Category Archives: 02 – February

hugabug 5: Honeypot ants

The honeypot ant has junk in her trunk.
Listen to find out how and why.

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Music in this show:
1. Ani Difranco, “Manhole”
2. Eddie Murphy, “Boogie in your butt”
3. Daleduro, “La poli”
4. Beatles, “Wild honey pie”
5. end credits from Bob’s Burgers
6. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

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If you walk past a honey ant colony, you probably won’t notice it at all, because the only evidence of its existence is a small hole in the ground, which is surrounded by tiny dry clods of dirt or sand. If your scientific eye does spot the honey ant colony, though, you probably won’t notice anything different about most of the honey ants…unless you dig several feet under the hard-packed desert ground.

There, you’ll find hundreds of amber globes dangling from the domed roof of the nest, light from the hole you dug glistening in the hanging orbs. Wait a minute–those globes are dangling ant asses.

The honeypot ant has junk in her trunk.

Honeypot humong-asses grow to be the size of grapes or cherries, which is like a 2-year-old child having a butt the size of a refrigerator. And that’s exactly what these honeypots are: living refrigerators.

Honey ants live in dry areas around the world (usually deserts), in Australia, Mexico, South Africa, Arizona, Utah, California, Colorado. The lifestyle in a desert can be summed up pretty simply–feast and famine. During feast times (like the rainy season, when plants are growing and food is plentiful), ants have access to more food than they can eat.


Everyone knows that the good times don’t last forever, so worker ants plan ahead by bringing extra food to the nest. There, extra food can be stored for times of drought and famine. Stored right there in the humong-asses of live honeypot ants.


The sweet sweet junk in her trunk.

Worker ants in the colony tap these delish-asses when resources are scarce. The honeypot regurgitates what’s in her butt into the mouth of a hungry ant friend.

Two regurgitations actually have to happen so that food can be stored and retrieved with the honeypots. First, a worker collects nectar or animal guts from aboveground and returns to the nest to vomit the goods into a honeypot’s mouth. Next, when food is scarce later in the year, the honeypot vomits up the stored food–drop by delicious drop–into a hungry supplicant’s mouth.

The junk in a honeypot trunk might really be junk, in a sense. Sometimes worker ants harvest the guts, fats, and body fluids from worms and other scavenged animals. Most often, though, honeypots contain the sweet stuff, like nectar from flowers, fruits, and extrafloral nectaries, or the sugars produced by aphids, galls, and scale insects.

A honeypot has one function–to serve as a living refrigerator–so she has license to do nothing but dangle from the roof of the nest and sleep all day long, while her backside becomes oversize.

Sweet nectars last in her delish-ass storage space because the honeypot digests barely any food. Turns out that being lazy and dangling requires very few calories.

The nectars are so delish-ass that people eat them. Raw. You can pinch one by the head and legs, bite her butt off, and let the sweet nectar dribble into your mouth.

Australian Aborigines exhume the honeypots to satisfy their sweet tooth. During the Spanish conquest of Mexico, honeypots were sold individually in the markets of Mexico City. Honeypot nectar used to be fermented into an alcoholic drink. Badgers, coyotes, and other animals eat honeypots, too. In fact, other ant colonies sometimes raid honey ant nests and kidnap the honeypots! I wonder how the honeypots feel about imprisonment…

Like many other things in nature, once the function of a honeypot has been fulfilled, she becomes unnecessary. disposable. obsolete. In this case, when the nectar is drained from an enormass by hungry nestmates, the shrunken, withered butt never recovers, and the shriveled honeypot dies.

With that in mind, hug a bug, would you?

photo by Mike Gillam

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Worth checking out around the internet:

An adventure in pictures–a filmmaker finds honey ants in the Arizona desert.

hugabug 4: Cicada rain

by T. Nathan Mundhenk

Liquid waste from cicada anus will wet your head if you wander under a tree covered with the bugs.

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Music in this show:
1. Rodgers & Hammerstein, “March of the Siamese children”
2. Bang on a Can All Stars, “Sein Chit Tee A Mhat Ta Ya”
3. Hot Chip, “Over & Over”
4. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

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from Lafcadio Hearn 1919 (Shadowings)

Every 13 or 17 years–on the dot–millions of cicadas emerge from the ground simultaneously. When you walk under a tree full of cicadas–that wetness? It’s not rain. Those are rectal squirts.

It’s true–liquid waste from cicada anus will wet your head if you wander under a tree covered with these bugs. Because they suck tree juice that’s low in nutrients but high in water content, cicadas keep the nutrients but expel most of the water as urine in jet streams of anal squirts, otherwise known as “cicada rain”.

A periodical cicada lives underground for either 13 or 17 years straight. The cicada barely moves from one small spot in the soil, buried just 1 or 2 feet under the forest floor or your lawn.

After exactly 13 or 17 years, somehow the cicada knows when to dig a tunnel to the soil surface and join literally millions and millions of other cicadas that also somehow knew that all the other bugs finally were poking their heads aboveground pretty much simultaneously. All these millions of cicadas cover trees, bushes, houses, telephone poles–every vertical surface.

If you find yourself amid millions upon millions of these bugs, you’ll see that it’s impossible to move without stepping on dozens of their little bodies. It’s impossible to speak without yelling, because the males sing loudly, incessantly, begging the female cicadas to mate with them. The deafening symphony of millions of cicadas reaches the same volume as a jackhammer or a subway train.

And birds love it; they eat it up. These bugs crawl everywhere as a free buffet of slow, little, defenseless bodies that don’t even scatter when a bird attacks. But gluttonous birds can’t eat even half of the cicadas in these outbreaks. Most of the cicadas survive, pee on your head, and make babies. That’s the beauty and genius of it all! It’s an effective tactic of safety in numbers.

And cicadas are a brilliant natural lesson in prime numbers. Millions of cicadas simultaneously tunnel out of the soil at indivisible intervals of 13 and 17 years. The more typical 2- or 4-year life cycle of birds doesn’t match well with the atypical lifestyle of these cicadas.

Graphic designers can use a similar trick. They can make a repeating visual pattern seem organically random by repeating the pattern in prime-numbered intervals.

This mathematical strategy also helps you buy things online. The internet keeps your credit card information secret by encrypting it using prime numbers.

The 13- and 17-year cicadas live only in North America, but ancient Chinese, Greek, and Japanese cultures revered other cicadas for a long, long time. Small bronze model cicadas were used as currency in China, and the bugs show up on ancient Greek coins.

All that, even though cicadas pee on your head.

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WCBN-FM Ann Arbor concludes its annual fundraiser this weekend. If cicadas can count to prime numbers, you can do the math: WCBN needs your donation to survive. Donate to WCBN in the name of insects. Keep the predators at bay, so we can keep making noise.

from H.A. Ramsden 1914 (Model-Insect Money of Ancient China)

And hug a bug. Hug millions of periodical cicadas, why don’t you. Every 13 and 17 years.

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These videos may help you understand what cicadas are like:

A fantastic cartoon about a cicada

Here’s an idea of what you can expect when millions and millions of cicadas emerge outside your house.

More and even more “cicada rain”.

The mesmerizing molt of a cicada

David Attenborough woos a male cicada. The video contains a nice time-lapse video of a cicada molting. Note: The sound effects at the beginning of the video are just that–for effect. When cicadas emerge from the soil, their sound-making organs (tymbals) actually have not developed yet. Males can sing only after their final molt. Also note: Cicadas are incredibly loud.

from H. Garman 1903 (Agricultural Experiment Station of the State College of Kentucky, Bulletin No. 107)

hugabug 3: Sea cucumbers puke their guts out

Above: photo by Graeme A. Barber
Below: Byrne 2001 (Journal of Experimental Biology)

The internal organs of a sea cucumber explode out of its body, and the sea cucumber survives.
Listen to find out how and why.

Right-click or Command+click to download

Music in this show:
1. Sara Tavares, “Sumanai”
2. Bernie Krause, “Fish wrap”
3. from Donald in Mathmagic Land
4. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)
5. Battles, “Inchworm”

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Actually, a sea cucumber explodes repeatedly in the 10 years it’s alive. And all of its guts regenerate.

Two things can happen. Scenario 1: A sea cucumber is wandering around on the sea floor. A predator attacks, and the sea cucumber pukes up all of its guts, maybe tangling the enemy in a sticky mess of intestines, or the predator may be distracted by the free meal of delicious entrails, allowing the empty sac of sea cucumber skin–still alive!–to crawl away to safety.

Scenario 2: A sea cucumber has been living its life on the sea floor for yet another year. Maybe poop wastes have filled the nooks and crannies of its digestive system. Maybe an uncomfortable number of parasites have invaded the sea cucumber’s internal organs. Maybe the guts are just old enough, now, to be discarded.

First, the sea cucumber stops eating. It gets all lazy and sits around instead of being active. Then, the front end of the sea cucumber expands like a balloon, as muscle spasms push all the intestines and repiratory organs and gonads all up into the front of the body, and BOOM! The front end of the sea cucumber pops like a piñata full of guts. Either that, or sometimes, BOOM! All the guts just spill out of the sea cucumber’s butt.

What’s crazy is that this is not a destructive process.

from Alvarado 2000 (Bioessays)

More muscle contractions seal off the explosion holes, and the sea cucumber rests for about a month, while its internal organs regenerate. And there you have it. The sea cucumber is alive another day with a brand new, clean set of organs. And it starts eating again.

Along similar lines, did you know that a starfish pukes up its stomach to eat? A starfish will approach another animal that looks delicious–sometimes a sea cucumber, sometimes a clam or a mussel–and just kind of sit on the creature. That way, the starfish mouth is pressed up against its prey. The starfish wraps a delicious creature in the pouches of its regurgitated stomach. It oozes digestive juices, rendering its prey a blob of mostly-digested flesh. Then, the starfish eats its own stomach again, and the stomach folds up and tucks back into the starfish’s mouth.

Now, let’s say the starfish stomach gets caught on the rough edges of a mussel shell and tears off or gets damaged. Like the sea cucumber, a starfish can regenerate its own stomach.

Not only that–some species of sharks also can puke up their stomachs if they accidentally bite into any “large objects of dubious digestibility” [1]. These visceral acrobatics involve the shark turning its own stomach inside-out and pushing the stomach through its mouth. Once the accidentally eaten boot (or whatever) is expelled, the stomach can be pulled back into place, into the belly of the beast.

And some sharks, like the hammerhead–from time to time, it expels its intestines through its butt, then pulls those guts right back in through the anus.

But anyway, the point is–the extraordinary sea cucumber explodes its guts out and lives to tell the tale.

You may be wondering, “How come people can’t do that?” Well, to some extent, a very small extent, we actually can, sort of. Our livers are pretty good at regenerating after injury. More experiments with sea cucumbers may lead to human health discoveries. For example, the sea cucumber digestive tube expresses a couple genes associated with cancer and tumor growth in humans. By figuring out how gut regeneration stops in sea cucumbers once their guts are fully formed, maybe we can stop tumors from growing in human cancer patients.

from Brockes 1997 (Science)

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Don’t miss this crazy stuff elsewhere on the internet:

The music is unfortunate, but the visuals are awesome in this video of a sea cucumber gut piñata exploding. Just put it on mute and provide a personalized soundtrack.

There are so very many things to learn about starfish (sea stars, if you prefer). For instance:
Time-lapse movie of a starfish feeding on the side of an aquarium
– Front-row seat for the regurgitation of a starfish stomach–the view from the inside of a mussel shell
– Grisly time-lapse footage of starfish and other creatures feasting on a dead seal
Pure entertainment with photoshop

from J. Arthur Thomson, (The Outline of Science, Vol. 1)

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Fun-razor is the time of year when you can show your support for WCBN-FM Ann Arbor by flashing some cash. It’s the student-run community radio station at the University of Michigan, serving as a safe and educational haven for the kids and oldsters, alike. You can keep the dream alive! You know? And we’ll toss a T-shirt or other good swag your way in appreciation.

Call (734) 763-3500 or click here to donate. Thanks!

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[1] ^ An article by Eugenie Clark (a.k.a., The Shark Lady). Clark, E. 1992. Whale sharks: gentle monsters of the deep. National Geographic, 180(6):120-139.