Tag Archives: experiment

Do-It-Yourself: Build a Solitary Bee House

"Male Mason Bee (Osmia)" - Copyright 2007 by Stavros Markopoulos (Creative Commons).
“Male Mason Bee (Osmia)” – Copyright 2007 by Stavros Markopoulos (Creative Commons).
If you want to welcome some of the world’s great garden-helpers to your backyard, you need to build them a nice place to stay. Everyone thinks of bees as living in bee hives because honeybees do and honeybees are easily the world’s most famous bees.

But of the thousands of bee species, only a few make honey and live in hives. The rest are solitary bees.

Maybe the most popular type of solitary bees to have around are Mason bees. They are popular because they do a super job pollinating fruits, vegetables and flowers. They are also very mild and don’t sting unless they are handled roughly or get trapped underneath clothing.

There are more than a hundred kinds of Mason bees in North America. They work and live alone, although they don’t mind nesting right next door to other bees.

Mason bees build nests in long narrow holes that they find already made in their environment. These holes could be hollow plant stems or holes drilled by woodpeckers and insects in wood. The bees use mud to build chambers in the holes, then lay an egg in each chamber. Before sealing up the chamber, they leave a dab of pollen and nectar in each for the larva to eat when it hatches.

When the young bees have matured enough in the spring, they’ll bust out of their mud chambers and eventually come to the front of the hole to warm up a bit before flying off to begin the entire cycle again.

When the bees do fly off, the first thing they’ll be looking for is a home. You can help by building them a solitary bee house.

Following the easy directions below, and with just a little help from your folks, you can build a solitary bee house over the winter and have it in place by March or April. Be sure to mount it solidly somewhere out of the rain facing South or East since the little bees need some sunlight to get them going when they emerge.

And remember, building the bee house is just the beginning of the fun and your research. You’ll need to see who shows up and moves in. Get pictures if you can. And by all means, take notes and hold onto them so you can build on your store of observational knowledge year over year.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • How many different kinds of bees use your solitary bee house? Simply knowing the number of different kinds is useful, but if you want to dig in and get very, very specific, there’s help: www.DiscoverLife.org
  • How many of the tubes get sealed off with mud? Does one size (diameter) seem more popular with the bees in your neighborhood. Develop a hypothesis about what size tubes will attract the most bees next year. Test it.
  • What kind of mud do the bees use to seal chambers? During periods of high activity, put out trays of different kinds of mud to see if the bees have a preference. Does putting mud close to the bee house increase the trip rate of bees (say, three trip every minute instead of two trips a minute)? By how much?

How to Build a Solitary Bee House

The bundle of hollow tubes you gather will need to be secured and held together. Some people use duct tape; others use a beautiful wooden container of some sort. For our purposes here, we picked a common (and free!) option we had around the house.
The bundle of hollow tubes you gather will need to be secured and held together. Some people use duct tape; others use a beautiful wooden container of some sort. For our purposes here, we picked a common (and free!) option we had around the house. (Recycling, anyone?)

When it comes to hollow tubes, nothing beats bamboo. If you have it growing in your yard, you are set. If you don't, ask around. Most people who have it will be more than glad to let you cut some of their bamboo. When picking the size you need, consider this: to attract Mason bees, you want to aim for a hole diameter that is big enough to insert a pencil in, but not too much bigger.
When it comes to hollow tubes, nothing beats bamboo. If you have it growing in your yard, you are set. If you don’t, ask around. Most people who have it will be more than glad to let you cut some of their bamboo. When picking the size you need, consider this: to attract Mason bees, you want to aim for a hole diameter that is big enough to insert a pencil in, but not too much bigger.


The good thing about bamboo? It is tough. The bad thing? It is tough. You'll need an adult and the appropriate tools to get what you need from your neighborhood bamboo thicket. Luckily, anyone with bamboo growing in the backyard probably already knows how to cut it.
The good thing about bamboo? It is tough. The bad thing? It is tough. You’ll need an adult and the appropriate tools to get what you need from your neighborhood bamboo thicket. Luckily, anyone with bamboo growing in the backyard probably already knows how to cut it.


Use scissors to trim your drink bottle to a length of at least 6 inches.
Use scissors to trim your drink bottle to a length of at least 6 inches.


While trimming the branches off the bamboo, get as close a cut as you can. This will make it easier when you are sliding the tubes in because there won't be obstructions.
While trimming the branches off the bamboo, get as close a cut as you can. This will make it easier when you are sliding the tubes in because there won’t be obstructions.


Cut lengths of bamboo to the same length you trimmed your bottle. It doesn't have to be perfect.
Cut lengths of bamboo to the same length you trimmed your bottle. It doesn’t have to be perfect.


If one of the tubes you are trimming begins to split, don't worry. It will be unusable, but will provide an opportunity for you to investigate the internal structure of the plant.
If one of the tubes you are trimming begins to split, don’t worry. It will be unusable, but will provide an opportunity for you to investigate the internal structure of the plant.


Pack the tubes into your container as tightly as you can. It may take a little effort to work in the final few.
Pack the tubes into your container as tightly as you can. It may take a little effort to work in the final few.


Home, Sweet Home! You'll need to find a South or East facing location out of the rain to place this in the spring. Secure it so it doesn't move around. Keep an eye on it to see what happens.
Home, Sweet Home! You’ll need to find a South or East facing location out of the rain to place this in the spring. Secure it so it doesn’t move around. Keep an eye on it to see what happens.

Fun Phineas Facts

We’ve noted the many good qualities of Mason Bees and said they are non-aggressive and unlikely to cause much trouble in the stinging department. It natural for anyone who has been stung by a bee to suspicious of anything with a stinger. Classification – organizing things into orderly categories – is a basic part of good science, and you can practice on “bees.” Even while running away. The first step is to try to avoid calling everything that might deliver a “bee sting” a “bee.”

Do you mean Bee or Wasp? Or Yellowjacket? Or Hornet? The differences matter, since some stinging insects are classified as flower-lovers and others as predators (although, of course, not of humans!). Here is a link to a good article from the Cooperative Extension service at Colorado State University to get you started thinking about the differences.Wasp-Hornet-Yellowjacket-Bee?

One of the best ways to distinguish between types of flying insects with stingers is to notice where they live. If the insect in question lives in a honey-filled wooden box on a honey farm, that’s an easy one. If it lays eggs in the bee house you construct, that narrows it down, too. Here is an article that has a great chart about other types of insect housing you might encounter. How to Tell the Difference Between the Stinging Wasps.

5. How to Think Like a Scientist – Controlling the Chocolate Chip Experiment

phineas_scientist001So I learned how to make my mother’s delicious chocolate chip cookies. But after a few batches I got bored, and like a scientist, started to experiment. My mom didn’t enjoy walnuts and rarely baked with them, but I love them. I decided to change her recipe and add walnuts to my mix. Success! My roommates and I thought they tasted great (except for my friend Tony, who is allergic to nuts).

But were the cookies better than the original recipe? It was hard to know. It was hard to remember exactly how the originals tasted. So, thinking like a scientist, the next time I divided the cookie dough into two bowls and added walnuts only to one of them. I baked both batches and we did a taste test. The walnut chocolate chip cookies were clearly superior. And Tony was happy.

Talking like a scientist, the batch of original recipe cookies was the control group and the walnut batch was test group. The original ingredients are called dependent variables and the walnuts the independent variable.

The mark of a good experiment is that it is a controlled experiment with only one independent variable. You only want to change one thing at a time so you know what you are testing. The control allows you to compare the results of the change.

It is fine to do an uncontrolled experiment (like I did with my first attempt at walnut cookies). But if the results are good, it should be followed by a controlled experiment to verify them.

Scientists use uncontrolled experiments to generate ideas for new hypotheses. Hey, what if I throw in some jalapeño peppers into the cookie dough?

Fun Phineas Fact
In medical research, controlled experiments are called clinical trials. Over the years, it has been shown that the results are more accurate if the patients don’t know whether they are in the control group or the test group. We call these blinded trials.

Think about doing a soda pop taste test with your friends. Then try it again putting a blindfold on them before they drink. Blinding prevents personal opinions from altering results.

It has been found that results are even more accurate when the doctors and nurses running the experiment don’t know which group is the control. We call these double blinded trials. A double blinded controlled trial is difficult and expensive to run, but is the gold standard of medical research.

The US Food & Drug Administration requires double blinded clinical trials be run before approving new medications.

4. How to Think Like a Scientist – The Chocolate Chip Experiment

phineas_scientist001My mother baked incredibly delicious chocolate chip cookies. A few times a year she would bake a huge batch of them. Every time they tasted the same… awesome. When I left for college I asked for the recipe. I am not a cook, but, heck, I can follow directions. How hard could it be?

Lets just say that my first attempt was a disaster. Instead of soft and gooey like hers, mine were hard and crunchy like bricks. And they tasted nasty. I tried again, this time being extremely careful to follow the recipe exactly. Same result! What was I doing wrong? It was time for me to think like a scientist to figure it out.

cookieThe next time I went home, I watched my mother very carefully as she baked them. I noticed four differences from my failed attempts:

  1. A missing ingredient. Cinnamon. Just a dash. Mom just shrugged when I asked her. Cooking is so natural to her, she didn’t even think about it. And she doesn’t even look at the recipe as she bakes.
  2. Speaking of dashes. The actual quantity of “a dash” varied from almost microscopic to a heaping spoonful depending on the spice.
  3. She used real butter instead of margarine as listed on the recipe.
  4. She removed cookies quickly from the baking sheet and placed them on a plate to cool. Apparently every cook knows this, so she didn’t write it down. I left mine on the pan to cool, and they continued to cook way too long, turning into crunchy bricks.

Armed with these insights, I attempted a third batch of cookies in my college apartment. And to the relief of my roommates, success! I nailed it perfectly.

My chocolate chip experience shows the importance of repeatability. My mom’s perfect cookies weren’t a fluke or accident, she could consistently make more any time. And just as important, I was able to get the same results when I used the same ingredients in the same quantities and followed the same steps.

Experiments following the scientific method must be repeatable by you and others. First, you as a scientist should be able to run the experiment many times and get consistent results. And just as important, other people, even your un-best friend, should be able to get similar results if they follow the same steps. If it’s not repeatable, it’s not believable. And if it’s not repeatable it’s not believable. (That was a joke).

As an experimental scientist, you must write down every detail about the experiment, even details you think are irrelevant. The day and time, the weather, the type of materials used, the location, exact quantities… everything that might affect the outcome. It would be terrible to get great results and not be able to recreate the experiment later. Think of my first batch of nasty cookies.

Here is my mom’s cookie recipe!

Rita’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe (with my corrections)
Chef: Rita M. Kaufman

Ingredients

  • 1 cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 dash (1/8 tsp) cinnamon
  • 1 cup (6-oz. pkg.) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsel

PREHEAT oven to 375° F.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

COMBINE flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. With an electric mixer on medium-high, or a wooden spoon, beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy (about 20 minutes). Add eggs. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels. Drop by tablespoon onto baking sheet.

BAKE for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 1 minutes, move cookies to a plate to cool completely before serving (about 15 minutes).


Fun Phineas Fact
Where you live may affect how you bake. My mom’s recipe was written for cooking near the ocean. If you live at a higher altitude, like Colorado, you will need to make changes to get the same results. At high altitudes, water boils quicker, cookies bake slower, and dough rises faster. Check with a local cooking expert to make adjustments for your kitchen.


References

Website: Betty Crocker Baking Guide

Podcast: Skeptics Guide 5×5 episode 65.

3. How to Think Like a Scientist – Furry Cats and Fuzzy Theories

phineas_scientist001All this talk about hypotheses brings us around to theories. A theory is not just a guess. A theory is a group of related hypotheses that have been repeatedly validated by observation and survived all attempts to falsify. The strongest theories have hundreds of independent hypotheses with thousands of confirming experiments.

There is no minimum number of hypotheses or validations or falsification attempts needed to be a theory. There are just weaker and stronger theories. My cat color theory is really weak.

One hypothesis often leads to more. My hypothesis, that cats are either orange or grey, led me to another educated guess: a cat’s fur color was camouflage to help it hunt and hide.

This new hypothesis makes some bold predictions. If their fur was camouflage then:

  1. Wild orange cats should live in a place where the land is orange colored, maybe the prairie wheat fields of Kansas?
  2. Wild grey cats should live in grey places. Maybe the foggy Smokey Mountains of Tennessee?
  3. There might be green cats living in jungles and rain forests.
  4. There might even be white cats living in Canada near the North Pole.
  5. If we dig in lands that used to be orange or grey, we should find cat bones.

All five predictions can be tested. And the hypothesis can be falsified several ways. For example, if we find wild grey cats in Kansas, my guess is wrong.

Now lets assume that prediction No. 1 and No. 2 get verified. Wild orange cats are found in Kansas and grey ones in Tennessee. I now have a theory of cat fur colors. Cats are orange or grey. Their color is camouflage for where they lived in the wild.

My theory makes some predictions that still need to validated, and that’s OK, and of course it can be falsified at any time.

Scientists build on each other’s work and challenge one another all the time. One scientist might add to my theory with a new hypothesis: maybe black cats live in dark caves. Another scientist might propose a rival theory: a cat’s fur color is based on the color of food they eat. The experiments and observations will decide which, if any one, is right.

OK, let’s forget about cats for a minute and look at a real theory that truly changed the world.

Back in the 1800s scientists knew a bit about electricity and magnets and sunlight, three completely different topics. For instance, they knew that:

  • electricity (like lightning) could flow through copper wires
  • compass magnets pointed North
  • sunlight travelled roughly 186,000 miles per second, and
  • a prism could turn sunlight into a rainbow of colors.

They also knew two weird things but did not understand why:

  • flowing electricity caused nearby compass needles to point towards the wire, not North.
  • Moving magnets caused electricity to flow through nearby copper wires.

Then Scottish scientist James Maxwell figured out that electricity and magnetism also travelled at almost 186,000 miles per second similar to light. And then he had this crazy idea, an educated guess, that electricity and magnets and sunlight were really the same thing: electromagnetism. His crazy theory was eventually validated by thousands of experiments and survived hundreds of attempts to falsify it. It is one of the most successful theories ever made.

Electromagnetic Theory has led to the creation of electric generators, light bulbs, automobiles, telephones, computers, televisions, radios and lasers. It also inspired Albert Einstein to propose his theories of relativity.

Cat Named Tang(Please Note: The cat color idea discussed here is complete fiction. It is meant to illustrate how scientists think, not to be real science. Cats come in lots of colors and I don’t know why. A good scientist should always first research a topic thoroughly, perhaps in the library or on the Internet, before making “educated guesses”. But remember, I was just a little kid when I got my cat, Tang.)

Fun Phineas Facts
Some people criticize science saying “you don’t know anything for certain, you are constantly changing your mind”. This is true! But it is science’s biggest strength, not a flaw. Scientists are always questioning things, looking for better answers, and accepting the new evidence.

This also doesn’t mean that there are no facts in science. The theory of how gravity works does not change the fact that there is this thing called gravity and if you throw a water balloon up in the air, it’s going to come down and go splat. Electricity creates magnets; magnets create electricity. That’s a fact.

The Slowest Pitch

pitchdropexperimentBaseball fans may know that the fastest pitch ever recorded was 105.1 miles per hour. The ball was thrown by Cincinnati Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman in 2010. But what about the slowest pitch? Take a guess. You will probably be wrong by about a decade.

The slowest pitch ever recorded took over 11 years to travel an inch! No joke! It was the amazing result of the world’s longest running scientific experiment, going since 1927.

Okay, first you need to understand that a “pitch” is not just a thrown baseball. ‘Pitch” is also the name of a black gooey liquid made from petroleum (oil). Familiar types of pitch include tar, asphalt and resin.

What do I mean by calling pitch “gooey?” Scientists describe the gooey-ness of a liquid by measuring how fast it pours, and they call this number “viscosity”. The higher the viscosity, the slower it pours. Water has a viscosity of almost zero (0.00089), honey is 10, and ketchup is 100.

Scientists didn’t know the exact viscosity of pitch, but they knew it was really high, estimated to be about 100 million (100,000,000)!

In 1927, Professor Thomas Parnell at The University of Queensland, Australia, wanted to demonstrate to his students that pitch was really a liquid; and fortunately he had a lot of time. He heated up some pitch (which lowered the viscosity making easier to pour), and filled a glass funnel. He let it cool for three years, then opened the bottom of the funnel, and placed a small cup underneath to catch any drops. Then placed it in a display case outside his office, and he waited . . .

It took over ten years before the first drop fell. Over eighty years have now passed, and the experiment keeps going. So far 9 drops have fallen.

It has become known as the Pitch Drop Experiment, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest running laboratory experiment in history.

A similar experiment was started at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, in 1944. It dripped in 2013 and the event was caught on film. Based on that drop, the viscosity of pitch was revised and calculated to be 218 million! Among other things, this more accurate measurement will allow scientists to design better, longer lasting and safer roads.

Fun Phineas Facts: The expression “pitch black” to describe complete darkness comes from the highly viscous liquid.

Pitch has at least four other completely different meanings besides baseball and tar.

  1. “to build” as in “pitch a tent”
  2. “a single musical note” as in “singing in perfect pitch”
  3. “a sports field” as in “Harry Potter’s quidditch pitch”
  4. “an advertisement” as in “a sales pitch”

Check out a 20 second time lapse YouTube video of the only drop of pitch ever filmed:


SOURCES

The Baseball Almanac

NEWS: The (U.K.) Independent: The Pitch Drops: Science experiment going for 69 years caught on film for first time

The University of Queensland – Australia – The Pitch Drop Experiment Page

WIKI: The Pitch Drop Experiment

WIKI: Pitch (Resin)

PODCAST: The Skeptics Guide to the Universe episode #419:


PHOTO CREDIT: Picture of the Pitch Drop Experiment at the University of Queensland, with 9-volt battery for size comparison (University of Queensland).