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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.
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.
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.
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?
We have a nasty habit of becoming unduly obsessed by the demographics of the United States. This is to overlook the fascinating demographics of the world’s most populous country, China, where the immense number of people means that there are subgroups larger than very large nations. For example, contemporary Chinese policymakers and planners agonize over “the ant tribe.”
The ant tribe is a neologism used to describe certain people born in the 1980s in China’s countryside and small towns. These kids (who are often one-child-policy children) worked incredibly hard to get into universities (while their parents scrimped and saved to send them there). Once they had a degree they moved to China’s giant cities in order to pursue middle class prosperity…and there they ran straight into a problem which transforms them into ants.
Welcome to the beautiful Super Cities of Contemporary China
Chinese citizens (or “subjects”?) are tethered to a document known as a hukou—a household permit. The hukou, like some sort of medieval serfdom or indenture, trails the bearer throughout life and then applies to their offspring, no matter where they are born. So ant-tribe young people move to Guanzhou, Beijing, or Shanghai in order to get worthwhile office jobs which do not exist elsewhere but they are not officially allowed to live there. Their solution is to move underground: the great cities of China are filled with illegal basement and sub-basement apartments which are the tiny damp bedrooms of sexless, hardworking, subterranean office drones—the ant tribe.
To quote The Globe and Daily Mail:
The “ants” are not indigent beggars or lost souls (who could not afford even sub-basement rent) or low-wage workers (who generally live in workers’ dormitories, 10 to 12 of them to a room, but above ground). Rather, they are ambitious citizens who have been driven underground, literally and figuratively, in their quest for middle-class stability. Their mildewed lives are the material embodiment of something being endured by countless millions of Chinese today, as they attempt to balance President Xi Jinping’s ambition of creating a middle-class China with his party’s desire to control and regulate their lives.
The ants live in extreme penury. They spend all of their money on rent, bribes, and, eventually, on school fees (without the proper hukou, Children can’t attend school in Beijing unless certain parties are remunerated). So contemporary China has a larger middle class than it seems to, but it is held back by communist mandarins’ unwillingness to extend people basic property rights or the right to move freely around the country. China is always touted as the next big thing–the country that will make the future–yet if the clerks, bureaucrats, marketers, salespeople, and number crunchers who are the mainstay of a tertiary sector economy must lead lives of monastic self abnegation (and possibly forgo having families of any size), I see little hope for China’s long term prospects. The rulers of China must decide whether they want to completely control their people or allow them to flourish. They seem to have decided on the former…which makes me wonder if this may be the era of “peak China” and the future may be a lot less Sinocentric than everyone says.
Or maybe we are all destined to live crammed in underground cells with legally questionable identities and China is the innovator of a terrible future (there is ample historical precedent after all)…but I hope not.
When I was growing up I used to sometimes see these huge black and white hornets which were bigger than my thumb (although I guess my adult thumb is bigger). These monochromatic monsters were bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculate). They live across North America from Alaska to Texas, from Nova Scotia to California.
“Bald-faced” means shameless and undisguised (it is a very good phrase for 2016). These are shamelessly undisguised wasps. They are beautiful, in a sort of nightmarish alien shocksoldier way, with cream-colored mouths and ivory abdominal markings contrasting against a midnight black body with purple iridescence. They have matte black legs and smoke-colored wings. Adult wasps are 19 millimetres (0.75 in) in length and the queens are even larger. Dolichovespula maculate is not a true hornet, but rather a sort of yellowjacket wasp—predatory wasps of the genus genera Vespula.
Like the terrifying giant hornet, bald-faced hornets are predatory carnivores. They smash into the hives of other hymenoptera (like lovable honey big-hearted bees) and gobble up all of the bees, larvae, and honey. They aren’t just chaotic hunters: they are also weirdly omnivorous. Wikipedia says “They have been observed consuming meat, spiders, fruit and insects. Adults will also drink flower nectar.” What the heck? That sounds like a banquet for dark elves!
The creatures are eusocial. They band together in a hive of 300-700 individuals. Their nests are built of disturbing grey-yellow paper-type material which seems like it was excreted by a Steven King monster (which actually seems like a pretty good description for the bald-faced hornet). You are probably curious about where this bruiser falls on the Schmidt Pain Index. Although the wasps are bigger than their close cousins the yellowjackets, both creatures score the same SPI number: 2.0 (exactly in the middle of the four point scale). They also are tied with honeybees (which are smaller but pack a potent one-time-use wallop. The description of a bald-faced hornet sting is particularly poetic and sounds like a restaurant’s blurb for an autumn pie or a painful cup of coffee. According to the pain index, the sting of Dolichovespula maculate is “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.” I am glad I gave these characters a wide berth when I was growing up…but I am glad I saw them too. They are intense animals.
Here’s something from the hinterlands…The Fort Wayne Mad Ants are a minor league basketball team (which is evidently a thing) in Fort Wayne, America’s 77th largest city located in Iowa or Texas or Indiana or something. The Mad Ants have not always had the most glorious record in basketball…but who cares? Look at their glorious mascot!
This 90s-looking abomination is appropriately known as “the Mad Ant.” According to his website, he is 6’1” tall and his favorite food is “anything at your picnic.” I say “he” because that is how he self-identifies on the internet (although male ants should have wings…so I suspect he is really a female drone).
The Mad Ant is pretty busy rooting for Mad Ants basketball and helping out at local charities, but big parts of his year are fairly empty, so if you want to book him at your party there is a link.
The Otomi people are an indigenous Mesoamerican people of the Mexican Plateau. During the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, the Otomi allied with the Spanish against the Aztecs (since the Aztecs were a hated upstart empire oppressing and enslaving them). Otomi populations practiced (and continue to practice) shamanism. The sacred spirit animals of the shaman’s spirit journey take a central position in the most characteristic artforms of the Otomi—which consists of exquisite embroidered animals in dazzling colors. This is the subject of today’s post because…well look at these textile artworks! I just innately love them. They are masterpieces. The colorful animals seem to come to extravagant life on the elaborately sewn panels.
In these embroidered medallions and picture squares, fantasy birds, fish, quadrupeds, and insects embroidered out of brilliant stripes swirl together among equally colorful flowers and vines. Most of the creatures seem to be based off of familiar domestic animals like burros, chickens, rabbits, turkeys, and bees—but the farm creatures are turning into each other and exchanging characteristics and identities. I am a bit surprised that Ferrebeekeeper has only just found out about Otomi art….
It isn’t like I went to the Mexican national art gallery and cherry-picked a few hallowed masterpieces from the walls either. Most of these beautiful examples were for sale on the internet by anonymous living artists and artisans whose work I like better than basically anything on sale right now in Chelsea for a thousand times more. I could have one of these amazing handmade artworks if I possessed…35 American dollars? How can such a beautiful thing cost less than a dvd of Fifty Shades of Grey? People who claim that the market is all-knowing should take note (and people who love beautiful art should be taking out their wallets).
Here are two bee-themed illuminations from a very beautiful hand-drawn book from early 16th century France. The book’s theme is “Flowers of Virtue.” In the illustration above, the hard-working bees are busily making honey–a model of industrious virtue. In the illustration below, gluttonous thieving bears are spoiling all of the bees hard work by smashing the hives and gulping down the honey. My grandfather kept a hive of bees in West Virginia, and this same thing happened to his bees (although the bears apparently ate the bees and a fair amount of the hive in addition to the sweet honey).
Conservationists and biologists often have a hard time explaining their concepts and concerns to politicians and business leaders: our leaders are frequently motivated by political and economic calculations which seem pretty far removed from the living world. One of the ideas which environmentalists have invented in order to rectify this communications problem is “ecosystem services” the concept that there is a real and calculable use value of living organisms and systems. A famous example right now is bees—which pollinate crops and thus provide immediate tangible value to fruit and vegetable farmers. There are all sorts of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and other crops which would not grow without bees. Some other current examples are wetlands—which filter water and provide a sort of storm safety zone around coasts—or fisheries which provided delicious fish. By putting a pricetag on ecosystems and endangered animals, scientists hope to emphasize to leaders how important conservation is.
Unfortunately this methodology is prone to all sorts of problems, as was demonstrated by a bee study for Nature Communications which was conducted by a team lead by David Kleijn. The survey set about assessing to what extent economically useful crops are pollinated by wild bees. The authors thus hoped to appraise the ultimate value of the native bees. You can look at the actual paper and draw your own conclusions about their assumptions and methods, but the team concluded that wild bees are immensely valuable—with a worth of about $3,251.00 per hectare of agricultural land.
The team however went further and broke down the economically valuable labor all of the different bees by species. This led them to conclude that only 2% of bee species were contributing in a meaningful way to crop pollination (and this hard-working 2% of wild bees are from species which are actually doing pretty well, and seem unlikely to go extinct). All of the remaining bees were deemed worthless shirkers of no economic use to humankind. The paper seemed to suggest that if they all go extinct it won’t take food off the table or money out of anyone’s pockets.
What? Are David Kleijn and his team dangerous hyper-rationalists who belong in an Ayn Rand book? Regular readers of this blog will already be wondering about these conclusions. Aren’t parasitoid wasps critical to protecting crops? What ecological niche do the allegedly valueless species take up? What happens if they die off and there are horrifying consequences which the ecologists, agricultural scientists, and theorists never anticipated? Indeed we have seem such things happen again and again—like Australia’s rabbits or these accursed crown-of-thorns starfish. Life is a web and when you start removing strands the entire edifice begins to flip around and malfunction in unexpected ways.
In fact I believe the paper might be designed to poke some critical holes in the irrational nature of purely economic cost/benefit calculations. The introductory paragraphs seem calculated to stir up the media into asking some important questions about this kind of thinking (and, of course, the paper is also designed to give a PR boost to David Kleijn and co.). However, the fact that the results may have been designed to stir up controversy does not make the fundamental questions less valid. The fundamental calculus behind ecosystem services as a policy tool is inadequate. But what else can we use in a world of ever-growing population and ever-diminishing resources?
Today’s post comes from the thrilling (?) world of international football aka soccer [Ed. Are you sure this is right?] Although, to American eyes, soccer sometimes seems to lack critical elements of sport (excitement, skill, scoring, and so forth), it definitely has the most important thing: wacky mascots! In fact, soccer arguably has the wackiest mascots, as is very emphatically demonstrated by the new mascot of the Scottish football team Partick Thistle (er, that’s apparently the name of their soccer club, not the new spokesbeing). Apparently the old mascot, Jaggy MacBee, (pictured above) was not edgy enough for something as riot-inducing as Scottish football. Fortunately, the new mascot, pictured below in all of his (its?) stark raging horror is nothing but edges! Well, that isn’t entirely true, “Kingsley” the yellow thistle also has a mouth-breathing look of angry stupor and a unibrow to go with his (its?) sharpened head.
The internet has been abuzz with sarcastic quips about the ambulatory thistle and with wistful nostalgia for the unemployed bee (as indeed was almost certainly the intent of some sinister group of marketers behind the entire switch). Even despite the transparently manipulative nature of the upgrade, there really is something poignant about the substitution. Bees are fading from our pesticide-heavy world (as we will discuss in a real post tomorrow) while irritating characters specifically and solely designed to create an angry emotional response are proliferating.
Also, Kingsley is not unfunny. He has his own particular Alfred Jarry flavor, as was the intent of the responsible artist David Shrigley, who designs deliberately crude cartoons to mock the shirking anomie of contemporary mass culture (at least that’s how I am going to interpret them). How would you design a thistle mascot? It is not necessarily an easy challenge, although I know my submission would have been more purple and baroque—like everything I make. Stay tuned for the further adventures of Kingsley and Jaggy MacBee. I get the sense we haven’t heard the last of these guys—if for no other reason than the obtrusive attention-seeking of their makers.