L'évolution en voie d'Illumination

L'évolution en voie d'Illumination, la fabuleuse déambulation nocturne du Jardin des Plantes, vidéo

I saw this on the news yesterday and had to write about it. L’évolution en voie d’Illumination (Or ‘Illuminated Evolution’) is a spectacular night show exploring the evolution of life over the course of 600 million years. The show is held at Jardin des Plantes in Paris and goes through 4 eras of evolution, from the Precambrian times to the present day, with a load of dinosaurs, prehistoric insects, and sabretooth tigers in vibrant coloured lights.

Over a hundred new luminous structures, the fruit of the research and reconstruction work of the Muséum’s palaeontologists, represent the astonishing species that have inhabited the Earth over the last 600 million years. You will find there the “celebrities” of the past, such as dinosaurs, but also lesser-known species that will astound you with their astonishing forms and unique living habits.

All the species presented here existed in the past, but are now extinct.

Illuminated Evolution combines art, science and poetry.

If you’re in Paris (and it’s safe to visit), I highly recommend you do so.

Figs and wasps: a mutual relationship

Do Figs Really Have Dead Wasps In Them?

My mum reminded me that I explained how figs were formed a while ago (I’d completely forgotten this but I blame that on the pandemic). The above video explains how wasps play a pivotal role in the survival of figs (their relationship is known as mutualism) but here’s a brief excerpt from Julie R. Thomson:

In simple terms, figs are technically not a fruit ― they are inverted flowers. Fig trees don’t flower like apples and peaches. Their flowers bloom inside the pear-shaped pod, which later matures into the fruit we eat. Each flower then produces a single, one-seeded, hard-shelled fruit called achene ― that’s what gives the fig the crunch we know ― and the fig is made up of multiple achene. So when we eat a fig we are actually eating multiple fruits.

But that’s not the end of the uniqueness that sets the fig apart.

Because fig flowers bloom internally, they need a special process for pollination. They cannot rely on the wind or bees to spread their pollen ― that’s where the fig wasp comes in. The fig cannot survive without the fig wasp to spread its genetic material, and the fig wasp cannot live without the fig, because that’s where it lays its larva ― this relationship is known as mutualism.

The female fig wasp enters the male fig ― we don’t eat the male figs, by the way ― to lay its eggs. The male fig is shaped in a way to accommodate the laying of wasp eggs. The female wasp’s wings and antennae break off when entering the small passage in the fig so once it’s in, there is no way out. It’s up to the baby wasps to continue the life cycle. Male baby wasps are born without wings, because their sole purpose is to mate with the female offspring ― technically their sister ― and dig a tunnel out of the fig. It’s the female offspring that make the journey out, bringing pollen with them.

If a fig wasp enters a female fig accidentally ― the ones we eat ― instead of a male one, there is no room in the interior for it to reproduce. And it cannot escape, because its wings and antennae have broken off. So the wasp dies inside, which is unfortunate but necessary because that’s how it delivers the pollen giving us the fruit we love.

Because of this relationship, figs aren’t considered vegan.

What is it with wasps and weird relationships with nature?

Bees' brain cell density is higher than birds

This from New Scientist about bees:

Many bees have a brain cell density greater than that of small birds – but most ant brains contain a far lower density of neurons. The difference may be down to the insects’ lifestyles: because bees fly, they may need more brain cells than ants do in order to process visual information […]

However, the difference in the insects’ brain cell counts probably has little to do with intelligence, says team member Wulfila Gronenberg, also at the University of Arizona. The researchers think flying insects probably need more neurons to power the enhanced vision they need for flight, an idea that they will test in future.

See also: stingless bees and murder hornets

(via New Scientist)

The emerald cockroach wasp: a true parasite

The emerald cockroach wasp: a true parasite

(Content warning: this article contains bugs and nasty stuff they do)

Yesterday, I wrote about the concept of parasitic architecture and questioned how parasitic it was. After all, it didn’t really “feed” off its host as such; it was more of an extension and had benefits for people needing places to live. And then I found out about a true parasite and just how wild they can be.

The emerald cockroach wasp aka the jewel wasp aka Ampulex compressa is a parasitoid wasp that feeds off cockroaches in order to reproduce and survive. Parasitoids aren’t uncommon in nature or films (see the Alien series and, to a certain extent, The Thing) but the emerald cockroach wasp is fascinating to me. Here’s how it reproduces:

  1. A female wasp stings a cockroach and its venom paralyses its front legs
  2. Then, the wasp stings it again in its brain, specifically in the area that controls the escape reflex.
  3. Once the host is immobilised, the wasp chews off some of its antennae and then begins feed on the hemolymph (a blood-like substance) that comes out.
  4. The wasp “walks” the roach to its burrow by dragging it in by the remaining antennae. Then, it lays one or two eggs between the roach’s legs.
  5. The roach (which is still alive at this point by the way) rests in the burrow while the eggs hatch, which takes about 3 days. But that’s the start of the end for the roach as the larva then feed off the insides of the roach for the next 4–5 days.
  6. After a week or so, the larva will have eaten all of the roach’s internal organs and go into its cocoon.
  7. After that process, the wasp emerges from the roach’s body and starts adulthood.

I’m not super squeamish but even that turned my stomach. The mating process is efficient too. Time is of the essence as adults only live for a few months and, in line with that, mating only takes a minute (Missy Elliott probably wouldn’t be a fan). One session is all it takes for a female wasp to successfully parasitize several dozen roaches.

One of the most unique ways it uses its venom isn’t to immobilise and then eat but to alter the host’s ability to escape and nothing else. It can still technically fly and flip over. If only the roach could just believe in itself!

Emerald cockroach wasps live in tropical regions, mostly Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific islands. Some are found in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro as well. They were introduced to Hawaii in 1941 as a form of pest control but that didn’t work out. I guess Edgar the Bug would have been grateful for that too.

Stingless bees make healthy honey

stingless bees

What a wild year 2020 has been. First, we had (or still have) murder hornets in the news and now we have stingless bees making headlines in the science community. But unlike their Hymenopteran relatives, they could be a help rather than a hindrance.

Scientists from Australia and Malaysia have found trehalulose, a rare sugar in honey made by stingless bees with “many reported health benefits”. Researchers tested five species from Australia, Malaysia, and Brazil and found the sugar amongst 85% of those analysed. Honey is also said to fend off liver cancer symptoms and keep one healthy.

Trehalulose is made up of fructose and glucose bound together. The trehalulose found in these stingless bees had a low glycaemic index (GI), meaning it digests slower and causes a lower and slower rise in blood glucose. In other words, it’d be better for diabetics and people with high blood pressure. It’s also non-cariogenic, which means it doesn’t cause tooth decay and I’m sure 5/5 dentists would agree.

“Keeping native stingless bees is gaining in popularity in Australia, for their role as pollinators as well as for their unique honey. As well as having health benefits, stingless bee honey is valued for its flavor and is in high demand from chefs.:

Dr. Mary Fletcher, an organic chemist at the University of Queensland

You can read the full study in Scientific Reports, hosted by Nature.com.

The rise of the murder hornets

The Asian giant hornet aka murder hornet

If 2020 wasn’t enough of a hell year with the COVID-19 pandemic and major resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there are now murder hornets. But what the hell are they?

Murder hornets aka Asian giant hornets

The Asian giant hornet is the world’s largest hornet wasp, native to East, South and Mainland Southeast Asia, and parts of Russia. Unfortunately for people in the Pacific Northwest of North America, some of them made their way across with four sightings this year.

They live in mountains and forests, away from high altitudes and eat on larger insects, tree sap, and honey from honey bees.

A hornet by any other name

The name “murder hornet” is a relatively new invention. In Korea, it is called 장수말벌 or general officer hornet, in China the “giant tiger head bee”, in Japan, the ōsuzumebachi or “giant sparrow bee”. But in 2008, Japanese media outlets gave it a more sinister name – satsujin suzumebachi or “murder hornet”. 12 years later, a NYT reporter picked up the name and the rest is history.

Why they’re called “murder” hornets

In April, Washington authorities told the public to be on the lookout for any Asian giant hornets. The name wasn’t for show. If they started growing in numbers, they had the potential to destroy bee colonies in the US and would be near impossible to get rid of.

“This is our window to keep it from establishing. If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done.”

Chris Looney, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture

Besides their invasive nature, they also pack a mean sting. The hornets deliver venom that contains a neurotoxin called mandaratoxin through their quarter-inch stinger. One might not kill but multiple certainly will. Jun-ichi Takahashi, a researcher at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan, bore the brunt of it when he got stung.

“The next day, his legs were aching, as if he had the flu. Of the thousands of times he has been stung in his lifetime of work, he said, the Asian giant hornet stings were the most painful.”

Quote from The New York Times

How to kill a murder hornet

There are ways to reduce numbers of Asian giant hornets if you act quickly and stop them spreading. The following methods were created in 1973 from “A Bionomic Sketch of the Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia, a Serious Pest for Japanese Apiculture (With 12 Text-figures and 5 Tables)”:

1. Crush them

Animal lovers, look away now. You can flatten murder hornets with “wooden sticks with flat heads”. It’s very much a whack-a-mole approach so not the most effective or efficient.

2. Remove the nest

Getting them at the source by destroying their nests with fires or poison can kill the colonies. This works well… if you can find the nests. Those underground are difficult to locate but the most common way is to bait them with meat, usually frog or fish.

3. Trap them with bait

Simply place the bait traps in the apiaries. The baits use a jelly or sugar solution mixed with vinegar or some kind of intoxicant.

4. Poison them

After the bait, they are then poisoned with a toxin called malathion. If successful, it should kill them within 24 hours.

5. Trap them

The traps are inefficient as some hornets can escape past them but attaching them to the front of their hives can work. How well they work depends on how effective they are at actually trapping hornets and letting the innocent bees get through unscathed.

6. Block them

Things like wire, weeds, and fishing nets limit the hornets’ ability to escape but with the right protective screen, honey bees can make it through. But hornets are smart and cotton on to the tactic so this works better with traps rather than on their own.

Hope in the hive

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Washington State Department of Agriculture claim to have trapped a murder hornet in the state for the first time. They trapped the hornet on 14th July and identified it two weeks later. So it looks like traps worked on this occasion.

WSDA’s next steps are to search for nests using infrared cameras and place additional traps in order to catch live Asian giant hornet specimens. WSDA Pest Program staff will deploy special traps intended to trap hornets but keep them alive. If they catch live hornets, the department will attempt to tag and track them back to their colony. Once located, the agency will eradicate the colony.

From WSDA’s news release

We’ll beekeep you updated. And if you have issues with bees, hornets, or wasps in your house, this guide will help you safely remove their nests.

Update: The First Living Asian Giant ‘Murder’ Hornet of 2021 Has Been Found in Washington State

Remember when a bee sting turned Bear Grylls into Benedict Cumberbatch?

Remember when a bee sting turned Bear Grylls into Benedict Cumberbatch?

Bear Grylls loves a bit of danger and feels no way putting his body through hell in the name of survival. It’s what early humans did after all. Except this is the 21st century and you can get honey from a supermarket for about £2 (or the DVD starring Jessica Alba for about £3 on Amazon). But don’t be silly, I hear you cry, he’s in the wilderness and he needed to aggravate some bees in order to get some sweet honey. Winnie the Pooh he ain’t.

Born Survivor - Bee Sting