Category Archives: Myth

Behind Every Scientific Myth Is a Scientist


©Marlene A. Condon
September, 2015

According to legend, this male mantis (the one on top) is done for. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)
According to legend, this male mantis (the one on top) is done for. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)

Like most people, you probably have no idea that the story of a female mantis decapitating and eating the head of the male before, during, or after sexual relations is a myth. The worst aspect of this myth is that it originated with a bona fide scientist!

Leland Ossian Howard, who was educated at Cornell University, was the chief entomologist of the U. S. Department of Agriculture from the late nineteenth century well into the beginning of the twentieth. He is credited with making the study of insects (entomology) a legitimate branch of the biological sciences. Unfortunately, his report of mantis mating behavior was not one of his finer moments as a researcher.

As described in the October 8, 1886, issue of the journal Science, Howard brought a male Carolina Mantis (our native species) to the home of a friend who’d been keeping a solitary female in a jar as a pet. When he placed the male, which is smaller than the female, into the jar, it tried to escape—with good reason.

Within a few minutes, the bigger female had grabbed the male and proceeded to feed upon him. Despite this, the male eventually managed to mate with the female after apparently realizing (according to Howard) that he was with a mantis of the opposite sex. Mr. Howard concluded that, “it seems to be only by accident that a male ever escapes alive from the embraces of his partner.”

The research scientist claimed the female “had always been plentifully supplied with food” and “was apparently full-fed,” but obviously he was wrong. His description of her feeding behavior is that of a ravenous individual.

It should go without saying that if you confine two predators to a limited space from which neither can escape, one is going to kill the other when it gets hungry enough. In the natural world, size is usually the determining factor as to who the victor will be. Thus it should be expected that the larger female mantis would be the individual in the jar to get a meal.

As the years were passing by without my having ever seen a female mantis of any species (we have at least three in our area) devour her mate, despite the fact that I’d seen plenty of mating mantises in the wild, I began to become suspicious of the oft-repeated story about these insects. As someone who is always paying attention to the world around me, I knew I should have witnessed this event if it were indeed the common mating behavior of mantises.

I wasn’t at all surprised when I tracked down the anecdotal evidence for this assertion to find that the two mantises had been confined to a jar. They weren’t out in the real world but, rather, in a limited amount of space.

What did surprise me was that this story, which is the source of the continuing urban legend, had found its way into print by way of an actual scientific publication. The mantis experiment was apparently considered legitimate science, presumably simply because it had been done by a certified scientist.

But it illustrates a serious problem that has continued to this day in the biological sciences. People think they can learn the truth about nature by setting up artificial conditions in a lab, but the natural world is far too complex for anyone to reliably replicate it for study. There are just too many variables. If you want to know the truth about nature, you must observe the real thing in the real world without interfering with it.

Almost exactly a century after the mantis “discovery” was published, flawed scientific analysis again found its way into the popular press, where it is referenced to this day.

Just last year National Geographic News published an essay regarding the 1980s study conducted by Stanley A. Temple, an avian ecologist, and his graduate student, Margaret C. Brittingham, to find out if bird feeding caused birds to become dependent upon feeders. In other words, if feeder food were suddenly taken away from birds that were accustomed to obtaining it in a particular location, would the birds be able to survive without such handouts.

The experiment was done in the real world as opposed to a lab, which was a step in the right direction. However, the scientists jumped to conclusions that weren’t supported by the design of their study.

At Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin in the winter of 1984-1985, feeders that had been stocked with seeds every winter for 25 years were removed by researchers. They then compared the survival rate of Black-capped Chickadees in that area to the survival rate of this species in an area where there had never been feeders.

Dr. Temple informed the National Geographic writer that these results “provided no evidence for harmful effects of forcing the Devil’s Lake ‘feeder addicts’ to go ‘cold turkey’.” The implication, which the writer duly went on to inform readers (as have many writers since the Temple/Brittingham study was published) was that it was therefore okay for folks to suddenly stop feeding birds during the winter if, for example, they wished to go away for several days.

But applying the results from a study done in one type of environment (“remote wooded areas where human habitation was limited”) to a totally different kind of environment (urban and suburban areas where often there won’t be much natural vegetation to provide an alternate food source) isn’t acceptable. The results will not necessarily be the same.

Especially surprising is how the researchers denied their own results to conclude that most species of feeder birds aren’t harmed when feeders are left empty in winter. The Temple/Brittingham study found that “69 percent of the birds that were using feeders were still alive the following spring, while only 37 percent lived through the winter without access to feeders.” That’s a stunningly remarkable difference in survival!

Most perplexing to me is how the final conclusions drawn from this research could have been acceptable to the grad student’s thesis advisor, her dissertation committee, the Ph.D.-granting university, and the prestigious Cornell Lab of Ornithology that publicized these conclusions in Living Bird magazine.

Equally baffling is that another scientist—Dr. Stephen W. Kress, a well known ornithologist—referenced this study when he wrote in the 2000 January-February issue of Audubon magazine that “it is likely the birds that visit your feeders will not suffer if you leave your feeders empty for a few weeks of winter vacation.”

But on the contrary, the Temple/Brittingham study strongly suggests that if you went on vacation just as the weather turned bitterly cold this past February, for example, and you left your feeders empty, you likely had some bird mortality as a result. According to their study, Black-capped Chickadees did benefit from the availability of feeders during periods of frigid temperatures, with 93 percent of feeder birds surviving such conditions compared to only 67 percent of individuals without access to a feeder.

Indeed, Eastern Bluebirds and Carolina Wrens (along with some other species of birds and mammals) took a big hit in February of 2015 because of extreme cold and limited access to natural foods because of snow.

When it comes to the natural world, just because a scientist says it’s so doesn’t mean that it actually is.

The Great Enemy of Truth is the Myth

© Marlene A. Condon
June, 2014

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

[Excerpt from President John F. Kennedy’s Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11 1962]

A serious problem for our natural world is the many misperceptions that people harbor about it and which they often refuse to discredit, even when given factual information disproving their unfounded beliefs.

For example, it’s not uncommon in spring to see in print or to hear people say that allergy sufferers are reacting to the pollen of the many noticeable blooms on flowers and trees in this season. Indeed, I read a newspaper column in May in which the writer suggested that “this year all those beautiful flowers and trees are bringing a very unwelcome side effect.”

But in reality, plants that make conspicuous flowers require animals to pollinate them because their pollen is too heavy to travel on the wind. Therefore any plants that are beautiful because they have showy flowers are not a source of misery for people who are allergic to pollen they’ve breathed in.

It’s understandable that people suffering an allergic reaction at a time when lots of plants are blooming would naturally think that these plants are the source of their problem. Thus the myth is certainly persuasive, which is why it persists despite the fact that it’s not based upon reality.

But once you understand why plants would have showy flowers in the first place (so animals will notice them, visit them, and end up carrying pollen away), you can believe that the pollen of such plants is physically moved from one flower to another by animals—not air currents—to aid in the reproduction of the species.

The problem with myths that are misperceptions of reality is that they can cause people to do things that make their own lives less enjoyable while creating life-threatening situations for other organisms.

For example, many people believe that goldenrods, with their conspicuous golden flowers, are a source of allergens because they bloom at the same time as ragweed, which has inconspicuous flowers.

Thus folks may remove goldenrods from their yards, which not only deprives them of a source of beauty during the fall, but which also deprives many kinds of insects of an excellent source of nectar and pollen at a time of year when most plants are going to seed.

One insect, the Monarch Butterfly, is especially dependent upon the late-blooming goldenrod. This plant’s nectar (a sugary fluid) provides carbohydrates, a rich source of energy vital to the survival of each Monarch as it migrates to Mexico in the fall.

To help our Monarchs on their journey, all of us should be planting goldenrods, or at least be allowing the ones that come in on their own (“volunteers”) to stay put.

Another common myth regarding the natural world is that people are normally stung by bees. From radio and TV to the Internet and print media, people talk about “bee” stings, when in reality, most people are stung by social wasps, such as the Eastern Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) and the Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata).

As with all organisms, a bee wants to live as long as possible—something that isn’t going to happen if it stings someone.

When a bee stings a person, its stinger is torn from its body and left in the wound, causing the bee (unlike a wasp) to die. Therefore a bee will only use its stinger if it absolutely must, such as when it senses imminent danger to itself or its nest.

In fact, a bee wants you to know right where it so as to avoid a confrontation that might force it into using its stinger. That’s the reason that bees—unlike wasps—buzz!

My husband is allergic to stings and I remember how nervous he was our first spring and summer together. I grow lots and lots of flowers, which means lots and lots of bees, wasps, and other kinds of insects everywhere you look in my yard.

He told me how, as a little boy, he would “zoom” past the azaleas that were humming with bees because he was so afraid of getting stung. I explained to him that he hadn’t needed to be so fearful of these insects because bees and wasps mind their own business as they go about their activities at flowers.

I pointed out that the only reason anyone would ever get stung would be if they made the insect feel threatened by crowding it (leaving little room for it to fly away). Now, after having seen me take many, many close-up photos of bees and wasps at flowers without ever getting stung, my husband no longer fears these insects.

Additionally, you never want to approach a nest closely because these insects—with good reason—will feel the need to protect their young.

The explanation for why the majority of “bee” stings are actually wasp stings is because our buildings tend to provide great places (under the eaves, for example) for wasps to build their nests, which are often close enough to the ground to make these insects nervous when people (or any kind of animal) gets too close.

The main strategy my husband and I use to avoid getting stung by wasps is to make sure they aren’t able to reproduce right around our home. We actively look for their paper nests in early spring when there is only one queen and a very small nest to remove.

We locate nests and make a note of where they are. On the next chilly morning (50 degrees or less), we get outside early with a long stick to knock the nests down. This is fairly safe because wasps, being cold-blooded, are sluggish in the chilly temperatures so they fall to the ground.

If we discover a nest later in the season when morning temperatures are higher than 50 degrees, we’ll venture out in dark clothing and in total darkness to take down the nest by using a flashlight to blind the wasps to our movements. After knocking a nest down, we immediately leave the area and come back inside the house.

If a nest is just out of reach, we sometimes knock it down with a strong stream of water from a hose. We never use pesticides, which are totally unnecessary.

By sometime in May, the wasps have normally been discouraged enough to find a place away from the house to nest. Of course, they will still be in the vicinity to feed, and since they can land anywhere, we remain alert for their presence to make sure we don’t scare them into stinging us.

So don’t fear wasps and bees, but do respect them. By learning why they behave as they do, you can be smart about your own behavior and peacefully coexist with them.

Indeed, my once-fearful husband now finds our nature-friendly yard a marvelous place to be. I love watching him watching the bees and wasps as they visit the flowers as he stands right next to them.

A little knowledge makes all the difference in whether you view the world as terribly frightening or incredibly fascinating.