Archive for July, 2009

What’s the buzz?

by Toby J. Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

(Ed. note: it’s been raining constantly in Fort Collins this summer, and the resulting boom in the mosquito population has driven us to a certain degree of obsession with the topic. But it’s been very educational!)

Summertime brings many pleasures and a few irritants, including the buzzing of insects. While some may find the lower register drone of a bee quite relaxing, the higher pitched mosquito is nothing if not annoying.

According to one West African tale, Mosquito was known for saying foolish things. Mosquito’s constant silliness drove Iguana to distraction; so much so, that Iguana placed sticks in his ears to drown out Mosquito’s constant prattle. Unfortunately, the sticks made it impossible for Iguana to communicate with any of the other animals, which leads to a series of misunderstandings and tragedies.

The end result is that Owl neglects her duty of waking up the sun and the world is plunged into darkness until the other animals unravel the series of events that have lead up to their dilemma. From this point on, the animals refuse to speak with Mosquito; who, in his loneliness, persistently buzzes in the ear of Man asking if the rest of the animals are still mad at him.

Apparently, they are.

Actually, mosquitoes and many other insects produce the buzzing noise as a function of flight. Some insects flap their wings slowly, like the butterfly (8 to 12 beats per second), and make no perceptible sound. The mosquito, on the other hand, beats its wings very fast – averaging 450 to 600 beats per second creating the distinctive, high-pitched whine.

Of course when it comes to mosquitoes, if the buzz is bothersome, the bite is beastly — but why? For starters, only female mosquitoes bite; the males lack the proboscis, the long, thin, needle-like mouth part required to penetrate an animal’s skin and ingest blood. As this occurs, a small amount of mosquito saliva is injected into the bite. The saliva contains an anti-coagulant, to keep the blood flowing through the proboscis as the female feeds. Afterwards, the body’s immune system responds to the residual saliva by forming a welt, or wheal, while the itching sensation is caused by the break down of the proteins contained in the mosquito spit.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “If all of this is true,” and I assure you, it is, “then what do male mosquitoes eat?” The answer is simple, the same thing that feeds the females. Yup, all mosquitoes, male and female, survive solely on the sugars found in plant nectar.

So, what’s with the Dracula routine? Two things — first, I say Dracula because when it comes to blood suckers, I’m old school. No self respecting vampire should ever sparkle, under any circumstances — period.

Second, and more pertinent to this discussion, female mosquitoes require the proteins in blood to develop their eggs. A single, blood rich meal can facilitate the production of as many as 250 eggs.

In addition to blood protein, female mosquitoes also require something else to reproduce. (Well, something other than the male, but we’ll get back to him in a moment.) Standing water is a crucial element for the reproductive cycle. Female mosquitoes can lay their fertilized eggs in pretty shallow environments; a half-inch of water is all that is needed. Soon, the eggs hatch into squirming little larva, which go through a series of four molts until they reach the pupa stage. A hard case is formed around the young mosquito, until it emerges as a fully formed adult.

Removing, or treating, standing water is still one of the most effective ways to combat potential mosquito populations, especially in rainy seasons like we’ve experienced in Fort Collins this summer.

Of course, if you think our mosquitoes are bad you should consider the plight of the folks in Karmarno, Manitoba. Not only are they the mosquito capital of Canada, the name Karmarno literally translates to “mosquito” in the Ukrainian language; and in 1984 the town erected the world’s largest mosquito statue, with a wingspan of fifteen feet.

Closer to home, New Jersey is considered “Mosquito Central,” with over 60 species of mosquito found there. It was also along the East Coast that the word “mosquito” was introduced into the English language. Translating as “little fly” in both Spanish and Portuguese, mosquitoes were simply referred to as “gnats” in England before the word made its way back from the colonies.

Getting back to the male, it seems that in addition to the obvious role he plays in fertilizing the eggs, he must first romance the female. Remember that buzzing we discussed earlier? Scientists have recently discovered that it plays an important role in attracting a mate. Males produce a sound within the 600 hertz range, while females come in somewhere around 400 hertz. When mating, the happy couple will harmonize reaching into the range of 1,200 hertz.

This new discovery changes what many scientists once thought about mosquitoes, including that the females had no sense of hearing. It also leads us to believe that before they mate, mosquitoes may spend time whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears.

Ah, romance.

Science at home: Taste

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

Currently I’m facilitating a six-week program series for our early childhood visitors focused on our five senses. Whenever I think up an activity or experiment, I like to try it out myself before introducing it to my audience (because we all know what happened to David Blaine). This coming week, the early childhood class is studying taste, so I ran some of my program ideas past my colleague and cubical neighbor, Katie Bowell.

I planned on starting the lesson by having the kids observe their taste buds using hand-held mirrors. Katie suggested that I have the kids dye their tongues with food coloring first. The tongue will stain with the coloring, but the taste buds won’t, making them really visible on the tongue.

I had to ask: what color dye would work best? To find out before I did the activity with the kids (David Blaine, I’m not) we of course dyed our tongues. It was a Friday afternoon, and it seemed like a good time to give it a go. We thought blue might make for the greatest contrast and as you can see from the pictures, it definitely did.

Who's the supertaster in this picture?

Who's the supertaster in this picture?

Interestingly, some people have a higher concentration of taste buds on their tongues. These people are known as super tasters – and wouldn’t you know it, Katie is one! She definitely has more taste buds on her tongue than I do, as I saw firsthand after we dyed our tongues. Supertasters can enjoy even the blandest of meals because their high number of taste buds can discern more flavors than those of us with an average number of taste buds. On the flip side, some supertasters have real problems eating bitter foods, such as broccoli, dark chocolate, coffee and grapefruit, because they sense more of that flavor. (Of course, there are also non-tasters who have a lower than average number of taste buds. Those folks can eat anything!)

Some small children who are labeled “picky eaters” are actually supertasters who want to avoid bitter foods.  If you have one of those “picky eaters” in your family, you may want to try dying his or her tongue to determine if he or she is actually a supertaster.  A supertaster’s tongue, when dyed, will look extremely bumpy and dotted like a tiled floor. An average taster or non taster will have a tongue that looks polka-dotted.

There are health benefits and detriments for supertasters. Those bitter foods they avoid often contain compounds that protect against cancer. One study by Wayne State University reported a link between cancerous polyps and tasting ability: more cancerous polyps for supertasters. On the plus side, supertasters also tend to avoid fatty and sugary foods, which means fewer weight problems and less risk of cardiovascular disease.

Lucky for me, I’m clearly a non-taster, so I’m off to eat dark chocolate-covered broccoli with a side of coffee soaked grapefruit!

From the Archive: Stand up straight!

by Lesley Drayton, Curator, Local History Archive

The Fort Collins Local History Archive recently received a wonderful donation of scrapbooks from the Fort Collins chapter of Quota Club International, an organization founded in 1919 by and for professional women that is known for its service to “deaf, hard-of-hearing, and speech-impaired individuals and disadvantaged women and children.”

Quota Club International granted its 121st charter to Fort Collins, Colorado on June 12, 1940. The 16 charter members, referred to by the local newspaper as “the city’s leading business and professional women,” focused club efforts on promoting “girl’s service work, good citizenship, crime prevention, extending friendly relations, promoting world peace, and gaining recognition for the achievement of women.”

Fort Collins, Colorado Quota Club Charter Dinner

Fort Collins, Colorado Quota Club Charter Dinner

The group has since maintained thirteen scrapbooks spanning over 60 years that chronicle the members, events, and activities of the club. These fantastic scrapbooks provide a unique glimpse of life for women in Fort Collins over the last half-century. You can view the full finding aid for the collection here on the Fort Collins History Connection website.

One particularly charming entry in the 1940-1959 scrapbook details a posture contest for young ladies, sponsored in part by the Quota Club, which took place in the early 1940s. The contest was described as such:

Each girl had a silhouette picture made at the beginning of the contest. From the picture, she was able to tell what exercises and improvements she needed to attain a better posture. After several months of corrective work, another silhouette picture was made, and the winners were chosen from these.”

quota posture

Look at the way this young lady improved her posture from September 1941 to May 1942. Sure enough, she won the first prize of ten dollars that year.

Yesterday’s Tomorrows

by Toby J Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Rosie the Robot

Rosie the Robot

The future isn’t what it used to be. With all of the recent nostalgia for the moon landing, I’ve been looking at some of the images of the future as seen from the 1960’s and earlier. When doing so, it is often easier to see what they got wrong, than what has come to fruition. After all, it is plain to see that we do not have robot maids, like the Jetson’s Rosie, picking up after us and taking care of our daily chores. On the other hand, some of us may have robots designed to vacuum our floors, while other automatons toil away at washing and drying our dishes and clothing.

I have devices that will answer my phone and take a message when I can’t be reached or, more likely, bothered. Heck, I even have a machine that will watch television for me when I’m otherwise occupied; allowing me to finally show those network executives who’s the boss. So yes, there are many modern conveniences that do plenty of work for me while I rarely have to lift more than a finger to program their various functions. Do I have a mechanical butler?  No; but do I really need one?

What about some of those other promises of the future? Super computers are common place. An average laptop has many times the processing power than the room full of computers used to make the first moon landing possible.

My first home computer could save and load programs from a cassette tape recorder, the same one I used to tape songs off the radio. Each side of the tape could hold 6 or 7 songs.

Twenty five years later, a single device, smaller than one of those cassette tapes, stores hundreds of songs, captures video and photographs, can tell me where I am on the planet, can connect to the internet, has a calculator and chronograph; and, believe it or not, can also be used to make telephone calls.

Working together, home computers lend their processing power to large scale projects such as SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Even our toys are getting into the act with game consoles like the Playstation 3 linking over the net to create what may be one of the most powerful computers on the planet. This system isn’t just for playing games; it’s actually seeking cures for many diseases by participating in Stanford University’s Folding at Home project.

In the project, proteins which carry out important functions in the body are examined. Before the proteins can do their job, they must first assemble themselves in a process known as folding. When proteins do not fold correctly, or misfold, there can be serious consequences, including diseases such as Alzheimer’s, “mad cow,” Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and many cancers and cancer-related syndromes. You should consider lending your game console or computer to the project the next time you’re done blasting mutants and zombies, or reading a blog.

The best visions of the future often showed an understanding of science mixed with insight and imagination. Jules Verne accurately predicted deep sea submarines powered by atomic energy, as well as men landing on the moon. In his writings, he described the ships in which we would travel into space as trains whose compartments would fall away as their fuel was spent – a fair description of a multi-staged rocket.

Flash Gordon style ray guns find their analog in beam weapons being developed for military application. Remote controlled craft and planes, designed to keep soldiers safe, reflect predictions and work done by scientific luminaries such as Nikola Tesla. Whether it’s a Phaser or a Taser, both can be set to stun.

While computers, zap guns, and robots may not be exactly the way they were imagined years ago, they are none the less a part of our daily world.

Now, where’s my flying car?

Hail, hail

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

It hailed Monday night. I know this because I awoke to find my marigolds mangled and the hood of my car looking like the craters of the moon (speaking of the moon, be sure to come see our new temporary exhibit, To the Moon and Back, starting July 25th!). Growing up on the East Coast means that I’m unfamiliar with this painful variety of weather, so I did a little research. Wouldn’t you know it, the information I found was an intriguing blend of science and history. Hmm, where have we seen that before…?

First, some science:

Hail occurs when strong winds inside thunderclouds create temperatures low enough to freeze would-be raindrops into ice pellets. The interior winds move the pellets through the cloud, propelling them through warmer, wetter regions and then back into colder areas. Each time a pellet makes that cycle, a new layer of ice is added. This makes the interior profile of a hail stone look a lot like an onion. Eventually the pellets get so big that the wind can’t hold them and they drop to the ground and ding up your car (I’m not bitter, honest…). While hail storms generally last an average of 6 minutes, they still do considerable damage: $1 billion in damage to crops and property each year.

Second, some history:

Here in Fort Collins, we’re in the middle of “Hail Alley,” a 625 square-mile area near where the borders of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming intersect. Hail Alley gets 9-11 hailstorms per year, more than any other area in North America, in part because of our proximity to the mountains, which encourage those nasty updrafts that freeze the raindrops into ice.

Fort Collins’ worst hailstorm happened July 30th, 1979. That day, 4 ½” diameter hailstones (grapefruit-sized) fell for over 20 minutes and damaged over 2,000 homes and injured at least 25 people. One CSU atmospheric researcher estimated that some of the hailstones may have been traveling at as fast as 100mph that day. That would definitely be fast enough to split open a person’s arm to the bone and then break that bone in two places, which is exactly what happened to one 84 year old woman. While most of the other injuries that day were minor, one 3 month old baby was hit in the head and didn’t recover, becoming only the second person recorded in the United States to die as a direct result of hail.

Two photos from that historic hail storm, courtesy of the Local History Archive:

Richard Agnew and the rear window of his car from July 31, 1979 Coloradoan

Richard Agnew and the rear window of his car from July 31, 1979 Coloradoan

Grapefruit-sized hailstones that fell near 2700 Trenton Way from July 31, 1979 Coloradoan

Grapefruit-sized hailstones that fell near 2700 Trenton Way from July 31, 1979 Coloradoan

Third, some bizarre:

Along with safety concerns, hail is also an agricultural worry in Colorado because hailstones do so much damage to crops (have I mentioned what happened to my marigolds?). Enter the hail cannons! These machines claim to be shockwave generators that disrupt the formation of hailstones as they’re growing inside clouds. In southern Colorado, disputes between farmers and their less clamor-inclined neighbors have erupted (pun intended) over the noise the cannons create. Additionally, there’s also little proof that the machines are anything other than very loud lawn art, and most atmospheric scientists don’t recommend them.

So, put away your hail cannon and be prepared for more hailstorms – they’re just going to keep coming. And if you happen to think you’ve found the world’s largest hailstone, remember to send it to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. If you have, they’ll authenticate it and preserve it indefinitely.

More in the news about the Monday night hailstorm:

Pounding storm includes intense rain, hail, floods

Hail devastates Weld County farm

Science at home: Mosquito patrol

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Although we seem to finally have broken into the hot days of the season here in Fort Collins, it’s been a wet summer. While there are plenty of upsides to our seemingly daily rains, the downpour has also brought with it a population boom of those pesky sanguinivores: mosquitoes.

So, why all the mosquitoes? All the rain we’ve had has created more breeding grounds for mosquitoes – any area of standing water can quickly become a mosquito nursery. As the summer continues and we (presumably) dry out more, the mosquito population will decrease. Until then, however, understanding how to stay bite-free (or at least bite-less frequently) means understanding the mosquito’s ecoystem and what makes them happy — and then using that information to your advantage:

Get rid of that standing water!

Mosquitoes lay eggs in stagnant water and they only need half an inch of it. You’d be surprised at the number of places water can collect: cans, tires, flowerpots, toys, and yard equipment are all fair game for breeding grounds. Find the standing water in your habitat and use it to water your flowers instead of growing more mosquitoes.

Trim your bushes

Mosquitoes like moist, shady places to hide during the day and the bottoms of bushes are some of their favorites. Raise the bushes a foot off the ground and you evict the mosquitoes.

Wean yourself off the sprinkler

The wetter your lawn, the more mosquitoes you’ll get. Here in Fort Collins (which is a semi-arid desert climate, so we shouldn’t be trying to have all those green lawns anyway), up to a week between watering will keep the little buzzers at bay.

Grow anti-mosquito plants

Cinnamon, thyme, rosemary, cedar, peppermint, clove, geranium, and marigold are all volatile oil-filled plants that mosquitoes will happily avoid. The more smelly (in a good way) plants you have, the less bite-y mosquitoes.

Stop exercising outdoors at night

Mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide, lactic acid, sweat, and used socks, all of which are present when you exercise (at least they should be – you non-sock wearing people know who you are). While it might be nicer to jog in the evening when it’s cool, know that if you do, you’ll have a winged entourage.

Stop coating your body in stinky cheese

Studies have shown that one of the few scents that actually attract mosquitoes is Limburger cheese. Hmmm, this may put a damper on my deli-inspired perfume line …

And, finally …

Does it seem like nothing in human power can stop the mosquito? This will really make you wonder:

Mosquito Survives In Outer Space

From the Archive: Remembering the first moon landing

by Angeline Allen, Research Assistant, Local History Archive

Celebrating the first landing on the Moon, July 20th, 1969, Fort Collins style.

(Don’t forget to share your moon landing memories.)






July 2009

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