Intrepid reporter: Avoid floating masses of fire ants

One would think that if a large newspaper company were going to rewrite press releases sent to them – rather than going out and finding news stories – it could do so in an intelligent manner.

A reporter for al.com, which is the website for several publications, including Alabama newspapers the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register and the Huntsville Times, apparently decided the recent arrival of Tropical Storm Cindy, with its potential for flooding, would be a good opportunity to rewrite a release from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System on the dangers of fire ants.

Fire ants, of course, aren’t daunted by flooding, as they ball together by the thousands during floods, making small rafts that enable them to survive for considerable periods until they find dry land.

According to the al.com story, “If a person encounters one of these floating balls of fire ants, it can be seriously bad news, causing potentially serious health problems not to mention many painful bites.”

Anyone living in the South who isn’t aware that a floating mass of fire ants is bad news either just stepped off the plane from an Inuit enclave in northern Canada or has serious short- and long-term memory issues.

And it isn’t the bite of fire ants that is so much bothersome as the other end of the critter; the fire ant has a sharp stinger on its rear, connected to an internal venom sac.

Among advice al.com included, directly quoting the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service release, was the following:

During times of flooding, avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants; and if you are in a rowboat, do not touch the ants with oars.

It’s understood that newspapers cater to a sixth-grade reading level, but even in sixth grade, when I happened to live along the Mississippi River, I knew you didn’t mess with fire ants, never mind a floating mass of the pernicious devils.

To be told to avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants is akin to being instructed not to stare directly into the sun with a pair of high-powered binoculars.

If all this seems nitpicky, remember that the fire ant that today has spread throughout the Southern US, the Southwestern US and California, came into the United States through the port of Mobile in the 1930s. One would expect a story from a site representing in part the Mobile Press-Register to have a pretty good understanding of the facts regarding this invasive and painful nuisance.

(Top: Fire ants grouped together floating on water.)

Herpetophobes beware: Some snakes found to hunt in unison

Snakes, central characters in many a nightmare, may have just added to their bad reputations: Researchers have found that some of the slithering reptiles attack in packs.

Cuban boas hunt as a team to increase efficiency, providing evidence of the creature’s intelligence, a University of Tennessee scientist has found.

“Coordinated hunting requires higher behavioral complexity because each animal has to take other hunters’ actions into account,” said Vladimir Dinets, the study author and an assistant research professor in the school’s psychology department.

While increased food consumption is believed to be the main reason for the behavior, it’s also possible there is a social function linked to working together, according to RedOrbit.com.

Snakes have been observed to hunt together previously, but the amount of coordination was questionable, and Dinets’ research is the first scientific recording of such behavior.

A recent much-viewed video by the BBC’s Planet Earth showing a young iguana barely escaping a seemingly endless number of attacking snakes would seem to be evidence of the reptiles working toward the same goal, though necessarily in a coordinated effort.

The new research showed how individual snakes take into account the location of others.

The snakes Dinets studied were hunting fruit bats in Cuba. At dawn and dusk, they positioned themselves around the mouth of the cave in such a way as to increase the chances of catching prey.

“Snakes arriving to the hunting area were significantly more likely to position themselves in the part of the passage where other snakes were already present, forming a ‘fence’ across the passage and thus more effectively blocking the flight path of the prey, significantly increasing hunting efficiency,” an extract from the study explained.

The Cuban boa can reach 6 feet in length, which makes the fact that they hang upside down from the roofs of caves even more remarkable.

“After sunset and before dawn, some of the boas entered the passage that connected the roosting chamber with the entrance chamber, and hunted by suspending themselves from the ceiling and grabbing passing bats,” Dinets said.

Dinets observed that the positions taken up by the snakes lowered the chances of bats getting out of the cave. Brilliantly, those hanging positions also meant they behaved like the bats they were trying to catch, according to RedOrbit.com.

For the 2 percent of us that like snakes, this is fascinating; for everyone else, it’s more fodder for bad dreams.

Glimpses of universes where the sky is a very different color

My parents, both born in 1940 and having grown up in the California Bay Area, were in their mid-20s during the so-called countercultural revolution which occurred in Berkeley, San Francisco and other locales during the 1960s. As a not-too-astute teenager, I recall once asking my dad if he or my mom had ever taken part in any “hippie” activities. The response was short and swift: “Heck no; we had to earn a living.”

For most young Americans, the 1960s wasn’t about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, it was about working, getting an education and raising families. It’s only because the media has chosen to portray the period as one in which all young adults participated in the Summer of Love that the former image exists.

I reminded of this type of myopia when I come across odd concepts that seem to sweep academia and other insular professions with regularity. While the rest of the world goes about working and trying to make do, these sorts, who seem to have a good bit of time on their hands, are hell bent on stirring the pot in trying to convince outsiders that their eccentric ideas are cutting edge, rather than on the fringe.

Consider a recent post in the blog of the American Mathematical Society by Piper Harron, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Hawaii. Titled “Get Out of the Way,” the first three paragraphs read thus:

Not to alarm you, but I probably want you to quit your job, or at least take a demotion. Statistically speaking, you are probably taking up room that should go to someone else. If you are a white cis man (meaning you identify as male and you were assigned male at birth) you almost certainly should resign from your position of power. That’s right, please quit. Too difficult? Well, as a first step, at least get off your hiring committee, your curriculum committee, and make sure you’re replaced by a woman of color or trans person. Don’t have any in your department? HOW SHOCKING.

Remember that you live in a world where people don’t succeed in a vacuum; most success happens on the backs of others who did not consent. You have no idea how successful you would have been if you were still you, but with an additional marginalization (not white, or not male, or not cis gender, or with a disability, etc).

Right now, I want to talk about gender equality because the fact that women aren’t actually a demographic minority makes certain arguments easier, but please know that actual solutions require women of color and trans people. Remember having white cis women run the world is no kind of solution.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harron is a black female. What’s more unusual is that this appears on a blog for a math society, rather than one of academia’s more “activist” areas, such as gender studies, law or political science.

I can’t say whether Harron is a competent mathematician or a competent professor, but I do know that she would not be my first choice to teach my children were they to attend the University of Hawaii. I’m leery of those who wholeheartedly engage in identity politics.

Here’s another tempest that’s apparently been swirling about for the past year or two: the question among literary sorts whether they should take a year-long sabbatical from reading “white, straight, cisgender male authors.”

No, really.

The goal is to focus on “marginalized authors to support them and broaden readers’ horizons.”

Heina Dadabhob, in a 2015 story about the movement for The Daily Dot, was aghast to realize that she was “reading fewer than 50 percent non-male authors.”

“Despite being an outspoken feminist, I was not reading or supporting many female authors,” she wrote.

I confess to not understanding this line of thinking. It seems incredibly narrow-minded, not to mention condescending, particularly the part about the need to “broaden readers’ horizons.”

And is it not a method of banning books – if only for a year – of authors who do not fit certain racial and gender categories.

I don’t need holier-than-thou sorts to tell me of the pleasures of Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Annie Proulx, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Lise Funderburg, David Sedaris or Pearl Buck, all of whom I’ve read recently. I also am not going to listen to some busybody tell me that I shouldn’t pick up Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dickens, Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and James Fenimore Cooper, all of whom I’ve also enjoyed recently.

Anyone who chooses not to read the works of white, straight, cisgender male authors is as foolish as someone who chooses to only read the works of white, straight, cisgender male authors.

Good literature is good literature, no matter who writes it.

Dadabhob finishes her piece in The Daily Dot with the following: “… almost everyone, regardless of gender or race, could stand to enjoy more literature from a broader range of authors.”

I would amend her statement to simply say that almost everyone, regardless of gender or race could stand to enjoy more literature – period.

(Top: the Bonfire of the Vanities, Feb. 7, 1497. Supporters of Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola collect and burn thousands of objects, including art and books, in Florence, Italy.)

School board strikes a blow for the timid and fainthearted

Among memorable lines from the 1985 classic Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one in which protagonist Pee-wee Herman tells admiring love interest Dottie that he doesn’t need anyone: “You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”

Were that movie made today, it would seem likely that last word would have to be substituted, most likely with something bland and insipid, such as “nonconforming dissenter” or “quirky eccentric.”

The word rebel scares people.

Consider that the South Burlington (Vt.) School Board recently voted to drop the “Rebel” name at South Burlington High School for the coming school year. For more than 55 years South Burlington High School has used “Rebels” as its nickname, said to be in recognition of the city’s secession from Burlington many years before. In its early years, the school had an old-style Confederate colonel mascot, but that was dropped decades ago.

Superintendent David Young told the school board in February that it had become “crystal clear” to him that the nickname “is interfering with all students’ ability to feel safe and included in our schools.”

No details were provided on how a word – one associated with individuals such as George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi – was “interfering with all students’ ability to feel safe and included … ”

According to an Associated Press story, the move to change the name came about because of a gradual shift in the largely white school, whose population is now nearly 20 percent nonwhite, said South Burlington High School Interim Principal Patrick Phillips. He said the nickname has created discomfort for some students.

I’m not aware of the racial makeup of South Burlington High, but according to the 2010 census, South Burlington itself was 90 percent white, 5.4 percent Asian, 1.9 black, 1.9 percent Hispanic. Two percent were classified as two or more races, and Native Americans, Pacific Islander and “other races” made up one-half of one percent or less of the town’s population.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that a significant percentage of non-white students haven’t moved into the school in recent years.

However, it seems somewhat condescending to assume that non-whites are automatically offended by the word “rebel.”

There had been a push to allow the community to vote on the mascot issue, but that was rejected by the school board.

South Burlington resident Sandy Dooley was among those opposed to a public vote.

“I think that every student, every child who participates in our education programs here in South Burlington has a right to be in an environment that in every respect supports his or her opportunity to take full advantage of what we’re offering here. And I think there’s ample evidence that the ‘Rebel’ identifier interferes with that,” she told the Associated Press.

Again, no evidence was provided on how the “rebel identifier” interferes with participation in education programs.

South Burlington students will vote today on three names to replace “rebels”: Huskies, Pride and Wolves. Inspiring. Jellyfish would seem more fitting, although it seems unfair to punish students for the sins of their lily-livered fathers, mothers and administrators.

No word on when the South Burlington School Board will take aim at striking Ethan Allen from its textbooks. After all, Vermont was founded by Allen and other “rebels” who sought independence from New York, seeing themselves “as a distinct region outside the legitimate jurisdiction of New York.”

Although Vermonters fought the British during the American Revolution, they didn’t join the fledgling United States at the outset of war, as both New York and New Hampshire wanted the territory for themselves.

Instead, in 1777, Vermonters declared independence, wrote their own constitution and formed the Republic of Vermont, which lasted until 1791, when the state was admitted to the Union as the 14th state.

Others who could be in the South Burlington School Board’s crosshairs include the Founding Fathers, most certainly considered “rebels” by Great Britain; Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who led a rebellion against colonial powers and helped Haiti to freedom in the early 19th century; Martin Luther, who rebelled against the Roman Catholic church and helped usher in the Protestant Reformation; Nelson Mandela, famed anti-apartheid activist; most any of the American Civil Rights leaders, who were considered rebels by Jim Crow advocates; and religious figures such as Moses, Jesus Christ and Muhammad.

Butterflies: neither butter nor fly, but still welcome

Spring’s advent is announced any number of ways, depending on what part of the world one inhabits. In the Deep South, wisteria vines taking bloom in otherwise drab, lifeless trees are often the first sign that seasons are changing.

This year, I came across a new harbinger: a brood of recently hatched Eastern tiger swallowtails.

During a weekend drive through the country 10 days ago, I stopped at a small creek to peer at the water coursing below. Being shallow, the creek was more sand than stream. In one of the many islands were eight Eastern tiger swallowtails, a common butterfly noted for its yellow body and black stripes, congregating together.

After snapping a few photos from the bridge, I made my way down to stream level. With each couple of steps, I’d snap photos, not knowing when the insects would take flight.

After a short time I was upon them, and it was only when I touched a couple with my finger did some make a lazy effort at flight. Others simply walked a few inches away.

It was apparent that this group had just hatched and were sunning themselves, letting their wings dry before setting off in search of food.

The Eastern tiger swallowtail is among butterflies that spends winter in a chrysalis, emerging when the weather warms. This made sense as it seemed difficult to fathom caterpillars finding enough greenery to fatten up in winter, never mind surviving occasional below-freezing conditions.

Eastern tiger swallowtails are abundant, being found across much of eastern North America, from Ontario south to the Gulf Coast and into northern Mexico.

Typically, Eastern tiger swallowtails avoid company, except, apparently, just after hatching and, of course, when mating.

Besides birds, swallowtails have a variety of predators, including hornets, praying mantises, squirrels, possums and raccoons.

With bright colors and a wingspan of up to 5.5 inches, one could see how they’d make a tempting target for the butterfly-hungry.

However, within a short time, my kaleidoscope of swallowtails had gained enough strength to safely take flight and make their way into the world.

(Top: Eastern tiger swallowtail resting after being disturbed by nosy blogger.)

Earth Hour: the Dogged Drive of Inane Intentions

We in the West are drowning in a cornucopia of ill-conceived special celebrations.

From National Bike to Work Day (May 19) to Global Forgiveness Day (Aug. 27) to International Peace Day (Sept. 21), there are a rash of events that the self-righteous have concocted in order to make themselves feel good, if not morally superior, to those around them.

These events are largely limited to the Western world because the rest of the globe is too busy trying to stay alive to be bothered with such claptrap.

This Saturday (8:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. for those of you keeping score at home),  the annual self-congratulatory activity known as Earth Hour will be held under the guise of “United People to Save the Planet.”

Rather than list my many objections to this bit of imbecility, I’ll let you read the words of Canadian economist Ross McKitrick, who, in 2009, was asked by a journalist for his thoughts on the importance of Earth Hour:

I abhor Earth Hour. Abundant, cheap electricity has been the greatest source of human liberation in the 20th century. Every material social advance in the 20th century depended on the proliferation of inexpensive and reliable electricity.

Giving women the freedom to work outside the home depended on the availability of electrical appliances that free up time from domestic chores. Getting children out of menial labor and into schools depended on the same thing, as well as the ability to provide safe indoor lighting for reading.

Development and provision of modern health care without electricity is absolutely impossible. The expansion of our food supply, and the promotion of hygiene and nutrition, depended on being able to irrigate fields, cook and refrigerate foods, and have a steady indoor supply of hot water.

Many of the world’s poor suffer brutal environmental conditions in their own homes because of the necessity of cooking over indoor fires that burn twigs and dung. This causes local deforestation and the proliferation of smoke- and parasite-related lung diseases. Anyone who wants to see local conditions improve in the third world should realize the importance of access to cheap electricity from fossil-fuel based power generating stations. After all, that’s how the west developed.

The whole mentality around Earth Hour demonizes electricity. I cannot do that, instead I celebrate it and all that it has provided for humanity. Earth Hour celebrates ignorance, poverty and backwardness. By repudiating the greatest engine of liberation it becomes an hour devoted to anti-humanism. It encourages the sanctimonious gesture of turning off trivial appliances for a trivial amount of time, in deference to some ill-defined abstraction called “the Earth,” all the while hypocritically retaining the real benefits of continuous, reliable electricity.

People who see virtue in doing without electricity should shut off their refrigerator, stove, microwave, computer, water heater, lights, TV and all other appliances for a month, not an hour. And pop down to the cardiac unit at the hospital and shut the power off there too.

I don’t want to go back to nature. Travel to a zone hit by earthquakes, floods and hurricanes to see what it’s like to go back to nature. For humans, living in “nature” meant a short life span marked by violence, disease and ignorance. People who work for the end of poverty and relief from disease are fighting against nature. I hope they leave their lights on.

Here in Ontario, through the use of pollution control technology and advanced engineering, our air quality has dramatically improved since the 1960s, despite the expansion of industry and the power supply.

If, after all this, we are going to take the view that the remaining air emissions outweigh all the benefits of electricity, and that we ought to be shamed into sitting in darkness for an hour, like naughty children who have been caught doing something bad, then we are setting up unspoiled nature as an absolute, transcendent ideal that obliterates all other ethical and humane obligations.

No thanks. I like visiting nature but I don’t want to live there, and I refuse to accept the idea that civilization with all its tradeoffs is something to be ashamed of.

If I possessed that eloquence, I’d probably have more than half a dozen readers and wouldn’t be living in a van down by the river a much larger bank account.

No word on whether Earth Hour is just a giant charade cooked up by Big Candle to boost profits, but come Saturday evening I’ll be happily burning every old-fashioned 100-watt incandescent light bulb I can find.

(Top: One can only hope that the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital, which saves hundreds of newborns each year, won’t turn off its life-saving equipment this coming Saturday night for Earth Hour.)

The kind of critter they make science-fiction movies about

crypt-keeper-wasp

There isn’t much in the wild that I haven’t tangled with, including arachnids and insects. Black widows, hornets, millipedes, cockroaches and scorpions are all fair game, though the more ornery the critter, the more circumspect I am.

Scientists have recently found a new bug, however, that sounds absolutely appalling.

Nicknamed the crypt-keeper wasp, it has a decidedly distasteful life cycle, according to online publication Red Orbit.

How distasteful? Researchers named it after Set, the Egyptian god of evil and violence. That will buy you some street cred among fellow creepy-crawlies, one imagines.

The adult wasp, shown above, lays its egg within the small, wooden compartments built by a different species, the gall wasp, inside live sand oak trees.

When the egg hatches, crypt-keeper wasp larva dig into the gall wasp and takes control of its brain. This forces the gall wasp to tunnel out of the tree, a task the crypt-keeper has a hard time doing by itself.

If that weren’t grim enough, crypt-keeper wasp larva then causes its host to punch out a hole not quite big enough for it to escape from the tree.

“After the bigger wasp is stuck in the hole it’s burrowed, the crypt-keeper eats its host from within, finally erupting from the host’s head and out into the world,” according to Red Orbit.

I haven’t seen any of these, but I think I’ll do my best to keep my distance from this member of the order Hymenoptera should I happen across any in the future.