Random Nature Questions from a Non-naturalist

by Audrey Clark

My stepbrother lounged in front of the television watching a reality TV show about mining in Alaska.  I sat on the couch, facing away from the television, drinking tea and reading a book on visionary scientists.

After a while, I started to wonder what my stepbrother wondered about.

“Caleb?”

“Yeah.”

“What questions do you have about nature?”

Silence.

Then, in an outpouring I wouldn’t expect from a non-naturalist, let alone one who was watching TV:

“Can plants feel pain?  How does a woodpecker not get a concussion?  How do you tell how old a tree is without cutting it down?  How long does it take ants to build an ant hill?  Where does honey come from?  Like what part of the bee?  What’s the best way to survive a bear attack?  Can animals get sick from drinking bad water like we can?  Why do monkeys have better immune systems?”

In honor of my stepbrother, here are my best attempts at answering these questions:

Can plants feel pain?

We feel pain because we have nerves that send pain signals to our brains.  Plants do not have nervous systems, so I do not think they can feel pain.

(When my partner read this, he said, “That’s a lame answer!  There are all kinds of studies that have found that when you cut off a leaf, the plant has some kind of electrical reaction.”  My response is that an electrical reaction is not evidence that plants feel anything, nor is it evidence that it hurts.  It may well be part of a chemical response.  In animals, pain is a signal that something is wrong so we can do something about it.  Plants do react to injury by walling off the site so that the damage doesn’t spread.  It is indeed a possibility that plants feel pain.  I just don’t know of any concrete evidence for it.)

How does a woodpecker not get a concussion?

A woodpecker’s tongue wraps around its skull and cushions its brain.  It has a really long tongue.

How do you tell how old a tree is without cutting it down?

There are two ways to do this that I know of.  One is to drill a hole into the tree, take out a core, and count the rings.  The other is to estimate the approximate age of a tree based on its size.  For this you would have to cut down or core a lot of trees of the same species and find the relationship between the diameter of the tree and its age.  You could then extrapolate to living trees.  Coring is obviously much more accurate.

How long does it take ants to build an ant hill?

It depends on the species, whether or not they build hills, the size of the colony, what material is available to them, and what you call a hill.  Ants build hills not to have a hill, but because they are moving the sand grains out from their underground chambers and tunnels.  The hill is just a garbage heap.  Some ants build hills of grass seed husks because they have stored or eaten the seeds and are getting rid of the trash.  The shape and size of the hill is largely dependent on the whim of the individual ants or that of the colony.  I’ve watched harvester ants take out their trash and it seems arbitrary how far each ant carries it from the entrance hole.

The research colonies at UVM all do different things with their trash.  These colonies are in clear plastic boxes so you can watch them at work.  Even within species and in identical environments, ant landfills vary.  Some colonies establish a midden, or trash heap, far from their food store.  Some put it next to their water dish.  Some have tightly piled middens.  Some scatter the bits.

Where does honey come from?  Like what part of the bee?

Honey is bee vomit.  Yes it is.  Honey bees eat nectar from flowers and store it in a sac in their throat where it is mixed with enzymes.  Upon returning to the hive, each forager bee vomits the altered nectar into a hexagonal cell in the honey comb where the enzymes do further work on the nectar.  By the time we harvest it, it’s honey.

But what do bees use honey for?  To keep warm in the winter.  Come cold weather, bees eat honey, swarm together inside the hive, and vibrate their wing muscles to generate heat.  Beekeepers must leave enough honey in the hive each year for their bees to make it through the winter.

What’s the best way to survive a bear attack?

I defer to the National Park Service to explain this, for liability reasons.

Can animals get sick from drinking bad water like we can?

I’m sure they can.  But I expect most wild animals have much hardier digestive systems than us.

Why do monkeys have better immune systems?

I had no idea they did.  Maybe they build up immunity by drinking bad water all the time.

And that, folks, is proof that a computer programmer living in downtown Tokyo thinks about nature, too.

  • Toby Lattimore

    August 18th, 2012

    I was interested to read your section on Bees and Honey above and would like to add the fact that bees pass their chewed food to each other, around the hive and so the process of “vomiting” as you called it is a much larger deal in the colony. Part of the reason why they pass their food about is because it holds a chemical which the queen excretes and prevents the hive from swarming. Once this chemical is too thinly spread then the inhibitors on queen production are lifted and a new queen is allowed to grown which can ultimately trigger a swarm. Find out more about Honey Bees here.

  • Vanessa

    July 12th, 2012

    my brother and co-workers found a ant hill 6ft wide and 4ft high.Any idea how long that would have taken the ants to build.

  • No trackbacks yet