Category Archives: 01 – January

hugabug 1: Bombardier beetle

from Eisner & Aneshansley 1999 (PNAS)

Bombardier beetles fart to escape predators.
Listen to find out how and why.

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Music in this show:
1. Goldfinger, “King for a day”
2. TriBeCaStan, “Bed bugs”
3. from Donald in Mathmagic Land
4. Vignatis, “Catnip swing”
5. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

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This here’s the first episode of hugabug, where we hug bugs instead of squishing them. Unless the bug is toxic or aggressive.

There’s this beetle that farts to escape predators. It’s called the bombardier beetle. It’s got wings, but the wings don’t work. It’s a ground beetle, so it lumbers around kind of slowly. This beetle can’t fly, and it can’t run, so when it’s threatened by death, it farts.

Wet farts would be more accurate, but explosive diarrhea actually sums up most precisely what goes on with this beetle.

Bombardier beetles have these glands on each side of their butt. I’ve heard them called “tailpipes”, but they’re glands. One gland holds nasty chemicals that smell foul and burn your eyeballs, and they’re gross. The chemicals are meant for defense against enemies; it’s like carrying mace in a creepy part of town. The other gland holds enzymes, which are like fuel for the fire–when the enzymes hit the nasty chemicals, there’s this immediate reaction that lets the beetle rip out a big, nasty, chemical fart.

You actually can hear it. People say it sounds like a pop.

What the beetle does is it squeezes the horrible chemicals into a reaction chamber of enzymes, this firing chamber, this explosion chamber. All this pressure builds up in the explosion chamber from the reaction and the release of oxygen that the whole chemical mess just spews out of the beetle’s butt and into the face of whatever’s attacking.

That’s if they’re attacking from behind; but even if the attack comes from the front, the bombardier beetle can swivel its glands and spray forward, 500 bursts of chemical reactions per second.

So imagine an ant looking for a vulnerable victim to eat. The ant finds this slow-moving beetle on the forest floor, just walking around on an old log, and the ant sinks in its mandibles.

The beetle sprays in the ant’s face, and the ant can’t even get angry and come back with rage because the spray evaporates really quickly, and a chemical cloud surrounding the beetle ensures that ants stay away, at least for a while.

Plus, there’s a chemical residue that lingers on the beetle’s butt and legs. The beetle wipes away the droplets, essentially rubbing itself with insect repellent. Which it created. In its own butt.

The toxic cocktail is bad news for other bugs and spiders and even larger animals. And if the toxic chemicals don’t hurt an attacker, the heat will get them.

Bombardier beetles shoot out scalding hot streams the temperature of boiling water. These are high-velocity scalding jets at 500 painful squirts per second. People say that it hurts.

Legend has it that Charles Darwin–Mr. Evolution himself–came across a bombardier beetle. He’s a naturalist, so he’s the kind of guy that hunts around for rocks and animals; he was looking for beetles on this particular day. I guess he didn’t bring containers, or maybe he couldn’t reach them in his pockets, because he had two valuable beetle species–one in each hand. He spotted another bug that must have been too beautiful to let go, and he had to act quick to get it, so he stuck one of the beetles in his mouth and reached for the third. The following is paraphrased from one of Darwin’s letters to a friend[1]: “…so that in despair I gently seized one of the [beetles] between my teeth, when to my unspeakable disgust & pain the little inconsiderate beast squirted his acid down my throat & I lost [all 3 bugs].” So you may not want to try and catch these guys with your bare hands, and especially not with your mouth.

All of this is true. We have been talking about the real world here, but in our own lives, these bombardier beetles actually show up, somehow, in ways you maybe wouldn’t expect.

The mechanism of the bombardier beetle’s wet fart is actually similar to a weapon from World War II. The German “buzz” bomb (the V-1, it’s called) uses pulse jet propulsion that’s similar to the beetle’s rapid butt-spray. Both the beetle and the bomb produce a pulsed jet through these “microexplosions”, which are intermittent chemical reactions.

Plus, some researchers built an experimental contraption that mimics the spray action of the bombardier beetle. Such technology can make your shaving cream warm as you spray it out of the can and is designed to “administer a lather that is pleasantly hot”[2].

And that is the story of the beetle that farts to defend itself.

I don’t know whether a beetle like this can get bamboozled by its enemy into being eaten. Maybe if it’s caught by such surprise, or maybe if it’s old and frail, or already dead or something. Nor do I know how this beetle survives the scalding hot toxic mess that must splash onto itself in these desperate situations. But it’s something to think about.

This is a snack–not a meal–of science, but it is all you will get on hugabug this week. You just remember–hug a bug.

from Dean et al. 1990 (Science)

(Click the picture to see it larger)

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Other related things around the internet:

Video of a bombardier beetle spraying an ant. Action starts at 0:50; includes a great fart noise at 1:58.

What the heck, NPR? An artist’s rendering of the bombardier beetle and its attacker, a beetle’s-eye view.

Tom Eisner, entomologist extraordinaire, invited Mira Sorvino to teach one of his classes at Cornell University. Eisner named a beetle chemical after her.

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just a couple References:

[1] ^ Darwin Correspondence Project

[2] ^ Aneshansley & Eisner 1969 (Science)

A to B 14: Allie and Maddie

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Music in this show:
1. Architecture in Helsinki, “The owls go”
2. Gaby Kerpel, “Se que no vas a volver”
3. Zap Mama, “Zap bébés”
4. Yppah, “Blue Schwinn”
5. Raymond Scott, “The toy trumpet”
6. Human Skab, “Bein’ bad”
7. Regina Spektor, “Consequence of sounds”
8. Amanda, “Incantation”
9. Gotye, “Smoke and mirrors”
10. Mucca Pazza, “The centennial”
11. Architecture in Helsinki, “The owls go”
12. Gaby Kerpel, “Gabytok”
13. Breathe Owl Breathe, “Lions jaw”
14. Raymond Scott, “Lady Gaylord”


This show, Point A to Point B, is a way to examine how people got from A to B in their lives, often to reach a point where they are successful and comfortable. This show is a search for wise words and lessons learned, which you and I can apply to maybe steer away from bad decisions or toward smoother roads.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 3 months. I hopped in my motor home (the turtle), and suddenly I had the time to pursue projects like this show…and other things I’ve postponed, like saving my backlog of favorite voicemails as digital files.

I don’t know about you, but my voicemail regularly fills up, and I get complaints. Maybe you’re the type who doesn’t listen to messages at all; if you’re like me, though, you just can’t erase some of the gems. I tend to keep the ones that make me laugh, and I’ve got messages in my voicemailbox from years ago. When I finally saved my favorites to the computer, I found birthday messages from my little nieces, which were recorded a year apart. It tickled me how different they sounded. It felt like opening a treasure chest of cute. It was almost like hearing them grow.

So let’s say there’s the point A of being a kid and the point B of adulthood. And of course, there are all the landmarks along the way. To record and remember the growth of their kids, parents take fancy family portraits every couple years. School photos memorialize a kid’s cowlick on picture day, or gigantic glasses, or missing teeth. Older parents used to coat with bronze their kids’ first shoes; remember that? The shoe-bronzing tradition seems like it’s gone out of style, but in any case, these items are visually striking ways to note the progress of a child through development and life. It’s less common for us to hear the sound of a growing child. And hearing children grow is much different from seeing the timeline in pictures.

So it struck me that I had a record of children growing in the form of annual birthday voicemails, and I wonder why audio records of the growth of children are so rare. It’s a thrill for parents to hear their kids’ first words, which is why it’s surprising that so few record the sound of their kids early in life.

Maybe pictures are just easier to store and display.

Could be that something about seeing a person develop is easier to understand.

Or maybe it’s rare that a compelling story–with all the ingredients of plot, tension, and drama–comes together in a kid’s sound bites.

Maybe pictures reflect parents more than audio would. Maybe pictures allow parents to see themselves in their children in a way that’s very different, or even nonexistent, via audio.

In some way, a kid can create using audio, rather than being depicted. Being photographed largely is a passive process, so maybe audio gives a kid more power than photography does.

And it occurred to me–
Non-rhetorical question of the week:
What if the prevalence of pictures and the lack of audio is evidence indicating that children most often are expected to be seen and not heard?

Listening to a kid is a powerful way to hear how ideas develop. It’s important to listen to what they say, and it’s helpful for everybody. Plus, it’s cute and hilarious a lot of the time.

There’s this cliché in storytelling that the end actually brings the characters and the audience back to the beginning. Thinking about going from point A to point B in terms of childhood to adulthood, I kind of hope that the cliché turns out to be true–that you can get to point B without ever leaving point A, in a sense. That you can reach adulthood without abandoning childhood.

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This is the last episode of Point A to Point B, at least in its once-a-week incarnation. Archives (and new, albeit sporadic, episodes) will be available online, now and forever, in the same spot on the interweb!

The A to B series serves as a record of how these people I bumped into across the country conceive of the roads they’ve chosen through the years. It’s a timeline that you can revisit, hopefully with new insights each time you listen. And the show also is a sort of record of my adventure in the turtle, in terms of places, people, ideas, and communicating all that stuff.

Thanks for listening. I hope you get to where you’re going.

AND stay tuned in the coming weeks for a show called “hugabug”, where we hug bugs instead of squishing them (unless they’re toxic or aggressive). It’ll be about the weirdness of animals!

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Other related enjoyable things around the internet:
(be sure to see the links in the music list above, too)

The Scared is scared of things you like.

Dutch people speaking their age from 1 to 100

The best video on the internet of a drunk baby trashing a bar, guaranteed.

“Death of a Turtle” is a fantastic recording by Tony Schwartz.

Eyeball Skeleton

This American Life, “How to Talk to Kids”
This American Life, “Kid Logic”

aww. From TAL’s web site: When Aric Knuth was a little kid, his dad would leave for six months at a time. He was a merchant marine. And Aric would record cassettes of himself and send them. He’d leave one side blank, for his father to record a response. But he never did, even though Aric asked him to on every tape. Aric talks to host Ira Glass about what it was like to finally ask his dad why.

shout-out to Austin

I just spent almost an hour on the phone with customer service, mostly because the guy was an engaging conversationalist. does this mean I’m lonely?

The time just flew by. I really couldn’t believe we chatted for so long. That wasn’t a chit-chat; that entered the realm of now we’re buddies.

Even though I only needed a simple change on the account, I’d put off calling customer service because I dreaded the (a) waiting on hold, (b) entering all the requisite info using the keypad, (c) repeating all the info to a customer service person (why did a machine ask me all those questions a few minutes ago?), and (d) finally just doing what needs to be done.

So I braced myself and called. I don’t remember saying much of anything before Austin divulged a whole bunch of useful information about how cell phone companies make money, none of which I knew before. He explained a lot to me. Unsolicited, but useful. Then we discussed why it is ridiculous for a cell phone company to charge high rates for internet access.

Ironically, Austin came at the topic from the customer’s perspective. He told me how much money he and his family pay to use telephones (thousands of dollars per year, like you probably do); that cell phone plans used to be not only affordable, but a good deal when he was 16; that now he sucks it up and agrees to pay what a company dictates. “As an irate customer would say: Ridiculous,” he said.

I felt that he was humoring me. “No,” I insisted, “I’m not an irate customer.” At one point, my family’s cell phone plan was a good deal. “The day I find a better deal is the day that I leave you, Austin, for a better contract. Although you’re right; the customer service here is superb.” I tacked on that last part. It’s actually true, though.

No, I argued that the exorbitant cost of internet access through a cell phone provider is ridiculous from a business standpoint. When internet flows as freely and cheaply as water, when you can go online for free at any coffee shop anywhere, when you pay less for unlimited internet than for electricity in your home–why would a cell phone company essentially push customers away by charging a lot of money for a little internet? Only a fool (i.e., someone living like a turtle) would pay too much for something that’s nearly free.

Maybe Austin was placating me by teaching me the tricks he and his friends use to save money on the sly. When he mentioned that his coworker doesn’t even use her own company’s products, I had to ask Austin whether he actually likes his job.

This led to a discussion about how he was born in Norway, was raised in Russia, and now considers Washington to be the closest thing to “home” he knows. He’ll be deployed to Afghanistan soon. But yeah, he likes his job, although never would he have expected to work a desk job, let alone like it. He prefers hard labor. Which I guess is why he’s going to Afghanistan with the military.

But before this, he joined Job Corps and worked for two years as a wildfirefighter with the US Forest Service. He made a killing doing that for 6 months out of the year, working 3 or 4 fires per season. I thought he may have said something about fighting an “international fire”, but I guess I misheard him. Are you familiar with international fires? Would a government agency fight one?

And then it was an hour later.

I had dreaded this phone call because I knew I’d be on the phone forever, repeating 4 different passwords every time I got transferred to another person and listening to hold music.

(hold music courtesy of Homestar Runner)

Turns out that the phone call did go on forever, but…maybe because I was lonely. That’s why people have long, involved conversations with strangers on the phone, right? Because they’re lonely?

But wait, some friends suggested that maybe he was the lonely one, and I’m the engaging conversationalist. Maybe.

Probably, though, dude was just bored at work and found relief in a phone call that wasn’t a customer yelling at him.

As much as I would have loved to record Austin’s and my conversation for an episode of Point A to Point B, this story, such as it is, must suffice as kindling for your burning imagination. Maybe I’ll get to meet him, if the turtle and I roll up to Washington before he gets to Afghanistan.

A to B episode 13: Rick

In early December, a 20-degree cold snap chased me through the southern states. We all know that the desert gets cold at night, but THAT cold? Well below freezing?? Surprise to me. Unfortunately, the turtle’s water pipes are liable to burst if they’re exposed to freezing temperatures. Consequently, we sped the 1,000 miles from Amarillo, Texas to Southern California. On the way, I met a gun-totin, elk- and quail-huntin, RV-park-ownin, extroverted man named Rick. You can hear him talk about how playing baseball in the minor league was a thrill off the field, why he left baseball to become a plant manager for a Fortune 500 company, and the biggest selling point for the RV campground that he and his family came to own in New Mexico–

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Music in this show:
1. Novos Baianos, “Globo Da Morte”
2. Rilo Kiley, “My Slumbering Heart”
3. Breathe Owl Breathe, “Lions Jaw”
4. Rilo Kiley, “Capturing Moods”
5. Little Cow, “What Will Be”
6. Dosh, “Country Road X”
7. Eels, “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues”

The RV park is walking distance to a historic town called Mesilla, where Billy the Kid was tried and hanged, and where the oldest brick building in New Mexico still stands. In those days, the bricks were fired in the oven of a man who was later killed by robbers in the very house he’d built. I got my fill of colorful contemporary stories from Rick, his employee Michael, and a retired man from out east named Jack.

Although I didn’t get to see them, Rick told me that roadrunners live at the RV park alongside the motor homers; the birds most often roost in heaps of leaves on the ground. The morning I left, my passage out of the park was blocked by–I counted them–208 bicyclists pedaling en masse toward Las Cruces. It being early December, some bikers wore Santa hats or reindeer antlers on their helmets; some rode recumbents; some shared tandems. A good omen, I thought, as I drove off toward a border checkpoint. No matter where you’re headed from Las Cruces, you’ll run into a checkpoint.

Hey, checkpoint it out–bonus tracks!

BONUS: Ode to Youth
Rick is a farm boy originally from Indiana. Here, he relates some stories from back in the day, when he was up to no good.

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Music in the Ode to Youth:
1. Hot Chip, “The warning”
2. West Side Story soundtrack, “Prologue”
3. Thao & Mirah, “How dare you”

Bonus bonus: Homage to Jane
Rick’s wife passed away 8 months ago. Jane and Rick were high school sweethearts, together for over 20 years before she died. Here, Rick tells a story about what happened one time when they took out a canoe.

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Music in the Homage to Jane:
1. Laura Veirs, “Ocean night song”
2. M83, “Train to Pluton”
3. Breathe Owl Breathe, “Across the loch”
4. Jonathan Richman, “When she kisses me”