Bees Are Us

1024px-Bienenschwarm_17cEarly 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. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Deep Roots of Boko Haram

Boko_Haram_(7219441626)Nearly a year ago last May, the mercurial leader of Boko Haram announced the fate of 276 schoolgirls that he and his men kidnapped from a secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria.  Standing in front of a video camera and tugging at a red hat, Abubakar Shekau laughed as he read from a prepared statement.  “I took the girls and I will sell them off,” he declared.  “There is a market for selling girls.”

Shekau’s chilling announcement startled many observers in the West.  But as archaeologist Scott MacEachern of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, reported in a paper presented in April at the Society for American Archaeology meetings in San Francisco, the proposed sale of the girls came as little surprise to people living along the northern Nigeria-Cameroon border.  For centuries, a local slave trade bought and sold captives with impunity, and little seemed to have changed.  “The slave raiders are back,” the modern inhabitants told MacEachern. Continue reading

Birds and Songs and Bird Songs

An English robin perches on a branch.

I walked along the edge of a cliff. Under my feet, grass. To my right, a hundred-foot drop to the waters of the English Channel. A strong wind blew off the water and over the cliff, blowing the loose ends of hair in my face, obnoxiously. To my left was a field, planted with something I can narrow down to “a grain.” It was the second day of a week-long walk along a segment of the UK’s South West Coast Path, a 630-mile-long trail around the edge of the peninsula that makes up the southwestern corner of Britain.

High above the spring-green waves of grain was a skylark, twittering relentlessly. On the ground, a skylark isn’t a very memorable bird. It’s brown and streaky with a little crest of feathers on its crown. A skylark in the sky is still not much too look at: a madly-flapping speck against the cloudy white sky. While they hover and swoop, though, they emit a constant stream of notes. Because these are birds, I assume they’re showing off for females or announcing their territory or something. As my friends and I walked along, we passed from one skylark’s flapping-ground to the next, on and on above the cliffs. They sang and sang and sang. The skylark made me think of a lyric from a folk song: “Up flies the kite; down falls the lark-o.”

I know more English folks songs than the average American person, and probably more than the average British person, too. I sing in the Washington Revels, a community theater group that performs traditional material mostly from North America and Europe. Our annual spring show, the May Revels, is focused mostly on countryside traditions of England. We dance around the maypole. Some years we sing the song with the lark and the kite, a tradition from the village of Padstow, 70 miles due west of the cliff where I heard the larks.

May is a thrilling time of year wherever you are. In the English May we saw bluebells growing thick under white-barked trees. Primroses, sea pinks, forget-me-nots, and the unbeautifully-named golden dead nettle paved our way with flowers. The white globe-shaped blooms of some member of the onion family turned east-facing slopes of wooded valleys into a garlicky fairyland. Birds sang noisily everywhere we went.

Over and over songs that I knew popped into my head. The lark brought not only the Padstow song to mind, but also The Lark Ascending, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who loved the English countryside even more than I do.

Both the English robin and the North American robin are members of the thrush family, but ours is sturdy and largeish while the British one is a sweet, fat little bird with a little less red and a pretty dab of gray. In The Secret Garden, the bird that shows Mary Lennox the way into the garden is a robin, and I have always wanted one as a friend myself. I saw them often, perched on a fencepost or singing from the top of a bush, and almost always found myself singing the 500ish-year-old song “Ah Robin.” I’m pretty sure this song is about a dude named Robert, not a bird, but it came to mind anyway.

Swallows streaked by at fence-level, wings swept back like tiny fighter jets. “Bring back the roses to the dells/The swallow from her distant clime/The honeybee from drowsy cells,” I sang to myself.

For the first time, I was seeing all of these birds in their ecological context. When I sing about the swallow and the honeybee, I’m thinking about the swallows and honeybees I know, but, in a way, these fields are what I’m unknowingly referring to. They’re about spring and landscapes that have been agricultural for centuries in a country on the other side of the sea.

By the way: England’s blackbird is another thrush, a different family from our creaking New World blackbirds. They sang from the bushes, too, and could only bring to mind one song.

Photo: Shutterstock

Redux for Memorial Day: Uncle Bundy & the Technically Sweet

This post first ran May 28, 2012. Uncle Bundy has since died — at a nice old age with his family around him, but still — and when I think about soldiers and Memorial Day I always think about him, I’m not sure why: he didn’t talk about the war, maybe because he stood so straight.

It’s Memorial Day in the U.S. but this is not a war story.  It does have a little war in it, but the real reason I’m writing it is because of this ball bearing  my uncle had.  My uncle’s name is Leverne, some of his buddies call him Vernie, all his relatives call him Bundy – no reason for that – and he’s always been a mechanic.  One summer day a long time ago, he was out in his garage working on a car and I was watching him.  “Look at this,” he said, “it’s a ball bearing.”  It was a grooved ring, and running in the groove were little metal balls.  “I just greased it,” he said, “and look how pretty it goes.”  He ran his finger over the little balls and, one after another, they turned smoothly and easily in their groove.  “Isn’t it pretty?” he asked.  No, it isn’t, I thought, but I didn’t answer.  I was in high school and an English major.  It’s greasy and dirty, I thought.  Poetry was pretty, not ball bearings.

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The Last Word

ugly lemon-3May 18 – 22, 2015

Erik started the week off by offending bee scientists with a wasp scientist whose object of study is solitary and sleek, definitely not just an ant with wings. The scientist has some issues, don’t we all.

LWON turned five this week and in joyous celebration, alumnus Thomas Hayden lists the top five posts he never wrote, artfully illustrating this with some lemons I wish I’d never seen.  We miss him.

Alumna Ginny Hughes continues the joyous celebration of LWON’s fifth with the top five May 20th’s in history.  Who can forget the May 20, 1875 Treaty of the Meter? or the May 20, 1990 release of the Hubble Space Telescope’s unimpressive first images? We miss her.

In the third day of joyous celebration, five LWONers listed the best sciences to write about, according to them. They also listed the worst sciences to write about, and counting Erik and the bee scientists, the number of offending LWONers is now up to 6.

Surveys are dumb and stupid and hard to believe, says Sally, and that’s not the worst.  The worst is when the gold standard of all surveys turned out to be an actual fraud. And after that, it’s just Katy-bar-the-door.

Survey Says


On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being “not at all” and 10 being “very much”, how much has the very sight of this question already made you die a little inside?

Surveys are dull, they’re dreadful; often badly-worded, usually tedious, always demanding more of your time than they deserve, yet they’re a pillar on which a lot of soft science rests. Epidemiologists use them to track disease behaviour. Sociologists use them to determine rates of breastfeeding. World governing bodies use them to determine world rankings of countries’ education systems.

A few days ago a scandal broke about falsified survey data in a study of attitudes toward marriage equality. Turns out this is more common than you’d think. So can you trust surveys? There are so many reasons not to.

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The Best Science to Write About and the Worst

As of yesterday, May 20, LWON has been alive for five years. LWON is a little surprised at this and pretty pleased with itself.  In celebration, two of our brilliant alumni wrote guest posts listing the Top Five Things They Wanted to List the Top Five Of.  Today, Five People of LWON announce the best sciences to write about, and the worst.  

Archaeology: best. It is pure inquiry, unadulterated curiosity, a science of imagination on a perfectly human scale. To write about it, if you can handle the backbiting and occasionally irate, red-faced scholars, feels like liberation. You can look across an empty field and out of its slight rises and depressions recreate a city. It’s like Minecraft, only real. Or kind of real. As I’ve heard from many archaeologists studying a piece of edged rock or bone, Is it real?  (Archaeology is where the drinking happens. A couple months ago I spoke to a symposium of Alaskan archaeologists and afterward about 50 of us dropped into a rowdy Anchorage bar where shootings and stabbings were weekly. The archeologists took the place over and before midnight I’d auctioned off my boxer shorts, and I had to produce in situ. I held interviews at the bar that night where a Russian archaeologist who’d moved to Alaska slammed vodka with me and stated, “Migration is a sickness!” How could you not love that.)

The worst: physics. It’s the numbers. I’m sorry. It’s more math than anything, and math is hardly a science. I mean, if you are Ramanujan, Fermat or Pythagoras, you’ve got a hypothesis to prove, and you use a proof as an experiment to get to your conclusion, it’s all scientific. But if you’re like me and you have to count on your fingers, you are out of the game. A former astrophysics faculty at University of Colorado once drew out an equation for me to prove a point and asked for me to solve it, as if it were plain as day. “Zero?” I asked. “No, the answer is infinity,” he said. “What’s the difference?” I asked. He just stared at me.  (Maybe physicists drink, too, and maybe they demand speakers produce their boxers. Maybe it’s all the same, but I’m still trapped in that moment with the astrophysicist wondering how I could mistake everything for nothing, a conundrum archaeology and physics may have in common.) Continue reading

Guest Post: The Top 5 May 20ths Ever

Five years ago today, The Last Word On Nothing was born. I’ve been Googling around, trying to figure out why anniversaries are a thing, but most of what pops up is drivel from couples counselors. Wikipedia offers some facts about Latin names. But what I’m really looking for is why we celebrate anniversaries, why they make us feel so many feels.

Every day, newspapers and websites the world over publish “this day in history” lists. And every morning, Facebook sends me a “You have memories with” so-and-so notification, accompanied by old photos of so-and-so and me that were posted on this day in years past. These photos make me feel happy, and sad, and somehow…special?

It’s arbitrary specialness, of course: Every day is an anniversary for a long list of personal and historical events, significant and trivial. But we love to remember them regardless. It’s nostalgia, sure, but more analytical than that. We’re looking for patterns, connections with the past — either in the way that things have changed, or haven’t.

As it turns out, May 20 has historically been pretty important for science and technology, and not just because of LWON’s arrival in 2010.

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