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Ok…here is one more bee story.  The blue calamintha bee (Osmia calaminthae) is an ultra-specialized bee which is found only upon a particular ridge of hills in Central Florida.  Or that is the way that things used to be: the shiny metallic blue bee has not been spotted since 2016 and it was presumed extinct. Above is a sad picture of a museum specimen.  The bee’s trademark shiny blueness is fading because of, you know, impalement and death and extinction and stuff (although, in fairness, it seems like the bee’s exoskeleton is blue, but its fuzz is grayish white).

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But wait! This story turns out not to be over after all.  On March 9th, a researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, Chase Kimmel, discovered a living blue calamintha bee.  The busy little insect was rubbing its furry head on Ashe’s calamint flower in order to collect the pollen.  Since then, additional blue bees have been spotted, so the species is hanging on. The first bee was not a Martian manhunter style “last-of-its-kind” survivor.

Unfortunately, scientists and ecologists have not been able to further study the insects due to troubles in the human world…or maybe that is fortunate. Perhaps the last blue calamintha bees just need some privacy and human free bee time to rebuild the shattered kernel of their population.  Let’s wish them well, and I will follow up with more information as it becomes available.

 

The giant murder hornet story is fading from the public conscience and maybe that is for the best.  I was saddened to hear all sorts of stories of people going berserk and wiping out hives of honeybees and suchlike overreactions (although if anyone attacked any yellowjackets, I maybe wouldn’t shed too many tears over such an outcome–not that yellowjackets are apt to be phased by anyone coming after them with anything less than a flamethrower anyway). But the bigger point here is that bees are our lovable friends and we need to cherish them!

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To underline this, here is an annex story to go with all of the little watercolor pictures I painted in the flower garden during quarantine.  This is a carpenter bee, one of 500 difficult-to-tell-apart species in the genus Xylocopa.  Carpenter bees are gentle bees: Male bees have no stinger and female bees rarely sting anyone unless they are severely provoked.   They are called carpenter bees because they like to raise their families within little chambers inside bamboo or timber (which means you may want to watch poorly stored stacks of lumber to keep these guys from boring perfectly round holes in the boards).

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Anyway, as I was painting there was a sad buzz and a little thud.  A furry black bee fell out of the sky and was lying on one of the bricks in my garden! He lay there dazed for a bit and then tried to take off,  but only emitted an arrhythmic hum before keeling over on his side like The Dying Gaul (albeit with far more appendages and eyes). I don’t know how to resuscitate bees, but they are famously needy of energy (and strongly affiliated with a certain sugary natural source of metabolic energy) so I went inside and put some honey on a little stick and put it next to him. The bee weakly crawled over to the honey and eagerly lapped at the sweet amber like an addict, but then after a few more timorous buzzes he just sat there in the sunshine.

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I sort of expected to see a brown creeper fly down and eat the tired carpenter bee like a socialite gobbling up a fig wrapped in bacon, however it seems like my scheme worked:  an hour later there was a more substantial buzz from the brick and then moments later I saw a pair of carpenter bees slaloming off into the crabapple blossoms overhead! Of course the bee didn’t really do anything for me in this story (aside from pollinating my crops, holding up the ecosystem, and not stinging me) yet the whole incident gave me a sort of happy glow.  Here is a blurry picture I took of the little guy.  I hope he is ok out there in Brooklyn these days.  Maybe I need to get one of those little carpenter bee houses.

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My neighbor, the carpenter bee

 

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We will get back to plans for a Hart Island memorial in the immediate future, but right now there is something which needs to be dealt with right now.  Eight years ago, Ferrebeekeeper blogged about the nightmarish Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) a 5 centimeter (2 inch) long flying murder machine from East Asia.  The Asian giant hornet’s sting contains neurotoxins and an enzyme which dissolves flesh.  They are capable of stinging again & again & again…and then going home and living long successful lives untroubled by regret (unlike poor honey bees which perish after delivering one sting).  Every year the giant hornets kill dozens of innocent people who aren’t even allergic to bees.

And now they are here…

To quote ABC News,

The hornet was sighted for the first time in the U.S. last December, when the state Department of Agriculture verified two reports near Blaine, Washington, close to the Canadian border. It also received two probable, but unconfirmed reports from sites in Custer, Washington, south of Blaine.

This is obviously bad news for humankind…but, let’s be honest…nobody is really that worried about us.  We are already the Asian Giant Hornet of the primate world (and primates are truly aggressive, cunning animals).  Plus there are billions of us and we have all sorts of diabolical machines and contraptions.  The ones who are really in trouble because of this terrifying invasive hornet are bees.  Asian Giant Hornets live by hunting other insects like smaller hornets, praying mantises, and, especially honey bees.  Washington is the nation’s orchard.  It’s honey bees were already in trouble and they are not ready for this (did yoou click that link to the earlier post).  Gentle, kindly honeybees may never be ready.

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All of this means the giant hornets have got to go. We have a brief window where we could maybe stamp them out (figuratively…even our big feet might not be big enough to stamp them out literally).  So if you see a hornet the size of a goldfinch with Deadpool’s face (except the color of a finely aged, um, schoolbus) kindly call the Washington Department of Agriculture  as soon as possible*.  Do not grab a machete and a flamethrower and try to tackle these things on your own:  you will just end up on the Schmidt pain index.

(*Seriously? It’s only May, how much weirder are public service announcements going to get this year?)

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One of the things which I think we humans underestimate is the degree to which organisms within ecosystems exchange information for mutual benefit.   The idea of wolves watching sheep in order to jump on them and eat them is familiar to us (we hominids are competitive and ruthless) but we are only now beginning to apprehend how widespread and commonplace symbiotic interactions are. For example, a team of Israeli scientists conducted an experiment to see whether pollinators communicate with the plants they are pollinating…and it seems like maybe they do!

The scientists subjected a common flower, the beach evening primrose (Oenothera drummondii) to five sorts of noise: silence, a bee buzzing from four in away, and low, medium and high pitched electronic noises  The scientists assayed and measured the amount of nectar that the primroses produced after being exposed to these varying noises.

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Oenothera drummondii

Flowers exposed to silence and to high and mid-pitch noises produced the same nectar as always, however primroses which were exposed to the humming bee and to the low pitched computer noises produced sweeter nectar. The sugar content of the nectar flowers produced after “hearing” these sounds rose from between 12 and 20 percent!

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Flowers and bees have co-evolved for 100 million years, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that they interact through sound (we already know that plants can communicate with hymenopterans by means of chemicals).  Yet somehow the results do surprise me.  Are plants hearing a great deal more than we suspect?  A great many flowers (and leaves) are shaped rather like ears.  Are different plants listening for different things. The nascent field of phytoacoustics will work to answer this question, but the fact that we are just now asking it leads me to believe that we humans have been talking rather than listening.  We are still not grasping the extraordinary scope and complexity of the webs of life which supports us (my experience with synthetic ecosystems already taught me about our great ignorance).  We need a greater understanding of dynamic ecology, yet our obtuseness in dealing with even the most familiar fellow life-forms is making it a challenge to even conceive of the right questions!

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This story doesn’t really have a point–it is just the brief tale of a senseless crash on the road.  Yet it is impossible not to be impressed and horrified by it.  Today in Montana, a driver lost control of a semi truck and crashed the enormous vehicle into a ditch.  Although the driver and his shotgun man were both unhurt, the truck’s cargo, 40,000 pounds of honey bees, came loose during the collision and I guess are now at large in Montana (this could be the beginning of a very special modern western).  The truck was traveling from California to North Dakota which is also fascinating to me.  Were these bees going to work the orchards of North Dakota?   Was this a honey bee colony ship?  We just don’t know all of the details.  We don’t even know if the bees will be recovered, although firefighters on the scene (in full fireproof gear and contained breathing devices) said that “only” a quarter of the bees fully escaped.

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This incident has taught us that 40,000 pounds of bees is roughly equal to 133 million individual bees!  There were more honey bees on that truck then there are people in Japan.  I hope some of them set up permanent shop in Bozeman, Montana and it becomes an apiculture Mecca (maybe even changing its name to Beesman, Montana), but probably some insurance accountant will more a few numbers and the incident will be forgotten.  It really makes you wonder what is in all of those huge trucks out there on the road though…

Happy Earth Day!  I am afraid I am a bit under the weather (which seems appropriate, since our beautiful blue planet is catching a fever too). However it is worth devoting some time today to thinking about our planet and the entwined webs of ecosystems which support all living things (very much including human beings).

The great masters of global capitalism claim that the Earth is inexhaustible and made solely for human delights.  To hear them tell it, only if ever more people consume ever more consumer rubbish will we all thrive. However that claim always seemed suspect, and the notably swift decline of entire ecosystems within even my lifetime suggests that fundamental aspects of our way of life and our long-term goals need to be rethought.   It is a formidable problem because the nations of Earth are facing a near-universal political crisis where authoritarians are flourishing and democracies are faltering.  So far, the authoritarians don’t seem substantially concerned with a sustainable future for living things (or with any laudatory goal, really).  This trend could get worse in the future as agricultural failures, invasive blights, and extreme weather events cause people to panic and flee to “safe” arms of the dictators (this would be a stupid choice since strongmen, despots, and tyrants are anything but safe in a any context).

These frightening projections of doom are hardly a foregone conclusion though. A great many people of all political and ideological stripes are worried about the future and are working hard to ensure that humankind and all of our beautiful extended family on the tree of life make it into the future.  Part of this is going to involve engineering and biomedical breakthroughs, but political and cultural breakthroughs will be needed as well.

I am ill-prepared to write out my proposals at length (since I would really like to lie down with some ginger ale), but fortunately I am a visual artist and I spent the winter of 2018 preparing a dramatic planetary image to capture my own anxiety for the world and its living things without necessarily giving in utterly to my fears and anxieties.  I was going to introduce it later, but EarthDay is a good time to give you a sneak peak (plus it goes rather well with my Maundy Thursday blog post).

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Here is the Great Flounder–the allegorical embodiment of how Earth life if everywhere under our feet and around us, but we can’t necessarily fathom it easily, because of our scale.  Speaking of scale (in multiple ways I guess), I continue to have trouble with WordPress’ image tool, so I am afraid that you will have to make due with this small image until I learn about computers…or until posters get printed up (dangit…why do we have to sell ourselves all of the time?).  In the meantime here is a teaser detail to help you in your own contemplation of if/how we can make Earth a paradise for ourselves without destroying it for the other inhabitants.

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We will talk more about this soon, but in the meantime happy Earth Day.  We will work together to save our giant blue friend, I know it!  Let’s just collaborate to do so before we lose African elephants, numbats, mysterious siphonophores, or any of our beloved fellow lifeforms on this spherical island hurtling through space.

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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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