12.23.12

shoe-cozies, lower east side

season's greetings, all; i hope your toes are precisely as warm as you would like them to be.

12.21.12

101 in 1001 {III}: 009 go whalewatching [completed 09.28.12]

watching for whales

though the whalewatching trip we took in iceland this september was my first, i think i can say that it was unlike what we would have experienced anywhere else. in mexico's sea of cortez, the harpoon-scarred gray whales of baja surface near boats, their babies at their sides: though we're utterly undeserving, they've forgiven the awestruck humans who come to them in peace. it's not like that in the north atlantic, not where we were. icelandic whalers ignore international regulations, and it's getting worse: in the 2010 hunt alone, 148 endangered fin whales and 60 minke whales were killed (the united states considered sanctions against iceland last year, but obama declined to invoke the pelly amendment). cognitive dissonance among icelanders outside of the whaling industry is pretty intense: while only 5% of them claim to eat whale regularly, some pollsters report that up to 75% of icelanders believe that whalers should be permitted to continue. japan imports the majority of the whalers' meat, but it's estimated that 40% of tourists in iceland eat it - which is where we came in. elding, the whalewatching company we chose, takes the "meet us don't eat us" campaign very seriously, and our golden-haired guide spent most of the trip from grindavík out to sea pleading with us on the whales' behalf. nothing abstract about that: she sounded close to tears at a few points, and there the minke whale was on the menu at dinner later that night, beside smoked puffin as part of a "taste of iceland" special. it's pronounced "minky," that whale's name. you can eat a minky whale.

that's the backstory - but the watching, now. we had planned to depart from reykjavik's old harbour, but the wind whipping into the bay wasn't interested in that; instead, we took the slowest double-decker bus in iceland (the only double-decker bus in iceland?) to a little fishing village forty minutes down the road. if the harbor at grindavík was considered placid, i shudder to think of what we left behind. i swallowed my gratis seasickness tablet like a good landlubber and have an unremarkable relationship with most vehicles, but when we left port and i went belowdecks for my industrial strength whalewatchin' onesie (the north atlantic is, unsurprisingly, colder than shit) i lost my abilities to walk in a straight line, stand upright, and speak english for a good twenty minutes or so. (extra-confusing when i rejoined joe, since the icelanders we met already thought he was a local. i think it was the beard.) that settled the issue of whether or not i would attempt creature-photography; in the absence of both fine motor skills and one of the semiautomatic, massive-barreled cameras the tourists around us were sporting (how close can you feel to a subject when there's a yard of equipment between you and your own lens, to say nothing of the distance between you and it?), i decided to document any whales we watched with, you know, my feelings.

september falls at the far reaches of whalewatching season, as most of the local baleen whale population migrates to warmer waters at summer's end, and it was clear from the way our guide was hyping dolphins that she didn't have high hopes for the afternoon. then, o then, the smallest spout at ten o'clock! at one o'clock! at one o'clock again! when it seemed the mysterious spouter was heading in a straight line, we followed it at a respectful distance, and our guide's voice rose in joy from the crow's nest: "and there's the fluke! it's a humpback!" the migration sometimes leaves younger whales behind, you see, and we found one, probably planning the whale-equivalent of a filmic eighties house party when one's parents are out of town. we followed his spouts and dives for an hour; we all knew where to look, but that joyous, lilting "and the fluke!" rang out each time he dove again. that happiness is as integral to my memory of the day as that magnificent tail.

12.19.12

hell's kitchen tree lot, 2012

someday i'll write a terrifically long poem about manhattan christmas tree "lots." i know already that it will be terrible, but it will vibrate with feeling.

the cat has been arranging himself beneath our tree (which is still but half-adorned, for the weather hasn't been conducive to drying things out on the porch). "i am nearly finished," i tell him. "pracky," he replies, eyeing my little ceramic cherubs' tinfoil hats.

12.12.12: the dirty dozen

{twelve more snippets of amy stewart's marvelous wicked bugs: the louse that conquered napoleon's army & other diabolical insects*}

01 "The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electo-Mechanical System (HI-MEMS) seeks to implant computer chips inside caterpillars before they undergo metamorphosis into moths or butterflies. They hope to use that circuitry to remotely control the flight paths of insects so that they can someday be used to fly into enemy locations and transmit intelligence without ever being detected." (21)

02 "Mayans had been using [bees and wasps as weapons] since 2600 BC; their legends describe the use of human dummies with a gourd filled with stinging insects for a head.

[...]

One of the most intriguing uses of bees in warfare was recorded by a contemporary of Socrates named Xenophon. He described the use of poisoned hives in Greek warfare around 402 BC: 'All the soldiers ate of the combs, lost their senses, vomited, and were affected with purging, and none of them were able to stand upright; such as had eaten much were like mad-men, and some like persons at the point of death.' The soldiers had, apparently, been given beehives filled with the honey of bees that had feasted on rhododendron and azalea, plants that produce neurotoxins so potent that they remain active in the honey. Those who eat the honey succumb to honey intoxication, also called grayanotoxin poisoning."** (21-22)

03 "Pliny the Elder wrote in about 77 AD that the scorpion was 'a dangerous scourge, and had venom like that of the serpent; with the exception that its effects are far more painful, as the person who is stung will linger for three days before death ensues.' He added that the sting of a scorpion was 'invariably fatal to virgins, and nearly always so to matrons.' (23)

04 "In 1939 the London Zoo killed its black widow spiders, along with its venomous snakes and insects, as a precaution against the possibility of their being liberated during air raids." (44)

05 "Don't be fooled by the fact that [the puss caterpillar] looks just like a tiny Persian cat. The so-called flannel moth or asp moth is one of the most toxic caterpillars in North America. Anyone who rubs up against its long, silky golden-brown hairs will find those hairs embedded under the skin, where they cause severe burning pain, a rash, and blisters." (50)

06 "'One day,' [Charles] Darwin wrote, 'on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.'" (53)

07 "Although it sounds too horrible to be anything more than an urban legend, in fact, cases of German cockroaches crawling into people's ears and getting stuck there have been well documented in medical literature. Emergency room doctors can pour oil in the ear to drown cockroaches, but often have a hard time extracting them afterward. Some doctors swear by a squirt of lidocaine, which irritates the roach so much that it can send it running out of the ear and across the room." (88)

08 "[P]erhaps their most horrifying quality is the way in which aphids reproduce: some species are actually capable of "telescoping generations" in which one female aphid contains within her the beginnings of another youngster, which is herself already pregnant with yet another generation." (95)

09 "Justin Schmidt, an entomologist who studies venomous stings, created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index to quantify the pain inflicted by ants and other stinging creatures. His surprisingly poetic descriptions*** give some order to the hierarchy of ant stings as compared to those of bees and wasps:

  1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
  1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.
  1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
  2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
  2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

  [...]

  4.0 Tarantula hawk: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.
  4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like firewalking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel." (137-138)

10 "A team of researchers in Venezuela found one of these giant centipedes hanging upside down from a cave wall, happily munching away on a small bat. After observing the same behavior several times, they realized that the centipedes were hanging from the cave by their last few legs and catching bats in midair as they flew by, demonstrating a rather frightening level of forethought and ingenuity." (146)

11 "A French research team recently discovered that mosquitoes are more attracted to beer drinkers." (165)

12 "And then there was the tarantula pie. [Would-be murderess] Carole [Hargis] kept a pet tarantula and at first she considered [killing her husband] by putting the hairy spider in bed with him, hoping he would get bitten. But then she had a better idea: she removed the tarantula's venom sac and hid it in a blackberry pie. Mr. Hargis's luck held out a while longer: he took a few bites of pie but never touched the venom. It was beginning to seem like he was invincible.

[...]

[T]he bite of a tarantula is really no worse than that of a wasp or bee. It will certainly sting—in fact, scientists recently discovered that the bite of the West Indian tarantla Psalmopoeus cambridgei goes to work on nerve cells with the same mechanism employed by habanero peppers." (234-235)

13 {bonus, non-insect-book-related} joe went out to put some trash in the chute last night and saw a young guy he didn't know leaning against the table outside our apartment door. when the guy saw him, he jumped up guiltily and disappeared into the stairwell. joe called down to our doorman to say there was a random guy on our floor. "oh," said the doorman, "him? he's drunk and hiding from his grandma."



*highly recommended; everyone should ride the f train with a book cover that shouts BEWARE! THE SORDID LIVES OF BUGS BEHAVING BADLY.

**this came up at a holiday party on saturday night, when my friend dan told me several useful things and i exclaimed that i would have to tell him several things about bees in exchange for what i had just learned. ah, said he, but my parents have kept bees for years, so you can't tell me much about bees i don't know. i said, well.

***combining the insouciant tones of an upscale wine list and the conclusions of choose your own adventure plot lines.

12.02.12

open, closed

If such a creature is frightening to humans, imagine what it would look like to a honeybee. Scientists observing wild colonies of the Japanese honeybee, Apis cerana japonica, have long known that the colonies are vulnerable to attacks from the giant hornets. Usually a single hornet shows up first to scout the area. It kills a few bees and brings them back to the hive to feed its young. After a few of these trips, the hornet tags the hive by smearing it with pheromones, signaling that it is time for an attack.

A gang of about thirty hornets descend on the hive, and within a few hours these monstrous creatures massacre as many as thirty thousand of the small honeybees, ripping off their heads and tossing their bodies on the ground. Once they've killed the bees, the hornets occupy the empty hive for about ten days, robbing it of its honey and stealing the bee larvae to feed their own children.

Recently, Masato Ono and his colleagues at Tamagawa University discovered that the Japanese honeybees had devised an extraordinarily clever way of attacking back. The first time a solitary hornet approaches the hive, worker bees retreat inside, luring the hornet to the entrance. Then an army of over five hundred honeybees surround the hornet, beating their wings furiously and raising the surrounding temperature to 116 degrees—just hot enough to kill the hornet.

This is a dangerous procedure for the honeybees: if the swarm gets just a few degrees hotter, it will kill them as well. In fact, some worker bees do die in the struggle, but the swarm pushes them out of the way and carries on until the hornet is dead. It can take twenty minutes for the honeybees to bake their enemy to death. While it is not unusual for insects to mount a group defense against an enemy, this is the only known case of using body heat alone to defeat an attacker.

(amy stewart, from wicked bugs)