A photo has been circulating this week that suggests that this is what our grocery stores will look like without bees:
Is that true? Is this our life without bees, come the future Beepocalypse?
A fruit is, essentially, a delicious plant ovary with embryos (seeds) inside. It’s how plants reproduce. Bees and other pollinators serve as plant sexual surrogates by spreading pollen (plant sperm!) around to flower ovaries. A fruit tree flower has to be pollinated to “set fruit” or begin to create the plant embryos that will become apples.
Some fruits are self-pollinating, and can fertilize themselves without any bees involved. The Navel Oranges seen in the photo above are a good example of a fruit that can self-pollinate. Most fruit trees–pears and apples in particular–are self-sterile for their own pollen. If you plant all Royal Delicious apples, for example, you won’t get fruit, with or without bees. Just as we don’t often marry our cousins, apple and pear trees require cross-pollination with “pollinizer varieties” that are not closely related to produce a full crop of fruit.
So it’s certainly true that loss of bees and other pollinating insects would limit our fruit choices. But what would happen if bees went away all together?
Actually, we already know what raising fruit without honey bees looks like. In a remote area in China, humans pollinate 100% of fruit trees by hand. Armed with pollen-loaded paintbrushes and cigarette filters, people swarm around pear and apple trees in spring, replacing bees as pollinators. The reason why they do that, though, is more complex than just “the bees died.”
There’s a fair amount of data about the history of human pollination, and the reason it happens in China has as much to do with economics and apple biology as it does with missing bees. In the early 1990s, farmers of marginal lands in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region–an area spanning parts of Nepal, China, Pakistan, and India–realized that apples could be a major cash crop. Their land was mountainous and hard to farm, so tree fruits were ideally suited to the region. A major shift occurred from subsistence farming to fruit crops. The payoffs were large–in some areas, farmers quadrupled their income. Now they had cash on hand to send kids to school and build roads. Quality of life improved.
With that early success, farmers found that certain varieties of apples and pears sold better than others. As new orchards went in, more and more of the same cultivars of apples were planted. And that is when things started to go wrong.
Clearing marginal forested lands for more agriculture destroyed nesting and food resources native pollinator species needed. The problem with insects as commercial pollinators is that they can’t just appear for 2 weeks, pollinate your plants, and disappear. They have to have something to eat the rest of the year, and a place to live. Clearing mountain forests got rid of habitat that pollinators needed.
Farmers planting new trees in their orchards made a logical economic choice: plant more trees that make marketable fruit. The consequences of that choice, though, were that fruit set was poor. Most of the trees they planted were the same variety, so were self-sterile.
So farmers added a few of what are called “pollinizer” trees–trees that serve as pollen donors. Pollinizer varieties usually don’t have pretty fruit, which means that farmers are giving up potential income if they plant them. The recommended mix of fruiting trees and pollinizer trees in orchards is 70:30. In most fruit orchards in this region, less than 10% of the trees were pollinizer varieties. Worse, you can’t just randomly pick two different kinds of apple or pear trees and have them be cross-fertile. (This compatibility matrix gives you a sense of just how complex choosing two pear cultivars to grow can be.) Your pollinizer variety also must bloom at the same time as your fruit variety–pollen needs to be used while it is fresh, and can’t be stored. So even with plenty of bees, fruit production was very low, and in some areas crops failed completely.
Another perfectly sensible economic decision made by farmers was to spray pesticides often to have better looking fruit, which commanded a better price. A perception that the problem with poor fruit production was caused by pest insects also encouraged more spraying. Just as in cultivar selection, this had unforeseen biological consequences. Poor pollination due to pollen incompatibility was made worse by killing off pollinating insects.
In 1999, the problem of poor fruit set was widespread throughout the Hindu Kush regions of Nepal, China, Pakistan, and India. Hand pollination was widely practiced through this region. However, by 2011, only apple growers in the Maoxian region of China were still hand pollinating. What was different about China that made hand pollination persist?
In Nepal, India, and Pakistan, the government and NGOs provided support to help promote using native pollinator species, as well as provided training and education about managing pollination. Planting of native host trees that provided nectar to support colonies through the harvest year was encouraged. Bees are now an important part of local economies, and hand pollination is now rare.
In China, officials promoted and offered training in hand pollination, rather than offering information about native pollinators. That’s not the only reason hand pollination persisted, though–100% of apple crops in the Maoxian region are pollinated by hand because it makes economic sense. By using humans as pollinators, the number of pollenizer trees that have to be planted can be minimized, and valuable land isn’t used up for non-productive trees. Fruit set is also much higher with human pollinators–every flower is fully pollinated and can become fruit. A person can pollinate 5–10 trees a day, depending on the size of the trees. Farmers pay their human pollinators US $12–19/person/day. The cost of renting a bee colony for pollination in 2010 was US $46.88/day.
Why are bees so expensive in Maoxian? Honey bees are still present–up to 50% of the fruit farmers surveyed in the Maoxian region in 2011 also kept honey bees! Bees are still viewed as primarily a honey-producing species in this region, so the connection between bees and pollination is not strong. Farmers in this region of China are uninformed about the effects of pesticides on bees–half of apple farmers surveyed did not know that pesticides would kill bees. The Maoxian region also sprays pesticides more often than other regions where pollinators have recovered. Most Maoxian beekeepers will not rent their hives to orchards, since the pesticide sprays continue during bloom season and they risk losing their entire hive.
One last additional factor is making things difficult for farmers: Global Climate Change. Frequent rains, low temperatures, and cloudy weather affect the number of days that plants flower and the times that pollinators can fly. Changes in flowering time also means that fruit trees and their local pollinators may not be in sync, which makes a mismatch between pollinator and plant timing more likely in an already strained system. Humans are more effective pollinators than insects under these adverse conditions.
What can North Americans learn from China’s pollination failure?
The story of hand pollination in China illustrates what a failure to understand natural ecosystem services looks like. Ecosystem services are things the earth does for us for free: Oxygen is produced; water is filtered; and plants are pollinated. When parts of an ecosystem are removed, it stops functioning the way it has in the past.
Problems with bees, agriculture, and pollination are deeply related to issues of habitat loss, global warming, and basic plant biology. Pesticides are a problem in bee deaths–for all bees, not just honey bees. But just getting rid of all pesticides will not solve our bee problems, and pesticides are only part of the story of human pollination.
In the most recent US honey bee reports from the winter of 2012-2013, 31% of hives failed in the United States. It wasn’t Colony Collapse Disorder or poisoning that was the problem, though–most of the bees starved. A summer of drought that reduced honey storage combined with odd winter weather stresses bee hives. It doesn’t help that corn, soybeans, and golf courses are not nutritious food sources for honey bees. We also know that incredible losses in native bee diversity are happening–in one study, 50% of Midwestern native bee species disappeared over a 100 year period.
Is China’s experience a picture of our future without bees? Probably not. But preserving our pollinators and pollinator habitat will be critical to keeping our food choices diverse. This Pollinator Week, consider planting some food for bees, or setting aside some nesting space for native bees. Check out this huge resource center for North American plant lists, nesting guides, and more.
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, this story is making the rounds again:
Brazilian Bikini Waxes Make Crab Lice Endangered Species
Pubic lice, the crab-shaped insects that have dwelled in human groins since the beginning of history, are disappearing. Doctors say bikini waxing may be the reason. Waning infestations of the bloodsuckers have been linked by doctors to pubic depilation
Like the last time, this story is getting a lot of popular press. However, what is presented is a lot of anecdotal evidence—stories without a lot of actual data.
I will say that the evidence is much better than the last time this story made the rounds, and this is a far better written story. However, please note that conspicuously sprinkled through the article are links to a bunch of major grooming appliance and beauty product companies. Gosh, I can’t imagine why they might have a vested interest in promoting the idea that waxing and shaving your short and curlies might prevent pubic lice.
Here’s an important part of the story:
“Incidence data aren’t kept by the World Health Organization in Geneva because the gray, six-legged, millimeter-long louse doesn’t transmit disease, and national authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and U.K.’s Health Protection Agency don’t collect the information.”
We only have anecdotal data from local health centers, such as the ones interviewed in the story. And:
“Historically, it’s been very difficult to get incidence data on pubic lice simply because people don’t like to report it,” said Richard Russell, director of medical entomology at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital. “In over 40 years, I could count on two hands the number of people who had brought pubic lice in for identification and admitted to knowing what they were.”
If you want to start trimming your shrubbery, go right ahead. But don’t do it because you think it will protect yourself from pubic lice, do it because you want to (for some inexplicable reason that I don’t understand myself, frankly.) You should also be aware that injuries from genital grooming are on the rise, and it is not without risk. This is rightly pointed out in the article, for which I again give them props.
The article ends with this quote from a scientist. Emphasis mine in this quote:
“The life cycle of the female pubic louse ends if it’s unable to find a suitable place to lay eggs, Russell said, making it plausible that pubic hair removal is reducing populations of the insect. “It makes sense from the point of the view of the biology of the beast, but how you’d ever find out, I don’t know,” Russell said in a telephone interview. “
We probably won’t ever really know the answer question of habitat destruction for the crab louse. This is ‘news’ only because crotch crickets are interesting because of the pastures they graze in. (Which, of course, is exactly why -I- wrote about them!)
But don’t forget that just because a few people in the US and Down Under (snorf!) remove their body hair, the vast majority of people have intact lady gardens. This is an attention-getting article, not news.