The Pachanga collection was created by Ecuadorian artist Belen Mena when she became captivated by the intense colors and intricate patterns of several moths during one moonlit evening (Pachanga means a festive party in Spanish). The Pachanga collection boasts over 300 different species of moths , each umiquely beautiful and features a photograph on a contrasting background, along with a vector representation and a series of inspired patterns and designas of each moth.
Some patterns have a clean geometric feel while others feature intricate details. The book has received numerous awards including the prestigious Gold Award at the International Forum of Design competition.
This is an exquisite Art book. The careful recreation of the moths patterns through computer tools is one of the most remarkable uses of artistic creativity.
I have looked at lovely moths thousands of times, but I never would have made the jump to these designs.
Dr. Doug Yanega is the Senior Museum Scientist at the University of California, Riverside, and an acting Commissioner of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. His undergraduate and graduate degrees were under the tutelage of George Eickwort (Cornell University) and Charles D. Michener (University of Kansas), respectively, two of the world’s foremost bee authorities. Dr. Yanega has a broad background, and many of his publications deal with the natural history, pollination ecology, and taxonomy of bees.
Doug published this on Facebook, and I wanted this to get a broader audience, so invited him here for a guest post.
Back in 2006, a team of bee researchers put out a report regarding a phenomenon affecting honey bees commonly called “Fall Dwindle Disease”, in which they decided that this name was misleading, and suggested a new name for this syndrome – the name they suggested as a replacement was “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD). It’s worth reading it (at http://www.beekeeping.com/articles/us/ccd.pdf), not only to get some perspective on things, but because – amazingly enough – even though this is the document that first used and defined the term, virtually no one who has published on CCD has ever cited this document… not even the people who wrote it.
To anyone acquainted with scientific research or journalism, the idea of using a term that was recently defined and NOT citing (or at least reading) the original definition goes completely against what anyone would consider to be proper research. Basically, not doing one’s homework. Yet, this is precisely what has happened with this document. It can’t even be retrieved from the website on which it originally appeared, but if you’ve read it, you’re now better educated on the history of CCD than many of the scientists and journalists and beekeepers who have published on CCD in the past 7 years.
Why do I stress this so much? It’s quite straightforward: most of the scientists and journalists and beekeepers who have published on CCD in the past 7 years have either stated or implied that CCD is something that had never existed prior to 2006. And yet, the original paper defining CCD spelled out that it was an existing condition that they were simply coining a new name for, in the hope that the new name would be less misleading. Oh, the irony. Even more baffling is that it’s not like this information was totally lost or hidden – it’s been visible in the Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_collapse_disorder), with a citation, for all this time, so anyone in the world who simply Googled “Colony Collapse Disorder” could find this reference, since the WikiP article is the first link shown.
It gets even better: in both 2007 and 2009 another paper pointed out that there were at least 18 historical episodes of similar large-scale losses of honey bees dating back to 1869, at least several of which had symptoms similar enough that they cannot be ruled out as being the exact same ailment. Yet, how often have you seen any of the scientists and journalists and beekeepers acknowledging that any theories about the cause of CCD need to accommodate the evidence for similar bee crashes that pre-date neonicotinoid pesticides, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), migratory beekeeping, cell phones, genetically modified crops, or any of the other human-made “causes” that have been run up the proverbial flagpole?
Once again, there are an awful lot of people who are not doing their homework (admittedly, it is a big body of literature, but we’re talking about papers *central* to the issue). That 2009 paper also included the following statement, and I’ll quote it because it’s so important:
“Of the more than 200 variables we quantified in this study, 61 were found with enough frequency to permit meaningful comparisons between populations. None of these measures on its own could distinguish CCD from control colonies.”
Of the 61 variables quantified (including adult bee physiology, pathogen loads, and pesticide levels), no single factor was found with enough consistency to suggest one causal agent. Bees in CCD colonies had higher pathogen loads and were co-infected with more pathogens than control populations, suggesting either greater pathogen exposure or reduced defenses in CCD bees.” Yes, this study did actually look for connections to pesticides, Varroa mites, beekeeping practices, and other things, and no such connections held up to scientific scrutiny.
Here’s the thing about this: if you look at a lot of what you see these days, be it in the scientific literature or in the media, people are running around looking for things that kill honey bees, and when they find something that does so, they often make this GARGANTUAN leap to claim that since X kills honey bees, and since CCD kills honey bees, then X must cause CCD. Logic fail, anyone?
Does anyone seriously dispute that neonicotinoid pesticides are capable of killing honey bees? No. Does anyone dispute that Varroa mites can kill honey bees? No. Does anyone dispute that Nosema (a microsporidian fungus) kills honey bees? No. Sure, there are some ridiculous claims that no one in the scientific community WOULD stand behind (e.g., cell phones or chemtrails), but, by and large, most of the things that any one team of researchers or another puts forward as THE cause of CCD are things that, in and of themselves, are perfectly plausible as significant sources of bee mortality. But that DOES NOT mean that any of them is causally linked to CCD.
Why not? Go back and read the papers I linked; (1) there’s a list of symptoms that characterize CCD, which are not universally present in these various “smoking gun” studies, and (2) they’re talking about something dating back to the 1800s. Did they have neonicotinoids or HFCS back in 1869? In 1969? If not, then those studies fail to do what ANY genuinely scientific hypothesis needs to do: offer an explanation consistent with ALL of the evidence (Occam’s Razor, anyone?).
In effect, what is happening is that researchers are studying one possible factor at a time, and seeing only a tiny part of the whole picture. It’s the parable of “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, where each one describes only that which is in their range of perception, instead of examining ALL of the evidence (including reading ALL of the literature) and coming up with a theory which explains all of it. We’ve got a pile of incomplete theories all competing for the media spotlight, each with its own proponents, and sometimes with a non-scientific agenda.
They’re using a single name, CCD, but may be using it to describe a pile of entirely different ailments. Even worse, there are fringe theories and fuzzy thinking and red herrings abounding, and the public can get easily confused – for example, not realizing that there are some 20,000 species of bees in the world, and only ONE of them is affected by CCD (yes, some other species of bees are dying off, but it’s a different set of things that are responsible).
What may well be a complete and sensible theory is out there, however, and it is referred to above, and hinted at elsewhere (mostly by folks who were involved with the original CCD work) though it has not yet been fully explored or elucidated to everyone’s satisfaction; I’ll highlight again the phrase “reduced defenses in CCD bees.” Way back when this whole thing came to everyone’s attention, Diana Cox-Foster and the other researchers made observations suggesting that CCD might be the result of bees with a compromised immune system.
For those of us who remember when AIDS first came to public attention, there are some striking parallels, and it wouldn’t be all that surprising to ultimately find out that CCD is something that works in much the same way. That is, if you have bees with a compromised immune system, then they could become vulnerable in such a way that a whole range of things that normally might NOT be lethal, are suddenly lethal.
Honey bees are exposed to all sorts of pathogens, chemicals (including not just pesticides, but HFCS, and mite-killing agents used by beekeepers), and other stress-inducing factors on a routine basis, and the levels of exposure to these factors are normally not enough to kill off healthy colonies. But if they are NOT actually healthy, and instead are immuno-compromised, then those same levels of exposure might trigger something catastrophic. Recall that the HIV virus does not itself kill people; the causes of death in AIDS victims are a variety of other diseases that would ordinarily have been fought off by the immune system. If no one had ever discovered the HIV virus, we would be seeing evidence of people dying from all sorts of other things, and likely pointing blame at each factor independently, while missing that there was something connecting them all.
Sound familiar? There is (and has been, all along) evidence that CCD is contagious, yet how often is that discussed? That evidence needs to be accounted for, along with all of the other patterns we’re seeing. There are people looking for viruses and other pathogens that could be at the root of CCD, and some tantalizing results have appeared – though such announcements haven’t been definitive, and (perhaps more importantly) haven’t gotten more attention than the incomplete (but more sensational) theories have gotten.
Not only would it be nice if more of the people who reviewed papers trying to link various things to CCD asked pointed questions like “How well can this theory explain similar bee dieoffs in the previous century?” or “How well can this theory explain the patterns of contagious pathology seen in CCD-affected apiaries?”, but it would also be far more professional and appropriate to do so, given that the scientific method is not based on cherry-picking of evidence, or sensationalism. I’m prepared to find out that I’m wrong, but I want to see some real evidence, for which there is an unambiguous and coherent explanation.
A reasonable question you could ask is “Well, even if we accept the idea that there’s an underlying pathogen, why is this all happening now, and to this degree, and over this length of time? If this is the same disease we’ve seen outbreaks of spanning several decades, why does this seem so much worse this time around?” I can offer two observations: (1) the way the modern news media network seeks out and reports on stories is VERY different, as is the level of environmental concern among the general public, and even if the exact same thing DID happen in the 1960s, it would not have made international news headlines; and (2) there are, quite simply, MORE potentially harmful things that honey bees are exposed to now than they were in the past – meaning that if the diefoffs are more widespread, more severe, and more prolonged, it should not be all that surprising.
A reasonable course of action, to my mind, is acknowledging that we aren’t likely to find that any man-made factors are the true cause of CCD, devoting energy to looking for contagious pathogenic agents, and taking a closer look at genetic diversity in honey bees themselves (e.g., are there strains that are resistant to CCD?), while at the same time working towards reducing the exposure and impacts of man-made factors that are capable of harming bees (but without BLAMING them in the process, or overreacting). Does every potentially harmful thing need to be banned outright, or just used more prudently? Is there a level of exposure to neonicotinoids that is not harmful? Can beekeepers simply use less HFCS, or less or different acaricides, or make other changes to their practices that will result in fewer bee deaths? Answers may not be simple, nor black-and-white, but real science rarely is.
[P.S. from Doug - the day after I first posted this on Facebook, the USDA released this PDF, in which the pre-2006 existence of CCD is once again not mentioned, despite having nearly all of the original co-authors among the 175 conference attendees. This is remarkable, and makes me wonder if people are intentionally trying to distance themselves from the original definition of CCD. It’s almost like someone publishing a paper coining the term “lung cancer” and then other people coming along and using that same term for every other known form of cancer, to the point where the original concept has been forgotten entirely.
The report states explicitly that honey bees are suffering from multiple different things, which I can’t dispute, and “CCD” is (at this point) being used as a blanket term for things that may have genuinely separate causes – but this is a practice I don’t like. If we KNOW there are multiple causes and multiple effects, then it confuses the issue to lump them all under a single name, and you’re going to have serious problems coming to solid conclusions about treatment, prevention, and epidemiology, not to mention communicating with the public. I’ll give just one example to make my point: several studies show that parasitic Varroa mites are strongly linked to CCD, and several other perfectly valid studies show that CCD can kill bees that have no Varroa mites. The net effect is that all we can say is “Beekeepers should prevent their bees from getting Varroa mites” – which is something everyone has known for decades. But if it turns out that some of the chemicals used to kill Varroa mites also weaken the bees, then by failing to tease apart the different contributing factors, we’ve made a vague recommendation that might have negative consequences. I’m not saying teasing these things apart is easy – experimental research on honey bee pathology is incredibly difficult, because it’s nearly impossible to get large numbers of replicates, or establish proper controls for all variables – but I still think that we should TRY to keep the different causes separate, and maybe we can some day figure out what the original CCD was.
It’s Spring! I’ve seen a few queen bumble bees out and buzzing around in my yard. Bumbles are one of the first pollinators out in the spring, and the fuzzy adorableness of their bodies does help retain heat.
(Pro Tip: From the shocked looks I’m getting, I guess not everyone stops to talk to foraging bumblebees. Huh. You may wish to learn from my fail on this one.)
Bumble bees are some of the first bees to fly in spring; they will fly in cooler temperatures and at lower light levels than many other bees. Cold, grey morning? Not a problem for a bumble! This makes them invaluable native pollinators.
Bumble bees have a slightly different life cycle than other native bees. While most native bees overwinter as pupae and emerge as adults in the spring, Bumble bee queens emerge as adults in the fall and search for overwintering sites, burrowing into leaf litter or loose soil to hide for the winter. Don’t rake your yard bare! That’s good winter shelter.
I love Rusty’s description of a queen bumble as analogous to a chicken. Because she builds her nest very early in spring when temperatures are still quite low, she incubates her eggs!
While the bumble bee queen hibernates she is neither eating nor working. Her depressed rate of metabolism allows her to live for long periods while burning very little fuel. In the spring, she must work hard. She begins by finding a suitable nesting spot. Next she builds a “honey pot” from wax and will use it to hold a small store of honey. She will also collect pollen, and make a pile of pollen mixed with honey called “bee bread.”
Here is where it gets weird. Much like a chicken, the queen bumble bee will lay her eggs on the pollen and then sit on them to keep them warm. During the development of the young bumble bees, the queen will eat the honey she stored in her pot. The first batch of young bees will be mostly workers—bees who can take over the household chores and foraging while the queen continues to lay eggs. Later in the season, she will lay some eggs that become queens and drones. These bees will be the ones that are responsible for the next generation.
This video about bumble bees has the feel of a school info film, but lots of great images of how a queen bumble bee creates her nest in the spring.
There is a handy guide to identifying your bumble at Xerces as well.
Other Bumble reads and videos:
- Thermal imaging of a queen bumble!
- Bumble bees at risk
- Want more tips to promote these gentle giants among bees? You can download a FREE guide to conserving bumble bees from Xerces!
- Tons more native bee infosheets and downloads at Xerces
Hi Everybody! Some quick updates:
- I am moving! I’m moving back to the Midwest the first week of May, so will be out of touch for most of that week.
- I have a contract to do some work for a company I’m quite geeked about. I won’t know until June if it will become full-time with benefits, so I’m going to be really focusing a lot of energy on that. Keep your fingers crossed that works out and I can come back to blogging this summer. They know who Bug Girl is, and are totally OK with that. That’s a first!
- This Happened. I’m in the Library of Congress!!
That’s all for now–here’s some awesome buggy stuff to read while I’m trying to get my life sorted:
- Can we make stabby leaves to kill stabby bed bugs?
- The Daily Show covers pubic lice, with an awesome cameo from John Waters. And yeah, not really endangered. But very funny.
- You might not think there would be money in pretending to be an Entomology Society to rip off scientists. You would be wrong.
- A Monster Manticore from Mozambique! Sorta.
In Bug Grad School I learned about a crazy group of flies called Hippoboscidae, or louse flies. These flies have adopted an ectoparasitic lifestyle, which means they live on other animals much like a tick or a louse. Most have lost their wings in the evolutionary scrabble to live on fur or feathers.
Having only ever seen these preserved in jars, or from engravings, I was very excited to find a video of one of these alive! Even better, it was a bat ked, which are really cool.
Things I learned today:
- You collect bat parasites by blowing gently on the bat’s fur.
- Carl Dick at Western Kentucky University is a master at blowing on bats, and specializes in Hippoboscids, which has to be pretty darn fascinating work.
- Bats do not enjoy being blown upon.
Here you go: Blowing on Bats For Science.
Here’s a view of a ked on the fluffy part of a bat. Warning: the squeamish may be creeped by this, because there is scurrying about. But it is AWESOME scurrying about, IMHO.
Standard disclaimers: Only professionals should blow on bats. Do not blow on bats without training and proper equipment. Do not taunt bats.
Thanks so much to BioInFocus for finding these videos!
I’m on the radio! Skeptically Speaking asked me to talk a little bit about insect conservation, in order to round out an interview with the author of Rat Island. (I haven’t read the book yet, but it looks pretty fascinating.)
I mostly discussed the 2012 report “Spineless”, published by IUCN (The International Union for Conservation of Nature). You might recognize IUCN as author of the Red List, the definitive international list of species that are at risk of extinction.
Why should we care about a bunch of squishy boneless animals?
Because invertebrates make up EIGHTY PERCENT OF ALL MULTICELLULAR SPECIES ON EARTH. They truly are the “little things that run the world.” The IUCN report suggests that 20% of those species are at risk. That is a big deal.
The report itself is fairly accessible to the lay reader, and includes lots of data, citations, and lovely photos of what we will be missing if we don’t start paying attention.
The topic I discussed was ecosystem services–the stuff we get for free simply by living on earth:
“The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – a four-year United Nations assessment of the condition and trends of the world’s ecosystems – categorizes ecosystem services as:
- Provisioning Services or the provision of food, fresh water, fuel, fiber, and other goods;
- Regulating Services such as climate, water, and disease regulation as well as pollination;
- Supporting Services such as soil formation and nutrient cycling; and
- Cultural Services such as educational, aesthetic, and cultural heritage values as well as recreation and tourism.”
For some reason, I ended up talking about poop and waste removal more than other ecosystem services, but insects also make up a major part of food chains all over the world. Birds and fish eat them. People eat them. They pollinate our crops and feed the world. Bugs are damn important.
We also talked a little bit about pest control services that intact ecosystems provide. For example, a 2009 study found that low-diversity cropping systems–think thousands of acres of corn and soybeans and nothing else–had 24% fewer predators.
We lose ecosystem services when we lose biodiversity.
To give you a sense of just how big the problem of species loss is, check out this diagram about terrestrial invertebrates from the IUCN report. This includes insects, spiders, and all the other spineless things that live on land.
You can see from this that 38% of the species in the IUCN database are already extinct or endangered. Thirty. Eight. Percent.
An additional 20% of species are listed as vulnerable to extinction.
OVER HALF of the species that are in the terrestrial invertebrate IUCN database are at risk of extinction or already gone!
What’s that grey category labeled “DD”? “Data Deficient.” Species are classified as Data Deficient on the IUCN Red List if there is inadequate information to evaluate their extinction risk. Of the species with a listing for IUCN, we don’t know enough about 17% of them to assign a conservation status.
Here’s another way of looking at that. This is how IUCN organizes their categories of extinction risk, from high to low:
How many species is the IUCN diagram of terrestrial invertebrate conservation statuses based on? 3,623 species.
How many species of insects and spiders are there, that we know about? Over a million.
How many species of insects and spiders do we estimate actually exist, that are not included in this diagram? Over 5 million.
They don’t show up; we don’t even know enough to include them as “Not Evaluated.”
Chapter One of the IUCN report has the title “The Unraveling Underworld.” Yes. It is unraveling.
I can’t tell you what the consequences of species loss will be, but I can tell you I am sure it won’t be a good thing.
In the interview I mostly focused on how these changes will affect humans economically. We live in a time when utilitarian value is king; and when people are out of work and having trouble making ends meet, it’s really hard to argue that we should save a bug because it’s pretty.
But the truth is we just don’t know.
We don’t know which insects are the important ones. We don’t know which species is the one that when we lose it, things fall apart.
I think Aldo Leopold said it best:
“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Mid-March! A time when the US turns its attention to an important event–a type of March Madness, if you will. People stock up on food, buy special t-shirts, and drink alcoholic libations in mass quantities. It’s….
From his website:
“As the legend goes, St. Urho drove the grasshoppers out of Finland, saving the country’s grape harvest – and thus its wine crop. While this may have striking similarities to the story of an Irish saint who shall remain nameless, it’s clearly superior in a few key ways:
- St. Urho’s Day is celebrated on March 16th – before, and therefore superior to, anything that one might celebrate on March 17th.
- St. Urho saved grapes, ensuring abundance of wine. What could be more important to celebrate than wine? I mean really.
- St. Urho’s colors are royal purple and nile green – two colors, not one. Take that.”
To celebrate, Finnish-American towns hold parades, pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners, cribbage tournaments, and all sorts of other celebrations. Attendees are decked out in purple and green, surrounded by images of grasshoppers and grapes.”
St. Urho (pronounced “oorho”) is a completely made-up saint. Essentially, Finnish Minnesotans were sick of green beer and Irish hoopla in March, and decided they needed their own holiday on March 16th:
“The legend says St. Urho chased the grasshoppers out of ancient Finland, thus saving the grape crop and the jobs of Finnish vineyard workers. He did this by uttering the phrase: “Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen” (roughly translated: ‘Grasshopper, grasshopper, go to Hell!’).”
Urho’s victory over grasshoppers is celebrated by this statue in Menahga, MN. A very amazing chainsaw sculpture! There also is a lovely giant grasshopper sculpture in Kaleva, Michigan. Will I be making a detour to see that soon? Ya, you betcha.
Support this champion of biological control by drinking some purple wine or purple beer March 16th, in honor of St. Urho’s entomological feat. Here’s a list of St. Urho Celebrations you can attend.
Lastly, a this handy educational video about St. Urho:
And a recipe for a traditional Finnish Stew (which contains no grasshoppers, alas).
Finally, signs of spring are beginning to show here in New England. Birds are singing, and hopefully some of our tiny, shiny little migrants will be returning soon.
There is a Citizen Science project you can participate in that will help document the migration of hummingbirds in the spring:
Starting March 15, 2013, the Audubon Society needs citizen scientists to track, report on, and follow the spring hummingbird migration in real time. A free mobile app makes it easy to report sightings, share photos and learn more about these remarkable birds.
Your participation will help scientists understand how hummingbirds are impacted by climate change, flowering patterns, and feeding by people.
Most people think of hummingbirds as nectar feeders, but they do also snack on insects. Here’s an adorable example:
Many hummer species also steal spiderwebs to make their nests. You can see an Anna’s Hummingbird make her nest with spiderwebs here. Much cuteness and stomping to compact the nesting materials.
The latest internet Meme is the Harlem Shake, and I think this is one of the best versions. A little background:
“Harlem Shake” (not the hip hop dance style) is the title of a 2012 heavy bass instrumental track produced by Baauer. In February 2013, the song spawned a series of dance videos that begin with a masked individual dancing alone in a group before suddenly cutting to a wild dance party featuring the entire group.
And here you go: Harlem shake of the butterflies.
What you are looking at is a bunch of chrysalids, or the pupal stage of a butterfly where it transitions from a caterpillar into an winged adult. They are still able to move and respond to stimuli in this stage, even though they lack functional legs. They are commonly reared like this in butterfly houses.
Last year I wrote a post about Spider-man, and how his anatomy may not be…err, as PG as one might wish. In less than 500 words, I tried to write an entertaining post about how actual spider anatomy is not analogous to Spider-Man the superhero’s anatomy.
I did not expect to enrage Fanboys all over the internet quite as much as I did, but over all counted it as a science communication win. (I will confess to occasionally forgetting-on-purpose to hyphenate SpiderMan in this post because it makes them even madder, though. I am a bad person.)
And THEN: Scientifically Accurate Spiderman: The Video.
This video is marked as ADULT, so you might have to go to YouTube and sign in to view it. The video takes some elements of what I wrote and puts it in a blender to make a cartoon that is… interesting? Really, if you haven’t seen it, go watch it just for the sheer WTFery of it all.
I transcribed some of the more puzzling lyrics of the song here:
Vaguely Scientifically Accurate:
- “His web erupts from out his ass”: Closer to the truth than actual Spider-Man, although technically webbing would erupt from spinnerets located near his taint. Technically. In an imaginary universe where Spider-human hybrids don’t immediately DIE.
- “Four pairs of eyes”: While this isn’t true of all spiders, it is correct for most.
- “His dick falls off”: How they got from “spiders don’t have a penis like a human” to “his dick falls off multiple times, and usually ends up in someone’s food item,” I’m really not clear. As a side note, I’m impressed that the penis in the video apparently has its own, separate Spider-man costume. I always just assumed Spidey tucked left in the leotard.
Not Even Close to Scientifically Accurate:
- “It’s a science fact spiders are gay” WHUT?
- “There are 250 spiders on your skin” WHUT WHUT?
- “Spiders produce milk.” This could the most hilarious misunderstanding of transgenic goats that produce spider proteins ever. Alternately, they might be thinking of milking spiders for their venom. Which…still makes no sense, because why does ‘Scientifically Accurate Spider-Man’ have nipples?
This is a video made for humor and shock value. I see nothing wrong in this. But where did the strange “facts” in this video come from?
It turns out there’s a lot of extremely bogus spider facts online. The top result for “Fun Facts About Spiders” is this list. Two (Completely False!) examples from that site:
“A single strand of spider web has more potential energy than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki… Because spiders do not naturally exist in areas of high fusion, there is little danger to the average person.”
“The average human autopsy procedure in Chicago, IL will reveal roughly 250 small spiders living at points throughout the endocrine and circulatory systems. In New York, NY the average is upwards of 800.”
Those [BG edited: COMPLETELY FALSE FACTOIDS!] are pretty hilarious. Except.
When I posted a couple of these on Twitter (because, again, hilarious!), lots of people did not know they were false. They saw someone that looked vaguely authoritative tweet:
“Did you know that spiders with hair on them are mammals, and thus produce delicious (and unusually cold) milk?”
And they went along with it. They have all been taught that mammals have fur and produce milk, so…“Hey! Spiders are furry, aren’t they? Who knew they also had milk? Damn, I learn so much from Bug Girl! Spiders are involved in the dairy industry!”
Those of us with expertise in an area tend to forget that not everyone has the same background base of knowledge we do. FAIL on my part for not making it clear enough that those were bogus factoids, and assuming that everyone else would get the joke.
The “facts” in this video turn out to have a similar explanation. When you look at the “references” listed on the video, the list contains info from the Annual Review of Entomology, Biology Letters,….and the video creators included several of these “Fun Facts About Spiders”.
Critical Evaluation of Online Information Fail.
But this whole series of miscommunications brings up a lot of really interesting questions about the internet and science communication.
Look, no human-spider hybrid will ever really be viable. If Spidey develops book lungs, for example, he’s going to collapse and die from lack of oxygen. Spiders don’t have capillaries, veins, and arteries like we do, and a large animal–with or without red spandex compression tights–just doesn’t work very well without a circulatory system.
Who cares? It’s science fiction.
I love science fiction! I’m all about willing suspension of disbelief–IF the magic hand-wavey timey-wimey bits are clearly not real. I don’t really care that Spider-Man is not anatomically correct. I tried to connect spider anatomy with pop culture in order to get readers. I focused on the web spinning and penile aspects of Spider-Man to get readers. Sadly, very few people are going to post a technical story about spider spinnerets on Facebook. “OMG check out the cribellum on this Araneomorph spider!! Wicked Cool!”
The problem for those of us trying to communicate science online is that we forget not everyone is in on the joke. The Onion is a well known news parody site–to nerds like me on the internet. But The Onion doesn’t make it obvious to people seeing it for the first time that it’s a parody. It’s not real. But people mistake it for real news on a fairly regular basis. How do we make sure that everyone knows a joke is a joke? Without completely killing said joke because we explained it?
Part of the challenge I give myself with this blog is to try to make insects and their spineless relatives fun and interesting, and not be dry, technical and pedantic. That also means I cut some corners.
At the same time I was trying to be relevant and bring in new readers, I also was getting pushback from spider experts for oversimplifying spider pedipalps. Male spider pedipalps really are amazing sexual organs–and they really do break off during sex. Is a copulatory palp the same as a penis? Depends on who you ask.
Male spider pedipalps are modified, paired mouthparts involved in reproduction. Frankly, I’m rather sad that I didn’t think to suggest that Spider-Man’s penis would migrate up his abdomen to his chin and duplicate itself.
I don’t know how to walk that line between fun and technical accuracy perfectly–this whole blog is a performance piece. Done on the internet, with everyone watching and commenting. No pressure!
I think that the overall goal of getting more people to know something about spiders–even if it’s freaky genital factoids–balances out some of my not 100% accuracy in terms of specialized terminology.
And here is where I ask you to write the rest of the post.
How best should we deal with misinformation on the internet like fake spider “facts”?
Is not being detailed about technical science items the same/different than the fake factoids? Does it matter?
- Common Myths about Spiders
- No Follow: how to keep bogus sites from getting Google juice when you link to them
- Possibly the best evolution video ever. With not quite science facts
- Details of spider copulatory organs with no snark and just science
- Actual Research about misinformation and public perceptions of science (alas, behind a paywall)
Some tips from that publication about trying to correct misconceptions:
- Provide an explicit warning before mentioning misinformation, to ensure people are cognitively on guard and less likely to be influenced by it.
- Consider what gaps are created by your debunking and fill them with an alternative explanation.
- There’s a risk of a backfire effect when original misinformation is repeated and made more familiar.
- To avoid making people more familiar with misinformation (i.e, risking backfire effect), emphasize the facts you wish to communicate rather than the myth.