Wednesday 15 October 2014

Only Connect... A Quiz

Apart from being the epigraph for E. M. Forster's 1910 novel Howards End “Only Connect” is one of my favourite quiz shows on the BBC. Hosted by the delightful Victoria Coren-Mitchell with her wickedly inappropriate sense of humour, teams of contestants have to work out the connections between sets of obscure and seemingly unrelated clues. The second round features up to three picture clues and the contestants have to predict what the fourth picture will be. I thought, by way of diversion, we’d have a little quiz ourselves this week. Take a look at the three pictures on the left and see if you can predict what the fourth picture should be. Award yourself three points if you can finish the sequence straight away. (Clever clogs).

Holm or Holly Oak
The first picture is the Holm or Holly Oak which grows quite widely around the northern Mediterranean. Like all oaks it produces acorns and these used to be a staple foodstuff in ancient human history but, as they take special preparation, they have fallen out of favour in more recent times in most parts of the world. We still use them for food in one way though: their roots provide a home for the much sought after truffle in what is known as an ectomycorrhizal association (where both the plant root and the fungus derive mutual benefits). We also use the hard, tough wood for the construction of everything from houses to wine barrels. Still award yourself three points if this helps you to finish the sequence.

Long-horned Beetle
The connection between the first and second clues lies in the wood. I fished this magnificent Long-horned Beetle (which rejoices in the name of Prinobius myardi) out of a stream last year and revived him overnight in a tin in my bedroom. (I wasn’t aware that he was capable of reviving until I was awoken by a peculiar scratching noise coming from my bedside table at 3AM). In common with other members of the family Cerambycidae its larvae are wood borers and can cause considerable damage. One of the trees that this fellow likes to bore into is the Holm or Holly Oak. Award yourselves two points if you have the connection now and know what the fourth picture will be.

Mason Bee
The third picture is a Mason Bee. Many of us are familiar with the Bumble Bee and the Honey Bee but over 20,000 known species of bee have evolved over the past hundred million years and there are probably many more that we haven’t yet discovered. There are eight species of Mason Bee on Crete alone. They produce neither honey nor beeswax but leave a food store of pollen and/or nectar for their young. And the connection between the Mason Bee and Long-horned Beetles? Mason Bees make their nests in the holes made by the larvae of wood-boring Beetles such as the Long-horns. They are called Mason Bees as they build a mud wall between each egg and seal the entrance with mud. Are you beginning to see the sequence now? Award yourself one point if you can predict the fourth picture.

Club-horned Wasp
And finally, the fourth picture revealed: a Club-horned Wasp. These wasps are parasitic on Mason Bees. The female wasp lays one of her eggs on top of the mason bee egg using her sting to penetrate the mud wall. When it hatches the first instar larva eats the bees egg, later, smaller instars feed on the stored pollen and/or nectar so nothing goes to waste.

If you didn’t get the connection, don’t worry. Like the quiz show “Only Connect” the clues are deliberately obscure and you’d need to be a dedicated entomologist to get that one. But the point that I wanted to illustrate was the interconnectedness of nature. The Club-horned wasp needs the Mason Bee to feed its young; the Mason Bee needs the Long-horned Beetle (or some other wood-boring beetle) to provide a nursery and the Long-horned Beetle needs deciduous trees such as the Holly Oak to develop in its larval stage. 

This is just one sequence that we know about, there are many, many more that we don’t and yet we continue to destroy habitats in pursuit of short term financial gain without a care in the world about the knock-on effects. The economic argument so often trotted out that “there is no scientific proof that we are causing any long term damage” is ridiculous. 250 years ago we had no scientific proof that oxygen was necessary for our survival (it hadn’t been discovered) but if we’d got rid of it all then we wouldn’t be here now. Surely we know enough these days to stop chasing money as a commodity in its own right, get back to using it solely as a convenient means of exchange and concentrate on what really matters – maintaining a planet that all life can share for generations to come?

I hope you enjoyed this little diversion from the usual blog but the truth is I’m waiting for something rather special to share with you and it hasn’t happened yet. Nature doesn’t have much truck with my blogging schedule but when it happens you will be the first to know so until then – happy hunting.
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)


1 comment:

  1. I might as well post on the blog he also.

    Thanks Steve, I'll share this on my Facebook page. This is what I've been fighting against for decades. But what most people don't understand is that it's the misuse and abuse of Science which has brought our natural world to it's knees. The prevailing sick attitude out there is, [let's take bark beetles as an example] if there is the appearance of a type of critter wreaking havoc on specific plant [trees, shrubs, etc], the first thought which comes to mind is, "Let's invent yet another chemical and kill it". Not only is this debased thinking ineffective and clearly the wrong course to take, but there are creeps behind the scenes hoping to profit off the asinine invention. Very few researchers [there are exceptions] will even consider what has happened to create the imbalance in the first place. In your example above, any one of the four components could be missing from the ecosystem which could create negative consequences. Modern Industrial Agriculture has ruined our planet not only from most of their irresponsible technology, but also marketing. I saying marketing and advertising because the average poor Sap on Earth who gets taken in by the con outnumber all the corporate entities combined and the Earth becomes further ruined. This is why such basic understanding of how nature really works [minus all the dogma] should be instilled at a young age where youthful minds are not infected with the conventional or traditional way of thinking.

    After restoring ecosystems through biomimicry up in the mountains of Southern California [years of making mistakes based on my conventional education from the early 1970s and gradually moving towards a more holistic and true biomimetics approach] I found it tough to sell what I had learned when moving back to the City in 2001 and applying for Landscape Supervisor jobs where the interviewers for companies thought I was crazy when discussing techniques I use involving fungus and bacteria and the almost complete elimination of all chemical fertilizers and most pesticides/herbicides. The company I did finally get hired with took on 3 people who sold them on how wonder a fit they would be for no other reason than they had Alphabet Soup initials behind their name on a business card. When I was finally hired I gradually eliminated most chemicals. The entire urban landscapes system health on ALL the properties we management were in a deplorable states with pest infestation on almost everything. When I left this job after four & a half years of service, the entire system was completely turned around which was evident by it's health and vigor [irrespective of the plant community involved which was considerable. Exactly one year after I left, my replacement went back to the conventional scientific regimen with chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the entire system collapsed. I received emails and phone calls asking me to move back to the states and take my old job back. I couldn't, although I would have loved to.

    The bottom line is that what influences our world is selfish economic interests and not responsible technology based on biomimetics. The Chemical companies who were used on both sides of the War effort still exist and are in charge of Agricultural practices and they are rich and powerful. How do you fight that ? Yes, I know, there are all sorts of movements out there, but they lack the unity that is needed. This morning I watched a documentary here in Sweden about Nikola Tesla. It dealt with his obsession for power , fame and celebrity. It also touched on his ongoing conflicts with Thomas Edison who though brilliant also had the same human imperfect flaws of selfishness, jealousy, envy and coveting another's research and inventions. Can you imagine what humankind could do if true unity actually existed and the obsession with self-promotion were truly eliminated ?

    Thanks once again for this. It's a great teaching example.

    Cheers, Kevin


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