Einstein was not an entomologist

Male Squash Bee in pumpkin flower

Squash Bees are among approximately 4000 species of native bees (and thousands of other native pollinators) in North America.

If the bee disappeared off the face of the globe then man would have only four years of life left. – Albert Einstein

The quote above, as the caption to a photo of a honeybee, is making the rounds on Facebook. While I appreciate the environmental sentiment behind it, there are several serious problems:

  1. There’s no evidence that Einstein actually said or wrote this. It wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to bolster a statement’s credibility by misattributing it to a famous dead person.
  2. Even if he did, he was a physicist, not an entomologist or pollination ecologist. Being a genius in one field doesn’t make someone an instant expert in another. I’d be far more impressed if this quote was attributed to Steve Buchmann, but regrettably few people have heard of the University of Arizona’s eminent bee ecologist.
  3. “The bee” suggests that the quote refers to the honeybee (Apis mellifera), as we would understand that “the horse” refers to domestic horses and “the dog” refers to domestic dogs. There are thousands of other species of bees, and many of them are important to agriculture. North America’s native flora and indigenous agriculture got along quite well before European colonists introduced the honeybee, thank you very much.*
  4. I’m going to belabor the previous point, because I find it really annoying when people use “the [generic singular noun]” to make sweeping generalizations about large and diverse groups, e.g. saying “the hummingbird is the world’s smallest bird,” when many hummingbirds are larger than many small songbirds. AARGH!**

It’s hard to overstate the importance of pollinators, but too many people obsess over the honeybee without understanding their dark side. Yes, the decline in honeybee populations in North America is causing problems, mostly for beekeepers, the farms that use their services, and people who eat a lot of honey. From environmental and public safety perspectives, however, the decline isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As important as they are to agriculture, honeybees take food out of the mouths of native pollinators and present a real danger to people, pets, and livestock.

From most of the southern U.S. through Central and South America, the feral (“wild”) honeybee population carries genes from highly aggressive African strains that have earned them the nickname “killer bees.” Though virtually indistinguishable from pure European honeybees, Africanized bees attack en masse when they sense a threat to their hive. Even a single sting from any honeybee can be fatal to those allergic to their venom, but Africanized bees often sting their victims hundreds of times. You don’t have to be allergic to die from such an assault, and many people have. They also defend a larger area around their hives and will chase perceived predators farther than their European cousins do. Where these aggressive bees are known to occur, it’s prudent to assume that any feral honeybee hive is Africanized and give it a wide berth.

Native bees are excellent pollinators and nowhere near as dangerous to people and pets as honeybees. They already do much of the pollination work in our gardens, as long as some natural habitat remains nearby to support their nests and other ecological needs. If farmers are going to make effective use of native bees’ services, they’ll need to reduce field sizes and pesticide use and create mosaics of cultivation and native vegetation, and that’s also a good thing for thousands of other insect species plus birds, mammals, reptiles, etc. that can’t survive in our current agricultural wastelands.


Bugguide.net: Native Bees of North America

Science Daily: Bees, Fruits and Money: Decline of Pollinators Will Have Severe Impact On Nature and Humankind

Science Daily: Honeybees May Not Be as Important to Pollination Services in the UK, Study Suggests

Science Daily: Native Bees Could Fill Pollinator Hole Left By Honeybees

Science Daily: Wild Pollinators Support Farm Productivity and Stabilize Yield

Montana Wildlife Gardener: Build a Mason Bee House in 5 Minutes

* Even if all bees of all species disappeared, we’d still have thousands of other pollinator species that fill similar ecological niches, including wasps and flies. Also, loss of pollinators wouldn’t directly affect crops that don’t need pollination: wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes come to mind.

** A FB commenter tried to defend the quote by claiming that the quotee was using “the bee” to refer to all pollinators(!). If so, why wouldn’t the quotee just say that explicitly? In fact, the history of the quote per Snopes.com suggests that it originated with French beekeepers, which supports the assumption that “the bee” in question is the honeybee.


Search of the Week: “why don’t hummingbirds get diabetes”

A male Broad-billed Hummingbird threatens an intruder in his feeding territory.

A male Broad-billed Hummingbird threatens an intruder in his feeding territory.

This week’s featured search topic has been addressed on LB&E previously here and here.

Type 2 diabetes, the disease people are thinking of when they ask such questions (because they’ve been told, wrongly,*⇓ that sugar consumption causes diabetes), is largely a modern human affliction. We eat too much, including highly processed foods full of easily digested simple carbohydrates that flood our bloodstreams with glucose. We exercise too little, contributing to getting fat and staying fat. Our bodies may continue producing insulin to aid in utilization of the glucose in our systems, but over time our cells may stop responding to it.

These issues weren’t much of a problem for our pre-industrial ancestors (even those with a genetic predisposition to diabetes), and they’re still not much of a problem for people living labor-intensive lifestyles and eating traditional diets high in complex carbs, fiber, and other good things.

They’re also not a problem for hummingbirds. More than 40 million years of evolution have adapted these tiny, hyperactive dynamos to a sugar-rich diet. To maintain some of the highest metabolic rates ever measured, hummingbirds must take in enormous amounts of energy. The most energy-dense food available to them is flower nectar. Without it, the tiny, hovering jewels we know and love would never have evolved.

You might say that hummingbirds show three classic symptoms of diabetes: they eat a lot (polyphagia), drink a lot (polydipsia), and pee a lot (polyuria). Of course, these “symptoms” are simply consequences of a high metabolism and water-rich diet. They also have very high blood glucose levels, high enough to cause serious complications in humans, but their absorption and utilization of the sugars in their diet are so efficient that almost none ends up in their urine (as it does in human diabetes patients).

Medical researchers would love to know exactly how hummingbirds avoid the short-term and long-term complications of high blood glucose, but it’s clear that their ability to do so has been honed by natural selection. Any hummingbird that had a serious defect in its ability to absorb and/or metabolize sugar would be dead within days, weeded out of the gene pool.

Here’s an in-depth examination of the issues from the perspective of human health:

Adipose energy stores, physical work, and the metabolic syndrome: lessons from hummingbirds

* Since this post was written, new research has persuaded many members of the medical community that there’s a more direct link between sugar consumption and Type 2 diabetes than decades of propaganda by Big Sugar would have us believe.

Search of the Week: “are humming birds cold blooded”

One reason I like WordPress so much is that it allows me to monitor not only how many people are visiting my blog but how they find it. Some pretty interesting searches bring people to Life, Birds, & Everything, so I thought I’d highlight one of these every now and then (hopefully weekly).

This week’s featured search is a question whose answer has already been alluded to in the post “Rescuing” baby hummingbirds. The full answer is more complicated, though, and here it is:

Hummingbirds hatch naked and cold-blooded (poikilothermic, body temperature dependent on the surrounding environment). They don’t become warm-blooded (homeothermic, capable of maintaining a stable body temperature regardless of environmental conditions) until their feathers mature enough to create an insulating layer over their skin. They can return to a limited form of poikilothermy as adults when they need to conserve energy, entering the state of torpor overnight or under severe stress. This qualifies hummingbirds as heterotherms.

Oh pointy birds, oh pointy pointy…

Darren Naish has a new blog post on bird anatomy, Clubs, spurs spikes and claws on the hands of birds (part I). The focus is mainly on the pointy bits that don’t originate directly from the digits, but it’s the “normal” bits—claws—that fascinate me.

Anyone into birds knows about the well-developed wing claws on digits I and II of young Hoatzins, but as Darren points out there are a lot of birds with wing claws, even chickens. Most people never notice them, though, because they’re so tiny. In chickens, the claw on digit I (the alula, homologous to our thumb) is reduced to an inconspicuous nubbin that’s easier to feel than to see (if you’re a carnivore, check for it the next time you cook a chicken).

The first bird that I ever noticed a wing claw on was the Crested Wood-Partridge or Roul-roul. I had the privilege of getting to know these exquisite little birds back in the late 1970s when I worked as a zookeeper. A pair that lived in the rainforest exhibit of the bird house occasionally produced eggs, and with artificial incubation one of these produced a chick.

The normal procedure for precocial chicks was to place them in a plywood brooder box with a heat lamp, some gamebird starter mash with chopped lettuce garnish, and a drown-proof waterer and just leave them alone. This works fine with your average gallinaceous bird, but Roul-rouls are not your average gallinaceous bird. “Roulettes” are fed by their parents for the first few days of life, and since the parents in this case weren’t involved, this job fell to me.

Several times a day I would get the chick out of its box, place it on the bird house’s kitchen counter, and present it with succulent morsels of greens, fruit, boiled egg, and chopped mealworm. It was on the first of these close encounters that I noticed something hard and shiny protruding from the leading edge of the roulette’s wing: a long, curved black claw. I was stunned. It could have been a kitten’s claw, except that it was sticking out of a bird’s wing.

Up to that moment in my young life, the evolution of birds had been an abstract concept, based on evidence with which I had a basic familiarity but no personal experience. Seeing the wing claw on the Roul-roul chick was like being smacked upside the head with evolution.

Roul-rouls spend their days on the ground but roost in trees. I wonder if, like the young Hoatzin, the Roulette’s wing claws help it navigate the third dimension of its rapidly vanishing tropical forest home?

Perch hypothermia rides again

You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place.

— attributed to Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745

It was too good to last. After four years of keeping under the radar, Montana wildlife rehabilitator Judy Hoy is once again warning the public about the evils of perches on hummingbird feeders.

Briefly, Hoy believes that hummingbirds that perch to feed on cold sugar water are at risk of hypothermia. From her recent article in the Great Falls Tribune:

If the outside temperature is below 50[° F.] and the sugar water is cold, the birds can become completely hypothermic after drinking two crops full without flying. They then fall to the ground and eventually die from cold and lack of food or are eaten by magpies, cats or other predators.

Hover-feeding isn’t a problem, she says, because the muscle action helps to warm the bird’s body.

She claims that hummingbirds, especially Rufous, are “dying by the thousands every spring” from this phenomenon and is understandably frustrated that hummingbird researchers, feeder manufacturers, and government agencies won’t take her seriously. In this latest article, our self-styled Cassandra gets a little testy:

You may get the impression from this post that I am running out of patience with stupidity and I am!

Same here, Judy.

By her own account, Hoy started her anti-perch campaign in 1985. A quarter of a century is plenty of time to gather an enormous amount of support for her claims, so where is it? Despite repeated requests from skeptics, she hasn’t produced any photos, videos, necropsy results, or other objective evidence to demonstrate that feeder perches cause hypothermia in otherwise normal, healthy hummingbirds. Instead, she continues to rely on anecdotes, opinions, and misinterpretations of cherry-picked scientific research, ignoring more relevant research that refutes her claims.

Over the same 25-year period, people who host wintering hummingbirds have amassed hundreds of thousands of observations of birds perching to feed when the temperatures of both the air and the sugar water are well below freezing (20 degrees or more colder than Hoy’s hypothetical hypothermia threshold), and showing absolutely no ill effects. Additionally, hummingbird banders in the southeastern U.S. have documented hundreds of hummingbirds, including Rufous and Calliope, returning year after year to the same wintering sites. Many of these birds take their first sips of frosty sugar-water every winter morning while resting on feeder perches. Though this doesn’t “disprove” Hoy’s perch hypothermia claims, it does strongly suggest that it’s at worst an extremely rare cause of mortality.

Anna’s Hummingbird in my southeastern Arizona yard on a snowy day

None of this seems to make a dent in Hoy’s belief. She responded to these challenges by adding increasingly elaborate and often conflicting justifications for the lack of independent verification: most people never see hypothermic hummingbirds because predators get them first, it happens mostly in “Canada, North Eastern States and…Western Montana,” Rufous are particularly cold-sensitive (!), different species have significantly different “thermodynamics,” pesticides and herbicides sprayed in her area damaged their mitochondria and/or thyroid function.

Unlike Hoy, I don’t expect anyone to take my word on something without evidence. That’s why I wrote a detailed analysis of perch hypothermia way back in 2006, after a message she posted to an online discussion group was forwarded to other groups by well-meaning participants. At Hoy’s request, I sent her all of the evidence refuting her claims, with faint hope that we might lay perch hypothermia to rest once and for all. No such luck. Like True Believers® in so many other crackpot ideas (young-earth creationism, alien abductions, “rods,” homeopathy, etc.), Hoy’s faith is unshakable.

The latest version of her story adds a new and ominous detail, but one that’s easily debunked. In the Great Falls Tribune article, she says:

…Rufous and Calliope are now on Audubon’s red list.

Nope. Both species were listed on the 2002 Audubon Watchlist as yellow (declining), not red (declining rapidly). The 2007 Watchlist includes only the Calliope, still in the yellow category. It’s disappointing, but far from surprising, that even her “new” information is both overstated and outdated.

Removing perches from hummingbird feeders is unlikely to do any significant harm, but it’s equally unlikely to do any significant good. Birds need well-informed friends to help protect them from real and growing environmental threats, so I hate to see the same alarmist claptrap making the rounds over and over and over. Cut the perches off your feeders if you like, but don’t let misinformed prophets of doom distract you from doing things that actually help hummingbirds:

And if you’re still worried about “perch hypothermia,” make your feeder solution richer (3:1 instead of 4:1) during cold weather so that the birds have to take in less cold solution to get the same amount of energy.

Happy Darwin Day!

Before the end of the weekend I’ll post something more substantial in celebration of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, but here are two quite different songs testifying to his profound impact on the way we look at our world and ourselves.

Chumbawamba: “Charlie”

Chris Smither: “Origin of Species”

Charge your glass and face the world – we’ll drink a toast to Charlie!

Science is back, y’all!

From President-elect Obama’s weekly radio address:

From landing on the moon, to sequencing the human genome, to inventing the Internet, America has been the first to cross that new frontier because we had leaders who paved the way: leaders like President Kennedy, who inspired us to push the boundaries of the known world and achieve the impossible; leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respected the integrity of the scientific process.

Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us.

Amen to that.

The significance of Alex

Hillary Nelson, columnist for the Concord [NH] Monitor, did a magnificent job of eulogizing Alex, summarizing the breadth and depth of his significance to science and to our understanding of our own place in the universe. Read it here.

Farewell, Alex

Farewell, Alex

I’m writing today with a heavy, heavy heart, friends. Alex, the African Grey Parrot who, with his human mentor Dr. Irene Pepperberg, revolutionized scientific thinking about avian intelligence and communication, has died suddenly at the age of 31. Any bird lover should mourn Alex’s passing, but this tragedy hits particularly close to home for me because, though I never met him, I know his best friend Irene, and my own family includes an African Grey, 21-year-old Jesse, who is very dear to me. Had I harbored any scientific skepticism about Irene’s conclusions from her work with Alex, living with Jesse would have vanquished it.

Until Irene began her studies with Alex in the late 1970s, scientists and laypeople alike vastly underestimated the capacity of parrots and other birds to think and feel (we wouldn’t want to be anthropomorphic now, would we?). Neuroanatomists went so far as to dismiss the avian brain as too anatomically simple to perform the higher functions once ascribed exclusively to humans but grudgingly extended to our fellow primates and cetaceans. Predictably, reports of Alex’s accomplishments were pooh-poohed by insecure scientists and philosophers who rush to their ivory battlements any time another species appears to be encroaching on exclusively human turf (language, tool use, culture, music, etc.). The same crowd has denied the significance of the accomplishments of Washoe the chimpanzee and Koko the lowland gorilla, who learned to communicate in American Sign Language. Wearing down such substantial opposition took unconventional thinking, rigorous methodology, meticulous documentation, and selfless dedication to uncovering the long-ignored truths about the minds of birds.

By scientifically documenting Alex’s ability to communicate using human language and to grasp abstract concepts, Irene fostered a broader awareness that parrots are not merely amusing mimics but sensitive creatures with complex emotional and intellectual needs. These revelations have helped to change our traditionally exploitive and abusive relationships with parrots. Alex may have lived his entire life in human company, but he was a charismatic ambassador for all his kin, wild as well as captive. Today it’s unacceptable to treat captive parrots as home decor or amusing novelties, and wild parrots have been promoted from colorful tropical icons to sentient beings. Not that we don’t still have a long way to go, but more parrots are living better lives now thanks to Irene and Alex.

Not surprisingly, given Alex’s worldwide fame, there has been a huge outpouring of sympathy from around the world. Sadly, amidst the public sharing of grief in various online communities some puerile bottom-feeders masquerading as animal rights activists have posted vile, defamatory, and completely ignorant remarks about Alex and Irene. Know this, friends: Alex was never a “lab animal” in the traditional sense, he lived a far better life than the vast majority of pet parrots, and he significantly raised the standards for care of captive parrots.

Irene was interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered, and she was amazingly self-composed considering the pain I know she’s in. Thinking back to what an emotional wreck I’ve been for weeks after losing a dear creature, I’m in awe.

Be strong, Irene – Alex may be gone, but his life’s work and our love and respect for him and you live on.