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Honeybees: Masters of Utility

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You hear of insects that are fearsomely big, some that are poisonous, and some that are beautiful. But can any of them be stranger than the one that produces several products we can use? The honeybee is so familiar to us that we take this miracle for granted.

Bees are indispensable for agriculture. A third of crops worldwide are pollinated by honeybees. In the US, bees are responsible for billions of dollars in food production in pollination. If this was all they did, we'd still be grateful for the honeybee.
Honeybees are masters of biological manipulation. They produce royal jelly to feed larvae; therefore it is nature's babyfood. Bees use different formulas of babyfood, meaning different proportions of royal jelly, pollen, and honey to decide which larvae will be born queens and which will be worker bees. An experienced beekeeper can harvest up to 500 grams of royal jelly from a single hive every year. Royal jelly is sold as a nutritional supplement.

More honeybee products, after the jump.

Bees are the masters of chemistry as they make wax with their bodies. Bees between the ages of 10 and 16 days can secrete wax through special glands in their abdomens. The wax is produced from honey. A bee must consume 6-8 pounds of honey to produce one pound of wax. The tiny clear droplets of wax are collected from the abdomen and chewed until it is the right consistency for honeycomb-building. Beeswax must be maintained at the proper temperature (about 95 degrees) or it will be either too brittle or too soft. The colony works together to keep the temperature just right.
Bees are the masters of engineering in constructing honeycombs. is an awesome feat of engineering. The interlocking hexagonal cells provide the hive with maximum strength using the minimum amount of wax. Honeycomb is itself edible, and the wax is harvested to make candles, molds, wood polish, and solid lubricant.
And then there's honey. While wasps and hornets are busy building scary papery nests, honeybees are making sweet, sweet nectar to ensure the survival of their clan and descendents through the winter, making them masters of manufacturing. Bees can produce half again as much honey as they need, which is why we can help ourselves to the bounty. Honey is esssentially glucose and fructose, made from flower nectar processed with enzymes from the bee's body. The resulting liquid is stored in open honeycomb cells until the water content is reduced to around 17%. Bees hasten the evaporation process by fanning the open cells with their wings. Then the cell is sealed with a wax cap until the honey is needed.
Honey does not spoil like most foods. To say that honey is the only food that doesn't spoil is not quite true -granulated sugar does not spoil, either. The secret of honey is its low moisture content. Raw honey is only 14-17% water; very low for a liquid. Bacteria cannot multiply significantly in a medium with less than 18% water. It is also acidic, with a pH level between 3.2 and 4.5, which also deters bacterial growth. That does not mean bacteria are not present. Babies under a year old should not be fed honey, as even small amounts of bacteria (particularly botulism spores) can be dangerous for infants. Honey has been used since ancient times as medicine for its antimicrobial effects.
This effect can be illustrated with a simple experiment. Mix some water with honey and leave unrefrigerated for several days. Then compare the mess you have with the rest of the raw honey in its original jar. Then throw it out. Personally, I prefer mixing honey with butter, which must be consumed immediately.

Update: As for the recent news of fewer honeybees in the US, experts believe it is due to Colony Collapse Disorder. In my neck of the woods, there were few bees seen in 2006, but the population was way up in 2007.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]