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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

honey_bee_by_snomanda-d5cub8b

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

 

killer_2Dbee

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

An Orchid Bee in Nicaragua (from whatsthatbug.com)

An Orchid Bee in Nicaragua (from whatsthatbug.com)

Here in New York the weather outside is February gray.  The buildings are gray.  The sky is gray.  The trees are gray.  The people are dressed in gray and black.  Fortunately we can beguile away this monochromatic tedium by contemplating the Euglossini, also known as the orchid bees!

Despite their Latin name, the Euglossini are not uniformly eusocial.  This means that most species of orchid bees live solitary lives (in marked contrast to honeybees–which live in vast hives more ordered than the strictest totalitarian state).  The orchid bees live in Central and South America, apart from one species which ranges into North America.  They are notable for their brilliant iridescent blue and green coloring.  The females build nests out of mud and resin.

Museum specimens of orchid bees

Museum specimens of orchid bees

The most remarkable aspect of Euglossini behavior is the male bee’s obsession which the aromatic compounds produced by various tropical orchids.  Male orchid bees have a rarified ability to sense these fragrances even in small quantities (like many heady floral/fruit scents the chemicals produced by the orchids are usually complex esters).  The bees harvest the molecules with front legs specially modified to resemble little brushes (and in doing so they generally pollinate the orchids, which are wholly dependent on the bees).  Astonishingly, the male bees store the chemicals in a cavity on their back leg which is sealed off and protected by waxy hairs.

English: An orchid bee, Euglossa viridissima sleeping on a leaf. Miramar Florida (by Efram Goldberg)

English: An orchid bee, Euglossa viridissima sleeping on a leaf. Miramar Florida (by Efram Goldberg)

The male bees appear to use these compounds when trying to attract a mate but no female attraction to the odors has been proved.  On the other hand, many Stanhopeinae and Catasetinae orchids are absolutely dependent on the male bees to reproduce.  Different species of these orchids rely on specific species of orchid bees to successfully pollinate far-away partners in the rainforest.  Charles Darwin wrote about this pollination system after observing it in the wild and later referred to the highly specialized orchids as proof of the ways in which species adapt to their environments.

Euglossa mixta (from The University of Arizona's Center for Insect Science Website)

Euglossa mixta (from The University of Arizona’s Center for Insect Science Website)

A “Zombee” tattoo (by Josh Herrera of Skin Factory in Las Vegas)

More bad news for honeybees: not only do our hard-working black-and-yellow friends have to contend with blood sucking varroa mites, neonicotinoid insecticides, and giant hungry bears, but a new plague has been spreading from the west coast, claiming the life of domestic honey bees.  The Zombie fly (Apocephalus borealis) is a disgusting little hunchbacked phorid fly which has traditionally preyed on native wasps and bumblebees.  Phorid flies, coincidentally, are a successful family of over 400 species of tiny flies which tend to run very rapidly (although they are capable of flight).  The most famous phorid fly (insomuch as that’s a thing) is probably the coffin fly—although the zombie fly is working its way into the limelight too.  Charming!

The parasitic fly Apocephalus borealis on the back of a bumble bee (photo by Kimberly G. O’Harrow)

Like the horrifying parasitoid wasps, the zombie fly uses its syringe-like ovipositor to inject its eggs inside of its victims.  As the larvae hatch they attack the bee’s brain and cause it to behave in bizarre manners—such as lurching around in a random fashion or flying at night (which gets the bee away from the hive and ensures that the fly lavae are not destroyed by the bee’s concerned colleagues).  Bees so affected are mordantly known as “zombees” for obvious reasons.  Eventually the zombie fly larvae pupate into hard little cocoons which resemble grains of rice.  When they hatch they rip through the bee’s body at the juncture of the head and thorax, frequently decapitating the bee.  Sometimes it is difficult to enjoy the beauty of nature.

Adult female Apocephalus borealis fly (image from Core A, Runckel C, Ivers J, Quock C, Siapno T, et al. (2012). “A new threat to honey bees, the parasitic phorid fly Apocephalus borealis”. PLoS ONE 7 (1))

It is unclear to what extent zombie flies are contributing to the decline of honeybees at large–since the flies have not traditionally attacked domestic bees.  Perhaps the death and decline of other native bees has pushed the zombie flies into this new behavior (or maybe they were getting around to it anyway—they sound like thoroughly repulsive customers).  At any rate, beekeepers have a new problem to worry about, and are tracking confirmed instances of “zombees” online at www.zombeewatch.org.

Ancient Egyptian bee Hieroglyph

In prehistoric times there was no sugar.  Sweetness was only to be found in fruits and berries–with one gleaming exception. Pre-agricultural humans were obsessed with hunting honey (in fact there are rock paintings from 15,000 years ago showing humans robbing honey from wild bees).  The golden food made by bees from pollen and nectar of flowers was not merely delectable: honey is antiseptic and was used as a medicine or preservative.  The wax was also valued for numerous artistic, magical, medicinal, sealing, and manufacturing purposes.

But wild bees were hard to find and capable of protecting themselves with their fearsome stinging abilities.  One of the most useful early forms of agriculture was therefore beekeeping.  The first records we have of domesticated bees come from ancient Egypt.  An illustration on the walls of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini (from the 5th Dynasty, circa 2422 BC) shows beekeepers blowing smoke into hives in order to remove the honeycomb.  The first written record of beekeeping—an official list of apiarists–is nearly as old and dates back to 2400 BC.  Cylinders filled with honey were found among the grave goods discovered in royal tombs.

Honey was treasured in the (sugar-free) world of ancient Egypt.  It was given as a fancy gift and used as an ointment for wounds. Although honey was too expensive for the lowest orders of society to afford, ancient texts have come down to us concerning thieving servants “seduced by sweetness.” Wax was also precious.  Wax tablets were used for writing.  Wax was an ingredient in cosmetics, an adhesive, a medicine, and a waterproofing agent.  Wigs were shaped with wax. It served as the binding agent for paints.  Mummification required wax for all sorts of unpleasant mortuary functions.  Perhaps most seriously (to the ancient Egyptian mind at least) wax was necessary for magic casting.  By crafting a replica of a person, place, or thing, Egyptians believed they could affect the real world version.

According to Egyptian mythology, bees were created when the golden tears of Ra, the sun god, fell to earth.  Bees are even a part of the foundation of the Egyptian state—one of the pharaoh’s titles was “king bee” (although Egyptians might have grasped rudimentary beekeeping skills they missed many of the important nuances of hive life and they thought the queen was a king).  The symbol of fertile Lower Egypt was the honey bee and the Deshret–the Red Crown of Lower Egypt is believed to be a stylized representation of a bee’s sting and its proboscis.

The Red Crown of Lower Egypt

Honeybee on a Cherry Blossom by digiphotolover

Since 2006, beekeepers in Europe and North America have been reporting mysterious mass die-offs of honeybees.  Although this has been a problem which has sometimes affected beekeepers in the past, the worldwide scale of beehive failures subsequent after 2006 was unprecedented.  Worldwide bee populations crashed.  Since bees are directly responsible for pollinating a huge variety of domestic crops–particularly fruits and nuts—the threat to our food supply and agricultural base extended far beyond the honey production which people associate with bees.  An entire community of free-wheeling apiarists came into the limelight.  For generations these mavericks would load up their trucks with hives of bees and drive to orchards in bloom.  For the right…honorarium…they would release the bees to pollinate the almonds, broccoli, onions, apples, cherries, avocados, citrus, melons, etcetera etcetera which form the non-cereal base of the produce aisle (as an aside, I find it fascinating that there is a cadre of people paid to help plants reproduce by means of huge clouds of social insects—if you tried to explain all this to an extraterrestrial, they would shake their heads and mutter about what perverts earthlings are).

A truck of bee hives to ensure that food crops are pollinated

As bees have declined, honey has naturally become more expensive, but so too have a great many other agricultural staples.  Not only has the great dying hurt farmers and food shoppers it has also affected entire ecosystems—perhaps altering them for many years to come.  “Pollinator Conservation” (an article from the Renewable Resources Journal) opines that “Cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive.”

Scientists have been rushing to get to the bottom of this worldwide problem, pointing fingers at varroa mites (invasive parasitic vampire mites from China), pesticides, global warming, transgenic crops, cell phone towers, habitat destruction, and goodness knows what else.  The lunatic fringe has leaped into the fray with theories about super bears, aliens, and Atlantis (although I could add that sentence to virtually any topic).  So far no theory has proven conclusive: exasperated entomologists have been throwing up their hands and saying maybe it’s a combination of everything.

An extremely cool illustration of Imidacloprid acting on insect nerves from Bayer (the original inventor/patent holder of the compound)

Yesterday (March 29th, 2012) two studies released in “Science” magazine made a more explicit link between colony collapse and neonicotinoid insecticides.  The first study suggested that hives exposed to imidacloprid (one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide) produced 85% fewer queen bees than the control hives.  The second study tracked individual bees with radio chips (!) to discover that bees dosed with thiamethoxam were twice as likely to suffer homing failure and not return to the hive. Suspicion has focused on neonicotinoid poisons as a culprit in hive collapse disorder for years (the compounds were hastened into use in the nineties because they were so benign to vertebrates), however the rigorously reviewed & carefully controlled studies in “Science” bring an entirely new level of evidence to the problem.  Unfortunately this also brings a new variety of problems to the problem, since neonicotinoids are tremendously important to agriculture in their own right (sorry Mother Earth) and since they are such handy poisons for, you know, not killing us and our pets and farm animals.

Magnolias at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Spring has come early this year and the beautiful tulip-like petals of New York City’s magnolia trees are already beginning to fall into great drifts of white and pink.  If you stop and pick up one of the pretty petals from such a pile you will be surprised by the leathery resilience of the delicate-looking petals.  The durability of the petals of magnolia flowers is not coincidental—the flowers are different from other common flowering trees because Magnoliidae trees were among the first flowering trees to evolve.  The earliest known fossils of such flowers date from the upper Cretaceous period around 130 million years ago. Magnoliidae petals are tough because they were originally meant to attract the attention of beetles rather than bees (which do not appear in the fossil record until 100 million years ago).  Since there were no insects specially adapted to live as pollinators when magnolia-like trees first appeared, the petals and reproductive structures of these first flowering trees had to be robust to survive attention from the hungry clumsy beetles (toughness which has passed on to the modern ornamental trees).

Paeleobotanists have not yet unraveled the entire history of the evolution of flowering plants (indeed, Charles Darwin called the abrupt appearance of flowers in the fossil record “the abominable mystery”) however magnolia-like trees appeared long before the great radiation of angiosperms which occurred approximately 100 million years ago.  The first magnoliid trees must have seemed tremendously strange–explosions of color and shape surrounded by great uniformly green forests of gymnosperm trees (like the familiar conifers). Magnolia blossoms betray evidence of their ancient lineage through several “primitive” features: the petals are nearly indistinguishable from the sepals; each flower has many stamens which are arranged in spiral rows; there are multiple pistils; and all of the stamens and pistils are supported by a “fingerlike receptacle.”

By attracting the attention of animals (either through the colorful appearance and appealing scent of flowers, or by the edible nectar and fruit) flowering plants were better able to reproduce themselves.  Magnolias spread around the temperate world and began the complicated interdependent relationship which all sorts of animals (including humans) have with flowering plants.

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