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.
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.
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
The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. Mark Hamilton Lytle, 2007. Oxford Univ. Press.
Bug Rating: (with some caveats)
I have written quite a bit about Rachel Carson, mainly because I am baffled at the amount of vitriol still spewed over her book Silent Spring nearly 50 years after it’s publication. It’s turned out to be my own personal mini-crusade, since everytime I mention the name of this woman people come out of the woodwork to say…well, ill-informed wing-nutty things, frankly, including people who should know better.
I find Carson fascinating not just because she is the focus of a modern dis-information campaign, but because she was a scientist that could write. And I mean REALLY write, not just to communicate, but to bring the beauty and love of the natural world that she saw around her alive.
In all the DDT hoopla, it seems people have forgotten that Carson wrote beautiful prose about science. She wrote well enough to win a National Book Award, and to have her science book stay #1 on the New York Times best seller list for 86 weeks:
“If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”
I was interested this short biography of Carson, and picked it up. I’m really glad I did, because it helped me gain a better understanding of this woman and the huge challenges she faced. And there were a lot of challenges.
Carson did not come from a wealthy family, and much of her life was occupied in chasing enough money to support herself and her extended family. Carson moved her mother, her brother and sister, and her 2 nieces into one house–and became the primary financial support for all of them during the Depression. In 1929, women did not commonly apply to Johns Hopkins, or gain admission to graduate school at Woods Hole. Carson did both of those things successfully, and recieved a Masters in 1932.
She skipped pursuing a PhD in order to seek work, and was lucky enough to find a home in the Department of Fisheries. She began writing radio scripts, and progressed to writing USFW publications and magazine pieces. Carson published her first book in 1941–which was promptly eclipsed by a world at war, and did not prove to be very profitable. In 1950, she got her big break with The Sea Around Us, which did bring enough income in to allow her to purchase a home in Maine and become an independent writer. In 1950 Carson also had her first cancer tumor removed from her left breast.
Reading her story now, I can’t help but think of my many freelancing writer friends, and how they struggle to support their families and to try to make a living. It doesn’t seem to have gotten any easier in the last 50 years to be an independent writer.
Carson had a demanding family life. Her mother wanted to be connected and involved in Rachel’s life in a way that…well, I found kind of creepy. Rachel’s niece (who was, remember, living with her and diabetic) had an out of wedlock child. Carson became the primary caregiver for both her elderly mother and disabled niece, and could not afford to put either of them in a nursing home or have home help. That Carson could write well under those conditions is pretty amazing. And that doesn’t even begin to cover how much stress she must have been under when writing Silent Spring.
In 1958 Carson began work on what would become Silent Spring–her last book. She had a radical mastectomy in 1959. Early excerpts of the book attracted vitriolic criticism, and lots of gendered slurs. ”Shrill.” “Emotional.” “Unscientific.”
In 1960 Carson developed secondary tumors and blood poisoning, and was confined to a wheelchair for many months. In 1961 she developed an infection that caused her to loose her sight for several months, and was unable to read what she had written. In 1962, as Silent Spring was going to press, more tumors were found in her abdomen. She wore a wig to testify in Congress, hiding her loss of hair from radiation treatments. By late 1963 compression fractures in her spine from radiation treatments made walking difficult and painful. Carson died in Spring 1964.
This woman had ovaries of brass. I am in awe of how tenacious and determined she must have been to finish this last project. Her letters show she was hanging on by her fingertips, determined to see it through.
As for this book—how does it compare to other Carson biographies? It is short, and a quick read, and has enough footnotes you can be fairly sure of source material. I was very happy that the author chose to not speculate about the nature of Carson’s close friendships with other smart, sciency women of her time, since we don’t know for sure if they were or were not platonic or romantic.
The book itself sort of falls into two parts: things jerks said to Carson while she was alive, and things jerks say about her now that she’s dead. It’s not comprehensive, but for a quick dip into the issue and a history of what Carson endured, it’s a good read. I don’t think the author covered modern attacks on Carson very well, but much of the documentation of who paid for the “hit” on Carson came out in late 2007/2008, so that’s understandable.
At one time I was pretty actively writing about Carson and DDT, and trying to combat the misinformation campaigns put out by various astroturf groups. I eventually stopped, mostly because the people that comment on that topic scare me. I have gotten many, many threats over those posts, most of them threats of sexual assault. Those posts about DDT and Rachel Carson are the reason that comments on posts close after 40 days on this blog, since that way I don’t have to go in daily and remove nasty spittle-flecked comments.
I can’t be intimidated into believing their lies about a brave woman and a wonderful writer, but I was intimidated enough that I stopped writing about Carson to stay under their radar. I think I need to take a lesson from Ms. Carson herself. In the face of terrible pain and opposition, she WON with good writing and truth.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Rachel Carson
I wonder if sometimes I feel driven to defend Carson because I see so much of my sister in her. Both women are talented, had breast cancer much too young–and neither one seems able to catch a fucking break. Anything that could go wrong does seem to go wrong.
And by God, if you mess with my sister, you mess with ME.
I got your back, Rachel. I got your back.
- If you haven’t read Carson’s “The Sense of Wonder” you should.
- How well have claims in Carson’s 1962 book held up? Pretty well, actually!
- A collection of things I and others have written to try to set the record straight about Carson and DDT
- PBS Carson Documentary
- Audio Interview with the Biography Author
- Interview with the Biography Author at Oxford Press Blog
And yet…it has become the story that will not die:
“The extraordinary contraption hangs inside the house and features see-through materials so you can watch the insects at work. Separated into two parts, a flower pot and entry passage sit on the outside wall and the hive hangs indoors. Owning one means doing your bit for the environment – since honey bees are key pollinators – and getting a handy supply of very fresh honey….
The removable glass case even cleverly filters light on a special ‘orange’ wavelength, which is used by the insects for sight. Called the Urban Beehive, the design is part of a new project by Philips called the ‘Microbial Home’.
Today, I found an article in the UK Mail–not a good major newspaper, but still a major newspaper, printing the entire press release unchallenged.
I expect better from professional journalists.
I was able to find out this product was vaporware in less than 1 minute. It is, as Patsy says in the Holy Grail, “only a model.”
What ever happened to finding at least one–ONE!–secondary source to comment on something? Every story that I have seen so far has printed the basics of the Philips Press Release with pretty photos. And NONE of them seems to have had the thought:
“Hang on. Perhaps I might ring up some beekeeper chappie and ask him about the feasibility of this beehive?”
Yes. That would be a good idea.
Since there seems to be a lot of coverage about this thing, and I fear that the earlier bump of coverage is about to be repeated, I thought I would take some time to point out that this hive will not be coming to a store near you. Ever. Philips introduced this as part of a design contest called “Microbial Home.”
Their designers came up with some pretty crazy ideas about what the home of the future would look like–including a creepy diagnostic bathroom tool that will analyze your feces and saliva, and something called “bio-light”, a methane digester that looks like a molecule with nipples. (The digester is where the feces and saliva go after the creepy diagnostic bathroom is done with them. I still don’t know why there are nipples, though.)
None of these, including the “Urban Beehive”, are real products. They are entirely conceptual, other than the pretty plastic model made for the Design Show.
WHY did so many media outlets that should know better unquestioningly tout this story, completely unchallenged? I wish I knew the answer. Even if this beehive did exist, it would be a very bad idea, indeed.
As best I can tell, this indoor hive is what you get when you build a hive based on information about bees that you got entirely from Sports Illustrated.
It is nice and shiny….and shows a complete lack of understanding of how bees live their lives.
First of all, the purpose of a bee hive is to make more bees. The honey is stuff that we steal from the bees. That’s why they get so cranky about honey harvesting–we are taking the food away from the mouths of their children. Literally.
This hive has no place for bees to lay eggs and rear their young. You’ll end up with brood mixed in with the honey and pollen stored in the hive. Which means…you are going to get a lot more protein and fiber in whatever honey you manage to extract than you might be comfortable consuming.
But hey, bee brood is actually delicious, and eaten in many other countries. So perhaps you will boldly go forward with a plan to extract honey. That’s going to probably destroy all your larvae. Whoops, no more bees.
This design for smoking the bees doesn’t really solve the problem that to get at the honey you have to remove the cover completely…while the hive is inside your house. While bees that are smoked are pretty mellow, they do still move around, and quite a few will escape. If you have Junior playing around the area, or a curious cat, this will not end well.
The sealed nature of the hive will make it nearly impossible to look at your bees and see how they are doing. A tremendous number of things will kill bees: Foulbrood. Nosema. Tracheal Mites. Varroa Mites. Hive Beetle. And that’s just the short list! Regular inspections are needed for the health of your hive. With this hive, that means taking the cover off the hive and removing comb with bees on it to look at it inside your home. I’m sure nothing could go wrong with that…..
The hive itself is tiny. That means that it will probably be generating swarms on a regular basis, as the hive grows and has nowhere to expand. I’m sure your neighbors will be just fine with swarms of a thousand bees or so landing on their balconies.
A major issue for bees is regulation of temperature and humidity within their hive. If it gets too hot, they will ‘fan’ at a hive entrance to create a sort of air conditioning. The tiny entrance to this hive means that will be impossible. Because the hive is inside, it will be at room temperature–which may not be the temperature the bees want it at. They also won’t get cold and slow down for winter, since the temperature will be mostly constant, and the artificial lighting of the room will mimic the long days of summer. It’s difficult to forage for pollen and nectar in winter!
I’ll toss one more objection in to this by-no-means comprehensive list of why the hive design won’t work: bee space. That phrase will not mean much to you if you haven’t worked with bees before. Bee Space is a special measurement–3/8ths of an inch, or slightly less than one centimeter. Anytime there is a space in a hive bigger than 3/8ths of an inch, bees will fill up the gap.
This photo shows a nice example of how bees will build additional comb to fill in gaps, or to brace comb that might be getting a little saggy because it’s full of heavy honey. This is exactly what would happen in the “Urban Beehive”. The second you tried to open that hive, you’d have angry bees and comb spilling out all over your floor.
I honestly don’t know if the bees would tolerate horizontal comb in the Philips design–they usually build vertically.
Having said all this: If you want to raise bees, and have your own observable bee hive, that can be done! Just not with this design.
Bees are incredibly complex animals, and you shouldn’t just decide to get a hive like you might decide to get a puppy. They need special care and feeding. There are usually beekeeping classes offered by gardening groups, extension offices, or your local university. Setting up a hive is not cheap–take the time and invest in learning how to take care of your bees. You’ll fall in love with them once you have them.
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?
There is a fair amount of swearing, so you might not want to play this at work. Otherwise, enjoy!
Best of all, I am joined on this episode of Skeptically Speaking by anthropologist Greg Laden, who talks about entomophagy (bug eating).
My part of the interview starts with a discussion of using a pseudonym online, and why I think scientists need them. Then we have a fun chat about treehoppers, bees, and fake mosquito repellent devices. Bonus moment of embarrassment: I try to be relevant to a Canadian audience by comparing native pollinators to Wayne Gretzky.
Here are links to my posts about some of the topics from this episode: