Thursday, May 10, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different

What has eight arms, three hearts, and blue blood?

Give up? Here are some more clues. It has W-shaped pupils, and each eye has two foveae instead of just one. And it comes in too many colors to list.

Still give up? I’m not surprised. I had no idea what that thing might be before I saw the NOVA program on cuttlefish, “Kings of Camouflage.” I was amazed.

In “normal mode,” so to speak, a cuttlefish looks like a small, brownish-grey squid. But if it wants to look like a piece of coral, that’s no problem.

The cuttlefish isn’t actually a fish. It’s a mollusk without a shell. It can change the texture and shape of its skin to produce the appearance of spikes. It has some 20 million pigmentation sacks in its skin layers, each independently controlled by muscles to expand or contract. It can be pink or yellow or neon blue, or all three at the same time. It can literally make waves of color ripple through its body.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. I intended to write about beliefs held by humans concerning bees and C.C.D., or colony collapse disorder. On April 24, 2007, Bill Maher mentioned C.C.D. on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. On the Late, Late Show, Craig Ferguson made some jokes about C.C.D.

Bees are dying at an alarming rate. By some estimates, colonies have declined by 60% or more in the United States; and Europe has also been affected. Bees simply abandon the hive; they fly away and die. And humans need bees. Bees are our friends in the never-ending battle against starvation. Bees pollinate flowers which produce crops used to feed livestock and humans. Bees are vital for other reasons. No more bees, for example, means no more apples, which means no more apple seeds, which means no new apple trees. And humans need trees. Trees are our friends in the battle against global warming because trees love carbon dioxide. They pull it right out of the atmosphere.

A presentation before U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture, listed ten possible causes of C.C.D. The culprits include known bee parasites and viruses, hive management and feeding, lack of genetic diversity in queen bees, chemicals and pesticides in the environment, and so forth. Unfortunately, although those factors could adversely affect the health of a hive, they are not known to cause the classic symptom of C.C.D. — abandonment of the hive.

There are indications, however, that the increasing number of man-made electromagnetic fields in the environment may interfere with the bee’s navigational systems. A German study suggests that cell phone radiation has a significant effect on bees. That’s what most of the jokes on tv were about.

I certainly don’t know what causes C.C.D. But I know many of the factors detailed to the House committee are the result of human actions. And I know humans have a long history of underestimating “lower” animals.

Is it absurd to speculate that bees might be sensitive to part of the electromagnetic spectrum we can’t sense? Think about the cuttlefish. It shimmers with color even though it is color-blind! How is that possible? With two foveae in each eye, the cuttlefish can detect variations in the polarization of light — something humans can’t do without external contraptions. Humans have no sensory organ for thermal radiation, but pit vipers do. That’s how they find their prey. Butterflies can see light in the ultraviolet range of the electromagnetic spectrum — another feat beyond the powers of the human eye. There is growing evidence that loggerhead turtles navigate by sensing variations in the gravitational field of the earth.* They have no specific sensory organ to detect the field, but the capacity may depend on magnetic ions in the animal’s nervous system.

Bees are vastly more important to our survival than cell phones and wireless internet connections. Humans, regrettably, are notoriously arrogant about our abilities and dismissive of the natural world around us. If man-made electromagnetic fields are responsible for colony collapse disorder, will we admit it in time to avert disaster?

*See, for example, “Magnet-induced disorientation in hatchling loggerhead sea turtles