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Separating truth from fiction not easy

It was 1918 when a fellow named Robert Ripley began drawing cartoon panels for newspapers with the heading, Believe It or Not! Ripley would pass along weird facts and oddities from around the world and present them in these panels. The feature became immensely popular and made Mr. Ripley a very rich man. The franchise still exists with many "museums" scattered around the country in popular tourist locales.

I'm not exactly sure where this gentleman harvested his factual data or how it was verified. But facts have a way of getting lost in the murky sea of hearsay and wives' tales. And so it can be difficult to pick out the nuggets of truthful information from popular understanding and sentiment. It is no easier today. One would think that with a tool as powerful as the Internet, truth would be winning the day in ways we never dreamed. But nearly the opposite has happened. Let loose from the confines of academic and journalistic standards, bloggers, writers, political operatives and every-day Joes are filling data streams with stuff that may or may not be true.

So it is with the natural world. Stories abound of strange happenings surrounding all sorts of critters. Some, undoubtedly, are true; others are not, or at least stretched to fit the teller's goal of impressing the gullible listener.

A friend relayed a bit of news last week regarding a strange encounter between house sparrows (Passer domesticus) and bumblebees. It seems a neighbor of his told him that bumblebees were killing her house sparrows. Not one to miss such an opportunity, my friend sauntered over to watch the spectacle. Sure enough, house sparrows were entering a nest box with the likely intention of starting a family only to be evicted by bumblebees already in residence. He watched as one of the birds entered the hole. A moment later the bird came streaming out with a bumblebee firmly attached to its back. Presumably the bird later succumbed to the stings. Or at least that's the way the story went.

While I've never heard of such a thing it doesn't mean it didn't happen. An effort to confirm this behavior in several texts, Internet sources and with individual experts produced a nibble. Dr. Gerald Fauske, a research entomologist at NDSU, was a little skeptical. "That it could happen in Hymenoptera (the wasp/hornet/bee family) doesn't surprise me but bumblebees wouldn't be my prime candidate," he said. A more likely suspect would be the bald-faced hornet, according to Fauske. "These can be quite aggressive." So far then, this tale gets filed as an interesting anecdote begging to be verified.

Odd animal behavior intrigues us. Television shows, books and movies dealing with strange stuff in the natural world are popular. And we watch and read with gusto as orcas feed on seals along the beach in South America; emperor penguins sit in total darkness for months incubating eggs under extreme climatic conditions; monarch butterflies migrate great distances to Mexican mountaintops.

News, such as this bumblebee episode, may very well end up in a scientific journal someday alongside the continuing stream of new knowledge. Every day a chance observation or experiment gives us a more intimate glimpse into a world we are still trying to figure out. In a way, it is nice to know that we don't know everything; that there are still truths to be discovered. It leaves the door slightly ajar for us amateurs. Maybe we too can contribute to the body of knowledge and further our understanding of the world around us.

By the way, Mr. Ripley's real first name was LeRoy and he started his career as a tombstone polisher...believe it or not!