The Stingless Bee

I'm not especially knowledgeable about farming. Irrigation? That I know a little bit about. Crops and animal husbandry? Much less. Every now and then, I do run across something really interesting. In this case: the Mayan stingless bee.

a beeThe stingless bees, also known as meliponines, are frequently kept in homes as pets. The Central American varieties bred by the Maya are kept in hollow logs with ceramic caps at either end that can be removed to gather honey. They are still kept this way today, in the same way they have been for countless centuries. The hives are often passed down between generations, and it’s common for hives to last 80 years.

They have more uses than just as pets or to make honey. They're also used for religious purposes. Beekeepers would place the hives near certain hallucinogenic flowers, so that the honey made from them kept some of those properties, which were then turned into a sort of honey wine used in ritual practices. I reckon that there's a lot less falling asleep in church there.

Metalworkers also frequently kept bees in Central America in order to use their wax for lost-wax casting. Lost wax casting involves the creation of a wax model, followed by the creation of a mould and then a hollow wax model, after which the model is covered in a more durable material and filled with molten metal. (Yep: I've got a slightly shaky grasp on it.)

Central America isn't the only center of stingless bee cultivation. Brazil and Australia are also involved.

Unfortunately, the cultivation of stingless bees in Central America has been dropping away in favor of Africanized bees (sometime called killer bees, which is actually inaccurate; you're more likely to be hit by lightning than killed by Africanized bees), who produce much larger amounts of honey. One of the major downsides of this is that Africanized bees neglect a number of local flowers, which results in many local plants not getting fertilized.

The End of the VHS Loop

BetaandVHSMaggie had me cleaning out the attic the other day, and I found a cardboard box filled with old VHS tapes. We hadn't used the VCR in something like a decade, but I managed to find it (in the garage, under five or six cans of paint) and hooked it up.

I went through some of our old home videos, and found that some worked perfectly fine and others didn't work at all. There didn't seem to be any real link between their age and how well they worked, either, so I decided to do some research.

There are lots of stories bouncing around the internet about how VHS tapes are supposed to stop working after ten years, or 15, or 20, but there doesn't seem to be any real consensus. People have written their anecdotes about all sorts of lifespans for the dumb things.

It turns out that there are a lot of reasons for the wildly different stories. First off, there was a lot of advertising done when DVDs came out—trying to convince people to switch from VHS to DVD, with the claim that VHS tapes wouldn't last very long.

And the conditions that cause the tapes to wear out vary wildly. VCR malfunction is the quickest cause, of course, but other factors include: rapid temperature swings, frequent use, low humidity, proximity to magnets and electronics, and storage conditions.

theDVDWhat makes it even more confusing is that many of the factors aren't even consistent. Infrequent usage can sometimes cause the tapes to fail, and frequent use can do the same thing.

The last movie released on VHS was “A History of Violence,” in 2006. I doubt that a copy of this will be the last movie ever watched in the format, of course: by that time DVDs had pretty much taken over the whole scene, leaving very little of a VHS market remaining. The “last view” honor will most likely go to someone's home movie, and probably within the next 50 years.

Castles in Decline

castleThe decline of the castle can be summed up in one word: Gunpowder. Really seems a bit simple to just leave it there, so here goes:

I generally avoid military history…always felt that people building things is more important to history than people destroying things. For any student of ancient architecture, though, castles are impossible to ignore.

Castles dominated Europe for more than 900 years. When someone thinks of the Middle Ages, castles are probably the first things on their mind.

There were two major types of castles. Not architectural types; I’m talking about the reasons the castles were built in the locations they were. Rural castles were the first type, generally placed in a location with some sort of important resource—fertile land, mines, mills, or maybe a major road or mountain pass.

The second type, urban castles, were built to control the local populace and maintain control over trade routes. All of them served as centers for administration and as the habitations of the nobility.

Castles were not the only medieval fortifications. There were plenty of different kinds of forts and garrisons and such. The key difference between castles and the other fortifications is that castles were actually used for administration.

Only a century after gunpowder gained common use did artillery grew to be a major threat to castles. From that point, the decline of the castle was not so swift as you might expect. People built a few good castles after this time, a few of them even constructed to resist artillery—massively thick walls packed with dirt, rubble, and other debris.

The true death knell actually wasn’t artillery actually destroying the castles by artillery. It was a loss of confidence in the castles. The nobility simply started moving out, into grand palaces and estates.

The fall of castles as the center of European life was one of the main reasons that larger standing armies became a necessity, and led to one of the bloodiest eras in European history.

Honoring the Hurriquake Nail

The HurriQuake

The HurriQuake

Disaster-proofing homes is not something you want to skimp on, especially if you’re living somewhere with tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, or door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen at six in the morning. Generally speaking, building codes require a certain level of disaster-proofing in new buildings, depending on the area. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Disaster proofing can, of course, get pretty frivolous. There really isn’t a particularly compelling reason to install blast-proof wallpaper in your average suburban home in America (anyone who lived through part of the Cold War remembers bomb shelter advertisements).

One technical advancement that I do find pretty worthwhile, however, is the HurriQuake nail. (Engineers should never get to name things.) This is a bizarre-looking cross between a nail and a screw, and it’s specifically designed to withstand extreme amounts of stress, from causes ranging from high wind to earthquakes. It actually won Best Innovation of the Year from Popular Science in 2006.

The nail is actually so strong that the boards the HurriQuake nail is hammered/screwed into usually fail before the nail does. And it’s cheap enough that it only drives up the cost of houses by a few dollars.

That’s not to say the HurriQuake nail is perfect. If you put one in the wrong spot, good luck getting it out. The same spikes that keep it lodged in boards—even under extreme force—are largely capable of resisting much more force than you can apply.

isabelOf course, fancy nails alone aren’t enough to disaster-proof a house. You’ve got to design the whole building, foundation to roof, with that goal in mind. It’ll cost more and take more work, too, but this is a key part of designing a house to fit the environment it’s in. Which is one reason you see so many antique houses outlasting suburban cookie-cutter houses.

Giants and a Rock Made of Cheese

I’m not much of a fiction reader, but I did come across a rather entertaining folk tale a while back while researching historical ramps. There is a rock formation in Northern Ireland called the Giant’s Causeway, made of thousands of hexagonal basalt columns, which can form when lava cools slowly.

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

Local legend tells that the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill built the Giant’s Causeway—across the sea from Ireland all the way to Scotland—in response to a challenge from the Scottish giant Benandoner. When Fionn saw Benandoner, though, and realized how much bigger he was, he would have fled, but his wife, Oona, had him dress up as a baby. She tucked him into a crib, then began cooking.

When Benandoner arrived across the causeway, Oona told him that he was away, and invited the Scottish giant inside to wait. When he saw Fionn in the crib he decided that, to have a baby that big, Fionn must be truly enormous. Benandoner then tried to intimidate Oona by crushing rocks with his pinky finger, but she just smiled at him and handed a rock to Fionn, who crushed it to cheese. (It helped, of course, that Fionn’s rock had always been cheese).

Oona then gave Benandoner and Fionn each a griddle-cake (Irish name for a pancake). Benandoner bit into his and broke a tooth, which probably had something to do with the pan Oona had baked into it. Fionn, meanwhile, ate his with gusto.

Fingal's Cave

Fingal’s Cave

Oona invited Benandoner to feel how sharp and strong the baby’s teeth were. Benandoner, feeling his broken tooth and watching Fionn eat his griddle-cake, declined. He politely begged leave of Oona. He then fled across the causeway, destroying it behind him, not wanting to meet the father of that monstrous baby. Only the two ends were left inact—the columns of the Giant’s causeway, and the columns of Fingal’s Cave, in Scotland (which has plenty of legends of its own).

Fionn hopped out of the cradle, praising Oona’s wit, bravery, and beauty. Oona just laughed and handed him a broom to clean up the broken rocks and food.