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There was a long line at the Brooklyn polls tonight and plenty of time to color in this little (barely) allegorical flounder which I drew in my little sketchbook I carry with me.  Afterwards I stuck my voting sticker next to the cartoon.  Let’s see what the returns reveal as they roll in… Ferrebeekeeper will be back tomorrow with more mollusks, cities, gothic artworks, farm fowl, and so forth.

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Ferrebeekeeper has written about nanosatellites—tiny swarms of lightweight & (relatively) inexpensive satellites which mimic the functionality of big pricey birds.  That article was enthusiastic about the tiny spacecraft, however the FCC (which reviews communications satellites and approves/denies satellite launches) has some reasonable reservations about the idea, particularly considering all the of space junk which is already whipping through near-earth orbit at 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,500 miles per hour).  Last year Swarm Technologies, a mysterious and shadowy start-up founded in 2016 and based in Los Altos, California applied to the FCC to launch 4 little satellites called BEEs (which, in the inane blather of forced acronyms, stands for “Basic Electronic Elements”).  The FCC turned down the request, concluding that the functionality of the satellites (which are maybe for some sort of network?) did not make up for the safety risk they posed.  Yet Swarm Technologies launched them into orbit anyway in mid-January, in a rocket which blasted off from India.  Each Bee is 10 centimeters in length and width, and 2.8 centimeters in height.

National security agencies (which have substantial technologies for monitoring Earth orbit), are able to track the “bees” but it is an open question whether they are fully dark or whether they are producing little pings and chirps for their well-heeled private masters here on Earth.

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This is an unprecedented first for the FCC and other space agencies which have never been so blatantly flouted by a scofflaw corporation (although given the brazen, lawless, and dangerous conduct of America’s highhanded corporations and lordly oligarchs, it will probably not be the last).   The satellites lack propulsion systems and they will probably fall back into Earth’s gravity well within 10 years and burn up (I suspect an astrophysicist could tell you something less approximate, but this timeframe should serve for general purposes).

If Swarm could have held their horses a bit, they may have been able to reapply: Lockheed Martin is currently building a much more sophisticated radar system to monitor small objects in orbit.  I wonder if this is a glimpse of the privatized future of space which everyone is always touting.  If so it is not a particularly compelling picture.

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Once again, the hours of the day have flown by me.  In order to illustrate this point I am going to feature some beautiful antique timepieces from the 16th century, the first century of watchmaking.  The first watches originated in 16th century Germany.  A hundred years earlier clockmakers had invented the mainspring movement, and by the 1500s, there were clocksmiths with sufficient skill to miniaturize this apparatus into miniaturized timepieces meant to be worn.  This first generation of “watches” were really more like pendant clocks meant to be worn (how much else does Flava Flav owe to reformation-era Germany?).  These pendant watches only had an hour hand (often behind a heavy lid of glass or crystal).  They needed to be wound twice a day and they were not very reliable (sometimes losing multiple hours in a single day), however they became popular with the aristocracy because of the eternal love of novel cutting-edge technology and because they were human-made portable accessories which moved on their own—a wonder in that age.

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The first generation of watches were heavy and ostentatious—more like mechanical jewelry than modern chronographs.  The disk shape familiar in personal timepieces for the last half millennium was not yet standard (or even achievable) and so all sorts of novelty shapes prevailed.  Thus the first generation of watches featured all sorts of gilded ticking eggs, books, astronomical bodies, animals, fruit, flowers, insects (look at that crowned queen bee watch!), body parts, and religious symbols. These are a bit strange to modern eyes but they are also refreshing in our age of ubiquitous sleek black tablets. I suppose these are really the great great great grandparents of all of the personal devices which define this era. Yet looking at the strange clunky shapes of these precious odd mechanical survivors is refreshing too.  Imagine if your mechanical death’s head was off by several hours and didn’t beep intrusive emails at you all day!

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we are all worried about the residents of Houston and the Galveston Gulf Coast. Hurricanes and flooding are a deadly serious matter and my heart goes out to everyone dealing with loss or damage caused by the disaster. As Houston residents and first responders worked together to survive and mitigate the floodwaters with boats, pumps, sandbags, and evacuations, they were treated to the (horrible) spectacle of a very different group of social animals responding to the crisis with a different group strategy.

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Red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are a tough species of stinging fire ants from South America. Like humankind they are invasive generalists which can survive anything and have quickly spread worldwide because of their hardy resilience and various ingenious group strategies. I have been meaning to blog about them because they are a sort of alien red mirror of humanity (and I have been trying to get back to writing about superorganisms and the question of what constitutes an organism anyway). Because of the hurricane, the fire ants have injected themselves into the news cycle, so I am going to mention their flood strategy now and we can return to write about their other interesting behaviors.
Fire ant bodies are waxy and light. They float! But they would all be drowned or swept apart in a serious flooding event (and a single ant separated from the group is effectively dead). Thus when the fire ants sense rising waters they group together in a ball and tightly cling to each other. These living rafts of clamped together ants can float for many days.
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If you are in a flooded area and a ball of furious stinging ants floats by you, entomologists and fire ant experts recommend that you not molest it. Like Voltron, the ants can break apart into autonomous fighting units before reforming. Ants do not breathe like people and they drown sort of gradually. We will leave the ants alone and concentrate on human group strategies for getting through crises.

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Welcome back! I enjoyed some summer vacation for the Fourth of July weekend so the posts were a bit thin (or, uh, nonexistent), but now I can share the highlight of my long weekend. In addition to making a cherry pie, gardening, and going out to the beach on far Rockaway, I attended the ballet at Lincoln Center for the final performance of “Whipped Cream” a ballet by Richard Strauss! My erstwhile roommate, whom I miss greatly (despite her many misinformed ideas regarding empirical knowledge), arranged the outing. The ballet was enchantingly whimsical and beautifully danced, and the Strauss music was like a delicious classical confection in itself, but the highlight (for me) was the costume and set design by “pop-surrealist” painter Mark Ryden. There were huge sinister heads, weird meat stores, animatronic bees, and a giant dancing snow yak! Hooray!
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The plot of “Whipped Cream” is oddly similar to my favorite TV show “Adventure Time” (or maybe I should say that the other way around since the ballet arrived first by about 90 years) in that large swaths of both productions are dominated by the affairs of sentient candies and confections. The dance begins with a group of children going to the candy shop for a special treat after their first communion. The boy protagonist eats too much whipped cream and becomes ill. What follows is a fantastical montage of dancing candies, sweets, and beverages (of varying stimulating and intoxicating natures) and travel in and out of hospital wards and fabulous realms of pure unbridled flavor.
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The ballet was created in the mid nineteen twenties by Richard Strauss and was regarded at the time as a symptom of the fatuous extravagance of the twenties. A NY Times blurb I am reading says:

Strauss planned his ballet — “Schlagobers” in the original — as the biggest of several projects hoped to restore the fortunes of the Vienna State Ballet after the Hapsburg Empire collapsed; it was part of a decades-long fascination with dance on his part. Mr. Ratmansky has made welcome tweaks to the original story. (Strauss included, as part of the original plot for Act II, a failed revolution by the candy proletariat, with Jewish matzos throwing Communist pamphlets. This aspect was denounced by some as anti-Semitic at the time of the 1924 premiere and swiftly adjusted.) But Mr. Ratmansky’s response to this music doesn’t feel diplomatic; it feels energetically impish.

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Our seats were literally the last row in the house. Which gave me a great view of the entire stage, orchestra, and audience (you will recall from my Marsyas Theater, that I am interested by different sorts of stages). I drew the main stage at Lincoln Center for you here (immediately above). Additionally, I created my own whimsical surreal ballet design on the train ride over (which wasn’t so far from how the production looked.) I don’t know how to critique or even describe ballet properly so I will say that the choreography and costumes were enthralling and moved the viewer to a different and wholly fantastical dream world. Additionally, the main dancer Daniil Simkin, somehow seemed exactly like a naughty hungry little boy, until the most important dance passages, when he seemed like a professional athlete or possibly a super being. There were some moments where he really appeared to fly above the stage in defiance of physics. Although I acknowledge that this is a cliché of ballet, the effect was quite different in person—like watching Mariano Rivera throw fastballs on TV (where most things are all digital or animated anyway), versus going out to Yankees stadium to see him throw a ball faster than I have ever seen anyone throw something.
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Also there were three dancing liquor bottles (who were the comic relief) and Mademoiselle Chartreuse, was quite enchanting. Now not only do I want to go back to the ballet, I want to work with a composer to craft a magnificent and tragic fish ballet about the oceans today! Has anyone seen Richard Strauss around lately? Well, anyway, in a nod to our self-indulgent era, here is a picture of me in my opera clothes before the production. It’s nice to go out sometimes!

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Today’s garden-themed post features a flower which I have never planted—indeed, having grown up in farm country, I am somewhat alarmed by this plant. Yet, as I walk around the neighborhood I am beguiled by its seductive beauty (plus there aren’t too many ponies in Brooklyn these days). I am of course talking about the Rhododendrons, a large genus of woody heaths which speciate most prolifically in Asia around the Himalayas, but also can be found throughout Eurasia and into the Americas (particularly the Appalachian Mountains). Actually, I was dishonest in the first sentence (it’s a national fad these days), I have, in fact, planted azaleas, which are a species of rhododendrons, but I am writing here about the big showy purple rhododendrons, and we will leave real talk about azaleas for another spring.

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In the In the Victorian language of flowers, the rhododendron symbolizes danger and wariness. This is fully appropriate since some of showiest and most highly regarded rhododendrons are indeed poisonous: they contain a class of chemicals known as grayanotoxins which affect the sodium ion channels in cell membranes. Rhododendron ponticum and Rhododendron luteum are particularly high in grayanotoxins. Humans are somewhat less susceptible to these compounds than other mammals (like poor horses, which just are apt to drop stone dead from browsing on rhododendrons), however, as is so often the case, our cleverness, grabbiness, and our taste for sweetness also puts us at higher risk for consuming grayanotoxins.
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Bees are drawn to the large colorful (and sweet) flowers of rhododendrons and they use the grayanotoxin rich pollen and nectar to make honey. If a bee hive incorporates a few ornamental azaleas into the honey, this is not too dangerous, but in regions where rhododendrons dominate and all come into bloom at once, the resultant honey can be extremely dangerous. This “mad honey” is said to cause hallucinations and nausea in lower doses, but in larger quantities it can cause full body paralysis and potentially fatal breathing complications. Like the hellebore, rhododendron honey was one of the first tools of deliberate chemical warfare. Strabo relates that Roman soldiers in the army of Pompey attacking the Heptakometes were undone by honeycombs deliberately left where the sweet toothed Romans would find them. It seems best to appreciate rhododendrons by looking at them. In fact, if you live in a Himalayan fastness surrounded entirely by rhododendron forests (or if you are attacking the Greek people of the Levant) maybe don’t eat honey at all…not until later in the summer.
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Researchers have used gene manipulation to create an amazing new mutant wasp with horrifying blood red eyes! A team of scientists at University of California Riverside used CRISPR gene-slicing technology (which sounds more like a salad technology than something used for wasps) in order to permanently alter the eyes of the tiny parasitic jewel wasps (Nasonia vitripennis). Researchers injected DNA and RNA into the nearly microscopic wasp eggs with infinitesimal needles. The resulting red eyes are hereditary and can be passed through successive generations.

The scientists hope to understand how male jewel wasps can somehow ensure that all of their offspring are male—a very unusual ability which geneticists and entomologists would like to understand. However, beyond novelty eye color and sex selection in tiny obscure parasitoid wasps, the researchers are also after bigger game—understanding how to manipulate the genes of all sorts of insects including agricultural pests and dangerous disease-carrying bugs like mosquitos and tsetse flies.

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Today’s news was filled with bluster and foolishness to such an extent that I am just going to disregard it all for the moment and write a throw-away humor post about consumer goods.  Presumably we can work on restoring science, democracy, and art to humankind at some later point when I am less tired from work.

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It has been widely noted that honeybees have been disappearing from the world.  Although this problem was exacerbated by climate change, invasive varroa mites, and disease, the main problem is the overuse of neonicotinoid pesticides, which take a terrible toll on hymenopterans in general and are especially hard on eusocial bees (which extensively rely on elaborate organization, communication, and teamwork).

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This past week, General Mills, the maker of Cheerios decided to cash in on this tragedy, with a marketing campaign in which “BuzzBee” the cartoon bee who is the mascot of HoneyNut Cheerios has likewise gone missing.  The firm is distributing packets of “wildflowers” with their cereal so that children can help out our beleaguered insect friends by planting bee friendly gardens.   It is a bit unclear how wisely or carefully the flowers in the packets were chosen, but I am generally a fan of flower gardening and this sounds like a potentially fun promotion (although I have a suspicion there will be a lot of people who end up disappointed by the “Diving Dolphin” nature of cereal box seeds).

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Although he comes from a rogues’ gallery filled with monsters, addicts, and leprechauns, the Honey Nut Cheerios bee was a fairly amiable cereal mascot: he was sort of good-natured and slightly anxious bee who wanted you to experience “one honey of an O” with his delicious sugary cereal (which really is pretty good).

Yet I tend to regard BuzzBee not as a victim of colony collapse disorder as of poorly thought-out branding.  He seems like he was created by a room full of MBAs without a particularly good grasp of hymenopteran life cycles.  Notably, the honey nut bee was clearly male—even though male honey bees are stingless drones of limited utility to the hive. It seems unlikely that he would ever obtain reproductive success hanging around human kitchens (fertile queens tend to be found and courted in harrowing aerial circumstances), however people also do not tend to use agricultural pesticides in their kitchen, so Buzz most likely did not die of neonicotinoids:  more likely he was a victim of starvation, winter, or possibly a bee-eating predator such as a lizard or a bear.

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And if Buzz did manage to get his act together and find an unfertilized queen, then we will certainly never see him again!  Reproductive consummation proves fatal to drones.

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No doubt, General Mills is hoping to bring Buzz back in the style of Coke Classic with much fanfare and, um, marketing buzz, however, I hope that when they do so, they stop and think about actual bees.  To my mind, a honeybee mascot would be much more powerful if it was a formidable queen bee or, even better, a group of terrifying clone sisters who all speak the same thoughts in the same hive voice.  That would truly be an appropriate image for the group-think world of brand marketing.  Also it would leave an indelible impression on the mind of today’s youth, the same way “Crazy Cravings” scarred a group of children with his disturbing need for Honeycomb.  Crazy Craving taught all of us how giant corporations would like us to be, maybe the fact that GM is so willing to disappear the friendly face of its sugar cereal for a bit of tawdry publicity will remind us afresh of the world they are trying to build.

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The first known farmers were apparently…ants. Leafcutter ants have been growing fungus on chopped up leaves for at least 50 million years. It is an amazingly long time.  Yet, when one thinks of the astonishing range of different “breeds” of animals and crops which humankind has created through artificial selection during the 10 millenia or so years since we started farming, the ants seem a bit lackluster.  For all of their workaholic zeal, ants are not as relentless as us in selecting for traits in their crops.

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Yet, as we learn more about the ants and their empire, the amazing extent of their symbiosis with the plants they use is beginning to become more apparent to us.   Because of the vastly greater timeline of their endeavors, they have coevolved in astonishing ways. An example of this can be found in the homes of Philidris nagasau, a species of leaf cutterant native to Fiji.  These ants literally grow their homes out of Squamellaria, an epiphytic plant which grows on tropical trees.

The Economist described the mechanism through which the ants grow a home (or, alternately, the way the epiphytic plant obtains an army of insect servants):

P. nagasau worker ants harvest seeds from their epiphytic homes, carry them away, and then insert them into cracks in the bark of suitable trees. That done, they patrol the sites of the plantings to keep away herbivores, and also fertilise the seedlings as they grow by defecating into hollow structures called domatia that develop in the bases of the plants’ stems. As a Squamellaria grows, its domatium swells (see picture) and develops galleries that can accommodate ants—which then move in. This, and the plant’s habit of growing flowers that generate nectar long after they have been pollinated, provide the evolutionary quid pro quo that makes the relationship between insect and epiphyte work.

It is incredible that the ants grow their own houses.  Yet, as one looks more closely at familiar domestic arrangements with this story in mind, they start to seem less familiar.  Is farming really as unique as we make it out to be, or does it resemble mutualistic arrangements found throughout the natural world.

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We would never say we co-evolved with goats, cows, and horses: their domestication seems like a one way exchange to us. Yet an outside observer might look at our leather sofas, cheeseburgers, cavalry charges, or angora sweaters and come to a different conclusion.

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One theory of aesthetics asserts that every human-manufactured item provides profound insights into its makers and their society.  In college, we had endless fun (or some reasonably proximate substitute) by grabbing random kitschy mass-produced objects and deconstructing them so that all of the peccadillos of wage-capitalism in a mature democracy were starkly revealed. Alone among college endeavors, this proved useful later on, when I worked at the National Museum of American History (where the staff was employed to do more-or-less the same thing). Seemingly any item could provide a window for real understanding of an era.   Thus different aspects of our national character were represented by all sorts of objects: harpoons, sequined boots made in a mental asylum, an old lunch-counter, gilded teacups, or miniature ploughs…even a can of Green Giant asparagus from the 70s [btw, that asparagus caused us real trouble and was a continuing problem for the Smithsonian collection: but we will talk about that later on in an asparagus-themed post]. The objects which were significant were always changing and things regarded as treasures in one era were often relegated to the back of off-site storage facility by curators of the seceding generation, but a shrewd observer could garner a surprisingly deep understanding of society by thinking intelligently about even apparently frivolous or trivial objects.

 

Anyway, all of this is roundabout way of explaining that Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Day of the Dead by deconstructing these two skull-themed items.  At the top is a skull-shaped candle holder with a bee on it. At the bottom is a skull shaped lotion-dispenser. One dispenses light while celebrating the eusocial insects at the heart of agriculture; the other dispenses unguents and celebrates the reproductive organs of plants. But of course, when we look at these items more closely, there is more to them than just a decorated lamp and a cosmetics container.

The Día de Muertos skull already represents a syncretic blend of two very opposite cultures: the death-obsessed culture of the Aztecs who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm, and the death-obsessed culture of the Spaniards who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm.  Um…those two civilizations sounded kind of similar in that last sentence, but, trust me, they were from different sides of an ocean and had very different torture-based religions.

Beyond the obvious cultural/religious history of Mestizo culture, the two skulls have bigger things to say about humankind’s relationship with our crops.  The features of the death’s head have been stylized and “cutened” but even thus aestheticized it provides a stark reminder of human mortality. We burgeon for a while and then pass on. Yet the day of the dead skull is a harvest-time ornament. It is made of sugar or pastry (well not these two…but the original folk objects were) and covered in flowers, grain, and food stuffs. The skulls portray humankind as a product of our agricultural society.    The harvest keeps coming…as do seceding generations of people…just as the old harvest and the old people are used up—yet they are always a part of us like a circle or an ouroboros.  Each generation, a different group of people comes to work the fields, and eat sugar skulls and pass away–then they are remembered with sugar skulls as their grandchildren work the fields etc…

Lately though, things have started to rapidly change. Although agriculture is the “primary” economic sector which allows all of the other disciplines, most of us no longer work in the fields. Instead we partake of secondary sector work: manufacturing things.  In this era we are even more likely to be in the third (or fourth) sector: selling plastic skulls to each other, or writing pointless circular essays about knickknacks.

Marketers have inadvertently built additional poignant juxtapositions into these two skull ornaments. The skull at the bottom is a lotion or soap dispenser. It is meant to squirt out emollients so that people can stay clean and young and supple in a world where old age still has no remedy. The irony is even more sad in the skull on the top which shows a busy bee: the classical symbol of hard work paying off. Yet the bees are dying away victims to the insecticides we use to keep our crops bountiful.  Hardwork has no reward in a world where vast monopolistic forces set prices and machines churn out endless throw-away goods. Indeed, these two objects are not beautiful folk objects…they are mass-produced gewgaws meant to be bought up and thrown away. In the museum of the future will they sit on a shelf with a little note about bees or lotion or crops written next to them, or will they join a vast plastic underworld in a landfill somewhere?

Or maybe they are just endearing skulls and you aren’t supposed to think about them too much.  But if a skull does not make the observer think, then what object ever will?

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