Archive | February, 2018

The Year of the Dog is Here!

February 16th marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year also known as the Lunar New Year, a 15-day festival that gives families a chance to gather and celebrate the passing of another year. Unlike Western New Year festivities, which take place at the stroke of midnight on January 1st, the Chinese New Year is centered around the lunar calendar and begins on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice (sometime between January 21st and February 20th).

Chinese culture is rich in beliefs, customs, and superstitions that vary from those in the West. Writer ShaoLan Hsueh believes that the philosophies of Chinese culture are deeply rooted in the Chinese zodiac (Sheng Xiao). When combined with the principles of yin and yang and the five elements— metal, wood, water, fire, and earth— Hsueh explains how the Chinese Zodiac can assert a remarkable influence over people’s decisions and beliefs.

According to Chinese tradition, each year is named for one of the 12 animal signs associated with the Chinese zodiac. Legend has it that before leaving earth, Buddha held a grand race among all of the animals in the kingdom. The rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig showed up to the race and crossed the finish line in the aforementioned order. Today, they are the animal signs that make up the Chinese zodiac. Like the western astrological symbols that correlate to a person’s specific birthdate, the animal sign of one’s birth year is said to provide insight about their personality, career, love prospects, and future good (or bad) fortune” (Hsueh, 2016).

2018 is the year of the earth dog (translated in mandarin to 狗 – gǒu) and those born under the sign are said to possess such character traits as loyalty, trustworthiness, and kindness, qualities often associated with dogs.

Photo of a giant dog sculpture made of snow to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Shenyang, capital of northeast China's Liaoning Province, 2018.

Photo of a giant dog sculpture made of snow to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Shenyang, capital of northeast China’s Liaoning Province, 2018.

Dogs in Ancient China 

In China, dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) have been domesticated for more than 12,000 years.  The exact origin of their domestication is unknown, but written records and ancient art depict early domestic dogs as agricultural assistants, hunters, and companions to the wealthy. In ancient Chinese history, large breed dogs like the Tibetan Mastiff (pictured below) were increasingly domesticated as hunting companions and watch dogs. Able to withstand extreme cold, guard livestock, and groups of people living in hostile landscapes, the Chinese revered Mastiffs as protective deities. Recently, DNA sampling has determined that  the English sheepdog, Rottweiler, and Saint Bernard share lineage with the Tibetan Mastiff. In Northeast China’s colder climates, muscular dogs with thick fur coats (Chow Chows and Huskies) were often used to pull sleds through snow covered mountains. Today, the world governing body of dog breeds—the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI)—recognizes around 340 dog breeds. Dogs have more variety in shape, size, shape and behavior than any other living mammal, yet most experts agree that all dogs originated exclusively from a single species: the gray wolf (Canis lupus) of central Asia.

Artistic rendering of a Tibetan-Mastiff.

Artistic rendering of a Tibetan-Mastiff.

Around 700 BCE, small breeds, like the Pekingese—a dog who resembles a lion—enjoyed the ultimate affection and special treatment by members of the Chinese Imperial Court, including the emperor. Despite their toy-like appearance—flattened faces, large eyes, short legs, and a mane of fur around the neck— the Pekingese retains a dominant, somewhat wolfish personality. Though the Pekingese can now be found throughout the world, there was a time when ownership of a Pekingese was strictly prohibited by anyone outside of the Chinese Imperial Palace.


Photo of a contemporary Pekingese.

Ancient Chinese Mythology

The respect for dogs is perhaps most pronounced in the mythologies of China’s ethnic groups Yao, She and Maio.  Though details from each culture’s story vary, the general framework remains the same. According to legend, when Emperor Ku’s people came under attack, his dog Pan Hu snuck into the enemy’s military camp and returned with the head of the enemy’s general in his mouth. As a reward, Pan Hu (who became part man and part dog) was given the emperor’s daughter as his wife. The dog carried the princess to the mountains in southern China, where they had many children. Panhu beings are still worshipped as ancestors of the She and Yao ethnics.

Dogs—A Person’s Best Friend

For many around the world, the value of a dog is found in more than their ability to offer protection— though a barking dog is undoubtedly a wonderful deterrent for break-ins. So the beginning of the year of the dog is a perfect time to celebrate some of the most fiercely loyal animals on the planet! I share my life (and often, regrettably my bed) with two furry pups who are some of my most beloved companions. If you too are a self-proclaimed dog lover, then perhaps you echo the same feeling of joy when you see a dog happily sniff every last inch of dirt and grass in search of the perfect pee spot, or bound through a grassy field with insatiable curiosity, or sleepily tip-toe through your home to greet you after you’ve called their name. Dogs are extraordinary companions who find joy in the simple things— a new ball, a warm blanket, table scraps, and head rubs. In their short lives, dogs remind us to appreciate the little things, to practice empathy and responsibility, and with the wag of a tail, to get outside and explore the world.

Happy year of the dog everyone!

Margot and Olive on an adventure!

Our dogs, Margot and Olive out exploring the world!

Bees Mean Business: How Honey Bees Shape Our Food System

Here in California, an unusually warm winter delivers the illusion of Spring. Though March 21st officially marks the Spring equinox, honeysuckle flowers have already put out their sweet blossoms and the air is alive with the humming of the honey bee. Honey bees herald the coming of luscious fruit and longer days, and their gentle song announces the promise of new life. Our world revolves around the industrious schedules of these little creatures. Without the honey bee’s pollination, strawberries, peaches, and melons would virtually cease to exist!

Honeybees and honeysuckle. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Honey bees and honeysuckle. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi


Bees, A Popular Pollinator

Though birds, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles, and the wind are great examples of pollinators, bees are the world’s number one pollinator. According to Cornell University, honey bees are responsible for pollinating around 70 percent of the world’s crops— which when you think about it, translates to a HUGE amount of food.

What is pollination? When a worker bee collects nectar and pollen from the flower of a plant, some of the bright orange pollen from the male reproductive organ of the flower sticks to the hairs of her body. As she visits the next flower, some of this pollen is rubbed off onto the female reproductive organ of the flower and fertilization occurs.   There is disturbing evidence that pollinating animals worldwide have suffered from loss of habitat, chemical misuse, diseases, parasites and climate change. Currently, neonicotinoid pesticides (commonly used in US agricultural)  are one of the largest contemporary threats to bee colonies. The wide scale use of these pesticides has been reported to kill a hive’s queen and thereby decrease the reproduction rates of a colony.

A Bee, whose honey-colored hairs are sprinkled with bright orange pollen. Photo Source: Wiki Commons

A bee, whose honey-colored hairs are sprinkled with bright orange pollen. Photo Source: Wiki Commons


Understanding Their Role

Honey bees are social insects that live together in large, well-organized colonies. The advance communication and organizational skills  of the honey bee have been of interest to entomologists (bug experts) for decades.  Bee colonies typically consists of three kinds of adult bees: workers, drones, and a queen.

Workers: Workers are the smallest and most common bees occupying the colony.  All worker bees are females; yet unlike their queen,  worker bees are unable to produce offspring. They are responsible for cleaning the hive, collecting pollen and nectar, building beeswax combs, ventilation, and feeding the queen. The lifespan of the worker bee is anywhere from six weeks to six months.

Drones: Drones (male bees) are the largest bees in the colony and are charged with the task of fertilizing the virgin queen during her mating flight. Since drones require three times as much food as the rest of the colony, their numbers are scarce. When cold weather begins in the fall and pollen/nectar resources become threatened, drones usually are forced out into the cold and left to starve.

Queen: Each colony has only one sexually developed female, known as the queen bee. The queen is responsible for populating the entire colony and during peak production, a queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day! Queens are larger in size than other females in their colonies and have a lifespan of 2-5 years (some bees only live for 30 days). Research has found that queen bees can actually vaccinate their colony against diseases.  Though queens rarely leave the nest, their forager bees pick up environmental pathogens while gathering pollen and use this same pollen to create “royal jelly” — a food made just for the queen that contains bacteria from the outside environment. The queen ingests the bacteria, stores it in her “fat body” (similar to a human liver), and transfers it through her blood to her developing eggs, essentially “vaccinating” her babies.

A Road Trip to California—That’s Nuts! 

There’s one crop that demands more bees than any other—almonds. Eat an almond anywhere in the world and there’s a good chance that almond was grown in California. As of 2017, the Golden State produces approximately 2.2 billion pounds of almonds each season. This time of year, billions of honey bees across the US embark on road trips to assist the California farmers who need the bees to pollinate their crops. As consumers buy products like almond milk and almond butter, the demand for the already popular nut (and the bees that make that nut possible), continues to rise. Currently, it is estimated that this year alone, close to 30 billion bees will travel from out-of-state to meet the pollination needs of Central California’s almond industry.

Crates of honeybees on the back of a flatbed truck.

Crates of honey bees on the back of a flatbed truck.

Honey—How is it Made? 

Aside from being pro pollinators, honey bees manufacture a liquid that has been touted as the “elixir of the gods”—honey. Honey has an extensive history around the world, the oldest remains of which have been found in a tomb in the country of Georgia, dating from 4,700 to 5,500 years ago. It is used to sweeten food and drink, soothe sore throughs, and can serve as an antibacterial for wounds.  Though humans have enjoyed the consumption of honey for millennia, honey’s natural purpose is to feed the bees. As bees collect nectar, they use their long tongues (called proboscis) like a straw to help them suck nectar out of flowers. They store the nectar in a second stomach and transport it back to the hive where it is converted to honey and capped with beeswax for later consumption.

Honey bees are hardworking masters of communication and planning and their existence is vital to our own. So next time you’re in the path of a honey bee, think twice before you swat it away.