A Trip Down Memory Lane: Season One of The X-Files (part 2)

Yesterday I posted about my first close encounter (har har) with invertebrates on The X-Files.  Ice (S1 E8) is a great episode that should be on everyone’s list of must see episodes.  But season one isn’t done with us just yet.  There is still some buggy goodness to be found in the spooky stories to be told.  In fact, there are two episodes for me to elaborate upon…well, three but that last one doesn’t count…sort of.

Next up…

The X-Files: Season 1: Episode 18: Miracle Man

Basic Premise:  People died! Mulder & Scully to investigate!  This time it’s a faith healing teen and his preacher dad in the middle of it.  Was someone murdered?  Who did it?  Where’s the healer kid?  WTF is going on!?!

This episode doesn’t really focus on bugs really, but they do play a small part.  While in court, the room is swarmed with grasshoppers.  There is a shot of the judge being swarmed by grasshoppers as well as a nice pile of crickets on his desk.  Cut to the courtroom and its filled with some real and many CGI swarming grasshoppers.  This is meant to serve as a representation of one of the 10 plagues of Egypt from the Old Testament.  In fact the next scene is Mulder reading the passage to Scully.  Surprise!  She was raised Catholic and knows all about locusts and plagues.  But did-ya-know that the grasshoppers that were swarming were the only ‘locusts’ in that courtroom?  Crickets are not locusts.  And for you Mid-Westerners out there, Cicadas are not locusts either.

S1 E18: Miracle Man He’s covered in locusts! Okay, less than ten…but creepy bugs right? A plague, a plague!

The Science of the Episode: The insects themselves don’t play any real part in the underlying plot but they are instrumental in moving it along and ultimately solving the crime.  The ultimate logic (again, avoiding too many spoilers) is the insects were lured into the courtroom for nefarious purposes.  Not, as divine retribution as is initially believed.  The items used to lure the critters in I doubt would do the trick, but the premise is solid.  Given the right conditions they could have been coaxed in there.  Good job writers!

This was another great episode as it begins to build some in depth back story for Mulder (beyond basic exposition) and is more Law & Order-like, than Unsolved Mysteries.  It actually feels more like an episode of Scooby Doo for grown ups with some elements of supernatural woo.  But not too much.  The elements of woo are minimal and can be explained logically within the framework of the episode.  I love that about the first few seasons of the show.  Overall, a good episode, not the greatest but I do enjoy it.  It’s in my top 10 for the season.

The next episode to feature creepy crawlies has been one of my favorites of the whole series.  I want to give it its own post so I’ll hold off on that until tomorrow.  So I’m going to skip and make a brief mention about the fourth arthropod-related reference in season one.

Season 1 Episode 21: Tooms

I won’t go into the plot because it has nothing to do with bugs.  Not one bit.  It does have to do with a creepy Captain Fantastic-like man who eats human liver.  No word on the inclusion of fava beans and a nice Chianti though.

So, where does the bug reference come into play?  A nicely built up scene where Mulder sleeps on his couch while Tooms is slowly sneaking into his apartment.  Why was Mulder on the couch?  As far as we know he doesn’t acquire an actual bed until many seasons into the show…but I digress.  This great scene, were we anxiously await to see if Mulder will wake up in time to thwart Tooms is juxtaposed by a scene from a classic science fiction film playing on the TV.  That’s right.  It’s the original The Fly.

That’s it.  See you next season.

That movie poster is simply amazing. I need it.

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A Trip Down Memory Lane: Season One of The X-Files (part 1)

I’m a huge X-Files fan.  Seriously.  I devoured this show in all its cooky glory back in the day.  I’ve long been planning a Netflix binge of the series but have been putting it off in order to be a productive adult.  That’s all over!  With news that the series will be brought back for a short stint I decided it’s time to revisit the entire show.  And, whaddya know?  There’s buggy stuff in it!  I’ll post updates as I progress through the series because I KNOW you want to know all about those bugs.  This has actually been pretty fun.  For the most part, the show holds up.  Although, I will admit I cringe now at some of the “science” but that is not restricted to this show by any means.  And, for the most part, the cringe-worthy elements are less painful than on other shows (Bones, I’m looking at you).

I just finished season one and here is a summary of what I noticed.  I may have missed some things because it didn’t occur to me that I should actually be documenting everything I saw…I know, I know.  Bad scientist…

The X-Files:  Season 1 – Episode 8: Ice

Basic Premise: People died!  It was a multiple person, murder-suicide at a research station in Alaska!  Holy crap!  Whaddyagonnado?  Send in Mulder & Scully of course!  The episode itself was meant to be a “bottle episode” meaning a cheap, easy to film, self contained episode.  You need to remember that this show wasn’t considered a guarantee for FOX.  It was running alongside another experimental show (a personal favorite: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.) and it wasn’t doing so well.  The fact that this show got off the ground and succeeded was not expected.  Every penny spent went up on screen.  There wasn’t anything wasted in that first season.

Back to the episode…A small investigative team is sent to Alaska to uncover the truth of this event.  While up there, they get attacked by a rabid dog, are exposed to weird ancient ice, and people get all pissy for the plot.  And it works!  As I rewatched this I found myself really glued to the screen.  It was the first time I felt completely sucked in.  The acting is great, the set, being cramped and restricted adds to the sense of anxiety and claustrophobia that the characters must be experiencing.  As a 20-year old episode, it holds up quite well.  Without giving away too many spoilers (because if you haven’t seen the show yet you need to go do that…right now.  Go ahead, I’ll wait) there is a parasitic organism that has been transmitted to people/dog and is causing them to act strangely.  “We are not ourselves” we are told early on.  And that’s the point.  Mind controlling parasites!  This is classic science fiction and a well done piece of television history.

No, the microorganism in the episode isn’t an insect, nor is it an arthropod.  But it’s an invertebrate, so I’m counting it.

The “worms”, an unidentified parasite that causes all sorts of havoc. S1 E8: Ice

The Science of the Episode: For the most part it works.  Some cringe-y elements but not distractingly so.  There are examples of parasitic organisms influencing behavior in similar ways.  One example are parasitic flukes (Leucochloridium paradoxum) ingested by snails. Once the fluke enters the snail it alters the snails behavior, causing it to scoot to easily visible locations where its normally benign eyestalks begin to fluctuate.  This movement of the eyestalks makes the snail easily visible to birds.  The birds come along and eat the eyestalks and possibly the whole snail. (Zombie Snails on YouTube)

To be honest, Ice is one of my favorite episodes so far.  As the season progressed I came upon another buggy-related episode that I remembered being a favorite, and it still is.  I put this episode in my Top 5 for season one.  Mulder also gets some great one liner’s in this episode.

S1 E8: Ice The ‘worm’ they used for filming looks to be a mealworm. Mealworms are the larvae of members of the family Tenebrionidae, Darkling Beetles. At the very least the design is modeled after them.

Insects & Critter Fear Survey

Heyloo there everyone.  If you haven’t noticed, I know a bit about bugs.  I also happen to be an arachnophobe.  Yup.  I’m not the only one either; and am looking to get some insight into the minds of my fellow humans.  I’m curious about what it is about critters that makes us afraid or just uncomfortable.  So I created an impromptu survey in hopes of letting you all speak your minds.

The first link below is to the survey itself.  At the end of that are links to the photo surveys if you wish to add your impressions of those. The photo surveys are split in two because Survey Monkey only let’s me use 10 questions per survey.

Thanks for your help everyone!

Actual survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/W8KRHKB

Photo Survey p1: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/WKZX72L

Photo Survey p2: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/WKT6S5G

Problem with Bugs on your Tomatoes?

Looking over the search history on my blog it seems you have some questions!  One that I encountered was from someone worried about their tomatoes.  I love tomatoes so I am more than happy to assist.

The Question: “bugwitch, found these little black beetle-like bugs on my tomatoes. are they harmful to my tomatoes?”

Without a picture I can’t confirm, but my best guess based on my experience with my own tomatoes is you’re seeing Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs (BMSB) (Halyomorpha halys: Pentatomidae: Hemiptera) on them.  Though they are brown as adults (hence their name) the nymphs can be black to blackish-brown with other accent colors.  It really varies depending upon their nymphal stage (instar).  BMSB’s are a pest of increasing concern.  They have been found feeding on numerous types of fruits and vegetable crops such as apples, apricots, corn, grapes, nectarines and peaches, soybeans, and of course tomatoes, among others.  As agriculture is a hugely important element of our health of our economy as well as our citizens, keeping these critters under control is becoming a huge deal.

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug 4th Instar nymph Rutgers University

BMSB 1rst instar nymphs and eggs Recently emerged. UC Davis

Thankfully, the damage caused by their feeding doesn’t kill the plant or make the fruit unusable; but it does make it less visually appealing.  Pitting and scarring of the surface caused by their piercing/sucking mouthparts makes for a less attractive fruit.  Because most consumers want a pristine items from the store, these affected items are not usable for direct sale.  If it is a crop that can be turned into a secondary product this allows the farmer to recover some of their investment.  But, this means a decrease in expected annual income.  This isn’t a big deal for your small home garden, but when you have 40 acres of apples and can only recover half of your usual income due to pitted fruit, you’re not going to be a happy farmer.

BMSB’s on tomato

BMSB external damage to tomato.

BMSB damage to apple Mouthparts pierce through apple surface and damage tissues below making fruit unsellable.

These critters are also well known pests of homes.  With the changing season you’ll be sure to see them entering your home to find a nice space to hunker down for the winter.  Here in Ohio they will be coming inside within the next month or so (October-November).  However, you probably won’t see them in large numbers indoors until early Spring.  Some stragglers will likely come out in mid-Winter as you heat/cool your home.

There are currently no really effective chemical methods for control.  I meet people who are terrified to squish these critters. Why?  “They’re STINK bugs!  They’ll make everything smell horrible!”

No.  Yes, they do have a “stink” gland but the chemical produced isn’t necessarily horribly smelling to us, but it is irritating to potential predators.  The excreted chemical is quite similar to that which is produced in cilantro!  To some, this may smell bad; to others, it’s just ‘eh.’

Summary:

Probably BMSB’s

Not great for your tomatoes, will put little spots on it from their feeding, but you can eat them just fine.

Treatment?  Not many options. Squish. There are also a number of researchers working on them.  Maybe collect some and bring them to them.  If you’re worried about them getting into your home, be sure to seal up every crack and crevice you can.  Windows, screens, foundation, door jams, etc.

EPA Website

Ohio State Fact Sheet (Downloads)

Jack the Ripper Solved? Nope.

The other day I spent some of my morning playing around on the Book of Face when it seemed everyone was going bonkers.  Not only had the OSU Buckeyes lost but apparently someone figured out who Jack the Ripper was.  And they used SCIENCE to figure it out!  Wow!  Needless to say I was very excited. As a history nut and a science junkie I couldn’t wait to see how they did it.  And then I read the news about it and became sad.

“With the Vigilance Committee in the East End: A Suspicious Character” from The Illustrated London News, 13 October 1888 Wikipedia

I would like to start out stating that I am NOT a Ripperologist.  I didn’t even know that was a word until learning about it watching the show Whitechapel.  Why am I stating this right off the bat?  Because it seems part of the marketing campaign for this book has included an automatic jab at anyone who will dissent in its findings.  Claiming that Ripperologists will not accept the conclusions because they have a financial stake in the matter.  I’d wager that they are actually seeing a nice influx of income at the moment thanks to this book.  Regardless of their perspective on its conclusions.

The basics are this: DNA was found on a scarf which had belonged to Miss Eddowes, the 4th apparent victim of Jack the Ripper.  According to the news reports and this video, her DNA from blood and organ fluids was found as well as his DNA.  **I may have missed it but it seems to be implied that his DNA was recovered from semen stains?**  These were traced to modern descendents and relatives of the individuals to confirm not only the identity of Eddowes but also of a man named Aaron Kosminski.  Mr. Kosminski had been considered a suspect at the time but was not held or tried.  Many people were considered suspects at the time.  The presence of his DNA is touted as “proof” that he killed this woman, and therefore is Jack the Ripper.  I have a few thoughts about this…

Miss Eddowes, the 4th victim of Jack the Ripper http://www.casebook.org/victims/eddowes.html

They used Mitochondrial DNA for their work and this is great for molecular analysis.  It doesn’t change much over time (i.e. little genetic variation) which is why it’s been so useful for looking into our ancestral roots.  That’s great!  You can look at the mtDNA and figure out who is related to who.  .

But here’s where I would like to address a few concerns.  Let’s break down a few of my problems with what I’ve read about the matter thus far:

DNA degrades over time.  The DNA that would have been available for analysis was likely in poor shape.  Yes, there are methods of analyses which allow for testing of older and degraded samples, but it can increase the amount of error observed.  DNA from far older sources has been used to great effect in other fields such as archaeology, but this is always a point that never seems to be brought up.

It’s a big assumption that the presence of his alleged DNA on the scarf is only indicative that he came into contact with the scarf.  How do we know it occurred during the time of the killing?  Did they know each other?  Those who are more familiar with Ripper lore than I may know some answers to these questions.

Chain of custody issues aside, it’s difficult to make a solid determination and certainly not possible to “prove” that Aaron Kosminski murdered this woman.  We certainly cannot conclude that, even if he did murder Miss Eddowes, that he also murdered the other women as well.

Mr. Kosminski may have been admitted to a “string of lunatic asylums” but this is hardly evidence against him.  Admitting criteria were far different back then.  Someone with a trisomy disorder (Down Syndrome, etc) would have been held.

Granted, I have not read the actual book as it has yet to be released and many of my doubts and concerns may very well be addressed within its pages.  However, I do proceed with a large amount of skepticism.

Don’t get me wrong.  I find this fascinating and I look forward to checking the book out from the library when it is released.  This sort of thing really excites me and I just absolutely love it.  But, as I’ve learned over the years, by bringing science to the pop culture realm, we lose sight of some of the basic scientific principles we operate by.

 

The Black Death: Do Fleas Really Deserve All the Blame?

The Black Death was one of the most devastating events in history.   Originating from central Asia, it is believed to have traveled along the Silk Road until it reached the Crimea around the mid-1340’s.  From there it spread to become a pandemic in the truest sense of the word.  The Black Death was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 30-60% of the European population, and as many as 100 million deaths worldwide.   You all probably know this much already.  You also probably know that this was vectored via the Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) living on black rats that made their way on merchant ships in the Mediterranean initially and then ventured north.  The Oriental rat flea is a nasty bugger, vectoring not just the plague (Yersinia pestis) but also Rickettsia typhi, and tapeworms.  But what if we can scratch one of those off that list?

Oriental Rat Flea

Skeletons unearthed a year ago during a work on a new rail line in London are shedding new light on some of our well established ideas regarding our not-too-distant past.  The bones were believed to be from a cemetery of plague victims.  Molars were removed from the skeletons and DNA then extracted from the teeth.  The plague bacterium was found in several of the teeth, indicating these individuals were exposed to and most likely died from the Black Death.  These results are not unexpected, of course so researchers continued to “dig”.  Archaeologists, geologists, historians, physicists, and microbiologists worked to better understand the circumstances surrounding these individuals lives and deaths.

They were generally poor people showing clear signs of malnutrition, and a history of hard labor.  One may have even been a vegetarian later in their life, possibly indicating a shift to monastic life at some point.  Not completely surprising considering the land was at one time part of a monastery.  These plague victims didn’t come from the same time period either.  With radiocarbon dating indicated the graveyard was used multiple times between the earliest outbreaks (1348-1350) and later ones in 1361 and the early 15th century.  Archaeologists are planning on more digs as they estimate the total number of bodies may number anywhere in the “low thousands”.

Black death researchers extracted plague DNA from 14th century skulls found in east London. Photograph: Philip Toscano/PA

But that’s not the whole story, not by a long shot.  I may be an history buff but I’m also a buggy person right?  So why would I be blogging about this if there were not some new interesting entomological tidbits to be shared?  Because I’m bored, yeah….fascinated with dead things, yeah…but there is buggy stuff to share!  Traditionally the belief has been that the Black Death was spread via the Oriental rat flea, as stated earlier.  But evidence derived from those teeth suggest that this may not be the case; or at least not always the case.

When researchers compared the genome from the molar-derived bacterium with that of more recent plague victims they found the genome largely unchanged.  The recent outbreaks of the plague such as in Madagascar last year saw the majority of deaths from a pneumonic or pulmonary plague.  This new information suggests that the transmission of the plague was likely not just via the rat flea but also likely the pneumonic strain.  This is a more virulent strain of the bubonic plague.  Exposure to the plague from the rat-borne fleas is treated with antibiotics and has a higher survival rate than its cousin.  The pneumonic form, acquired via inhalation and human-human contact, is very highly fatal with death typically resulting within 24 hours of exposure if not treated.  The 60 deaths attributed to the pneumonic plague (84 deaths in total) were believed to be spread in part because of increasing political turmoil in the area resulting in poor hygiene and a decline in living conditions.

This mirrors much of what is believed to have happened during the Black Death.  Political and social instability, significant decreases in living conditions and healthcare availability created a perfect storm of underlying problems.  Perhaps the rat flea gets a bit of a reprieve.  Initial introduction via the rats is likely to have occurred with the more virulent strain of pneumonic plague taking over and doing the most damage.

Research continues and I look forward to hearing about it.

 

Deep Thoughts: By Bugwitch

There’s been a lot of talk tonight about the “debate” between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  Some attempt to be the placating middle man by saying both raised valid points and we should all just learn to get along.  Sorry, but the stated topic of the debate, “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?” has a very simple answer; at least in regard to how Ham views creationism.  Nye was very good about qualifying his statements by saying “Ken’s creation model” or similar because he knows that Ham doesn’t represent all creationists.  If you are one of those who thinks similarly to Ham, that humans and dinosaurs coexisted and the planet is only around 10,000 years old with all modern live springing from the 7000 “kinds” which were on the ark 4000 years ago then NO, your model does not fit with a modern scientific era.

Not all creationists believe the same as Ham.  There are even a select few out there who would accept evolution in the same manner as modern scientists only with the added notion that God gave it a push in the beginning and then everything took off from there.  I say select few because this is not the same thing as Intelligent Design.  ID lies somewhere closer to Ham’s notion, only with a little more leeway for actual science.  The acceptance of evolution and natural selection does not preclude one from believing in a deity.  It should preclude you from a fundamentalist interpretation of whatever belief system you have.  “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” are some pretty famous words spoken by a devout Catholic scientist.

I have absolutely NO problem with theology being taught in schools, public or private.  However they should be taught in the context of a theology class, not a science class.  Theology is a very fascinating field and happens to be one of my favorites.  But it does not belong in a science classroom.  Period.

Some parting thoughts regarding those who think like Ham I’ll put it simply for you: To believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old is to deny every branch of science. You must deny and reject all of the scientific understandings and advancements based on clear and objective observation, experimentation, and analysis. Therefore you can no longer accept the treatment recommendations made by your doctor; nor undergo surgery for any medical condition. All of these things are based on reasoning which you find invalid.