Raining beer

My university (Technical university of Munich), and particularly my campus (Weihenstephan) is pretty big on brewing technology. I have no clue where these people hide, or what exactly there is to be studied about the process of making beer that is so interesting, or attractive, to so many people. There are quite a bunch of brewing people here. Bavaria is also absolutely stuffed with breweries (Weihenstephaner being the local big boi). To me they’re all the same. They all brew Weizen or Helles, and for me there’s no difference (this is some brewer heathen blasphemy right here).

Anyway. Brewers. Beer. Their product. These people brew a lot of it, and they are also doing projects at many different breweries. There has been this long tradition of organizing a Beerfest once a year, where beers from different connected breweries are brought in and distributed over the typical Stein beer jugs. I must say I don’t really know what I’m talking about. This is what I think is happening. The details and background don’t even matter. What matters is that this annual event has not taken place these past two years. I had only heard rumors. Today they finally celebrated it again – the 28th edition of the Freibierfest.

The idea is simple. You acquire a (limited) Stein for 20 bucks, and refill it as often as you please. For some this is a source of happiness and bliss. Me? After two, I pleased no more, and they took me the better part of four hours to empty. I’m no longer fit for drinking. I’m a dad now. My youthfulness and beer fitness have lost their shine. I just came home, from an evening of this event with some colleagues. It was a fun evening, albeit an evening with rain and generally crap weather. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many drunks, or people in Lederhosen and Dirndl. It was an interesting experience. But fun.

My Freising Bierfest souvenir

Chinese beauties

Yeah, yeah. Of course this Thursday post is about snakes. And no! This post’s title is not clickbait. Well, and even if it made you click because you expected something else – I disagree. You’re the one in the wrong. Not me. This title is spot-on.

I just want to keep it short today and share two beautiful snakes I acquired not too long ago. Most snakes I have – no, all other snakes I have – are cornsnakes.

These two worms are something else.

Chinese beauty snakes, or Ortriophis taeniurus taeniurus for the experts, are fantastic ratsnakes. About 22 years ago, I bought my first constrictor snake, and it was one of this species (but the Taiwanese subspecies O. t. friesei). I absolutely loved it, and I’ve had it for years. They grow quite big, to over two meters, but have a slender build, as they are agile climbers, and what purpose would a lumpy bulky body serve there? They also have a beautiful temperament. The juveniles hate everything, and are often bluffing with their mouth wide open, ready to strike. The adults mellow down quite a bit. But let’s say that they will not lie about whether they like you or not. I kinda like that.

I’ve been tempted to buy a pair for a long time, but never did. But when the breeder of my pied sided cornsnakes turned out to have a bunch available, I couldn’t resist.

And I’m glad I didn’t. These Chinese beauties are awesome.

They are some color variants, that I have not yet figured out the full genetics of. To be frank, I don’t care much. These stunners are for display in a vivarium when they grow up some more. I don’t know what genes go in a ‘Platinum het. Calico’ (not sure if a Platinum is one or more genes combined), but that’s the male. The female is an ‘Anery het. Calico’, which is a bit more straightforward to grasp. I wouldn’t mind if they produce wild types and Calicos. Calicos are cool, and the wild types are stunners too.

Anyway, enough talk. Look at them. They’re awesome. Tadaa!


How are you today?

“How are you today?” my therapist asked me.

I responded with a laugh – not sure what I was laughing about.

I wasn’t sure. How am I today?

“I feel good, I guess… Busy, hot and sweaty,” I said. “Running around, dousing fires.”

“And the parking here sucks! Sorry I’m late,” I added.

It pretty much sums up how I feel. Running at full steam. It makes me tired, and sometimes requires a lot. Yet, I do it with pleasure.

This week there were many fires that required dousing. It’s good to know that I’m not alone. This is probably also why I feel quite alright.

We had a lot of problems with a heatwave and our experimental insect colonies earlier this week – colonies that would be needed for long-prepared experiments that are soon ready to start. Most insects were killed, shocked, or severely weakened. Without insects we were back to square one. It was tough, a real setback, as apparently finding the required aphids in our field sites was difficult. Monday was not a fruitful day in that regard. Nevertheless, the entire team worked together, better than ever maybe. There was no pessimism. Well, maybe I was a little pessimistic myself, but the team all had positive spirit. This revived my good spirits, too.

Over the following days, we all put our brains and ideas together, and rolled up our sleeves. Alternative solutions were found for every problem, and motivated people are apparently much better at finding insects. We found the insects we need. And it seems that we will have enough of them.

From tomorrow, we will have a newly established insect colony, or in fact four or five, up and running.

Our team work, flexibility and hard efforts may have saved our experiments after all.

And no matter how tired – that makes me feel good.

How are you today?

Thanks you!

Just after crossing the Cambodian-Thai border and immediately treating ourselves to a delicious Pad Thai lunch, we hopped onboard of a train westward. We had a couple of hours ahead of us, and in stark contrast to trains southbound from Bangkok, this train was almost brand new. It reminded me of certain western European line buses. Light grey interiors, with a dark blue textile seating. Chairs were far from comfortable, but nothing you wouldn’t survive for a couple of hours.

About two hours in, the train came to a halt. Nothing too abrupt, but it was clear that it wasn’t an ordinary train station.

Nothing happened for quite some time, as we stood still amidst the Thai rice fields. A shade of green that you cannot describe, only experience. Some announcements were made, but my Thai has always been rusty. I could probably recognize the language, some greetings, or a thank you, but that’s about it. Not much seemed to happen, the locals didn’t respond, so why should we? We simply waited.

I’m not sure how long it took. Probably another hour? I was getting curious to know why we were stopping here. Despite the surroundings being fine for us, we had a destination to go to. We were going to visit a national park that had a healthy population of wild Asian elephants. This place ranked high on our itinerary. The Thai train being a Thai train, it was pretty easy to get off or hop back on, something that is unimaginable in my home country.

I hopped off, to see a gathering of men near the front end of the train. The gathering also included some official-looking men, in the typical brownish green and overly tight suits and aviator glasses that many of the Thai police wear. The other men were running around from one side of the train to another, seemingly in despair. Several were bent over in the bushes on the side, emptying their stomachs. It looked like a panicking ants nest, to be honest. It was still unclear to me what had happened.

I got a little closer to see what was going on.

There was a lot of blood.

I assessed the situation from a distance. We had clearly hit something. I only hoped it wasn’t human. When some men stepped aside, I got an open view for a split second. I immediately recognized what happened. A full frontal collision with a water buffalo. These large cows are literally everywhere in Thailand – and as must be clear from this story, they often roam free.

As it was now clear to me that we had not hit a human, my respectful distance was less important to me. At this point I just wondered if they could use a pair of extra brains and hands, so I came closer and with some sign language, offered my assistance.

The situation closer by was grim. The poor animal was still alive – I think. It was in advanced state of dying. The animal, all of its 800kg body, was below the locomotive, except its head. The head, with its impressive horns, stuck out at the front. It vaguely resembled a hunting trophy, albeit its location was a bit odd. Blood was bubbling from its nostrils, as it was exhaling its last breaths. As I arrived, the train driver was about to try and move the train back and forth to try and get the animal out of there. It didn’t work out as planned, but I’m pretty sure it sped up the dying process, which at this point probably was a good thing.

The dead cow was stuck under the train’s front. I now understand why these are sometimes called cow catchers. The driver was desperate to keep on trying, but the horns wouldn’t budge. I suggested with a sawing movement that we’d have to saw them off, unlock the locomotive from the rest of the train, and push the head down as the driver would drive over the deceased animal’s fresh carcass.

I instantly became a local hero.

The driver quickly found a rusty old saw, and in the blink of an eye, he had removed the horns. We needed volunteers to push the head down. A few men retched and ran for the bushes. I volunteered together with one of the police officers. The locomotive was uncoupled, we pushed the head down as the engine slowly started moving. It succeeded in one go, and without much effort, the locomotive was parked at the other end of the beast.

It wasn’t pretty. I gave animal anatomy classes at the time, so I was used to some butchering work, but believe me, there is a difference between cutting up a piglet, and opening up a fully-grown water buffalo. Let’s say that a pretty large abdominal incision had been made, and we were now staring at what we used to call the situs viscerum – the arrangement of the organs in the body. Well, not all was inside the body, but close enough. Part of the stomachs had ripped open, revealing a bright green paste, of yet another shade of green that has to be experienced to really be understood. The other contents were brown. Just ordinary brown… The smell though…

This time, it was clear that we needed more volunteers. We would need to pull this animal off the train tracks. I’m a big guy, but I couldn’t do it alone even if I wanted to. The police guy that helped earlier had also disappeared when he saw the cow’s intestines hanging out. Luckily his colleague was more helpful, but we couldn’t find more volunteers. We grabbed the animal’s hind legs and pulled it to one side of the tracks. We did the same with the front legs. The animal was huge and heavy, but we managed to get it just far enough to the side for the locomotive to be able to pass through.

They reconnected the loc to the train wagons, and there was a small moment of euphoria. We hadn’t spoken a word in the fifteen minutes or so that it had taken to get this far, but there was team spirit. We didn’t understand each other’s words, but we felt united. I greeted the men, and started making my way back to the train. I washed my hands in the train’s restroom, as they were covered in a mixture of blood, gut contents and mud.

We returned to our seats, and before long, the train was moving again.

Ten minutes later, the first police officer came into our wagon, and he approached me. With a friendly smile and a bow that only the Thai can do well, he uttered the only English he knew.

“Thanks you, thanks you,” he said before he disappeared again.

Two hours later, we reached out destination, as if nothing happened.

Monday meltdown – disaster edition

Today was an absolute disaster, that started off with a couple of different Monday meltdown events. Or well. Heatwave meltdowns of the weekend that culminated in this horror show that was today.

It could have been a wonderful day. A meeting on the final designs for the summer experiments. Another meeting with a new collaborator in Vienna that can help us with very cool measurements of plant traits. A brief visit to our local field site. Two meetings with student groups about their summer projects. And the proverbial cherry on the pie: a seminar at the university of Bielefeld. A pretty full schedule, but only good things.

And that’s the weird thing. All these meetings went well, and even generally as planned. Most meetings were productive and fun.

So why the meltdown?

After our first meeting, we discovered that we had an aphid situation. All my work at the moment involves insects, and predominantly aphids. Aphids are tiny ectotherm animals, meaning that they depend on their surroundings for regulating their temperature. They have little means to regulate their body temperature, other than behaviorally. And aphid behavior, well, is not filled with options. Their means of behavioral thermoregulation are few. In the field, they could walk to a shady part of their host plant, and in the short term, that’s about it… But what if the plant is nowhere near shade? Or what if the plant is caged in a closed environment? You can guess what… It’s a death sentence for these little buggers.

In the past week, we have had to emergency harvest a student experiment on Friday. Aphids were dying as they were feeding on their host plant. The pot surfaces looked like little mass graves, littered with deceased aphid carcasses. The plants were caged, and watered daily, but the vegetation hall they were in received sunlight, and one of my students measured close to 40 degrees centigrade in the cages on Friday. There’s no surviving a day of 40 degrees if you have no means to cool off. The plants survived, as they were well-watered, but I doubt they would have survived the weekend, as the temperatures skyrocketed even further.

We also found out this morning that our tansy aphid colonies, all four of them, had suffered great losses. The labs and office where they were kept got boiling hot over the weekend. I didn’t like being there all day today, and I had a fan on and a window open… Our climate cabinet, which we usually have available to keep stable conditions for our colonies, broke down weeks ago. There are shortages in replacement parts, and we had no other way to keep our colonies happy then to keep them under growth lights at room temperature. This is fine, if room temperature is room temperature, and not some boiling heatwave temperature that already ruined the season, before the summer even started. Again, the plants seemed okay, as they were well-watered. The aphids, though, literally were fried to death, often in their feeding position. I have never seen anything like it.

Solutions, I thought. We need solutions. With the two tansy PhDs, I cycled to our field site, hoping to find at least a small handful of healthy tansy aphids that we could use to boost our colonies. What we found instead were plants that clearly had seen many aphids, but were now devoid of plant-sucking life. Instead, they had a rich and colorful predator community, with ladybugs and predatory bugs running up and down the stems. They were slurping down whatever the heatwave had fried on the plants. They were feasting. It was, again, u like anything I’ve ever seen.

Our hopes are now with our Jena tansy experiment. If there are still any aphids present around there, that could save our summer experiments. My boss told me Jena was the hottest city in Germany, with air temperatures reaching 36 centigrade.

This isn’t fucking normal.

It’s no fun either.

I guess I could end this here, and dwell in negativity, but instead I want to end it on a positive note: The new collaborations established today will make it possible to work with the plants that we have growing now, and allow us to generate novel and exciting data relatively quickly. That’s cool, regardless of whether we have aphids or not. I also gave this seminar at Bielefeld uni a couple hours ago and found it a pleasurable experience, with a very fun and lively discussion about some of my work on light pollution. It was a pleasure.

Don’t get me wrong, this day was an absolute goddamn disaster, but I have many things to still be grateful for, and I am exactly that..


We managed to arrive home in Freising today, just before the blistering part of the day. I think it was a good decision to drive early. I think it was also a good decision to not do much except hang out in the garden. It was a good decision to order delivery food. It’s also a good decision to end this post here. It’s a Sunday after all.

Warm and sweaty

God, it’s warm today. We’re visiting my mother in the east of the Netherlands, just before driving back to Bavaria tonight and tomorrow – we’ll sleep somewhere halfway.

This weather though. It’s no joke.

Luckily, my mother set up a play pool for the kids, to their great appreciation. I have mixed feelings about the waste of so much water in a period of drought, but the kids at least used it to the last drop. They played and played, and played some more. Meanwhile I have been melting away. Fuck, it’s warm.

I’m really not looking forward to the drive back. Ten hours on the German Autobahn with 30+ degrees centigrade is no fun. Our choice for a dark blue campervan for a mode of transportation doesn’t help much either. The drive is fine, but the nights, after a day in full sun, are always sweaty.

I’m looking forward to just being home and having a cold shower!

It’s not a bear, it’s not a pig, then what is it?

Today I spent our public holiday by visiting a local zoo with the family. Now, I thought I was pretty familiar with what’s going on in the animal kingdom, but today I found out about a new animal that I had never heard of, and am not even sure I needed to know about. A South American member of the canid family. Dogs, to keep it simple.

This thing looked bizarre. A bit like a miniature pig’s body, combined with a teddy bear-like face. Paws that are disproportionately small to it’s body.

A bush dog.

It’s not cute, it’s not pretty, and it sure as hell ain’t cool, but to me it looked somehow impressive, because it just looked so silly. But hey, it exists, and I’m cool with that. And now you know about it too. Tadaa!

A Bush Dog, picture from Gaia ZOO, Kerkrade.

Life happened

Not too long ago I had all the energy in the world. I could stay up late and wake up early. Drink and eat all I wanted. I would feel reasonably fit the next day.

Fast forward to now. My God, I’m not sure what happened. Age happened. Kids happened. Life happened. Most days I’m in bed before 10pm, and up around 6am. I sleep disrupted sleeps, and my energy levels are barely enough to drag me through some days.

Today, I pushed through to 11.30pm. we had our friends over for a garden dinner. We had fun bringing up old memories. I even had a glass of wine.

I can feel my body wrestling with the small quantity of alcohol that I poured myself. I can feel the brain and body battling with sleep. I’m barely awake

I’m curious what tomorrow will be like. It’s a public holiday, so whatever happens, it’s alright.