Okay, so dogs don't really pee facing south. But according to researchers, who watched dogs pee 5,582 times and watched dogs poo 1,893 times, dogs have a strong preference for orienting themselves along the north/south axis when they do their dirty, shameful business.
Some variation was found in the urination orientations of male vs. female dogs, but the scientists posited that the wayward squirts might be due to the male dogs' tendency to lift one rear leg or the other (but never both!) during the act. This theory is supported by feculent evidence: male and female dogs assume the same, dignified squat when pooping, and show no difference in their defecation orientations
Alas, due to their small sample size (relative to dog subjects, not to the number of poops and peeps observed - they really went above and beyond there) the authors were unable to draw any conclusions about breed differences. Can Chihuahuas pull this off, despite their tiny bodies? Can Mastiffs feel the compass points, or is the gravitational pull of their own mass enough to throw them off? Further study is needed. You should be taking notes, PhD candidates!
I know I am making light, but this research did have a fascinating and important finding: dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field. As the authors of the paper say, "In this study, we provide the first clear and simply measurable evidence for influence of geomagnetic field variations on mammal behavior." That's a pretty big deal! And who knows, if you and your dog are lost someday, it just might save you life. As long as your dog has to go, of course.
Everyone who keeps honey bees has at least heard of the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor. You can tell just by the name it isn’t going to be good. It isn’t Varroa Nicelady or Varroa Iwannaknowya. Varroa destructor. Destructor of larva, of adult bees, of your dreams of honey and well pollinated gardens.
We know about the harm varroa causes: spreading disease, weakening bees, and making colonies collapse. And we hear a lot about how to control them. But how exactly do these mites live their disgusting yet fascinating lives?
Let’s look closely at one mite, the sort you could see on one of the bees in your hive. We’ll call her Marcia. She’s in the “traveling” or phoretic stage of her life cycle. Mites like Marcia prefer feeding on nurse bees, but will occasionally “go hobo” - hitching a ride on a worker bee or drone to travel to a new hive.
Eventually, Marcia will want to settle down and start a family. She’ll scurry into the bottom of a brood cell and hide down in the brood food so no vigilant bees can spot her. When the bees cap the cell, it’s Marcia’s time to shine. First, she’ll lay an unfertilized egg - this will make her a son, a son that she’ll name Timmy. She’ll then lay a few fertilized female eggs. It’s thought that up to six eggs can be laid in worker brood, and up to seven can be squeezed into a beefy drone cell.
Marcia, the doting mother, will pierce the bee pupa just once so her baby mites, whose mouths are too puny and weak to penetrate the pupa, will be able to feed. She only makes one feeding hole, lest she cause the pupa to explode. What a gal. This feeding hole is located near an organ called the “fat body” on which the varroa feed. This would be sort of like mosquitoes sucking on your liver, if mosquitoes were the size of cats.
You’ll be happy to learn things get even more disgusting! The mites also choose one place in the cell to poop, called the “fecal accumulation site.” After the baby mites reach adulthood they start feeling amorous. So where’s an amorous mite to go when he or she wants to find a date? Why the “fecal accumulation site” of course! Romantic.
So all Marcia’s little daughters head to the fecal accumulation site to mate with their brother, Timmy. From my reading, I was unclear on whether Marcia would also mate with Timmy or if her initial mating back when Marcia was a newly matured mite was enough to last her whole life. At any rate, Marcia’s family continues to mate until the adult bee emerges from the cell with Marcia and her mature daughters in tow. Timmy, as well as any female mites that didn’t have a chance to mature, remain in the cell and die there. No one knows if this is hard on Marcia.
Marcia can repeat this cycle a few more times before she’s all mited out. And if it’s a broodless period, like the dead of winter, Marcia can wait it out while slurping from an adult bee.
As a beekeeper you might be wondering, “Yes of course this tale of Marcia is the most fascinating thing I have ever read, but what use is it, aside from the thrills?” Well, you can use your new-found knowledge about Marcia’s family life against her.
Without brood, mites can’t reproduce. By providing “brood-breaks” in your hives by doing splits, caging queens, or allowing them to swarm (where safe and appropriate!), you can slow the reproduction of varroa. You can also see that more brood equals more mites, and that’s why researchers such as Thomas Seeley recommend keeping bees in smaller hives.
Whatever size hive you have, and whatever the type, I hope the tale of Marcia has given you a little insight into the ways of our unwelcome guest, the varroa mite.
If you'd like to learn even more about the varroa mite's life cycle from a more scientific point of view, check out this research paper
TIL paper wasps are capable of a thing that I didn't even know was a thing until I learned they were capable of this thing: transitive inference. "What is transitive inference?" you might ask, especially if like me you didn't know what it was. Well, transitive inference is a type of logical reasoning that allows you to figure out a relation between two things that have not been explicitly compared. You might remember this sort of puzzle from grade school: If Paul is taller than Suzy, and Suzy is taller than Bill, who is taller, Paul or Bill? A paper wasp could tell you, "Paul is taller."
Of course, you'd have to ask the wasp the question in a way she could understand, which is what scientists at the University of Michigan did. Here's a brief description of the experiment from Science Focus Magazine:
"To test for this ability, the researchers, led by evolutionary biologist Professor Elizabeth
Tibbetts, placed each wasp in an arena with an electrified floor which gave them a gentle electric shock. In the arena, the wasp was presented with two colours, one of which had a ‘safe zone’ in front of it where the wasp could escape the electric shock.
The colour pairs formed a hierarchy, with the safe zone in front of the higher-ranking colour. So, when colour A was compared with colour B, colour A had the safe zone, but when colour B was compared with colour C, the safe zone was in front of colour B.
Once the wasps had learned these pairs, they were then presented with unknown pairs, such as colour B and colour D. The wasps could accurately identify which colour had the higher ranking."
So why would paper wasps have such sophisticated powers of deduction, powers that honey bees lack? It might be because of their social structure. Unlike honey bees, who have equally ranked workers and a queen who, contrary to popular belief, doesn't run things, paper wasps have multiple females in a nest who are capable of breeding. These wasps compete for status, and it's probably useful to them to be able to figure out who's higher rank than who without having individual bouts with every wasp around. If Suzy can beat up Tina, and Tina can beat up Cindy, then Suzy will probably whoop Cindy too. And if even Cindy can make mincemeat out of me, I'm certainly not going to go messing with Suzy!
If you're interested in reading the study, it can be found here.
Full disclosure: I admit that I didn't learn this today, but I still thought it was a fun thing to post about for TIL Tuesday.
Today's TIL Tuesday comes from a Twitter tweet I found intriguing:
Badgers are fair weather friends to coyotes: these multi-species teams are most likely to form up during the warmer months. During the winter, the badger doesn't need help digging sleepy prey animals out of their burrows, but in the summer the coyote's speed and the badger's digging make for a formidable team.
The folks at Small Planet Supply, our local distributor of Thermacork Insulation, were kind enough to let me do a guest post for their blog. Check it out to learn more about how I got started with beekeeping, the challenges faced by both hobbiests and commercial beekeepers, and the origins of the Cork Hive.
You can see she's sticking her tongue out at me!
Winter heather is about the only thing blooming around here in Elma, WA, and my patch has just started to get a bit of bee traffic. I had to take a photo or two, but this bee was not interested in helping me become the next Ansel Adams.
Soon the alder, beaked hazelnut, and maple will start blooming, providing the bees with the pollen they need to rear brood for spring. In the meantime, they'll have to make due on stored pollen from last year, and what little they can glean from my heather patch.
Winter is a stressful time for beekeepers and their bees. Days or even weeks can go by without seeing any sign that the bees are alive, and disturbing the hive at these times can lead to disaster. Beekeepers have devised many ways to check on their bees without opening the hives, from modern high-tech solutions like fiber optic cameras to the ultimate low-tech option: pressing your ear against the side of the hive and listening for a hum (the latter is my modus operandi). I've read stethoscopes can be helpful, but so far I haven't managed to swipe one from my vigilant doctor.
At what temperature can bees fly? Some say, very authoritatively, bees cannot fly when it's below 55 degrees. Anyone who keeps bees in a cool climate will tell you this is a lie.
Here's a video showing one of our colonies, who live in an early version of the Cork Hive, enjoying a break in the rain.