Occupational Hazards

No matter what your job, there are some frequent questions or comments from the general public that get, shall we say, a tad tiresome.
I thought it would be interesting to make up a brief questionnaire and select a few nominees.  If you would also like to join in, please do!  Just post your answers below, or put a link on your blog to this post.

Q.: What term or phrase from your job/occupation do people mangle?

A.:  Entomology often gets changed to “Ant-o-mology”, as though we only study ants.  Not even Edward O. Wilson is an “antomologist”; he is (among other things) a myrmecologist.

Q.: What broadly erroneous assumption do people make about your preferences and your career choice?

A.:  That I love all insects.  Really, I don’t. (Although I will be quick to point out that only 1 % of the insects are pests.)  I do find grasshoppers to be kind of gross, especially after scrubbing their encrusted remains off my automobile windshield, and spending hours driving a riding mower and having them bounce off my face.  Blech.

Q.: What trivia challenge do people pose when they hear about what you do for a living?

A.:  “Wow, I bet you know all the bugs!”  No.  There are over one million species, mostly beetles, and I’m more familiar with butterflies.

Q.: What basic fact about your job/occupation do people rarely understand?

A.:  That insects are animals.  “Yes, they are.  They’re not plants, not fungi, not single-cell organisms.  They have organ systems and behaviors, and are not photosynthetic.”

Q.: Did you always want to be a/n  ___?

A.:  “Huh?  Sorry, distracted watching this bug.  Look here at what it’s doing–“

Q.: You musta been a weird kid, huh?

A.:  Yeah, but now I get paid to teach the other weird kids.

Q.: How did some totally unrelated previous job prepare you for your current occupation?

A.:  I went from doing behavioral observations of insects to behavioral observations of students with severe emotional and behavioral problems.  There are more similarities than you’d imagine.

Q.: So what do you do for a living?

A.: Do you mean my daytime, evening, or weekend job?

I would love to hear the answers from Dave Hingsburger, Bug Girl, Dean Dad, Wheelchair Dancer, and YOU.

First on the Scene

A shiny green fly sponging up nectar from a fennel flower head
A shiny green fly sponging up nectar from a fennel flower head

The other day I was out in the garden taking pictures when a shiny green fly caught my attention.  Green bottle flies (Diptera, family Calliphoridae, genus Lucilia) are a bit larger than the ordinary house fly.  The adults feed on nectar and are pollinators, but because of their life histories, they fill some really interesting roles in the realms of human sciences.
One piece of news I found particularly interesting is related to newer use of Lucilia illustris in Maggot Debridement Therapy.  This $50 term refers to putting young maggots on a wound because will consume only dead tissue — fear not, they are reared under clean laboratory conditions.
[Pausing for readers to get past the “Eeuw, gross!” moment before moving onto the really interesting stuff.]
The news is that these larvae are exceptionally good at helping patients recover from bad MRSA infections.  A University Manchester study found that thirteen diabetic patients with nasty foot sores were able to heal up in an average of just 3 weeks, instead of the usual 28 weeks!  Not only do they clean up the dead cells that would just fester and decay, but they also get rid of the bacteria directly, and help stimulate the healing process.  As the article points out, this means that patients don’t have to deal with some of the side effects of strong antibiotics.  My daughter has dealt with several staph infections, including an episode of MRSA, so this ranks a big w00t!
Yes, these are the same sort of fly larvae, AKA blow flies, that help clean up dead animals in the environment.  Not only do the larvae need the nutrients from dead animal tissue to grow and mature, but the females need the extra maternal protein for egg production.  (Unfortunately, they are also pests in the world of sheep ranching.)
Which leads us to another famous use of flies, forensic entomology.  Calliphorid flies are attracted to blood or other fluids, and are the first to colonize a corpse. The rates of maturation for various species of flies have been extensively studied.  By examining the age of the larvae, comparing this with the conditions where the body was found, and the known temperature data to calculate the Accumulated Degree Days, the Post Mortem Interval or PMI can be determined.  The PMI is  how long it has been since the person died.
Blow flies may be “icky”, but the smallest of details can make great differences in the affairs of humans.

Hanging around the Web

Cruising the Web BW
A shiny robot spider hangs upside-down from a metal mesh

My son and I recently hauled a long dresser+mirror up two flights of stairs, and I cleaned up the master bedroom in preparation for the return of the new baby & parents from the hospital.  The downside of course is that after a day of labor, I must spend a couple-three days recuperating.  (In other words, I used up all my “spoons”, down to the last demitasse.)
I’m also on Day 2 of one of those low-grade-three-day migraines.  Right now it’s manifesting as misreads, which when I catch myself is kind of entertaining:

In light of all that, I thought I’d share some interesting reads/cool finds on the Web recently:
My sleep-deprived daughter would be envious of ant queens, who spend nine hours a day sleeping, while the workers must squeeze in micro-naps.
From the world of delightful architecture, an adult tree[less] house shaped like a bee skep, made of recycled lumber (wheelie adaptation not included).
The CitizenM hotels have the most amazing showers, which look like Star Trek transporter pads.  To start the shower, you simply shut the door.  I don’t know if they’re large enough for a wheelchair transfer to a shower seat, but with the zero-clearance there’s a chance of it (maybe Dave knows). Want!  (Or at least the trés geek LED shower head that changes from blue to red when your water’s hot.)
Reimer Reason posted It’s a Family Reunion! for the most recent Disability Blog Carnival.
In further hexapod news:  while I was distracted by our little geekling, Bug Girl has been faithfully covering Pollinator Week, including important information about CHOCOLATE. For more funs, Cheshire has teh latest Circus of the Spineless up.
And of course, what would a list of fun be without a LOLcat?

Six white kittens lined up and looking at the camera, while a seventh is distracted with a play ball
Six white kittens lined up and looking at the camera, while a seventh is distracted with a play ball. The photo caption reads, "PUZZLE PICTURE Find the kitten who has ADD."

News Bees

Our carpenter bees are happy, but the short-haired bumble became extinct in its native country several years ago.  Fortunately, immigrant populations survived in New Zealand, and are being re-introduced.  The value of native pollinators is being rediscovered as honeybee populations have dwindled. Find out how to prevent jet-lag in bees and more here in the Guardian.
Elephants are also endangered, and Kenyan populations are pushed to resources where farmers are also trying to survive.  Fortunately, researchers are working with the elephants’ (and bees’) natural behaviors.  A report on BBC News describes how hollow-log style beehives have been used on the continent for centuries, and are used as part of the fences. (Of course, the honeybees also give the farmers good crop pollination, and some honey and wax harvests, too.)
Insect news from my own garden to come soon!

B is for Bob, C is for –

“Eek, a bee!” yelped the little girl as her mother paid for some flowers at the nursery register.
“Oh, that’s just Bob; he can’t sting you.  He’s a carpenter bee.” I explained, holding an open hand up toward where Bob was doing loop-de-loops.  But my repeated explanations aside, most people were not buying Bob’s reported status as a gentlebee-ing.  Let’s face it, an inch-long bee flying around you is hardly subtle.
Not but a couple days later, I came in to work and found a patio-style citronella candle lit near the entrance. Our manager had lit it in hopes of deterring Bob, who had been joined by another male.  Like two World War 1 flying aces, they were staging aerial dogfights.  “They’re not out to get anyone,” I told the other employees, “it’s territorial.”  That didn’t mollify anyone, but fortunately Bob prevailed and his rival left the scene.
“Wow, that’s a BIG bumblebee!” exclaimed a customer.
“It’s a carpenter bee.  They have the shiny, dark abdomens, like a brand-new pair of carpenter jeans.  Bumbles are furry all over.  See the white on his face?  That means he’s a male.  The males can’t sting.”  I’ve never been stung by carpenter bees or bumbless, and have even petted them.
My current computer wallpaper is my photo of a female — isn’t she just adorable?! (more story below):

A large bee with a black head and abdomen, and a gold, furry thorax nectaring on Queen Anne's Lace
A large bee with a black head & abdomen and a gold, furry thorax, nectaring on Queen Anne's Lace

Carpenter bees (Hymenoptera, Family Apidae: Xylocopa virginica) get their name because they dig tunnels in dead wood.  They use these for rearing offspring, and for overwintering.  Painting wood is the easiest deterrent for preventing structures from being bored into.  I couldn’t see anything in the garden center “tent” that would be a great place for setting up housekeeping (the only wooden structures nearby were thin shipping pallets), so I figured that Bob had decided that the garden center was the ne plus ultra of food resources, with its thousands of blossoms.
Like other bees, carpenters are valuable as pollinators, and like orchardists, you can buy (or make) bee blocks in hopes of attracting some.  Once in a while the bees will take a short-cut and “rob” a flower by chewing through the base to get directly to the nectar. (‘nother pix, still more story)
White-faced male carpenter bee stealing necar from Columbine flower
White-faced male carpenter bee stealing necar from pink Columbine flower

While the males are hanging around being territorial, the females are busy stocking their offsprings’ larder with pollen & nectar balls.  Each of their several eggs gets its own foodball and wood-pulp partition.  Once the larva have hatched, eaten up their food, and metamorphosed into adults, they then chew through the wee shoji-screens, crawling over their siblings to go out and start the process over again.
Recently, Bob was nowhere to be seen.  Our manager explained that when he was cleaning up the other night, he realized that the broom made a great fly-swatter.  Apparently I looked dismayed, because he went on to explain that something unexpected happened the next day.  “Bob’s brother or cousin or friend or who-ever moved in, several of them!”
This made me laugh.  ” ‘Nature abhors a vacuum.’ There was an opening in the territory!”
But our story has a serendipitous ending.  As the days have grown hotter, our manager brought out a standing fan to help keep everyone cool as they stand by the register.  Apparently carpenter bees are befuddled — or bothered — by the steady stream of air, and they left to hang around elsewhere.
“Oh, that’s fabulous! You worked with their behavior, not against it.  You always get better results that way, whether it’s insects, students, or employees.  That was really clever.”

"To Serve Man"

Holy Crap.
So why am I taking Crap’s name in vain?  This bang-head-here piece of news:

Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, has filed Senate Bill 115 on behalf of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Conference lobbyist Danny Loar said the bill is designed to be a “pre-emptive strike” against scientists who might want to mix “human and animal cells in a Petri dish for scientific research purposes”

(Shouldn’t that be human and other animal cells?  What am I, a petunia?)
So, if this mosquito sucks my blood, and I squish her and drop her (with my blood cells inside her) onto a Petri dish, would that be illegal?

a mosquito sucking blood from my arm
a mosquito sucking blood from my arm

Yeah, they’re trying to prevent stem-cell research; but come on, no one is going to make centaurs or Fly-Human monsters or Playboy bunnies.  And I don’t believe that theoretical smear of biological mush I’ve just rubbed onto the agar contains crumbs of my soul in the red white blood cells, nor did any of my eggs (fertilized or otherwise) that were shed over my lifetime.
When I teach a class on seed-starting and we are talking about how to take cuttings of coleus, geraniums, Swedish ivy, or rosemary, I describe how we stick them in rooting hormone (if needed), and then in media to grow more of the same kind of plant. I tell my students, “You’ve just cloned a plant.  It’s genetically identical to the parent plant.”

Coleus cuttings rooting in water-filled champagne flutes on a window sill
Coleus cuttings rooting in water-filled champagne flutes on a window sill

I then go on to explain in brief (as this is a non-credit class), that there are dormant cells in those plant stems that can grow into any kind of cell, such as a root cell.  Because plants have these “totipotent” cells that can become any other kind of cell, we can take cuttings and roots will grow where there were no roots before.
We can also cut the very tip of the stem off, place it into culture medium with tiny amounts of plant hormones, and encourage those cells to grow into lots more cells — and that’s another way how plants are cloned, by using tissue culture to produce hundreds and thousands of the same plant, and they’re even free of diseases and pests.
Clear plastic box containing dozens of tiny plantlets from tissue culture
Clear plastic box containing dozens of tiny plantlets from tissue culture

Gee, if we could take a few cells from people, we could grow you new skin for burn victims, new livers for people with liver cancer, and so on. Best of all, those pieces of tissue or organs would not be rejected by the body because they would not be foreign cells, the would be your own. (Nor would you need heavy doses of drugs to suppress your immune system to keep it from reacting to the foreign donor organs.)
But we can’t, because although plants have totipotent cells, we don’t.  After a certain stage in development, we don’t have these stem cells.  (I pause for a couple of seconds, and it’s great to see the “light bulb effect” pass through the room as people get the concept.)
Ooh, human cells with other cells, scary.  Do the bishops not realise that each human is an entire ecosystem, with millions of bacteria in our guts and on our skin, and an astonishing number of infinitesimal mites living on our eyelashes and brows?  Do they not realise that their mitochondria has its own DNA, different than the nuclear DNA?  Do they not realise that we already use genetic recombinant technology to make insulin for diabetics?
Um by the way, isn’t this piece of legislation mixing government and religion in a Petri dish?