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
Quite a few people, including PZ, have posted this video of a student completely loosing it in a classroom. From the school paper:
“Associate Professor Stephen M. Kajiura was reviewing with his evolution class in GS 120 for a midterm when FAU student Jonatha Carr interrupted him: “How does evolution kill black people?” she asked. Kajiura attempted to explain that evolution doesn’t kill anyone.…..The classmate reported that Kajiura was discussing attraction between peacocks when Carr raised her hand to ask her question about evolution. She asked it four times, and became increasingly upset each time Kajiura’s answer failed to satisfy her.
A video taken by Bustamante shows Carr ranting and threatening to kill the professor and several students.”
I’ve discussed violence before that is motivated by anti-evolution, both directed against me and others.
Honestly, I don’t think this outburst had that much to do with evolution, although it’s certainly scary that evolution seems to be the topic that triggered the student’s outburst. What I was struck by, watching that video as someone who’s been teaching for over 25 years, is the behavior of the instructor and the other students:
- They tried to engage in dialog with a person that is clearly in severe mental distress
- They did not clear the classroom
- It took way too long before anyone called 911
- The students were more interested in filming the student’s meltdown than getting to safety
That? Honestly? Bothers me far more than what the woman was yelling.
If there is anything that needs to be discussed and post-processed about this, it’s that the area was not secured, not that she was angry about evolution.
Do you teach?
Do you have a plan for what you would do in your class if something like this happened?
Have you thought about how you might get all your students to safety in case of an emergency?
Have you recieved training–or at least instructions–about what to do with a distressed student?
If someone is this out of control, your best bet is to GTFO. Get the distressed person in a quiet room, or make the room quiet by getting everyone else out. But don’t expect rational discourse to work.
If you are going to watch this video, do it with an eye to how you would have handled this situation as an instructor.
And learn from it.
Ah, the Holidays. The season when introverted curmudgeons like me….are fairly miserable and awkward, actually. I’m not good enough at small talk to do well at holiday gatherings:
“What are you doing for Christmas?”
“Um….lamenting the over-commercialization of your imaginary savior dude’s birth? And avoiding my family?”
Over the years, I’ve perfected a way to free myself from the stress of having to whip up a special dish for the obligatory office potluck. I’ve carefully developed a reputation for insect cookery. I casually make sure everyone in the office knows this.
Since I’m in a new job this holiday season, I made sure to loudly ask my coworkers where the bait shops are in our town. I need a bait shop for the key ingredient in my traditional holiday John the Baptist Bread, you see.
This bread’s name comes from a passage in Mark 1.6: “And John was dressed with the hairs of a camel and with a belt of skins around his loins, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” I skip the camel hair part–I have quite sensitive skin–and substitute in roasted crickets, since locusts are hard to come by in Connecticut in mass quantities.
You grind roasted crickets into flour (a coffee grinder is excellent for this, but you will find the odd antenna in your coffee later on) and mix it with lots of honey to make a very nice little cake. It’s actually quite delicious.
This year I already have gotten word that I don’t have to do any roasting or baking, though. I achieved my goal of being dis-invited to the potluck early–I’ve been instructed to bring only a bag of chips and dip. In sealed containers. WIN!
I don’t just eat insects to fuck with people (although that is an entertaining side effect). Entomophagy, or insect eating, is actually quite common in the world. Insects are the ultimate sustainable agriculture, requiring far fewer resources than other forms of livestock, and they produce fewer greenhouse gas-causing emissions per pound of protein. And they are delicious!
I like to cook with insects to make people think about why they would be excited if I brought shrimp cocktails to the potluck, but horrified if I brought them a grasshopper curry. Both are arthropods, and frankly grasshoppers have a more appealing lifestyle. For some reason, Americans don’t think of insects as food, although an estimated 40% of the world’s population eats insects on a semi-regular basis.
This graphic shows in a nice visual way how most of the food that goes into a cow…does not become part of a cow. It ends up in a little steamy pile behind the cow, since they aren’t terribly efficient at converting grass or corn into cow meat or milk. Insects, on the other hand, are just as protein rich as a cow or a pig, can be bred under your bed (I haven’t seen your bed, but I’m betting you don’t have pigs under there), and have a high profit margin.
Note that the meat processing is where a lot of the profit comes from–which is why what farmers get paid and the price you actually pay at the store are sometimes extremely different. The nice thing about insects is that there isn’t a whole lot of post-mortem processing to do, other than perhaps removing the wings. You don’t need a professional or sharp pointy tools to carve a grasshopper rump roast.
Insects are a great way for subsistence farmers to make some cash–and raise nutritious food without a lot of land, water, or resources. 100 grams of caterpillars can provide all of an adult’s recommended daily protein, along with iron and several important vitamins. That’s a lot cheaper and more sustainable than a steak!
So, while I have been excused from bug cookery for the upcoming potluck, I do still have a secret evil plan to expose my co-workers to entomophagy and convince them it’s cool. I found some big-ass ants on sale.
Seriously, that’s their name: Big-Ass ants. In Columbia, where they are harvested, they are “hormigas culonas.” Big-Ass Ants are leafcutter ants (Atta laevigata), and have long been eaten in Central America. I had some queen leaf-cutter ants, Atta texana, earlier this year courtesy of Dave Gracer when I came up to interview for this job.
(What? You don’t arrange clandestine cookery of edible insects when you have a faculty interview? Huh.) The ones Dave cooked for me were awesome–they had kind of a nutty Chex Mix taste. I could totally see snacking on those like popcorn.
So, when I saw these toasted ants on sale, I made an impulse purchase.
Alas, I did not read the fine print carefully, and so was a tad disappointed when my rather smallish tin of ants arrived. I have photographed them here next to an Altoids tin. They don’t quite have the wonderful taste of the texana ants–they are a bit dry and dusty–but still have a lovely nutty taste. And they do indeed have a lot of junk in their trunk–it’s just about all butt, with a tiny head and legs attached.
It turns out that the Altoid tin is exactly the right size to carry all the ants in–so that I can put it in my pocket and offer up ants as an appetizer at the staff potluck. I am trying to figure out what dip might best go with them–I think hummus would actually be pretty good, with the ants substituted for pine nuts.
Fat Bottom Ants, you make my rockin’ world go round.
One question I’m often asked is why this Bug Blog is also listed as a skeptical blog. The connection between skepticism and bugology isn’t always immediately apparent, I guess, but it seems quite logical to me.
There are many, many bogus devices that claim to repel insects, and I think it’s important to name names. There are far too few convictions for fraud in the insect repellent business. I’ve called out some of these in the past; the iPhone app that supposedly repels mosquitoes, for example, or the Bug Banisher that releases an imaginary “negative ion field.” It seems sometimes like as fast as I can name and shame, there are new and even more silly devices on the market.
Case in Point: shoo!TAG™ insect repelling credit cards
Shoo!tags “utilize an understanding of nature’s energetic principles in combination with physics and quantum physics, as well as advanced computer software”. What exactly does that mean? Well, just as the magnetic strip on a credit card is encoded with specific information, there is a three dimensional electromagnetic field embedded in the Shoo!tag. Shoo!tag uses the energy field that a animal emits, then adds other frequencies that repel insects. Although they don’t actually kill insect pests, these frequency barriers disturb and confuse the pests. Essentially, the pests don’t want to be anywhere near the Shoo!tag wearer.
By now, your BS antennae should be quivering. Frankly, anytime someone uses the word “Quantum”, you should be suspicious. Or when something with no power source claims to generate an electromagnetic field. Reading the disclaimers about why the tags might not work as promised can be rather hilarious:
“Possible reasons shoo!TAG™ may not be working: The tag is near or has been near a strong frequency (cell phone towers, electric transformers, fault lines, electronic home security systems, etc.) which interferes with the coding in the magnetic strip.”
Ah! That’s why it didn’t work–I live in the US where those things are rather difficult to avoid. According to recent press, shoo!TAG™ is a >$600,000 dollar business. That’s probably because each arthropod needs its own tag. You can’t just buy one; you need a chip for:
- Mosquitoes ($19.95)
- No-see-ums ($19.95)
- Chiggers ($19.95)
- Ticks ($19.95)
- Flies (species not specified, but presumably not mosquitoes or no-see-ums, which are, in fact, flies) $19.95
For full “protection” in the woods, that’s about $100, although they do have a Mosquito-Chigger-Tick pack for just $39.95. Each tag lasts about 4 months, unless you have an especially vigorous energy field. Oh, and you have to outfit your pets too–the tags above are (literally) dog tags.
That’s a lot of money, and it’s also a lot of risk. You can DIE from diseases transmitted by ticks and mosquitoes. It’s really not something that lends itself to self-experimentation.
I was all ready to go postal about this when I realized that someone had already done that work for me. Major props go to Anaglyph for masterful work in exposing just how shabby Shoo!TAG’s claims for their products are. He’s been writing about this since 2009; you can find an archive of all his Shoo!TAG posts here. His series of posts is an excellent example of how one person with a blog can make a difference.
He’s done a great job explaining why the these devices can’t possibly work without massive violations of physics as we know it. Since their claims of magical electromagnetic field creation are bogus, I don’t think I need to bother explaining why the energy field these tags don’t generate….. would not repel insects anyway.
I liked Anaglyph’s recent letter to Shoo!Fly’s CEO so much I’ll reproduce a large part of it here:
My concerns with ShooTag are many: firstly, you are taking advantage of people by selling them something which, although it is not supported by any known science, you continually attempt to frame in a scientific context. In other words, you use ‘sciencey’ sounding terms to attempt to make ShooTag sound credible.
For a start, you offer up ideas such as the ‘trivector’ mechanism, ‘energy’ fields and the vague concept of biological ‘frequencies’ as if they are proper scientifically supported notions, which they are not. At best these things are speculative, but mostly they are just plain nonsense. In addition to presenting pseudoscience as science, you imply that the mechanism of ShooTag is somehow supported by actual scientific concepts of which you plainly have little comprehension, such as quantum physics, fractal mathematics and Schumann Waves.
All these things are meaningless in relation to your product, at least in any way that have attempted to demonstrate so far. You also use the names of scientists like Albert Einstein and Geoffrey West, whose work you clearly don’t understand, in a manner that suggests that their theories offer support of your own speculations (which they most certainly don’t). This is misleading and irresponsible.
In addition to all this, you regularly refer to scientific ‘experiments’ which you say demonstrate not only that your product works, but that it works extraordinarily well. The experiments you reference either show nothing of the sort (such as your ‘Texas A&M Field Trials’ which were scientifically ridiculous), or don’t have substantiation of any kind (like the supposed ‘European Trials’ which you have mentioned on several occasions on the web but from which you have never provided any data whatsoever, or the supposed supporting video from ‘the Japanese Ministry of Health’ which you boasted about on your site but which never materialised there for anyone to see). You also continue to heavily infer that credible organizations are involved with your product (Texas A&M University, Texas State University, the Japanese Ministry of Health, the Finnish Olympic Team) when it is clear that no such endorsements have been made or were intended (as is quite evident from my conversations with the administration at Texas State University, and their requirement that you remove any such TSU endorsements from your site). Excuse me for saying so, but responsible companies with legitimate products do not undertake this kind of deceptive behaviour.
In short, you want everyone, particularly your prospective customers, to think that ShooTag is validated by science and approved by authoritative institutions, yet you have nothing to support your claims other than self-generated hyperbole and subjective customer testimonials. No science.
Oh, SNAP. That. Was. Awesome.
And there’s more–read the full letter for a masterful spanking of a woo peddler.
Why am I telling you about this in a rather longish post? I discovered that Shoo!TAG donated $30,000 worth of their “units” to a children’s bible camp in Zambia in April 2011. And they sent tags to Haiti after the earthquake (through a bible missionary chiropractic group. Talk about insult to injury!). Shoo!TAG issued press releases about all this, and I strongly suspect they also took a nice tax write-off on their used (not even new!) plastic bits as well.
What they are doing is just….vile. I can’t think of a more descriptive word. Sure, these tags seem like innocuous pieces of crap that will part gullible people from their money. It’s all fun and games until someone dies of malaria, yellow fever, or lyme disease, because they thought hanging a credit card around their neck would protect them.
The problem is, to whom do you report people selling this kind of woo to? There has to be a way to make an obviously fake device like this go away.
The Federal Trade Commission has prosecuted people selling deceptive devices before, but they sure don’t make reporting easy. Their Complaint Assistant is mostly focused on online fraud and identity theft. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is a possibility, but again, shoo!TAG™doesn’t really fit into any of their categories.
When you look at the FDA Guide to reporting problems, the categories for human health problems don’t quite fit. It’s easier to report shoo!TAGs for veterinary use than for people. Since heartworms,tick paralysis, and equine encephalitis are just some of what users of these tags put their pets at risk of catching, that’s not entirely a bad thing.
Minimum risk pesticides are a special class of pesticides that are not subject to federal registration requirements because their ingredients, both active and inert, are demonstrably safe for the intended use.
Since shoo!TAG™ is plastic and don’t do anything, I’d say they’re inert, alright. But “minimum risk”? It turns out there is some special language about that exemption:
“EPA…concluded that public health products must be supported by evidence that they are effective against the target pest.”
And here is where I go all PollyAnna on your asses.
I believe that social media has the potential to truly change the way the world works.
One of the things bloggers can do with their bully pulpits—no matter how modest– is fact-check claims that businesses (or politicians!) make, and call readers to action. While blogs and Twitter and Facebook can disrupt our lives, they also make it possible for people to draw attention to things that just aren’t right.
As blog readers, you can respond and spread that fact-checking in ways that warm the cockles of my misanthropic little heart. Let’s harness our community power. Who knows someone at the EPA enforcement division? Minions, mobilize!!
Related Bug Posts:
I don’t know about my entomological colleagues, but I am getting rather snippy over stories about the latest thing that’s killing bees.
Some of this I think is related to the false sense of urgency mainstream media seems to need to create about all stories. OMG NOT THE BEEZ!!! (obligatory photo of Nicholas Cage inserted here).
Some of it is also the way in which the honeybee problem is framed. It’s presented as a simple cause/effect relationship between bee declines and some unknown toxic thing. A new identity of this cause is covered breathlessly every few months, but the reality of the research suggests there is no single cause. As I said in an interview, it’s not that there isn’t a smoking gun, it’s that there are 20 guns.
This morning several people sent me a link to this article:
Researchers from the University of Southampton believe nanoparticles emitted from diesel engines could be affecting bees’ brains and damaging their in-built navigation skills.
They believe this may stop worker bees finding their way back to the hive.
There is also a theory that diesel fumes mop up flower smells in the atmosphere, making it difficult for the insects to find food.
There were several things about this article that made my antennae twitch. First, it’s from Huffington Post, which has a pretty dismal reputation for science reporting. But then I found almost exactly the same article on the BBC website. And PhysOrg.
So, clearly, there is a consensus that this is newsworthy. And I can see why–people are interested in nanotechnology, and in bee disappearance. But what lay readers ask when they forward these stories to me is along the lines of “Did you know that truck exhaust is killing bees?“
Even though it is coverage of an investigation that is planned. It isn’t based on any research results yet.
We don’t know there is a relationship.
I am sure the researchers have some preliminary evidence, or they would not have gotten funded. And it’s certainly an interesting question that is worthy of study. My question for my readers is: Is this really national news?
I don’t think it is. I think it’s interesting, but I’m not so sure it’s ready for prime time. My reasoning is partly because the evidence just isn’t there yet; and partly that releasing it as news gives it the weight of evidence. You can see people jumping to conclusions all over the web:
But when it comes to serious alarms, dear reader, consider only the small print of this week’s news. Not banks or battles, but bees, dying in their millions, perhaps poisoned or brain-damaged by diesel fumes.
Most of the news stories are careful to say this is an investigation–but what is clearly being heard is “diesel fumes are hurting bees.”
I find myself in the problematic position of not wanting something to be covered widely as news because people aren’t listening or thinking carefully enough. (Which, frankly, could cover a lot of the daily news cycle, not just stories about insects.)
What do you think?
I grew up rural, so I knew some of my neighbors didn’t have running water. I thought of it as an amusing eccentricity of their families. Then my family moved near Houston, and I was bused to Booker T. Washington Jr. High in the early 1970s as part of Texas school desegregation. Suddenly there was a “click.” I got that there was something really wrong, and unequal, about our different lives.
About a decade ago, I spent some time on the Rosebud reservation, east of Pine Ridge. I knew life is tough for communities of color in the US. But when I went to meet the Lakotas, I had NO. IDEA. that there were small third-world countries all over the US.
I met so many people without running water. Without heat. Without jobs. Without parents.
Native American women have the highest rate of partner violence in the entire US. Most students drop out before finishing high school.
How did I not know their life was like this?
Watch this all the way through, if you can. You will learn some disturbing things. You need to know them.
Columbus didn’t kill these people; but he started the slaughter. Don’t celebrate the life of a slave trader this Monday.
From the transcript:
“Statistics about Native population today, more than a century after the massacre at Wounded Knee, reveal the legacy of colonization, forced migration and treaty violations. Unemployment on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation fluctuates between 85 and 90 percent. The housing office is unable to build new structures, and exiting structures are falling apart.
Many are homeless, and those with homes are packed into rotting buildings with up to five families. 39 percent of homes on Pine Ridge have no electricity. At least 60 percent of the homes on the reservation are infested with black mold. More than 90 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line. The tuberculosis rate on Pine Ridge is approximately eight times higher than the U.S. national average. The infant mortality rate is the highest on this continent and is about three times higher than the U.S. national average.
Cervical cancer is five times higher than the U.S. national average. School dropout rate is up to 70 percent. Teacher turnover is eight times higher than the U.S. national average. Frequently, grandparents are raising their grandchildren because parents, due to alcoholism, domestic violence and general apathy, cannot raise them. 50 percent of the population over the age of 40 suffers from diabetes. The life expectancy for men is between 46 and 48 years old — roughly the same as Afghanistan and Somalia.
The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, “My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves while we watch them die.” This is how we came to own these United States. This is the legacy of manifest destiny. Prisoners are still born into prisoner of war camps long after the guards are gone. These are the bones left after the best meat has been taken. A long time ago, a series of events was set in motion by a people who look like me, by wasichu, eager to take the land and the water and the gold in the hills. Those events led to a domino effect that has yet to end.“
And he’s got a bone to pick!
I can’t believe I am just now finding out about this.
Today’s topic: “_____gate”. You can’t just go around making prefixes and suffixes out of any syllables you like. There have to be rules for this sort of thing!
Surf around some of Ben’s some other videos–your productivity is at an end.