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The last tulips in my garden this morning...

The last tulips in my garden this morning…

It is finally flower season! How I love it! However the happiness of the season is constrained somewhat by the gray squirrels, which have systematically beheaded my tulips (despite the fact that I have been simultaneously trying to ward the pests away with foul chemical sprays and appease them with nuts).  Alas, most of my tulips now lie sad and beheaded beneath the cherry blossoms.

My (ineffective) struggles to protect my beloved tulips remind me of the struggles of wild flowers which face a similar arms race.  The tulips I plant are propagated by big nurseries, and the squirrels don’t really want to eat the blossoms: they merely tear them apart to see if there is any food inside (and (probably) because the miserable rodents enjoy my suffering).   Flowers are plant reproductive organs which exist to repopulate the species.  In the case of garden tulips this involves a complicated relationship between myself, Lowes, tulip farms, nurserymen, and squirrels.  In the world of wildflowers, the players are fewer and the stakes are much higher.

Buff-tailed Sicklebill (Eutoxeres condamini) by Ernst Haeckel

Buff-tailed Sicklebill (Eutoxeres condamini) by Ernst Haeckel

Flowers and their pollinators have a mutualistic relationship:  the hummingbird –or bee, or moth, or bat, or whatever–gets a meal while the flower directly shares its gametes (in the form of pollen stuck to the beak or fur) with distant members of the same plant species.  Some blossoms coevolve to provide nectar to specialized pollinators as with the famous sicklebill hummingbird (which feeds on the nectar of specialized Centropogon and Heliconia flowers which fit the bird’s beak and produce colors appealing to the hummingbirds).

stolenbees

This whole relationship falls apart sometimes though, thanks to a behavior first reported by Charles Darwin. Some animals are nectar robbers.  Lacking the long proboscis or curved beak or special senses necessary to obtain the sweet nectar which the plant offers as a reward for its reproductive interlocutors, some animals simply cut through the blossoms or rip them apart to take the pollen.  Although this can be beneficial (if a robber ends up pollinating a flower anyway, or forces a legitimate pollinating species to travel over a larger area—and thus provide greater genetic diversity), more often it is destructive.

Um, sure I guess...thanks, art department.

Um, sure I guess…thanks, art department.

Interestingly, a recent study determined that bumble bees learn how to cut holes in flowers and steal the nectar directly from other bumble bees (you can read about the particulars of the study here).  Bumble bees are not the only pollen robbers–various lepidopterans, bats, and birds are guilty in various ways–but the bumble bee example is the first case to prove Darwin’s thesis that such robbing behavior was learned by insects.

It all begins to make more sense now...

It all begins to make more sense now…

Flowers, though passive, are not helpless.  Over generations, they coevolve with both the robbers and the pollinators—which is how they obtain so many convoluted and fanciful forms (and why there are so many toxicologically and pharmacologically active compounds therein).  It is worth thinking about when you encounter a spring landscape of beautiful flowers—beneath the surface lies a world of sex, appetite, and larceny.

The horror!

The horror!

Weary Hecules (Roman, Imperial Period, mid‑ to late 2nd century A.D. Marble)

This blog has often referenced the heroic deeds of Hercules, particularly since the demigod single-handedly killed a shocking number of the titanic monsters born of Echidna (not to mention the fact that he allegedly knew something of Echidna herself).  Yet one of Hercules greatest deeds gets mentioned least often–even though it might have been the most remarkable.  Additionally, according to myth, this prodigious feat was critical to the founding of the Olympic Games!  With the summer Olympics coming up later this year in London, it is time to tell the amazing (and disgusting) tale.

In order to atone for murdering his family while under a divine curse, Hercules was sentenced to complete a list of mighty labors.  Eurystheus, the sniveling king who chose the tasks, selected deeds presumed to be impossible (and fatal)–but Hercules completed the first four with ease.  Eurystheus therefore decided to think of something demeaning and disgusting for Hercules’ fifth task.  Augeas, king of Elis, had the greatest herds and flocks of livestock in all of Greece.  By day his many horses, cows, goats, pigs, and sheep would graze and forage.  At night herdsmen would round up the animals and return them to Augeas’ immense stables.  All of these animals left quite a mess behind them and the stables had never been cleaned.  Eurystheus decided that mucking out endless tons of dung would win no glory for Hercules.  The petty king demanded that Hercules accomplish the task within a year–an impossibly short time for the horrible chore.

Ancient Roman Mosaic of Hercules cleaning the Augean Stables (Apologies for the graphic nudity)

Hercules however had a plan.  He presented himself to King Augeas and promised to clean the stables within a single day–provided the King would recompense him with one tenth of his livestock.  Augeas laughingly acceded to the crazy offer knowing that no man could clean the stables in years.  Hercules however was not merely a man.  He punched giant holes in opposite walls of the stables and then diverted a mighty river through the breach.  The ordure was rinsed from the stables in less than a day.

King Augeas was not rich because of his generosity or fairness.  He proclaimed that the river had done the work and denied payment to Hercules.  When Hercules returned to Eurystheus, the latter decreed that the labors were not meant for profit and Hercules would not receive credit for cleaning the Augean stables (there is probably a lesson about dealing with powerful people in there).  The heroic labor was a wash–literally and figuratively. Hercules kept the incident in the back of his head though as he slogged his way to the edge of the Earth and down into the underworld.  When the twelve labors were complete he returned to Augeas’ kingdom to make war on the greedy king.  Hercules first killed Augeas’s twin nephews, Cteatus and Eurytus, demigods born of Molione (Augeas’ sister) and Poseidon.  He dragged the warrior twins from a chariot and smashed them to death.  Then Hercules’ soldiers (the Tirtynthians) sacked Augeas’s city and put the inhabitants to death.  Finally Hercules ripped Augeas to pieces (there is probably another lesson about dealing with powerful people in that grim postscript).

To celebrate the victory and the completion of his labors, Hercules instituted a peaceful athletic contest which grew into the Olympic games (although some classical sources state the Olympics were started by Zeus after his victory over the titan Cronus).  Irrespective, it is worth relating the story whenever the Olympics roll around (especially if you have already grown tired of the stupid London Olympics mascots).  I also find myself envious of Hercules’ easy ability to clean up messes whenever I find myself facing a daunting pile of…tasks.

Ancient Greek Amphora depicting a foot race.

Anyway as a bonus for those who are inclined to literature, here is a section of Ode X of the ancient Greek poet Pindar’s Olympic Odes.  Pindar here describes Hercule’s violent war on Augeas (the remainder of the ode can be read here).

Conquests by toil unearn’d to few belong:
Action’s the sovereign good, the light of life.
But me Jove’s Hallow’d Rites the athletic strife
And matchless Games in solemn song
Bid blazon; which the potent Hercules
Stablish’d by Pelops’ ancient tomb;
What time the godlike Cteatus to his doom
He sent, though sprung from him that rules the seas,

Him with bold Eurytus, the largess due
Thus from reluctant Augeas to compel.
Them on their journey in Cleones’s dell
Th’avenging chief from ambush slew.
Just retribution! His Tirtynthian host,
Surprised in Elis’ close defiles,
Molione’s o’erwheening sons by wiles
Had crush’d; and all of his choicest chiefs were lost.

That guest-beguiling king the wrath of Heaven
Soon reach’d.  He saw the sceptre of his sway,
To sword and flame his wealth and country given,
Saw his Epeian kingdom pass away,
Sunk in Destruction’s gulf! ‘Tis hard indeed
The conflict with a mightier foe to close;
And wit forsakes whom Fate hath doom’d to bleed.
Himself a captive thus, the last of those
Whose loyalty his fault and fortune shared,
‘Scaped not the dire revenge Herculean rage prepared.

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