The original clone wars

A long time ago in a galaxy called the Milky Way, a great adventure took place. We don’t know exactly when it happened, but it must have been very shortly after the evolution of the first cells. Some small prokaryotic cell walled itself off from its surroundings. Then it learned how to replicate itself and as cells continued to divide they began interacting with clones of themselves. Sooner or later, however, our clone of cells encountered cells from a different genetic lineage. These foreign cells were “other” and were recognized as such because they had a different set of markers on their outer covering. Perhaps there was an antagonistic interaction between the two clones of cells. In any case, this ability to distinguish between “self” and “non-self” was a crucial step in the evolution of life on Planet Earth.

The entire immune system in vertebrates is based on self/non-self recognition. It is why, for example, transplanted organs can be rejected by their new host–the host’s immune system detects the transplanted tissue as “non-self” and attacks it. As a result, patients who receive donor organs usually take immune-suppressing drugs for some period of time after the transplant.

The vertebrate immune system is quite complex and very interesting. It has two main components: (1) cell-mediated immunity, in which the major players are T cells; and (2) humoral (i.e. blood-based) immunity, which is the part of the immune system that produces antibodies to a pathogen when you get a vaccination. However, even animals much less structurally complex than vertebrates have some ability to recognize self from non-self.

Sponges, for example, exist as aggregations of cells rather than bodies with discrete tissues and organs. Most zoologists, myself included, consider sponges to be among the most ancient animal forms. They have different types of cells, many of which retain the ability to move around the body and change from one type to another; this totipotency is a feature that sponge cells share with the stem cells of vertebrates. There are sponges that you can push through a mesh and disarticulate into individual cells, and then watch as the cells re-aggregate into an intact, functioning body. As if that weren’t cool enough, if you take two different sponges and mush them into a common slurry, the cells from the distinct lineages re-aggregate with cells to which they are genetically identical. So even animals as primitive as sponges have some degree of self/non-self recognition.

If you’re lucky, you can see self/non-self recognition and aggression in the intertidal. Here in northern California we have four species of sea anemones in the genus Anthopleura:

  • Anthopleura xanthogrammica, the giant green anemone
  • Anthopleura sola, the sunburst anemone
  • Anthopleura elegantissima, the aggregating anemone
  • Anthopleura artemisia, the moonglow anemone (and my favorite)

Of these species, only A. elegantissima clones. It does so by binary fission, which means that the animals rip themselves in half.

Sea anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima) undergoing binary fission in a tidepool at Davenport Landing. 9 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Sea anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima) undergoing binary fission in a tidepool at Davenport Landing.
9 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

It looks painful, doesn’t it? As the two halves of the animal walk in opposite directions they pull apart until the tissue joining them stretches and eventually rips. Then each half heals the wound and carries on as if nothing had happened. Each anemone is now a physiologically and ecologically independent animal, and can go on to divide itself. And so on ad infinitum. The logical consequence of all this replication is a clone of genetically identical anemones spreading over a rocky surface. And that’s exactly what you get:

Clones of the sea anemone Anthopleura elegantissima, emersed on a rock at Monastery Beach. 27 November 2015 © Allison J. Gong

Clones of the sea anemone Anthopleura elegantissima, emersed on a rock at Monastery Beach.
27 November 2015
© Allison J. Gong

Okay, it’s hard to tell that these are sea anemones, but this is what they look like when the tide goes out and leaves them emersed. They pull in their tentacles, close off the oral disc, and cover themselves with sand grains. They look like sand but feel squishy and will squirt water if you step on them. In this photo, each anemone is probably 4-5 cm in diameter.

There are three patches of anemones in the photo above, separated by narrow strips of real estate where there are no anemones. Each patch is a clone, essentially a single genotype divided amongst many individual bodies. The anemones in each clone pack tightly together because they are all “self.” However, they recognize the anemones of an adjacent patch as “non-self” and they won’t tolerate the intrusion of neighbors onto their territory. Those strips of unoccupied (by anemones) rock are demilitarized zones. When the rock is submerged the anemones along the edges of the clones reach out their tentacles and sting their non-self neighbors. This mutual aggression maintains the DMZ and nobody gets to live there.

Because A. elegantissima lives relatively high in the intertidal the clonal patches are usually emersed when I go out to the tidepools. Its congener, A. sola, lives lower in the intertidal and is more often immersed at low tide. Anthopleura sola is larger than A. elegantissima and is aclonal, meaning that it does not divide. Anthopleura sola also displays quite dramatically what happens when anemones fight.

These two anemones, each about 12 cm in diameter, were living side-by-side in a tidepool. You can see that each animal has two kinds of tentacles: (1) the normal filiform feeding tentacles surrounding the oral disc; and (2) thicker, whitish club-shaped tentacles below the ring of feeding tentacles. These club-shaped tentacles are called acrorhagi, and are used only for fighting. The acrorhagi and the feeding tentacles may contain different types of stinging cells, reflecting their different functions. All tentacles are definitely not the same.

Anthopleura sola anemones fighting in a tidepool at Davenport Landing. 8 May 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura sola anemones fighting in a tidepool at Davenport Landing.
8 May 2016
© Allison J. Gong

These animals, which represent different genotypes, are non-self to each other, so they fight. They inflate their acrorhagi, move their feeding tentacles out of the way, and reach across to sting each other. See how some of the acrorhagi on the animal on the right don’t have nice smooth tips? Those tips have been lost during battle with the animal on the left; the tips are torn off and remain behind to continue stinging the offender even after the tentacle itself has been withdrawn.

Here’s another picture of the same two anemones, taken from a different angle:

Anthopleura sola anemones fighting in a tidepool at Davenport Landing. 8 May 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura sola anemones fighting in a tidepool at Davenport Landing.
8 May 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The goal of these fights is not to kill, but to drive the other away so that each anemone has its own space. Eventually one of them will retreat, and a more peaceful coexistence will be established. Fights like these have been going on for over half a billion years. Eat your heart out, George Lucas.

Posted in General natural history, Marine biology, Marine invertebrates | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Coming back to life

Every year, as early as Memorial Day or as late as Father’s Day, there’s about a week of really lovely low tides. This midsummer tide series usually includes the lowest low tides of the year, and we intertidal ecologists plan our field activities around them. Incidentally, there’s a corresponding low tide series in the midwinter, too. However, at that time of year the lows are in the afternoon, and because the low occurs about 50 minutes later each day you’re fighting darkness as you work the series. But in the summer, even if the first day of the tide series has a low tide before sunrise, that 50-minutes-later-each-day thing is really nice and you never have to worry about running out of daylight.

This year, the California Academy of Sciences sponsored several citizen science excursions called Bioblitzes to various locations on the California coast. The goal of these Bioblitzes was to document biodiversity in the intertidal in protected and non-protected areas of the coastline. Back in May I volunteered to lead a Bioblitz at one of the sites close to me, and planned to participate in a few others as well. In addition to actual organized Bioblitzes, citizens were invited to submit their own independent observations to the project.

Today is the three-week anniversary of the car accident that left me bruised and concussed. The bruises are pretty much healed at this point, and the soreness in my ribcage is also much improved. The medical advice I got for dealing with the concussion was, “Protect your brain from stimulation. Let it heal. And REST.” So for the past three weeks I haven’t been doing much of anything. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to go out on any of the midsummer low tides, as it didn’t take much to overtax my injured brain and I didn’t want to risk overextending myself. I did end up skipping the first Bioblitz of the week and modified my original plans for the rest of the tide series to play it safe and stay closer to home.

I’m still trying not to spend too much time on the computer (electronic screens are very bad for injured brains) so I’m going to summarize my week’s activities in a single post. I’ll keep the stories short. But I did want to share some of the things I saw.

Day 1 – Natural Bridges, Monday 6 June 2016, low tide -1.6 ft at 06:25

My first venture out by myself was to Natural Bridges. It’s very close to my house and I figured that if I needed to bail I could walk out and be home within 15 minutes. It was cold and foggy and I felt energized just to be out there again.

Natural Bridges State Beach 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Natural Bridges State Beach
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Open ends of tubes of the polychaete worm Phragmatopoma californica. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Open ends of tubes of the polychaete worm Phragmatopoma californica.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura sola in a tidepool at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Anthopleura sola in a tidepool at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

One of many healthy Pisaster ochraceus stars I saw at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

One of many healthy Pisaster ochraceus stars I saw at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Intertidal life at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Intertidal life at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A woolly sculpin (Clinocottus analis) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

A woolly sculpin (Clinocottus analis) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) playing peek-a-boo at Natural Bridges. 6 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) playing peek-a-boo at Natural Bridges.
6 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Turns out this trip was about all my brain could cope with that early in the week. I skipped a Bioblitz up at Pigeon Point on Tuesday so I could stay home and rest, which ended up being a good call. A whole day of doing nothing was exactly what my concussed brain needed.


Day 2 – Mitchell’s Cove, Wednesday 8 June 2016, low tide -1.1 ft at 08:02

The day of rest was enough to get me back out there on Wednesday. My friend Brenna met me at Mitchell’s Cove for a morning of tidepooling. Mitchell’s Cove is a popular, dog-friendly beach in Santa Cruz, particularly busy in the mornings and evenings. Last September it was visited by a juvenile humpback whale, which came right into the Cove and hung out there for several days. I didn’t see any whales this week, but there was a surprising diversity of life in a relatively small area of rocky intertidal.

Rocky intertidal on the west end of Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Rocky intertidal on the west end of Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Pisaster ochraceus regenerating an arm, at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Pisaster ochraceus regenerating an arm, at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A small (~2 cm long) chiton, Mopalia muscosa, nicely camouflaged on a rock at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

A small (~3 cm long) mossy chiton, Mopalia muscosa, nicely camouflaged on a rock at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We have two species of surfgrass in northern California. At this time of year they are very lush and conspicuously green.

Two species of surfgrass at Mitchell's Cove. Phyllospadix torreyi (front) and P. scouleri (rear). 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Two species of surfgrass at Mitchell’s Cove. Phyllospadix torreyi (front) and P. scouleri (rear).
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Phyllospadix scouleri, the species that has flatter, more ribbon-like leaves, was blooming. Its congener, P. torreyi, growing in almost exactly the same place, has narrow leaves that are more cylindrical in cross-section, and was not in bloom. Phyllospadix is a true marine plant; the flowers are inconspicuous swellings near the bottom of the leaves and the pollen is carried by water, rather than wind, to nearby plants.

Surfgrass (Phyllospadix scouleri) in bloom at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Surfgrass (Phyllospadix scouleri) in bloom at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Flower of surfgrass Phyllospadix scouleri at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Flower of surfgrass Phyllospadix scouleri at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And I saw two species of hydroids! This one is easy to ID to the genus Aglaophenia, but I would need to examine it under a microscope to determine the species. I wasn’t collecting anything on Wednesday so I don’t know which species it is.

Hydroid (Aglaophenia sp.) at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Hydroid (Aglaophenia sp.) at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This second hydroid is, I think, a species of Abietinaria. The hydroid colony is the pale orange stuff; the pink stuff is coralline alga.

Small clump of the hydroid Abietinaria sp. at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Small clump of the hydroid Abietinaria sp. at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And I saw an octopus! We know that they’re in the intertidal, but they are so cryptic and clever at hiding that we don’t see them very frequently. This one was definitely smarter than I was. Instead of scooping it out and placing it on dry ground so I could photograph it more easily, I chased it around a tidepool with my camera. Thus, this is the best picture I could get:

Small octopus (Octopus rubescens) in a tidepool at Mitchell's Cove. 8 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Small octopus (Octopus rubescens) in a tidepool at Mitchell’s Cove.
8 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Okay, you’ll just have to take my word for it.


Day 3 – Davenport Landing, Thursday 9 June 2016, low tide -0.7 ft at 08:52

This was the day of my “official” Bioblitz. I had four participants–Brenna, Alice, Martha, and Andy. As of right now (Brenna hasn’t yet uploaded her observations) the other four of us have made 120 observations, documenting 50 species. Here are some of mine:

Nudibranch (Hermissenda opalescens) at Davenport Landing. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Nudibranch (Hermissenda opalescens) at Davenport Landing.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Can you see Pisaster ochraceus hiding in this clump of mussels (Mytilus californianus)? 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Can you see Pisaster ochraceus hiding in this clump of mussels (Mytilus californianus)?
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Looking north towards Davenport Landing beach. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Looking north towards Davenport Landing beach.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There are kelps, such as Egregia menziesii (feather boa kelp) whose habitat is the rocky intertidal. Most kelps, though, live subtidally, often in kelp forests. Nereocystis luetkeana, the bullwhip kelp, is one of the subtidal canopy-forming kelps. This one recruited to the intertidal. It is quite small and extremely cute; the float is only 2 cm in diameter.

A baby bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) at Davenport Landing. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

A baby bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) at Davenport Landing.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A small moonglow anemone (Anthopleura artemisia) at Davenport Landing. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

A small moonglow anemone (Anthopleura artemisia) at Davenport Landing.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Algae look their best when immersed. Out of the water they usually collapse into stringy or gooey masses, making it difficult to appreciate their structural beauty. This piece of Microcladia borealis was submerged in a tidepool, and fortunately there was enough light that I could take this picture.

The beautifully delicate red alga, Microcladia borealis, at Davenport Landing. 9 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

The beautifully delicate red alga, Microcladia borealis, immersed in a tidepool at Davenport Landing.
9 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong


Day 4 – Natural Bridges, Friday 10 June 2016, low tide -0.2 ft at 09:42

Yesterday I returned with a former student, Daniel, to Natural Bridges. It was sunny and warm, completely different from how it had been on Monday. There were many boaters out on the bay, taking advantage of the glassy flat sea.

View of Monterey Bay from Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

View of Monterey Bay from Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I’ve seen a lot of shore crabs running around on the rocks this year. On cool, damp days they just scurry about, but on warm sunny days they often sit still and literally foam at the mouth. The bubbles they produce keep their gills moist so they can still breathe even while emersed. This biggish shore crab was working up quite a froth.

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Shore crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes) at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Hermit crabs don’t usually end up out of the water. This one was immersed in a tidepool, wearing the shell of the snail Olivella biplicata.

Hermit crab (Pagurus sp.) in shell of the snail Olivella biplicata, at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Hermit crab (Pagurus sp.) in a tidepool at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Nuttallina californica is one of the most common chitons seen around here. They often hunker down into small crevices where water will collect even at low tide. This individual was nestled among a clump of Phragmatopoma tubes; being closely surrounded by other animals will help keep its own body moist.

Nuttallina californica, one of the most common chitons at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

The chiton Nuttallina californica at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Unlike the hard granite that you’d find at the southern end of Monterey Bay, the rock at Natural Bridges is a soft, easily eroded mudstone. You can scratch it with your fingernail. Limpets take advantage of this soft rock by digging themselves little home scars, which conform perfectly to the contours of their shells and make a snug, water-tight fit. The limpet leaves its home scar to forage when the tide is in and returns to it as the tide recedes. The owner/occupant of this scar has likely died, as it wouldn’t have abandoned its home scar when we were there at low tide.

Home scar of a limpet (Lottia sp.) at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Home scar of a limpet (Lottia sp.) at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And speaking of limpets, Daniel and I spent a lot of time observing the owl limpet, Lottia gigantea. This limpet is noteworthy not only for its large size, but for its territorial behaviors. They are indeed large–the biggest ones I’ve ever seen are about the size of the palm of my hand–and the big ones are all females. Lottia gigantea is a protandrous hermaphrodite: individuals begin sexual maturity first as males, and then the lucky few turn into females.

Owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) wearing a smaller limpet (Lottia sp.) at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The truly remarkable thing about L. gigantea is its ability to modify the environment. The large females maintain an area called a farm, from which they diligently remove interlopers. They will scrape off settling larvae of barnacles and mussels, and will push off other limpets. Lottia farms are very common at Natural Bridges; if you are here and see a suspiciously empty patch of rock amid the mussel bed, look for a big limpet hanging out on the edge of the empty spot.

Farm of an owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) at Natural Bridges. 10 June 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Farm of an owl limpet (Lottia gigantea) at Natural Bridges.
10 June 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The owl limpet has a good reason for keeping other animals off her territory. It provides her food. This animal is indeed a farmer. See the pale zig-zag markings in the Lottia farm? Those are marks made by the limpet’s radula as she grazes over the rock. All limpets are grazers, but L. gigantea actively manages her farm so that she feeds on one area while allowing the algal film to grow on other areas, then rotates to a new feeding spot as the old one becomes depleted. Pretty clever for a snail, isn’t it?

It felt really good to spend some quality time with Mother Nature again. I’m still taking it very easy, careful not to get overtired and to continue letting my brain heal. Getting outside for even short periods definitely seems to help.

Posted in Marine biology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

More about those angry bees

Today’s online version of the San Francisco Chronicle published another follow-up article about last week’s rampage of bees in Concord, CA. The gist is that seven bees sent to the state Department of Food and Agriculture for testing, and the results showed that they did not possess Africanized alleles. This finding has led some to conclude that the bees that did the attacking were ordinary European honey bees. This, in turn, is a dangerous conclusion because the logical continuation of the thought process is that any hive of ordinary European honey bees kept in managed hives could suddenly and without warning become super aggressive. Let me address the study results as reported in the Chronicle, and then we can talk about the repercussions to beekeepers in California.

Thought #1:  First of all, only seven bees were examined for Africanization. Seven out of several tens of thousands of bees in the colony. So yeah, sampling error is a problem.

Thought #2:  Worker honey bees, all of which are female, are diploid. They inherit nuclear chromosomes from both parents. This is the same as happens for other diploid animals such as humans and most likely every other animal you would think of. The workers’ brothers, the drones, are haploid; they develop from unfertilized eggs and thus carry nuclear DNA only from their mother, the queen.

Thought #3:  The test used by the state looked for the presence of Africanized alleles in the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of the seven bees that were examined. In sexually reproducing animals, the female gamete (egg) is much larger than the male gamete (sperm). The sperm provides DNA to the zygote that results from fertilization, but little else. All of the other cellular components, including mitochondria, come from the egg. Mitochondria are nifty little bean-shaped organelles, evolutionarily derived from some sort of aerobic bacterium-type critter, that are the “powerhouses” of cells. They are the site of cellular respiration, where glucose molecules are broken down and the energy within the chemical bonds is released to fuel the cell’s activities. Mitochondria, as descendants of formerly free-living bacteria, possess their own DNA and are self-replicating units within eukaryotic cells. Because a diploid organism inherits mitochondria only from its mother, mtDNA can be used to trace maternal lineages through time.

Thought #3.5:  A hive of European honey bees contains a European queen and her progeny. Her daughters, the workers, obtained half of their DNA from her and half from their fathers. A virgin queen mates with 12-15 drones on her mating flight before returning to her hive to begin laying. If some of the drones she mates with have Africanized alleles, then some proportion of her daughters will as well.

Thought #4:  The results of the test used by the state cannot be correctly interpreted as indicating that there were no Africanized bees in the aggressive hive in Concord. Period. If the state wants to test for Africanized alleles, looking only in the mtDNA isn’t going to do the trick. They can examine every single damn bee in the hive, and all they will find is the same mtDNA that the European queen has. They are looking in the wrong damn place–they need to examine the nuclear DNA for Africanized alleles. Now, there could always be something unusual about the mitochondrial genome of honey bees that I’m not aware of, which would mess up my entire argument. However, I am not the only person who thinks that relying on mtDNA to determine Africanization tells the whole story. Eric Mussen, apiculturist emeritus at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, said more or less the same thing a week ago, right after the attack happened.

Repercussions for beekeepers: Well, any beekeeper knows that public hysteria about bees is a real thing. Many people are frightened of honey bees and don’t want them around. Responsible beekeepers take measures to ensure that their bees are not a nuisance or danger to the public. We really want to do the right thing for our neighbors as well as for our bees. Shoddy science reported as fact doesn’t help our cause.

Posted in Bees | Tagged | Leave a comment

Accident report

Saturday, 21 May 2016 — We had spent two hours tootling around the bay on Murray’s boat and had a late (and for me, second) breakfast at Aldo’s at about 11:00. We came out of the upper harbor and turned right onto 7th Avenue. Murray was driving his car, I was in the front passenger seat, and Alex was in the back seat behind me.

We crossed Brommer Street and continued south on 7th Avenue, going maybe 25 mph. I saw a white blur out of the corner of my left eye, a split-second before a car swerved out of the opposing lane and plowed into the front left corner of Murray’s car. I heard two distinct bangs: one was the impact itself, which you’ve heard if you’ve ever been in or witnessed a fender-bender, and the other was the explosion of the air bags. There was no squeal of brakes and there were no skid marks on either side of the street. Air bags deployed, car got pushed into the curb. Car filled with smoke and dust. A few seconds after the air bags deployed there was a third crash into the windshield directly in front of me. I couldn’t see what caused it because of the air bags and smoke, and thought the car was going to blow up with us inside it. The sense of disorientation after a car accident is pretty fierce. What with the loud noises, a car full of smoke and propellant, and air bags blocking the view out, it is really hard to understand what happened.

Fortunately there were several witnesses and passersby who helped us out. The guy in the car behind us was an off-duty out-of-town cop visiting for the weekend with his wife and kids. The passersby got us out of the car and called 911. The guy who hit us was sitting on the sidewalk and the off-duty cop asked him questions. From what I overheard the guy said he was on medication for schizophrenia and thought he was going to the beach; after the collision he had gotten out of the car and run over Murray’s car, stumbling or falling onto the windshield which explained how the windshield had gotten broken. He didn’t get far before collapsing on the sidewalk, I think. I could see that he was bleeding.

We were in Murray's car, the orange Honda Fit on the left.

We were in Murray’s car, the orange Honda Fit on the left. See the inflated air bags and smashed windshield? The white powder is absorbent material that one of the fire fighters poured on the street to soak up all the fluids (mostly radiator fluid, I think) leaking out of the busted cars.

Emergency vehicles–2 fire trucks, 2 ambulances, 2 CHP officers on motorcycles–arrived on the scene after about 10 minutes and had the street blocked almost immediately. EMTs decided that the other guy needed help most; the lead EMT told one of the ambulance drivers that he would be a flyer (which we later learned meant he needed to be airlifted to a trauma center). The three of us were checked out by the EMTs (my blood pressure was 180/110, when it normally is in the 110/60 range–amazing what adrenaline will do) on the street and we decided to go to the ER on our own. The CHP officers asked us what happened and took our statements. One of them gave Murray a case number so he can follow up with his insurance company. Rogan came to pick us up. There wasn’t enough room in his car for all of us plus the stuff from Murray’s car so he and Alex took the stuff to Murray’s house while Murray and I waited for the tow trucks. Tow trucks arrived, smashed cars were hauled away, and Rogan came back to take us all to the ER.

Murray's car being loaded onto the tow truck.

Murray’s car being loaded onto the tow truck. Nice view of the side-curtain air bags.

What I don’t have a picture of is the passenger side of the car. The rear right wheel, which took the brunt of the force from colliding with the curb, was partially folded underneath the car.

Bottom line: We’re all okay, just bruised and battered. Alex and Murray both have nasty contusions from their seat belts. I have a stiff neck, muscle soreness around my ribs, a small abrasion/bruise on my right cheek, a bruised left knee, minor abrasions on my hip bones from the lap belt, and bruises on my right leg from knee to ankle (I think from hitting the dashboard?). The top of my head is starting to feel a bit abraded, nothing serious. We’ve been told to take it easy and that tomorrow we’ll feel worse than we do today. Ibuprofen + ice is the formula for the next several days. No strenuous exercise, either.

All the safety equipment in Murray’s car worked exactly as it was supposed to. Air bags kept us from being much more severely injured, and given that the other guy smashed into the windshield exactly where my head would have been, I’m feeling very grateful.

I was able to drive home, but confess to being leery driving on Mission Street. Passing within a few feet of cars going the opposite direction gave me the heebie-jeebies.

So, no working the tides this weekend for me. I’m glad it’s not one of the spring’s better low tide series.

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Warming, and bees (redux)

Five days ago the residents of a suburban neighborhood in Concord, CA, got to experience first-hand what happens when a colony of Africanized honey bees takes over a hive of European bees. According to the most recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the original colony had been managed by a beekeeper for 15 years without any problems. Beekeepers conclude that the Africanized bees invaded the colony, killed the European queen, and took up residence. They became agitated when the beekeeper tried to move the hive last Friday. Several people were stung multiple times and two small dogs were killed.

The reason I bring this up is to calm fears. As I wrote last fall, we already know that Africanized honey bees have been in the greater San Francisco Bay Area since 2014. I’m willing to bet that there are Africanized alleles in the honey bee gene pool around Santa Cruz, too. Let me explain why I’m not overly concerned about Africanized honey bees.

As a beekeeper myself I am growing less and less tolerant of bees that are in the least bit jumpy or overly defensive; they make working a hive more stressful than it needs to be, which means the hive is open for a longer period of time, which means the bees get more anxious, which means the beekeepers get more anxious, and so on and so forth. Life as a beekeeper, especially in a suburban area, is much more pleasant when the bees themselves are gentle and sweet. In our experience, the Italian and Russian strains of the European honey bees have a docile temperament and are easy to work with.

There’s no doubt that the Africanized alleles are here, and they’re here to stay. I touched upon this the other day when I wrote about the bees in our pantry. I also have no doubt about the impact that hobbyist beekeepers will have to control the spread of those alleles for extreme defensive behavior. You see, by re-queening aggressive colonies whose queen may have mated with Africanized drones, a beekeeper removes those alleles from the hive, effectively diluting them in the larger gene pool. Hobbyist beekeepers would be selecting against defensiveness and for docility. Now, I am not a honey bee population geneticist, nor am I an expert on the different strains of European honey bees. However, I do know that if we consistently cull queens whose daughters are too jumpy or quick to defend their colony, then eventually we should end up with less defensive behavior as the Africanized alleles become rarer in the population.

I should also say that those Africanized alleles are not going away. We, beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike, have to accept that Africanized bees have been established in California for decades now and are expanding their range northward. A warming climate may enable them to overwinter successfully in areas that were formerly too cold for them. So we have them, and have probably had them for a while now. Most people encounter only foraging bees; these, whether or European or African descent, tend to be focused on their work and can’t be bothered to notice the big lumbering mammal watching them (unless said mammal does something to provoke the bees, in which case all bets are off). It is only when they detect a threat to their colony that the bees become aggressive.

So, what should you do? Well, if you see a feral colony of bees, don’t mess with it. This is the same advice that I’d give someone who asks how not to get bitten by a rattlesnake. Pay attention to your surroundings, even if you’re just walking the dog around the block. Who knows, a swarm of bees may have taken residence in a tree that you’ve walked past a thousand times before. If you notice bees flying into and out of a hole in a tree, watch them from a safe distance (binoculars are great tools for spying on bees). If you are concerned that a colony may be in a bad location because of proximity to people or livestock, contact a beekeeper who can remove it safely. Above all, keep in mind that in your daily life you do many risky things. If you don’t believe me, check out these data from the National Safety Council in 2002 for chance of death due to:

  • car accident as an occupant of a car: 1 in 17,000 (yikes!)
  • falling from stairs or steps: 1 in 180,000
  • suffocation in bed: 1 in 565,000
  • drowning in a swimming pool: 1 in 450,000
  • contact with hornets, wasps, and bees: 1 in 5,000,000

So don’t worry, but do be aware. And don’t let the threat of Africanized honey bees keep you from enjoying the outdoors! And don’t forget to look both ways before you cross the street, either.

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