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15 Buzzworthy Facts About Bumblebees

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Bumblebees—those fat, fuzzy fliers—are fascinating creatures. They’re also very hard to study, as are most animals that are too small to tag and can fly away at any moment. Dave Goulson, a scientist who founded a conservation trust to support bumblebee populations, has spent his career researching the habits and mannerisms of the humble bumblebee, a life he chronicles in his book about the bug, A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees. Here are 15 compact facts we learned about bumblebees from Goulson’s adventures in bee research. 

1. The world’s largest bumblebee is the Bombus dahlbomii of South America. 

Its queens are described as looking like flying mice

2. Bumblebee eggs are shaped like sausages. 

Tiny, tiny sausages. 

3. A bumblebee flaps its wings 200 times per second. 

That’s a similar RPM to some motorcycle engines. 

4. Bees have to eat a ton.

Bumblebees have extremely fast metabolisms, so they have to eat almost continuously. “A bumblebee with a full stomach is only ever about 40 minutes from starvation,” as Goulson puts it. 

5. Bumblebee nests are much smaller than those of other species. 

They have a maximum of 300 to 400 worker bees, compared to the tens of thousands found in a honeybee or wasp nest. For context, there are around 25,000 known species of bee, though there are likely more that have yet to be discovered. 

6. Bee sperm lives for months inside the queen bee. 

Only the fat queen bee survives winter hibernation, and she’s left to create a colony by herself. Sperm stored up from mating the previous summer survives in her ovaries, ready to fertilize her eggs once she finally finds a nesting place. By the end of the summer, when she’s a little over a year old, the queen and all her worker bees die, to be replaced by her daughters.  

7. Queen bees control the genetics of their offspring.

Male bumblebees have only one chromosome, and no father. To produce a son, a queen bee merely has to lay an unfertilized egg. To have daughters—who make up the entirety of a bee workforce—a queen bee fertilizes her eggs with sperm she’s been storing since the previous summer.

8. Bees have complicated family trees. 

Because bee sisters receive exactly the same genes from their fathers, but only share around 50 percent of genes from their mother’s side, a female bumblebee is 75 percent related to her sisters. But she’s only 50 percent related to her children, who get half their genes from their father and half from her. That’s why it makes sense for the majority of bees in the nest to help raise the queen’s offspring, rather than running off to start their own nests. The worker bee’s sisters carry more of her genes than her children would, so she leaves that whole childbirth thing to her mother. 

9. Bumblebees don’t die when they sting. 

That’s just a thing in honeybees. So yes, a bumblebee can sting you twice. However, male bumblebees don’t have a stinger at all, and female bumblebees aren’t very aggressive, so unless you go barging into their nest, you’re likely safe. 

10. Most of what we know about bumblebee nests comes from an entomologist who died in 1912.

Frederick William Lambart Sladen was the first scientist to devote his research completely to bumblebees. He published his first book about the bee at the age of 16, in 1892, solidifying himself as the world expert. And he still kind of is. “Species that are today rare or extinct in Britain, such as the short-haired bumblebee, were familiar to Sladen, and his descriptions of the nests of such species remain pretty much all that we know,” Goulson writes. “No one has come close to matching Sladen’s knowledge of the nesting habits of bumblebees.”

11. To safely pick up a live bee, scientists use a special device. 

It’s called a pooter. Hehe. Pooter. In all seriousness, it allows scientists to pick bees up to study them without harming them. Researchers can suck small insects into a jar by inhaling through one end of a tube. Mesh on the mouthpiece prevents the insect from being sucked directly into the scientist’s mouth. 

12. Taking DNA samples from bees involves cutting off their toes. 

Bees don’t really have toes, but scientists snip the final tarsal segment off wild bees to run genetic tests on back in the lab. It doesn’t shorten their lifespan or reduce their ability to gather food, so presumably it’s not as cruel as it sounds. 

13. Bees have smelly feet. 

Bees, like all insects, are covered in an oily film that makes them waterproof. When they land on a flower, they leave their chemical signature behind. Other bees can smell these oily footprints left on flowers, and know not to land on the same place—the nectar’s already been pillaged. Bees also use these footprints as a sort of smelly “Welcome Home” mat; the scent helps them find their way back to the entrance of their nest. 

14. Bumblebees air condition their nests with their own wings.

If the nest gets too hot, worker bees post themselves near the entrance and fan the hot air out, like tiny flapping A/C units. The hotter it is, the more workers join in the effort in order to keep the nest at exactly 86 degrees Fahrenheit, their preferred temperature. If their body temperature rises above 111 degrees, the bumblebees will die. 

15. Hordes of male bumblebees congregate on hilltops. 

In a study of bees in Scotland, Goulson found that areas atop hills attract an unusual amount of male bees compared to flat areas or midway up a hill. While he speculates that this may be an effort to attract mates—some other male insects gather at higher altitudes to wait for a lucky lady to come along—scientists have not observed this pick-up technique succeeding. However, bumblebees produce more eligible bachelors than they do bachelorettes. There are about seven males for every queen born, so most males never mate. 

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Inside This Pop-Up Book Are a Planetarium, a Speaker, a Decoder Ring, and More
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      Designer Kelli Anderson's new book is for more than just reading. This Book Is a Planetarium is really a collection of paper gadgets. With each thick, card stock page you turn, another surprise pops out.

      "This book concisely explains—and actively demonstrates with six functional pop-up paper contraptions—the science at play in our everyday world," the book's back cover explains. It turns out, there's a whole lot you can do with a few pieces of paper and a little bit of imagination.

      A book is open to reveal a spiralgraph inside.
      Courtesy Chronicle Books

      There's the eponymous planetarium, a paper dome that you can use with your cell phone's flashlight to project constellations onto the ceiling. There's a conical speaker, which you can use to amplify a smaller music player. There's a spiralgraph you can use to make geometric designs. There's a basic cipher you can use to encode and decode secret messages, and on its reverse side, a calendar. There's a stringed musical instrument you can play on. All are miniature, functional machines that can expand your perceptions of what a simple piece of paper can become.

      The cover of This Book Is a Planetarium
      Courtesy Chronicle Books

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