Honeybees on Cocaine: Sometimes Science is Weird

I spend an inordinate amount of my time reading scientific journals. Sometimes I need to find out how previous researchers have investigated a particular scientific or statistical problem, sometimes I need to compare different outcomes, and sometimes I just want to try and understand some method or conclusion better. This can be an incredibly boring and tedious task; it can be difficult to sustain for any prolonged period, given how dry and technical most published scientific papers tend to be (especially in very niche and specific journals). But, sometimes, science throws you a curveball, and you end up reading about, say, the magnetic alignment of pooping cattle or the health benefits of eating boogers.

Here is a brief collection of some of the strangest things that I’ve found while looking through scientific journals.

1) Effects of cocaine on honey bee dance behavior; Journal of Experimental Biology, 2009

You’ve probably at some point seen videos (or are at least aware) of honey bee “waggle” dancing. It’s how bees communicate with each other within a hive. Here’s a quick refresher if you don’t remember 8th-grade science class or that one “Magic School Bus” book:

Now, when you were watching that, did you think to yourself, “This dancing isn’t nearly twitchy enough. I wonder what would happen if we got that bee coked out of its mind first?” If you have, then congratulations, you have what it takes to be a scientist! Specifically, you have what it takes to be a molecular geneticist at the Australian National University. The authors of the paper say it best: “In these experiments, bees were treated with freebase cocaine”. They found, to nobody’s surprise, that coked-up bees danced more energetically and for longer periods of time. And, just to be thorough, they also determined that bees exhibited withdrawal symptoms after cocaine treatment ceased.

Not satisfied, a follow-up study was published in 2013. This time, the researchers wanted to know just how much coke a bee could handle. They literally dosed them until the bees lost coordination (in their words, when they “fell to their backs and could not get up”). They did this to the same bees for 5 days (note that the average honey bee lives 7 days) to see if they developed a tolerance. It turns out that yes, they do develop a tolerance, and can handle about 20 micrograms of freebase cocaine before they fall over (this is approximately one thousandth of a standard “line” of cocaine; I guess depending on how many bees you think it takes to make one human will inform your judgment on whether they are lightweights or not). They also go through great pains to compare their results with similar experiments where people dosed up fruit flies and crayfish.

Unfortunately these scientists didn’t think to release a video recording of the coked-up bees. But I like to think it would be a little something like this:

2) Pigeons can discriminate “good” and “bad” paintings by children; Animal Cognition, 2010

Look, we all know children are terrible at painting. Even the most supportive parent will admit that a piece of construction paper with blue finger prints smeared all over it doesn’t really deserve to be pinned to the refrigerator. But that’s not the point, right? We have kids paint because it is a fun activity and a creative outlet, which is important to provide for a developing brain. But for Shigeru Watanabe, a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist at Keio University in Japan, not only is it important to critique children’s paintings, but that the job could be most ably performed by pigeons.

In this study, a number of children’s paintings were first classified as “beautiful” or “ugly” (seriously) by some adults, and the pigeons were trained to discriminate between the two using operant conditioning (that is, they were given food for correctly identifying a “beautiful” painting). After a long period of training, a novel set of paintings were classified and given to the pigeons to see if they had learned how to tell a child that his art project is a piece of shit. Not only were the pigeons able to “correctly” classify children’s paintings as beautiful or ugly, but they were also able to discriminate between watercolor and pastel.

Really, it is easy for a parent to see the potential benefits of this. I mean, you want your child to be able to accept criticism, but you also don’t want to be the bad guy by doing it yourself. It turns out all you need to do is grab a pigeon. Sorry, Billy, the bird says it’s ugly; you need to try harder next time!

3) Pressures produced when penguins pooh – calculations on avian defaecation; Polar Biology, 2003

I thought for a while about how to summarize this rather amazing publication, but honestly there is nothing I could write that is more succinct, bizarre, and hilarious than the paper’s own abstract:

… penguins generate considerable pressures to propel their faeces away from the edge of the nest. The pressures involved can be approximated if the following parameters are known: (1) distance the fecal material travels before it hits the ground, (2) density and viscosity of the material, and (3) shape, aperture, and height above the ground of the orificium venti. With all of these parameters measured, we calculated that fully grown penguins generate pressures of around 10 kPa (77 mm Hg) to expel water material and 60 kPa (450 mm Hg) to expel material of a higher viscosity similar to that of olive oil. The forces involved, lying well above those known for humans, are high, but do not lead to an energetically wasteful turbulent flow. Whether a bird chooses the direction into which it decides to expel its faeces, and what role the wind plays in this, remains unknown.

This paragraph is almost a work of art (though I’d have to ask a pigeon to be entirely sure). They state so matter of factly how to go about calculating penguin faecal pressure that you almost don’t realize what an absurd idea that is completely, even when they use the almost unbelievably flowery euphemism orificium venti (literally: “rear hole”; also, I think it’s something you can get at Starbucks). In case you need a visual reference, they helpfully provided one:


They then go on to note that this is significantly above pressures exhibited by crapping humans, possibly because in the absence of disease we aren’t trying to “expel material … similar to that of olive oil.” I would have to imagine if we spend our time sitting in nests we’d develop some pretty powerful pooping abilities to get that shit far away. I mean, if the goal is to compare how we get crap away from our living spaces, shouldn’t we compare penguin faecal pressure to water pressure from our toilets? They wrap things up by reassuring us that the turbulent flow of this feces isn’t “energetically wasteful”, and to hint that this is a lucrative field for further research with that last sentence.

Sidenote: I’m not a physicist, so I can’t provide too much context for a number of 60 kPa (kilopascals) except to say that the atmospheric pressure of the Earth is just a hair over 100 kPa. Someone smarter than me can calculate how many olive oil expelling penguins would be needed to achieve escape velocity.

4) Farting as a defence against unspeakable dread; Journal of Analytical Psychology, 1996

In case the last paper only whet your appetite for scientific studies of anal expulsion, you’re in luck! Unfortunately, though, no complicated derivations of pressure calculations here. No, instead this is a case study of Peter, a “severely disturbed adopted latency boy.” Now, Peter had a tough life as related by the author, so far be it from any of us to make fun of him for his behavior. Still, even the author seems content to at least make implicit judgments of the boy, who he describes as having “developed a defensive olfactory container using his bodily smell and farts to envelop himself in a protective cloud of familiarity against the dread of falling apart, and to hold his personality together.”

So, something like this:

Of course, the farting wasn’t only defensive. One of Peter’s favorite games, apparently, was to pretend to be Saddam Hussein while the psychologist was a captured American prisoner of war. Again, my words cannot quite do it justice: “His attacks, both physical and verbal, were always accompanied by a great deal of farting. Whenever he felt like hating me – and in those days it was often – he would say that his foul smell was lethal gas with which he was poisoning me. Sometimes, however, he seemed to be more ambivalent and less full of hate. Then he would warn me that the gas was on the way, and that I should wear a gas mask.”

In an effort to make the case study sound less like the origin story for an early-90s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles villain, the paper goes on to assess this behavior in an almost unbearably scholarly fashion with reference to Jungian archetypes and the psychoanalytic theories of Lacan and Bion. However, all of this academic discourse is hard to take seriously when the author himself seems to be descending into insanity: “My frustration with Peter became so extreme that – after struggling with my internal analyst who kept advising me to stick to verbal interactions – I decided to counterattack … including the making of loud farting noises on my own … I took his surprise and puzzlement as a clue that he was beginning to hear me, and this encouraged me to keep on with this approach.” He goes on to relate that he (as in, the psychologist) kept making farting noises until Peter became enraged and attacked him, at which point he lectured Peter by essentially taunting “Well, that’s what YOU sound like.” He defends his behavior by claiming that he has a REALLY sensitive nose. Seriously. At first I thought I was accidentally reading a police report rather than a published scientific study.

5) Ultrasonic Velocity in Cheddar Cheese as Affected by Temperature; Journal of Food Science, 1999

Unfortunately, the title of this paper is somewhat of a misnomer. These researchers were not flinging pieces of cheddar cheese past the speed of sound. While I hope that someone out there IS doing that kind of research, this paper is part of a surprisingly large and well-developed scientific industry revolving around testing the way ultrasonic waves propagate through various foodstuffs. It is not entirely clear what the purpose of this is, but there are entire textbooks on the subject. A pretty cursory search turns up people measuring ultrasonic velocities in pig fat, cooked carrots, ripening avocados, Mahon cheese, biscuits, and tofu. I have no idea if this is supposed to prove something about food, or if this is just a bizarre high-tech case of “let’s poke this with a stick and see what happens.”

In any case, it is probably extremely helpful for you to know that the optimal temperatures for ultrasonic waves to propagate through cheddar cheese are 0 to 17 degrees celsius. Apparently, the “crystallinity” of the fat in the cheese changes as a function of temperature, thus affecting the spreading of these waves. The average velocity for cheddar is less than half that for pig fat, which … I guess … means something. Just keep this in mind in case at some point in the future there is a new diet craze involving ultrasonic velocity.

Incidentally, when I Googled the title of this paper just now hoping to find more information on the subject, a YouTube video came up with the same name. I hoped that we were all lucky enough for these scientists to have recorded videos of their cheese experiments. Maybe then we could actually figure out what the hell is going on. Instead, this is what I found:

To be perfectly honest, this could easily be the experiment the paper is talking about.

Anyway, these were just five gems from my days searching Google Scholar and PubMed. Hopefully, these fill you with as much hope for the future of humanity as they did for me.

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