Mark Grossman: Bees — What’s with the Buzz?

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10 April 2014

Ms. Bee, why do you buzz?

First, mechanics. When the bee flaps its small wings with amazing speed, it creates a gust of wind. Well, actually, it creates a lot of short, strong gusts of wind, so sudden and definite, that we hear it as a buzz. Flies buzz and so do other insects.

Second, some bees buzz even when they’re not flying. Bumblebees are known for their characteristically loud buzz.  However, unlike hive-dwelling honeybees, bumblebees don’t just buzz when they’re flying.  They can, and do, produce that same buzz without moving their wings.  And it is just the vibration from this flightless buzz that makes them uniquely valuable pollinators of certain crops.

After landing on a blossom, the large bumblebee grabs the blossom and holds it tightly.  While maintaining this tight grip, it strongly vibrates while remaining stationary.  Nothing less than the bumblebee’s strong vibration will assure pollination by shaking loose sufficient quantities of the thick pollen produced by certain species of plants.  No other bee could do this job as consistently or successfully.

Bumbles are specially suited to pollinate a variety of cash crops including tomatoes, cranberries, almonds, apples, zucchinis, avocados, and plums.  Their unique style of pollination accounts for about 3 billion dollars in produce each year.

Third, recent speculation suggests that bees may buzz to enhance their electronic communication. Yes, electronic communication ! Honeybees communicate with each other through a variety of dances. One of the bees’ “steps” is the waggle dance. When a single bee discovers an area rich in pollen and honey, the bee returns to the hive and does the waggle dance. The bee’s dance moves inform the other bees of the location of the blooms that will provide the most food.

We always thought it was the waggler’s dance moves that did the talking. But, now, we’re not so sure. Researchers discovered that honeybees generate and pick up an electrical charge when they fly.  The charge is so strong that the flying honeybee produces an electrical field.  And the waggle-dancing bee produces a strong electrical field – so strong that it is known to move the antennae of the bees “in the audience.”

What does all this have to do with buzzing? Well, guess what makes the dancing bee’s electrical field even stronger? Sound. The sound of buzzing. So, the buzz of the honeybee may not just be the sound of its wings, but an electronic amplifier that works like a loud speaker to broadcast its message louder and farther.

Fourth, . . .  could the bee’s buzz be a warning?  Does the buzz of a swarm of bees scare-off persons or animals that might, otherwise, interfere with the bees’ work or disturb their hive?  Frankly, when I started writing, I was planning to list only three reasons why bees buzz. But, then, I imagined the sound of a swarm of bees buzzing. The sound brought a knee-jerk reaction – alarm – and I wanted to get away fast.  My urge was more of a reflex than a thought.   And, then, I remembered a story about a movie.

It was rumored that the sound of a swarm of agitated bees was inserted into the soundtrack of the 1973 horror film, The Exorcist.  As the story goes, to keep audience tensions high during relatively quiet scenes, director William Friedkin, inserted the sound of a swarm of agitated bees into the soundtrack. No one actually heard the sounds because no one was supposed to hear them. The recording of the agitated bees was intentionally introduced at a subliminal level of volume. That is, the recording was played at a volume too low to be consciously heard. But the volume was sufficient to allow viewers (and listeners) to unconsciously “hear” the buzzing swarm and react with their own fear and agitation.

Whether true or not, the story assumes that the sound of the buzzing of a swarm of angry bees is terrifying to human beings. So, maybe the bees’ buzz has yet another purpose:  It keeps meddlers at a distance while the bees do their work.

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Mark Grossman: The Emu – Green Eggs But No Ham

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20 March  2014

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Africa has its ostrich, and America has its, lesser known, rhea.  But Australia has its emu.  On first sight, this large, grey-brown bird is unmistakably the close relative of both the ostrich and rhea.  However, the emu is the “character” of the family — the odd one in this not so typical family of birds.

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Like its cousins, the emu is a flightless bird.  And, also, like it cousins, it’s fast.  So, even if it can’t fly, it can run faster than any other animal in Australia.  At 31 miles per hour, the emu ranks as the second fasted bird on earth — second only to its African cousin, the ostrich.  At a height reaching up to a bit over six-and-a-half feet and weighing as much as 130 pounds, the emu enjoys the distinction of being the largest bird in Australia.  But, again, in terms of size, the emu is only the second largest bird in the world.  The largest?  You guessed it.  Cousin Ostrich.

Although sharing the ostrich’s unmistakable form and profile, in terms of appearance, the emu is not only smaller than its African cousin, but has brown colored plumage –  just a touch drabber than the grey-brown feathers of its other cousin, the Rhea.  Maybe to make up for its drab feathers, nature has favored the emu with a blue neck.   This relatively bright “collar” give the bird a bit of color while allowing it to conceal itself by lowering its head and neck for purposes of camouflage.

Camouflage?  This bird is over 6 feet tall.  Who’s going to mess with it?  Actually, the emu has predators in the wild, unpopulated “Outback” of Australia.   Both eagles and hawks attack emus from the air.   But there’s a catch.  The emus that are grabbed and carried off by eagles and hawks are young birds that have not yet reached their adult height and weight.

Could a flying bird carry off a full grown emu?  Well, even in the Out-est of the Outback, there are no birds that big.  The young victims have few defenses beyond their speed and a peculiar swerving run they share with Cousin Rhea.  At times, Emus extend their relatively small wings to keep their balance as the run in an evasive swerving pattern.

Dingos, a member of the grey wolf family, are the only predator of the full grown bird.  Even if emu’s lose some fights for survival with this free ranging dog of the Outback, the emu brings a serious weapon to the fight – its feet.

Like Cousin Rhea, the emu has 3 toes on its clawed feet.  This is unusual for birds, which often have a fourth “opposing” toe used to grip branches and other natural perches.   Three toe, tridactyl, clawed feet are found in birds that, like the emu, walk and run on flat ground instead of flying.  And the emu has really big, mean clawed feet.  Mean?  Yes, mean.  Emus have been known to use their feet to rip through wire fences.  You really don’t want to get these birds angry or get in their way when they’re going somewhere.

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And emus like to get where they’re going.  Not favoring flocks, these birds often travel in pairs.  They run at high speed and are unruffled by water.  When a body of water comes between an emu and where it wants to go, it just jumps in and swims.

When these birds aren’t running or swimming, they pause to feed on a variety of insects and plants.  They have excellent eye-sight.  When they’re not eating, they like to groom or “preen” their “plumage” or look around and “investigate.”

Noted for their curiosity, emus will approach humans – especially if they see movement or a colorful piece of clothing.  These birds have been known to follow and watch humans in the wild.  And, once you attract an emu’s attention, it might not be so easy to give an interested bird “the slip.”   Hoping that an emu will go away if you “just ignore it” doesn’t always work.   And, be warned: emus seem to have a sense of humor.  They have been known to approach humans and other animals and poke them with their beak and, then, run away.  Observers have the impression that this is a kind of “game” for the large bird.

The emu’s “call” is not like a bird’s call at all.  The emu makes a loud drumming or thumping sound.  That’s all.  And . . .  did I say it was loud?  It can be heard a little over a mile away.  The emu’s call enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame on the animated television series, King of the Hill .   In one episode, (Season 6, Episode 17, “Fun with Jane and Jane”), the emus “sing” the theme song with the closing credits.  Of course, there’s no music involved.  The animated birds simply intone a series of loud thumps in lieu of the regular theme.

Although there is no recognizable difference in appearance that distinguishes the male from the female.   But emus generally roam in pairs.  The pair consists of one male and one female.  But this pairing ends, more or less, with mating season.  Wait . . . the male-female pairingends with mating season?  Yes.  It’s strange.  But that’s only the beginning of the strangeness.

Emus don’t abandon the male-female stereotypes in mating.  They reverse them.

During mating season, the females become aggressive and begin to court the relatively passive males.  A female will circle around the potential male mate drawing closer and closer.  If another passing female develops an attraction for the same male, it may, and often does, start a fight.  During mating season, fights among females are common with a single fight sometimes lasting for hours.

After mating, the male builds its nest.  And it is the male’s nest.  The female will lay eggs in the nest, but not sit on the eggs.  The male cares completely for eggs, and will lose about a third of his body-weight because of its inability to leave the nest and obtain food.   After laying her eggs, the mating female will often seek out another male, mating with as many males as possible during the mating season.

The emu’s eggs are . . . interesting . . . because they are large: over 5 inches long and weighing as much as 2 pounds.  Also, they are green.  When freshly laid, the emu’s eggs are a light green.  You might ask, “Then, they turn white, right?”  No, they don’t.  They get greener and greener until they reach the shade of an avocado.

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The eggs hatch about 56 days after they are laid.  The newly hatched chicks weigh a little over a pound and are about 5 inches tall.  They can leave the nest within days, but will stay with their defending father for about 6 or 7 months learning how to find food and reaching their full adult size.  However, the young can spend as long as a year in this family circle before taking off on their own.  An emu can live as long as 20 years.

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Emus are raised for meat in Australia, the United States, Peru, and China. The USDA classifies emu as red, poultry meat.  Emu skin is used to produce a distinctive type of leather.  Oil from emu fat is used for cosmetics and dietary supplements.  Although emu oil has a long history of use as an anti-inflammatory, therapeutic product, the US FDA has classified emu oil as an “unapproved drug.”

The emu is prized as a cultural icon in Australia appearing with the red kangaroo on the Coat of arms of Australia and the Australian 50 cent coin.   The bird has been featured on a number of Australian postage stamps and is the namesake of mountains, lakes, towns and even a brand of beer.

Mark Grossman: What Einstein didn’t Say about Bees

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10 April 2014

THE SHORT ANSWER

In 1994, a quote attributed to Albert Einstein appeared in popular circulation:

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

Einstein didn’t say that. If the great scientist ever said anything about bees, publicly, he was probably quoting someone else. The statement above was made by whoever circulated the quote in 1994 and “creatively” attributed it to Einstein.

But, then, who said it?

The prize for the closest match goes to Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck who said in his 1901 book, “The Life of the Bee”:

“[You’ve seen the bee] to whom we probably owe most of our flowers and fruits (for it is actually estimated that more than a hundred thousand varieties of plants would disappear if the bees did not visit them), and possibly even our civilization, for in these mysteries all things intertwine.”

While not packing quite the punch of the modern (apocryphal) Einstein quote, Maeterlinck is perhaps the oldest commentator to link the disappearance of bees with a dire result for humanity.

While there’s no record of Einstein ever saying anything about bees, there is a short history of bee quotations attributed to him.

The Canadian Bee Journal” included a bee quotation attributed to Einstein, in 1941, but no one has ever been able to actually link the quote to Einstein. Even the writer says that he or she is quoting from memory:

“Remove the bee from the earth and at the same stroke you remove at least one hundred thousand plants that will not survive.”

Not until 1966, did “The Irish Beekeeper” attribute a bee quotation to Einstein that mentioned the end of mankind:

“Professor Einstein, the learned scientist, once calculated that if all bees disappeared off the earth, four years later all humans would also have disappeared.”

But no one can find any source of, or reference to, the quotation above. “The Irish Beekeeper” attributed the quote to a 1965 issue of a French periodical, Abeilles et fleurs.   Unfortunately, despite a thorough search of that periodical’s contents, no such quote, attributed to Einstein or anyone else, could be found.

In his 1992 book, The Diversity of Life, Biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote:

“[I]f all [the bees] were to disappear, humanity probably could not last more than a few months.”

But this is, certainly, Wilson’s statement and not anyone else’s.

Finally, during a 1994 demonstration by beekeepers in Brussels, members of the National Union of French Apiculture handed out pamphlets attributing the following quotation to Albert Einstein:

“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!”

Again, Al never said that.  And we may never know who did.

Mark Grossman: Finally! A Robot Spider You Can Ride!?

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3 April 2014

Just what we’ve always dreamed of . . . a spider you can ride? One of the few dreams I think almost nobody has had is the one about “riding the wild spider.” When I first saw an article about this, I cocked my head and just looked at the picture for a minute – involuntarily muttering, “Wha?”

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But, ready or not, the ride-able spider is here. And just in time for . . . some holiday, . . . I guess.

Beginning in 2009, Matt Denton, founder of Micromagic Systems, undertook the building of what has come to be called a giant spider. But for those of us who are aficionados of spider factoids, spiders have 8 legs.   The fact that the ride-able spider robot has only 6 legs is just a bit of a disappointment. The designers, also, recognized the credibility gap that would develop if their invention were actually called a spider.  So, they gave it the formal name: mantis — naming it after the six-legged praying mantis.

By the way, if you ever get a close look at a praying mantis . . .   Well, let’s just say that, in terms of “looks,” it can give the creepiest spider more than a run for its money.

COMPARE: SPIDER FACE vs PRAYING MANTIS FACE

Anyway, reportedly, the construction of a giant walking robot that could carry around a human being was a long-time dream of Denton’s. The finished product isn’t just big, it’s the biggest hexapod built “so far.” At a height of over 9 feet with a weight of 4,188 pounds, it’s “the biggest all-terrain operational hexapod robot in the world.” A Perkins 2.2 liter turbo diesel engine is required to operate the hydraulics that moves its many legs.

And I wasn’t kidding when I talked about riding the wild spider, either. Micromagic Systems is actually making the Mantis available for rent. It doesn’t move fast, but it’s quite sure-footed and capable of traversing terrain that would stop a wheeled vehicle. In fact, Micromagic Systems shouldn’t be surprised if DARPA comes “a calling.” The Mantis has clear military applications along the same lines as other robots being developed for the military by the defense industry.

DARPA SPONSERED PROJECTS; “BIG DOG” & “ROBO-RAVEN

The Mantis’ rugged performance is all the more surprising because appearance, rather than performance, is the chief characteristic of the animatronic devices Micromagic Systems has always produced. “Animatronic devices” are machines that simulate the movement of living creatures and are most often built for the production of special effects for the film industry. It was Denton’s team that created the six-legged turtle for a Harry Potter film.

WAS THERE A SIX-LEGGED TURTLE IN A HARRY POTTER FILM?

Although the Mantis is a fantastic achievement, I can’t help asking: It’s always six legs with you at Micromagic? A six-legged turtle. Then, a six-legged mantis. We spider-lovers are waiting for the first, eight . . . (count ‘em!) . . . eight-legged spider robot.

MICROMAGIC SYSTEMS

Engineers unveil giant robot spider that you can drive

Mark Grossman: What is Bionics?

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3 April 2014

THE SHORT ANSWER

A simple internet search brought many results. But the first was a definition of bionics: “having artificial body parts, [especially] electromechanical ones.”

The term bionic is most often used in medicine to mean the replacement or improvement of human organs or other body parts with mechanical imitations. Bionic imitations are designed “to work” like the original part or even better. This is different from prosthetic replacements, which are only designed to “look like” the missing organ or body part. However, one does not have to exclude the other. A “working” bionic replacement can also be prosthetic or “look like” the missing body part or organ.

Many researchers in the field of robotics are working on many different projects. And each group of researchers knows what they are doing. But this field has, and continues, to develop so quickly that there is a lot of actual confusion about words: what to call what you are doing. And the word bionic is an example of change and confusion.

In the late 1950’s, a psychiatrist and engineer named Jack E. Steele invented the term bionic. But his “bionic” had a much broader meaning than the term has today. Steele used the term to describe the imitation of nature, natural processes, and living organisms in the design of mechanical systems – as solutions “to engineering problems.”

And the definition might be the same, today, if a science fiction writer named Martin Caidin hadn’t used the term in his novel, Cyborg. Again, the definition of the word bionic might not have been affected if the novel had been unpopular.   Not only was Cyborg popular, but it was adapted into the television show, The Six Million Dollar Man.  I’d guess the show’s developers thought the word “bionic” sounded cool, but the word “cyborg” sounded creepy. The rest is not only TV history, but narrowed the meaning of the word bionics to focus on the design of functional, mechanic organ replacements and body parts.

Maybe the spectacular success of the television show and a spin off or two, made the word bionic just too trendy for the technological community. “Bionic,” with its original meaning, disappeared from technical literature in favor of Otto Schmitt’s term, “biomemetric” meaning the solution of engineering problems by imitating nature in the design of mechanical devices. Then, Janine Benyus popularized the term, “biomimicry” in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

Technically, the rather long phrase, “bionical creativity engineering” still retains the broad meaning of the original term bionics.   But you’re more likely to hear the terms biomemetric or biomimicry when robotic marvels like Boston Dynamics’ “Big Dog” or UVD’s Robo-Raven are discussed.

A final note on word usage. Bionics is the study of incorporating mechanical organs and body parts into living human beings. When you actually incorporate the mechanical organ or body part, you have something called a cyborg. To take some of the creepiness out of the name cyborg, remember that a heart patient with a pacemaker is, technically, a cyborg. A kidney patient, actually using a dialysis machine to assist kidney function, is a cyborg, as long as they are connected to the machine.