June 26, 2009

The Most Infectious Agent of All

Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn. ~ John Wesley

One fine day in Microbiology lab the students lined up to get their agar plates dosed with various infectious agents such as Staphylococcus areus, E. coli, etc.

An inoculation station was set up at one side of the room across one long table -- one swabber for each of the four types of bacteria to be cultured. A student would approach, agar plate in hand, and said Swabber would dip into the bacterial-laden broth and rub a bit on the appointed sector. The student would then step over to the next bacteria station and get swabbed with that particular bacteria and so on until all had been visited. This was repeated for six plates for each of about ten groups. So, that's an awful lot of swabbing.

Perhaps not so noticeable during all this swab, swab, swabbing was that another contagion was being spread as well. It didn't come from a culture of dangerous, flesh eating or gut rotting bacteria. It wasn't being sneezed out as a virus or anything like that. This contagion was being spread via a very innocuous manner not likely to alert the hapless host to its super virulent nature. Very simply put, one of the swabbers was making little gram-positive smiley faces on the agars. Now this may seem like a thing of very little significance, but not for those who were being systematically polluted by this act of enthusiasm. Upon receiving his or her plate back, each person showed immediate signs of having been infected as they were soon struck with strange fits of... ack!... smiling. Yes, the simple and effortless application of a smiley says: "hey, this if fun, this is interesting! Microbiology rocks!"

(It was supposed to be a smiley anyway)

The most infectious agent, it turns out, is enthusiasm. It can strike suddenly and with a virulence unmatched by any bacteria or virus. Enthusiasm is what makes teachers extraordinary and students successful.
The Greeks used the term to describe someone intoxicated by the divine inspiration of the gods. (yes, I looked it up!) Art, poetry, philosophy, all these things were the result of this divine possession. Of course, today it just indicates a devotion to or fascination of a particular topic or ideal. But I prefer the former meaning that presumes the enthusiastic person is in possession of some sort of "essence" that can move between individuals, if allowed, and is ever replenishable.

Now, sadly, some people seem to display immunity. Indeed, in any particular population, there will be a certain percentage of people who are immune to the effects of enthusiasm. They can't even be asymptomatic carriers. Not. One. Bit. We all know someone we suspect of having this condition, right? It's really too bad they can't know the happiness within brought about by, say, holding a really large model of a heart.

(Enthusiasm. Get infected today.)

Now, it's true that some people with an abundance of enthusiasm often get mislabelled (to put it kindly). It's the risk one takes when revealing any part of their true self. And it's a risk that, in my opinion, is always worth it in the end. After all, as Ralph Waldo Emerson knows, "nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm."

June 19, 2009

How to not make friends with Carpenter Bees

I was perfectly set up at my kitchen table: The laptop was hooked to a larger external monitor so I could see my virtual cadavers on the big screen. All my books, notes and paper were spread before me in a semi-circle. I'd been studying well into the morning by now. Leaning back in the chair, stretching and yawning, I looked out the open doors to the back deck and nearly fell over. It was swarming with bees.

Well, on a sunshiny spring day such as this, this seemed a great thing. The plum and apple trees were in full glorious bloom with their limbs now above the level of the deck giving me a distinct feeling of being in the treetops. The honeysuckle growing up the fence was sending it's fragrance over on the morning breeze. It all seemed so... spring-full!

But then I noticed these were no ordinary bumblebees. Nay, these bees, friendly as they may have seemed, were of the carpenter variety. And they were moving in.

Now, you may ask "are you sure it's a carpenter?" Well, it's a good question. They may not, afterall, be carrying their union card. And you may not catch them with a mouthful of sawdust. So let me point out some distinctive features of these fine craftsbugs.
Carpenter bees do look just like bumblebees in size and shape. But carpenters have a smooth, black, glossy abdomen whereas bumblebees have black abdomens covered in yellow hairs.

Below is a Bumblebee. It is soft and cuddly looking, right? Fuzzy, striped.

And here you have its crafty cousin. This bee has a smooth, hairless rear, and, more importantly, it's sawing its way through my deck!!!

Look at this one hanging on -- come on, you know it's cool!

So, the good news is, the males don't have stingers at all. The bad news is, only the females dig these holes, so they're the only ones you'll likely ever have to deal with. But, the other good news is, they rarely use their stinger. In fact, you can handle these if you're careful and so inclined to do so.

However, as much as some of us would like to keep these around as pollinators (and heck, just for company) they have the unfortunate habit of chewing through wood. So I set out to discourage this -- and poison-free as well. I've read that you can simply plug up the hole with some wood putty. But I found this didn't deter them for a second. They just started chewing right back through it, possibly rather annoyed that they came back after lunch break to find their new sugarshack had just been stuffed with crap.

Still not wanting to coat the place with poison, I experimented with different glues (some of which were probably poisonous to something, yeah). Nope. They just regarded it as a minor setback and went back to work excavating. In the end, I went out there with a heated glue gun and filled the holes. I was surprised at how much I had to pump in before it started overflowing. I was also surprised to see this did not stop one very determined bee from getting itself half-stuck in glue.

(R.I.P, pretty Bee)

So I stood there a while, right arm across my waist, left arm bent up and making a fist upon which I could prop my befuddled head. And I thunk it over.

And here, folks, is the result of all that thinkerating:

I started sticking some spare pegs into the holes. They were a perfect fit! Wood screw hole covers would have worked just fine but this is what I had on hand.

So, a bit of glue, in went the peg and voila! They can't get in now! I placed eight of these in this way and watched to see what the little ladies would do about it. Sure enough, they could not get back in. Now, twice they started new holes and those got pegged as well. Finally, I was sure they had given up. Until I saw this:

Now, you've got to admire that tenacity! Not wanting to let all that hard work go to waste, she is attempting to gain entrance to her gallery from the side. She'd have done it, too, if I hadn't run her off. Sorry, sister.

So there you have it. A short visit from some friends that I unfortunately had to turn away. I closed up their properties and posted tiny little "Condemned" signs on them. But I suspect the were very soon happily chewing through someone else's deck.

Check back again soon as I'll be telling all about this beautiful lady and the conversation we had about our children: