6/18/2006

Carpenter Bees: Another Backyard Mystery Solved

It looks like I bumbled a bit with my post about Conversing with the Bumblebees. I actually was talking with a carpenter bee!

We recently hired a landscaper, and it's been nice to delegate some of the heavy garden chores now that I'm 5 months pregnant. They did a really nice job mulching and weeding this spring, and the lawn looks great. It was also nice not to be the one to get poison ivy while weeding the beds in the backyard.

While talking with the landscaper this week, he solved another backyard mystery- The Case of the Sawdust Piles. I'd noticed little piles of sawdust on the porch and I was fearing termites, even though we have a contract with Terminix. But come to find out, the little guys I'd mistaken for bumblebees were actually carpenter bees, which like to bore into wood to make their nests. (Bumblebees make their nests in the ground, so they don't generate sawdust.)

Bumblebees and carpenter bees look similar, so it's easy to confuse them. Here's how to tell them apart.

Bumblebees have furry abdomens that often have some yellow.

Carpenter bees have a shiny black abdomen

These two bees are also sometimes confused with honeybees. The honeybees look quite different, however, when you look closely. Check out Judith's blog to take a peek inside the bee hives.

Although I didn't get the bumblebees I'd planted for, these insects are natural pollinators and don't seem to be much of a nuisance. I haven't seen any noticeable damage yet. Also, like bumblebees, they seldom sting. In fact, the male carpenter bees don't even have stingers. The females rarely sting and will leave you alone unless you mess with them.

Despite their lack of stingers, males carpenter bees tend to be aggressive when you near their nests. So that's probably why the little bee was pestering me when I was planting my columbine.

Sources / For Further Reading:
Clemson University Media Relations- Carpenter bees take wing in warm weather

(Click on the images for photo credits.)

6/08/2006

Mexican Yams + Expatriate Chemist = "The Pill"

You might be surprised to know that the 60's sexual revolution was sparked by a vegetable!

The human hormone that makes up the active ingredient in" the pill" was first synthesized in bulk by modifying a plant hormone found in the Mexican Yam.


Yes, it may sound silly but plants do have hormones. Just like in humans, plant hormones influence the plant's growth and stage of life. Examples of the use of hormones in horticulture include:

Ethylene signals fruit ripening (It can also travel as a gas between fruits; this is why one bad apple spoils the bunch.)

Gibberellins ainvolvedled in stem elongation (Dwarf varieties of plants often have reduced levels of this hormone.)

But getting back to the Mexican Yam story- Why use plant hormones to make a human hormone ? Well plant hormones are similar to human hormones. We can't harvest people, and chemically hormones can be very difficult to create from scratch.

Before this synthesis method was developed, doctors were already realizing the potential of this hormone, progesterone, to treat medical conditions like menstrual disorders. However, it was extremely expensive. In the 1930's, progesterone sold for $80 a gram.

An American Chemist, Russell Marker, found that diosgenin, a plant hormone extracted from yams, could be cheaply converted into a human hormone, progesterone. Despite the obvious potential of this type of research, not a single American pharmaceutical company wanted to take on the project.

However, this did not deter Marker. He quit his prestigious academic job, emptied his savings account, and moved across the border to spend his days drinking tequilaulia and learning everything he could about harvesting yams.

Thanks to the work of Marker and succeeding workers at Syntex, a small biotech company in Mexico, progesterone became cheap and readily available, which lead to the eventual realization that it could be marketed as an oral contraceptive.

Today, forty years after the introduction of oral contraceptives, "the pill" is one the most common methods of birth control. Although there are even better ways to synthesize it now, about half of oral contraceptives on the market still contain this same active ingredient that was first synthesized in bulk using Mexican Yams.

For more information:
Visit the science section of the American History Museum in Washington D.C.
Yams of Fortune: The (Uncontrolled) Birth of Oral Contraceptives