Nice photos from MSN

Alert reader Steve called my attention to a “must-see photos” section of the MSN website. Well, not all of them are must-see, but a few are nice and related to biology or astronomy (click to enlarge):

First, is this “alstruism”? The stinging worker bee (a female, as all workers are) is going to die, for she’s just lost her internal organs in defense of the nest.  But it’s not genuine altruism, for by sacrificing her life, she’s perpetuating her genes, shared by her mother who will produce hundreds more sisters that carrying this same gene for defense.  Thus the loss of life accrues a genetic gain. This evolved by kin selection, not group selection!

I suspect the photograph was wrong as I recall having seen similar pictures elsewhere. Still, it’s a nice photo, and demonstrates very well how natural selection can cause one to commit suicide for the greater good of one’s genes.


July, 3, 2012: Photographer Colleen Pinski recently released this amazing image of the solar eclipse on May 20 in Albuquerque. She traveled 370 miles in a day to find the right spot and snapped this picture from 1.5 miles away. The guy walked into her frame at the perfect moment. (© Colleen Pinski/Caters News)

July 2, 2012: Just in time for the film premiere on July 3. The Mwanza Flat Headed Agama lizard bears a striking resemblance to Spider-Man and even captures his crouching pose perfectly, albeit in Kenya rather than the Big Apple. (Let’s not tell him Lizard is the villain in the latest flick.) (© Cassio Lopes/Caters News)

June 28, 2012: The ‘pig whisperer’ hypnotizes a piglet in Duelmen, Germany. Dutch veterinarian Kees Scheepens, who earned the nickname for his uncanny ability to communicate with swine, advocates for smaller-scale pig farms. ‘Let pigs be pigs,’ he says. (© Friso Gentsch/dpa/Corbis)

July 4, 2012: Disco anyone? Praying mantis in Indonesia perches in front of spiderweb covered in dew illuminated by the moonlight. (© /Caters News)

June 27, 2012: Alien-like, night-shining clouds hover over the Tibetan Plateau, as seen from the International Space Station. Meteor dust & rocket exhaust are thought to contribute to these unusual ‘noctilucent clouds.’ (Courtesy of


  1. Posted July 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Poor bee!

  2. Posted July 5, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    From what I understand, the fact that a honeybee stinging a human dies in the process is an unfortunate accident of the fact that the skin of a human is too tough, and the sting of the honeybee too large and barbed, for it to be removable from the skin again. With most other animals in its range this does not happen. So suggesting that this is the result of an evolutionary process may not be accurate. I could well be wrong, so please do not quote me without research.

    • DJ
      Posted July 5, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

      Yes, but we ‘are’ animals in her environment. She perceives us as a threat and responds in this kin selective manner. Jerry’s reasoning is intact.

    • RF
      Posted July 5, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

      I was wondering about that. Surely there would be evolutionary pressure to develop the ability to sting without dying? And if the bee’s going to die anyway, why bother flying off?

      “Yes, but we ‘are’ animals in her environment. She perceives us as a threat and responds in this kin selective manner. Jerry’s reasoning is intact.”
      Even if it’s still kin selection, Jerry’s description is inaccurate (assuming what donotwash says is true).

      • Marella
        Posted July 5, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

        Bees evolved from wasps, so their ancestors stung without dying and they then developed the suicide stinging technique later, someone needs to sort this out!

        • Posted July 6, 2012 at 1:04 am | Permalink

          It needn’t be direct. Could result from skimping on stinger-construction due to changed priorities. Or stinging human or tougher skin just isn’t common enough to matter in the long run.

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted July 6, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

            Honeybees have evolved their present morphology and behaviour in the presence of thicker-skinned honey-thieves than humans, some of which are really badass. And also hornets that prey on bee brood, and bite worker bee heads off like the Doug and Dinsdale’s mate Kierkegaard with whippets.
            If your head has been bitten off already, a barb on the stinger and self-pumping venom gland are highly adaptive.

    • DV
      Posted July 7, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      The advantage of stinging is too large compared to the disadvantage of dying. So what if the worker bee dies. Her death does not prevent the passing of genes to the next generation anyway. She’s disposable. Like a lizard’s tail that the lizard would rather be cut off than for the reproductive lizard to die.

  3. MadScientist
    Posted July 5, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Noctilucent clouds are a natural phenomenon that predate the modern rocket. Maybe some can be caused by rockets; after all rockets burn an awful lot of fuel so even though they’re typically traveling >5km/s at the altitude of the clouds maybe they leave enough of a contrail.

  4. Prof.Pedant
    Posted July 5, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    “for by sacrificing her life, she’s perpetuating her genes, shared by her mother who will produce hundreds more sisters that carrying this same gene for defense. Thus the loss of life accrues a genetic gain.”

    Sacrificing her life is not what perpetuates her genes. That is done by her mother producing more of her sisters. There is no gain from the loss of this honeybee’s life (other than a cool picture), the self-sacrifice may prevent the loss of her mother and/or her sisters, but the prevention of a loss is not the same thing as a gain.

  5. Marella
    Posted July 5, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    What I don’t understand is why having your guts ripped out while stinging foes is a better way of doing things for a bee. Wasps don’t do it and everyone is still terrified of them, why did bees go this way?

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 5, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

      It was an accident, and obviously not one which puts bees at a severe enough reproductive disadvantage to have driven them extinct.

    • Thanny
      Posted July 6, 2012 at 1:17 am | Permalink

      After the bee flies off, sans some entrails, the venom sac continues to pump through the embedded stinger. This makes the honey bee more effective at delivering the chemical weapon than species with barbless stingers, such as most wasps and other bees.

      The question is, what’s the relevant difference between a honey bee and other bees or wasps, which would lead to the evolution of a sacrificial sting? I think the answer is in the name – honey. Bees create large quantities of a nutritious substance that a great many animals are going to find enticing. As those animals become more and more resistant to the stings of defending bees, bees have to become more and more potent in their attempt to deter the honey thieves.

      Apparently one of the better routes to that end involves employing a barbed stinger that continues injecting venom after the attacking bee has departed (willingly or otherwise).

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted July 6, 2012 at 3:41 am | Permalink

        Honey is clearly an attractive prize for a would be predator but so are wasp and bee grubs, with plenty of predators availing theselves when they get the chance, so I don’t think this is the explantation for why honey bees have a sacrificial sting and other hymenopterans do not. Anyone who has been attacked by the occupants of a wasp nest will know their non-sacrificial sting is still an extremely effective defence.

        • Marella
          Posted July 6, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

          Indeed, and because they don’t leave their stingers behind wasps can sting repeatedly. Anyone who’s had a wasp sting knows they aren’t less painful than bee stings. Bees are generally less aggressive than wasps too.

          The only thing I can think of is some kind of cost trade off where bees put fewer resources into their venom (less of it and cheaper to make) and then suicide to make the most of what they have, but only if absolutely necessary. We need to find out how much venom each type of animal generally carries, and how painful each of them is per unit volume. I’m definitely not volunteering for this study!

        • Thanny
          Posted July 13, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

          There are also fewer wasps in a given nest. That would probably put some pressure on having a reusable sting.

  6. MadScientist
    Posted July 5, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    Oh – as for the photo of the swine soothsayer, anyone who’s willing to try can use his same techniques to get a piggy on its back like that. He doesn’t have any ‘special powers’ other than having spent time with pigs and learned a bit about their behavior. Years ago while out in the bush one of the guys I was hiking with wanted to show off so he got a wild boar to lie on its back and beg for a tummy rub. I don’t recommend that anyone try that with wild animals (stick to piglets like the guy in the picture). I told my companion he can have the job of hunting if we run out of food since it looks like his bacon handling skills trump my trapping skills.

  7. RF
    Posted July 5, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Do evolutionists have a precise definition of “altruism”? Is expending resources attempting to mate “altruism”? What about nursing young? Is selling bread a form of altruism?

  8. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    I’m impressed that Colleen Pinski managed to photograph the solar eclipse from only a mile and a half away! Under the circumstances it seems she did not have to travel all that far in order to do so!

  9. IW
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    If we magnified the picture of the bee greatly, would we see Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the sting?

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted July 7, 2012 at 2:39 am | Permalink

      Only if we’re David Peters or Chonosuke Okamura.

  10. jose
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    If by saving your eight sons you kill yourself, you are being altruistic. You are confusing the method by which something evolves and the outcome of this method when it’s put in practice.

    In short, altruism can evolve through kin selection.

    Altruism is an organism-level behavior; kin selection is a gene-level mechanic. Different levels. You’re saying the equivalent of the following: “is this person combing her hair right now? No! It’s just atoms moving around by electromagnetic forces.”

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