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Unlike Ants, Urban Bees May Prefer a Natural Diet

Between the destruction of open spaces and the rise of urban beekeeping, former country bees are finding themselves in the city a lot these days. Fortunately, the change of scenery might not be impacting their diets too much; researchers say that city bees generally stick to drinking flower nectar, even in the presence of spilled soda. Their study was published in the Journal of Urban Ecology.

Clint Penick is a biologist at NC State University. He’s especially interested in learning about how social insects like bees and ants adapt to new surroundings or circumstances. In 2013, Penick and his colleagues collected ants from the parks, sidewalks, and traffic medians of Manhattan to find out what the ants were eating. 

The answer, unsurprisingly, was garbage—or, more specifically, the remains of junk food. The half-eaten cheeseburgers of city dwellers are so plentiful and calorie-laden that the ants had turned away from their usual diet of dead bugs. 

Would the same be true for urban bees? The researchers decided to find out. They collected honeybees from 39 colonies (24 belonging to beekeepers, and 15 wild) in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the surrounding region. They then tested the bees the same way they’d tested the ants: by looking at stable isotopes in the bugs’ bodies. Everything we eat leaves a chemical signature behind. Foods made from sugarcane and from corn, including corn syrup, have a unique effect on a body’s carbon levels. By looking at a bee’s carbon-13 isotopes, researchers could tell if that bee had been eating people food.

Overall, the bees appeared to be sticking to a fairly natural diet. “Basically, bees are relying on flowers in cities and are not turning to human foods to supplement their diet,” Penick said in a press statement. “This is good news for urban beekeepers. The honey in their hives is mostly coming from flower nectar and not old soda, which is what we originally guessed.” 

The researchers note that this study took place in a mid-sized city and not, say, Manhattan, where the ants were tested. “Even the most urban areas of Raleigh have more than 50 percent open green space,” Penick said. “By comparison, the average site in New York City has only 10 percent green space. So more work needs to be done to evaluate bee diets in our largest cities.”

 

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
Google
Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
Google

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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