certain shelled mollusks are injured by a predator attack, a parasite incursion, or some other event. In response, the mollusk secretes nacre into the hollow space formed around the injury. The nacre is composed of calcium carbonate and a fibrous protein known as conchiolin. In the past pearls were very expensive and rare (so much so that the real crown of the Netherlands is made with fake pearls manufactured of fishskin and paste). However in the beginning of the twentieth century Japanese entrepreneurs mastered a technique for culturing perfect pearls. The Mikimoto company has been a pearl culturing company and a fine jeweler ever since.
For the last century, Mikimoto has created many beautiful crowns in order to show off its wares. In 1957, Mikimoto created the elaborate Cherry Blossom crown for the U.S. Cherry Blossom Queen of the National Cherry Blossom Festival held in Washington DC, which has celebrated Japanese-American friendship since 1912 (except for a few periods, when the festival was canceled for sundry reasons). Mikimoto also made two demonstration crowns which do not have any purpose other than to show off their art. The crown pictured at the top of this post was crafted by Mikimoto in 1978 to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the discovery of their method of culturing pearls. Another spectacular demonstration crown was made by Mikimo in 1979 based on Byzantine models and designs.
In 2002 Mikimoto constructed the so-called “Phoenix crown” for the Miss Universe pageant out of 500 diamonds and 120 large South Sea and Akoya pearls. The crown was presented to pageant winners between 2002 and 2007 when it was sold to a private owner. Although I object to Miss Universe for false advertising (only denizens of Earth are represented), the large pearls of the pageant crown are certainly very striking.
Shamash was the Mesopotamian deity of the sun. To the Akkadians, Assyrians, and the Babylonians he was synonymous with justice, generosity, and salvation. However there was a second solar deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, Nergal, who was not associated with such positive aspects of existence. Nergal was the child of Enlil, god of the wind, who was exiled from earth for raping Ninlin, the goddess of the open fields. Ninlin followed Enlil into exile and gave birth to their son Nergal in the underworld (Sumerian myth-makers should be ashamed of the sexism of this story). Nergal’s dark origins foreshadowed his nature. Unlike Shamash, who represented the life giving power of the sun and divine justice, Nergal was only associated with certain phases of the sun. To quote Wikipedia “Portrayed in hymns and myths as a god of war and pestilence, Nergal seems to represent the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle.”
As a god of plague, drought, fire, and insufferable heat, Nergal quickly came to be associated with death and the underworld. He was portrayed either as a powerful man bearing a sickle-sword and a mace, or as a lion with a man’s head.
Although he was a terrible god of destruction, the main myth we have about Nergal is romantic in nature. Mesopotamian scholars have discovered and translated a poetic epic recounting Nergal’s tempestuous courtship of the dark goddess Ereshkigal (the queen of the underworld, who once gave Ishtar such a wretched time). After a passionate tryst, Nergal left Ereshkigal, who thereafter was overwhelmed by passionate longing for further intimacy. Hearing of her unhappiness and realizing how much he in turn missed her, Nergal abandoned his place in the heavens and traveled down through the seven gates of hell to rejoin Ereshkigal. The two death gods then shared a bed for seven days and seven nights before marrying and jointly sharing rule of the underworld (it’s a happy story!).
Despite the felicity of his connubial circumstances, to the people of Mesopotamia, Nergal represented the unpredictability of mortal life and early unnatural death. He was worshiped, particularly at his chief temple located at Cuthah (a smaller city just northeast of Babylon) but his cult was far from the most popular. Unlike many other Babylonian deities, Nergal was mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 17:30) and his name has therefore found a place among the demons and boogeymen of Christianity. If you search for “Nergal” on the internet you are likely to find the picture of a heavy metal singer from Poland dressed up in gothic makeup!