Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Vampire-Biking, 3 New Wildflowers, And Chrazy Chromosome Chounts

IMG_9303 So much is happening so fast all over- in the foothills, in the yard and at the office park. I’ll never keep up with everything, so let’s at least get caught up in the foothills.

3 new wildflowers came out last week. All are present right now along the Shoreline Trail, and all are pretty easy to recognize. But first updates on 2 flowers we’ve talked about before:

IMG_9304 Glacier Lilies are peaking right now, probably tailing off this coming week. As the temps have risen, they’ve rolled back their petals/sepals, better exposing their stigma and anthers.

And even more exciting is this: Arrowleaf Balsamroot leaves popping up all over the place. A number of the flowers are already up, but I’m betting that by this coming weekend they will EXPLODE, and for about the next 2 weeks after, the foothills will be carpeted in big yellow flowers. These coming weeks are when the Wasatch foothills are absolutely the most beautiful, so if you’re a mtn biker, hiker or trail runner, make sure to take advantage of the bloom.

Green Tufts Before moving on to the 3 newbies, I should mention that I’ve ridden this section of Shoreline twice since my last wildflower post- early AM last Thursday and early AM Monday/yesterday. This time of year, every ride- every day- there’s something different going on in the foothills.

Part Where I Define A New Verb And Lecture Readers About Biking In Mud

Speaking of riding, if you’ve been paying attention to the weather here, you might be wondering how I rode it yesterday morning. It rained and snowed here all weekend- wasn’t the trail a big, muddy mess?

Answer: I “vampired” it. “Vampiring” is a term I made up several years ago, and it means riding a frozen trail, on a day in which the temperatures will be above freezing, before- and this is the crucial part- before the sun hits the dirt. I’m going to say this again, because I see crazy, muddy ruts on Shoreline trail all the time. If you get up early, and the thermometer says any temp <30F, you can ride any trail, mud-free, and come home with a completely clean bike, so long as you are off the trail before the sun hits the dirt.

Vampire Correct I don’t know why hardly anyone gets this. I ride before work all the time, and hardly ever see anybody. Yet I know the trails are getting ridden mid-day, because I spend half my ride rolling over frozen tire-ruts. (And footprints, too- hikers/runners, this applies to you as well!) Yet this time of year vampiring is both easy and awesome. It’s easy because the foothills are largely blocked from the sun by the mountains for a good 90 minutes following sunrise. And it’s awesome, because frozen ground is one of the best riding surfaces ever...

Vampire Incorrect All About Frozen Ground

About ½ the land in the Northern hemisphere freezes seasonally; another ¼ is permanently frozen. When water freezes, its volume expands, and the water molecules get locked in a tight, super-strong crystalline structure.

IMG_9305 The weak point of ice of course is that it’s brittle, which is why- by and large- you can’t do much useful with it- no ice-knives, no ice-hydraulic presses, no ice bike-frames. But dirt is not brittle; it’s soft and loose and pliable. But when water freezes in dirt, it makes a substance I think of as a “dirt-ice alloy”: tough and hard like ice, but able to sustain Vampire Limitrepeated, hard impacts like dirt. As a riding surface, a frozen dirt trail is hard but smooth, like buffed slickrock. And it offers similar traction to slickrock; the crystalline ice-lattice locks the grains of dirt into place. There’s hardly ever lost traction, and no skidding, wash-outs, or dust.

To be sure, vampiring works better in late Fall/early Winter than in temporary Spring freezes, like Monday morning. NA_permafrostThis is because in the Wasatch foothills in Winter, the ground is frozen 2-3 feet deep, and so whatever thawing/mudding occurs is heated solely by the sun. But by late April, the ground has completely thawed, and an overnight freeze-layer probably only extends down between 1-4”. And that thin frozen layer is being heated not just from above by the sun, but from below by the soil, which retains the much of the heat it’s accumulated over the past month or so.

The Flowers, Already!

IMG_9256 OK, back to the 3 newbies. First up is this guy, Woolly Milkvetch, Astragalus purshii, (pic left, & below right) also known as Pursh’s Milkvetch. This is of course closely related to the Astragali I posted about last week- Utah Milkvetch and Deseret Millkvetch, and it looks, as first glance, a bit like the former, with pink, irregular, lady-slipper-style flowers. But it’s pretty obviously different; the blossoms are a bit smaller, less tubular and more delicate-looking, and the leaves small and woolly/hairy. It’s common now around 5,500 -6,000 feet.

So that’s 3 species of Milkvetch I’ve blogged about in a week. And as I mentioned in the Easter Bunny/Utah Milkvetch post, there are over 2,000 species of Astragalus. Why so many?

IMG_9254 One factor driving speciation in Milkvetches appears to be seed predation by insect larvae, the 2 most common Weevil larvae and Pyralid larvae. Weevils we’ve already talked about, and with 50,000+ species, it’s like there’s a Weevil for everything! The Pyralids are a superfamily (Pyralidoiae) of more than 16,000 species of moths, most (but not all) of whose larvae feed on living plants. There are Pyralid larvae that specialize in eating leaves, roots and seeds. The Pyralids include some pretty major agricultural pests, the Corn Borer being a good example:

Tangent: Another example of a Pyralid I mentioned recently was Wax Moths, whose larvae, “waxworms”, are a common pest of beehives.

All Astragali suffer from larval seed predation, but some species suffer more or less than others do from a specific larva, and so Milkvetches with seeds that are less appealing/palatable to a specific local larva will tend to lead to strains, and eventually species, that display those lessened appeal/palatability characteristics. Of course the moths and weevils adapt as well, which is probably why there are so many moth and weevil species…

IMG_9248 The 2nd newbie I’ve just seen so far in a single draw at ~5,800 feet. (As you travel Shoreline trail from Dry Creek to City Cree, it’s the draw just above “Heart Attack Hill” and just below the high point of this section of trail.) It’s the first blue wildflower of the year, and looks like some type of Forget-Me-Not (genus = Myosotis) (Thanks Sally!) (pic left) but I’m having trouble with the species ID. I’m getting tripped up on 2 things- the leaf form, and the lack of any yellow in the “eye” of the flower. Forget-me-nots have 5 “salviform” petals, which are united at the base.

IMG_9259 The 3rd new flower is another yellow one, the Mountain Dandelion, Agoseris glauca, (pic right & below, left)also known as False Dandelion. A. glauca comes in several varieties, some of which have more orange-colored flowers. I suspect this one is A. glauca lacata, but that’s a guess. It’s present now in several spots along Shoreline at the 5,800 – 6,000 foot level, between the top of Heart Attack Hill and the top of Bobsled (old entrance, at the 5-way intersection.)

Mountain Dandelions aren’t all that closely-related to “regular” Dandelions. IMG_9264 They both belong to Asteraceae, or Sunflower Family, the largest family of flowering plants, which includes the various Balsamroots and Mules Ears that will shortly be blooming all over the place. Asteraceae are composite flowers, meaning each “flower” is actually dozens, or even hundreds, of little mini-flowers, or florets. Composite flowers were a huge step forward in angiosperm evolution, and are thought to have evolved sometime in the last ~100 million years (though fossil evidence only shows up in the last ~30 million) on my favorite super-continent, Gondwanaland. Dandelions and Mountain Dandelions both belong to a “tribe” within Asteraceae called Cichorieae, which includes about 1,600 species, many (most?) of which have Ray-Only Flowers.

Dandelion3 Speaking of Dandelions, they of course have been all over the place for several weeks now, and if you think they’re just an annoying weed, I am here to tell you that they are in fact Way Cool. If you weren’t reading this blog a year ago (and I already know you weren’t, because no one was) I recommend going back and reading the (appropriately-titled) Dandelions Are Way Cool series, for an overview of the structure, genetics, natural history and distributions of Dandelions, all of which are- yes, that’s right- Way Cool.

There’s another Cichorieae which I haven’t seen yet, and doesn’t grow in the Wasatch, but does grow down in Southwestern Utah, which I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next time I’m down South, which may be, oh I don’t know- how about tomorrow? Yes, that’s right! Tonight, KanyonKris and I are driving down South to Hurricane after work and playing hooky tomorrow to do some peak-wildflower mtn biking. How cool is that?

Slender Goldenweed OK, so anyway, I’m sure we’ll see a ton of cool desert wildflowers, but the one I’m thinking about is this guy, Slender Goldenweed, Machaeranthera gracilis, (pic left)also known as Spiny Daisy. It’s a rather unremarkable-looking daisy-ish flower, but there’s something really amazing and unique about it: It has only 4 chromosomes, the lowest known chromosome number of any angiosperm.

I’ve talked about chromosome numbers several times in this blog. Most plants have diploid chromosome numbers of, oh say, 38 (Balsamroot), 16 (Dandelion), or 26 (Creosote)- almost always double digits. And many polyploid plants we’ve looked at have far more. Cutleaf Balsamroot, which will soon be covering the higher foothills up towards Big Mountain Pass, Jeremy Ranch and on through East Canyon toward Henifer and Morgan, has 102 chromosomes. (And many plants have even more. The current known chromosomal champion is tropical genus Ophioglossum, with up to 1,400 chromosomes.)

IMG_5511 A Cutleaf Balsamroot (pic right) doesn’t appear to be any more complex or advanced than a Slender Goldenweed. It’s just amazing to me that one needs 102 chromosomes and the other only 4. But it only seems amazing because I’m thinking in terms of a “design” when of course living things aren’t designed at all. They have whatever number of chromosomes that best carried and expressed the genes that best enabled their ancestors to make copies of themselves, given whatever circumstances, environments and selection pressures those ancestors faced. And that’s the coolest thing about weird- or really all- chromosome counts: each genome tells a story, whether or not we know yet how to read it.

Moose1 The same non-correlation between chromosome count and complexity holds in the animal world as well. Moose (70), Horses (64), Cows (60) and Sheep (54) all have more chromosomes than we do (46) but nobody argues that they’re more evolutionarily sophisticated than we are. In fact, there’s a cool and relatively recent development in our own evolution related to chromosome count: Chimps5 Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Orangutans all have 48 chromosomes, yet we have only 46. It turns out that our chromosome #2 is really a combination of Chimpanzee chromosomes #12 and #13. This merging happened sometime in the last 5-7 million years, and may well have marked a no-turning-back point from which our ancestors could no longer interbreed with the ancestors of modern Chimpanzees.

Yeah, so back down South tonight. Supposed to be sunny and 80’sF. Ooh, that sounds nice. Probably won’t post again till Friday.

Monday, April 27, 2009

East Canyon Race Report: 4 Mistakes By The Spin 4’s

Note to regular readers: This post is all biking- no plants, bugs, birds, or weird chromosomal anomalies, and in fact it’s written somewhat as a race report for my teammates. If bike racing’s not your thing, skip this post and come back tomorrow. (I’m cooking up a good wildflower post.)

Saturday was the East Canyon Road Race, my first bike race of the season. I wanted to do well in this race, having won it last year as a Cat 5. East Canyon is a 60-mile out & back course, with a tough ~4 mile climb on the way back, close to the end of the course, and then a ½ mile uphill finish.

IMG_9281 Friday night I awoke several times; each time I heard pounding rain outside, and I was of ½ a mind not to bother driving up to the start if it was still raining when I woke up. But at dawn it had (just barely) abated, and so I drove on up to East Canyon Resort. (pic left = roadside hills on drive up to race.)

This year I’m racing Cat 4, and so my Cat 4 teammates and I- about 8 of us- met to talk strategy about an hour before the race. Here was our plan: We’d stick together all the way till the final monster climb. Over the course of the race, a couple of our teammates would attack on the flats in an attempt to draw out and wear down some of the stronger racers from other teams. At the monster climb, the 3 fastest climbers- let’s call them “Jason”, “Will” and “Me”, would take off and attempt to break away, then work together- and presumably with whichever other “A” climbers hung with us- to the finish.

That was the plan anyway; I was a bit apprehensive about my role. I’ve raced with Jason and trained with Will, and I consider them overall stronger climbers than me. Anyway, here’s what happened.

EC09 MapWe set out and kept a very moderate pace on the big climb going out, sticking- for what I could tell- all together.

MISTAKE #1: If I could replay this portion, I would’ve pushed the pace harder. Not a full-on attack, but enough to drop some of the “flotsam & jetsam” from the pack. Much of the middle part of the course was crowded, tight and potholed, and a smaller pack would’ve been safer, as we’ll see in a moment…

We stuck together on the descent, through Henifer, and out along the I-80 frontage road. It was here that the pack felt a bit crowded and hazardous, with potholes that were tough to avoid in a pack. I hit one square-on, and fortunately didn’t flat, but lost a water bottle* (my Lotoja 2008 bottle- crap.)

*In a race, if you’re remotely serious about doing well, you don’t ever stop to pick up anything you drop- water bottle, gel flask, cell phone, $50 bill, wedding ring, Hope diamond, Holy Grail, whatever- it doesn’t matter, you just go. On races of under ~4 hours, you don’t pee either. On longer races, “pee breaks” are negotiated en route…

Tangent: It was in this section that I saw the Scariest Race Crash Ever. A racer in front of me, to the right flatted, and hit his brakes (too hard.) He swerved left and bumped another racer from the Ski Utah team. The Ski Utah racer was forced left, and his front wheel collided with Jason’s rear wheel, forcing him to immediately fish-tail and slide out across the road, into the lane of oncoming traffic, where a pickup truck was bearing down on him.

Scary Crash For a split-second I thought, “Oh no- I can’t believe this is happening in front of me…” but the pickup driver reacted lightning-fast, braking and swerving onto the shoulder faster than you could think it. The Ski Utah rider stumbled to his feet, apparently unharmed. That pickup driver was the hero of the race.

We turned around at around the 30 mile mark and headed back, dodging even worse potholes, this time at a faster clip (slightly downhill.) Along this stretch our Cat 4 captain- let’s call him “Adam”- led several aggressive attacks in an attempt to draw out and wear down other racers. Teammates “Lance” and “Darin” also attempted the same.

MISTAKE #2: Adam, Lance and Darin all sacrificed selflessly for the benefit of Jason, Will and me, but their hard work was largely in vain; their attacks almost always failed to draw a response, probably because they were solo attacks, and therefore unconvincing- a single rider 20+ miles from the finish can always be reeled in by the pack, and our competitors knew it. In the future we’ll either need to have multiple teammates feint/attack together, or not expend their efforts needlessly.

Tangent: But here’s what did work- Will and I commented afterwards that we really felt completely rested all the way back through Henifer. We just rode in the pack, didn’t attack and saved our strength. That part of the plan worked great.

We stuck together again through Henifer. On the far side of town a series of rollers lead up to the monster climb, and the pace stiffened here as the would-be climbers jockeyed for position. At the dirt turnout on the North side of the road- our agreed upon launch-point- Will, Jason and I hit it, along with several other climbers. Will & Jason’s pace was blazing, and for almost 5 minutes it was all I could do to hang on- my heart racing at 183 BPM (high for a 45 year-old!) Soon we gapped the main pack, maybe a dozen of us. About 3 minutes later I noticed 2 things: First, I was getting a second wind*, and second, 3 climbers had gapped us in the lead by about 50-75 yards.

*The climbing second wind is my bizarre superpower, and truthfully my only real race-trick. When other, stronger racers fade, I often get this “Oh OK, now I got it…” feeling and everything just clicks.

So, thinking I could finally do my part, I gently pulled in front of Will and Jason so they could latch onto my wheel. Only they didn’t- they were falling back. “C’mon! C’mon!” I yelled over my shoulder, “Let’s go!*” But they were maxed.

*In retrospect, this was of course the most unproductive and annoying thing I did during the entire race. As if Jason and Will were just hanging out and would say, “Oh OK, you want to go fast now? Sure- why didn’t you just say so!” Sorry guys…

I was stumped. Of all the scenarios I’d considered beforehand, the idea that Jason and Will would fade 2/3 of the way up hadn’t even occurred to me. I looked ahead- the 3 riders were maybe 75 yards ahead, but there was at least ½ mile of climbing left, and I was feeling good. I could catch them, I could hang with them on the backside and the flats back to the finish. I could have a shot at 1st. I just knew it. I went for it.

MISTAKE #3: I was totally wrong. About a 200-300 yards from the top, I realized my mistake: I wasn’t going to catch them. And I had dropped my only 2 remaining teammates.

In desperation I looked around; 2 other racers had hung with me to the top, one from Cole Sport and the other- let’s call him “Tyler”- from Skull Candy. At the summit I shouted out, “Let’s work together to chase!” Tyler (an outstanding racer) answered, ”You bet!” But the Cole Sport racer declined; he had a teammate in the lead pack of 3 and wasn’t about to help us chase him down*. So Tyler and I blasted down the back-side of the monster climb, rotating leads, at speeds of up to 50 MPH, and then hammered out onto the flats along the reservoir, the Cole Sport rider drafting in our wake.

*I didn’t bear him any grudge for this; it was the right thing to do, and I would’ve done likewise.

Tyler and I are both fast racers, but it was 2 against 3; despite an initial gain, we weren’t closing, and soon the lead 3 were widening their lead. We looked nervously back; a chase group, maybe ½ dozen strong, was about a ¼ mile back. We didn’t want to get caught, and neither did the Cole Sport guy; about 3 miles from the finish he started rotating in with us.

Final Chase Meanwhile, Jason and Will had reached the top of the monster climb with 4 other racers. They quickly formed up a paceline and started working together. 2 of them urged chasing us down. But Will and Jason- loyal teammates till the end- refused to chase me down (and as I looked back at them over my shoulder, I suspected this was the case.) But what’s more, the remaining 2 racers were Skull Candy racers, who refused to chase down their teammate, Tyler.

MISTAKE #4: Well-intentioned as this action was, it was probably the wrong call. They should’ve chased us down, and fast. Together we would’ve comprised a group of 8 motivated chasers (and 1 hanger-on) who might’ve had a decent chance of catching the lead 3, whereupon Will or Jason- both outstanding sprinters- would have had a shot at 1st. With the path we followed, the best we could hope for a placing by a teammate (me) was 4th.

We worked together to the resort, and then started to push it on the final climb. Tyler faded; it was me vs. Cole Sport. As we climbed together, another racer, who’d already finished (presumably a Cat 3) started climbing alongside us in the left lane, talking to Cole Sport, coaching him on pacing, how hard to push and when to pop me. I will say now that this ****ing pissed me off and I climbed even harder. But in the last 50 yards, my burnt-out, chased-down legs said “enough.” Cole Sport- with his (relatively) rested legs- surged past, taking 4th, and I finished 5th. Tyler was 6th. ~15-20 seconds later, the pack of 6 arrived. Will lead Jason out, and Jason nailed the sprint to take 7th; Will took 10th.

I heard Adam flatted somewhere on the climb. I saw Darin, Scott O., Lance, Doug and Karsten at the finish; all finished respectably mid-pack. All in all, though we figured out some things to do better next time, I’m extremely grateful for the support, hard work and sacrifice by my teammates to help me/us out. That’s the coolest part of a team, and I look forward to our next race together. And special thanks to Adam- he organized us, led the planning, and repeatedly busted his ass for our benefit.

Team pic caption In the meantime, Jason, Will and I are going to be working on our climbing; we are not getting dropped at High Uintas.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Bev Gets Bees, Plus My Death-Defying Escape From Killer Bees And So Much More!

Note: Wow, this post has it all: botany, entomology, a death-defying-killer-bee-escape-story, an extended work-related tangent and one of my best graphics yet- no matter why you read this blog, this post has something for you!

So yeah, bees. Last September I blogged about my friend Spence, the beekeeper, and how I helped him harvest honey and got all amped up to keep bees. Well, I didn’t do it this year. Too much going on, too busy, blah, blah, you don’t care anyway so I won’t make excuses. But here’s the cool thing- my friend Bev did get new bees, and this past weekend Bird Whisperer and I went over to her place to help introduce her newly arrived bees to their new hive.

Obligatory Botanical Travel Spotlight

So, as I alluded to in the comments to Monday’s post, I had to travel this week, specifically to a trade show. And… oh no, I feel it coming on- a trade-show tangent!

RSA expo2 Trade Show Tangent: As longtime readers know, I earn a living in technology sales. Over the years, this has involved, from time to time, manning a booth at a trade show, a task I loathe. I hate accosting people in the hallway and pitching them and scanning their badge (even though I’m very good at it.) I hate smiling and saying, “Hi, how’s it going?” to strangers all day (even though- again- I’m very good at it.) I hate nodding and saying, “Mm-hmm, yup, right, uh-huh…” repeatedly as they describe some techie IT project to me in excruciating detail in order to appear that I have the slightest idea what it is they’re talking about. I do this last part really well. I look real serious- as if whatever the hell they’re working on is of critical importance*. I furrow my brow slightly- not enough to look angry- but just enough to look concerned that they are facing whatever challenge they are facing. I tilt my head to the side just a tiny bit- maybe 5 or 10 degrees- to accentuate the intensity of my interest and attention. And at regular 5-7 second intervals I mumble positive affirmations: “Mm-hmm… yup… right… uh-huh… exactly… I see…”

*It almost never is. 99% of corporate IT initiatives Never Go Anywhere.

Feign1 There are of course about a million things to make fun of at technology trade shows, but my favorite is the droves of attendees who sit in the “mini-auditoriums” of the larger vendor-booths* to hear a 10-15 minute PowerPoint sales presentation, for which they will be rewarded with… a T-shirt. RSA aud Seriously, here are all these 40 and 50 year-old guys, virtually all of whom make well over $100,000 a year, spending 15 minutes of their day listening to some pitch they couldn’t care less about so that they can get a T-shirt with the vendor’s name on it. I want to run over and say: “Hello! You can BUY a t-shirt at Target for like 4 bucks!” It’s really amazing- the minute these guys walk into the Moscone Center they turn into Virtual Homeless Vagrants, walking around, begging and collecting bags full of cheap garbage (pens, t-shirts, Frisbees, glowing mugs) which they then tote around for 3 days before presumably cramming them into their checked baggage for the flight back to Omaha or wherever.

*Our company doesn’t have one of these large-type booths. We have one of the little 10’x10’ booths, which we cram full of brochures, displays and salespeople, making it reminiscent of one of the little tables at your kid’s science fair.

Yeah, so anyway, I was in San Francisco, and whenever I travel- particularly to California- I try to blog about some cool botany-thing. On this trip I was only in the airport and downtown SF, but I still saw something cool.

Cordgrass View CaptionNext time you land at SFO, just before you land, look out the window to the left (pic left). All that grass you see along t he shoreline-wetlands is a kind of grass called cordgrass, which grows along shorelines and coastal marshes. The native cordgrass in the San Francisco Bay is California Cordgrass, Spartina foliosa, and it’s grown along the shores of the bay for millennia.

But here’s the weird thing: Back in the 70’s another species of cordgrass, Smooth Cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora (pic right), which is native to the East Coast, was deliberately introduced to the SF Bay (why, I don’t know.)smoothCordgrass2 And in the 30+ years since, it, and Smooth x California Cordgrass hybrids have practically taken over, almost completely replacing (or hybridizing with) the native California Cordgrass to the point that it’s been nearly eliminated from the SF Bay. Smooth Cordgrass and the Smooth x California hybrid are able to colonize mudflats at lower tidal levels than California Cordgrass, and so the replacement is significantly altering the shoreline of large parts of the bay. That’s an example of a plant introduction that has decimated a native plant- all in your lifetime- and you can see it anytime you land at SFO.

Side Note: England has a similar but even cooler cordgrass-invasion story that also involves hybridization, polyploidy, C4 photosynthesis and a new species.

Back to Bev

So back to Bev. Bev is Awesome Wife’s longest and dearest friend in Utah. Bev is intelligent, kind, and the Craftiest Human Alive. I don’t mean “crafty” like Blofeld or Dick Cheney; I mean “crafty” as in “really, really good at crafts.” Bev takes on one project after another- a recent example was building a Koi Fish pond in her back yard- and consistently nails them. So when Bev decided to take on bee-keeping- constructing and hand-painting her own hive, I knew that I would be able to “assist” her, thereby gaining the fun and experience of bee-keeping, without, uh, actually having to do anything.

bees 002 In the morning, Bev had picked up her bees and queen at Jones Bee, and later in the day, when the sun was low, we set about introducing them to their new hive. In this pic you can the bees as Bev picked them up; the queen sits in a can that is concealed by the swarm. We squirted them down with sugar water to calm and distract them, then removed the queen from the box via an opening at the top of the box (concealed by white board in photo.) bees 004 The queen is delivered in the special teeny-tiny screened box you see in the pic left, one end of which has an opening that Bev plugged with a mini-marshmallow. Over the next few days, the workers will chew their way through the marshmallow to her; by the time they reach her, they’ll be accustomed to her smell and won’t kill her.

bees 015 We placed the little queen box on a tiny hangers (2 nails) between 2 of the frames before introducing the swarm, which Bev accomplished by dumping the box upside-down, then gently shaking the remaining bees out. (pic right) The whole process went super-smoothly; no one was stung, and the vast majority of the bees wound up in the hive.

BW Bev Bev’s bees are a subspecies of Honeybee known as “Italians”, specifically Apis mellifera ligustica, which are known for their gentle demeanor, and for which they are a favorite of first-time beekeepers. Certainly they were the mellowest bees I’ve ever been around. And I’ve been around a few bees.

My Death-Defying Killer Bee Attack Story

OK, so first of all, I’m not actually sure they were killer bees, but I said so in the title because a) they were really aggressive, b) they well could have been an “Africanized”, as are many wild swarms in the Mojave, and c) it makes a way better story. Anyway, the story is this.

Quick Tangent About Africanized/Killer Bees: The African subspecies of Honeybee, A. melliferra scutellata is significantly more aggressive than the various European subspecies.AB Map2 In 1957 a Brazilian entomologist was conducting hybridization experiments between African and European honeybees, seeking a more productive strain. In the course of the work, 26 African queens escaped, some number of which mated with local Honeybee drones and reproduced. Over the following decades they expanded and hybridized their way northward, crossing the Brazilian border around 1970, reaching the US border in 1990, and appearing in Clark County, Nevada in 1996. Fortunately (for most of us) they don’t tolerate cold winters, and their Northward progress has largely halted, but they’re not uncommon in Southern Nevada.

beesting1 Africanized or “Killer” Bees aren’t anymore venomous than “regular bees; they’re just more aggressive. It usually takes ~500+ stings to kill a healthy (non-allergic) adult human, but sometimes as few at 100 or so will do the trick.

In October 2004 I climbed Virgin Peak in Nevada, south of Mesquite (in Clark County.) I’d gazed upon the peak many times from the West Rim of Little Creek Mountain, and finally got around to climbing it.

Side Note: The other peak I’d gazed up upon from Little Creek- Moapa Peak- I’d already climbed 3 years earlier. Moapa is the huge peak on the North side of I-15 between Mesquite and Las Vegas, and it is an absolutely spectacular and thrilling climb which features hair-raising exposure and Desert Bighorn Sheep. It’s also a bit hazardous, so if you do it, do it with a friend. (So not like I did it.)

Virgin MapAccessing the peak requires 2 hours of rough, tedious un-paved driving from Mesquite. I mention this because it meant that at the “trailhead”, I was 2 hours from help, and almost 3 hours from a hospital. Before I left my vehicle, I left a sunshower (solar-heated shower) on the hood, so that I could wash up when I returned, before the ~8 hour drive home.

The climb was all off-trail but enjoyable and fairly easy (way easier than Moapa.) Virgin Peak gets climbed only about 3-4 times/year and offers spectacular views. When I returned to the truck a few hours later, I took off my pack, had a cold drink, dug out clean shorts and a t-shirt and walked over to the hood, where there were a couple of bees buzzing around the shower, attracted by the glint of water. I picked up the shower to place it on top of the truck and- YEEEAAAARGH!!!- there were probably a hundred+ bees swarming under the sunshower! I quickly dropped the shower and jumped back.

KBA1 Now, at this point, the logical action would have been to forget the shower- which cost ~$20 at REI- get the truck and drive home. But you have to understand- I really wanted a shower. So I dithered and waffled for a few minutes trying to think of a way to get rid of the bees. And the plan I came up with was so dumb, so lame, and so completely retarded that I am embarrassed to share it.

I figured that I would start driving down the “road” (really a rock-strewn dry wash) with the sunshower in place on the hood, and the shaking/driving of the car would make the bees just fly off. Of course, that is not what happened.

As soon as I started driving, within 10 feet, the sunshower- which is basically a plastic bag full of water- rolled off the front of the truck. The bees immediately arose and spread in an angry, 3-dimensional 20-foot-radius sphere around the truck , and in a fraction of an instant I made the dumbest, craziest split-second decision ever: I yanked up the hand-brake, jumped out of the car, slamming the door behind me, and waving my arms maniacally around my head and screaming at the top of my lungs ran around the front of the truck, picked up the sunshower, ran with it to the passenger side, opened the door, threw the sunshower inside and slammed the door. The door caught on the hose and bounced back open. Still screaming, I tucked the hose inside, slammed it again, and ran around the back of the truck, opened the driver’s side door, jumped in and slammed the door behind me.

KBA2 I immediately turned my head to the left and saw that at least a dozen+ bees were flinging themselves against the window, trying to get at me. Other bees were landing on the hood in front of me and arching their abdomens, trying to sting the vehicle. Amazingly not a single bee stung me nor got inside the vehicle. The crazed bees continued to swarm and “attack” the truck for a full half-mile down the rough road.

Moral of the story: I am both phenomenally dumb and extraordinarily lucky.

Back to Bev’s Bees. Bev’s prepared for her new hobby well, reading the Beekeeping For Dummies cover to cover. She’s going to pay special attention to the hive over the next few weeks as they get accustomed to the queen and settle into their new home. And over the coming year, she’ll keep an eye out for a number of things that can go wrong.

Bee Genes

666px-HoneyBeeAnatomy Unless you’ve spent the last several years in a cave, you probably heard that a few years back geneticists mapped the human genome*. But what you probably didn’t hear was that in 2006 they successfully mapped the Honeybee genome. And when scientists compared the Honeybee genome with the already-mapped genomes of other insects, such as the Fruit Fly and the Mosquito, they saw some interesting differences.

*Well, they mapped most of it. There are still problem areas- mainly centromeres, telomeres and some genes associated with immune response.

First, Honeybees have more genes related to learning. This isn’t surprising; they make a living by seeking out sources of pollen and nectar, communicating the location of those sources to their hive-mates, and are apparently able to distinguish between “same” and “different”.

Second, they have more genes related to smell, which again makes sense, given that bees navigate to flowers partly by scent.

800px-Honeybee-27527-1 Third, Honeybees seem to have significantly fewer genes associated with immune response, disease resistance and detoxification, which seems odd until you think about how they live. Honeybee hives are remarkably clean. Dedicated “nurse” bees continually clean waste, trash and dead bees/larvae etc. from the hive. Compared to a solitary insect, a social bee’s living environment is pretty darn healthy. So over millions of years, evolutionary pressure from disease on Honeybees has probably relaxed a bit. For a long time this has worked out generally well for bees, but in modern times, as human travel has enabled the rapid transport and dispersal of bees, parasites and diseases, Honeybees have encountered a number of new threats for which they’re genetically unprepared.

fbrood1 One such threat is foulbrood (pic right), a bacterial disease that has possibly been made worse by overuse of antibiotics. Foulbrood attacks and kills bee larvae 3 days old or younger.

varroa2 Another is the Varroa mite, Varroa destructor (pic left), a tiny mite which attaches itself to a Honeybee and then sucks hemolymph (insect blood) from the bee. The bites leave wounds which become infected, leading to a disease called varroatosis, against which Honeybees have virtually no resistance. The Varroa mite is native to Asia, and has spread worldwide over the past 50 years, reaching the continental US in 1987.

A more recent threat is the much-publicized Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which has had a dramatic impact on US hives over the last 3-5 years. With CCD, a colony basically just ups and flies off, abandoning the hive. Unlike with varroatosis and other pathogens, there are few if any dead bees left behind, and strangely Wax Moths and Hive Beetles, which typically move quickly into abandoned hives, usually leave CCD-afflicted hives alone for several weeks. BW Me There’s not a clear consensus on the cause of CCD; diseases, fungi, varroatosis, pesticides and even genetically-modified foods have all been proposed. But one leading (though very controversial) suspect is imidacloprid (IMD), a pesticide used on sunflowers, cotton, corn, potatoes, apples pears and many other crops, and exposure to which seems to impair the behavior or “judgment” of bees. France banned IMD in 1999, and since 2005 there’s at least some evidence that CCD there may be abating and Honeybees returning.

In any case, I’ve never visited a tidier house than Bev’s; I think she and her new bees will get along just fine. With some “help” from me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Burbs in April, and Old People & Airports

So every Spring I realize- all of a sudden- 2 things: First, the suburbs look fantastic, and second, that for the preceding 4 months, they’ve looked like total crap.

IMG_9195 Seriously, when there’s no snow on the ground, how ugly are the suburbs in Winter? Really ugly, that’s how. They’re all brown and gray and dead, and on those few days when it thaws and the snow melts off and you send the kids outside to play they quickly turn the already-brown lawn into a mud bog. Piles of old snow accumulate along the roadsides, and turn gray, then black from exhaust, reminding you just how gross and awful and full of crap the air is.

IMG_9196 Throughout those long, color-less months, if one tree- just one tree- in our neighborhood suddenly bloomed with spectacular white or pink blossoms, we’d be like “Wow! How beautiful!” and we’d stop whatever we were doing for a few minutes and go check it out.

Go For A Walk Now

But instead what happens is this: in mid-April, suddenly not one, but thousands of trees, all across the valley, explode with flowers, and we think “Oh, pretty…” and then sort of half-ignore them for a few weeks, until sometime in the first or second week of May we think, “Huh, I guess all those flowers area gone…” So here’s a suggestion: tonight after work, grab the wife/hubbie/SO/dog/Crazy-Aunt-Who-Lives-In-Your-Basement/Whatever and go for a walk in the ‘hood.

IMG_9206As longtime readers know, I get all amped up whenever the first little micro-flower pops up in the foothills. But the clearest “Spring Is Here” sign for me isn’t a bird or a flower or even the longer daylight- it’s opening the garage door and seeing this (pic left)- the Pear trees in my neighbor’s front yard.

There are of course about a gazillion species flowering trees in temperate climates, a small subset of which are frequently planted in American suburbs. One of the most common and popular (and some would say over-planted) are Pears (genus = Pyrus.) Pyrus belongs to the Rose family Rosaceae, a large (~4,000 species) and very successful angiosperm family that we keep running into over and over again; Wild Rose, Cliffrose, Bitterbrush, Serviceberry, and Chokecherry are all native Utah Rosaceae plants.

rose1 Side Note: All Rosaceae have 5-petaled flowers. The obvious exception is cultivated (non-wild) roses, but only 5 of their petals are true petals; the remainder are actually modified stamens, which have been modified by artificial selection (deliberate breeding) over several centuries.

Within Rosaceae, Pears, the closely-related Apples (genus = Malus), Hawthorn (genus = Rhaphiolepis) and about 25 other genera belong to the sub-family Maloideae, which is characterized by a type of fruit called a pome and a haploid chromosome number of 17.

Side Note: Serviceberry is also a Maloideae plant; Chokecherry belongs to another family, Prunoideae, the same family which includes peaches, apricots, cherries and almonds. Prunoideae have fruits called drupes, which each contain a single pit-type seed.

calpearfruit2Pears evolved somewhere in East Asia- probably in China- and have been bred and spread by humans for thousands of years. Today there are about 30 species, as well as numerous subspecies, hybrids and cultivars. One of the most commonly planted species in the US- and the species in my neighbor’s yard- is Callery Pear, Pyrus calleryana. Callery Pear is native to China, and is a popular ornamental not only because it looks good, but because it’s ultra-resistant to disease or blight. Ornamental Pears are often described as fruitless, but that’s often (usually?) not the case; Callery Pears bear little ½ inch micro-pears (pic left) in the Fall.

pear1 Fruit Tangent: Of course the pears you buy in the supermarket- like most fruits- are giant-freak versions of their wild ancestors. Pears are an interesting fruit because people often have strong feeling- pro or con- toward them. I think one of the things that influences the “con” camp is the grittiness of the fruit flesh.

pear2 The fruit of a pear contains scattered clusters of “lignified” cells. Lignin, which I described in the Limber Pine post, is the key structural support substance in woody plants, and after cellulose, the most common substance in plants. So a pear feels “gritty” because it’s actually “woody”. People of course don’t digest lignin (or cellulose); we just pass it. Supposedly the lignin in pears provides a fiber element that is beneficial to our digestive tract, and specifically our colon.

IMG_9209 The most common Callery Pear cultivar is the “Bradford Pear”, but those in my neighbor’s yard are “Chanticleer” Pears, bred for their more vertical/pyramidal form. Their flowers, though attractive, have a lousy smell, vaguely reminiscent (up close) of rotting meat.

Tangent For Normal People (Non-Plant Geeks): “Cultivar” is analogous to “breed” in the animal world. It’s not a separate species. For example, all domestic dogs belong to the same species, Canis familiaris. They all have 78 chromosomes and can all interbreed with one another, but have been deliberately bred for centuries into specific breeds. Similarly, all Callery Pears are the same species, (sort of*) have the same number (34) of chromosomes and (probably can*) interbreed.

* There may be polypoid P. calleryana cultivars; I don’t know. See this post for an explanation of polyploidy.

Growers come up with cultivars of all kinds of trees; a common example is Blue Spruce, which explains why some look basically green, while others are almost insanely blue.

An interesting thing about Callery Pear is that many parts of the country (East, Southeast) it has escaped cultivation and become an invasive. The same hardiness and disease-resistance that make it such a popular ornamental also make it a real problem (if attractive) pest-tree.

IMG_9198 Pears are agent-agent plants: agent-pollinated with agent-dispersed seeds. The pollinator-agent is of course bees (pic right, in flowers), which have been busy at work on many of the trees in our ‘hood. I’ve got some exciting bee news, but let’s save that for the next post, and check out another cool flowering tree.

This past weekend my parents were visiting from Massachusetts, and my Mom and I went for a walk around the neighborhood to check out the trees.

Tangent: I realize that I’ve been at this for over a year and never mentioned my parents. That’s probably because my parents give me so little to whine about; I have the World’s Coolest Parents. They’re easy-going, helpful, wonderful with our kids, and get along great with Awesome Wife and Brother-Phil’s wife, as well as all of our friends. In fact, what’s neat about my parents is they’ve actually gotten cooler as they’ve gotten older. Specifically, they’re gotten cooler about the whole Old-People-Airport Thing.

Old People And Airports

OK, so here’s something that drives me crazy about old people: They always want to get to the airport like 3 hours before their flight. They are absolutely terrified of missing a plane. The irony is that old people- who are generally retired- have pretty much nothing going on. If you or I miss a flight, we might miss a day of work, or an important meeting, or fail to get our kids to school, etc. But old people don’t work or have to care for small kids. (Yes I know, lots of old people “volunteer”. Yeah, right- like the library is gonna collapse or burn down because the DVG (Designated Volunteer Geezer) didn’t show up on time…)

Old People Airport The DVG who drove me craziest was my mother-in-law (may she rest in peace.) Every time she’d visit, the night before she left us, she and I would go through this painful clenched-teeth negotiation. She’d say, “My flight is at 10:00AM, we should leave at 6:00AM.” I’d say, no, 8:00AM will leave you plenty of time, and we’d compromise on say 7AM. The next morning I’d shuffle down at 6:15 into the kitchen to make coffee, unshaven, wearing only a bathrobe, and there she’d be, sitting at the kitchen, suitcase by the door, her purse on her lap, her coat already on, and she’d say, “I’m ready to go as soon as you like!”

AirportSLC1 Nested Tangent: Though the Early Airport Weirdness is overwhelmingly an Old People thing, it strangely seems to also afflict my brother- let’s call him “Phil.” 99% of the time, Phil is a really cool 30-something guy- laid-back, relaxed, funny. Trust me, if you knew Phil, you would want to hang out with him. But 6 hours before a flight, he suddenly transmogrifies into a 75 year-old man, looking at his watch, nervously tapping his foot, and mumbling about check-in lines, and how “it’s good to have a little time at the gate…” I don’t know what Phil actually does with his extra hour at the gate; maybe he moonlights as a Delta gate agent or something…

But my parents, who have long been afflicted by Old-People-Airport syndrome, are actually getting cooler about getting to the airport on time. This time I told my Mom we could leave the house 90 minutes before the flight and she was like “OK, sounds great.” It’s like my parents have had this brilliant insight that somehow escapes so many old people: “We’re retired, we don’t have to be anywhere, we can do whatever the hell we want, and we don’t need to worry about stupid little stuff.” Isn’t that cool?

IMG_9205 So anyway, Mom and I were walking through the ‘hood, and we saw this- a flowering Magnolia. Magnolias (genus = Magnolia. Isn’t that nice? For once, a Latin name for a plant that doesn’t sound like the name of a Roman general…”Et tu, Quercus?”) are hugely popular ornamental trees for good reason- good-looking, robust flowers.

There are over 200 species of Magnolia, all native to the New World or Southeast Asia. Like Quercus (Oak) and Cercocarpus (Mountain Mahogany), Magnolia is a genus that includes both evergreen and deciduous species. They’re beautiful and all that, but the most fascinating thing to plant-geeks about Magnolias is this: they’re way primitive.

Magnolias have been around for close to 100 million years, and belong to a group of angiosperms that are now called Magnoliidae, but used to be called “primitive dicots*.”

*Apparently the word “primitive” was deemed too pejorative and un-PC. Wouldn’t want to hurt the tree’s feelings or anything…

cf0011-magnolia-flower-photo-notecard-bgMagnoliidae- which also include avocadoes, cinnamon and nutmeg- are plants who most closely resemble some of the earliest angiosperms and represent a separate and ancient branch of the angiosperm family. Tens of millions of years ago, their ancestors parted ways from the plants that would evolve into monocots and the eudicots (non-primitive dicots), which means- bizarrely and counter intuitively- that an Oak, Maple, Willow, Aspen, Pear, Apple, Peach or Cottonwood tree is actually more closely-related to grass than it is to a Magnolia. How weird is that?

Hood Family Tree Magnolia flowers represent an early and primitive structure. There’s no clear distinction between sepals and petals (see this post for flower-anatomy basics) and the pistils and stamens are arranged in a spiral pattern within a conical receptacle that appears similar to the flower-structure of the earliest fossil-angiosperms. MagnoliaBeetle2If you’ve ever handled the flowers, you may have noticed that they’re fairly tough, compared to say Pear or Apple or Cherry blossoms. This is thought to be because magnolias evolved before bees and were mainly pollinated by beetles, who, in pollinating a flower, tend to be a bit rougher on it (they crawl all over it.)

Tangent: I love these kinds of “living fossils”- Cycads, Mormon Tea, Ginkgoes, Clubmosses- when you learn about what these things really are and where they come from, and then you actually see them alive and growing, it’s like you came across a dinosaur or a trilobite.

Which brings us back to…

Next Up: Bev Gets Bees!