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Childeric was a Frankish king who was born in the middle of the 5th century AD and lived to around 480 AD.  He was the son of Merovech (after whom the Merovingians were named) and the father of Clovis I who united the Franks and was thus arguably the first king of France. Childeric has an interesting life with lots of weird seductions and thrilling battles against the Goths, however these cinematic aspects of his career scarcely concern us here… instead we are talking about the tomb of Childeric which was discovered in 1653 in what is today Belgium. The 12th-century church of Saint-Brice in Tournai was built close to Childeric’s grave (although who knows if this was by design or by accident?). Childeric’s grave was filled with rich treasures of 5th century Frankish craft, which were given first to the Hapsburgs who presented the find to Louis IVX (who, as the apogee of absolutist monarchs, was somewhat unimpressed with the pieces and kept them in his library rather than his vault).

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The treasure of Childeric’s tomb included a golden bull, some coins, a signet ring, and other such precious odds and ends.  The real highlight of the collection however were 300 golden insects inlaid with garnets (these mysterious jeweled bugs were most commonly regarded as bees) which were sewed onto the monarch’s grave cloak.  These bees inspired the bees of Napoleon (who was looking for insignia which was symbolic of France but which was not the fleur-de-lis of the Bourbons).  Unfortunately, the vast majority of Childeric’s bees were stolen and melted down during a break-in during 1831.  Only two of the splendid red and gold bees remain.  Fortunately we still have the engravings which were commissioned by Leopold William, governor of the Austrian Netherlands (the aristocrat to whom the treasures of Childeric’s grave were first presented).

Childeric-bees

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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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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.

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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….

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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).

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bee

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.

Eco what?  Yeah, that's great now run along.

Eco what? Yeah, that’s great now run along.

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.

Thanks, bees!

Thanks, bees!

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.

Hmm...

Hmm…

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.

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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?

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My roommate and I were talking about the history of the United States and the subject of times when states printed their own money came up. One of these times was during the era from 1777 to 1789 when the new nation was governed by the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (the not-very-successful precursor to the constitution which left the new states plunged in debt and squabbling with each other). Another time when the states printed their own money was during the civil war when the southern states each printed wads of increasingly useless paper money to hold up the faltering southern economy. Sadly I could not find any pretty samples of the former online, but I did discover some images of North Carolina paper money from the Civil War.

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The notes are surprisingly lovely with Roman and agrarian symbolism and hand-written copperpoint calligraphy. A the top of this post is a ten-cent note (coins were expensive to make and metals were needed for the war—although soon rampant inflation did away with sub-dollar bills). The hornet’s nest symbolizes anti-Union defiance and military puissance. The second note down is a seventy-five cent note which features the allegorical figure of commerce surrounded by hives of industrious bees which represent prosperity and fruitful labor.  Thhe note below is a twenty-five cent note which features a very Roman looking (and bare-breasted!) imager of the goddess Ceres, the kind mother of agriculture—which was the root and mainstay of the southern economy. Such money became worthless even before the war was lost: money printed with hymenopteran insects and naked ladies must have seemed like a good idea, but apparently it did not hold up the same way as bills with dead presidents and creepy Masonic images!

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Okapi (Walton Ford, watercolor on paper)

Okapi (Walton Ford, watercolor on paper)

Walton Ford is a contemporary artist who paints realistic large-scale watercolor paintings of mammals and birds.  The creatures are often placed in anthropomorphic contexts (where they dress or act like people). Because the paintings are so large, the artist tends to annotate them in beautiful copperpoint longhand (although it is a bit hard to see in this example).  In this painting, a shy okapi, the wraith of the African jungle is trying to purloin a piece of honeycomb from a dangerous gun trap.  The okapi’s face is filled with purpose but the ominous fire on the horizon and the hunting paraphernalia in the foreground hints at a dark outcome.

Detail

Detail

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Sad news from America’s apiculturists: nearly a third of domestic bees in the United States did not survive the winter of 2012/2013.  Before 2005 the winter loss rate was between 5% and 10%, but after that year, colony collapse disorder, a mysterious affliction which caused domestic bees to fly away and never return, ravaged the poor honeybees. Losses of 30% became common.  Beekeepers were somewhat hopeful that the worst of the scourge was passing after the winter of 2011/2012 (when losses fell to 22%) however apparently that year was anomalous.  At least it seems that this winter’s losses were not the result of classic colony collapse disorder–rather than flying away to nowhere the bees stayed put in their hives. Yet the insects they were sadly weakened and diminished and the attenuated hives proved unable to start new broods in the spring and just withered away.

WHY? (No seriously--why?)

WHY? (No seriously–why?)

This is a huge and perplexing problem.  At least a third of our food supply is dependent on the hard-working yellow and black pollinators.  Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake—as are our favorite fruits, vegetables, and nuts.  This past year a number of studies indicated that neonicotinoid insecticides were partly to blame for bee losses (along with vampiric varroa mites, a decline of wild flowering plants, greedy beekeepers who overextend their hives, and a bacterial disease horrifyingly named “European foulbrood”) but the compounds are non-toxic to other animals and immensely lucrative to big chemical companies.  In Europe the compounds were banned this year, so comparing European bee hives with American ones in coming years should at least help us understand the problem.

Some scientists have also suggested that a lack of genetic diversity in domestic bee populations is also contributing to the problem.  Maybe we need to go online and find some new life partners from around the globe for our hymenopteran friends.  The infamous Africanized killer bees seem like they have some immunity to some of the issues behind bee die-offs.  Maybe we need to come up with a better name for those guys and see what they are up to this summer.

Sigh...so, um, what do you gentlemen do?

Sigh…so, um, what do you gentlemen do?

The coat of arms of Pope Benedict XVI

The coat of arms of Pope Benedict XVI

So does everybody remember Pope Benedict XVI, the German guy who was pope until last month?  While I was doing research on Papal tiaras, I happened to come across his personal coat of arms.  Holy smokes! Tiaras will have to wait—check out this puppy!  Not only does it feature a number of ferrebeekeeper themes–mollusks, mammals, and crowns—it is ridiculously gothic and insanely colorful to boot.  The coat of arms features a moor’s head wearing a crown (and how is that an appropriate thing in the modern world?), a bear wearing a backpack (!), and a large scallop shell.  The scallop shell is an allusion to pilgrimages and also an allegorical story about Saint Augustine walking on the beach and having an epiphany about divinit.  The moor’s head is a traditional symbol of medieval German nobility (as an allusion to beheaded Moorish foes and to suzerainty over Africa):  this particular example is apparently the “Moor of Freising” from the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising.  The bear with the backpack is “the bear of St. Corbinian” but I have no idea what he is doing.  Maybe he is going to grade school?

This papal coat of arms is unusual in that it is surmounted by a bishop’s miter instead of the traditional three-tiered papal tiera (a symbol of kingship which the papacy has been phasing out, but more about that in another post).  The truly important element is there however—the fancy gothic keys of Saint Peter which (according to the Catholic Church) grant access to heaven. Now if only there were a catfish…  Speaking of which, below, as a special bonus, I have included the coat of arms of the infamous Urban VIII (who poisoned the birds in the papal garden because their singing disturbed his plotting) which includes the Barberini bees, and the coat of arms of the futile and immoral Pious VI, which shows a weird boy throwing up on a lily.

Coat of Arms of Urban VIII

Coat of Arms of Urban VIII

Coat of Arms of Pious VI

Coat of Arms of Pious VI

 

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One of the ongoing horror stories from when I was in middle school was the invasion of the Africanized killer bees.  In retrospect, it all sounds like a xenophobic horror movie from the 1950s, but people were truly alarmed back in the 80s.  There were sensationalist news stories featuring the death of children and animated maps of the killer bees spreading unstoppably across America.  The narrative was that mad scientists in South America had hybridized super-aggressive African bees with European bees in an attempt to create superbees (better able to survive in the tropics and produce more honey).  These “Africanized” bees then escaped and started heading north, killing innocent humans and devastating local hives as they invaded.

An animated map of the spread of killer bees (uploaded to Wikipedia by uploaded by Huw Powell)

An animated map of the spread of killer bees (uploaded to Wikipedia by uploaded by Huw Powell)

The amazing thing about this story is that it is all true.  In the 1950s a biologist named Warwick E. Kerr imported 26 queen bees (of subspecies Apis mellifera scutellata) from the Great Lakes area of Africa to Brazil.  A replacement beekeeper allowed the queens to escape in 1957 and they began to interbreed with local bees (of the European subspecies Apis mellifera ligustica and Apis mellifera iberiensis).  The resulting hybridized bees were indeed better able to survive the tropics and quicker to reproduce, but they were also more defensive of their hives, more inclined to sting, and more likely to swarm (i.e. get together in a big angry cloud and fly off somewhere else when they felt unhappy).   The killer bees (for want of a better term) could more readily live like wild bees in ground cavities and hollow trees.  The hybrid bees out-competed local honeybees and spread across the continent.  Sometimes aggressive queens would enter domestic hives and kill the old queen and take over!

Don't make her angry!

Don’t make her angry!

Although Ancient Egypt may have been an early adapter of apiculture, Sub Saharan African societies did not practice beekeeping but hewed to the ancient tradition of bee-robbing.   The African subspecies of honeybees came from a more challenging environment than the European subspecies.  Forced to contend with deep droughts and fiendish predators (like the infamously stubborn honey badger), the bees are more defensive and more mobile than their northern counterparts.  Apis mellifera scutellata is famous for not backing down from raiders but instead stinging them with dogged determination until the intruder flees far from their hive.  This has led to unfortunate instances of children, infirm adults, and people with bee allergies falling down and being stung to death (which sounds like a really bad end) by the American hybrid.  The sting of an Africanized bee is no more puissant than that of a European honeybee (and it also results in the death of the bee) but dozens—or hundreds—of stings can add up to kill a healthy adult.

(largely) satiric

(largely) satiric

The entire Africanized bee event was really a case of anti-domestication.  Imagine if everyone’s dogs were suddenly replaced by wolves or if placid white-and-black cows were supplanted by ravening aurochs.   If you follow that bizarre thought to its logical conclusion, you will anticipate what actually happened.  Although initially dismayed, Brazilian beekeepers began to discover more placid strains of Africanized bees and started to redomesticate them.  The hybrid bees do indeed produce more honey, survive droughts better, and it is believed they have a greater resistance to the dreaded colony collapse sweeping through honey bee population.  Perhaps in the fullness of time we will learn to love the infamous killer bees.

Africanized "friend" bees?

Africanized “friend” bee?

Southern Tamandua  (Tamandua tetradactyla) with baby

Southern Tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) with baby

Tamandua is a genus of arborial anteaters with two species, the southern tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) and the northern tamandua (Tamandua mexicana).  Tamanduas have prehensile tails which help them grip the trees, bushes, and scrub where they hunt for ants, termites, and bees (which they vacuum up through a tubular mouth or capture with a 40 cm long sticky tongue). The two species inhabit a large swath of the Americas—the northern tamandua ranges from Mexico down through Central America and west of the Andes through coastal Venezuela, Columbia, and Peru. The southern tamandua inhabits the entire area surrounding the Amazon basin and ranges from Trinidad, through Venezuela, the entirety of Brazil, and into northern Argentina. Tamanduas weigh up to 7 kilograms (15 pounds) and grow to lengths of about a meter (3 feet).

Northern Tamandua Anteaters (Tamandua mexicana) by Sara L Zering)

Northern Tamandua Anteaters (Tamandua mexicana) by Sara L Zering)

Tamanduas have immensely powerful arms which they use for climbing and ripping apart ant and termite colonies.  If threatened they hiss and release an unpleasant scent (they can also grapple by means of their formidable arms and huge claws).  The creatures spend much of their time in trees and they nest in hollow trees or abandoned burrows of other animals.  Tamanduas can live up to nine years.  They are widespread but comparatively scarce.

Tamandua hug

Tamandua hug

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