[Trigger warning for discussions of online and IRL abuse and violence]
I recognize the irony in my first post after my big “This is my real name” announcement being about anonymity. I think it’s important, though, to make a strong statement about the importance of anonymity in light of some comments by a colleague. It was the “pseudonyms are used to bully” argument, with a little “I can’t take pseudonyms seriously” thrown in.
Some people are assholes online, and like to target others and make their lives hell. They will do this using their real names and even workplace computers; they do this with fake identities. Research about online behavior hasn’t found evidence to support that anonymity leads to trolling. If a website is full of assholes, it’s their fault for not holding people-–whatever name they go by–-accountable for their behavior.
Online discussions don’t have to be everyone agreeing with each other. Conversations just need to not be racist, hateful, or destructive. The way to make that happen is to create consequences for bad behavior, regardless of real name status.
Pseudonyms are critical to having a fully representative online community. A great list of reasons why pseudonyms are important can be found at the Geek Feminism Wiki:
The cost to people [of denying pseudonym use] can be vast, including:
- harassment, both online and offline
- discrimination in employment, provision of services, etc.
- actual physical danger of bullying, hate crime, etc.
- arrest, imprisonment, or execution in some jurisdictions
- economic harm such as job loss, loss of professional reputation, etc.
- social costs of not being able to interact with friends and colleagues
That page goes on to list, in detail, the various ways that these groups can be harmed. We know that women experience 25 TIMES the amount of harassment online that men do. We know that 50% of LGBT teens are bullied online, and many of them consider–or commit–suicide. We know that women are stalked and killed by ex-lovers. We know that LGBT folk are the victims of hate crimes.
There is a real and critical need for pseudonyms to be honored online, even if it’s a convention that you rely on the good will of others to maintain. And yet, a lot of people, especially scientists, are very dismissive of pseuds as not having meaningful things to say. I have to admit that my first reaction to the tweet I have copied at the right was RAGE.
[Edited to add: Terry says he meant to say “Once you consider the concern about physical safety and stalking, and look at other issues, then there is safety in knowing that you don’t have to triple-think everything you write.” Since you are limited to 140 characters by Twitter, I've added the clarification, but IMHO it doesn't change anything.]
People in marginalized groups triple-think and agonize over every damn word we think, say and write.
Every. Single. Day.
- Will I get hurt again?
- Will I get sued if I add my story about sexual harassment to the ones already public?
- If I talk about the time my department head introduced me as “This is Bug, she was raped”, will it get back to him?
- Will my family read this?
- I’m sure it was illegal that I was was required to post on my office door that I had epilepsy, but how do I ask without the department finding out?
- How do I get help when my boss is a bigot?
- Is talking about my LGBT relationship going to come back and bite me in my job search?
It’s not just things we write online; if you are part of an outgroup and trying to fit in, you have a lot of secrets. You make decisions every day about what you will share, who you will share it with, and how far you are willing to go to combat stereotypes.
Terry, the author of the post and the tweet that set off this rant, is a good person, and I know he cares about his students and his work deeply. He is also a white tenured dude. I’m not mentioning him as an example to shame him, but to show how easy it is even for the good guys to forget that their experiences are not representative.
If we limit the ability of people to use pseudonyms, or dismiss their words specifically because they are pseudonyms, we silence a huge part of the population. And that is why I’m still getting in people’s faces about this issue, even though now you can pin all of my words on a specific person. (Who is still looking for a full time job, BTW.)
I am not at all comfortable writing this now that everyone knows who I am, but I have a tiny bully pulpit, and by golly I’m gonna use it. I would never have been brave enough to write about my sexual assault or epilepsy without my pseudonym. It was not only healing for me to write about it, but I heard from many, many others that it helped them. That?
Totally worth it.
Worth the freak out I still have every time I see my real name online. Worth the fear that I’ll become unemployable. Worth posting this photo of me again, that I took down in the past.
Please don’t dismiss pseuds, nor limit our access to important online discussion spaces. Pseudonyms include voices of people living in fear who are reaching out to others. We have very good reasons to not want a full record of our lives online under our real name. I include here people that are not at risk of physical harm, but economic and professional harm; graduate students that don’t want to be viewed as trouble makers, and postdocs that don’t want to hurt their grant chances, for example.
Can pseuds be credible? Yes! But what makes us credible and worthwhile is our words and ACTIONS.
Do hold people who behave badly–whether it’s using their real name or a pseudonym–fully accountable for their actions. But don’t blame bad behavior on anonymity alone, and don’t dismiss or limit those using pseudonyms.
Great reads on this topic:
- If your website is full of assholes, it’s your fault
- Why pseudonyms won’t stop bullying, from an online media researcher
- In the news: using social media to harass women
- Let’s not forget that George Orwell was a pseud
The latest buzz going round the online science community is an article that suggests that scientists might not be doing enough to communicate with the public. Scicurious wrote an excellent reply. I struggled to find an excerpt that I could quote here, because the whole thing had me jumping up and down and shouting “AMEN, SISTER.” Here’s one bit:
“…all this emphasis on these BIG names bothers me more than that. Big names are fine. Everyone wants someone to look up to. But small name researchers make great communicators too. I know I’m not winning any big prizes soon, but I’d like to think I write a witty, educational blog post now and again. Why is fame the most important thing here? Why do we need a big scientific name? Why can’t we make our names, say, through the outreach we do (and some solid, but perhaps lesser known science)?
If no one knows who these big name scientists are anyway (as the article implies), then why is it necessary that they be the ones to do the outreach? After all, many of the science communication success stories the author cites GOT THEIR NAMES through their outreach. Who were the Mythbusters…before Mythbusters? No one outside his field knew who Neil deGrasse Tyson was before he started doing outreach. These people made their names THROUGH their outreach. The emphasis on Big Names that are ALREADY big seems really elitist.”
I’ve said this before, but it’s especially relevant to me now, as I’m in what seems to be the twilight of my career:
I love insects, I love to write, and I love to find ways to get people to share my OMGBUGZ moments. I’m busting my ass here and on social media every day, not because I am getting famous, and certainly not because it makes me any money. I do it for love.
We know, from decades of research, that what makes a good teacher is passion. Why were Sagan, or DeGrasse Tyson, Nye, or Attenborough successful? Because they love what they do, they love their science, and it shows. (Also, they started in a completely different media environment. And are dudes. But let’s not go there right now.)
There are people out here online with me, passionately writing, podcasting, or videocasting their hearts out. A few lucky ones make a living at it. But just because I don’t have name recognition, that doesn’t mean that I’m not successful. I measure success one comment and one retweet at a time. I don’t have a klout score as high as John Cusack anymore, but that’s not the point.
One person says they changed their mind about hating spiders.
I said something kind to a graduate student and encouraged her.
A local newspaper corrects a mangled insect factoid.
That is what online science communication success looks like now.
With the advent of the internet, ideas or passions bring people together, rather than physical locations or media channels. Scientists that do outreach online–even when it’s looked down upon by fellow scientists? We are modeling positive deviance. It’s not so much what we write that is important, but THAT WE WRITE AT ALL.
We are creating a model for a new kind of science communication. And we are having a bitchin’ time doing it, which invites new people over to have fun with us. We are modeling different ways to share science online to our friends, our friends’ friends, and to the random strange people who keep searching my blog for “sex with insects.” (You know who you are.)
It’s personal relationships that really change the world. I was inspired by Sagan and Attenborough…but it was my not-famous teachers and mentors that helped me get through school and believe that I could be a scientist too. Small individual creative acts (tweets, blog posts, or just chatting on Facebook) can become a thing of lasting value. Shared and random effort can produce useful and meaningful results.
The beauty of the web is that we don’t all have to have the same motivations or professional level of skill. We don’t all have to be working toward the same goal. We can still make change happen simply by putting our ideas out there. The beauty of the web is that scientists can get online and screw around together, playing with ideas.
Who cares if we’re “doing it right.” We’re doing it.
Which is exactly how Insect Carl Sagan Happened. Enjoy.
And then things started to get really awesome:
This poster created by a pest control company claims to show dangerous American spiders. It is full of bad information. Half of the species on this chart don’t even occur in the USA. Please, don’t share it anymore!
Please don’t rely on this chart for meaningful information about American spiders. This chart is the result of a clever company re-purposing something they put together for Australia. Seriously; the Australian spider chart is exactly the same! And, frankly, the info isn’t all that accurate for Australians, either.
This post will address the parts of this poster that are wrong (pretty much all of it), and then suggest some resources for accurate information about American spiders.
Info that is completely wrong on the poster:
- Mouse spider: does not occur in the US. Mouse spiders are not aggressive, and often “dry bite” when disturbed. In other words, most of the time they don’t even inject venom!
- Black House Spider: does not occur in the US. Also, known to be timid and not dangerous.
- St. Andrew’s Cross Spider: Does not occur in the US. Harmless.
Info that is mostly wrong on the poster:
- Hobo spider: the species pictured does not occur in the US. We have some spiders called hobo spiders, but they are not the same species as the Australian one with a scary bite. Introduced hobo spiders in the US don’t seem to have venom as toxic as the rumors. In fact, a recent study of the introduced hobo species found they were fairly harmless.
- Brown Recluse: This is actually a complex of up to 6 different species of spider, and they do not occur in all areas of the US. There is a complex mythology about the bite of the brown recluse. Research suggests that the bite, while not pleasant, is not a pathway to nasty necrosis. A lot of other things cause necrosis of the skin, which is often blamed on a hapless spider.
- Wolf spiders: Lots of wolf spiders occur in the US, but they are of minimal medical importance. No serious medical consequences of a wolf spider bite has been reported, and their bite is not painful or toxic.
Information that is slightly right on the poster:
- Garden orb-weaving spiders do occur in the US, and are beneficial and harmless.
- Huntsman spiders: the species in the photo does not occur in the US. We have some huntsman spiders, but they are much more modestly sized than the Australian and tropical versions. Harmless unless provoked, and even then pretty harmless.
- Trap Door spiders do occur in the US, although not the species pictured. They are harmless and fascinating!
- Black Widow Spiders do have a toxic bite, and do occur in the US, but that’s about as far as the correctness goes. There are 5 different Widow species in the US, and Black Widow bites are not lethal to humans. In fact, as of 2011, there are no known reported deaths from black widow bites in the US. Black widow spider bites can cause muscle cramping and abdominal pain in some people; pregnant women and children are most at risk.
To sum up: This poster is unhelpful and mostly filled with bullshit with regards to US spiders. Don’t rely on it, and don’t share it.
How can you know what information online about spiders is good information?
Easy! Go to your local Extension website. In the United States, every single state has an Extension service (or did until state budget cuts a few years ago, anyway).
“Each U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land-grant university and a network of local or regional offices. These offices are staffed by one or more experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in communities of all sizes.”
The Extension Service is charged by the USDA and each state government with producing factual, well-researched information for consumer use. You can tell you are on an Extension website because it will be affiliated with a land-grant university, and have a .edu web address. So, for example, searching for “Nebraska fact sheet spiders” gives me this information specific to that state (and also some tips about keeping a wolf spider as a pet!).
There are amazing, free resources available to you. Use them! And look for that .edu web address. Don’t listen to stories of a friend who knows a friend who lost their Aunt Gertie to a giant toxic banana spider that was in a pack of underpants. Seek out reliable information.
Some actual helpful, authoritative resources about American spiders:
- Spiders do not bite. Some common sense about spiders from an expert. A Must Read!
- Real, peer-reviewed info about American Spiders
- Common spiders of the East Coast
- Seriously, you weren’t bitten by a brown recluse
- How to identify a Hobo spider (PDF)
- Sac spiders don’t really make webs in your scrotum.
A personal note:
I just finished a move across country. As part of this move, I had to clean out the space behind my washing machine. I was hunkered over shelves, trying to wipe things off, and when I stood up I’m fairly sure that my entire head was covered in cobwebs. I…may have let out a sound of a frequency last produced by Little Richard hitting one of his high notes.
I mention this to let you know that even bug people get the heebie jeebies around spiders sometimes. It’s ok to not like spiders as long as you remember the vast majority of spiders are your friends. You don’t have to kill them! They are valuable (and free!) pest control for your yard and garden. Unless there is something seriously wrong with your personal hygiene, spiders have no interest in living on you or in you. Try to live and let live.
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.
Oh My. For years I’ve heard about the kid’s book “Bomby the Bombardier Beetle“, published by the Institute for Creation Research. You might remember them as the folks that suggested teachers of evolution should be hanged or drowned, rather than let them expose children to evolution.
My sister the librarian happened upon a withdrawn copy of this book in a library sale, and snagged it for me. I’d never actually gotten to see it before (and was relieved to see that no one checked it out).
And, oh what a mass of WTFery this book is.
I knew it was intended as a children’s book, but I had no idea just how BAD the writing really was. I have no idea why anyone thought this sort of prose would be accessible to anyone without a class in organic chemistry, much less the K-6 set.
I researched around in preparation for blasting this bomb of a book, and discovered that plenty of others had done my work for me. A representative review in The Coleopterists Bulletin by Brett Ratcliffe:
“I thought that the style of brainwashing seen in this revisionist book went out with the 1950s Cold War era. However, the Institute for Creation Research demonstrates that brainwashing is alive and well as it continues to wage its own cold war against reason in order to replace it with superstition. In this highly disjointed little book, the target is young children, which makes the authors’ sin of deliberate ignorance even more reprehensible. Educating children about the wonders of nature is a delightful endeavor, but here it is a vehicle for blatantly meshing pseudo-natural history with creationist dogma that has, at no extra charge, a good dose of patriarchal sexism thrown in…”
Preach it, Brett.
Maybe that isn’t the best phrase to use here.
- “Both cause pyrotechnic explosions.
- Both exist in worlds in which dragons are real presences.
- Both are experts in organic chemistry (Bomby with hydroquinones, Harry with thujone and the other components of wormwood).
- Both are at the mercy of external forces (magic for Harry, the Hand o’ God for Bomby).
- Both are active athletes (Quidditch for Harry; what appears to be frass-lot baseball for Bomby).”
And yes, you did read that correctly. This book about beetles also includes a chapter on dragons, and how they lived with humans. What is it I don’t even.
As long ago as 1981, The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) was fighting “the beetle will blow itself up” myth as it was first promoted by Duane Gish (of Gish Gallop fame) in the 1970s. For some reason, this butt-popping beetle has been a favorite of creationists for decades.
The defensive spray of the bombardier beetle is fascinating, but not unique or hard to explain, if you know much about insects and chemical ecology. Insect exoskeletons are not initially hard–they have to be “tanned” and made hard by a chemical process called sclerotization. This is the formation of quinone cross-links that make the initially pale and flexible exoskeletion hard and opaque.
Quinones. Hmm. Where have we heard that word before? Why, it’s part of what Bomby uses to blast his enemies! (Seriously, how cool would it be to have an ass that is also a flame-thrower? Oh wait–we have covered that ground before.)
Quinones are basically benzine rings of various types, which means they are nasty and stinky. Quinones are involved in the production of Hydrogen Peroxide, another component of the bombardier beetle defensive spray. So, the chemical pieces of this defense can occur without anydivine intervention. Or dinosaurs.
Lots of insects use defensive chemicals to protect themselves; it’s a huge field of research. Many insects have depressions in their exoskeletons where they collect up nasty chemicals that are metabolic side-products, and exude them from their bodies when threatened. Quite a few Carabid beetles (in the same Family as the Bombardiers) have glands that dump quinones into their anal passages and exude a nasty stink.
All you really need is some additional enzymes and a bit more sclerotization of the beetle butt, and your bug is ready to blow. It’s not an implausible evolutionary story at all–there is even what appears to be an intermediate stage in the evolution of butt-blasting still around.
If you would like to know more about how insects defend themselves chemically, including these beetles, I highly recommend “Secret Weapons“, a book written by one of the leaders in the chemical ecology field, Thomas Eisner.
(There is a wonderful video that accompanies this book, but unfortunately it seems to be only available in VHS. If anyone finds it online, please let me know!)
J M Pasteels, J C Grégoire, and M Rowell-Rahier (1983). The Chemical Ecology of Defense in Arthropods. Annual Review of Entomology, 28 (1), 263-289 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.en.28.010183.001403
Eisner T, Aneshansley DJ, Eisner M, Attygalle AB, Alsop DW, & Meinwald J (2000). Spray mechanism of the most primitive bombardier beetle (Metrius contractus). The Journal of experimental biology, 203 (Pt 8), 1265-75 PMID: 10729276
Brett C. Ratcliffe. (2001). Review: Bomby the Bombardier Beetle The Coleopterists Bulletin, 55 (1), 124-124