Howdy, Nandi!

Let me introduce you to a new friend of mine, Nandi the garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). Unlike most of the snakes whom I have encountered in my gardens, this one was much more amenable to being held, and didn’t thrash about, pee, or exude stink from its postanal gland. We decided to adopt him. (I think it’s a him; the tail after the vent is slender and shortish. Also, males emerge from hibernation first.)

Isn’t he just the cutest thing?

3/4 profile portrait shot of a Garter snake

Despite what pet stores may tell you (or told me), garter snakes are not insectivorous. So In his roomy terrarium/herpetarium, I ended up with a bunch of crickets (and some cricket feed cubes). The crickets will end up as chow for Rosie, my tarantula. Meanwhile though, the male crickets serenade the females, as well as Nandi and Rosie and me. Chirp, chirp, chirp! It’s the cricket equivalent of, “Hey, ba-by! Ooh, sexy!”

A pile of randy crickets hanging out atop the rock under the heat lamp

And as you can tell from this picture, Nandi is not a threat to them. In fact, he seems a trifle annoyed at times, and a few days ago after I fed him a hyuge earthworm, he burrowed into the soft plant substrate to digest, unmolested by the jumping jiminies.

At about 22 in. / 56 cm., Long Snake Is Long. Well, not really; that’s about an average size for an adult, although he could grow longer. Read the rest of this entry »

Reasoning for a good cause

“Same thing,” she said, waving off the comment and walking off toward the time-clock to punch out.

“But– no, it’s not …” I protested, and then stopped talking as I saw her leaving not only the the doorway where I stood, but our conversation as well.

If you could call it a conversation; I’ve had longer dialogs with fellow elevator riders.

It was hard to stop my rebuttal. I so wanted to explain, and having to force myself to stop in mid-sentence (hell, mid-mini-monologue) is hardly my style. But I diligently keep practicing social skills, including noticing when others have quit a topic.

Having already clocked out, I gave up, left the building, and even waited to get into my car before expressing my complaints aloud to no one — except a fruit fly uselessly orbiting the fragrant-but-empty lunch bag I had just tossed onto the floor.

And a fruit fly doesn’t give a gnat’s ass about the seemingly subtle difference between reason and cause. No, it is not mere semantics, and they are not exact synonyms.

“So how was your trip?” she had asked as we met in the hallway. We had not yet crossed paths that day, delaying the obligatory Monday morning chit-chat.

“Oh it was lovely, except for missing a connecting flight, so I was only there two days,” I began. And I was proud that I had even mindfully planned ahead to next ask her if she’d ever been to Boston, thus fulfilling my offering volley in the chit-chat process — when she gave me that totally unexpected, inexplicable response:

“Well you know, ‘Everything happens for a Reason’ !” She chirped, nodding sagely.

“You mean a cause,” I began.

“Same thing,” she said, waving off the comment and walking off toward the time-clock to punch out.

“But– no, it’s not …” I protested.* Read the rest of this entry »

The Silver (Smoke-) Screen

O.M.G. Last night at the grocery I was stocking non-prescription meds, and a couple came in asking for … colloidal silver! (Meaning, microfine silver dust suspended in water or another carrier.)

I was baffled; she explained that “Dr Oz” suggested it for sore throats.
“I don’t think we carry that,” I answered, somewhat stunned. “I’ve only used it in a research lab.” (In the teensiest of microdabs, to glue ultra-fine gold wire electrodes to insects.)

“Oh, it’s all-natural!” she asserted cheerfully.

Giant mental sigh and cringe on my end; lots of “all-natural” stuff can be all-naturally poisonous.

The guy with her added something to the effect of, “I bet you all don’t like Dr Oz.”

Er, I’m wary and alarmed by media personalities who promote misleading, useless and/or dangerous medical information. (Last year this celebrity was the recipient of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Media Pigasus Award.)

But I’m guessing the customer was assuming that if people use bizarre “all-natural” remedies, then stores would not sell as many manufactured remedies. Hey, if I want salicylic acid (the stuff in willow bark and spirea that acts as a pain-reliever, fever-reducer and anti-inflammatory), then I will buy it as acetylsalicylic acid, AKA aspirin, because that formulation is less harsh on the digestive system, and you know how much active ingredient you’re getting.

When one of the pharmacists was no longer directly busy with [other] customers, I went up and told him about the customer enquiry. His eyebrows danced a bit at this latest oddity.

“The only thing I’ve heard about taking colloidal silver,” I began, and then the pharmacy intern nearby then chorused with me, “Was about the guy who turned blue!”

“It bio-accumulates, doesn’t it?” I asked, and the pharmacist nodded. That of course, was why I was careful to not let any dots of the lab stuff stick to me. Plus, any clean crumbs re-deposited could be re-used, especially if I held the bottle to the vibrating vortex mixer.

Note: there are antibacterial uses for various ionic silver (Ag+) compounds, such as silver nitrate (AgNO3), but the colloidal stuff is non-ionized metallic form, which has a different biological effect. Of course, poison is always in the dosage — too much silver nitrate can be equally bad. You can read about the hazards of argyria here at the Quackwatch site.

Oh by the way — if you want an “all-natural” remedy for the ordinary sore throat, may I recommend some strong mint tea with honey?

One Or More

Do you like odd words? If so, today’s post is for YOU!

I enjoy words. I love learning new words, and now and then feel the need to make nifty neologisms. I take pleasure in playing word games and punning around. I use a vigorous vocabulary for producing prose and programming. I revel in vicious verbiage when needing venomous invective.

Weird words are wonderful. Exceptions excite intrigue. Luckily for us, the English language (in its multitudinous international forms) is known for being an absolute mish-mosh of exceptions to dang near every orthographic rule that has been imposed upon it over the centuries. This is not surprising considering how many other languages have been sources for our vocabulary!

Being familiar with many of those weirdnesses is great when one is an editor, writer or proofreader. (Alas, not everyone shares such passions, so we logophiles must sometimes refrain from exercising too much pedantry.*) It also gives me a number of opportunities for musing …

Today I ran some errands on the way home, which caused me to take a different pathway. En route, I espied a cellular antennae tower array (mobile phone mast), one of those tall poles with transceivers and other prickly bits plated upon them. Several of those tower arrays or television UHF/VHF (Yagi-Uda) sets atop houses are called antennas. But — insects sniff their environments with antennae.

Some words are the same whether you have one or more; not just the same spelling in singular and plural, but also the same pronunciation:

Fish (As children, many of us learned this from Dr Seuss, “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish”). Ditto salmon and trout. (I bet readers can inform me of other species of fish.)

Thrips (A small insect that often infests flowers and spreads diseases; especially problematic in greenhouses.)

Sheep, deer, moose.

Bison – pedantic technical note: the North American animal is a bison, not a buffalo, but buffalo is so entrenched in history (i.e. Buffalo Soldiers, buffalo nickel) that the term “bison” seems reserved for ecological/zoological discussions.

The American buffalo has just one species: Bison bison. A single category of interbreeding organism is a species, several are different kinds are also species. “Specie” refers to coins, such as our buffalo nickel. If I recall correctly, one of the new coins the U.S. mint has released in their recent series is a nickel with a bison on one side. Series is another word that is the same in both singular and plural.

Swine (unlike pig -> pigs or hog -> hogs)

Complaint:  people calling plural bovine animals “cows”; the cow is a female that has calved. Call them a herd of cattle. Of course, then one has the problem of knowing if the single animal is a calf, cow, [castrated] steer, or bull. Then again, depending upon where you are, most of the cattle one passes might be breeding or milking cows, or maybe young steers shortly destined to be burgers and roast-beast. But like “buffalo”, “cows” seems to be a common-usage term.

(Except, of course, amongst small children, who invariably call them “moo-cows”, which is odd because I’ve never heard any preschoolers saying “quack-ducks”, “neigh-horses”, “baa-sheep” or “meow-cats”; go figure.)

Interestingly, draft bovine (used for ploughing) are ox -> oxen. There are few words that retain this archaic plural: child -> children, one brother -> several brethren, and hose -> hosen (from when one tied their individual hose onto the hem of a garment). Clothes is one of those words that just comes in single form, except it is by default plural.

When I teach gardening classes, I add a couple seconds pause after explaining, “If you’re making a new garden bed, you can either kill what’s there with glyphosate, or slice off the pieces of turf and re-use them, or compost the turves.” Turves is the correct plural for pieces of turf, but we don’t use the term much, so there’s a bit of a mental speed-bump.

Did you know that J.R.R. Tolkien invented dwarves as the plural for his Middle-Earth race? All other sorts (cutesy fantasy beings, or small-growing forms of plants or animals) are dwarfs.

In Zoology class we learned that the plural of penis is penes. Common usage (when not using one of the many silly slang terms) is penises. But if you are needing to talk discretely over the heads of younger folk, penes will likely be off their radar.

Right now I’m listening to Etta James singing the blues; no one ever sings “a blue” (tho’ you can blow a blue note).

Then there are the pluralisation questions about which only geeks worry: one Mus musculus is a mouse, and several are mice. But what about the computer accessory (um, Mus digitus ?) – computer mouses or computer mice?

One datum, a bunch of data. But when or how the hell does a person have just ONE datum? A single point?  I suppose that’s possible, unlike news. Good or bad, there’s never just one news. A “new”? I tend to get out of the news loop when on holiday; but invariably when I catch up, I find that the news seems more like recycled “olds”!

One spectrum, a wide spectra, as in “spectral analysis” – unless of course, one is doing a bunch of analyses on your spectra data.

How about one index -> two indices. Indexes is a verb: “My program indexes everything for me!” Then of course, it turns around and creates indexes to hold that data. Hmn. Meanwhile, we still have one index -> two indices in science, and on the radio news I hear indices used as indicators of how the world is going.

In geometry, our geometric shapes have sides (planes). Each pair of planes intersect at edge, and several will meet at the corner, called a vertex. A triangular pyramid has four vertices and a cube has eight.

And lastly, Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message,” meaning that what is used to spread the message is important. Newspapers, YouTube videos, and blogs are all kinds of media. So too are my choice of growing medium for my seedlings.
If some yahoo grabs a can of spray paint as their medium of choice, and scrawls a graffito on the side of a building, you can be sure that someone else will want to join in and next thing you know, there will be graffiti everywhere.
My thanks (always plural) to all my readers!
______

*Unlike those grammar mavens dedicated to eradicating excessive and misused apostrophes, whom I heartily encourage to be ever-ready with their jumbo-size bottles of correction fluid!

Also, thank you everyone for your tireless efforts trying to rid the world of misspellings; Valentine’s Day is coming up, and I know that I shall be wanting to face-palm with each sale banner for  Valentines Bokay’s.

V1brat0rs for Ensuring All Your Cucumber Needs

Bug G. Membracid recently had a radio show appearance!  (Is it called an “appearance” when you’re on a wireless programme and no one can see you?  Nevermind.)

But it featured her line about honeybees being ‎”little flying phalluses” – which is really funny when you remember that worker honeybees are girls!

That in turn reminded me of a story during a horticultural study tour to a Dutch production greenhouse …

Tomatoes and peppers do not need insects to transfer pollen between flowers, as the flowers are “perfect” (have both male & female parts). But for the pollen to get moved/bumped from the pistils to the stigma there still needs to be some kind of wind or other vibration.

There’s not enough wind for this to naturally happen (or rather, efficiently happen) in a greenhouse, especially when the panes are shut to the weather. So it used to be that the operators would equip their greenhouse workers with *little vibrating wands* (oh yes), which they used to buzz-pollinate Every. Single. Fresh. Flower. (Insert inevitable sniggers from the undergrads.) Of course, that’s a lot of paid worker hours.

Nowadays the thrifty Dutch use bumblebees, who work for much cheaper wages of cardboard nesting boxes and some supplemental nectar. The big, gentle bees still visit all the flowers for the pollen, and resultant heavy buzzing results in flower fertilization for good crops.

 

[N.B.  Derf; “cucumbers in the title is incorrect – they DO need to be insect pollinated! Except of course for the parthenogenetic cukes, which basically set fruit by a sort of “virgin birth” process…]

Gribbles are better than tribbles

Who would have thought that a small isopod could be so chibi-cute, have a fun name, and be potentially useful?

Pair of teeny 2mm pale-peach isopods with 7 pairs of legs (Simon Cragg/Graham Malyon/Institute of Marine Sciences, University of Portsmouth)

The gribble (Limnoria quadripunctata) is an aquatic relative of the woodlouse (pillbug), that eats tunnels along the surfaces of wooden objects, such as driftwood, boats, or piers.  This latter habit makes the gribble generally unwanted. However, recent news describes how scientists at the Institute of Marine Sciences, University of Portsmouth and the University of York have been examining the guts of these wee creatures to identify digestive enzymes.

When termites eat wood, they don’t really digest the wood theselves; they have bacteria in their guts that break down the cellulose into smaller molecules. But gribbles are able to digest wood directly. If the enzymes can be easily produced, then the gribbles would be an inspiration for the biofuel industry, because any kind of material could be used, even insoluble stuff such as straw or willow.

Bugs to the rescue, again. Once more, they did it first!

Web buzzing

Just wanted to share some cool things I found recently!

INSECT-RELATED FUN

Amazonian ants apparently adore Tetris – ’tis a tee from Threadless Tees.

Cartoon with a green background, the upper half with five army ants on a branch, carrying pieces of leaves cut into various Tetris shapes. Below, the crowned queen ant awaits by a Tetris-shaped stack of pieces. (Unfortunately, she's about to get a square and won't have a place to set it!)

and,

NPR has a short episode with guest comments by the inimitable entolomogist and highly entertaining author, May Berenbaum,

There has been a worldwide proliferation of urinal flies, observed May Berenbaum, head of the department of entomology at the University of Illinois in her new book The Earwig’s Tail.

You can listen to the episode and/or read the transcript, “There’s A Fly In My Urinal”.

realistic black and white fly decal

and,

Jessica (the painter) and James (the author) of Project InSECT have a couple of books out, How Mildred Became Famous (book I and book II).  Mildred is a mantis, and one of the many gorgeous, large paintings that Jessica has done.

Detailed painting of Mildred, the praying mantis, plain chiaroscuro background

GARDENING / NATURE

A brief video:  One year in 40 seconds. Eirik Solheim’s gorgeous time-lapse of Norweigian woods.  Suitably short for the ADHD brain or a coffee break.  (Alas, I’ve tried several ways to get this URL embedded so it will display from this post, but WordPress is being funky.  So you’ll just have to copy-paste it to get to the YouTube page directly.)

youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmIFXIXQQ_E

and of course, a bit of geeky

ACCESSIBILITY


A dismotivational poster with the image of a Dalek (robot from Dr Who show) stuck in a concrete room with only stairs as a means of exit; its word balloon says, "FUCK". The poster caption is, "LIMITATIONS everyone has them"

Occupational Hazards

No matter what your job, there are some frequent questions or comments from the general public that get, shall we say, a tad tiresome.

I thought it would be interesting to make up a brief questionnaire and select a few nominees.  If you would also like to join in, please do!  Just post your answers below, or put a link on your blog to this post.

Q.: What term or phrase from your job/occupation do people mangle?

A.:  Entomology often gets changed to “Ant-o-mology”, as though we only study ants.  Not even Edward O. Wilson is an “antomologist”; he is (among other things) a myrmecologist.

Q.: What broadly erroneous assumption do people make about your preferences and your career choice?

A.:  That I love all insects.  Really, I don’t. (Although I will be quick to point out that only 1 % of the insects are pests.)  I do find grasshoppers to be kind of gross, especially after scrubbing their encrusted remains off my automobile windshield, and spending hours driving a riding mower and having them bounce off my face.  Blech.

Q.: What trivia challenge do people pose when they hear about what you do for a living?

A.:  “Wow, I bet you know all the bugs!”  No.  There are over one million species, mostly beetles, and I’m more familiar with butterflies.

Q.: What basic fact about your job/occupation do people rarely understand?

A.:  That insects are animals.  “Yes, they are.  They’re not plants, not fungi, not single-cell organisms.  They have organ systems and behaviors, and are not photosynthetic.”

Q.: Did you always want to be a/n  ___?

A.:  “Huh?  Sorry, distracted watching this bug.  Look here at what it’s doing–“

Q.: You musta been a weird kid, huh?

A.:  Yeah, but now I get paid to teach the other weird kids.

Q.: How did some totally unrelated previous job prepare you for your current occupation?

A.:  I went from doing behavioral observations of insects to behavioral observations of students with severe emotional and behavioral problems.  There are more similarities than you’d imagine.

Q.: So what do you do for a living?

A.: Do you mean my daytime, evening, or weekend job?

I would love to hear the answers from Dave Hingsburger, Bug Girl, Dean Dad, Wheelchair Dancer, and YOU.

Here’s looking at you!

Face-on view of a bird grasshopper - Orthoptera: Acrididae, Schistocerca obscura

Face-on view of a bird grasshopper (Orthoptera: Acrididae, Schistocerca obscura)

How to tell if

your bee is asleep:

Carpenter bee asleep on pink sedum flower, golden "fur" soggy with dew

Carpenter bee sitting still on pink sedum flower, golden "fur" soggy and mussed

She still hasn’t groomed off the morning dew.

First on the Scene

A shiny green fly sponging up nectar from a fennel flower head

A shiny green fly sponging up nectar from a fennel flower head

The other day I was out in the garden taking pictures when a shiny green fly caught my attention.  Green bottle flies (Diptera, family Calliphoridae, genus Lucilia) are a bit larger than the ordinary house fly.  The adults feed on nectar and are pollinators, but because of their life histories, they fill some really interesting roles in the realms of human sciences.

One piece of news I found particularly interesting is related to newer use of Lucilia illustris in Maggot Debridement Therapy.  This $50 term refers to putting young maggots on a wound because will consume only dead tissue — fear not, they are reared under clean laboratory conditions.

[Pausing for readers to get past the “Eeuw, gross!” moment before moving onto the really interesting stuff.]

The news is that these larvae are exceptionally good at helping patients recover from bad MRSA infections.  A University Manchester study found that thirteen diabetic patients with nasty foot sores were able to heal up in an average of just 3 weeks, instead of the usual 28 weeks!  Not only do they clean up the dead cells that would just fester and decay, but they also get rid of the bacteria directly, and help stimulate the healing process.  As the article points out, this means that patients don’t have to deal with some of the side effects of strong antibiotics.  My daughter has dealt with several staph infections, including an episode of MRSA, so this ranks a big w00t!

Yes, these are the same sort of fly larvae, AKA blow flies, that help clean up dead animals in the environment.  Not only do the larvae need the nutrients from dead animal tissue to grow and mature, but the females need the extra maternal protein for egg production.  (Unfortunately, they are also pests in the world of sheep ranching.)

Which leads us to another famous use of flies, forensic entomology.  Calliphorid flies are attracted to blood or other fluids, and are the first to colonize a corpse. The rates of maturation for various species of flies have been extensively studied.  By examining the age of the larvae, comparing this with the conditions where the body was found, and the known temperature data to calculate the Accumulated Degree Days, the Post Mortem Interval or PMI can be determined.  The PMI is  how long it has been since the person died.

Blow flies may be “icky”, but the smallest of details can make great differences in the affairs of humans.

Hanging around the Web

Cruising the Web BW

A shiny robot spider hangs upside-down from a metal mesh

My son and I recently hauled a long dresser+mirror up two flights of stairs, and I cleaned up the master bedroom in preparation for the return of the new baby & parents from the hospital.  The downside of course is that after a day of labor, I must spend a couple-three days recuperating.  (In other words, I used up all my “spoons”, down to the last demitasse.)

I’m also on Day 2 of one of those low-grade-three-day migraines.  Right now it’s manifesting as misreads, which when I catch myself is kind of entertaining:

In light of all that, I thought I’d share some interesting reads/cool finds on the Web recently:

My sleep-deprived daughter would be envious of ant queens, who spend nine hours a day sleeping, while the workers must squeeze in micro-naps.

From the world of delightful architecture, an adult tree[less] house shaped like a bee skep, made of recycled lumber (wheelie adaptation not included).

The CitizenM hotels have the most amazing showers, which look like Star Trek transporter pads.  To start the shower, you simply shut the door.  I don’t know if they’re large enough for a wheelchair transfer to a shower seat, but with the zero-clearance there’s a chance of it (maybe Dave knows). Want!  (Or at least the trés geek LED shower head that changes from blue to red when your water’s hot.)

Reimer Reason posted It’s a Family Reunion! for the most recent Disability Blog Carnival.

In further hexapod news:  while I was distracted by our little geekling, Bug Girl has been faithfully covering Pollinator Week, including important information about CHOCOLATE. For more funs, Cheshire has teh latest Circus of the Spineless up.

And of course, what would a list of fun be without a LOLcat?

Six white kittens lined up and looking at the camera, while a seventh is distracted with a play ball

Six white kittens lined up and looking at the camera, while a seventh is distracted with a play ball. The photo caption reads, "PUZZLE PICTURE Find the kitten who has ADD."

Illuminated

a small orb-weaver spider centered on a raindrop-spangled web strung across a shrub rose

a small orb-weaver spider centered on a raindrop-spangled web strung across a shrub rose

News Bees

Our carpenter bees are happy, but the short-haired bumble became extinct in its native country several years ago.  Fortunately, immigrant populations survived in New Zealand, and are being re-introduced.  The value of native pollinators is being rediscovered as honeybee populations have dwindled. Find out how to prevent jet-lag in bees and more here in the Guardian.

Elephants are also endangered, and Kenyan populations are pushed to resources where farmers are also trying to survive.  Fortunately, researchers are working with the elephants’ (and bees’) natural behaviors.  A report on BBC News describes how hollow-log style beehives have been used on the continent for centuries, and are used as part of the fences. (Of course, the honeybees also give the farmers good crop pollination, and some honey and wax harvests, too.)

Insect news from my own garden to come soon!

B is for Bob, C is for –

“Eek, a bee!” yelped the little girl as her mother paid for some flowers at the nursery register.

“Oh, that’s just Bob; he can’t sting you.  He’s a carpenter bee.” I explained, holding an open hand up toward where Bob was doing loop-de-loops.  But my repeated explanations aside, most people were not buying Bob’s reported status as a gentlebee-ing.  Let’s face it, an inch-long bee flying around you is hardly subtle.

Not but a couple days later, I came in to work and found a patio-style citronella candle lit near the entrance. Our manager had lit it in hopes of deterring Bob, who had been joined by another male.  Like two World War 1 flying aces, they were staging aerial dogfights.  “They’re not out to get anyone,” I told the other employees, “it’s territorial.”  That didn’t mollify anyone, but fortunately Bob prevailed and his rival left the scene.

“Wow, that’s a BIG bumblebee!” exclaimed a customer.

“It’s a carpenter bee.  They have the shiny, dark abdomens, like a brand-new pair of carpenter jeans.  Bumbles are furry all over.  See the white on his face?  That means he’s a male.  The males can’t sting.”  I’ve never been stung by carpenter bees or bumbless, and have even petted them.

My current computer wallpaper is my photo of a female — isn’t she just adorable?! (more story below):

A large bee with a black head and abdomen, and a gold, furry thorax nectaring on Queen Anne's Lace

A large bee with a black head & abdomen and a gold, furry thorax, nectaring on Queen Anne's Lace

Carpenter bees (Hymenoptera, Family Apidae: Xylocopa virginica) get their name because they dig tunnels in dead wood.  They use these for rearing offspring, and for overwintering.  Painting wood is the easiest deterrent for preventing structures from being bored into.  I couldn’t see anything in the garden center “tent” that would be a great place for setting up housekeeping (the only wooden structures nearby were thin shipping pallets), so I figured that Bob had decided that the garden center was the ne plus ultra of food resources, with its thousands of blossoms.

Like other bees, carpenters are valuable as pollinators, and like orchardists, you can buy (or make) bee blocks in hopes of attracting some.  Once in a while the bees will take a short-cut and “rob” a flower by chewing through the base to get directly to the nectar. (‘nother pix, still more story)

White-faced male carpenter bee stealing necar from Columbine flower

White-faced male carpenter bee stealing necar from pink Columbine flower

While the males are hanging around being territorial, the females are busy stocking their offsprings’ larder with pollen & nectar balls.  Each of their several eggs gets its own foodball and wood-pulp partition.  Once the larva have hatched, eaten up their food, and metamorphosed into adults, they then chew through the wee shoji-screens, crawling over their siblings to go out and start the process over again.

Recently, Bob was nowhere to be seen.  Our manager explained that when he was cleaning up the other night, he realized that the broom made a great fly-swatter.  Apparently I looked dismayed, because he went on to explain that something unexpected happened the next day.  “Bob’s brother or cousin or friend or who-ever moved in, several of them!”

This made me laugh.  ” ‘Nature abhors a vacuum.’ There was an opening in the territory!”

But our story has a serendipitous ending.  As the days have grown hotter, our manager brought out a standing fan to help keep everyone cool as they stand by the register.  Apparently carpenter bees are befuddled — or bothered — by the steady stream of air, and they left to hang around elsewhere.

“Oh, that’s fabulous! You worked with their behavior, not against it.  You always get better results that way, whether it’s insects, students, or employees.  That was really clever.”

“To Serve Man”

Holy Crap.

So why am I taking Crap’s name in vain?  This bang-head-here piece of news:

Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, has filed Senate Bill 115 on behalf of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Conference lobbyist Danny Loar said the bill is designed to be a “pre-emptive strike” against scientists who might want to mix “human and animal cells in a Petri dish for scientific research purposes”

(Shouldn’t that be human and other animal cells?  What am I, a petunia?)

So, if this mosquito sucks my blood, and I squish her and drop her (with my blood cells inside her) onto a Petri dish, would that be illegal?

a mosquito sucking blood from my arm

a mosquito sucking blood from my arm

Yeah, they’re trying to prevent stem-cell research; but come on, no one is going to make centaurs or Fly-Human monsters or Playboy bunnies.  And I don’t believe that theoretical smear of biological mush I’ve just rubbed onto the agar contains crumbs of my soul in the red white blood cells, nor did any of my eggs (fertilized or otherwise) that were shed over my lifetime.

When I teach a class on seed-starting and we are talking about how to take cuttings of coleus, geraniums, Swedish ivy, or rosemary, I describe how we stick them in rooting hormone (if needed), and then in media to grow more of the same kind of plant. I tell my students, “You’ve just cloned a plant.  It’s genetically identical to the parent plant.”

Coleus cuttings rooting in water-filled champagne flutes on a window sill

Coleus cuttings rooting in water-filled champagne flutes on a window sill

I then go on to explain in brief (as this is a non-credit class), that there are dormant cells in those plant stems that can grow into any kind of cell, such as a root cell.  Because plants have these “totipotent” cells that can become any other kind of cell, we can take cuttings and roots will grow where there were no roots before.

We can also cut the very tip of the stem off, place it into culture medium with tiny amounts of plant hormones, and encourage those cells to grow into lots more cells — and that’s another way how plants are cloned, by using tissue culture to produce hundreds and thousands of the same plant, and they’re even free of diseases and pests.

Clear plastic box containing dozens of tiny plantlets from tissue culture

Clear plastic box containing dozens of tiny plantlets from tissue culture

Gee, if we could take a few cells from people, we could grow you new skin for burn victims, new livers for people with liver cancer, and so on. Best of all, those pieces of tissue or organs would not be rejected by the body because they would not be foreign cells, the would be your own. (Nor would you need heavy doses of drugs to suppress your immune system to keep it from reacting to the foreign donor organs.)

But we can’t, because although plants have totipotent cells, we don’t.  After a certain stage in development, we don’t have these stem cells.  (I pause for a couple of seconds, and it’s great to see the “light bulb effect” pass through the room as people get the concept.)

Ooh, human cells with other cells, scary.  Do the bishops not realise that each human is an entire ecosystem, with millions of bacteria in our guts and on our skin, and an astonishing number of infinitesimal mites living on our eyelashes and brows?  Do they not realise that their mitochondria has its own DNA, different than the nuclear DNA?  Do they not realise that we already use genetic recombinant technology to make insulin for diabetics?

Um by the way, isn’t this piece of legislation mixing government and religion in a Petri dish?

The benefits of buggy design

Ask people what insects are “good for” (in the anthropocentric sense), and most people will answer that bees produce honey and wax, or silkworms spin cocoons of fine thread. A few people may even realise that shellac comes from the shells of lac bugs, or that carmine & cochineal red food colorings are made from a cactus-feeding beetle. And of course, everyone knows that ladybeetles (ladybird beetles / ladybugs) are useful predators.

But aside from these direct uses of insects for their labor or their exoskeletons, 21st-century scientists are increasingly using lowly hexapods for rather different pursuits: insects are fabulous engineering models!

an iridescent Blue Morpho butterfly flitting by

an iridescent Blue Morpho butterfly flying by

The field of biomimetics is the realm of Read the rest of this entry »

Fruit flies like a banana

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

Some of my special interests are insects, science and special education. The three subjects rarely intersect, but you can bet that when they do, it’s going to be interesting! Populist politics is once again — or rather — still degenerating into vast bogs of anti-intellectualism.  As noted across many news-editorial and science blogs, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin positively excels at scorning science.  It shows up not only in her stump speeches, but also in her belief in young-earth creationism and stance on teaching Intelligent Design in classrooms. One of the latest foofaraws is her denunciation of funding for research on fruit flies.

“You’ve heard about some of these pet projects, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good,” Palin said. “Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” [YouTube link]

What does Palin have against this line of science?  Well, that’s a bit puzzling, especially when we look at the subject of her first policy speech.  The VP candidate was talking about special education services and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  But all the pro-funding talk was a bit of a turn-around for the Alaskan governor, who had previously cut the funding for Special Olympics in half.

What really stood out is that within her speechifying, the intent of her points about science funding collided with the actual content of part of what she was saying. Palin was (among other things) advocating for Read the rest of this entry »

How to Swat a Fly

Some of this is not breaking news, but some is.  When I was watching someone in another classroom in futile pursuit of said dastardly, dirty diptera, I realised that there is a lot of interesting science behind successful swatting.

Flies are hard to swat for a number of reasons.  They avoid predation by both sensory detection and behavioral responses.  With its large eyes, a fly can see nearly 360°, including behind itself.  This means that it’s nearly impossible to “sneak up” on a fly. Because an insect’s flicker fusion frequency is 250 Hertz or more (compared to the human 50), they are vastly more sensitive to motion. Flies can see a flyswatter coming at them, no matter how slow or fast you move it. As anyone who has ever examined their prey has noted, flies are also hairy.  These “hairs” (setae) make them sensitive to changes in ambient air speed and direction — they can feel the acceleration of the air from the pressure wave created by the flyswatter.

Michael Dickinson and others at the California Institute of Technology have recently teased out other details to the flys’ success.  They used high-speed imaging to discover that Read the rest of this entry »

You can find the coolest things on the Web!

Source: Democratic Stuff.com (an amazingly wide variety of interest groups are represented, besides Bug Enthusiasts.)

Manfred would like to comment

We have a new roomer.

Manfred appeared on the front door the other day. He was interested in someplace to stay, perhaps spend the winter.  Well, okay.  I found a room. (Hey, anyone that can do something about these intermittent flies that keep finding their way into the kitchen is certainly welcome in my book).

This evening Manfred the Mantid wanted to post a comment.

Praying mantis on a Macbook screen, tapping on the "New Comment" button of a Word program toolbar.

A large male praying mantis on a Macbook screen, tapping on the

Unlike the cockroach of the Archy and Mehitabel stories, Manfred isn’t much of a typist.  I did get the general drift, though.

“Where are the moths?”

That’s what I was wondering, too.  Flies are dandy, but I’ve not been able to find my insect net in months, so was stocking up on moths for room service.  (There are lots of Monarch butterflies and honeybees on the asters out front, but I’m not about to sacrifice the former or catch the latter.  Call me specist, but the Noctuid moths are hardly endangered.)

Well, I turned on the porch light, and return an hour or two later to snag moths.  Leastwise, that was my plan.  After letting in a cat, I found myself standing out there and wondering, “Where are the moths?”

A moth.  A single, solitary moth.  I finally grabbed it, and popped it into Manfred’s room.

The next morning there were the expected wings littering the ground in the midden corner, as there’s no good eatin’ in wings.  Need more moths.  After a couple minutes of really pathetic tries, I finally grabbed a fat skipper (butterfly) and a bee-fly out near the mailbox.  These were dispatched in due order, and while I was checking the weather forecast, Manfred attended to his toilette, pulling a hind leg up to nibble down the length, and then cleaning off the antennae in a manner that is very reminiscent of cats washing their faces. (Mantids make me look stiff in comparison.)

A mantid grooming its hind leg

A mantid grooming its hind leg

Tomorrow I need to do some better hunting. Meanwhile, Manfred is hanging upside-down, perhaps digesting.

Or maybe still working on interspecific telepathy: “Where are the moths?”

High Wire Act

an peach-colored orb-weaver spider balanced on a few silken threads

an peach-colored orb-weaver spider balanced on a few silken threads

Prescription for Biological Control

(oops! I thought I had Published this post earlier; wrong button.)

a ladybeetle crawls down the middle of a weekly pill-sorter box

a ladybeetle crawls down the middle of a weekly pill-sorter box

Meet the Zebras

A large, black and white striped butterfly nectaring no a purple coneflower

A large, black and white striped butterfly nectaring on a purple coneflower

In the field of medicine, there’s a saying that, “If you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” This means that although medical students will learn of a great many odd diseases, some of them are quite exotic (“zebras”), but that most patients’ complaints will resolve to common causes (“horses”).

Which of course does not mean that one won’t encounter “zebras”.  Once a very great while there will be someone with the rare genetic disorder or unusual psychological glitch.  Mayhap even someone with several rare genetic disorders and unusual psychological glitches!  This insect profile post is dedicated to all you readers out there who are “zebras”.  (Wave to the crowd folks; let them know that “rare” is not synonymous with “you’ll never meet them”.)

Like medical zebras, Zebra Swallowtails (Papilionidae: Eurytides marcellus) are rare amongst butterflies.  They are not endangered, but unlike Monarchs, Cabbage Whites or Painted Ladies, you don’t see these zebras very often.  This is a big butterfly, about 6-9 cm (2.5-3.5″) wide.  They live in the eastern half of North America, and can be found wafting around the borders between fields and woods or streams.  The reason such a large and striking butterfly lives in such obscurity is not for limitations in ecotone; it will live most anywhere but montane and alpine zones. It’s not even limited by breeding season; there are two broods in northern populations, and four broods in southern.

Rather, they are rare because the larvae are monophagous (a fancy word for “only eats one kind of thing” — a parent might lament, “My child is seemingly monophagous upon Goldfish crackers”).  Well, plenty of catepillars out there are picky.  But Zebra Swallowtail ‘pillars will only eat the leaves of pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba) and other species of the genus.  Unlike the ubiquitous callery flowering pear trees or purple barberry shrubs, homeowners and parks managers do not go around planting pawpaws.  Unacommodated by the lack of host plants, the butterflies spend their lives beyond the outskirts of the developed world. Only butterfly enthusiasts and rare fruit fanciers who go around planting pawpaws Just Because, or residents of diversified country wilds will have much hope of seeing zebras.

It’s not that medical or butterfly zebras don’t exist, but that you have to know where to find them.  You also have to be willing to support their particular needs to have the opportunity to get to know them.  But either one of those conditions requires understanding that zebras even exist.  Yes, you might even (gasp!) have one in Your Back Yard!  It’s true.  And now that you have a better search image, I guarantee that you will be much more likely to meet them.

Stories of Yesteryear (II)

I found these several-years-old tales while looking for something else — you know how that goes!  Meanwhile, I have a report, a PowerPoint, an assignment, a summary and remarks to complete in the next 48 hours, so once again there’s not much time for new stuff.  However, I have found the background material to answer someone’s ADHD question and will post that in a couple of days.

(Previous Stories of Yesteryear.)

It is Saturday evening and we are having a family movie night.  I have made buttered popcorn, and remembered to put the lid on the air popper this time!  My son has made a pitcher of lemonade, and daughter is busy digging through the piles of VHS and DVDs.  Our video cabinet has an almost surreal quality – like the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, it seems bigger on the inside than the outside, and more than once most of my  daughter has disappeared within its depths as she digs through the movies.

After much vociferous discussion we decide to watch a Star Trek show, the Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribblations”.  We have all see this episode several times, and are delivering the especially funny lines of dialog along with the actors, as well as making accessory comments along the way.

In the show, Odo and Worf are at the bar, trying to not to stand out, but being aliens, failing to do so.  “You know,” I remark during an action lull, “I always sympathized with Odo – he tries so hard to fit in, but never quite makes it.”

My son laughs, “Just like you, Mom.”

And I grin at him. Read the rest of this entry »

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