Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

7Jul/09Off

Mostly Expected Rhetoric from a Discovery Channel Exec

For those of you who don't know, David (WhySharksMatter) over at Southern Fried Science managed to snag an interview with Paul Gasek, Discovery Channel Executive.

David, as his handle implies, is all about sharks and shark conservation - in fact it seems he's been making quite a name for himself in sharkworld. Well, David, as well as many others interested in shark conservation (or even ocean conservation/health) have some issues with the way the DC's Shark Week continues to peddle fear of sharks. I've been personally pretty sick with most nature documentaries these days - catering to the 10 most deadliest this, or the Worst Disease You Can Get From that, or the Freakiest X, or the fear, fear, fear, etc...

David, based on many submissions from his readers, assembled quite an impressive list of questions (pulling no punches, I might add). I highly recommend you check out Paul's answers as it makes quite an interesting read. That being said, the answers were pretty much exactly what you'd expect from the exec of such a huge business as the Discovery Channel - and not all that impressive.

As I stated in the comments over there - it's all a bit moot to me, as I think the Discovery Channel bankrupted the "Discovery" in its name ages ago. Really - just look at the schedule on any given day. How much "discovery" do you see?

Edit: If you think this is a harsh assessment - keep in mind the titles of the first few shows for Shark Week when you read Paul's answers: the 2 hour premier "Blood in the Water," followed by "Deadly Waters," followed by "Day of the Shark 2" (about "when a great white breaks through a 300-pound aluminum shark cage and traps the divers inside. Another shark tackles a former Navy Seal in shallow waters"), followed by "Sharkbite Summer" (about "The bite-by-bite account of America's notorious "Summer of the Shark" in 2001.")

20Apr/09Off

Great Darwin Beard Challenge – An Extinction Event Has Occurred

As I have recently shown you all, Spring is here in full force in North Carolina.

I love it more than almost anything, but there are two weeks of Spring that are quite hellish for me.  You see, I am incredibly allergic to Oak pollen (most species but not all).

This fact has lead to a tragic event for me and my place in the Great Darwin Beard Challenge - a mishap involving pollen, drugs, sleep, and ravenous beasts.

I awoke with the tell-tale symptoms: swollen eyes, a Tommy-gun sneezing fit, and a foggy brain. Yes, the oaks were having sex and the fruits of their lust were ravaging my insides.

So I took some pretty hardcore antihistamines and sat in a chair in my front lawn to flaunt my chemical invulnerability to the trees' love weapons. Alas, the antihistamines knocked me out cold.

Now everyone who has lived in the rural deciduous forests of North Carolina knows that you should NEVER fall asleep outside in the daytime.

NEVER EVER!

But in my drug-laden mind I had thrown caution to the wind, leaving my beard as an irresistible free meal to those nasty predators of woolen faces: the native Keratinovorous Dwarf Bears (Hirsutophagous imaliari).

Much to my dismay, my wife had photographed the entire ensuing feast. Apparently she found it too funny to awaken me (in her defense, being an original city-girl she was unaware of the almost certain transmission of virus I was receiving - see below).

Keratinovorous Dwarf Bears making a snack of my beard

Keratinovorous Dwarf Bears making a snack of my beard as I lie unconscious from the antihistamines.

Look what they've done!!

Look what they did to my beard!

Damn you Dwarf Bears!!

Damn you Dwarf Bears!!

Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that the Keratinous Dwarf Bears carry a virus that renders humans infertile (see the 1997 Science article for more info). Thus it seems that I have left this competition in a truly Darwinian fashion: unfit to spread my genes to the population.

Thus, I am saddened to leave this greatest of beard contests disgraced and shamed.

Saddened and rendered impotent, I leave the Great Darwin Beard Contest behind...

Saddened, impotent, and infertile I leave the Great Darwin Beard Challenge behind...

I'd like to thank Kevin Zelnio (Deep Sea News, The Other 95%), Andrew "The Southern Fried Scientist" and David "whysharksmatter" (both of Southern Fried Science), and the also-shaven "David2" for the opportunity to compete with such woollenly adapted men. It has been great fun and I wish those stupid dwarf bears had not eliminated me from the running for "Most Darwinesque Beard."

May the three of you remain bearded and fertile for the remainder of the competition!

Great Darwin Beard Challenge History:

18Apr/09Off

The Carpenter Bee and Her Mate

Today I witnessed (and was an integral part of) one of the strangest and coolest insect-related events I've been privy to.

My wife and I are trying to get our home fixed up to be put on the market.  One of the things we will be doing is repainting our front porch. Unfortunately, our porch is riddled with holes under the edge (that are invisible because of their positions). The holes themselves aren't a major problem, though appraisers certainly take note of them.

You see, the holes are caused by the Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica). We live in the woods and hundreds of them buzz around me daily. They're actually pretty cute and are quite important pollinators. The trouble comes when woodpeckers, mostly Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), take note of them and destroy the wood to get at the tasty bees and their offspring within the bees' tunnels.

So this morning, after watching a bee exit the hole (I initially thought it was a male but now I know it was a female), I promptly sealed the hole with putty thinking the problem was solved.  I felt a little bit bad that all the bee's excavation work had been for nothing - but what could I do? Holes in my house structure are not a good thing.

Two hours passed.

I stepped out onto my porch and saw the bee again. This time however, she was frantically chewing at the wood above the bore tunnel (the entrances are always on the underside of the wood). In fact, she had already dug a hole large enough to stick her head through.

Then I noticed that there was another bee inside the burrow. I could see his little head staring upwards from the new hole (I now know that males have a characteristic white face).

I had sealed in the bee's mate!!

The bee kept sticking her head into the hole, followed by a strange buzzy chatter between the two bees. She kept trying to climb in but she hadn't made the hole big enough yet.

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

Eastern Carpenter Bee attempting a daring rescue

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

"Don't worry, Bjorn! I'll get you out!"

You must check out the video.

At this point I thought "Well, I sealed in her man, she thwarted my big-brained attempt at sealing the wood, and it's clear that she desperately wants back in - I might as well help a bee out."

So I grabbed my pliers, shooed her away from the hole, and widened it enough for her to fit through.  She immediately went straight inside, after which there was much buzzy rejoicing (at least that's my own anthropomorphic imagining of what all the buzzing meant).

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

I ripped the hole wider with pliers and in she went.

I didn't really expect a rescue with the both of them exiting into the sunset to find a new home. I fully expected them to resume normal life (though it was still a rescue). In fact, I decided that since I don't really need to seal the hole right now, and since the bee had shown an amazing dedication to her mate (or more likely, her brood), I'd let them get through their rites of spring.

My wife witnessed the whole thing and felt bad for the bee as well, so she was happy to let them keep their home a little while longer.

But as I said, I really don't know much about carpenter bees. So a little research was in order.  I found two excellent websites on carpenter bee life cycles and habits: One at Penn State and one at Ohio State. From these sites I learned a few details that made my plan a bit moot.

About the Eastern Carpenter Bee

First of all, unlike social bees such as bumblebees and honeybees, carpenter bees are much less social. A male and female pair up, the female excavates the burrow, and the male hovers around the burrow defending their territory.

The defense of the home is actually quite entertaining to watch. Every few minutes one (or sometimes several) bees will come near the nest. The diligent male immediately locks into a hurtling, writhing ball with the other males while making a loud ruckus, and chases them away.

This explains why I had only seen the one bee actually enter the nest. The female remains mostly inside the nest, though I must have happened to catch them while he was in and she was out.

Second, after the female excavates the entrance, she makes a 90 degree turn and continues the tunnel along the wood grain. After completing her tunnel, she deposits eggs (along with a food ball) one-by-one inside the burrow, sealing each "brood chamber"  behind her. The chambers are collectively termed a "gallery."

Unfortunately, much like other insects, cephalopods, and many other animals, the female dies shortly after laying her eggs. So she is a goner no matter what I do.

The eggs that she lays then take about seven weeks to reach adulthood. However, they don't emerge from the burrow until August! They collect pollen and store it inside the galleries, and hibernate inside throughout the winter. In the spring, they emerge again to begin their own life as mating adult bees.

One thing I am certain of is that I can't wait until August to seal the holes - and even if I did I would probably just be dooming the new adults to a cold wintry death.  So really, my entire altruistic idea is a moot point. I'm not really sure what I'm gonna do about them now.

Obviously, they are "just" insects. I'm certainly no St. Francis of Assissi1 or Ko Hung2. That being said, I don't generally enjoy killing anything unnecessarily. As I said before, we are surrounded by carpenter bees - our woods provide ample habitat - so I certainly won't be hurting the population.

Most people just shoot pesticides into the nests. I, however, refuse to use pesticides on my property (partly because we are on well water). I guess I could just try to seal it again, though I imagine they will find a way back in (or out).

What do you think I should do?

A couple of other points

Male carpenter bees cannot sting (males are distinguished by a white face - see image below).

Females can sting (but you basically have to handle them before they will).

Carpenter bees at my house buzz me constantly, hover in my face, land on me - but I have never once seen one act aggressive, even if I bat them to get out of my face. They are mainly just curious and very gentle creatures.

Male:

Eastern carpenter bee male showing large eyes, white face and mouthparts (image via Wikipedia)

Eastern carpenter bee male showing large eyes, white face and mouthparts (image via Wikipedia)

Footnotes

  1. "Not to hurt our humble brethren (the animals) is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission--to be of service to them whenever they require it... If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men." - St. Francis of Assissi
  2. "Respect the old and cherish the young. Even insects, grass and trees you must not hurt”. T’ai-shang kan-ying p’ien, a Confucian-Taoist treatise. Attributed to Ko Hung"
13Apr/09Off

Great Darwin Beard Challenge – Month 2

Oh yes, woolly we be. Check out the latest update on our celebratory Darwin beard contest over at Southern Fried Science.

Great Darwin Beard Challenge History:

13Apr/09Off

My Redneck Childhood – Laugh at Me Please

Redneck Daniel (left) and Mitch (right)

Redneck Daniel (me - left) and Mitch (right)

Here's a good laugh for your monday: a redneck child (me) in Hooks, Texas. Yes - we ate them squirrels.

While I somehow managed to escape true redneckdom, I still have very strong "country boy" roots. Mitch still remains fairly redneck. Sorry bro, you know it's true (though he has outgrown some of it in the past few years).

I find this funny because you can clearly see my more animal-friendly biologist tendencies already on display in the manner in which I hold the squirrel.

Here's a challenge - how many hilarious details can YOU spot in this image? There are quite a few.

All that's missing is the rat-tail that only came a few years later...