Locusts: Not just for stripping crops anymore

bomb sniffing locusts

Technophobes worry about a world dominated by robots bent on enslaving humans. Others are vexed by the thought of a society corrupted by an over-reliance on technology that leaves humans unable to function on their own. I say: Beware the cyborg insects!

Lest one think that last bit is just another of this blog’s idiotic rants (which, for the uninitiated, it is), consider what’s being attempted at Washington University in St. Louis:

Researchers are trying to take locusts, the same insects that love to strip the fields of already-starving populations, and marry their keen sense of smell with nanotechnology in a bid to create living bomb detectors.

A “heat-generating tattoo on the wings of the insects can allow the team to control where they fly, while a small computer attached to its body will capture their neural signals,” according to Red Orbit. “The computer will then decode the signals as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ message, which will be sent back to the team. There, it will cause a red or green LED to light up, signaling either that a bomb is present or that it is not.”

While relying on an insect over a bomb-sniffing drone or dog might seem fanciful, the bottom line, according to team leader Baranidharan Raman, is that simpler is better.

Dogs have one of the most powerful senses of smell amongst animals, but require years of training – and a great deal of expense; locusts have a strong sense of smell, and can be directed much more simply, according to Red Orbit. Plus, the locust system might perform better than man-made ones.

“It took only a few hundred milliseconds for the locust’s brain to begin tracking a novel odor introduced in its surroundings,” Raman told the BBC. “The locusts are processing chemical cues in an extremely rapid fashion.

“Even the state-of-the-art miniaturized chemical sensing devices have a handful of sensors. On the other hand, if you look at the insect antennae, where their chemical sensors are located, there are several hundreds of thousands of sensors and of a variety of types,” he added.

And, let’s face it, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to get attached to “Elijah,” the bomb-sniffing locust, making him considerably more expendable than a police squad’s bomb dog or an expensive robot.

These “cyborg” locusts are currently in their early phase of testing, but Raman believes that the technology could become available within two years.

Raman’s team recently received a grant of $750,000 from the US Office of Naval Research for his project.

That will either move the project considerably along or, if they’re already in the advanced stages, procure a whole mess of locusts.

(A researcher holds a locust that has sensors implanted in its brain to decode neural activity. Photo courtesy of Baranidharan Raman, Washington University, St. Louis.)

Local leader fights for right for employees to remain ignorant

Henry Reilly

One sometimes wonders if parochial politicians realize how narrow they appear when they express close-minded views, or if it’s actually their goal to put forth that perception in the first place.

Henry Reilly, a councillor representing the Mourne area  in County Down on a local council in Northern Ireland, recently wrote a letter to a local publication complaining that area workers employed by the same council were being queried about their Irish language skills.

“Workers are being asked if they have an Irish language qualification, how competent they are in Irish, if they would be willing to deal with enquiries from the public in Irish and if they would be willing to take a course in Irish. Staff are even asked if they would like to take such a course during working hours!” Reilly wrote to the News Letter.

Reilly added that council staff members who had contacted him expressed concern that their lack of knowledge of Irish or interest in learning Irish could harm their promotion prospects.

“It is clear to me that the implication of the audit is that having Irish will be a distinct advantage when working for the council,” he added. “This is wrong and discriminatory against the Protestant community.”

So here we have a government entity which, as part of its responsibility to serve its citizenry, seeks to assess the Irish-speaking capabilities of its employees. Understanding that not all employees may be able to speak Irish, it asks if they would be interested in taking a course in the language during working hours.

The council is willing to pay to enable employees to learn another language, to help them better serve the populace. But an elected official finds fault with that. Not because of the potential cost, or because it would potentially leave the council staff shorthanded during working hours, but because it somehow discriminates against the Protestant community.

As I noted when I first learned of this on the blog An Sionnach Fionn, I wish someone would pay me to learn a second language.

The only thing that’s seems unfair is that the people of Mourne find themselves represented by an ignorant ass who is either kowtowing to a handful of bigots who don’t want to learn Irish because they see it as the language of Catholics, or is grandstanding in a bid to lock up votes for the next election.

I don’t know what the threshold should be for having civil staff learn different languages to serve a polyglot population, but clearly there are many regions that would benefit from having some understanding of the language(s) of those they serve, whether it’s Irish in Northern Ireland, Spanish in parts of the United States, French in parts of Canada, etc., etc.

Public service isn’t about bending the job to the employee’s whims, but adapting to what the populace needs, when possible.

If Reilly has his way, services that could be better provided by a staff at least somewhat conversant in Irish would either go undelivered, or be delivered in a decidedly less efficient manner. Either way, some of Reilly’s constitutents would lose – but he’d rather pander than serve all of the public.

(Top: Henry Reilly, councillor on the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council representing the Mourne area.)

Feed a Bee program results in 65 million+ new flowers in US

feed a bee

More than 65 million flowers were planted in 2015 as part of initiative to feed honey bees and other pollinating insects across the United States.

More than 250,000 consumers and 70 organizations took part in Bayer’s Feed a Bee initiative last year, according to Southeast Farm Press.

When bees have access to adequate, diverse food sources they are better able to withstand the stresses caused by the Varroa mite, as well as other mites and diseases, according to recent studies.

The Varroa mite attaches itself to the body of the honey bee and weakens the bee by sucking hemolymph, the fluid which circulates in the bodies of insects. This can cause problems such as the deformed wing virus to spread throughout hives and can ultimately result in a hive’s death.

Through Feed a Bee, Bayer is working to increase forage options for bees and other pollinators at a time when agriculture is relying on them more to help produce enough food to feed a growing world population, the publication noted.

“When we talk to the public, the most common question we hear is, ‘What can I do to help bees?’ Providing pollinators with abundant, diverse food sources is one of the most important things we can all do to promote bee health,” according to Becky Langer, manager of the North American Bee Care Program.

“We created Feed a Bee to make it easy for people to be involved, and we are delighted with the overwhelming response,” she added. “We look forward to getting even more people involved this year.”

Honey bees play a critical role in pollinating many of the fruits, nuts and vegetables which contribute to a healthy, nutritious diet. Given the important role bees play in US agriculture, Bayer undertook the Feed a Bee initiative to help the insects thrive.

“Lack of diverse food sources is a major obstacle to improving honey bee health,” according to the Feed a Bee website. “Quite simply, bees do not have access to all the pollen and nectar sources that they need.”

Feed a Bee seeks to create forage areas with a wide range of bee-attractant plants. It also strives to educate consumers about pollinator food shortages and works with them to plant tens of millions of flowers to increase bee-forage areas.

“We’ve seen some great news in pollinator health in the past year from increasing population numbers to heightened involvement from consumers and other stakeholders,” said Jim Blome, president and CEO of Crop Science, a division of Bayer. “We still have much work to do to ensure the future health of our honey bee colonies, but we hope the foundation we have from Feed a Bee will continue to bring more partners to the table.”

Elegant fountain recalls waning days of horse and buggy

Humane Society Alliance Fountain

Sprinkled throughout the United States are five-ton granite fountains, remnants of a simpler time.

Between 1906 and 1912, the National Humane Alliance presented approximately 125 horse watering troughs to cities and towns across the country. The idea was to instill “ideas of humanity both to the lower animals and to each other,” according to Alliance founder Hermon Lee Ensign.

One such fountain still sits where it was originally placed in Abbeville, SC. Installed in 1912 in the town square, it was designed so that water flowed from regal lions’ mouths into a basin of polished Maine granite trimmed with bronze.

It was designed with an upper bowl, or trough, for horses to drink from and small cups at the bottom for cats and dogs. Birds could also use it, as could humans, who could drink the clean water as it came from the founts.

At least one community in each state in the Union, then composed of 48 states, was presented with a fountain, and at least two were placed in Mexico, as well. Fountains were presented to several cities in South Carolina, including two in Columbia and single fountains in Abbeville, Camden, Georgetown and Laurens.

The National Humane Alliance was established in 1897. Ensign, its founder, compiled a moderate fortune from advertising and several inventions in the newspaper business.

An individual with a lifelong affection for animals, Ensign had a deep appreciation for their welfare. The National Humane Alliance emphasized the education of people to be kind to one another and considerate of animals.

Detail from National Human Alliance fountain in Abbeville, SC.

Detail from National Human Alliance fountain in Abbeville, SC.

Ensign, who died in 1899, dedicated his fortune to the Alliance, which used the money to fund the granite fountain program.

While the fountains aren’t identical, there are many similarities.

The granite used in their construction was quarried in Maine and manufactured in the coastal Maine communities of Rockland and Vinalhavan. The large bowls are around six feet across. Most are about six feet tall.

They can be found across the country, from San Diego, Calif., to Houlton, Maine, and from Spokane, Wash., to Jacksonville, Fla.

At least 70 fountains still survive, with others likely forgotten in municipality storage.

Most have been moved from their original locations, which was often near city or town centers.

The irony in the National Humane Alliance’s well-intentioned investment was that as it was donating these beautiful fountains to towns and cities across the country, the need for them was drawing to a close.

The United States was rapidly becoming a nation of car enthusiasts, and it wouldn’t be too many years before individuals traveling to town by horse were an anomaly.

(Top: National Humane Alliance fountain, Abbeville, SC.)

An unintended foray into falconry proves fulfilling

hawk paint

One of my many blessings is that my children love the outdoors and wildlife as much as I do. They’re always up for wading in a creek, tramping through the woods or driving to some distant unpopulated region for a gander at local fauna. Yesterday, I was rewarded once again for their willingness to abide by their dad’s need to get outside.

While trying to make the best of a wet afternoon we took a drive through rural farmland 15 miles north of home. Along one stretch of rural countryside we saw a red-tailed hawk go hopping across the road. A vehicle came slowly in the other direction and the bird of prey, rather than flying away, bounded off the road and into a ditch.

As the other vehicle passed, I pulled my car over and told my girls to take pictures of the hawk, which was about 15 feet away. I then got out of the car and slowly moved toward it. I could tell something wasn’t right, but I expected it to burrow into the nearby hedgerow and thereby elude me.

Instead, it stayed where it was, eyeing me warily. I got within about three feet and had one of my daughters bring me a sweatshirt. Given the size of the raptor’s beak and talons, I very carefully tried to wrap the sweatshirt around it. The hawk fell back at first, but didn’t put up too much of a fight.

I was able to carefully pick it up and show it to my girls, who, being 15, 14 and 12, were all “oohs” and “ahs.”

Me with somewhat confused red-tailed hawk. No hawks or humans were harmed in the making of this image.

Me with somewhat confused red-tailed hawk. No hawks or humans were harmed in the making of this image.

The hawk was wet and cold. We decided that given the weather – cold and rainy with more of the same expected for the foreseeable future – we would take it to a wildlife rescue shelter about 20 miles away.

One of my girls brought me another sweatshirt, this one pink, so we could make sure his talons were wrapped up and dad didn’t end up with deep lacerations about his body, and I slowly lowered myself into the car holding the hawk. Gently clutching our new companion with my left hand, I started the car and pulled forward, steering with my right hand.

My daughters were transfixed by the bird. Although most of the cinnamon-colored hawk was wrapped up, they could easily see its sharp beak and proud eyes, which gave it a fierce visage.

It was, like most birds, incredibly light for its size, weighing no more than 3 or 4 pounds. But it was two feet tall from head to talons, and its wingspan would likely have been at least four feet, had it had an opportunity to show off its plumage.

Not surprising given the car’s occupants, it was quickly given a series of names: Cooper (we initially thought it was a Cooper’s Hawk); Cosmo and Xenon (being a noble-looking bird, Daughter No. 4 thought it should be named for one of the noble gases and helium, neon, krypton and radon weren’t cutting it.) Ultimately, it ended up with three different names – one from each daughter – none of which, of course, the bird showed any interest in responding to.

A good portion of the trip was on an Interstate, and while I was busy keeping my eyes either on the road or the bird, hoping it wouldn’t decide to crane its neck around and take a nip at my neck or face, I can only image what fellow drivers thought as they passed our car and caught a glimpse of a middle-aged man driving down the road with a fierce-looking raptor sitting on his lap.

We eventually made our way to the Carolina Wildlife Center with neither man nor hawk suffering injury or embarrassment.

As I carried the bird of prey into the center I noticed the other rescued animals on hand, including a baby possum, a squirrel and a blue jay. I somehow resisted the urge to thump my chest, swagger around and crow about how my beast could not only best all the others, but eat each one, as well.

Instead, we filled out an information card, thanked them for taking our hawk and went on our way.

St. Andrew’s Society: Bettering Upstate NY for 200+ years

Vermont Albany 9 9 2015 104 a

Were it not for the striking metalwork atop the door on a four-story brownstone, the structure at 150 Washington Ave. in Albany, NY, would have gone unnoticed in a city full of beautiful old edifices.

In the grillwork is a bronze cast of St. Andrew, one of the Twelve Apostles, carrying a cross amid leaves and branches, on a block. The image stands in front of a banner which bears the words “St. Andrew’s Society”.

For more than 200 years, the St. Andrew’s Society of the City of Albany (NY) has aided people near and far, from denizens of the New York capital to inhabitants of the distant Scottish Highlands.

The society was begun in November 1803 when 41 “Scotchmen,” as they called themselves then, met at the corner of State and North Pearl streets in Albany to found the city’s St. Andrew’s Society, named for the patron saint of Scotland.

At the time Albany was a frontier settlement, with just 5,500 residents.

The founders were merchants, physicians, clergymen and politicians, men who sought to begin an organization for “social and benevolent purposes.”

“They enjoyed life, but they could not stand still when fellow Scots were in need,” according to information found on the society’s website.

The society’s motto is “Relieve the Distressed.” In its first 100 years, it concentrated on immigrant Scots who needed help to find shelter, money and assistance in finding work.

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Old Round Church: A curiosity in heart of the Green Mountains

Richmond, Vermont 9 4 2015 043

The Old Round Church of Richmond, Vt., is unusual for a number of reasons:

  • It is the believed to be lone surviving 16-sided wooden meetinghouse in the United States;
  • When it was originally constructed more than two centuries ago it was home to five different Protestant denominations, all of which would meet every Sunday, each sharing the two-story wood frame structure;
  • It was built at a cost of $3,000; when renovations to the structure were complete in 1981 the price tag was $180,000; and
  • The church was rumored to be built in a circle so that the devil wouldn’t have a place to hide.

The Old Round Church was constructed in 1812-13 by William Rhodes. Rhodes was a native of Claremont, NH, which was home to a 16-sided brick church, similar to what would be erected in Richmond, located in the western foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains on the banks of the Winooski River.

Rhodes was no novice craftsman: He built several covered bridges in New England, a number of houses, and was also a blacksmith.

Construction was funded by sale of pews, most of which were purchased by Congregationalists. The other denominations which used the church in its early decades were Baptists, Methodist, Universalists and a group described as “Christians.”

The structure was built in the Federal style. Rhodes was able to give the structure an appearance of light, delicate walls by hiding the 16 large corner posts behind 32 interior sides, making the inside seem much more round than the outside.

The building is topped by a sixteen-sided roof with a two-stage octagonal bell tower.

Because of the unusual design, much of the flooring, which was fitted around pew boxes, is hand cut, with some of the planks up to 24 inches wide and many cut at 45 or 60 degree angles, to enable them to fit with adjacent planks.

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