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So you are stuck in the same place, but connected to your nearest and dearest via an all important filament which ties everyone together?  This might feel strange, but it is actually an exceedingly ancient arrangement.  Consider the lives of rangeomorphs, an ancient sessile marine animal which lived PRIOR to the Cambrian era, about 550 million years ago.  Many of the fundamental categories of multicellular life which are familiar to us originated in the Cambrian.  The rangeomorphs lived before that time…so it is a bit difficult to pin down their taxonomy.  Paleontologists have suggested that they are related to various groups of living suspension feeders and protists, but all of these attempts to pin down their exact place in the tree of life have been rejected.  Rangeomorphs lived during the last 30 million years of the Ediacaran Period (which was 635-542 million years ago) before the great phyla of life emerged.  Perhaps they were an extinct stem group somewhere between animals and fungi (!).

At any rate, even if rangeomorphs were their own weird kingdom of life, they were roughly analogous in form to many to many soft corals, glass sponges, ferns, luungworts and what have you.  They were mouthless (!) animals with no clear internal organs.  Their bodies consisted of many branching fronds a centimeter or so long.  They had no reproductive organs.


If you have been grinding your teeth wondering why I am writing about some blobby fronds which lived on the ocean bottom a half a billion years ago, you should open your mind.  There are some compelling questions here already.  If rangeomorphs had no mouths or organs how did they eat or sustain themselves?  They certainly were not photosynthetic.  How did they reproduce without reproductive organs?  Were they purely asexual?  We don’t know…However thanks to an exceedingly well-preserved bed of fossils just discovered in Newfoundland, we now know that rangeomorphs also had filaments which ranged in length from 2 centimeters (.75 inches) to 4 meters (12 feet) in length.  With these filaments the rangeomorphs (which formed vast monoculture colonies at the sea bottom) could conceivably communicate, transport nutrients, or even bud (as seen in the ‘suckering’ of plants like the infernal tree of heaven).  Maybe rangeomorphs were even subtly like syphonophorae–colony animals where different individuals (zooids) perform different functions in the manner of organs.

Not only is it interesting to speculate about the first great “forests” or “reefs” of life (assuming you don’t assign that role to the stromatolites of 3.5 billion years ago), it is also worth thinking about how different and alien the basal forms of life at the bottom of the animal “trunk” really were (assuming these guys were even animals).  I imagine them as colorful gardens of fleshy creatures not unlike seapens swaying in the currents of the ancient ocean, yet all strangely operating together like a clonal colony (which they almost certainly were–since how else would they come into existence?).  It forms a soothing mental picture during these tumultuous times.



For Valentine’s Day, I have saved this troubling obituary from the animal world.  Last month, Nigel the lonely gannet died.  Nigel lived on Mana Island, a desolate stony island about 25 kilometers northwest of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.   Mana Island was once the home to many sea birds, but after the island was intensively farmed during the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonies failed. The…nutrients…provided by the birds gave the island rich soil but, without the birds this abundance faded away and the island’s ecosystem crashed (this is a sort of microcosm of what happened to the larger New Zealand ecosystem during the 19th and 20th centuries as waves of invasive creatures swept the remote archipelago).  New Zealand conservationists have been working to restore the empty island however they were left with a problem.  Gannets live where other gannets live.  How could they lure the oceangoing birds back to start a new bird colony?

The solution they settled upon was to play bird calls on electronic speakers and put out concrete decoys painted the handsome black white and ocher of live gannets, however this strategy did not lure gannets to Mana…except for Nigel.  He arrived a few years ago and selected a beautiful replica gannet and began to woo his concrete love with mating displays, nests, and excited chatter.  He even tried to preen her concrete feathers and explore physical intimacy with her.  Videos of Nigel trying to impress his inanimate mate became a real hit in the human world (where analogies are not unknown).  This year other living gannets finally arrived at Mana Island, and naturalists hoped that Nigel could find fulfillment and raise a family with a real bird, but it was not to be.  In late January of 2018, a ranger found Nigel dead upon his nest next to his concrete consort.  The futility of his life and bleak melancholy of his end have attracted worldwide attention.


Ornithologists have speculated that Nigel was an odd bird, somehow injured, addled, or damaged, which is why he left his original colony. His defects, if any, were certainly not visible to the human eye and he looked like a healthy handsome seabird. Gannets dive from 30 meters (100 feet), and achieve speeds of 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph) as they enter the water.  Their speed and mass, and matchless skill as divers enables them to catch large fish deeper than most airborne birds can venture.  Nigel did all of this, but things just didn’t work out.

Except, maybe they did: there are now gannets nesting on Mana Island, brought there not by statues, but by a live gannet.  As one contemplates Nigel’s lonely life, it is hard not to imagine HIM transformed into a beautiful statue which says “Our Founder.”  We will watch the colony with interest and see if the gannets make it after their 40-year absence from Mana.


Nigel’s life and his death raise bigger questions about the nature of life and how organisms work together, collectively and individually.  This blog has visited these issues before in posts about blood, clonal colonies, lonely geese, and siphonophores (animals made of other animals where the individual zooids serve in the capacity of organs).


I have a long running philosophical argument with a friend concerning the nature of humankind.  He asserts that each person is a magnificent individual—a whole self-contained universe. I don’t think that is correct.  No animal is quite so solitary (unless it is the last of its kind) and especially not us: we are colony animals like mole rate or termites or honeybees.  If you see one human, you have a whole infestation.  This means our culture is as much who we are as ourselves (as becomes incredibly evident in heartbreaking cases of feral children or abused hermit loners).  The splendid fantasy of being alone is just that—a fantasy.  In reality we are as tied to our banks, gas companies, annoying colleagues, and odious loudmouth leaders more than we would ever like to admit.  We will come back to these ideas in subsequent posts, but for now Happy Valentine’s Day and RIP Nigel.  There really should be a statue of him, we could all see some of ourselves in that stone mirror…and some of humanity’s real nature in the living colony birds coming back to roost on desolate Mana Island.

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

Illustration of Venus, goddess of love and beauty

I promised to write about Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a book which I am planning on reading this year (after bouncing off of its deep moral ambiguity once before).  However before we get to talking about great literature and right and wrong and how to cynically manipulate people, let’s indulge in some completely frivolous daydreaming.

Longtime readers know that one of my favorite concepts for the not-so-distant future is the establishment of a floating colony in the skies of Venus.  A variety of considerable factors make this seem more attainable than the Martian colony which everyone is always talking about (plus I like tropical swamps better than Arctic deserts).


Alas, I am not an engineer, and I cannot bring my dream closer to reality with a slide rule and a spreadsheet full of atmospheric measurements and rocket payloads…or with a thoughtful treatise about making plastics out of the chemicals present in Venus’ thick atmosphere…or with mention of the seemingly inexhaustible thermal energy on its surface.  Yet I am imaginative, and perhaps I can share a powerful passing fantasy with you.  The other day, while browsing goodness knows what on the internet, I came across the picture above and it struck me forcefully as a perfect structural component of Mary Rose or Constance [astronomical convention dictates that all features on Venus be named after women, so I decided to name my cities after my grandmothers…at least until I know what my billionaire partner wishes to call things]. I had to share the image with you, even though I have lost the real context of the actual inflatable structure 9avionic saftey equipment maybe? That doesn’t actually seem so far off).


Dangit, this found concept art never looks right. I am going to have to draw my own.

First I imagined that this is the lifting body of the colony, which would be suspended underneath…but then it occurred to me that it might be the city (since breathable Earth atmosphere mixtures of gases float on the clouds of Venus).  or perhaps it is an agricultural pod or a park or a laboratory, or a factory.  Who can say what is in the lovely 4/5th torus, until we complete more of the schematics?  At the moment, it is a concept piece…like the whole colony, but the world is filled with clever people, and some of them read this blog.  let’s keep dreaming big!  Imagine this sparkling with lights as a huge yellow storm boils up beneath and a cloud of drones and gyrocopters approach from a nearby fleet of zeppelin buildings…

surface_area_largeToday features a short but vivid post borrowed from the futurist/science fiction/space blog io9 (which in turn took it from XKCD). Above is a map of all the surfaces of the solar system’s planets and moons flattened out and stitched together. The map was created by Randall Munroe and it does a superb job of explaining the relative size of rocky objects in the solar system. For obvious reasons the gas giants (and the sun!) have been excluded, but so too have small rocks and dust. For fun (um, I hope), the mapmaker also included an area equivalent to all human skin–which, distressingly, seems to be about the size of Hainan.

Russian concept art for a cloud colony in the upper atmosphere of Venus, (proposed in 1970s)

Russian concept art for a cloud colony in the upper atmosphere of Venus, (proposed in 1970s)

This map also emphasizes my most ardent fantasy of solar system colonization: I don’t really want to set up shop on Umbiel or Ceres, but I have a long-lasting interest in colonizing Venus. Sadly most of the rest of humankind is having trouble grasping this concept (possibly because the surface of Venus is a molten hellscape featuring boiling lead, sulfuric acid rain, and crushing pressure).  Remember though, we don’t need to ever go down to the Venutian surface: we can hang around in floating bouncy castles drifting through the balmy spring at the top of the atmosphere. Imagine taking your family zeppelin out for a night on the floating town! All of the people who express such an unwholesome interest in cold resource-poor Mars should pause to reexamine its relative area on Mr. Munroe’s excellent map!

Mars, Earth, Venus

Left to right: Mars, Earth, Venus

jcosmosWhen I was a child, my favorite tv show was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  Although the good doctor’s naïveté about cold war politics sometimes dismayed my realpolitik-minded parents, the amazing breadth of his show’s exploration of the natural world–and the wider universe beyond–was a wonder to me.  For the first time I was introduced to quasars, pulsars, and stellar aging. From Sagan’s delightfully filmed documentary, I learned about Kepler, the Kreb’s cycle, DNA pair sequencing, and the great library of Alexandria.  The eclectic scope of Cosmos was a direct inspiration for this blog (although I can hardly claim to be such a polymath). Hopefully the new Cosmos–with a new science hero, Neil deGrasse Tyson–will inspire today’s generation of children to look beyond sports and the internet up to the soaring science of the firmament!

Jovian Life Envisioned by Adolf Schaller for COSMOS, Carl Sagan (1980)

Jovian Life Envisioned by Adolf Schaller for COSMOS, Carl Sagan (1980)

My very favorite segment of Cosmos however, did not involve real science at all, but rather airy speculation about extraterrestrial life on a gas giant planet.  Carl Sagan, his physicist colleague, E. E. Saltpeter, and the space artist, Adolf Schaller, worked together to imagine a floating ecosystem which might exist on a planet such as Jupiter. In the tempestuous atmosphere of such a world, ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and water are violently stirred together to form organic molecules.  Small drifting organisms might feed on these compounds and reproduce as lighter spores before air currents bear them down to their doom (in a cycle reminiscent of phytoplankton). Giant floating life-forms like living hot-air balloons would stay in the habitable zone of the atmosphere by photosynthesis or by grazing on the microscopic “plankton”.  These beings could be kilometers in diameter and would congregate in vast aerial schools.  Sagan and Saltpeter even envisioned jet-propulsion super predators which would blast through the alien skies feeding on the huge clouds of “floaters”.

It is a tremendously compelling vision! Now, whenever NASA or ESA releases a new list of exoplanets, I pause to wonder whether such alien creatures are actually found floating on the super-Jupiters and strange giant worlds which orbit far-off stars.  However today I would like to present an even more fantastic vision—and one which humankind could actually create!  By combining Sagan’s imaginary vision with contemporary aerospace and biotech research, it is possible to visualize my own fantasy of human colonization of Venus…or even upon other worlds with complex atmospheres.

Ornithopter based on Jellyfish (Dr. Ristroph and Dr. Childress)

Ornithopter based on Jellyfish (Dr. Ristroph and Dr. Childress)

Just this year, two aeronautical engineers, Dr. Ristroph and Dr. Childress, crafted an ornithopter based on the swimming motion of a jellyfish.  The tiny mechanism relies on four teardrop-shaped wings oriented around a dome-like apex to achieve stable, directed flight. At the same time a new array of futuristic blimps, zeppelins and dirigibles are being brought to market to transform the skies of earth.  Most importantly Craig Ventner, the bioengineer-entrepreneur, is out there sampling the esoteric genetics of the deep ocean and forging ahead with synthetic genomics (which is to say he is building new living things from scratch).  In our lifetime someone will figure out how to meld Ventner’s synthetic organisms with the advanced engineering and technology which are the hallmark of our age.  The possibilities then grow exponentially out of this world.

“Space Zeppelin” by Rugose.

“Space Zeppelin” by Rugose.

Imagine if the floating ecosphere invented by Sagan and Saltpeter were instead a floating society-economy based on advanced engineering and bioengineering.  There would be levitating cities which are also bioengineered life-forms (like the vast balloon beings of Sagan’s invention).  Between these cloud cities would fly flocks of tiny ornithopters that would gather resources for further farming/engineering.

Jet propelled aircrafts and super habitats would zip between the living arcologies.  Armored crawlers would inch through the deeper layers of atmosphere or creep along the molten pressurized ground. Eventually there might be flying bio-colonies which self arrange out of many highly specialized flying zooids—like the siphonophores which are so prevalent in our oceans! These collective entities would act as sky factories to build an ever more symbiotic and efficient synthetic ecosystem. Humankind, living things, and technology would no longer be at odds but would grow together to form the ideal world of tomorrow.  Life, beautiful and united would expand to new planets and develop into a stronger, brighter presence in the cosmos.

Siphonophorae (Ernst Haeckel, 1904, plate 7 of "Kunstformen der Natur")

Siphonophorae (Ernst Haeckel, 1904, plate 7 of “Kunstformen der Natur”)

Naked Mole Rat Queen with Offspring

Naked Mole Rat Queen with Offspring

Naked Mole Rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are unique among mammals in that they are eusocial (well actually Damaraland mole rats might be eusocial too, but they are in the same family, the Bathyergidae).  Like bees or ants, mole rats live in a hive society: only one naked mole rat female is fertile and she gives birth to sterile workers who maintain and protect the underground burrows where the colony lives.  A queen breeds with 3 or 4 male naked mole rats and she jealously guards her reproductive monopoly.  If other female naked mole rats begin to produce sexual hormones or behave in a queenlike manner, the queen will viciously attack them.  When the old queen dies, violent battles can break out to become the new queen.  Once a victor emerges, the spaces between her vertebrae expand and she becomes longer and larger. Mole rats breed all year and they can produce a litter of three to twelve pups every 80 days.

Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked mole rats live in the arid parts of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia.  They feed on huge tubers which weigh as much as all the mole rats in a colony.  The mole rats eat the tubers slowly from the inside, which give the roots time to regrow.  Additionally mole rats can efficiently recycle food, so newly weaned mole rats are fed feces (which can also provide sustenance for adults).    Naked mole rats have huge sharp incisors for tunneling.   Their lips close in such a way that the incisors always remain outside their mouth–so the mole rats can tunnel indefinitely without getting dirt in their mouths.   Worker mole rats are 8 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in) long and weigh 30 to 35 grams (1.1 to 1.2 oz), although the queen grows much larger.  Naked mole rats have weak eyes and tiny skinny legs.  In effect they are pale pink wrinkled tubes with a few long sensitive whisker-like hairs sprouting from their bodies.  They move equally quickly forwards and backwards through their elaborate tunnels (which can measure up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) in total length).


Mole rats are unusual among mammals in other significant ways as well.  Naked mole rats do not maintain same thermal homeostasis as other mammals.  Their body temperatures are much closer to the ambient temperature in their burrows.  If they become unduly cold, they move to the top tunnels of their burrows and huddle together.  If they become hot, the naked mole rats retreat into the bottom levels where the temperatures are cooler.

Oxygen is a precious commodity in the underground tunnels of mole rats, so the fossorial roents have evolved extremely efficient blood and lungs in order to maximize oxygen uptake.   Additionally mole rats have very low metabolic rates compared to other (non-hibernating) mammals.  Their hearts beat slowly:  they breathe shallowly and eat little. In times of drought or famine, they are capable of going into a survival mode where their already slow metabolisms drop another 25 percent.  Naked Mole rats lack a critical neural transmitter which would allow them to feel certain sorts of pain sensations (such as pain caused by acid or hot pepper).  It is believed that the mole rats lost the ability to feel such sensations because the high carbon dioxide levels in their tunnels lead to extremely acidic conditions (mole rats are also surprisingly acid resistant, although I shudder to think of how we know this).


Mole rats live a long time—some captive mole rats are in their early thirties—and they do not age like other mammals but remain young and fit throughout their lives.  Additionally mole rats are untroubled by cancers.  It seems the underlying cause of this remarkable cancer-free long life is a certain hyaluronan (HMW-HA), a gooey peptide which fills up gaps between cells.  The fact that cells do not grow closely together prevents tumors from ever forming.  Hyaluronans exist in all other mammals (and in other animals).  The complex sugars are part of our joints and cartilage.  However the hyaluronan found in naked mole rats is much larger and more complicated.

Thanks to their ant-like colonial life and bizarre appearances, naked mole rats might seem quite alien, but they are near cousins to humans (primates and rodents are close relatives—which will surprise nobody who has ever known a businessperson).  They even come from the same part of Africa as us. The naked mole rats are social animals and they care deeply for one another over their decades of life.  Additionally our kinship with the wrinkly pink rats could provide other benefits.  Humans suffer greatly from aging and cancers.  Mole rats–with their remarkable hyaluronans–could provide workable insights into how to alleviate cancer and aging.

Family Portrait?

Family Portrait?


By far the most popular post on Ferrebeekeeper involves leprechauns.   Because of this fact, the sporadic generic tips I receive from WordPress usually include advice like “maybe you should consider writing more about this topic.”  This involves a conundrum, because leprechauns are totally made up.   What else is there to be said about the little green fairy-folk without reviewing weird B movies or randomly posting leprechaun tattoos?

Mill Ends Park (with human being added for scale)

Mill Ends Park (with human being added for scale)

Fortunately today’s news has come to my aid.  Apparently the world’s smallest park, Mill Ends Park, in Portland, Oregon was victimized by tree-rustlers who stole 100% of the park’s forest.  This seems like grim news, but Mill Ends Park is very small indeed: the entire (perfectly circular) park measures 2 feet in diameter.  Because of its dinky 452 square inch area, Mill Ends Park only contained one small tree.  A drunkard might have fallen on it (the park is located on a traffic island in the midst of a busy intersection) or pranksters might have taken it away to a container garden.  Maybe a German industrialist now has the little tree in some weird freaky terrarium…

Mill Ends Park with Dick Fagan

Mill Ends Park with Dick Fagan

Anyway, you are probably wondering why Portland has a park which is smaller than a large pizza and what exactly this has to do with imaginary fairy cobblers from Ireland.  It turns out that Mill Ends Park was the literary confabulation of journalist Dick Fagan.  After returning from World War II, Fagan began writing a blog (except they were called “newspaper columns” back then, and people were actually paid for them).  In 1948, the city of Portland had dug a hole to install a street light on the median of SW Naito Parkway, but due to the exigencies of the world, the light never materialized.  Fagan became obsessed with the pathetic little mud pit and began planting flowers in it and rhapsodizing about fantasy beings who lived there (whom only he could see).   Fagan’s story of the park’s creation is a classic leprechaun tale.  While Fagan was writing in his office, he saw a leprechaun, Scott O’Toole, digging the original hole (presumably to bury treasure or access a burial mound or accomplish some such leprechaun errand).  Fagan ran out of the building and apprehended the little man and thus earned a wish.  As mentioned, Fagan was a writer, so obviously gold was not his prime motivation.  He (Fagan) asked the leprechaun (Scott O’Toole) to be granted his very own park.  Since the journalist failed to specify the size of the park, the leprechaun granted him the tiny hole.

Documentary Photo of the Park's Founding (AP)

Documentary Photo of the Park’s Founding (AP)

Fagan continued to write about the “park” and its resident leprechaun colony for the next two decades using it as a metaphor for various urban issues or just as a convenient frippery when he couldn’t think of anything to write about (a purpose which the park still serves for contemporary writers).  In 1976, the city posthumously honored the writer by officially making the tiny space a city park.  The little park frequently features in various frivolous japes such as protests by pipe-cleaner people, the delivery of a post-it sized Ferris wheel by a full-sized crane, and overblown marching band festivities out of scale with the microcosm.

Mill Ends Park at the height of the Occupy Wall Street Movement

Mill Ends Park at the height of the Occupy Wall Street Movement

True to form, the Portland Park Department was appalled at the recent deforestation and sprang into action by planting a Douglas fir sapling in Mill End Park.  Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are the second tallest conifers on Earth, and grow to a whopping  60–75 meters (200–246 ft) in height so it is unclear how this situation will play out over time, but presumably Patrick O’Toole and his extended Irish American family will be on hand to ensure that everything turns out OK.

A Douglas Fir with human for scale (photographed by zoopenguinwatcher)

A Douglas Fir with human for scale (photographed by zoopenguinwatcher)

Humankind is always fixating on the Moon and Mars as the most likely spots for the first space colonies, but there is another crazy possibility.  Aside from the Sun and the Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the night sky.  Earth’s closest planetary neighbor, Venus is a veritable sister planet with extremely similar mass and volume.  Because of its  size and position in the solar system, a great deal of early science fiction concentrated around Venus.  Dreamers and fabulists posited that beneath its ominously uniform cloud cover was a lush tropical rainforest filled with lizard people and pulchritudinous scantily clad women (the fact that the planet’s Greco-Roman name is synonymous with the goddess of love and beauty seems to have influenced many generations of male space enthusiasts).

Maybe we should head over there and check it out…

Alas, the space age quickly dispensed with mankind’s sweaty-palmed fantasies about life on Venus.  In 1970 the Soviet space probe, Venera 7, was the first spacecraft to successfully land on another planet (after a long series of earlier space probes were melted or crushed by atmospheric pressure).  In the 23 minute window before the probe’s instruments failed, the craft recorded hellish extremes of temperature and pressure. The temperature on Venus’ surface averages around 500 °C (932 °F), (higher than the melting point of lead) and the pressure on the ground is equal to the pressure beneath a kilometer of earth’s ocean.  The planet’s surface is a gloomy desertlike shell of slabs interspersed with weird volcanic features not found elsewhere in the solar system (which have strange names like “farra”,” novae”, and “arachnoids”). Additionally the broiling surface is scarred by huge impact craters, and intersected by immense volcanic mountains (the tallest of which looms 2 kilometers above Everest). The tops of these mountains are covered with a metallic snow made of elemental tellurium or lead sulfide (probably).

A photo of the surface of Venus from Venera 13

The atmosphere of Venus is a hellish fug of carbon dioxide which traps the sun’s energy in a self replicating greenhouse gone wrong.    Above the dense clouds of CO2, the upper atmosphere is dominated by sulfur dioxide and corrosive sulfuric acid.  Once Venus may have had water oceans and more earth-like conditions, but rampant greenhouse heating caused a feedback loop which caused the planet to become superheated billions of years ago.  Without an magnetosphere, solar winds stripped Venus of its molecular hydrogen (yikes!).

Artist’s Impression of the Surface of Venus

Thus Venus does not initially present a very appealing picture for colonization! Yet the planet’s mass is similar to Earth (and humans’ long term viability in low gravity is far from certain).  The planet is closer than Mars and windows of opportunity for travel are more frequent. Fifty kilometers (30 miles) above the surface of Venus, the temperature is stable between 0 and 50 degrees Celsius (32 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit).  Light crafts filled with oxygen and nitrogen would float above the dense carbon dioxide.  Today’s visionaries and dreamers therefore have stopped thinking of tropical jungles and envision instead a world of Aerostats and floating cities.  Although the rotation of Venus is too slow to craft a space elevator, the flying colonists of Venus probably could build some sort of skyhook with existing or near future technology.  Such a hook could be used to lift raw materials from the surface to manufacturing facilities in the skies.  As more aerostat habitats were built, the colony would gain manufacturing strength, safety, and a greater ability to alter the barren world below (increasingly overshadowed by flying cities and hovering countries).

Imagine then a world like that of the Jetsons where the surface was unseen and not thought about (except by scientists and industrialists).  Floating forests and croplands could be assembled to mimic earth habitats and provide resources for a bourgeoning population of Venusian humans.  Skyships would cruise between the flying city states dotted jewel-like in the glowing heavens.   Over time these flying habitats could be used to alter the planetary temperature and shield the desolate lands below.  Humankind and whatever friends and stowaways came with us would finally have a second home in easy shouting distance of Earth.    How long would it be then before we took steps to take Earth life even farther into the universe?

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.

Driver Ants

One of the strangest and most alarming creatures on the planet is the driver ant.  Driver ants belong to the genus Dorylus which is comprised of about 60 species.  In the larger Dorylus species, each worker ant is only half a centimeter long.  The soldier ants which guard the hive are a mere 1.5 centimeters.  Males, which can fly, are 3 centimeters long and the queen, the largest of the ants, is from 5 to 8 centimeters long.  These are not the sort of sizes that allow one to play professional football, so what makes Dorsylus ants so fearsome?  Well, there are lots of them.  Driver ants form the largest colonies of all the social insects.  They live in hives numbering more than 20 million individuals, all born by one single queen.

When marching or foraging, these hives can overrun and overpower much larger animals and generally everything that can do so gets out of their way (including mighty elephants).

Driver ant head: close-up (Dorylus nigricans)

Driver ants are usually found in the tropical forests of West Africa (although some species range into tropical Asia). Although capable of stinging, the ants rarely do so.  They prefer to use their powerful sharpened mandibles to shear apart prey.  Not only are these mandibles powerful the pliers-like pincers lock into a death grip if the ant itself is killed (or even beheaded).

Male Driver Ant ("Sausage Fly")

Male driver ants fly away from the colony very soon after birth.  If a colony of foraging driver ants comes across a male ant they rip off his wings and take him to mate with a virgin queen (after which he dies).  The queen ant then lays 1 to 2 million eggs per month for the remainder of her life.

All driver ants are blind, but they have an acute sense of touch and smell.  Larger columns follow scent trails laid down by scouts.  The ants eat any animal life they can get their mandibles on (although the staple of their diet is apparently worms).

Close-up of the enormous queen of an army ant (Dorylus anomma nigricans) colony being protected and tended to by worker and soldier ants during migration of the colony.

When driver ants have stripped the animal life from a particular section of the forest they nomadically pull up stakes and move on en masse.  Developing larvae are carried in temporary nests made up of the living bodies of worker ants.  Foraging columns or hives on the move are dangerous.  While healthy animals can escape, injured or trapped animals can be killed by the ants which enter the mouths and nostrils of victims.  One shudders to think of the bad ends which have befallen people who were wounded, bound, or seriously drunk when driver ants were passing through.  Farmers however have a different relationship with the ants which can clear entire fields of all agricultural pests in an afternoon.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

July 2020