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frank via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0

Antibiotics Raise Mortality Risk for Honeybees, Study Finds

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frank via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0

Efforts to protect honeybees may be doing more harm than good. Scientists say the antibiotics routinely administered by beekeepers wipe out beneficial bacteria in the bees’ guts, making them vulnerable to other pathogens. They published their findings in the journal PLOS Biology.

These are hard days for honeybees, and apiarists are doing all they can to keep their charges healthy and safe. Twice a year in North America, Asia, and parts of Europe, many beekeepers dose their hives with preventative antibiotics. The drugs may be dusted on the hive or added to the bees’ food to ensure that each insect gets its medicine.

But, as we’re learning in humans, blanket treatment with antibiotics is not really a great option. The more antibiotics we use, the faster pathogens develop antibiotic resistance, and the drugs kill helpful bacteria along with the harmful stuff they’re meant to treat.

Scientists wondered if the same was true for bees. To find out, they brought about 800 bees from long-established hives into the laboratory and split the bees into two groups: the treatment group, marked with a dot of pink paint, and the control group, marked with a dot of green. Bees in the treatment group were fed syrup laced with antibiotics; the control bees got plain syrup. After five days of regular syrup meals, the researchers put all the bees back in their hives and waited. Three days later, they collected the painted bees—dead or alive—and took them back to the lab.

Right off the bat, the scientists could see a clear difference between the two groups. Two-thirds of the plain-syrup-eating bees had survived, but only half that many from the antibiotic group had made it.

The scientists brought in another group of bees, gave half of them antibiotics, and exposed all of them to a pathogen strain of the bacterium Serratia. One week later, treated bees were significantly more likely than untreated bees to have died. The antibiotic hadn’t protected the insects from the bacteria—in fact, it may have made them more susceptible.

The scientists gave the bees a relatively low dose of antibiotics, but say commercially kept bees are likely exposed to higher levels and for longer periods of time.

Lead researcher Nancy Moran is an integrative biologist at the University of Texas, Austin. She said her team’s results really underline the relationship between healthy gut bacteria and survival.

"Our study suggests that perturbing the gut microbiome of honeybees is a factor, perhaps one of many, that could make them more susceptible to declining and to the colony collapsing," she said in a statement. "Antibiotics may have been an underappreciated factor in colony collapse.”

She emphasized that she and her team are not advocating for an all-or-nothing approach, for bees or for humans.

"We aren't suggesting people stop using antibiotics," she said. "Antibiotics save lives. We definitely need them. We just need to be careful how we use them."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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