You wouldn’t think that books about astronomy and archaeology would have a lot in common, but Four Lost Cities (Annalee Newitz) and Under Alien Skies (Phil Plait) pack some odd similarities.

Both are about places we (mostly) can’t visit in person: Faraway planets in one case, the distant past in the other.

We have to piece together parts of the experience from what has come to us through time or through space: Telescopic observations, space probes, spectral analysis, and our understanding of physics — ruins, artifacts, aerial surveys and
what we know about people (both contemporary and in general).

For some sites we have very detailed and solid information: Angkor’s stone temples are still standing. Pompeii was well-preserved under volcanic ash and we still have first-hand writings about the city and its destruction. Mars and the moon have been extensively surveyed, including multiple landers and photographs from the surface. (And, in the case of the moon, a handful of people!)

Others require a lot of speculation: There’s a solid core of what we’ve figured out about Cahokia, but a lot of unknowns that we can sorta-kinda extrapolate from the histories and tales of surviving tribes in the area — but only to a point. Similarly, we know the rough structure of the TRAPPIST-1 solar system and some of its planets, but we have to speculate: if one of the planets in the habitable zone actually is habitable, what conditions would that require?

Both include major discoveries made within the last decade: Pluto and Charon were just a pair of dots until the New Horizons mission flew past it in 2015, bringing us pictures and measurements and so much data it took months just to download it from the probe back to Earth. Lidar surveys at Angkor in 2012 revealed the foundations of a vast metropolitan area around the temple complexes, upending our sense of how big the city was and identifying new sites to investigate.

It’s kind of funny how I read them so close together. Synchronicity and all that. They’re also both good (see also my review of Four Lost Cities and review of Under Alien Skies), and I’d definitely recommend them!

We know trees can reduce the urban heat island effect. A Nature Conservancy project is combining data on current tree coverage, heat, health, income, energy sources and more to determine where planting new trees would most help the communities currently most affected by the problem. (Note: The article’s in the context of Google’s role in the data analysis & visualization.)

I looked at the data from my local area, and it not only prioritized the areas I know are lower-income with fewer trees, it prioritized where people actually live, too. There are some areas that have very low tree coverage but are also rated very low priority…because they’re mall parking lots, light industry, heavy industry, office parks, etc.

A yellow-faced bumblebee above an orange poppy, a clump of orange pollen stuck to its legs.

This is kind of hilarious.

Conservation groups asked California to protect four species of native bumblebees. The agriculture industry objected on the grounds that the state’s endangered species law doesn’t cover insects. But the state fish and game code, in trying to cover all its bases defining marine life, defines a fish as “a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals.”

So technically, bumblebees, being invertebrates, are eligible for protection as fish.

The state supreme court ruled in favor, because that’s technically what the law says. The judge pointed out that the legislature “is in a position to make whatever statutory amendments it may regard as necessary or useful” to resolve any ambiguities…and specifically stated that the ruling does not mean that the court actually believe bumblebees are fish!

Photo of a Yellow-Faced Bumblebee I saw at the South Coast Botanic Gardens a while back. It’s not one of the four species being petitioned for protection. But I wanted to use one of my own photos for illustration, rather than use the one from the newspaper. Though it’s amusing that of the four endangered species they went with a photo of — I kid you not — Bombus crotchii, a.k.a. Crotch’s Bumblebee. Named after George Robert Crotch.

Expanded from a post on

Also: Darwinian Honeybees

On a more serious note, hobbyist beekeepers are starting to use a strategy called Darwinian beekeeping to fend off colony collapse disorder.

Essentially you try to mimic how honeybees would live in the wild instead of trying to pack in as many monocultured hives as you can. Build smaller hives and spread them out, so if one gets infested the parasites or diseases don’t spread as easily to the next. Capture a wild swarm of honeybees, which, unlike mail-order bees bred to maximize honey production, have evolved defenses against the invasive mites that have been attacking developing bees. Keep the hives away from plants you’re going to be using pesticides on.

The causes of CCD are still unclear, but there seem to be multiple factors that contribute to it — and these strategies mitigate several of them. And a lower honey yield in exchange for colonies that survive longer seems like it would be worth the trade-off.