Thank God for chocolate flies. No, we are not talking about chocolate-covered houseflies. That sounds repulsive to us too. We are talking about the tiny flies that are essential to the production of the chocolate we love.
Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) which is native to the rainforests of South America. When early tribes in the Amazon and Orinoco River area discovered uses for the cacao tree, they started what became a chocolate craze that is still going on today. From there, interest in the trees and the tasty substance they produce spread to more of northern South America, into Central America, and into Mexico. The Aztecs even used cacao beans as money.
However, growing the cacao beans is not easy. The tiny white flowers that produce the beans require a small insect pollinator. The flowers grow out of the trunk of the tree where pollination by a bird or mammal would not be practical. Even bees or butterflies are too large. That’s where the chocolate flies come in. The pollinators that can do the job are tiny flies, or midges, in the family Ceratopogonidae. They are small enough to get into the flowers, and they are on the right work schedule. The cacao flowers open just before dawn—a time when the midges are most active. It seems like a planned arrangement. They are not really chocolate flies, but they are essential helpers for chocolate farmers.
As farmers began to grow cacao on plantations, the pollination process was not working well. Human pollination of the flowers by hand is a difficult job and not as effective as the work of the little flies. The midges were not doing the job because they prefer the shade of the rainforest over the open spaces of cacao plantations. Coincidentally cacao trees grow well in shady areas.
Those of us who have grown sweet corn have almost always had to fight smut. That black and gray growth on corn looks disgusting. It is actually a fungus known scientifically as Ustilago maydis, and it has been around for a long time. Even though we dislike it, in some ways smut is a beneficial fungus.
Archaeologists studying ancient Puebloan people have found significant amounts of corn smut spores in their feces. That indicates that maize (corn) made up as much as 80% of the diet of ancestral Puebloan people and it included a great deal of the fungus.
One of the mysteries of ancient peoples in America is why they didn’t have nutritional diseases that were common in the world at that time. The most serious of those was the skin disease pellagra which is caused by a lack of niacin (vitamin B3) in the diet. The amino acid that prevents pellagra is missing from the maize but is present in high concentrations in the smut.
We generally have a negative attitude toward fungi, but there are many examples of beneficial fungus. Remember that penicillin was derived from a fungus. Now we find corn smut also offers a benefit. God has a use for everything He created, but sometimes it takes us a while to figure out what that use is.
We live in a part of the world where there are many trees. We also experience heavy winds that frequently blow down human-made structures. It is interesting that healthy trees are almost never blown down. When you stop to think about it, you would expect trees to be major victims of high winds. That is not the case, and it is due to leaf designs to preserve trees.
To survive strong winds, trees need two things. The most obvious is structural support–strong, flexible branches, sturdy trunks, broad bases, and good root anchorage. A more subtle requirement is leaf designs to preserve trees. Leaves must have minimal wind drag. A fluid, such as air, flowing around an object generates drag. To minimize drag requires some streamlining to reduce the amount of friction between the fluid and the object. A highly streamlined object will usually be gently rounded upstream and elongated and pointed downstream.
For healthy trees, the leaves offer the most surface area and thus the most drag. Trees most commonly blow over when in full leaf, so leaf design is critical to the survival of the tree. Different trees have different design features, but all of them are designed to avoid destruction in a wind storm. American holly leaves have a method that involves the leaves being able to flatten themselves against each other. When the wind becomes strong, the leaves turn and lie flat significantly reducing the drag.
Tulip tree leaf design allows the leaves to roll up when the wind gets strong. The blade of the leaf points away from the stem. As the wind blows against the leaf, it forms a cone pointing upwind at the stem. The blade forms the broad area of the cone away from the wind direction. The higher the wind, the tighter the cone and the less the wind resistance. Black locust leaves similarly roll together to produce a cylinder.
Each of these designs depends on the properties of the leaf. If the leaves were too stiff, they could not assume the right geometry. The flexibility of their stems has to be high, and the surface of the leaf must be carefully designed and restricted. You can argue that natural selection does all designing and that given enough time it will select the proper shape. But remember that changes in climate mean you don’t have infinite time to apply the process.
There have been times in Earth’s history when rodents threatened to overrun areas of the planet. Sometimes humans upset the ecological balance leading to an overabundance of rodents. Then people have to find a way to keep them under control. But what if you are an oak tree with a mouse problem? Is there such a thing as oak tree rodent control?
Among other things, rodents eat acorns which are the seeds of oak trees. How can new oak trees be produced if the mice eat the seeds? Dr. Jerry Wolff of Oregon State University made a study of oak trees and white-footed mice in the Appalachian Mountains several years ago. Dr. Wolff found that oak trees in the Appalachian area synchronize their erratic production of acorns. In that way, they control the rodent population.
When the mouse population is low, the oak trees produce a massive number of acorns which swamps the mice with more acorns than they can eat. These well-fed rodents produce high numbers of offspring. Over the next three or four years acorns will be a scarce commodity, and so the rodent population crashes. At that point, the trees again synchronize and switch back to high volume acorn production. There are fewer rodents around to eat them resulting in a greater production of tree seedlings.
It’s a plant that uses quantum mechanics to make maximum use of minimum light, and in doing so, it displays blue leaves. The explanation of why blue begonias are blue is another demonstration of the incredible design built into all living things.
The tropical begonia (Begonia pavonina) that grows in Malaysia has leaves that are iridescent blue. The blue does not come from pigmentation, but rather from structural color, a technique that gives beautiful color to some birds, Butterflies, and beetles. In the leaves of all kinds of plants there are cellular capsules called chloroplasts, and inside those structures is a green substance known as chlorophyll. The chloroplasts are the organic machines that take energy from sunlight and chemicals from the soil to make organic energy that allows the plant grow.
Sunlight is a mixture of light at various energy levels, but green is the highest energy of sunlight reaching the surface of the Earth. Since the chlorophyll pigment reflects green light, the plant is protected from being damaged by the high-energy sunlight. We see the reflected green light, so the leaves look green.
Blue begonias live on the floor of dense rain forests where the forest canopy restricts the light. Inside the chloroplasts of these begonias, there are nano-structures called thylakoids where the energy conversion takes place. Other plants have thylakoids, but they are arranged differently in the begonia. Scientists using an electron microscope discovered that the thylakoids are aligned in a way that they act like crystals. In other plants, they are haphazard in their arrangement. Light bounces around within the thylakoids causing interference at certain wavelengths and reflecting the iridescent blue. The light is slowed down in this process so the plant can use more of the high-energy green and red light while reflecting the blue. These plants are using principles of quantum mechanics which scientists only began to learn about in the twentieth century.
The result is that the blue begonias get the nutrition they need to survive in a location with little sunlight, and we see the leaves as a beautiful blue. One science website described the alignment of the thylakoids in this way: “…they have an amazingly regular structure, which is obviously planned.” Here is the way another science website described the unique way these begonias efficiently use the limited sunshine they receive: “It seems selective evolution led the plants to engineer a nanoscale light-trapping structure, the likes we’ve only seen in miniature lasers and other photonic structures made by humans…”
We believe that planning requires a planner and engineering requires an engineer.As scientists study even the simplest forms of life, they find more and moreevidence that God is ingenious in all He creates.
One of the most interesting areas of botany is the functioning of plants that don’t rely on photosynthesis to survive. Recent studies of the California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica), also known as the cobra plant because of its shape, have shown that its design is incredibly complex.
David Armitage at the University of Notre Dame has been studying this plant, and in a recent article in Science News (January 21, 2017, page 4) he reported on what is known about this strange plant. It grows in soil rich in serpentine which would kill most photosynthetic plants. The cobra plant survives by being “meat dependent.” Up to 95% of the nitrogen the plant uses comes from insects trapped inside the leaves of the plant.
The curled leaves of the California pitcher plant serve as an insect trap. It draws insects into the leafy trap by secreting a sweet substance. This secretion is not through its blossoms but from a special roll of tissue near the mouth of the insect trap. When an insect enters the small opening under the cobra-like head of the pitcher, something interesting happens. By a method still not understood, the cobra plant draws water up from the soil and creates a pool in the bottom of the “pitcher.” Putting other substances into the trap doesn’t trigger the water. The plant will only respond to an insect. How the plant knows what is a bug and what isn’t a bug is still not understood. The water contains bacteria which lower the surface tension, so when a bug falls in, it quickly sinks to the bottom and drowns.
Another unsolved mystery of this plant is that it has a forked tissue at the top of the trap called a “fishtail” which resembles a mustache with red veins. It does not lure insects into the plant, but its function is still not understood. Armitage says “The only thing fishtails lure, for the time being at least, are puzzled botanists.”
Atheists often challenge us with the widely quoted statistic that “95 to 99 percent of all creatures that have ever lived are now extinct.” Their argument is that if there were a wise God who created life, he would have done a better job. The skeptics are assuming that they know the purpose for which a wise God would have created those life-forms. Perhaps the extinct species had a purpose of preparing the Earth for humans, and they went extinct because they had served their purpose. But I am assuming that humans are the pinnacle and ultimate purpose of God’s creation. Atheists reject that idea. One of our skeptical followers recently posted a comment referring to “the virus called man,” as if humans are a blight on an otherwise good world.
Another possibility is that perhaps the statistic of extinct species is highly exaggerated. Since the life-forms that have gone extinct are no longer around, how do scientists determine how many species have gone extinct since life began? The number of fossils of extinct species we have actually found is estimated to be about 250,000. So we have direct evidence of a quarter of a million extinct species. According to National Geographic (May 2014), there are at least 1.9 million animal species today and at least 450,000 plant species. If it’s true that 95 percent of the animal species have gone extinct and there are 1.9 million living today, that means that over 36 million have gone extinct. If we have fossils of only 250,000 extinct species (plants and animals) how do we know that there were 36 million others for which we have no evidence? According to National Geographic (May 2014), Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, and his colleagues “reviewed data from fossil records and noted when species disappeared, then used statistical modeling to fill in holes in the record.” In other words, they are filling in the “holes” or “missing links” in the evolutionary record to determine how many other species must have existed that disappeared without a trace.
There is an economy of language in the Hebrew descriptions of the Bible. In Genesis 2:8-9 for example, the Bible says: “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees to grow out of the ground…”
We can learn a lot from those verses. They tell us that the Lord planted something, he did not “zap” something into existence. Later the man was told to tend the garden (verse 15), suggesting that it needed care to continue to provide for the man’s needs and later for the woman’s needs. How long was it after God planted the trees before they began to produce fruit? What did Adam and Eve have to do to take care of the garden? How long was it before Adam and Eve sinned? What else did God need to do in the process of planting the trees?
This last question opens the door to a great deal of understanding that science has gained in recent years through the study of soil chemistry. Plants do not grow in sterile sand. For soil to nourish plants so that they can feed us, much careful science has to be applied. Modern soil scientists refer to “healthy soil” meaning that it is rich in organic material, is crumbly, and has the right chemical profile. To have these things, the soil must contain microbes including bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa. A teaspoon of healthy soil can hold more microorganisms than there are people on Earth.
We now know that there is a symbiotic relationship between plants and soil microbes. Plants use the sun’s energy to pull carbon dioxide from the air and create a carbon-rich nutrient packet to allow growth. Oxygen is released in that process. The plants also leak nutrients to the microbes, and the microbes supply plants with other nutrients they have extracted from the minerals in the soil. The fungi produce an underground network that brings water and carbon to the plants. When insects begin to feed on a plant, fungi filaments called hyphae help the plant bring tiny soil nematodes that feed on the insects.
When humans abuse the soil and interrupt this system, we have to artificially add chemicals to do what organisms in the soil were designed to do. The chemicals of modern farming could be reduced or eliminated if farmers worked on building healthy soils. The Garden of Eden was a place of healthy soil. God used incredible wisdom and intelligent design to build a system that would meet human needs. This was done in God’s time and was not a magic show, but a consciously built system that has sustained all living things for a very long time. Proverbs 8:22-31 tells us that wisdom was involved in all of this planning and design, and Romans 1:18-22 lets us know that all of this is a testimony to the existence of God.
Most of us know what a Swiss Army Knife is. The one I had as a kid had a knife, can opener, bottle opener, nail file, corkscrew, screwdriver, and scissors all built into one six-inch container. You pulled out of the container whatever you wanted to use. While it didn’t always work well, it did a large number of things.
The mangrove is a tree which God has created to do a large number of different things. The design of the tree is ingenious. The roots of the plant filter out 90% of the salt from seawater so the plant can grow along any ocean shoreline. The leaves of the plant are waxy and thick so that the water inside the plant is stored efficiently. The roots make the plant look like it is on stilts, but their design gives stability even in the worst of storms. Those same roots sequester carbon four times more effectively than tropical rain forests.
In addition to all of those things, the mangrove is home to a wide range of living organisms. The root system is a protective breeding ground for many different species of fish as well as crustaceans, mollusks, barnacles, and turtles. Many varieties of sea-birds such as egrets and warblers nest in mangroves. There are about 60 species of mangroves in the world, and they are all beneficial. Not only do they protect the shorelines from beach erosion and shelter fisheries, but the wood is used in a variety of ways.
An advertisement currently running on television for a lotion product says that it contains ingredients derived from the “Resurrection Plant.” After doing some research on resurrection plants, I found that several plants are called by that name. The thing they all have in common is that they can become desiccated (almost completely dried out) and then return to life when water is applied. Perhaps the best known is Selaginella lepidophylla which is sold as a novelty. The animation shows one of these plants going from dry to revived over a three-hour period. This resurrection plant is native to the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico and western Texas. It is known by various other names including “rose of Jericho.” It’s also called “false rose of Jericho” because there is another species of resurrection plant called “rose of Jericho” that grows in the deserts of Asia and Africa.