Brain Pickings

A Brief History of How Bees Sexed Up Earth and Gave Flowers Their Colors

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How a striped, winged, six-legged love machine sparked “the longest marketing campaign in history.”

The great E.O. Wilson is credited with having once said, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” But while the one million or so named species of insects make up about 70% of all known species on Earth, one type of insect is more vital to our planet’s survival — as well as our own — than any other: the humble, mighty bee. In A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees (public library), British biologist, lifelong wildlife enthusiast and Bumblebee Conservation Trust founder Dave Goulson explores how bees gave our cosmic home not only its beauty but also its bounty of nourishment, and what responsibility we have — as Jane Goodall once eloquently urged — in repaying that existential gesture.

Inviting us into his evolutionary time machine, Goulson takes us back to the Cretaceous period, between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago, when Earth was covered in lush forests of giant greenery. The dinosaurs had just taken to the air as newly evolved feathers produced the first birds. Our own ancestors at the time were small and unseemly rat-like creatures lurking under the ferns and feeding on insects and fallen fruit. Goulson writes:

If we could travel to this ancient land, we might be too concerned with the dangers posed by the larger wildlife to notice that there were no flowers; no orchids, buttercups or daisies, no cherry blossoms, no foxgloves in the wooded glades. And no matter how hard we listened, we would not hear the distinctive drone of bees. But all that was about to change.

So why did it change? It turns out that sex does indeed rule the world — two hundred million years after the first ejaculation in Earth’s recorded history, bees stepped in to perform a vital function in our planet’s blossoming into maturity:

Sex has always been difficult for plants, because they cannot move. If one cannot move, then finding a suitable partner and exchanging sex cells with them poses something of an obstacle. The plant equivalent of sperm is pollen, and the challenge facing a plant is how to get its pollen to the female reproductive parts of another plant; not easy if one is rooted to the ground. The early solution, and one still used by some plants to this day, is to use the wind. One hundred and thirty-five million years ago almost all plants scattered their pollen on the wind and hoped against hope that a tiny proportion of it would, by chance, land on a female flower. This is, as you might imagine, a very inefficient and wasteful system, with perhaps 99.99 per cent of the pollen going to waste – falling on the ground or blowing out to sea. As a result they had to produce an awful lot.

Nature abhors waste, and it was only a matter of time before the blind stumbling of evolution arrived at a better solution in the form of insects. Pollen is very nutritious. Some winged insects now began to feed upon it and before long some became specialists in eating pollen. Flying from plant to plant in search of their food, these insects accidentally carried pollen grains upon their bodies, trapped amongst hairs or in the joints between their segments. When the occasional pollen grain fell off the insect on to the female parts of a flower, that flower was pollinated, and so insects became the first pollinators, sex facilitators for plants. A mutualistic relationship had begun which was to change the appearance of the earth. Although much of the pollen was consumed by the insects, this was still a vast improvement for the plants compared to scattering their pollen to the wind.

Photograph of bee abdomen by Rose-Lynn Fisher from her project 'Bee'

But this system presented our proto-bees with a serious wayfinding problem: Because flowers were as drably brownish-green as the surrounding vegetation, spotting them was no small task. In order to attract insects, they had to get better at standing out over the competition and “advertising” their delicious pollen. Goulson writes:

So began the longest marketing campaign in history, with the early water lilies and magnolias the first plants to evolve petals, conspicuously white against the forests of green. The first pollinators may have been beetles, which many water lilies still rely on to this day. With this new reliable means of pollination, insect-pollinated plants became enormously successful and diversified. Different plants now began vying with one another for insect attention, evolving bright colors, patterns and elaborate shapes, and the land became clothed in flowers. In this battle to attract pollinators, some flowers evolved an additional weapon — they began producing sugar-rich nectar as an extra reward. As these plants proliferated, so the opportunities for insects to specialize grew, and butterflies and some flies evolved long, tubular mouthparts with which to suck up nectar. The most specialized and successful group to emerge were the bees, the masters of gathering nectar and pollen to this day.

And so, around 130 million years ago, the first true bees appeared. The oldest preserved bee, a stingless specimen immortalized in amber, is 80 million years old. Bumblebees, a particularly beloved hero of children’s books and pop-culture iconography, appeared sometime between 30 and 40 million years ago in the mountains of Central Asia, to this day the area of greatest bumblebee diversity, during a period when Earth’s temperature dropped and the cooler climate caused bees to grow larger and furrier to stay warm. Today, some 25,000 species of bees are known to exist and while many are yet to be discovered, some are already waning. Our beloved bumblebees account for just 1% of the known bee species, or a total of 250 bumblebee species, and three of them — Bombus rubriventris, Bombus melanopoda and Bombus franklini — have gone extinct globally.

Poem and illustration from Joanna Tilsley's science poetry project '30 Days.' Click image for more.

Indeed, central to Goulson’s message is a bittersweet lament that bees are incredibly vulnerable to the general extinction epidemic of our era, as species are going extinct at anywhere between 100 and 1,000 times the natural rate due to habitat destruction, largely of our own doing. Scientists estimate that one species goes extinct every twenty minutes. There has never been a more urgent time to pay heed to E.O. Wilson’s admonition, for if bees once gave our planet its glorious colors and vibrant plant life, it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to envision what would happen if they were to disappear.

But despite the urgency of the conservation message, A Sting in the Tale is ultimately an optimistic book, written with profound love and respect for the creatures that gave Earth its colors and us our vitality. Complement it with Jon Mooallem’s heartbreaking and heartening, immeasurably moving Wild Ones.

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Beloved British Artist Ralph Steadman Illustrates the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

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A visual “autobiography” of the legendary polymath that grants equal dignity to the grit and the glory.

Freud once observed that the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci was “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.” And how blazingly awake he was — his Vitruvian Man endures as one of the most iconic images of all time, his visionary anatomical illustrations changed the course of modern medicine, and he knew how to play the long game of the creative life.

Perhaps this is why in the early 1980s, when he was in his mid-forties, the celebrated British cartoonist Ralph Steadman developed a great obsession with Leonardo. He began to paint the polymath’s fanciful inventions, as well as countless drawings of Leonardo himself, and eventually even travelled to Italy to stand where Leonardo stood, seeking to envision what it was like to inhabit that endlessly imaginative mind and boundless spirit.

In 1983, more than a decade before he illustrated Orwell’s Animal Farm and exactly ten years after his visual interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, Steadman released I, Leonardo (public library) — a remarkable “autobiography” of Da Vinci as imagined by Steadman, written in the first person and illustrated in the cartoonist’s unmistakable style. Funny, poignant, sometimes gory, sometimes optimistic, always intensely intelligent, Steadman’s story stretches from Leonardo’s boyhood experiments to his dying words, granting equal dignity to his triumphs as a genius and his doubts and disappointments as a human being, to the grit and the glory.

Steadman writes in the introduction:

In the Middle Ages the world was still flat, the center of the universe, ruled by villainous warlords, witchcraft and alchemy, superstition and disease. Few dared ask the question “What are the elephants standing on” for fear of being soundly whipped and told to shut up and keep rowing… Not a good time to be born poor, though no worse if you were born a bastard, rich or poor.

[…]

Leonardo da Vinci was born twenty years before Michelangelo in 1452. Knowledge through experience was his maxim and his experience showed him that man was not what he appeared to be, despite the prevailing atmosphere of fine thoughts and high aspirations. Yet the purity of his painting set the divine standard of Renaissance art — and of any art for that matter. I believe he preserved intact a part of his private self which found an outlet in his more personal notes and drawings… The wealth of his activities overpowered those who revered him, so that they were virtually unable to employ him. If that were not disability enough, his most beloved disciple kept from the world his inheritance, the notebooks which contained the essence of his master’s spirit. Like a guard dog he hoarded them all his life. After his death they were dismembered and dispersed, only to be rediscovered four hundred years later in a world where Leonardo’s ideas had already come about.

Much of Steadman’s narrative is woven from Leonardo’s own musings, collected in his Thoughts on Art and Life (which is available as a free download and highly recommended). Take, for instance, this passage accompanying Steadman’s terrific drawing of Leonardo’s optic studies:

The eyes … are the chief means whereby the understanding may most fully and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature.

The eye counsels all the arts of mankind … it is the prince of mathematics … it has given birth to architecture and to perspective and to the divine art of painting. Painting encompasses all the ten functions of the eye, that is, darkness, light, body, color, shape, location, remoteness, nearness, motion and rest.

Because of the eye the soul is content to stay in its bodily prison, for without it such imprisonment is torture. Who would believe that so small a space could confirm the image of all the universe?

All those coarse jests inside the court serve now to lash my pride. His Holiness the Pope surrounded himself with none but craven guzzlers, gross pretenders and a host of fawning dignitaries who grimaced through their days at court with no more grace than beggars I had entertained in days gone by — though they had neither choice nor wit to rise above themselves and in that they had a reason.

Oh that I had ways to surely serve their putrid masquerades and twittery to make a dragon from the very menagerie within the Vatican itself.

If I could take for its head that of a mastiff or setter, for its eyes those of a cat, for its ears those of a greyhound, with the eyebrows of a lion, the temples of an old cock and the neck of a water tortoise.

O vile monster! How much better it for men that thou shouldst go back to hell! For this the vast forests shall be stripped of their trees; for this an infinite number of creatures shall lose their lives.

Complement I, Leonardo, a masterpiece in its own right, with The Provensens’ spectacular vintage pop-up book on Leonardo’s life and legacy, then revisit Steadman’s sublime illustrations for Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland.

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Chinua Achebe on the Meaning of Life and the Writer’s Responsibility in the World

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The difference between blind optimism and the urge to improve the world’s imperfection.

“A writer,” E.B. White asserted in a fantastic 1969 interview, “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” A quarter century later, another literary titan articulated the same sentiment even more beautifully, a remarkable feat in my book, where dear old Elwyn Brooks reigns supreme.

In a 1994 conversation with Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel, found in the altogether excellent More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel (public library), the great Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) echoes White’s wisdom with his own bend of poetic conviction — conviction all the more urgent in our age of increasingly despairing clickbait “journalism.”

Chinua Achebe (photograph by Mike Cohea courtesy of Brown University)

When Wachtel asks how the prominent South African writer and political activist Nadine Gordimer’s description of Achebe as “a moralist and an idealist” has fared after years of political and personal struggle, he answers:

[My idealism is] still alive and well because without it the business of the writer would be meaningless. I don’t think the world needs to be told stories of despair; there is enough despair as it is without anyone adding to it. If we have any role at all, I think it’s the role of optimism, not blind or stupid optimism, but the kind which is meaningful, one that is rather close to that notion of the world which is not perfect, but which can be improved. In other words, we don’t just sit and hope that things will work out; we have a role to play to make that come about. That seems to me to be the reason for the existence of the writer.

Achebe builds on this thought in his response to Wachtel’s inquiry about how he convinces people of “the redemptive power of fiction”:

Good stories attract us and good stories are also moral stories. I’ve never seen a really good story that is immoral, and I think there is something in us which impels us towards good stories. If we have people who produce them, we are lucky…

I feel that there has to be a purpose to what we do. If there was no hope at all, we should just sleep or drink and wait for death. But we don’t want to do that. And why? I think something tells us that we should struggle. We don’t really know why we should struggle, but we do, because we think it’s better than sitting down and waiting for calamity. So that’s my sense of the meaning of life. That’s really how I would put it, that we struggle, and because we struggle, that struggle has to be told, the story of that struggle has to be conveyed to another generation. You have struggle and story, and these two are quite enough for me.

Illustration from 'Beneath the Rainbow,' a collection of mystical children's stories featuring motifs and characters from traditional African myths reimagined by contemporary writers and artists. Click image for more.

One of Achebe’s novels, Anthills of the Savannah, features a poignant fable that illustrates his point about the meaningfulness of the struggle itself, which he relays to Wachtel:

The leopard had been looking for the tortoise and hadn’t found him for a long time. On this day, on a lonely road, he suddenly chanced upon Tortoise, and so he said, “Aha! At last, I’ve caught you. Now get ready to die.” Tortoise of course knew that the game was up and so he said, “Okay, but can I ask you a favor?” and Leopard said, “Well, why not?” Tortoise said, “Before you kill me, could you give me a few moments just to reflect on things?” Leopard thought about it — he wasn’t very bright — and he said, “Well, I don’t see anything wrong with that. You can have a little time.” And so Tortoise, instead of standing still and thinking, began to do something very strange: he began to scratch the soil all around him and throw sand around in all directions. Leopard was mystified by this. He said, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that?” Tortoise said: “I’m doing this because when I’m dead, I want anybody who passes by this place to stop and say, ‘Two people struggled here. A man met his match here.

Wachtel’s More Writers & Company, a sequel to her first compendium of interviews, is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover, featuring remarkably wide-ranging and dimensional conversations with such literary icons as Harold Bloom, Oliver Sacks, Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, and John Berger.

For more meditations on the meaning of life, see these timeless reflections by Maya Angelou, David Foster Wallace, Milton Glaser, Viktor Frankl, Leo Tolstoy, Carl Sagan, Anaïs Nin, Richard Feynman, Henry Miller and John Steinbeck.

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