Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.19.08)

Hungry dolphin
He really knows himself.
Creative Commons License photo credit: robertpaulyoung

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

I reflect, therefore, I am: commonly known in elephants, dolphins and great apes, self-recognition has long been deemed a key determinate of advanced cognitive abilities in animals. Now, we’ve discovered that magpies can do it.

Back to school: kids are still savoring the last days of summer, but teachers spending their first days back at HMNS, soaking up science and learning ways to use the exhibits here to bring science to life for their students next year.

Another humpback whale is lost; this time, a calf, in the waters outside Sydney. It’s bonded to a yacht, and if an adult female doesn’t come by soon, it may not survive.

No wonder bees are dying in record numbers: their hives are filled with pesticides.

Coming soon – Robots: part of a balanced diet.

The 1918 flu epidemic killed between 20 – 100 million people worldwide; survivors of the epidemic alive today still have circulating antibodies to the disease, 80 90 years later.

An old wive’s tale that’s somewhat true: severe morning sickness increases the possibility of delivering a baby girl.

To BEE or not to BEE

Did you know that Native Americans called honeybees “white man’s flies”?  Honeybees are not native to North America, but were brought over by European settlers in the 1600s.  They are now completely naturalized here.  The Africanized bee (more on her some other time) is a different strain of the same species – indeed the two are virtually indistinguishable except in their behavior.

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The Bees from our hive in the Museum
pollinate the plants outside.

Despite not being here naturally, honeybees today are vital to our economy and to our health!  They pollinate most of the fruits and vegetables we eat, as well as cotton, almonds, many wild flowers as well as garden cultivars, and more.  In fact, it’s hard to think of a non-grain food crop that is NOT pollinated by bees!  Of course, bees also produce honey and other products (wax, pollen, propolis) – but these are much less important than their pollination services.  The recent concern over the health and well-being of honeybees is because of their huge importance to agriculture, not because of a potential honey shortage.  I’ll digress about “colony collapse disorder” in a later blog.

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When not in an established hive,
honeybees are not agressive.

People typically use the term “bee” to denote any flying, stinging insect, and “bees” are generally feared because of their sting.  However, most stings blamed on bees are actually due to social wasps such as yellow-jackets and bald-faced hornets.  Social wasps do not collect pollen or make honey but are predators of insects and spiders.  They do defend themselves and their paper nests with a painful sting!  Moreover, unlike honeybees, they can sting more than once.

In fact, away from their colonies, i.e., when they are out foraging for nectar and pollen, honeybees are unlikely to sting.  Yes, they will certainly sting if their nest is threatened, but in general they do so reluctantly.  Because a honeybee loses her life when she stings, every sting needs to count. The barbed tip of a worker bee’s stinger holds fast into whatever is stung – and pulls out her venom sac and other innards along with it – a kamikaze end to a short and busy life.

If you walk through a meadow of wildflowers in mid-summer, you may see (in addition to honeybees) many different native bees visiting flowers.  Large bees include bumblebees and carpenter bees.  Smaller ones might include leafcutter bees, orchard bees, sweat bees, digger bees, and more.  Of these only honeybees (and bumblebees to a much lesser extent) collect nectar and make honey.  The others are solitary, and mostly collect pollen, which they use to feed their young.  Female solitary bees do have stingers, but since they do not have a large nest to defend, they only sting if they are handled carelessly.

Coming next week: Adventures in Beekeeping!