The Last Word

April 24-28, 2017

This week at the Last Word on Nothing:

There is magic in the ambiguity of a number given in place of your identity, says Rose. Huge bureaucracies inadvertently set the stage for serendipitous mistakes.

Cassie goes for a relaxing run only to witness a disturbing instance of littering. Plastic bags on the ground – who does that? Now we know.

Craig gets bitten by an assassin bug while sleeping outdoors in Utah, as usual. He uses his instincts to treat the bite.

Ann writes about puberty, in grandchildren and robins. And when I say writes, I mean writes.

What can island biogeography tell us about lung infections? I talk to an experimental evolutionary biologist investigating one of the banes of cystic fibrosis.

 

Image: Daiva Chesonis

Your Body is a Microbial Archipelago

When Charles Darwin compared the beaks of his finch specimens from the Galapagos, he saw that each had been shaped differently by evolution, depending on the natural history of the island on which that finch made its home. Many evolutionary biologists see life through this natural history lens, and while they are right to declare conclusive the evidence for evolution by natural selection, some of evolutionary theory remains untested in an experimental sense.

That’s because animals like finches live for years, and multi-generational studies are expensive and arduous. To make evolution predictive and useful, you need to look at it on the microscopic scale.

“Evolutionary theory can make predictions, say, about how genetic variation will be distributed along a gradient of latitude or of moisture, and those can be observed as snapshots,” says experimental evolutionary biologist Rees Kassen. “What we get to do is actually watch the evolutionary process happening in real time.” Continue reading

Redux: the Springtime of Robins

The robins are BACK, they don’t intend for you to miss them, flying like bats out of hell, tearing up the mulch, yelling at everybody and stalking around, sticking their tummies out. Wherever they’re going, they need to get there fast so they take a shortcut through my porch.  I was out one morning trying to get robin poop off the porch floor and the local 2-year old came over to find out what I was doing. “Why do robins poop?” she said, and at this point I said I had to go back in the house.

This earlier expose of robins and sex first ran on April 13, 2012.

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Photo by gardener41

Kiss of the Assassin Bug

 

 

I was bitten the other night. I would have taken a picture of the turgid, blood-filled bug that stuck its rostrum inside of me for a liberal helping of hemoglobin, but my girlfriend smashed it with a rock and spattered the thing while I cheered her on. It was hard to resist the killing. Normally, I try and treat other creatures with kindness, but this one stole from me. I was glad to see it go.

The assassin bug, subfamily Triatominae, is one of the true bugs, a class of ambush predator that injects venom into prey, liquifies their interiors, and sucks them inside out. In the case of this subfamily, they are obligate blood feeders. They are also known as cone-nosed beetles, and kissing bugs, for their tendency to take blood from around the eyes or mouth of a sleeping human victim. They inject an anesthetic into the skin of the host as they feed, so at first, you don’t feel a thing.

We’d been sleeping in a sandstone alcove in southern Utah, a place where these bugs hang out to suck from woodrats that nest in the cracks between boulders. Continue reading

Litterbug

On Saturday, Earth Day, I went for a run. About a mile in, I came upon a bald, middle-aged man. He wore a leather jacket and a Bluetooth headset. I was perhaps twenty feet from him when he chucked a crumpled plastic bag on the ground. Then he got on his bicycle and started peddling away.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The man wasn’t moving very fast. I had time to yell. I imagined myself saying, “Excuse me! Sir! You dropped your bag.” This made his action sound like an accident, but I what else could I say? I wasn’t looking for a confrontation. Continue reading

Mrs. Whitcher and the Renegade Numbers

In 1938 a wallet manufacturer called the E.H. Ferree company had a genius idea: to show people just how well cards would fit in the wallet, by using a placeholder. This was before credit cards and before many drivers licenses were small enough to fit into wallets. So the thing they used to showcase the wallet was a social security card. The card they placed in each and every wallet was only about half the size of a real social security card, and that had “specimen” printed in red all over it. The placeholder card was fake in almost all ways but one: The social security number on it was real. It belonged to the secretary of the company’s Vice President and Treasurer, a woman named Mrs. Hilda Schrader Whitcher.

The wallet was sold all over the US in Woolworth stores. And soon after it hit the shelves, people started using that social security number as their own.

According to The Social Security Administration, at the peak of the Whitcher confusion, 5,755 people were using her social security number. In total, they say that over 40,000 people have reported her number as their own. Eventually the Social Security Administration voided the number, and gave poor Mrs. Witcher a new one. But not after the FBI showed up at her house, asking why so many people were using her number.

Continue reading

The Last Word

April 17 – 21, 2017

My neighbors, of whom I was exceedingly fond, moved away and I was sad.  So I made a list of things to do to be a neighbor whose neighbors are sad to see you go.

The People of LWON apparently live on different planets and their community listservs reflect that difference.  We got our Lenox crystal, we got our beaver trap removal problems, we need loaner fridges by Thursday and hunters’ blinds, we seek sacred places and decide between shooting/not shooting.

Erik explains that the species scientists use as models for diseases and understanding are pretty much limited to flies and rats.  But the jungles, he says, the jungles are full of we-don’t-even-know-what.

Christie remembers the downside of spring: her beautiful Colorade snow crust gets coated with dust, making skiing dicey and that’s not the half of it.

The upside of spring, says Jennifer, are the swarming bees with their drones that sit on the couch drinking milk out of the bottle and the young queens ready to take over their mama’s bed.

 

Redux: Bees Are Us

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This post about honeybees originally appeared May 2015 here on LWON. I still love bees and they’re still in trouble, so I figured I’d draw attention back to how amazing they are. So, here’s your big buzz for the day. Enjoy!

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Early the other morning, I woke up to a strange humming noise. My first thought was the ceiling fan motor was petering out, but it turned out the sound was coming from outside. So I stepped out onto my little balcony for a look, and listen. The hum hummed louder. It took a minute before I could focus on what was in front of me, but then suddenly I saw them. Bees. Thousands of bees. Maybe tens of thousands. The massive swarm hovered just there, not terribly far from my face, a full-on cyclone of insects.

It was an awesome thing.

It wasn’t a total surprise. My neighbor keeps three honeybee hives in his backyard (and shares the spoils all around, probably to shut up those ready to complain). Apparently, there had been a coup of sorts in one of them: Occasionally, about half the workers in a hive snatch up the queen and find a new palace, slamming the door on their way out.

Imagine trying to make a decision about real estate with 10,000 opinions to consider. Fortunately, bees don’t work quite so independently. To prove it, the swarm moved as a single thing, rising and falling with its contours intact. Within, of course, it was a madhouse of movement, bees zigging and zagging every which way like popcorn in a popper. But it all held together in a beautiful way.

Finally, apparently having decided my yard lacked the homey feeling bees like, the whole massive thing rose like a single balloon and moved off over the trees. The hum faded like a lawnmower powering down. (It was pretty early on a Saturday for mowing, but bees I can forgive.)

I’ve been writing about honeybees (and other pollinators) for a dozen years, starting with the first round of “Colony Collapse Disorder” that got us all thinking about how much we rely on them for our food. (A lot.) But this isn’t about the pollinator crisis. You see, before this day I was a swarm virgin. This was my first sighting of a textbook-perfect swarm. And watching it stay whole despite all the moving parts got me thinking. I suddenly decided that a bee colony is sort of…mammalian. Almost human! It’s a stretch, but hear me out. And humor me a little.

First off, bees are hairy. Their hairs are made of chitin instead of our keratin, but still, it’s furry stuff. And yes, bees are cold blooded, but the hive as a whole thermo-regulates. It’s able to warm up by way of individual bees’ metabolic activity and muscle contractions that resemble shivering. So the heat comes from within. Kind of endothermic, isn’t it? (By the way, researchers just discovered a warm-blooded fish, the first known. Cool.)CSIRO_ScienceImage_61_The_European_Honeybee_Apis_mellifera

Now, it’s true that bees lay eggs. But they take care of their kids. Mom (Queen) has a whole village of nannies. Nannies feed the young a sort of milk (royal jelly). Moms and drones (reproductive males) make love a bit like we do, albeit in midair. Moms are a little bit slutty, having many partners in a row—certainly not unheard of in our own colonies.

Full disclosure, though: The tip of the drone’s penis rips off and blows into the queen’s reproductive tract during sex. Which doesn’t usually happen when people get it on. But still, there are parallels. Like this one: Those sexual males just lie around all day, unemployed, watching TV, waiting for their big moment in the sky. After sex, they die. (See above penis mishap.)

And talk about loyalty to family! After Mama’s one wild night, the colony truly treats her like royalty…better than many of us treated our mothers, no doubt. Her kids stick around, helping around the house, taking out the trash. Maybe they complain about boring chores or sharing rooms with hundreds of siblings, maybe some get grounded. Who knows?

But most grow up to have real jobs, as nurses, food-deliverers, construction workers, janitors, guards, morticians. A few necessarily turn into those drones, sprawled on the sofa, drinking directly out of the milk carton, waiting for sex. It’s all so…familiar.

And eventually, when the house gets too crowded and the queen becomes careworn and floppy in the upper arms, its time to find a new home for herself and the most loyal of her family. Maybe a nice condo in the city. As for the rest of them? They can just stay behind in that crappy old hive and who cares that there’s a new, younger queen taking over the old queen’s bed. Bitch.

So…honeybees. Every hum has a story.