3 Things you should know about how native bees are important pollinators, how saliva is used to clean artifacts, and active volcanism on Venus
Meet Cassandra Marion, Renée-Claude Goulet, and Michelle Campbell Mekarski.
They are Ingenium’s science advisors, providing expert scientific advice on key subjects relating to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum.
In this colourful monthly blog series, Ingenium’s science advisors offer up quirky nuggets related to their areas of expertise. For this April edition, Michelle Campbell Mekarski has invited Jacqueline Riddle — a Conservator at Ingenium — to fill in. Collectively, our experts explain how saliva is an effective cleaning agent for art and artifacts, how wild native bees are essential for pollination, and how evidence of volcanic activity has been found on the planet Venus.
An example of an artifact during cleaning with saliva on a cotton swab. This artifact is a glass slide with a section of a stromatolite, collected by Alice Wilson, the first female geologist at the Geological Survey of Canada.
Conservators (sometimes) use spit to clean historic art and artifacts
My saliva is on hundreds of artifacts in Ingenium’s three museums. No, really, my spit is on a bunch of things. For example, it’s on the microscope slides in the Canada Science and Technology Museum Hidden Worlds exhibition. Why? you ask. Well, as one of Ingenium’s Conservators, I am tasked with the long-term preservation of our artifacts. This includes cleaning the artifacts and, believe it or not, human saliva can be effective for a multitude of reasons for removing grime, smoke, and nicotine stains from artifacts.
For one, spit is environmentally friendly and costs nothing to produce. It is a lot easier and safer to make, store, and transport spit instead of solvents or specialised detergents. I am a walking, breathing, saliva-producing machine, and anywhere I go my saliva goes, too.
After cleaning the slide with saliva on a cotton swab.
But saliva is not only eco-friendly and convenient, it is also simply better at cleaning certain types of dirt than other methods. There is science behind it. Saliva contains an enzyme called salivary alpha amylase (sAA). Enzymes such as sAA are chemical compounds that act as catalysts to lower the activation energy required for a chemical reaction, in this case chemical cleaning. Saliva is also typically slightly acidic, which can help soften and remove grime.
So how does this work? It is not like conservators go hock a loogie on precious, unsuspecting museum artifacts. There is method to this madness. Saliva is not always appropriate, and can cause harm if it is used on some surfaces. It is important to consult a conservator before treating any historic artifact, or else you can risk damage. Before all conservation treatments, we test various cleaning methods in a small, inconspicuous area to ensure that the artifact does not have an adverse reaction. When spit cleaning, a swab is pre-moistened in the mouth and then used to clean the artifact. (And no double dipping!) We also take care not to eat or drink for half an hour before cleaning with saliva, and we drink lots of water as well. More often than not, this mild, mouth-produced enzymatic solution will remove dirt and smoke more effectively than water.
What about COVID and other diseases that could be transmitted via human saliva? Is spit cleaning safe? Yes, it is perfectly safe. Even if you touched the spit-cleaned artifacts (which I know you would never do, you wonderful reader), COVID and other viruses can only survive on dry surfaces for a matter of days, and artifacts are cleaned in the conservation lab several days or weeks before they go on public display. While bacteria can live longer than viruses on certain surfaces, the sAA enzyme I mentioned earlier actually helps to defend against bad bacteria. The more you know!
Extensive research into the survival of COVID-19 on surfaces in libraries, museums and archives was conducted by the REALM Project. Read more here:
Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM). (2023) Lab Testing. Available at: https://www.oclc.org/realm/research/lab-testing.html (Accessed: 22 March 2023).
In 2018, research by Paula Romão et al. on using human saliva to clean historic artifacts won the Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry, an international award “for achievements that first make people LAUGH, then make them THINK”. Read their research here:
Paula M. S. Romão, Adília M. Alarcão and César A.N. Viana, “Human Saliva as a Cleaning Agent for Dirty Surfaces,” Studies in Conservation, vol. 35, 1990, pp. 153-155.
By Jacqueline Riddle
Some native wild bees, like this sweat bee, come in showy metallic greens and blues!
Wild native bees are irreplaceable pollinators, but do you really know them?
Most of us are aware that pollinators are crucial to food production and that their populations are threatened by human activity and climate change. But when we’re talking about pollinator conservation, one species has been stealing the spotlight and our hearts; the western honeybee (Apis mellifera).
Truth is, honeybees are not native to Canada! They were introduced by early European settlers to provide sugar and wax, and are reared by humans like other domesticated animals. While farmed honeybees play a critical role in pollinating many of our crops, they don’t do the work on their own! Our wild native bees are as tied to our food security and ecosystem functioning as honeybees are — if not more so — and few of us really know them !
Bumblebees probably come to mind first when thinking of native bees, but did you know there are more than 800 species of native wild bees in Canada? Our gardens, trees, and fields are buzzing with sweat bees, miner bees, leafcutter bees, carpenter bees, and squash bees, just to name a few! Bees come in so many different shapes and colours that it’s difficult to identify them at a glance. Though we often think of bees as colony-dwelling insects, most of our native bees are solitary, and nest in the ground, in rotting wood, or in dried, hollow plant stems. They don't make honey, like honeybees do, instead they feed on pollen and nectar.
In many cases, native bees make better pollinators than honeybees. Flowering plants and their pollinators evolved together, and we see this reflected in flowers’ characteristics and the types of rewards they offer. Many plants are pollinated by just one or by only a few species of bees that have the abilities or physical traits matching what the plants present — for example, a longer tongue for deeper flowers. Some crops, such as blueberries, need bees to “buzz” the male part of the flower in order to shake the pollen free. We see this bee behavior called “sonication” in bumblebees and many other wild bees, but not in honeybees. Some plants, such as alfalfa, an important crop for feeding farm animals, have flower shapes that discourage honeybees from gathering their pollen, but that don’t deter other smaller natives, such as leafcutter bees. Native bees are also more likely to forage in wet, cloudy, or cool conditions, and are out earlier and later in the day, meaning they’re out working while honeybees are staying in.
Our native bees face similar threats as honeybees: habitat loss, disease, parasites, pesticides, environmental pollution, climate change, and competition with invasive species. Protecting the diversity of our wild bees ensures that their range of different capabilities and specialties are preserved, and that we don’t rely on a single species for one of the most important ecosystem services.
Want to give our native bees a little love and help them and our environment thrive? Here are some suggestions:
- Go observe bees in gardens and natural areas, learn to identify the different types, and share your knowledge with others.
- In gardens and flowerbeds, provide habitat in the form of rotting logs and plant debris, such as cut stems and brush piles, where leafcutter and mason bees nest.
- Since many species nest in the soil, going no-till — disturbing garden and flower bed soil as little as possible — helps preserve existing habitat.
- Check out Pollinator Partnership Canada’s “Selecting Plants for Pollinators” guides, for lists of what to plant in your specific ecoregion to attract pollinators.
- Create habitat and food sources by rewilding areas and planting gardens of local flowering plants that bloom at different times. Don't forget other host plants like trees and shrubs!
Check out this photo library of all the different bees found in Canada, compiled by York University scientists.
By: Renée-Claude Goulet
Three-dimensional view of Sapas Mons, a volcano on the surface of Venus.
First evidence of active volcanoes on Venus
Scientists have observed thousands of volcanic features on the surface of Venus, and have long hypothesized Venus was active, but there has been no evidence of active volcanic activity until very recently.
The discovery of active volcanism comes in the form of a change in size and shape of a volcanic caldera – a volcanic vent – observed between two radar images collected 8 months apart, in February and in October 1991 by a radar instrument on the Magellan spacecraft. That’s right, scientists are still examining 30-year-old data to better understand Venus. Though the image quality is coarse compared to today’s standards, it’s clear that a volcanic caldera underwent a huge collapse, doubling in size from 2 km in diameter to 4 km in diameter. It is uncertain whether there was an eruption that accompanied this collapse, or whether it is simply the result of magma movement underground. There is a potential lava flow near the vent but more images are required to be certain. This type of caldera collapse is common in volcanoes on Earth, such as the collapse of the Kilauea volcano’s caldera during an eruption in Hawaii in 2018. The study of volcanoes can help us to understand the evolution of a planet, its interior, and potential habitability. Though Venus has very high surface temperature and pressure, there is no water or ice to erode the surface features, only wind. There is very little information on how new or ancient these features may be.
The Magellan spacecraft arrived at Venus in mid-1990 and mapped nearly the entire Venusian surface with radar to penetrate Venus’ dense atmosphere. Volcanic edifices, pancake-shaped volcanic domes, and/or lava flows were observed over 85% of the surface. A new updated map using the Magellan dataset which catalogued all of the known volcanoes on Venus indicates there are more than 85,000 volcanic landforms: more volcanoes than any other planet or moon in the solar system.
There is still so much we don’t understand about Venus, but the planet consistently pulls the short straw when it comes to being granted spacecraft missions in the last 30 years. Two new missions were announced in 2021, VERITAS and DAVINCI+, which are expected to answer some big science questions. NASA’s VERITAS mission, a Venus orbiter with a series of powerful new instruments on board, includes a radar instrument that will create a new improved 3D global map of Venus’ surface with much higher resolution where we’ll be able to distinguish and interpret much smaller features. Unfortunately, NASA recently officially delayed VERITAS due to funding issues, so it may not fly until the next decade. DAVINCI+, a mission to investigate Venus’ atmosphere, is still planned to launch this decade.
Check out this past 3 Things You Should Know to better understand Venus.
By Cassandra Marion
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