Day 543 – The birds and the bees

Yes, yes. We’re all adults here. We know how this works. Well, apart from the size difference. I mean, I’ve never really understood… ah… never mind. Another time.

But this is a whole different “the birds and the bees” tale.
It doesn’t end up in any sort of procreation – in fact, quite the opposite.

We’re always “beeing” told to look after the honey bees by Big Apiculture. There are news articles, puff pieces and even a film (allegedly featuring some hints of iffy inter-species naughtiness).

It’s superb PR. The cult is hard at work.

They won’t tell you about the dead penguins, though. Oh no.

The absolute buzzy bastards.

The penguins were transported to SANCCOB for post-mortems, and biological samples were sent for disease and toxicology testing. No external injuries were found on the birds, and post-mortems revealed that the penguins suffered multiple bee stings, with many dead bees found at the site of death.
Thus far, the preliminary investigations suggest that the penguins died after being stung by Cape honey bees. A dead penguin was also found on Fish Hoek beach on Saturday, having also sustained multiple bee stings.

There are just 13,000 breeding pairs of these gorgeous, comical, endangered birds left in the entire country, and then some swarm of angry, stripy scumbags knocks off over 3% of the Boulders Beach population in a single, unnecessary hour-long stinging frenzy, ostensibly just for shits and giggles.

Absolute carnage.

You might think that this would be the end of the story, but only if you weren’t aware that penguins are actually rather well-known for two things: waddling and eating fish their absolute lack of forgiveness, and their cold, abiding bloodlust when it comes to avenging their dead brethren.

Who amongst us could forget the great Muizenberg Herring Massacre of 1978?

Exactly.

This now seems almost certain to escalate way beyond a simple local dispute. Already, there are rumours of calls being made by the survivors of this heinous attack to their less monochrome cousins up north, to assist with retaliatory strikes on hives around the Simonstown area. And it seems unlikely to end there, with the prospect of an all-out World War between birds and insects surely very much on the cards, given each sides’ well-recognised aggression towards the other.

Ostriches vs Termites
Chickens taking on Wasps
Pigeons against Beetles

Overall, my money is on the birds. Not so much the penguins – which, while clearly adorable, are also clearly a bit shit at fighting bees (see above) – but overall, the size and maneuverability of the Aves class will surely outdo the sheer numbers of the six-legged warriors, despite their ferocious reputation for organisation and aggression (and killing penguins).

So… are you Team Honey or Team Egg?

Kies jou kant Choose your side wisely, just in case we humans should get dragged into this conflict.

You think the pro-vax/anti-vax thing is getting nasty?
You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Pairs of animals

This is a post about pairs of animals. Not since the mythical days of Noah and his big wooden boat have so many animals been paired up – and he didn’t even do it in a blog post.

It’s two, by the way. Two pairs of animals.

The first pair is a hawk and a snake. Sadly, neither of them is with us anymore, after a disastrous electrocution incident in northern Montana, USA. It’s believed that the hawk, fancying a sssssnack, swooped down and picked up the snake in its talons, before retreating to a convenient local power line in order to eat its prey.
Ssssssadly, the snake must have been dangling beneath the hawk and touched one of the other power lines as the bird came in to land. If any hawks are reading this (and they might be, because they have eyes like a… like a haw… well look, they just have really good eyes, ok?), let it be a lesson to you to always hold your lengthy prey somewhere in the middle, to prevent excess danglage.

Both the snake (already in a great deal of peril) and the hawk (peckish (no pun intended), but otherwise largely doing fine), were electrocuted and died.

Hawkward:

Their still smouldering carcasses then fell to the vegetation below and started a fire which consumed 40 acres of Montana.
Look, if you’re going to go, go bigly.

The hawk and the snake aren’t the only ones to have started fires. There’s a whole list of animal arsonists on that site: squirrels, dogs, pigeons, kites. They’re all at it.

Our other animal pairing is elephants and bees. They haven’t (to the best of my knowledge), been arsoning together. In fact, elephants aren’t huge fans of bees at all, and would much rather stay well away from them, like some pachyderm/apian apartheid situation.

“So what?” I hear you ask. “At least they aren’t starting fires.”
And yes, that’s great news for African farmers, but what’s even better news for African farmers is that they can use bees as a natural deterrent to keep elephants off their crops:

In more than a dozen studies, Dr. King and her colleagues have experimented with beehive fences on East African farms, finding that the region’s indigenous bee, Apis mellifera scutellata, can turn elephants away. A notable long-term trial on farms outside of the Tsavo East National Park found that hive fences deterred 80 percent of elephant raiders compared to unfenced plots used as a control group.

And then, because the farmers need to keep the bees happy to keep the bee numbers up to make the fences effective, they can tap off the honey – which is made by the happy bees – for a second income stream, while reaping more from their original, more traditional crops. Everyone’s a winner.
Apart from the elephants, obviously.

If you have any more interesting (or not) stories about pairs of animals and how they can affect our daily lives (if we’re in Montana or Chad), then don’t hesitate to get in touch and we might even share your tale on 6000 miles…

Bugs in the news

Again. Bugs are always in the news, but this weekend provided lots of newsworthy microbiology. Primarily agricultural stuff, but still with at least some (or more) human interest. It’s obviously part of my job to make you realise just how important and relevant microbiology is, so here’s a quick snapshot of what we got served this week.

Bird Flu in Lancashire. Yep. H7N7 in Goosnargh, which coincidentally sounds like a description of the noise a gander might make just before succumbing to the virus. There’s a a 10km surveillance zone and a 3km inner protection zone around the farm in question, and anything poultry-related in that first 28.27km² is being killed. H7N7 is one of the avian flu viruses that can also infect humans (and pigs, seals and horses), so it’s worth keeping under control for more than just the sake of the local chickens.

No Chicken Love in USA. If you want to head away from Virusville, try going down the bacterial route, because Bird Flu isn’t in the only thing that you can get from your chicken: Salmonella can be a proper bastard, too. I contracted Salmonella enteritidis PT4 from a dodgy chicken dish in a dodgy Italian restaurant in a dodgy street in Oxford in the late 90s and I can still remember how sick I was. The main symptoms were sweating, shaking, swearing and farting. Thus, it was a thoroughly unpleasant time for all involved. But all I did was eat some chicken – imagine how much more likely you are to get the bug if you… you…  kiss… your chicken.

In interviews, ill people answered questions about contact with animals and foods consumed during the week before becoming ill; 82 (86%) of the 95 ill people interviewed reported contact with live poultry (e.g., chicks, chickens, ducks, ducklings) before becoming ill. Sixty-four ill people who had purchase records available reported purchasing live baby poultry from 17 different feed supply stores and hatcheries in multiple states. Ill people reported purchasing live poultry for backyard flocks to produce eggs or meat, or to keep as pets. Many ill people in these outbreaks reported bringing the live poultry into their homes, and others reported kissing or cuddling with the live poultry. These behaviors increase a person’s risk of a Salmonella infection.

The states worst affected are Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia. I’m saying no more.

Bee Flu in Cape Town. Not strictly Bee Flu, but American Foulbrood Disease, caused by the spores of Paenibacillus larvae ssp. larvae. It’s nasty, and it’s killing thousands of bees in the Western Cape. The good news is that you and I can’t get it (although I wouldn’t advise cuddling or kissing any bees). The bad news is that if it doesn’t get sorted soon, then not only will local honey prices rise (oh no!), but the local fruit industry might collapse:

“As much as we can import honey cheaper from other countries, we cannot import the pollination service done by bees. If not controlled, the disease would also affect the fruit industry, which contributes a lot to the South African economy, and put food security at risk.”

Paenibacillus larvae is related to the bug that causes Anthrax, and their spores can survive for decades unless you kill them with fire. So that’s literally what you have to do with your infected hives and equipment. Not ideal for the longevity and continuation of your bee-keeping business.

Dog Foot Popcorn Odour Mystery Solved. Do you sniff your dog’s feet? For me, that’s right up there with cuddling and kissing your chicken. But there are, apparently, some individuals out there who do this and then – after a brief paws – report back that the feet in question smell “like popcorn”.

Why do dogs’ paws smell like popcorn? Because bacteria, obviously:

Dog feet are a great place for bacteria and yeast to take up residence because there’s a lot of moisture and little to no air circulation in the folds and pockets of skin between the toes and foot pads. Bacteria flock there and reproduce with exuberance. All these microorganisms emit their own distinct odors (they’re what give us BO), and the popcorn/corn chip smell on some dogs’ feet could be due to yeast or Proteus bacteria. Both are known for their sweet, corn tortilla–like smell. Or it could be Pseudomonas bacteria, which smell a little fruitier—but pretty close to popcorn to most noses.

Having years of laboratory experience, I can safely say that yeast smells like bread, not popcorn (I love the smell of freshly grown yeast on a plate) (just try not to think of where it came from). Pseudomonas spp. smell sweet and pleasant (but not of popcorn), and Proteus is a mix of fish (not good fish) and vinegar. Thus, I’m struggling to get the popcorn reference here. But equally, I’m not going to go down the road of smelling Colin’s dirty feet (or anything else) in the name of science.

Motoring news

I’m not into cars, but I do drive one and so I like to keep abreast of motoring news when it makes the papers. Also, this first story means that when that awkward “What does OSOD stand for?” question comes up at the next pub quiz, I’ll be able to answer correctly and win some beer.

I pass through OSOD systems on my way to and from work each day, and now the Western Cape traffic department is making a really big OSOD outside Beaufort West as the SABC incorrectly report:

The Western Cape Department of Transport has launched the Average Speed Over Distance (OSOD) pilot project in Beaufort West in the Central Karoo. The multi-million rand system has the long range capability to trap and monitor 71.6 kilometres of road. The busy stretch of road on the R-61, links the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape.

The OSOD project is not only the first for South Africa, but a first for the world. The camera covers 71.6 kilometres of the R61 between Aberdeen and Beaufort West. The road carries a lot of traffic from the Eastern Cape into the Western Cape and is notorious for speedsters and tragic accidents.

Western Cape Transport MEC, Robin Carlisle:

“The R61 is a very narrow straight road. and it probably has the highest fatality figure when compared to the number of vehicles it uses of any road in the province. It also is for us the beginning of the major long distance taxi route that comes from the Eastern Cape through Aberdeen, Buford West and then Cape Town. So it’s the perfect one to start on.”

Apparently, the section on the M5 has been very profitable effective at reducing speeding between Kromboom and Wetton. Presumably this 71.6km stretch of road will be equally fruitful.

Sticking with exciting(?) and informative South African motoring news, here’s a bit of advice for you: Never crash into a tree full of bees.
Sadly, this helpful tip comes ever so slightly late for one unfortunate Mbombela resident who crashed into a tree full of bees this past weekend:

An Mbombela man was in a critical condition yesterday after a swarm of bees stung him when his car crashed into a tree containing a bee hive, paramedics said.
ER24 spokesman Derrick Banks said the man – an on-duty security guard in his late twenties or early thirties – was attacked while travelling on the Belladona Plant road at around 5.30am.

The man lost control of his vehicle, which crashed into a tree and dislodged the bee hive, which, in turn, sent “hundreds of bees into the air. The guard started to be stung straight away while still in his vehicle.”

Banks said the man managed to run to a nearby river and lay face down in the water in an attempt to keep the bees away from his face.

We at 6000 miles… would also like to take this opportunity to point out that lying face down in water may also be hazardous to your health.

First person to quote Eddie Izzard gets a lifetime ban from the site. You know who you are. Both of you.

It’s all over

It’s obvious that the holiday season is coming to an end, as the malls are filled with dishevelled whities wearing poorly-ironed clothes, desperate for the return of Mabel, their domestic, who spent the festive period back with her family in the Eastern Cape. They’re even willing to overlook the embarrassment of that phone call they made two weeks into her leave, to ask her where the iron is kept. And the one half an hour after that to ask how it works. Two scorched t-shirts and a burnt sock later, they gave up.
They ran out of clean plates just after Christmas and Mr Delivery is getting expensive. The carpets are ankle deep in beach sand and dirt.
Never in the field of human cleaning was so much owed by so many to so few.

Not so here, of course. I was trained in the art of domestic warfare back in the UK and I’ve been putting my skills to the fore. Having a happy milk-recycling unit which happily recycles milk all over the furniture, carpets and whatever she and you are wearing has driven this domiciliary activity. While others were still trawling the depths of their wardrobes until the 27th, I developed an acute shortage of trouser garments after just two days of family “quality time”, thanks to my little lactose-regurgitation factory, which is instantly forgiven as soon as it smiles through the milky residue. Damn you, Mother Nature.

As Christmasses go, it was pretty laid back. Too hot to be hectic. And the kids always make that festive period a bit special. Back in my childhood days, the time between the 25th and New Year was always a bit empty: the excitement of Christmas over, but everything held in limbo until the end of the year. This time around, in order to avoid that boredom, I contracted viral meningitis and lay hurting in bed for three days. As a microbiologist, I do actually find it interesting to experience the diseases and illnesses that I used to diagnose on a daily basis, but I can put this one alongside Salmonella gastroenteritis and malaria in the category labelled Never Again, Please.  Gonorrhea was over-rated too, if I’m honest. Anyway, I’m happy to say that my meninges are much improved and it’s had absolutely no effect on my brain function. Pink Panther. St Bernard. Picture frame.  

And now, to complete the holiday period, we have been invaded by bees. I have removed around 50 of them from the house this morning alone, using a combination of insecticide spray, A4 paper, a tea towel and the cunning ploy of opening windows. I have no idea what sort of bees they are. In the UK, it’s easy enough: bumble (Bombus terrestis) or honey (Apis mellifera), and you can kill them by using your cell phone. Here, it’s more complicated and there’s always the danger of the Africanized Killer Bee (Apis mellifera scutellata), which can, like, kill you and stuff. Add to that the worrying oversight that the otherwise superb SE X1 doesn’t seem to have a bee killing function and the warning signs are there for all to see. 
They’ve moved into our roof and they’re staying put. Until the bee-killer comes this evening with his bee-killing stuff and kills them, that is. Sorry, my little band of environmentally-inclined readers, but they are going to die a slow, horrible, painful death. Possibly, anyway. I have absolutely no idea what methods he is going to employ. Just that he’s going to employ them this evening. On the bees. In our roof.
You have less than 6 hours to save them and I’m not telling you where I live.