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Today’s post starts out funny but quickly becomes troubling and: so maybe just read the first part?

As you might have guessed, we start with Jerry Falwell Jr.–not because his current scandal is hilarious (although it really is) but because his affairs illustrates some larger points which we would be wise to think about.  Falwell is a rich and powerful evangelical leader who is one of the most prominent  members of the “religious right,” an aggressive blend of Christian fundamentalism and far right politics.  He has long treated his father’s university as a private fiefdom–a political/moral training camp for creating followers and minting money.

Falwell Jr. has a long history of racist tirades, homophobic stunts, shady business dealings, Covid denialism, and preposterous conspiracy theories, but such things are not entirely unknown among America’s extreme right-wing churchmen.   For the last few weeks he has been under a cloud because of strange racy photographs of himself removing his trousers while undressing a lady companion. This week, however, his whole masquerade blew apart when it was incontrovertibly revealed that he liked to watch his wife sleep with other men, most notably a special live-in pool boy named Giancarlo Granda (who may or may not have been extorting the couple), but apparently other business partners and acquaintances as well. When the scandal became undeniable, Falwell Jr. threw his wife under the bus by claiming it was all her fault. He admitted no wrongdoing, pulled the cord of his golden parachute and pocketed 10 million dollars for quitting his job as head of an ultra-conservative Christian university.

As a New York City libertine (albeit a celibate one) I believe that what married couples do in their bedroom with handsome young poolboys, business partners, sundry others, and who knows what sort of costumes, devices, onlookers, animals, religious paraphernalia, super drugs, etc. is entirely their own affair. Yet the outrageous hypocrisy of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s public persona (and the extent to which he has leveraged said public persona for political influence and money) make his discomfiture particularly risible.  We probably shouldn’t be so amused: Jerry Falwell Jr. is now ten million dollars richer (ten million dollars which had already been taken from starry-eyed devout kids in exchange for a worthless education and a bunch of lectures about the necessities of abstinence and supporting Trump). Indeed, based on recent evidence, this huge freak is probably turned on by the worldwide derision directed at his private life.

Beyond Falwell himself, this excellent article in Slate, highlights the true significance of this sort of scandal.   Jeffrey Guhin (whose ideas I have liberally borrowed here) writes:

In the old theological meaning of the word, scandal isn’t really about what happens to the person who does something wrong. It’s about what happens to everybody else, those left in the scandal’s wake, wondering if there’s anything left to believe. In that sense, Falwell’s scandals are of a piece with Trump’s. Falwell makes people wonder if religion is actually just jerks reciting pieties and making money; Trump makes people wonder the same thing about democracy.

Here is the real problem, acts like Falwell’s diminish our collective faith in other people.  That faith is the bedrock of religion (ask the Pontifex Maximus what happened to worship of Jupiter after a few centuries of Caligula, Nero, Caracalla, and Elagabalus).  When devout Christians attack liberal professors, Hollywood movie stars, and atheist bloggers for destroying Christianity they are looking at the wrong villains.  The emperors of Pagan Rome had their unstoppable legions burn Christians to death in front of vast crowds and it only made Christianity stronger and more popular.  Christians who love the power of cruel smug bullies and the promised wealth of the idolatrous prosperity gospel are the real reason Christianity is declining in America.  Don’t take it from me, take it from peer-reviewed sociologists who carefully studied people who walked away from the house of Christ.

But even if you are not religious, faith in other people’s actions and motivations is also the basis of education, of government, and of the economy (Guhin correctly notes that money is just paper and computer numbers unless we believe in it).  Faith in other people is even necessary for evidence-based disciplines like science and medicine (we have seen how much modern medicine helps people if everyone regards doctors as the highly paid stooges of crooked insurance corporations).  Tobacco companies realized they could defang earnest anti-smoking studies by pointing to unrelated scientists whose research was funded by corporations and then just saying “everyone is equally bad”! Faith in other people is the bedrock of everything unless you are a lone hunter gatherer (in which case how are you reading this?).

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Day after day, I go to Facebook and look with bemused sadness at the posts of relatives and friends who are Trump supporters.  Far from feeling that this most un-Christian president’s ostentatious support of Christian values is a grotesque affront, they regard him as someone who “keeps it real”.  Trump’s penchant for doing illegal things and then insouciantly shrugging and say “everyone does it” is part of the way he gets away with it. Scandal and disillusion has left smart and caring people as cynics who believe that all politicians are crooked fraudsters.  Disillusionment prevents them from discerning which politicians are actually criminals.  It is another dark example of the cynical anti-government death spiral Republican leaders seem to be caught in (the enormous danger of turning citizens against the government was also the real thesis of my oh-so-long-ago 2016 endorsement). In the mean time our government (which needs to be doing lots of very complicated things to help our fellow citizens, ensure the nation’s defense, protect the world ecosystem, and secure a worthwhile future ) is left in the hands of ghoulish kleptocrats.

Anyway, all of this talk of outrageous hypocrites who pretend to be supremely holy when they are actually depraved, power-hungry leeches is wearing me out. Let’s tune into the Republican convention and see what Mike Pence has to say.

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Commencement at Liberty

H-140-42 Hura crepitans

Today let us appreciate a fearsome tree! The Sandbox tree (Hura crepitans) is a native of the spurge family (like poinsettias and baseball plants). However the Sandbox tree is not a tiny houseplant: it can grow to 60 meters (200 feet) tall and has majestic oval leaves that measure 60 centimeters (2 feet) across.  The tree originated in the super competitive biome of the Amazon rainforest, but it has been spreading North through tropical Central America, and invasive colonies have a foothold in tropical East Africa.

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The bark of the sandbox tree

Perhaps the somewhat  anodyne name “sandbox tree” has you picturing a lovable tree for a children’s nursery or something.  Dispel that rosy picture from your mind!  Hura crepitans is a monster plant in every way.  Not only is it 60 meters tall,  its trunk is covered in enormous sharpened spines which would make a Clive Barker villain cry.  If you hack through the spines to injure the tree, the sap turns out to be a milky caustic poison which has been used by indigenous hunters to tip arrows and (allegedly) to kill fish.  The tree grows a fruit which looks like a vile pumpkin made of hardwood.  These jabillo fruit are toxic, but they are not meant to beguile animals into devouring the seeds anyway.  Instead they explode like hand grenades causing a raucous bang and throwing seeds 50 meters (150 feet) from the tree.

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So why is this giant, spiny, exploding, poisonous tree called the sandbox tree anyway? We don’t call rhinoceroses “playground ponies”.  It feels like there has been a substantial nomenclatural failure here (at least in terms of the English common name).  As it turns out, during the 19th century, the symmetrical green jabillo pods were harvested, dried out, and sawed into little dishes which were filled with pounce.  Pounce is powder made of pulverized cuttlefish bone which was sprinkled on crude paper of yesteryear to size it (i.e. to make it possible to write on) or to dry the heavy ink lines from nibs and quills.  Wow! It is easy to forget that people of yesteryear were as freakish in repurposing natural materials into household items as we are with our endless disposable plastic goods.

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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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The political crisis which has beset 21st century America generates such a breathtaking number of headlines that it is easy to become numb to the poor choices, the controversies, the hyperbolic invective…and just to the national news in general.   I have mostly chosen not to focus on the wretched litany of mistakes, missteps, idiocy, and criminal misbehavior coming out of the Trump Administration, but today I am making an exception since the program being attacked bears on larger affairs than those of our beleaguered nation.  The Political Crisis of the early 21st Century is one thing, but today’s news potentially affects the Holocene/Anthropocene Mass Extinction of Life on Earth.

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The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed by bipartisan legislation and signed into law by Richard Nixon. It is the key U.S. law for protecting wildlife. The law can certainly not be repealed in the paralyzed super-partisan Washington of today, but the Trump administration is choosing to enforce the law in new ways which undermine the purpose of the Act.  Specifically there are two proposed changes:

The first is that agencies enforcing the ESA are given latitude to ignore projected future changes.  The exact verbiage is “The Services will describe the foreseeable future on a case-by-case basis.”  This means that regulators are free to ignore the outcomes of their decisions provided those outcomes are not immediate.  If actions taken now will disrupt or ruin a habitat within a few years, well, that’s no longer the purview of the Act.  Talk to the relevant agency once the bad thing has happened, not before!

The second (and more disturbing) change is an omission.  Decisions about how to protect species were previously based solely on scientific consensus  “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”  That phrase has now been removed from the guidelines.  We will see what this means in the real world.  To me it certainly seems like if the choice comes down to protecting the habitat of an endangered frog or protecting the profits of a dirtbag real estate developer, unknown apparatchiks are free to chose the latter for unknown reasons.

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Coming Soon to your favorite ecosystem! Financing available!

Experts suspect that these changes are giveaways to real estate concerns and to mining & fossil fuel extraction industries.  It isn’t hard to see why they think that!  It is worth noting though that the Endangered Species Act is extremely popular and effective.  To quote an article on Vox

The act is generally uncontroversial among the public: About 83 percent of Americans (including a large majority of conservatives) support it, according to an Ohio State University poll. And it works: According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the act has prevented the “extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects.”

So call/write to your elected officials and raise a ruckus!  There is a lot going on right now, but any politician who isn’t completely owned by Exxon is likely to at least think about messing up legislation with an 83 percent approval rating.  Is the world going to lament the absence of some hideous prefab condos in the exurbs or are we going to miss the beautiful animals and plants that support the web of life which humankind is part of?

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Loteria is a bingo-style game of Latin America (although it descends from an Italian game of the 15th century).  A designated frontperson pulls cards from a deck and calls the images out to players with boards/cards marked with the same images. The players are trying to get markers on four squares in a row to win a prize.  The card-reader often talks in riddles or humorous rhymes to present the cards–which are appealingly heterogeneous.

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As with many other card games through the ages, loteria cards are also used as a mechanism for divination.  This brings us to today’s subject: “la sirena” the mermaid card in the lottery game. La sirena is represented as a classical mermaid—a beautiful nude woman with a green fish tale in lieu of legs.  As you might imagine, the siren can mean many things when she crops up in divinatory readings—representing all sorts of distaff beauty and beguiling opportunities–but the main message is the one which is read in the boilerplate riddle associated with the cards:

Con los cantos de sirena, no te vayas a marear.

A (bad) translation might be “Don’t let the songs of the siren disorient you.”  In Spanish “sirena” is synonymous with dangerous beguilement: the bewitching song and the sea-maiden are one and the same.  The mermaid’s tempting beauty disguises a dangerous situation or is, at best, an illusion. This is a standard truism of the prediction business: It is indeed wise to look carefully at all aspects of an apparently desirable opportunity.  This is especially true in our mercantile world which has become a rigged marketplace.  Anyone looking at the internet will know that every worm online has a hook in it.

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Yet look at the siren: she is the standout knockout of the loteria cards.  Additionally, she has a mythological gravitas which the flowerpot, the boot, and the saucepan (other loteria cards) sorely lack.  Surely her otherworldly beauty (and the beauty of her ocean habitat) have a worth which transcends a sententious admonition about temptation. It is true that mermaids are fantasy, but that doesn’t mean the longing they represent isn’t a puissant force.

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Such thoughts also bring us to the dangerous misogyny inherent in mermaid concepts.  In classical art and literature, beautiful sea maidens are most often an allegory for the trouble which lust brings men into. This seems unfair to mermaids who should be free to be who they are without being chastened as temptresses.  Perhaps the real message of the mermaid is in her fundamental irreconcilable juxtaposition—she is a being who is one thing above and another thing below—a hybrid entity who lives in two incompatible worlds.  That sounds like most people torn by the conflict of pursuing our own dreams and being forced by wage capital to help other people work on awful alien dreams which mean nothing to us.  Perhaps we should spare some sympathy for the mermaid.  That doesn’t mean we should let pretty flippers blind us to the perils of the ocean.  Maybe when we look into her lovely features we shouldn’t see a trap, we should see a mirror–ourselves in an impossible predicament we have always been in.

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The spur-winged goose (Plectropterus gambensis) is a large waterfowl which is quite common in wetlands throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  Adults are 75–115 cm (30–45 in) long and weigh up to 7 kg (15 pounds).  The bird is a close relative of both true geese and shelducks (although they aren’t really geese or ducks but have their own genus).  They are intelligent gregarious birds which live in flocks of around 50.  They look somewhat plain—their feathers are dun, sable, and white, and their faces and beaks are red–like geese badly made up to look like vultures. Yet spur-winged geese are amazing animals in several respects (I mean beyond just being geese–which live for decades, have complicated social lives, and can fly across whole continents).

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Spur-winged geese have a habit of eating blister beetles and storing the poisonous cantharidin from the insects within their bodies.  Cantharidin has a long strange history in human society which you can look up on your own (it was known as “Spanish Fly”), however it is principally notable for being poisonous: 10 mg of cantharidin is enough to kill an adult human!  Spur-winged geese–particularly those which live in and around the Gambiaare often poisonous–or at least they have flesh which is toxic to humans.

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Additionally, males have dinosaur-like spurs on their wings which they use, dinosaur-like, to fight each other for females.  These wing-spurs are not trivial.  Poultry keepers who have tried to keep the spur-winged goose with other birds have suffered losses to the fearsome sharpened wrist-spurs (and the aggressive territoriality of the spur-winged males).

Probably the most remarkable thing about the spur-winged goose though is its speed.  These birds are blazing fast.   They appear on shortlists with crazy birds like peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, swifts, and frigatebirds.  Although they cannot dive at speeds approaching the raptors or maneuver like the swifts,  spur-winged geese can really move quickly.  When the goose gets up to speed, it can travel 142 kilometers per hour (88 miles per hour).  It is as fast as the Delorean in Back to the Future (though it apparently lacks time-traveling abilities).

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So, to sum up the spur-winged goose: it is an omnivore which lives throughout the most competitive ecosystems of Africa. It has fighting spurs on its wings, can fly as fast as a World War I warplane, and is toxic. I guess I am saying that you need to respect the spur-winged goose!

Echis ocellatus (photo by Anders Johansson)

Echis ocellatus (photo by Anders Johansson)

A few weeks ago I wrote about Fav-Afrique, the superb anti-venin which is going off the market because market incentives do not properly address real human concerns.  The anti-venin is a cocktail which is meant to counter the venom of numerous different snakes from central and West Africa. In that post, I promised to write about some of these venomous reptiles, which I have so far failed to do.  When I was looking at the list, one name stood out because it was the most dangerous snake in Africa (in terms of the number of people killed by its venom), yet I did not recognize the name at all-the West African carpet viper (Echis ocellatus).  This husky viper, which is camouflaged with a chaotic ladder of dark bars and pale stipples, is apparently Africa’s most dangerous snake—one of the deadliest animals in the word in terms of human mortality and suffering—but I have never heard of it.  Have you?

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The West African carpet viper doesn’t even have a good page (in English) on Wikipedia.  It is hard to find out about the creature without turning to 19th century explorers or freaks who raise it for a hobby.  Most of the web articles I found about it were scary medical papers about failed attempts to come up with effective anti-venins for the viper’s venom.  Here is what we do know about this tubby killer. Echis ocellatus can be found from Mauritania in the north down along the Bight of Benin to Cameroon.  It ranges east into the Sahel as far as Chad, Niger, and the Central African Republic.  The snake is adept at surviving in dry scrubland on lizards and rodents. Females can lay immense clutches of up to sixty eggs!

Echis ocellatus (at least acfcording to the internet)

Echis ocellatus (at least acfcording to the internet)

That is all I could reliably find out, but we know that the animal is a viper—which provides us with a great deal of information.  Vipers are fearsome lurking predators capable of seeing infrared wavelength radiation (which means they can track prey in the dark based on body heat).  Some pit-vipers like American rattlesnakes are famous for warning intruders off—and apparently the carpet viper can rasp its saw-toothed scales together to make a warning sound, but this subtle warning often goes unheeded by firewood gatherers of the scrubland.  Based entirely on body count, Echis ocellatus must be an angry & short-tempered character (I have mercifully never met one—so my words are speculation).

There is more information about the venom of Echis ocellatus than there is data about the snake, but the information is frustratingly technical.  Suffice to say, the snake produces a formidable cytotoxin, a protein which is damaging to cells.  Bites from the viper are marked by terrible tissue necrosis and hemorrhage at the site of envenomation.  I’m really sorry—the main things I have found out from looking into this interesting but enigmatic animal is that: (1) The internet is still an imperfect information source about some really important things; (2) I need to read French to write about West Africa, and (3) do not mess with Echis ocellatus! Leave them be and tread with great caution in dust colored places of the Sahel!

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Microbeads through a Microscope

Microbeads through a Microscope

Back when I was at school in the 90s there was a breathless sense that we all lived on the threshold of a nanotech revolution.  In the future we would quaff chalices filled with infinitesimal robots and the little machines would devour our cancers and grant us superpowers.  Flash forward to 2015 and what we have instead is microbeads.  These are exactly what they sound like–polyethylene microspheres which have worked their way into consumer goods of every sort.  Microbeads were supposed to “exfoliate” or “microcleanse” or perform some other nebulous pseudoverb dreamed up by marketers.  What they really do instead is abrade microfissures into our gums before passing through the filters of water treatment plants and pouring into the world’s rivers, lakes, and oceans.  In these larger ecosystems, the beads soak up pollutants and are mistaken for eggs by tiny arthropods and fry.  The infernal little spheres are working their way into the food chain and causing havoc.

Ahh...consumer goods!

Ahh…consumer goods!

Ferrebeekeeper believes that technology is the solution to most problems.  This blog often excoriates the powers that be for not moving fast enough to bring us breakthroughs and marvels.  So why are we featuring the troubling story of microbeads?  First (and most-obviously) because technology only works if we all pay close attention and correct errors and problems as they occur.  This is no easy task when dealing with systems as complicated as those seen in biology and ecology.

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More importantly it is a rebuke to the market system.   There is a certain segment of society which continuously holds aloft the market as the final and greatest arbiter of what is right and best.  This seems dangerously misguided.  The market prefers expensive baldness therapy, instantly obsolete cellphones, and microbeads to the expensive and abstract research into fundamental science where real breakthroughs come from. The market is a single shiny gimcrack in our collective box of tricks for dealing with the world, but it should not be mistaken for the toolbox…or the world! Markets are better at making a few charlatans rich then for helping us all understand existence.

Microbeads glowing under UV light inside some little larval water creature

Microbeads glowing under UV light inside some little larval water creature

Let’s remove little beads from our soap and work a bit harder in the nanotech laboratory.  We are not getting any younger and some of those little cancer eating robots might come in handy…provided they are not brought to us at a horrifying markup by Ciba-Geigy (and then end up eating our spleens).  If we do not work a bit harder to correct the excesses within our resource allocation system, we are going to end up with more micro cleanse and less true understanding.

We want nanobots but we need them to work right or the consequences could be unpleasant!

We want nanobots but we need them to work right or the consequences could be unpleasant!

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Here is an interesting and horrifying flower!  This is henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which also goes by the name “stinking nightshade.”  It is one of the noteworthy poisons of classical antiquity.  Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae family—the nightshades—one of the most important of all plant families to humankind.  The Solanaceae family includes eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, but also nightshade, datura, and tobacco!

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane too is rich in psychoactive alkaloids.  Small doses result in dilated pupils, restlessness, flushed skin, and hallucinations.  Other symptoms of henbane poisoning include a racing heart, vomiting, extreme body temperature fluctuations, the inability to control one’s muscles, convulsions, coma, and, uh, death, so it’s probably well to steer clear of eating (or touching or taunting) this particular plant.  The ancient Greeks and Romans did not read my blog, so they sometimes ingested henbane.  In particular, Pliny documented its use by fortunetellers. The priestesses of Apollo would take the plant in order that they might fall into a hallucinogenic trance and then pronounce auguries. It should be noted that priestesses of Apollo tended not to last too well.  Henbane also had associations with the world hereafter, and dead souls wandering the margins of the underworld were said to wear henbane laurels.

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Henbane originated in southern Europe and western Asia, but classical civilization spread it widely across all of Europe (from whence it traveled to the rest of the world). Incompetent medieval pharmacists used it as an anesthetic and for other sundry “medicinal” uses.  It was also popular with poisoners (scholars think it is the most likely candidate to be “hebenon” the poison from Hamlet) and was the means of death for many murders even into contemporary times.  It also has a sad place in the witch panics that affected Europe during the dark ages and the early modern era.  Witches were said to use it in their potions.  Domestic animals would also sometimes eat it accidentally and run wild or perish. Thus witch-hunters would look for the plant and use it as evidence in their trials (although it grows wild as a weed).  Also, because of its powerful psychoactive properties, henbane could well give a user the impression of flying and of various supernatural happenings.

Witches' Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

Witches’ Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

On a more mundane level, brewers used henbane to flavor beer until this was recognized as a bad idea (which occurred much later than you might hope) and it was universally replaced with hops.  Evidence of henbane’s use as a flavoring agent for beer goes all the way back to the Neolithic era.  There is clearly evidence that henbane does something for (to?) humans, but there is even clearer evidence that it is tremendously dangerous and toxic.  Maybe it’s best to appreciate this ancient plant through reading about it and looking at pictures of the strange weedy flowers.

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The high Himalayas  seen above the village of Ghandruk, Nepal (photo from http://holeintheclouds.net)

The high Himalayas seen above the village of Ghandruk, Nepal (photo from http://holeintheclouds.net)

The world’s largest honeybee, the controversial Himalayan cliff honey bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa) lives high in the Himalaya Mountains among the craggy peaks of Bhutan, Yunnan, Nepal, and the Himalayan provinces of India.  The large honeybees are renowned for building large nests/hives within the inaccessible overhangs of huge cliffs. These nests tend to be found at altitudes between 2,500 and 3,000 m (8,000 and 10,000 feet) built into cliffs which face to the southwest.

Honey-huntingAlthough Himalayan cliff honey bees have complicated lives within a densely layered hierarchical colony, they are not controversial because of their social complexity, but rather because of taxonomical quibbles. Before 1980, Apis dorsata laboriosa was classified as a subspecies of Apis dorsata (the giant honeybee of Soth Asia), but during the eighties and nineties, the Himalayan cliff honey bee was thought to be a unique species (Apis laboriosa). In 1999, the species was demoted back to a subspecies of Apis dorsata (although some genetics-minded entomologists argue that it is a distinct species). Hopefully you followed all of that—it sounds like more vertiginous twists of naming might still lie in the near future.

Himalayan Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), photo by L. Shyamal

Himalayan Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), photo by L. Shyamal

Perhaps some of this confusion comes from how inaccessible the bees are.  Only gifted mountaineers and free-climbers could ever hope to reach the lofty hives where the bees deposit their precious honey and larvae.   From their towering homes, the bees are able to forage nectar and pollen from upland meadows of the Himalayas (which burst into extravagant fields of flowers during the brief seasons of spring and summer).

A Nepalese Honey Hunter Risking his Life for Cliff Honey (photo by Eric Valli)

A Nepalese Honey Hunter Risking his Life for Cliff Honey (photo by Eric Valli)

Sadly for the bees, there is a terrible catch—the spring honey which they harvest from the high mountains comes partially from the nectar of white rhododendrons (which contain a grayanotoxin).  The spring honey from rhododendrons is red in color and, when fresh, reputedly has a narcotic effect on humans.  Honey hunters risk life and limb to climb high up the mountains.  They then use long poles to rob the bee hives–all while teetering hundreds or thousands of feet above a sheer precipice and being attacked by angry giant bees! The honey fetches a huge premium among the rich of Japan, Singapore, and China even though grayanotoxins are, you know, toxins, and can cause cardiac problems in addition to the soothing intoxicating effects.

Photo credit: Andrew Newey

Photo credit: Andrew Newey

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