Scientific Social


No, Bees Aren’t Going Extinct

Image result for Hylaeus anthracinus

One species of yellow-faced bee – Hylaeus anthracinus Source:

By Steve Booty

If you’ve been on social media lately, you have probably noticed a steady stream of stories about how bee populations are diminishing at alarming rates and how it’s all Monsanto’s (or any other boogeyman’s) fault. All this, even though the number of bee producing colonies are at a 20 year high. I usually ignore these stories until I came across a story on NPR’s website with the surprisingly click baity title of Bees Added To U.S. Endangered Species List For 1st Time.

My first thought was ‘well, there’s no way THAT’S true.’ So I actually read the article (crazy, I know but pleaseImage result for technically true statements, try this at home) and found that, while annoying, the headline is technically true (which is the best kind of true!). Firstly, bees are NOT on the endangered species list because ‘bees’ aren’t a single species but rather the colloquial name given for about 4,000 different species in North America alone. The word ‘bees’ in the title refers to specific species of bee. However, I doubt the average person actually took the time to read it. Rather, most opt for the “See? I told you so! It was all <insert preferred boogeyman here>’s fault!>.”

It turns out that a total of seven bee species, native to Hawaii, have been given protection under the Endangered Species Act. This is seven species out of the state’s 63 known different species of bee. Islands in general tend to be nichy so even slight changes in environment (by any metric) can have drastic effects. The NPR article also mentions that “11 new native species have been found in the past 15 years.” In other words: it’s not ALL bees (#NotAllBees), just seven out of the 63 on one island chain alone; and, it could be a largely natural (though, not without human influence) process of better adapted species taking over niches of poorly adapted species.

Now, I don’t want to diminish the facts here – any species being pushed to the verge of extinction is (probably) a bad thing, but one has to look at the context. Ask yourself some questions before you come to a conclusion:

  • Does this headline fit the story?
  • How many species of bee are now endangered?
  • Is that a lot?
  • Why is that happening?

There is click bait out there. Remember to be skeptical of headlines until you read the article.

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How Does Concrete Work and Why Is It Different From Pasta?

Wet concrete is spread it out and once it dries it can support large amounts weight. Pasta, too, starts out wet, later drying to form the noodles we can build bridges with (or eat)!

But when you get pasta wet, it gets weak and loses form while concrete does not.

Why do that behave differently? Don’t they both dry out after setting?

Henry from MinutePhysics explains!

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Honey is Better For You Than Other Sweeteners… Right? Well, Not So Fast.

Nutrition research is complicated. One study doesn’t overturn all previous studies. Most studies concerning nutrition have small sample sizes so their conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.

That isn’t to say that making scientific statements about nutrition is impossible! It’s just that grandiose, click-baity headlines like “Honey is Better for You Than Other Sweeteners” (pot, meet kettle?) are probably misrepresenting or overstating the actual findings of the research and don’t consider how robust (large enough sample size, proper and meaningful statistics, etc.) the study is.

Aaron Carroll explains the pitfalls and difficulties of nutritional research in the above video!

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You Probably Don’t Need to be On a Gluten-Free Diet

Gluten has been a hot topic lately. But what is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein that is found in grain products such as wheat, barely and rye. Approximately one percent of Americans suffer from Celiac disease, a condition in which gluten triggers an allergic reaction in the small intestine, interfering with the absorption of food. This is a serious disease which can, if left untreated, lead to serious illness and even death. It’s a good thing it’s relatively easy to treat, especially now that gluten-free diets are the new fad.

Though, as the title suggests, most (non-Celiac) people don’t need to be on a gluten-free diet; even those who claim to have a “gluten sensitivity.” Those people are most likely responding negatively to FODMAPS, rather than gluten. Diets low in FODMAPS have been shown to help treat the symptoms of irritable bowl syndrome, which may be confused with symptoms of Celiac disease.

Doctor Aaron Carroll explains!

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Why Are Honeybees Dying?

There isn’t a simple, one word answer to this question.  As the video explains, there are several factors negatively affecting bee populations.

However, not among those factors is electromagnetic radiation (EM) from cell phones as there has been no established link between Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and EM radiation.  Another notable absence is genetically modified crops (a.k.a., GMOs).  A meta-analysis (basically, a study of studies) of 25 different studies that looked at how GM crops affect honey bees was unable to find “any direct negative effects.”

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Solar Freakin’ Roadways: The Future of Travel Surfaces or Titanic Waste of Money?

You have probably noticed this video making its rounds on social media.  In the video you are introduced to the Julie and Scott Brusaw, the creators of Solar Roadways. It goes through how beneficial they could be for the economy and the environment and is a very entertaining video to boot. When I first watched this video, I was all about this idea. How cool would it be to jump start the economy with a huge infrastructure project like this?!

However, as Dave from EEVblog and Thunderf00t explain, many of the claims in the Solar Freakin’ Roadways video are unsubstantiated, untested, or even implausible.  For example, Scott Brusaw claims we will run out of asphalt in 50 years because it comes from fossil fuels.  Except asphalt is the most reused material with over 99% of removed asphalt getting reused.

The Brusaw’s have not produced any stop tests on this surface with vehicles traveling at real-world speeds and conditions. How will wet conditions affect the stopping distance on these solar roadways?  No one knows because no one has performed real-world tests.

Roads are dirty. There’s no avoiding that.  But what is going to happen to the glass surface when relatively hard dirt (usually small quartz grains) is driven on top of over and over again? It’s going to scratch the glass, making it less transparent (therefore allowing less light through, lowering the efficiency of the solar panels), wearing away the textured surface.  Check out the pictures of their proposed that surface:

Solar Roadway Surface

Solar Roadway Surface

It looks knobby, almost like bubble wrap.  Imagine what driving over that at 50 miles per hour would sound like!  It would be loud – kind of like driving in a Jeep Wrangler with knobby tires or driving in the rumble strip of a highway.  The sound alone, I think, is enough to keep this idea on the drawing board.

Thick glass will lower the solar panel output and make the LEDs really hard to see in broad daylight, especially when you consider the low angle at which they’ll be viewed.  Speaking of angles, a solar roadway would be lying flat on the ground, not facing toward the sun. This lowers the efficiency of the panels by up to 18%.

According to one calculation, the cost for replacing all of the roads in the lower 48 states would be $56 trillion, that’s over 3 times the United States’ GDP.

A different company, SolaRoad, has installed a 230-foot prototype solar pathway in the Netherlands. This solar pathway was featured in numerous mainstream media sources, including Popular Mechanics.  It has been active for six months and the data are in: it produced more energy than originally thought! But wait… what does that mean, exactly?

As EEVblog’s video explains, not that much.  As it turns out the pathway did not produce any more electricity than a similarly sized rooftop solar array. In fact, a rooftop solar array would have TWICE the output per area of a solar pathway at a fraction of the cost and inconvenience.

So what should we be putting our time and resources toward?

The short answer: above us, not below us.  There are many advantages to putting solar panels on top of parking lots like some stadiums and colleges are doing.  South Korea put solar panels above a bike lane that is located in the median of a major highway as shown below:

Korean Solar Highway

Korean Solar Highway

The Bottom Line

Putting solar panels under the road makes no sense at all and will never be more efficient than putting panels on a roof.  There are just too many disadvantages – both physical and financial – in building roadways (or bike paths) out of solar panels. Back to the drawing board with this one.

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Coffee: Is it Good For You or Bad For You??

It seems like every other week there’s a new study that says coffee is good for us, but then another study comes out that says it’s bad for us.  So which is it?

Well, it turns out the media doesn’t always tell us the whole story (who knew!).  Drinking coffee (in reasonable amounts) is actually good for you!  But what about the studies that say it’s bad for you?

Doctor Aaron Carol explains the evidence.

To The Research!

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What Should You Be Eating?

Dr. Aaron Carroll does a lot of debunking of medical myths over on Healthcare Triage, fad diets being among them. In this video he explains what you should be eating, or more accurately, what he eats and why you should too! The aim of this advice is to make you more conscience of what you eat and how you eat it. Don’t try to demonize a particular food group as the evidence for doing so is often controversial at best.

This advice won’t work for everyone, however.  If you have certain conditions that limit the foods available to you, follow those restrictions.

Everyone is different. Listen to your bodies. You should experiment and find what works for you!

Here is a handy infographic his team produced!

Graphic summarizing Aaron's recommended diet for healthy people

Graphic summarizing Aaron’s recommended diet for healthy people.

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How to Reduce Your Electric Bill This Summer by Properly Using Fans

With scorching summer-time temperatures and humidity just around the corner, many of us in the northern hemisphere will start to crank up our air conditioning units (if we haven’t already).  But before you close all the windows and place your thermostat in the ‘cool’ position (or put the AC unit in your window which can end up using less energy), please consider the following for your wallet’s, if not the environment’s sake.

There is no doubt that turning on the air conditioning will both lower the temperature and humidity of your living space, creating a more comfortable room. But is it always the best option? Well, sometimes. Turning on the AC during the worst of the heat waves it is unavoidable, however most summer nights offer temperatures that are quite mild and a fan could be a wiser choice (full disclosure: We live in the Northeastern United States, your mileage will vary).  Now, don’t just turn on any fan in the house willy-nilly.  Not all fans are created for the same purpose, and, sadly, a lot of people are unaware of the differences.

Ceiling Fans

Ceiling fans can be used efficiently in not only the cooling season, but the heating season as well!  Most ceiling fans have a switch on them that changes the direction in which the blades spin.  During the heating season, they should spin so the air circulation is heading up toward the ceiling and down the walls . During the cooling season, they should spin such that air is blown straight down to the living space.

ceilingfan Winter-summer

Diagram showing the direction ceiling fans should blow in winter and summer. Image credit: HVACbestgroup

However, I should make something abundantly clear: ceiling fans do NOT cool or heat your home, they only blow air around.  In the winter, they blow the warmer air that collects at the top of rooms (hot air rises, remember), and in the summer they help facilitate evaporative cooling, making the air feel cooler than it really is.  Leaving ceiling fans running while you aren’t in the room doesn’t do much good, unless the thermostat is in that room.  Speaking of thermostats, be sure to raise the temperature (or lower in the heating season) while using ceiling fans to achieve energy savings by keeping the air less stratified.

Whole House Fans

Diagram showing how a whole house fan works. From

Diagram showing how a whole house fan works.

Sometimes called attic fans, these are typically large (24 to 30 inch) diameter fans that are mounted in the ceiling of the top floor of a house.  They work by pulling the hot air from the top floor and blowing it out through the attic vents, allowing cooler night air from the outside to enter through open windows and doors.  Doing this consumes 90% less energy on average than air conditioning.  Before using, be sure the outside temperature is comparable to what you would have set the thermostat to, and that you’ve opened windows in all rooms that you want cooled (air won’t flow if there is not a complete circuit).

Standalone Fans

Example of an air circulator fan. Image credit: Lasko Products, Inc.

Example of an air circulator fan.
Image credit: Lasko Products, Inc.

These do the same basic job as ceiling fans – they blow air around, making it feel cooler than it really is, but do not affect temperature. One advantage they have over ceiling fans is their ability to be more precisely aimed (directly at your face, for example).

Now, this fan advice is entirely dependent on where you live – it won’t likely do you much good if you live in Florida, but will if you live in the Northeastern US, coastal area, or any place where the night time temperature is low enough to warrant inviting it into your home. The best way to find out if a well-placed fan will help you is to try it out yourself! Experiment by using a fan to cool your room during different temperatures. This will give you an idea of when is a good night to use a fan and when to turn on the AC.

Window Fans

Example of a window fan.     Image credit:

Example of a window fan.
Image credit:

I love these things (some of you may not). Last year, I used a window fan to cool my room for the entire summer, save about 3 weeks where the humidity and heat were just unbearable at night.  These actually DO change the indoor temperature by pulling in cooler air (just make sure that the outside air IS actually cooler than the inside air).

In summary:

Use the right fan for the right job:

  • Use ceiling fans in the heating and cooling seasons, just make sure they’re blowing in the right direction and that they’re turned off if no one will be in the room for an extended period of time.
  • Use standalone fans to cool off in a more targeted way or as a source of white noise.
  • Use window fans at night to pull in the air during cool summer nights.
  • The same goes for whole house fans as they’ll turn any opening to a source of cool air (be sure to open windows in all rooms you want cooled)!
  • Window AC units typically use less energy than whole house units but only if it is cooling a few bedrooms. Your mileage may vary.
  • Most air conditioning systems can cool a space within 30 minutes after being set to temperature.
  • Keep thermostats a few degrees higher in the summer and a few degrees lower in the winter.

Below is a handy chart that also summarizes (no pun intended) how to best use the different types of fans:

Fan Use

Protip: Half the speed (or brightness regarding dimmable light bulbs) does NOT mean half the energy used. Less energy is used, (and, in the case of lighting, well-placed dimming adds ambiance to the room) to be sure, but it is not proportionate. For example, I hooked a number of fans to a Kill-a-watt at different times and ran each of them at high and low speeds. I found that both fans used about 60 watts on high and about 40 on low. Not exactly half, but close; less noise, for sure.  I recommend you buy a Kill-a-watt (or similar device) and find out how much energy your fans (and other, more costly appliances) are using!

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