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The place where the world comes together in honesty and mirth.
Windmills Tilted, Scared Cows Butchered, Lies Skewered on the Lance of Reality ... or something to that effect.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Daily Drift


Coastal View, Oregon
photo via juana
 Awesome picture!

Some of our readers today have been in:
Luxembourg, Luxembourg
Kiev, Ukraine
Warsaw, Poland
Nairobi, Kenya
Jakarta, Indonesia
Ankara, Turkey
Cape Town, South Africa
Kabul, Afghanistan
Cairo, Egypt
Doha, Qatar
Khartoum, Sudan
Pretoria, South Africa

And across Malaysia in cities such as:  Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur, Sandakan, Puchong and Klang.

Today is My Way Day

Don't forget to visit our sister blog!

Today in History

1454 At a grand feast, Philip the Good of Burgundy takes the "vow of the pheasant," by which he swears to fight the Turks.
1598 Boris Godunov, the boyar of Tarar origin, is elected czar in succession to his brother-in-law Fydor.
1720 Spain signs the Treaty of the Hague with the Quadruple Alliance ending a war that was begun in 1718.
1801 The House of Representatives breaks an electoral college tie and chooses Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr.
1864 The Confederate submarine Hunley sinks the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.
1865 The South Carolina capital city, Columbia, is destroyed by fire as Major General William Tecumseh Sherman marches through.
1909 Apache chief Geronimo dies of pneumonia at age 80, while still in captivity at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
1919 Germany signs an armistice giving up territory in Poland.
1925 The first issue of Harold Ross' magazine, The New Yorker, hits the stands, selling for 15 cents a copy.
1933 The League of Nations censures Japan in a worldwide broadcast.
1935 Thirty-one prisoners escape an Oklahoma prison after murdering a guard.
1938 The first color television is demonstrated at the Dominion Theatre in London.
1944 U.S forces land on Eniwetok atoll in the South Pacific.
1945 Gen. MacArthur's troops land on Corregidor in the Philippines.
1951 Packard introduces its "250" Chassis Convertible.
1955 Britain announces its ability to make hydrogen bombs.
1959 The United States launches its first weather station in space, Vanguard II.
1960 Martin Luther King Jr. is arrested in the Alabama bus boycott.
1963 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visits the Berlin Wall.
1969 Russia and Peru sign their first trade accord.
1973 President Richard Nixon names Patrick Gray director of the FBI.
1975 Art by Cezanne, Gauguin, Renoir, and van Gough, valued at $5 million, is stolen from the Municipal Museum in Milan.
1979 China begins a "pedagogical" war against Vietnam. It will last until March.
1985 Murray Haydon becomes the third person to receive an artificial heart.

Non Sequitur


The truth hurts

Gun ban would protect more than 2,200 firearms

This undated evidence photo, provided by retired FBI agent Edmund Mireles, shows the Ruger Mini–14 used by one of the shooters in the deadly April 11, 1986 bank robbery shootout in Miami that left two FBI agents dead and five others injured. New models of this firearm that have folding stocks and pistol grips would be banned under proposed gun control legislation under consideration in Congress. But a similar model without a folding stock would be exempted. Both models can take detachable magazines that hold dozens of rounds of ammunition. Mireles was among the five agents injured. (AP Photo/FBI)  
Congress' latest crack at a new assault weapons ban would protect more than 2,200 specific firearms, including a semi-automatic rifle that is nearly identical to one of the guns used in the bloodiest shootout in FBI history. One model of that firearm, the Ruger .223 caliber Mini-14, is on the proposed list to be banned, while a different model of the same gun is on a list of exempted firearms in legislation the Senate is considering. The gun that would be protected from the ban has fixed physical features and can't be folded to be more compact. Yet the two firearms are equally deadly.
"What a joke," said former FBI agent John Hanlon, who survived the 1986 shootout in Miami. He was shot in the head, hand, groin and hip with a Ruger Mini-14 that had a folding stock. Two FBI agents died and five others were wounded.
Hanlon recalled lying on the street as brass bullet casings showered on him. He thought the shooter had an automatic weapon.
Both models of the Ruger Mini-14 specified in the proposed bill can take detachable magazines that hold dozens of rounds of ammunition. "I can't imagine what the difference is," Hanlon said.
President Barack Obama has called for restoring a ban on military-style assault weapons and limiting the size of ammunition magazines.
A bill introduced last month by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. would ban 157 specific firearms designed for military and law enforcement use and exempt others made for hunting purposes. It also would ban ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
Yet there are firearms that would be protected under Feinstein's proposal that can take large capacity magazines like the ones used in mass shootings that enable a gunman to fire dozens of rounds of ammunition without reloading.
Feinstein said in a written response to questions from The Associated Press that the list of more than 2,200 exempted firearms was designed to "make crystal clear" that the bill would not affect hunting and sporting weapons.
The December shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 students and educators dead forced Washington to focus on curbing gun violence, a risky political move not tried in decades.
The gun industry, which is fighting any sort of ban, says gun ownership in the U.S. is the highest it's ever been, with more than 100 million firearms owners.
Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden have traveled around the country in an effort to gain support for new laws. Feinstein's proposal is the only sweeping piece of legislation designed to ban assault weapons currently being considered.
But some gun experts say the lists of banned and exempted firearms show a lack of understanding and expertise of guns.
"There's no logic to it," said Greg Danas, president of a Massachusetts-based expert witness business and firearms ballistic laboratory. "What kind of effect is it going to have?"
Feinstein's bill defines an assault weapon as a semi-automatic firearm with a detachable magazine that has one of several military characteristics that are specified in her legislation. Examples of those characteristics include a pistol grip, which makes a firearm easier to hold, and a forward grip, which makes the firearm easier to stabilize to improve accuracy. The definition is similar to the one in Congress' original ban on assault weapons, which went into effect in 1994 and was widely criticized for outlawing firearms based on cosmetic features.
Feinstein was behind the 1994 law which, at the time, protected more than 600 firearms. The current bill would exempt by name and model more than 2,200 firearms by name and model.
Feinstein said her staff had worked for more than a year to draft updates for the ban that expired in 2004, and it was apparent in the wake of recent mass shootings that now was the time to introduce a new bill. She said her staff consulted with law enforcement agencies and policy experts for months to create the expanded list.
Naming firearms that would remain legal under an assault weapons ban is a politically motivated gesture that was used to help pass the original ban in the early 1990s, people familiar with the process said.
Any firearm that does not fall within the law's definition of an assault weapon would not be banned. As a result, the list gives vulnerable politicians cover from constituents who do not want to give up their firearms.
For example, a politician can look at the list and assure a constituent that the government would not ban the firearm he or she loves to use for deer hunting. Under the 1994 law and the currently proposed one, the government would not have the authority to take away guns people already legally own. The ban would only apply to specific firearms manufactured and sold after the law is enacted.
A list of exempted firearms was not part of Feinstein's original assault weapons ban two decades ago, said Michael Lenett, one of the lead congressional staffers on gun control issues in 1994. A separate bill in circulation exempted far fewer hunting and sporting firearms, Lenett said.
The purpose of creating such a list was to assure people that the government was not going after any legitimate hunting or sporting weapons. "The other purpose of the list was to have a high profile way of assuring certain folks — including legislators — that we would not be going after their weapons that they use for those legitimate purposes," Lenett said.
"It was a win-win situation," Lenett recalled, because, he said, if the list could help pick up votes needed to pass the bill and temper some of the opposition, it could assuage some opponents of the ban without making the law less effective.
But gun experts say the lists in 1994 and the expanded lists of today don't make much sense.
"The bill demonstrates a shocking ignorance of the product they are purporting to regulate," said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association based in Newtown, Conn., that represents gun manufacturers. "I have no idea how they arrived at this list. It would seem to be random, bordering on throwing darts at a dart board."
For instance, Feinstein's current proposal includes exemptions for three specific types of the M-1 Carbine, an assault rifle designed for the military that the U.S. currently bans from being imported. A draft of the legislation, created and modified in November and early December last year, banned the M-1 Carbine and didn't exempt any models, according to a copy obtained by the AP.
Feinstein said there was disagreement among firearms experts, law enforcement and gun safety organizations about whether to include the M-1 Carbine on the list of banned weapons.
"It has been used in multiple police shootings, and was originally used by U.S. soldiers on the battlefield," Feinstein said. "On the other hand, it comes in models that would not meet the military characteristics test." She said she decided to limit banned weapons to those that met the definition outlined in the bill.
At a Jan. 30 hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee on gun violence, National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre said Feinstein's bill is "based on falsehoods to people that do not understand firearms, to convince them that the performance characteristics of guns that they are trying to ban through that bill are different than the performance characteristics that they're not trying to ban."
The Ruger Mini-14 is a perfect example.
The model that has a fixed stock would be exempted by Feinstein's ban; the weapon was protected in the 1994 law as well. A Ruger Mini-14 with a collapsible and folding stock would be illegal.
The guns fire the same caliber bullet and can take detachable magazines that could hold dozens of rounds of ammunition. The folding stock only reduces the gun's length by 2.75 inches, according to the manufacturer's website.
"It's irrelevant," Edmund Mireles, an FBI agent who survived the Miami shootout, said of the differences in features. "They're equally dangerous."
Mark D. Jones, a senior law enforcement adviser for the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said the folding stock does not affect the firearm's lethal potential.
"Given that both firearms will accept a 30 round or larger magazine, it renders the differences between them entirely cosmetic," Jones said.
Kristen Rand, the legislative director at the Washington-based Violence Policy Center, said the Ruger Mini-14 model that would be banned under Feinstein's legislation is easier to hold while firing because it has a pistol grip, and it's easier to hide because it has a collapsible stock. That's what makes it more dangerous that the Ruger Mini-14 with the fixed stock which would be exempted under the Feinstein bill, she said.
"And that's supposed to save somebody's life?" asked Hanlon, the FBI agent shot alongside Mireles.
Hanlon considered the differences between the two models and whether the events of April 11, 1986, would have been different if the shooter used a Ruger Mini-14 with a fixed stock. "I don't think it would have changed a damn thing," he said. "I don't see what makes that gun less dangerous."

What the NRA thinks of your country ...

From Think Progress

NRA Convention Helps Distribute Literature Calling For Secession And Civil War

At a state conference last weekend, the NRA helped distribute a newspaper that called for Wisconsin secession and a new civil war.
The article, which appeared in a Wisconsin-based conservative publication called "The Reality News", was among the literature being distributed at the NRA's Wisconsin State Convention on February 9th.

You asked fot it ...

They are always yelling about the second amendment and what it means ... well, so be it, let us go by the precise meaning of the words of the second amendment then.

How the War on Drugs Took Off

vIn 1973, the U.S. prison population was 330,000. Today, we have well over two million people locked up. What happened? NPR traces the beginning of the War on Drug to Nelson Rockefeller's decision to get tough on drug pushers, addicts, and users 40 years ago to combat a heroin epidemic in New York City.
Rockefeller, New York's Republican governor, had backed drug rehabilitation, job training and housing. He saw drugs as a social problem, not a criminal one.

But the political mood was hardening. President Richard Nixon declared a national war on drugs, and movies like The French Connection and Panic in Needle Park helped spread the sense that America's cities were unraveling.

Late in 1972, one of Rockefeller's closest aides, Joseph Persico, was in a meeting with the governor. He says Rockefeller suddenly did a dramatic about-face.

"Finally he turned and said, 'For drug pushing, life sentence, no parole, no probation," says Persico.

That was the moment when one of the seeds of the modern prison system was planted.
In January of 1973, Rockefeller proposed mandatory sentences of 15 years to life for drugs charges, even for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The "get tough" laws spread across the country, and so did new prisons. Forty years later, almost half a million people are employed by the prison industry and private corporations make profits by running them. Read the whole story at NPR.

Hanging With Smart Friends Can Raise Your Kid's GPA

Is the secret to improving your kids' grade be as simple as who they're friends with? Maybe so, according to a new study by high school students Deanna Blanksy and friends:
In the grade point study, researchers took to the classroom to see whether academic achievement might be as contagious as obesity. They asked 158 eleventh-graders to go down a class roster and point out their pals. Then they checked everyone’s report cards at the time of the survey, and again a year later.
The researchers found that those students whose friends were outshining them academically tended to improve their grades over the year. Whereas those who were hanging out with academic underachievers let their grades slide.

Fussy Eaters?

Blame Mom For Not Eating Enough Fruits and Vegetables

Got children who are fussy eaters? It's the mom's fault ... for not eating enough fruit and vegetables while pregnant:
Foods eaten by mothers are transferred to their babies in the womb and through breast milk, playing an important role in shaping the child's palate.
Babies who are not given enough early exposure to vegetables, for example, are less likely to enjoy the taste and may have more trouble weaning, researchers said.
Although infants are naturally attracted to salty and sugary tastes, they find it harder to tolerate bitter flavours in foods like green vegetables.
The aversion is a natural warning system triggered by eating unfamiliar food but early experience of the flavor teaches infants to tolerate it more quickly.

Indian diploma mill uses Internet censorship to shut down critics

Using a muzzling Court Order under India's badly written IT Act against the Department of Telecom, the IIPM has blocked articles critical of them, including satire on humor sites, and commentary on news sites as well.
Most shocking, they have blocked the link to an official order declaring that they are not a university, which was posted on the website of the University Grants Commission, a government body that looks at higher education.
The Indian Institute of Planning & Management is an over-priced MBA school that basically allows in anyone who writes a big enough check. There has been continuing criticism of their methods and quality, and of their flamboyant Founder/Chairman Arindam Chaudhuri.

Nurse sues hospital over "No African-American nurse" note by request from baby's racist dad

A black female nurse is suing the hospital where she worked in Flint, Michigan over over allegations of racial discrimination: she claims she found a note in a patient's file stating, "No African American nurse to take care of baby." The baby's daddy made the request, and he reportedly wore a swastika tattoo.

Turkish Man Cured of Vampirism

vAn unnamed man in Turkey was diagnosed two years ago with vampirism, dissociative identity disorder, major depressive disorder, alcohol abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The PTSD, and possibly the alcohol abuse, were attributed to the crimes he committed due to the vampirism.
A 23-year-old married male (3rd of 6 siblings) presented with a 2-year history of ‘addiction’ to drinking blood. He used to cut his arms, chest, and abdomen with razor blades to collect the blood in a cup and to drink it. The initial interest in drinking his own blood had subsequently turned to that of others’. These ‘crises’ were characterized by a strong urge to drink blood immediately, ‘as urgent as breathing’. He enjoyed the smell and taste of blood despite finding this ‘foolish’. He also enjoyed biting wounds of others to taste flesh. He was arrested several times after attacking people by stabbing and biting them with the intention of collecting and drinking their blood. He forced his father to obtain blood from blood banks.
The man had suffered from several traumatic incidents before turning to blood. Doctors believe he has now been cured of his "blood addiction." Read the rest of the story at Smithsonian.

"Totally drug-resistant tuberculosis" discovered

As reported in Ontario's National Post:
The world is facing outbreaks of “totally drug-resistant” tuberculosis if explosions of the bacteria in South Africa and other poorer nations are not addressed, according to a new papers published in Emerging Infectious Diseases. At this point, researchers are working to determine how the bacteria gains its invincibility, and how to isolate it. Fears are mounting in medical communities worldwide that conventional treatments would be useless against the new disease, The Daily Mail‘s health site reports. They say doctors are warning “the world is on the brink of an outbreak of a deadly and ‘virtually untreatable’ strain of drug resistant tuberculosis unless immediate action is taken.”..

They also found that it was “counterintuitive” that multiple drug-resistant TB is genetically distinct when compared to the totally resistant TB strains “because we would expect all MDR TB strains to have had an equal chance of acquiring resistance to second-line anti-TB drugs.” That, ultimately, could be good news, since they go on to note that, in addition for this development making it easier to tell the two apart among infected patients, and thereby easier to treat properly, the bacteria themselves may not be exchanging genetic information as easily as was thought, making it harder for the totally resistant TB strains to grow stronger and more virulent and likely to spread.
Multi-drug resistant (MDR) mycobacteria have of course been around for decades, but I don't remember having read of any as being totally drug-resistant.  The term "resistant" does not necessarily mean "untreatable," but dosages and regimens may need to be increased to levels resulting in increased toxicity.

Daily Comic Relief


The Research That Led to the Comics Code Authority Was Faked

Planet Comics
In 1954, the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published The Seduction of the Innocent, a summary of his studies on the impact of comic books on the moral development of children. He found that comics, as they were published at the time, greatly contributed to juvenile delinquency.
Dr. Wertham's book led to popular outrage at the comic book industry. In order to avoid government censorship, the major companies in that industry adopted a screening organization called the Comics Code Authority. The CCA greatly reduced the violent and sexual content of mainstream comic books.
If you're not already angry, this may push you there: Dr. Wertham fabricated much of his evidence. Dr. Carol Tilley of the University of Illinois combed through Wertham's files and found that he lied about the results of his research:
For example, in “Seduction,” Wertham links “Batman” comic books to the case of a 13-year-old boy on probation and receiving counseling for sexual abuse of another boy: “Like many other homo-erotically inclined children, he was a special devotee of Batman: ‘Sometimes I read them over and over again. … It could be that Batman did something with Robin like I did with the younger boy.’ ”

What Tilley found in Wertham’s notes, however, was that the boy preferred “Superman,” “Crime Does Not Pay” and “war comics” over “Batman,” and that he had previously been sexually assaulted by the other boy – all information that Wertham left out. [...]
“He does take some things verbatim from the transcript,” Tilley said, “but then he also would take things from different days, from different parts of a transcript, reorganize them, omit words, make small changes that, in effect, change the kids’ arguments or change their viewpoints. He did this in so many instances that it’s hard to overlook.”
I'm proud to note that Dr. Tilley is a fellow librarian. In fact, she's a professor of library and information science--meaning that she teaches people how to be librarians.

Researchers Decipher a 4,000-Year-Old Love Letter

Ah, love and the heartbreak it brings. It's a tale as old as humanity itself, but when a long lost Babylonian love letter surfaced some 4,000 years later, a bookkeeper, a chemist, and a scholar formed an unlikely team to decipher the mystery:
On a tiny bit of clay a naive and baffled lover writes to his sweetheart: “To Bibea: May the gods for my sake preserve your health. Tell me how you are. I went to Babylon but I did not see you. I was greatly disappointed. Write me the reason for your leaving, and let me be cheered. For my sake keep well always. Gimil.”
But if Gimil’s love letter gives the impression of having been written today, many Babylonian commercial documents embody an anti-forgery technique which surpasses anything that modern civilization has ever been able to devise.
The article, written by R. DeWitt Miller for the September 1939 issue of Popular Science, is now available at Modern Mechanix: Here.

Scientists Create Crash-Proof Computer Using Chaos and Randomness

Computer crashes may soon be a thing of the past, thanks to new research by University College London computer scientists Peter Bentley and Christos Sakellariou. They've created a crash-proof computer by introducing chaos and randomness:
OUT of chaos, comes order. A computer that mimics the apparent randomness found in nature can instantly recover from crashes by repairing corrupted data.
Dubbed a "systemic" computer, the self-repairing machine now operating at University College London (UCL) could keep mission-critical systems working. For instance, it could allow drones to reprogram themselves to cope with combat damage, or help create more realistic models of the human brain.
Everyday computers are ill suited to modelling natural processes such as how neurons work or how bees swarm. This is because they plod along sequentially, executing one instruction at a time. "Nature isn't like that," says UCL computer scientist Peter Bentley. "Its processes are distributed, decentralised and probabilistic. And they are fault tolerant, able to heal themselves. A computer should be able to do that."
Paul Marks of The NewScientist explains how: Here.

Quantum Uncertainty Principle on Objects Large Enough to be Seen with the Naked Eye

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg came up with the Uncertainty Principle, a peculiar aspect of quantum mechanics that asserts that the mere act of measuring the position of a particle disturbs its momentum. Therefore, the more precisely you try to measure its position, the less you know about how fast it's moving, and vice versa.
Thus far, the effect of the Uncertainty Principle has been material in very, very small particles (like electrons). Until now:
In recent years, however, physicists have been pushing the limits on which scales the principle appears in. To that end, Purdy and his colleagues created a 0.02-inch-wide (0.5 millimeters) drum made of silicon nitride, a ceramic material used in spaceships, drawn tight across a silicon frame.
They then set the drum between two mirrors, and shined laser light on it. Essentially, the drum is measured when photons bounce off the drum and deflect the mirrors a given amount, and increasing the number of photons boosts the measurement accuracy. But more photons cause greater and greater fluctuations that cause mirrors to shake violently, limiting the measurement accuracy. That extra shaking is the proof of the uncertainty principle in action. The setup was kept ultra-cold to prevent thermal fluctuations from drowning out this quantum effect. [...]
The results of the recent experiment are novel in that they show both classical and quantum mechanics operating on the same scale, said Saurya Das, a theoretical physicist at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, who was not involved in the study.
"Half a millimeter is like something which we can actually hold in our hand," Das told LiveScience. "Obviously classical mechanics is valid, but they make quantum mechanics relevant at that size."
Tia Ghose of LiveScience has the story: Here.

Historical Photos


1929. Packard & Zeppelin
1929. Packard & Zeppelin

Nineteenth-century use of solar energy

"Solar peach walls" were developed by nineteenth-century fruit growers of Montreuil (France):
Their secret lay in the construction of a honeycomb of solar walls. As Suzanne Freidberg writes in Fresh, the Montreuillois enclosed rectangular plots “in walls of plaster — a material that absorbs heat much more effectively than brick — and oriented them all north-south, so as to capture the most sunlight.”

This gridiron of sun traps were surprisingly effective, according to Freidberg:
Indeed, both day and night the gardens were warmer than their surroundings by several degrees Celsius. In this microclimate Mediterranean fruits thrived. Peaches ripened a month before others on the market, when prices were still sky-high. In addition, the villagers trained their espaliers to stretch out across the east-facing walls like giant fans cradling each peach in a perpetual sheltered sunbath.
More details at Edible Geography.

The "Empress of Uruguay"

Do you have an amethyst-lined geode on a bookcase shelf?  This immense one is currently on display at The Crystal Caves near Cairns.  Here are the FAQs.

The dark side of the moon in color

It's a "gravity map" which "shows variations across the moon's surface caused by both surface irregularities and a lumpy interior. The red sections indicate relatively high gravity."

Geyser Cam Finds Bubble Traps

A camera custom-built to withstand heat and steam revealed that Russia's Kamchatka geysers aren't fed by long, narrow tubes, as once thought.

Cotton Candy Cloud Hides Baby Black Hole

This colorful cloud is a supernova remnant, seen in infrared, radio, and x-ray light... and at its center may hide one of the galaxy's youngest black holes. 

Random Photo

Fewer bees in US a threat to world's almond supply

Bee inspector Neil Trent of Scientific Ag Co., inspects a frame of bees to assess the colony strength Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, near Turlock, Calif. Trent says some bee hives in the state have weak colonies of bees, spelling a bee shortage in time for almond bloom. (AP Photo, Gosia Wozniacka) 
In an almond orchard in California's Central Valley, bee inspector Neil Trent pried open a buzzing hive and pulled out a frame to see if it was at least two-thirds covered with bees.
Trent has hopped from orchard to orchard this month, making sure enough bees were in each hive provided by beekeepers. Not enough bees covering a frame indicates an unhealthy hive — and fewer working bees to pollinate the almond bloom, which starts next week across hundreds of thousands of acres stretching from Red Bluff to Bakersfield.
"The bloom will come and go quickly," said Trent, who works for the Bakersfield-based bee broker Scientific Ag Co. "The question is: Will the almond seeds get set? It depends if you have enough of a workforce of bees."
That has growers concerned as nomadic beekeepers from across the country converge on the state with their semi-trucks, delivering billions of bees to the orchards for the annual pollination. Most almond trees depend on bees to transfer pollen from the flower of one tree variety to the flower of another variety before fertilization, which leads to the development of seeds.
It's a daunting task: California's orchards provide about 80 percent of the global almond supply. And with almond acreage increasing steadily in recent years, the bees must now pollinate 760,000 acres of trees. The number of bees needed is expected to increase as almond demand grows and orchards continue to expand.
Already, more than half of the country's honeybees are brought to California at the end of February for almond pollination, which requires about 1.5 million hives from out of state, and another 500,000 from elsewhere in the state. Honeybees are preferred for commercial-scale pollination, because they are social, build larger colonies than other bees, and their hives can easily be moved.
Bee brokers, beekeepers and almond growers around the state say there's a shortage of healthy honeybees for this year's pollination, especially after colony collapse disorder took a higher toll this winter. The disorder, in which honey bees suddenly disappear or die, wipes out thousands of colonies each year.
The shortage has some growers scrambling for bees — even sub-performers — as trees are about to bloom, driving up bee prices again this year, to an all-time high of more than $200 per colony.
"There's definitely a shortage of strong bee colonies," said Joe Traynor, owner of Scientific Ag, which connects growers with beekeepers. "There is a problem covering all the acres of almonds in the state."
Since it was recognized in 2006, colony collapse disorder has destroyed colonies at a rate of about 30 percent a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Before that, losses were about 15 percent a year from pests and diseases. No one has determined its cause, but most researchers point to a combination of factors, including pesticide contamination, poor nutrition and bee diseases.
This year, experts say, the die-off has been as high as 40 to 50 percent for some beekeepers.
"We have smaller populations in the hives and higher winter losses," said Eric Mussen, a bee specialist at the entomology department of University of California, Davis. "Bees across the country are not in as good a shape as last year. When you stress them far enough, the bees just give in."
This year, Mussen said, many bees did not get enough nutrition because a Midwest drought reduced forage. Conversion of pasture land to corn production for ethanol also reduced the number of flowers producing nectar.
To compensate for forage loss, beekeepers fed bees more high-fructose corn syrup and other supplements. But such substitutes don't provide all the nutrients pollen does, Mussen said. Malnourished bees are more susceptible to diseases.
Lance Sundberg, a beekeeper who hauled his hives for almond pollination from Columbus, Mont., lost 40 percent of his bees this winter due to the drought and mite problems.
"You have to buy bees elsewhere to pick up your losses, and not everything we have remaining after the loss is very strong," said Sundberg. "I had a tough time fulfilling my obligations to all the growers."
But at least he still has bees, Sundberg said. Some colleagues were not as lucky: they lost 75 percent or even 99 percent.
Traynor, the bee broker, said he's been fielding phone calls from desperate beekeepers and growers who are short several thousand colonies — but he has no more good bees to offer them. The shortage will only get worse in the future, he said, as almond acreage grows.
Having strong hives is critical, Traynor said, especially during rainy seasons, because bees have a short period of flight time when it's dry enough to pollinate. Fewer bees may not be able to reach all the blooms in time.
In recent years, the Almond Board of California, which represents more than 6,000 growers, has poured $1.4 million into bee health research. The group also worked on alternatives to reduce growers' reliance on honeybees, said Bob Curtis, associate director of agricultural affairs.
One is the so-called "self-compatible" almond tree, which can set nuts using pollen transferred among its own flowers, thereby needing fewer bees.
The group also is urging growers to plant forage to help sustain bees before and after almond pollination. And it's exploring using blue orchard bees, which are solitary bees that do not live in hives but nest in small cavities, to augment the honeybee workforce. But building up those alternatives will take time.
"It's tenuous right now," Curtis said. "We've got fewer bees. And if something goes wrong with the weather, some growers could be in trouble."

Alligator Blood May Lead to Powerful New Antibiotics

vThe last thing you want to do is expose a wound, even a small skin abrasion, to an environment crawling with microbes. Then consider the alligator, which leads a rather violent life and lives in swamps. But alligators don't succumb to infection they way you'd think -they have a natural immunity in their blood.
Chemists in Louisiana found that blood from the American alligator can successfully destroy 23 strains of bacteria, including strains known to be resistant to antibiotics.

In addition, the blood was able to deplete and destroy a significant amount of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Study co-author Lancia Darville at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge believes that peptides—fragments of proteins—within alligator blood help the animals stave off fatal infections.

Such peptides are also found in the skin of frogs and toads, as well as in Komodo dragons and crocodiles. The scientists think that these peptides could one day lead to medicines that would provide humans with the same antibiotic protection.
So far, one drawback has been identified: the peptides themselves are dangerous to humans in high doses. Read about the research into 'gator blood at Nat Geo News.

Frogs Find Safe Haven in West Africa

Frogs in West Africa have remained isolated from an otherwise global plague, the chytrid fungus, that has driven some amphibians to extinction.

Animal Pictures

Caucasion Mountain Dog.