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Worldwide there are about 17,000 species of bees…and most of them seem to be is some sort of trouble. However it is not easy to keep track of 17,000 anythings…much less 17,000 species of small flying insects. So the plight of all bees is not clearly understood (even if we have shocking anecdotes of how poorly some individual bee species are doing). To remedy our ignorance of the bigger picture, a group of apiculturists, hymenopterists, ecologists, data scientists, and biology-minded cartologists collaborated to create a worldwide bee map.

Assembled from piecing together millions of individual data points, The bee map is a god’s eye overview of how bees are doing across the entire planet. Just glancing at it reveals some strange patterns about our little flying friends. Unlike most animals, bees are more numerous and various in temperate and arid habitats than in tropical forests. I wonder if this is because tropical forests do not offer the sheer acreage of uncontested flowers that prairies, croplands, & blooming scrublands do, or if it because nobody is marking down data points about tiny flying (and stinging) insects in the middle of the trackless Amazon. Perhaps as the bee map evolves into greater complexity and thoroughness we will have a definitive answer to that question.

The bee map should also help us to track the results of habitat loss and climate change on bee populations (and distinguish the impact of such vectors from natural bee predilections/behaviors). Dr John Ascher of the National University of Singapore expresses this point with greater clarity: “By establishing a more reliable baseline we can more precisely characterize bee declines and better distinguish areas less suitable for bees from areas where bees should thrive but have been reduced by threats such as pesticides, loss of natural habitat, and overgrazing.”

I hope the bee map fulfills its purpose and helps nature’s hard-working pollinators and flying fieldhands to worldwide recovery. But beyond that wish, I am excited to see more visual representations of vast ecological datasets. Big data had such promise…but so far it seemingly has mostly been used for targeted marketing, tearing apart democracy, and crafting esoteric financial schemes. Sigh… Let’s have more thoughtful use of the tools that technology gives us to solve actual important problems.

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

A 19th Century Japanese Woodblock

Japan lies at the junction of four of the world’s great tectonic plates (including the three largest ones): the immense Pacific oceanic plate, the North American continental plate, the Eurasian continental plate, and the Philippine oceanic plate all intersect at or near the island nation. The continental plates wrench against each and smash the heavy basalt oceanic plates down into the depths of the planet.  As this happens, Japan is wracked by earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis.

A Map of the World's Tectonic plates

Japan’s terrifying natural phenomena were not properly connected to these large scale movements of the lithosphere until the elegant plate tectonics paradigms of Arthur Holmes and Harry Hammond Hess became widely accepted (a fundamental breakthrough of planetary understanding which did not take place until the 1950’s and 1960’s!).  Traditional Japanese mythology, however, has a surprisingly apt analogy.  According to Shinto lore, the Japanese islands lie on top of an immense catfish, Namazu.  Namazu is restrained by means of a huge rock controlled by the god Kashima (which seems like a reasonably good metaphor for the continental plates riding over the oceanic plates).  Sometimes Kashima abandons his duties and the huge catfish’s struggles to escape cause particularly violent disasters.

Namazu and Kashima (19th Century Woodblock Print)

Like many myths, the story of Namazu took on a political life of its own. During the late nineteenth century, because of a pun, the great catfish became conflated with the rapidly growing Meiji government bureaucracy.  It was dangerous to make direct political statements in early industrial Japan and clever artists used fish as ambiguous stand-ins: bloated catfish could always be dismissed as harmless whimsy or traditional Shinto symbols.  These Namazu-e woodblock prints are therefore peculiar and ambiguous in their own right.  Sometimes the Namazu are the heroes who make the rich elite produce cash for the peasantry.  Other times they crush all of the Japanese as they flounder.  Still other pictures hearken back to ancient tradition and use the catfish to represent the horror of earthquakes and the capriciousness of the gods.

I'm guessing this is some sort of political allegory.

The Namazu has not disappeared in modern Japan.  Bloated bureaucrats and terrible earthquakes still torment the islands.  Fortunately Japan’s cult of the cute has come to the rescue and the great fish is less and less of an earthquake god and more of an endearing cartoon. In fact there is even a pokemon “Namazun” (bizarrely anglicized as “Whiscash”).   I was going to tell you more about him but, for some reason, Whiscash’s Wiki page is vastly more complicated to understand than the pages concerning Shinto and plate tectonics.

the Pokemon Namazun (a.k.a. Whiscash). How did we get here?

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