Celebrating the History of Science and the
Science behind History
The insect pictured is called Paraponera clavata, commonly known as a bullet ant. It can grow to be about an inch long.
They’re among the world’s most venomous insects, and are supposed to deliver the most painful sting of any insect, according to J.O. Schmidt. He’s an entomologist who’s been stung by pretty much every hymenopteran possible and who developed a pain scale rating that lists the relative pain caused by insects. His ratings go from 0, where the sting is as mild as the little zap you might feel while walking across a carpet in your socks, up to 4, where you might as well just lie down and scream. Bullet ants get a 4+. When he later revised his index, he described bullet ant stings as “pure, intense, brilliant pain, like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail in your heel.”
But wait, it gets worse.
The ants have abdominal stridulatory organs—that means they can shriek at you when threatened, which alerts the rest of the group to come boiling up out of the nest to help impale you.
There’s a tribe of people in Brazil, deep in the Amazon forest, the Sateré-Mawé, who use bullet ants as an initiation rite to manhood. Boys have to slip on gloves that resemble oven mitts. Live bullet ants are woven into these gloves, with the stingers pointing toward the wearer’s hands. The boys have to keep the gloves on for ten minutes. Evidently paralysis of the arms sets in rather quickly, so it’s after the gloves come off that the real pain and convulsions begin—and they last at least 24 hours.
Did I mention these ants also shriek?
Did you know that bugs played a role in history? Sarah’s book Bugged: How Insects Changed History tells the story.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Bites of Passage." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Apr.
celebrating nature, inspiring good writing
Almost every spring an amazing event in nature happens in parts of the United States. Huge numbers of insects called periodical cicadas emerge from the soil. For a few weeks they fill the days with loud buzzing calls.
Every summer you can hear the calls of some kinds of cicadas, but periodical cicadas are different. They exist only in the eastern two-thirds of the United States, and have the longest of all insect lives. Some periodical cicadas live 13 years, others 17 years, with nearly all of that time spent underground. Young cicadas, called nymphs, sip water and nutrients from tree roots. The nymphs count the years, probably by sensing changes in tree sap, as it is affected by the seasons of each year.
When their countdown ends and soil warms in the spring, millions of cicada nymphs dig out. They climb posts, bushes, and trees, and cling there. Their nymph "skins" split open and adult cicadas wriggle free. Finally, after many years underground, they are out in the sunshine. They can fly, and the buzzing noises of males attract females. It is a noisy and hectic time in their lives. They have just a few weeks to mate and produce the next generation. Once females lay eggs in tree twigs, all of the adults die. Soon after, tiny nymphs hatch from the eggs. They drop to the soil, borrow in, and begin to sip juices from tree roots. The nymphs grow slowly, counting the years until they will have their own time in the sun.
Nearly every year, one or more populations, called broods, of periodical cicadas emerge. Seventeen year cicadas live mostly in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Thirteen year cicadas are most common in the South and Lower Midwest. Some broods emerge in parts of just a few states. Some years, a more widespread brood emerges in parts of fifteen states. Notice that I say "parts" of states. These cicadas don't roam around. The nymphs go underground in the same places where their parents emerged. You will find them in one town but not another, in one neighborhood but not another.
Some people call cicadas "locusts," but locusts are a kind of grasshopper that eats plants. Cicadas do not chew on plants. They are harmless, fascinating creatures. And, once in a great while, they give us a rare and awe-inspiring animal spectacle.
Visit the great website, Cicadamania, which has high praise for this book: "Definitely the best cicada book for kids. Adults will appreciate it as well, as it is well written, factually accurate, and beautifully illustrated."
You can read more about Larry's fascination for these creatures on his website.
MLA 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "Here Come the Cicadas." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank,
23 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Giving Voice to Children in History
In the late 1800's when homesteaders first located their new claims in the Midwest, some saw nothing in any direction but tall prairie grass. On 160 acres of windswept land, there might not be a single tree. But these settlers were resourceful. They set to work building homes and barns from the one thing they had in abundance: the sod beneath their feet.
Because the soil had never been tilled, roots were tightly packed, and sod could be cut from the earth in three-foot- thick blocks. The sod houses that settlers built stood up well to harsh Midwest weather. Sod was a natural insulator, keeping out cold in winter, and heat in summer, while wood houses, which usually had no insulation, were just the opposite: always too hot or too cold. Another advantage of a soddy was that it offered protection from fire, wind, and tornadoes.
But a soddy also had drawbacks. Dirt constantly sifted down from the ceiling, making it almost impossible to keep clean. Rain or melting snow caused water to work its way through the roof and walls and run in trails along the floor, turning it to mud. Settlers actually used umbrellas or wore jackets—not to mention boots--to keep dry. Heavy rains and snow put the roof at risk of collapsing under the extra weight. If the soddy was built into a hillside and the family cow decided to graze on the roof, the cow could come crashing through the ceiling, especially if it had rained or snowed recently.
The worst drawback was insects and critters. Blocks of sod were home to fleas, ticks, mice, worms, and even snakes. One settler reported a snake dropping down from the rafters right onto the table at dinnertime. And a young mother never got over finding a snake curled up with her baby. Before getting up in the morning, folks learned to look under the bed first--because you just never knew.
In spite of this, lots of settlers loved their soddies and stuck with them even after they could afford to have wood shipped in to build what most people considered to be a proper house. They added on rooms, plastered all the walls, and installed wood floors and ceilings to keep the critters out. With that done, living in a soddy suited them just fine. And when the soddy needed repairs, they merely stepped outside, looked down—and there was their building material.
You can learn more about what it was like to live in a sod house in Andrea Warren's nonfiction book for young readers,Pioneer Girl: A True Story of Growing Up on the Prairie.
Andrea Warren is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "Snakes on the Dinner Table! Life in a Sod House." Nonfiction
Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
Do your feet sometimes smell rotten? Do you wish you could toss out your shoes and start with a new pair? We make jokes about smelly feet, but smell and feet have a very different relationship among some insects.
Take butterflies. Have you ever watched a butterfly flit over a plant, gently touch its feet to a leaf, and then fly on to the next leaf? That butterfly isn’t being picky about where to land. It’s hunting for the right kind of leaf for laying its eggs. It’s “smelling” the leaf with its feet!
Actually, we need to qualify that statement a bit. Some writers will say the insect is “smelling” the leaf while others may write that it’s “tasting” the leaf. Smelling and tasting are forms of “chemoreception,” or sensing of chemicals. Smell usually refers to sensing from a distance while tasting generally means actually touching the nerve cells that sense a chemical.
We humans have cells in our noses that send messages to our brains about chemicals in the air. We call that our sense of smell. We have cells on our tongues that sense chemicals dissolved in liquid in our mouths. That’s taste.
That butterfly doesn’t have a nose, and its mouth is a long tube for sucking up nectar from flowers. Its chemoreceptors are elsewhere, like on its feet, around its mouth, and on its antennae. Most butterflies lay their eggs on the plants that the hatched caterpillars will eat. Some species are very specific about what plants their young can feed on. Take the postman butterfly, which lives in Central and South America. Its caterpillars can only survive on certain species of passionflower vines. Other species are poisonous to their offspring.
The female postman butterfly has dozens of special nerve cells on her feet called “gustatory sensilla.” Scientists think that when she touches gently down on a leaf, these cells can sense chemicals there that would be poisonous to her caterpillars. She avoids laying eggs on those leaves. But when she finds a plant that will nourish her young, she’ll alight and lay her eggs.
Now take your shoes off and move your feet around on the floor. The only nerve endings on your feet are ones that sense touch. But then, you don’t need to be able to smell the ground you walk on. Imagine how gross it would be if your feet could smell the insides of your socks and shoes—yuck!
A dog’s nose is 300 times more powerful than a human nose, so it’s no wonder that dogs use their incredibly advanced sense of smell to do some very important jobs. In Super Sniffers, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent explores the various ways specific dogs have put their super sniffing ability to use: from bedbug sniffers to explosive detectors to life-saving allergy detectors . . . and more. This dynamic photo-essay includes first-hand accounts from the people who work closely with these amazing dogs. For more information, click here.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. "Smelling Feet or Smelly Feet?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 23 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Curiosity Queen: writing science, history, and everything in between
Regular visiting hours are over at the Buffalo Botanical Gardens, but the line to see Morty reaches out the door. It’s an event that comes once in a decade, so I’m happy to wait for my chance to see, and smell, what’s inside.
A year ago the Botanical Gardens acquired corms or bulbs of a tropical plant called the corpse flower. These aren’t little tulip bulbs you hold in your hand. The corpse flower corm weighs 120 pounds and looks like a giant potato. A corm that big needs a lot of energy to grow, so, it spends several months dormant underground. When the first hint of green peeks through the soil, it’s a guessing game as to what it will look like. Most of the time, the corpse flower will send up a slender shoot and one complex leaf that looks like a tree canopy. Through photosynthesis, this leaf will provide energy that will be stored in the corm. When there is enough energy stored up, Morty will flower. And that’s what I’m excited to witness.
Weaving my way through displays of cactus, palms, and banana trees, I wonder if someone forgot to take the trash out. The odor of rotting meat wrinkles my nose, and I realize why Morty is called a corpse flower. As we move closer, the air grows thicker. This plant has been dumpster diving.
The stink Morty sends forth is the plant’s way to attract pollinators in its native jungle of Sumatra. The flower only lasts a day or two, so the scent has to be pungent enough to quickly draw in dung beetles and carrion flies that will collect the pollen and distribute it to other plants before it wilts. It’s curiosity that lures me in.
I round the corner and catch my first glimpse of the stinker. Since it poked out of the ground it has grown five to six inches every day, and now Morty’s seven-foot spire, called a spadix, towers over me. I have to step back to catch the entire plant in my camera lens. Like a wicked witch’s collar, Morty wears a single pleated, blood red flower petal wrapped around the spadix. By midnight the flower will be fully opened and have reached maximum reek.
I click more pictures and take a deep breath. It will be a long time before Morty blooms again, and I want to remember every smelly detail.
Peggy Thomas certainly is a Curiosity Queen. You'll recall that her last Nonfiction Minute showed her taking an elephant's temperature -- not an easy task. Her book Anatomy of Nonfiction shows other authors how to write about real events.
To read about some of Peggy's other adventures and to find out about her books, visit her website.
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. "Morty Makes a Stink." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Morty-Makes-a-Stink.
Curiosity queen; writing science, history,
and everything in between
Writing a recipe is harder than it looks. I found this out when a children’s magazine editor asked me to add a recipe to my article about eating insects.
First, I thumbed through my recipe file mentally substituting bugs for a vital ingredient. Mushrooms stuffed with millipedes was out. (Most kids don’t like mushrooms.) I nixed beetle sausage, also. (Too much chopping and frying in a hot skillet.) Flipping to desserts, I chose toffee. I could substitute bugs for nuts.
After my trip to the grocery store for butter, sugar and chocolate chips, I visited the pet shop, and asked for a cup of mealworms, which are fly larvae (also known as maggots, but that’s not very appetizing). The man handed me a little carton that looked like a Skippy cup of ice cream. I wrote that down because I would need to pass that information on to readers who, like me, had no clue how to purchase creepy-crawlies.
With all the ingredients on the counter I recorded each step:
After that, I was on familiar ground blending butter and sugar, and sprinkling chocolate chips.
I called my concoction Toffee Surprise, and taste-tested it in a large group setting where peer pressure encouraged full participation -- my mother’s birthday party! The verdict: The toffee was yummy, crunchy, and sweet with a subtle earthy aftertaste.
Although I don’t plan on cooking more edible vermin, I did learn some important rules for writing a recipe: Choose a food that is reader-friendly; be aware of your readers’ abilities and safety issues; record every step in order; pay attention to even the smallest details; and prepare it yourself so you can work out the bugs (no pun intended).
Peggy Thomas is the co-author of Anatomy of Nonfiction, the only writer's guide for children's nonfiction. To find out more about Peggy, visit her website. She also has a blog for writers, based on the book.
Peggy Thomas is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through FieldTripZoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. “How to Take an Elephant’s Temperature.” Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 7 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/baking-with-bugs;-how-to-write-a-recipe.