Catch the Buzz

243516_107034296054724_1042795_oThe decision to become a beekeeper isn’t one taken lightly by most folks. For me, it was a promise I made myself for when I had a bit more time to dedicate to learning everything I could about honeybees. Forgetting the fact that, while sunning myself as a teenager on Mother’s patio, the mere buzz of a bee around my head sent me sprinting down over the lawn, yelling…, I dove headlong into my new hobby.

The first thing I did to prepare for my new venture was to read everything I could get my hands on about apiculture. I even joined the local beekeeping club and made many new friends in beekeeping circles.  It has been my experience that beekeepers are very nice and intelligent people and they take the beekeeping enterprise very serious. Sometimes spending as much as $700 for one special queen bee. (yes, one bee)

I was lucky to meet and have a seasoned bee mentor who came to my property to help search for the best possible spot to set up my hives.  The best place is one facing a southeasterly direction for full sun in the winter and with trees that regrow leaves for shade in the summer. In addition, my bee mentor accompanied me to the honey farm to pick up my two packages of bees that were driven on a flatbed truck from Georgia to Pennsylvania. Each package contains about 50,000 honeybees, a queen bee and her attendants (female bees who feed, clean and care for the queen until the hive gets established). That’s right. She has staff.

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Worcestor Honey Farm, Worcestor, PA
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Packages of honeybees.

Once my hives were home, I took to setting up my hive boxes which need to be placed on level ground so, as the tower grows, it prevents tipping. Each hive box contains between 8-10 frames for use by the bees for making comb, storing honey and raising brood.

The hives are formed by stacking the boxes on top of each other to form a tall tower. There are entrance holes at the base and top of each hive along with a reinforced lid. The bees are free to enter and exit at will.

The queen bee arrives enclosed in a tiny box with her attendants and a small piece of fondant (sugar) for food. The queen is the larger bee on the far right in the picture below. And the fondant, similar to sugary, white cake icing, can be seen on the far left.558099_267290330029119_14501273_n

After the bees are transferred into their new hives, the Queen’s box is attached to one of the frames. It is here Her Highness will remain for 5-7 days until her pheromones have spread throughout the new hive and the worker bees recognise her as their new reigning queen. (All hail the new Queen!) After a few days, the queen bee is released from her tiny box to join her subjects.

In the meantime, the bees must be fed some sugar-water until the they are able to build comb, find food and start storing honey reserves. Once the queen is released into the hive, she will begin to lay eggs, as many as 2,000 a day, to replenish the workforce and maintain the hive. Within weeks, my bees had made honeycomb, stored honey, and started raising the next generation of young bees. The bee larva are clearly visible in the picture below.

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With careful observation and care for feeding, my bees continued to thrive in their new home. Within 5 months I was enjoying the benefits of beekeeping.

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The addition of the honeybees proved to be a wonderful asset to the success of my organic garden, fruit trees and flowers— an extra bonus when pollinators live at your house.

The honey produced by my bees was a beautiful amber color and was harvested in the month of August. There is nothing like the taste of raw honey. Nothing. It’s fantastic! If you’ve never tried it, you should!  And honeybees are the only thing on the whole planet that make it.

In addition to the honey harvest, I used some of the beeswax to make candles and lip balm.

All things considered, beekeeping is a fascinating and interesting hobby, and one I continue to enjoy. Honeybees are crucial to our food supply; one in three bites of fruits and vegetables you eat is pollinated by bees. Without them there would be no food.

The beekeeping movement is very popular with new beekeepers appearing in urban areas, and hives being kept on city rooftops. In addition, the beekeeping industry is a 20 billion dollar/per year business. Consider, too, that bees work for free and they never sleep. That’s not too bad for an insect, and we’re very lucky to have them. 🐝 Buzz-z-z-z-z

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What’s in a Name?

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Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins

Many of the animals found on our planet are indeed quite social.  Living in groups has fueled the evolution of intelligence in many different species.   Animals aren’t just smart. They’re members of organized communities.

Dolphins spend almost all their time in family centered communities, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they have a signature whistle for each other. Researchers, in a study found here , have discovered that dolphins have vocal signature names and they use them to identify and refer to one another. To test this, researchers used the sounds of names played back to dolphins who responded to their own signatures, but ignored others’—perhaps like we may behave when hearing our name read from a list.

What goes on in a dolphin’s mind upon hearing its signature name? That’s a harder question to answer. They may serve purely as identifiers eliciting little more than classification. There could also be layers of association along with those names, much like it is for us, with names associated with feelings and memories from personal interaction. Science doesn’t know for sure, but it’s getting closer to finding out.  In a study found here and here , the use of AI has identified several specific associations within vocalizations of these whales.

Dolphins engage in relationships that span decades, so it’s not hard to imagine that their names could be much more than just a label—much like us. 🐬

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Nicole Reggia

 

 

The Great Escape

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On a warm summer night in 2016, an octopus named Inky slipped out of his tank at the National Aquarium of New Zealand and scuttled across the floor to a 164-foot drain pipe that delivered him into the Pacific Ocean and worldwide fame.  The story of Inky’s midnight escape went viral.

Some thought Inky planned his escape, waiting until humans weren’t around and entered that drainage pipe with full awareness that sweet freedom was at the end of it.  That’s not necessarily so; he may have been driven by simple curiosity or perhaps the smell of seawater. Yet, there are volumes of information about the intelligence and problem solving abilities of cephalopods. This group is unique in their invertebrate evolution in may ways, including that they have more neurons in their arms than in their brains. This gives each arm the ability to smell, taste, think and move independently of each other.

But just how smart are they? Well, they have been known to eat fish from adjacent tanks in captivity and return back to their tanks before anyone notices. Some have been observed making tools out of coconut shells, using rocks as weapons, and jumping out of the water to ambush prey. Still other observations show them mimicking other dangerous sea creatures in various colors, shapes, textures and movement.  And they can open jars from the outside and the inside. There is evidence that they can learn tasks just from watching, and they can recognize individual human faces.

All things considered, it’s at least possible that Inky planned his escape. 🦑

See more here.

 

 

Meet the Bryozoans

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Bryozoan on my kayak paddle.                                                                      Photo: Nicole Reggia

In the world of biology, there is a plant, there is an animal, and there is a plant-animal. Specifically, moss-animals, the bryozoans.

I mention this because I recently had a run-in with these creatures while kayaking on a local lake. While moving across the lake, I saw something squishy, gelatinous and blobby near the surface of the water. After taking a few pictures, I was able to scoop one out of the water for further examination. fullsizeoutput_2f2f

The first thing it reminded me of was the brain in the science fiction movie Donovan’s Brain, because it looked just like the thing that scared the bejesus out of me when I was a kid.

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After carefully placing Donovan’s Brain in a container with lake water, I took it home for further study and investigation. As it turns out, what I had was a giant freshwater bryozoan—Pectinatella magnifica, “the magnificent bryozoan”.  There are two interesting things about this species. The first is that out of the several thousands of species of bryozoans, they almost all grow in saltwater. The second is that this is a bryozoan here in my freshwater lake!  When starting a colony, an individual animal (called a zoid) hatches from a hard seed-like “statoblast” and the buds form a small number of identical individuals.  This foundling clump of zoids secrete a watery substance that hardens to form the firm gelatinous core where the colony spreads and reproduces. Bryozoans are not a coral but have evolved the same filter-feeding feature as corals. And, they’re really old–like 500,000,000 years old. And some have bizarre details of their biology that have helped them elude the best efforts of biologists to try and pin them down in the Earth family tree.

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Bryozoan under observation.                                                                            Photo: Nicole Reggia

Bryozoans evolved in the Ordovician, the geological period that followed the Cambrian Explosion (my favorite), about 500 million years ago, about the same time as the corals they superficially resemble. Bryozoan are colonial or collective organisms not unlike a colony of bees. In some bryozoans, the individual animals specialize their function for feeding, defense or reproduction–much like honeybees. They can settle on virtually any immobile surface and several mobile ones: rocks, kelp, blades, or wandering hermit crab shells.

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Bryozoan out of water.                                                                                     Photo: Nicole Reggia

Bryozoans are in their own little group as far as bilogical classification is concerned. They are so mystifying, both morphologically and genetically, that scientists can’t even seem to make up their mind whether the group belongs in the fundamental animal group the protostomes (insects, crustaceans, arthropods, water bears, and nematodes) or the deuterostomes (vertebrates, echiinoderms, and tunicates).

Finally, it’s worth noting that my bryozoan was found in a man-made lake in eastern Pennsylvania.  According to scientists, its presense is a good sign: one of high water quality.

 

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Donovan’s Brain                                               Photo: Nicole Reggia

 

 

 

 

 

Which Came First? Bird Flight or the Shape of Their Eggs?

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Egg shape has fascinated humans for a very long time. Even Aristotle wrote about it. And many  people since then have asked: exactly why are eggs shaped the way they are?  To be sure, it’s an important question when you think about the evolution of the egg and its history with vertebrates leaving the oceans and colonizing the air 360 million years ago.  There have been several theories regarding egg shape in birds; from clutch size (to better fit together under an incubating female) to nest location (pointy eggs are less likely to roll and fall off cliff edges). To answer the age-old question, a new study has found the shape of a bird’s egg correlates with its flight ability.

An international team of scientists led by Harvard and Princeton universities, along with colleagues from three other countries, took on the task of answering the egg shape question. Mary Casewell Stoddard, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, and her team began by analyzing 50,000 eggs representing 1,400 species of birds.  They used photographs of eggs from all across the globe that had been collected (mostly by naturalists) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “We mapped egg shapes like astronomers map stars”, Stoddard says.

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In addition to egg shapes, other information was collected about each species such as diet, nest location, growth, body mass and the type of climate where the species were found. While some of this data did explain a few things, like a big bird can lay a big egg (size), none of the data explained the shape of those eggs. But as Stoddard’s data was examined further, there was one factor that did correlate with the shape of eggs: a bird’s flight ability. Stoddard’s team found (by measuring the wings of birds) that good fliers laid asymmetrical and elliptical eggs.

As it turns out, good fliers have streamlined bodies. And to be a better flier your internal organs need to be more tightly packed within your body. And here is where it gets really interesting. As a bird’s body is compressed, a bird’s oviduct gets more narrow and compressed so eggs become more pointy. Flying narrows the oviduct which affects the membrane within as the egg forms, changing the type of egg a bird can lay. In another article about the study, Claire Spottiswoode  , an evolutionary biologist at Cambridge University says, “Streamlined birds need narrower eggs to pass through narrower pelvis, and the only way to fit a chick into a narrower egg is to make it longer.”

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As a result, changes in birds for flying produced a decrease in body size and reduced the overall size of the abdominal cavity. These anatomical changes and the shape of eggs happened at the same time birds were evolving to fly.  And it’s a hypothesis that most ornithologists probably haven’t thought of.  For example, owls have spherical eggs but a better flying owl, such as barn owl, tends to lay eggs that are more elliptical. And indeed, you can see this across other bird groups from hummingbirds to seabirds. This can also be observed in some chicken breeds—though chickens tended to be outliers in this study.  This next picture is of two eggs from my very own chickens. One of the chickens is a very good flier and the other cannot fly, but merely flutters across the lawn.

Can you guess which bird (Gladys or Buttercup) is the better flier based on the shape of their eggs?     fullsizeoutput_2fb9

If you guessed “Buttercup”, you’re well on your way to having a good understanding about bird evolution, flight and egg shape. Good for you!

Nicole Reggia, Director  www.nowthatswild.com

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Climate Change Clips Wings

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Migratory birds may soon find their long travel ventures getting a bit longer. While several species of birds travel astonishingly far distances, new studies indicate that a warming planet will present new challenges to snow birds.

At the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Dr. Frank La Sorta and his colleagues published a study demonstrating the effects of climate extremes on migrating birds. For example, extreme climate changes increase energy costs to birds that will have to fly farther, chasing a never-ending spring. An increase in travel distance can tax an already fatigued and tired bird increasing mortality rates and, because some birds leave at specific times to migrate, birds may end up in layover areas where former food resources are now scarce.  The study indicated that populations of migratory birds that fly long distances are at an ever-increasing disadvantage. Short-term migrants appeared to be more resistant because they are already traveling in specific areas and can better manage available resources.

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David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, reports in an interview with NPR, “It’s a little bit like going to a new place where you’re not sure if there’ll be water or power; do you think you’ll be able to survive there?”  And he makes a good point. Extreme weather affects things like foraging and breeding grounds–not to mention the fledging of young birds. It’s easy to see the potential impact this can have on population outcomes. Migration in birds evolved over thousands of years and some bird species are not able to adapt and keep pace with swiftly moving climate change.

Current events in the news show that weather patterns altered by climate change can have deadly consequences for some species. An article , just published in the New York Times, reports a mass mortality event off Long Island, New York beaches where hundreds of dead seabirds washed ashore. Joe Okoniewski, a wildlife pathologist with the New York Department of Conservation, performed necropsies of the birds who were found to have starved to death. Mr. Okoniewski commented, “The birds are extremely thin and anemic”.  While it remains a mystery as to why the birds where so thin and light weight, scientists suspect they were blown off course by climate change altered weather conditions while flying over the open ocean.

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Under the present climate conditions, with projections towards a warming planet, many species of birds could see their current breeding and migratory ranges decrease and food resources disappear. Given that the mid-latitude areas of the Northern Hemisphere boasts the majority of the world’s bird species that migrate, it is important to understand the role that climate change plays in bird migration and develop plans to help mitigate loss.   In addition, certain species may no longer be able to breed and nest in certain states, leaving those particular species with different climate futures, and others grounded.

Nicole Reggia, Director   http://www.nowthatswild.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Endless Forms, Most Beautiful

“from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved”

 -Charles Darwin

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1859

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In October, 1831, the 90-foot vessel named the HMS Beagle set sail for a 5 year voyage around the world that would inspire a young Charles Darwin to transform his thinking into developing his ideas of evolution and biological change.

Darwin’s exposure to specimens all over the globe led him to believe that they all gradually evolved from a common ancestor giving us a true account of the origins of life.

Perhaps no one has influenced our knowledge of life on Earth as much as this English naturalist because his ideas about evolution, by natural selection, made us rethink our place in the world and united us with all life on our planet.

Nicole Reggia