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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

The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

On August 21, 1976, the joint military forces of the United States and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a mission which involved 813 fighting men on the ground (including a platoon of South Korean martial arts experts wired with Claymore mines), 27 military helicopters, a number of B-52 high altitude bombers with their jet fighter escorts, and the aircraft carrier Midway along with its attack group of missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.  At the heart of the mission was a team of eight soldiers armed with chainsaws! The rest of the forces were providing support for this small team of men whose mission was…to cut down a single poplar tree.

This requires some explaining.

On July 27, 1953 an armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War by creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide which runs 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the entire Korean peninsula.  Although huge armies wait on either side, the Demilitarized Zone itself remains a no-man’s land, deadly for humans to tread upon (and, consequently, one of the most pristine temperate forests on Earth).  Only a tiny portion of the DMZ is designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) where people can go. Located near what used to be the village of Panmunjon, the JSA serves as a sort of neutral meeting place, where North Korean forces meet face to face with forces from the United Nations Command. Numerous military and diplomatic negotiations have taken place at the JSA (although the North Koreans abandoned all meetings in 1991 over a perceived slight), however, in the years since the armistice, the area has also been the sight of many kidnappings, assaults, and killings as the hermit kingdom repeatedly tests its boundaries like a dangerous animal behind an electric fence.

A photograph of the actual confrontation--well, that certainly clears everything up!

A photograph of the actual confrontation–well, that certainly clears everything up!

In the mid-seventies, American and South Korean forces near the JSA had a problem: a leafy poplar tree blocked the view from one guardhouse to another.  North Korean commandos exploited this weakness to attack the isolated guardhouse more than once.  On August 18, 1976, a team of American and South Korean soldiers was duly dispatched to trim the tree.  Unfortunately a bellicose team of North Korean soldiers intercepted the landscaping team and precipitated a fight.  The North Korean officer stated that the poplar had been planted and nourished by Kim Il-Sung and was therefore sacrosanct.  In the ensuing melee, two American officers were killed with axes and clubs.  The perfidious North Koreans rushed to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, and presented the incident as an American attack.  With support from Cuba, the members of the conference passed a resolution condemning the provocation and demanding a withdrawal of US and UN forces from the Korean peninsula.

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Gerald Ford decided the incident had to be answered in a way which asserted overwhelming force yet precluded further escalation.  Hence, Operation Paul Bunyan was put together to chop down the tree under the rubric of massive armed force.   Heavily armed infantry, artillery, and air assault forces were moved into supporting positions as was the Midway carrier group.  The armed convoy cut down the tree (in 42 minutes) and left the 6 meter (20 foot) stump remaining.  They also cleared away two North Korean barricades.

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

Response to Operation Paul Bunyan was swift an unexpected:  Kim Il-sung sent a message to United Nations Command expressing regret at the incident. North Korea’s provocative actions along the border were subsequently muted down (although, obviously, not forever).  In 1987, the stump was cut down, but a stone monument to the fallen American officers was erected in its place.

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heart_w_snake_tattoo_0033_postcard-p239533042637724632en7lo_216Because of the incongruity between lunar and solar calendars (and thanks to the whims of the 12 year Chinese horoscope cycle) Valentine’s Day has ended up in the middle of Ferrebeekeeper’s Snake Week.  At first I thought that this was a problem–since there were no snake theme valentines anywhere to be found online.  I did not want to break out the magic markers and glitter to create my own valentine to serpents because it has been a busy week (and what would I do with a bunch of snake valentines? What if someone saw a grown-up making such things?).  Fortunately I found that there is a medium where snakes and hearts frequently intermingle.  Even better many of the designs are extremely gothic and spiky and scary.

From tattoosbycarson.com

From tattoosbycarson.com

Like evil leprechaun tattoos, snake/heart body art is very common.  In fact I had some trouble finding catfish tattoos and the internet even ran short of evil leprechaun ink but I had no trouble finding snake/heart tattoos!  Apparently an immense number of people have snake tattoos of all sorts.  I wonder why serpents are so universally appealing as permanent body art?  Do people choose snakes for tattoos because the legless reptiles are ancient symbols of knowledge, wisdom, and fertility, or is wearing a snake an announcement of edginess, moral ambiguity, and toughness?  The snake inside the heart seems like it has a double meaning: not only is it an obvious metaphor for corrupted or dangerous love but it provides an outright fertility image (especially since the traditional cardioid-shaped valentine heart look less like an actual heart and more like a shapely asp).

Wait, is that even a snake?

Wait, is that even a snake?

sacred-heart-snake-tattoo  medusa-heart-tattoo-m

itattooz-heart-snake-tattoo-on-back

Tattoo by Chris Hatch

Tattoo by Chris Hatch

From "The Dungeon Inc."

From “The Dungeon Inc.”


images

 

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heart-apple-and-snake-tattoo-on-back  hears_tattoo_design_prev_4 d482

OK, this one seems to be religious and not fertility-themed at all.

OK, this one seems to be religious and not fertility-themed at all.

Alright, I sneaked in a couple of snake & flower tattoos because I thought they were pretty

Alright, I sneaked in a couple of snake & flower tattoos because I thought they were pretty

 

Snake and peonies?

Snake and peonies?

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ScottsSJSnakeHeartDaggerthumbWhatever the meaning these snake/heart tattoos are extremely impressive.  Thanks to the brave souls who wear them.  Also a very happy valentine’s day to all my readers:  I could hiss you all…er kiss you all!

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.

Woodblock prints of ages past show giant octopuses ripping apart boats and feasting on sailors like popcorn.  These artifacts of ancient sea-lore make for rousing images, but they are quite wrong:  octopuses are fierce and cunning hunters but they present little danger to humans—with a noteworthy exception.  The truly dangerous octopuses are not giant monsters (perhaps the artists of yesteryear were thinking of the mighty giant squid?) but rather tiny jewel-like beauties from the genus Hapalochlaena which includes only three or four species.  Known as blue-ring octopuses the tiny creatures swim in tide pools and shallows of the Indo-Pacific Ocean from Japan down to Australia (where they are most prevalent).  Blue-ringed octopuses live on shrimp, crabs, minnows, and horseshoe crabs.  They are tremendous hunters who use camouflage, stealth, and guile to catch their prey.  However, these tools pale before their greatest weapon: the little octopuses are among the most poisonous creatures on planet Earth.

(photo by Aluki from Flickr)

Like the flamboyant cuttlefish, the blue-ringed octopus does not like to bite without giving warning but advertises its toxicity with vivid coloration.  The octopus can conceal itself with tremendous prowess however, as soon as it becomes aware of a predator or some other threat, it dials up its coloration changing from muted reef tones to brilliant yellow with iridescent blue rings.  If you see something like this in the ocean, for heaven’s sake don’t touch it.  The octopus’s warning colors let ocean predators know to leave it alone but immediately attract humankind’s magpie urge to grab shiny things.  Although blue-ringed octopuses are good natured and have been known not to bite people who were provoking them rather intensely, their bites have caused more than seventy recorded fatalities in Australia. The octopus has a tiny beak and often a victim does not realize they have been bitten until they began to fall into paralysis and their respiration starts to fail.

Argh, I said don't touch it

The venom of the blue ringed octopus is a complicated pharmacological cocktail which includes tetrodotoxin, 5-hydroxytryptamine, hyaluronidase, tyramine, histamine, tryptamine, octopamine, taurine, acetylcholine, and dopamine. The most active ingredient tetrodotoxin blocks the sodium channels which conducting sodium ions (Na+) through a cell’s plasma membrane.  This causes total paralysis for the octopus victim, however if clever and persistent rescuers are present at the time of the bite they can rescue the unfortunate soul with continuous artificial respiration.  This is no small matter as bite victims are often rendered completely unresponsive by the paralytic victim.  Although completely conscious they are unable to communicate in any way or even breathe.  If artificial respiration is initiated immediately and continued until the body can metabolize and eliminate the toxin, bite victims can survive (although it sounds like rather an ordeal).

Blue ringed octopuses are tender and solicitous mothers.  The mother octopus lays a clutch of approximately 50 eggs in autumn which she incubates beneath her arms for about six months (during which time she is unable to eat).  When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies. The baby octopuses reach sexual maturity in about a year.  Despite their cleverness and beauty, the animals are as ephemeral as they are deadly.

Under its mother's watchful eye a baby southern blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa) emerges from its egg.

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