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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.

The seventeenth century polymath Robert Hooke was immensely influential in popularizing science.  His seminal work Micrographia, published in 1665 was the first scientific book to become a best seller.  In the volume, Hooke described various plants, animals, and manufactured objects as seen through his hand crafted microscope.  Crucially, the book contained vivid and detailed engravings which allowed the public to see what Hooke had seen. Many of the illustrations folded out to become larger than the book thus further emphasizing the nature of microscopy.  Hooke was the first to coin the word “cell” because he thought that the constituent components of plant tissues resembled monk’s cells.  By changing the way that people apprehended the world Micrographia laid the foundation for the amazing microbiological discoveries of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.  In addition to biological specimens, Hooke included illustrations of objects like the sharpened ends of needles and pins (which looked blunt under his microscope’s magnified lenses).  This helped the general public to comprehend how truly different the microscope’s vantage point is from that of the naked eye.

A page from the Huntington Library's copy of Micrographia (photo by lemurdillo)

Micrographia also contains Hooke’s speculations concerning combustion, which he (correctly) believed involved combining a substance with air. Hooke further posited that respiration involved some key ingredient of air–and he was thus well on the way towards discovering oxygen.  Unfortunately these ideas were not well understood by the seventeenth century scientific community.  Hooke’s contemporaries were also challenged by his assertion that fossils (such as petrified wood and ammonites) were the remains of living creatures which had become mineralized.  Hooke reached this conclusion based on microscopic study of fossil specimens and he believed that such fossils afforded clues about the history of life on the planet—including the history of species which had died out.  Needless to say such concepts were challenging to the theological community of the time.

A fold-out engraving of a flea from Micrographia

I am writing about Hooke because I saw an original copy of Micrographia at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (I wrote about their exquisite gardens in the last post).  The book was part of a remarkable collection of original scientific books and documents, which was itself a part of a larger repository of rare books, handwritten letters and original manuscripts. The Huntington holdings include a Guttenberg bible, a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, and innumerable original printings, correspondences, and manuscripts. I chose to highlight Hooke’s work because I have always been fascinated by how different the world looks through a microscope (above is Hooke’s engraving of a flea’s features–which can be compared with an earlier post about contemporary electron microscopes) however the real epiphany I took from viewing the collection was a larger one.  Even before the internet came to act as a sort of hive mind for humankind, we had a collective memory and source of communication—the printed word.   In addition to its magnificent gardens, the Huntington reminded me of how that worldwide shared network of ideas slowly developed. Viewing the bibliophile’s treasure trove at the Huntington library demonstrated the continuing purpose of libraries as museums and places of thought and discovery– even in a world where the entire text of a rare book like Micrographia can be found online.

A visitor regards a reproduction of Hooke's microspcope next to the Huntington's copy of Micrographia (From "Case Study of an Exhibition" by Karina White)

Writing about a close-up of a fly’s foot has led me to thinking about the infinitesimal details in tempera paintings by Carlo Crivelli–particularly since my favorite Crivelli painting prominently includes a fly.

Madonna and Child by Carlo Crivelli (circa 1480)

The enigmatic religious artist Carlo Crivelli painted this Madonna and Child some time around 1480.  The painting is a masterpiece of gothic style: a bejeweled Mary with Byzantine eyes holds baby Jesus on a cracked parapet.  Jesus grasps a struggling sparrow but his mood is somber.  Both figures are contemplating a fat black fly which has landed near Christ’s embroidered pillow.   Christ actually looks like a healthy baby (he frequently looks nothing like a real child in art) and Mary looks like a beautiful, wealthy noblewoman but the painting is still sad and intense. The fly seems to indicate that death and misery will soon mar whatever is most perfect and flawless.  The great oversize pickle and peaches dangling by the Virgin’s face also hint at something earthy and corrupted about existence.  In the background tiny figure hatch schemes and chase each other through the fulsome forests and orchards of Le Marche.  After looking closely at this painting, it will come as no surprise that Crivelli also painted extremely visceral scenes of the torture of Christ and the suffering of his followers.

We know very little about Carlo Crivelli (c. 1435 – c. 1495).  The artists’ biographer, Vasari–with his Florence-centric worldview–elected not to not to write about him at all.  Even the dates of Crivelli’s birth and death are unclear.  Although he signed his works Carlo Crivelli “Veneti” (“of Venice”) he spent most of his life working in Le Marche where lovely sinister cliffs drop precipitously into the Adriatic. He is said to have studied under Jacobello del Fiore–or was it with Vivarini, or maybe Francesco Squarcione in Padua?  At any rate, he was apparently a master of his own shop by 1457, when he was imprisoned for six months for an adulterous affair with Tarsia Cortese, the wife of a sailor.  Additionally he was a vegetarian.  Crivelli scorned oil painting, which was sweeping into fashion throughout the Renaissance art community to concentrate wholly on egg tempera, which suited his exacting, microscopic detail.  He modeled raised objects in gesso on his panels so his paintings venture slightly into the third dimension. Usually it is the gemstones and the tears which pop out from the panel.  Although he had many commissions from the conservative religious community, his work fell steeply from fashion after his death.  For a brief time in the nineteenth century pre-Raphaelite painters embraced his paintings for their sumptuous allegorical detail and their vivid, strange emotions, however Crivelli has once more fallen into near obscurity.

(Credit: Stanislav Gorb)

A scanning electron microscope provided this remarkable close up view of a housefly’s foot.  The fly can clasp on to difficult perches with the wicked little claws–which explains some of the remarkable places flies are able to alight.  Additionally, surface tension provided by the innumerable tiny hairs on the two off-white pads allows the fly to hold up its weight on smooth surfaces.   Some of the tiny hairs are actually sensory organs by which the fly “tastes” whatever it has landed on.  The spiky yellow balls are grains of pollen which have stuck to the fly.

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