Country Life Today: The RAF weathermen who saved D-Day and the bees who have learned to read

The story of the aircrew who gave their lives to prevent D-Day becoming a disaster, how bees are learning to read, how nuclear submarines are being subsidised by your electricity bills and why we won't be living on Mars in 2050 after all (it'll be another planet instead).

The weathermen who saved D-Day

Of all the harrowing and inspiring tales of D-Day being re-told on the 75th anniversary of the invasion, one of the most fascinating is that of Group Captain James Stagg. Stagg was the RAF meteorologist who persuaded General Eisenhower to push back the Allied assault by one day, and while his story is relatively well-known, less commonly-acknowledged is the sacrifice of the air crews who helped him.

Stagg correctly predicted that a disastrous storm would hit northern France on the original planned date – June 5th – but that the weather would break enough on the 6th for an invasion to go ahead.

This is the sort of information we take for granted today, but it was heard-earned in 1944. Dozens of brave pilots and crew of 518 Squadron died in appalling weather conditions as they repeatedly flew 10-hour missions from their base in Tiree into the heart of Atlantic storms to collect the weather data Stagg needed to understand what would happen. Quite incredible – the excellent article by Cameron Buttle of BBC Scotland should be required reading.

Full Story (BBC) 

Un’bee’lievably smart – but can bees really learn to read?

Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) adult male feeding on Buddleia (Buddleja X weyeriana) flowers in a garden. Powys, Wales.

Garden Bumblebee feeding on Buddleia flowers in a garden in Powys, Wales.

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A group of honeybees have been taught to read numbers and understand their meanings – the first time that insects have been shown to be capable of this feat.

‘For the first time researchers trained honeybees to match characters to specific quantities, so for example they could recognise that “two” could represent two bananas, two trees or two hats,’ a report in The Independent explains.

Seeing as we learned that bees can do basic maths in February, perhaps this shouldn’t be so much of a surprise. But when you learn the relative size of bee brains, it’s astonishing: we have 86 billion neurons, bees have less than a million.

‘When we’re looking for solutions to complex problems, we often find that nature has already done the job far more elegantly and efficiently’, says Adrian Dyer, an associate professor from RMIT University in Melbourne.

Full Story (The Independent)

The mystery of Ireland’s humpback whales

Humpback whale's tail above water surface, Dingle, Kerry, Ireland

Humpback whale’s tail above water surface, Dingle, Kerry, Ireland

In the late 1990s, a group of humpback whales started turning up regularly of the west coast of Ireland. They were as mysterious as they were majestic; where had they come from?

Years of effort has now yielded an answer: Africa. The Times reports that a whale that beached on County Kerry in 2015 was tagged before being returned to the water, and was spotted again earlier this year near an island of Cape Verde. It seems that the whales have been making round-trips of  5,000 miles a year for their food.

Full story ( The Times – subscription required)

Stat of the day


The number of plastic particles humans eat a year, according to an article in The Guardian. Yet another reason to put down the bottled water…

Full Story (The Guardian)

Is your electricity bill subsidising nuclear submarines?

HMS Astute, a nuclear-powered submarine, heading out to sea.

As renewable energy becomes cheaper and easier to produce, the arguments for the use of nuclear energy become harder to push each year. So why do we keep pushing forward with it?

The government’s official line is that a mix of energy sources is the best way forward – a fairly reasonable argument, you might think, given how the landscape of these things change. After all, 40 years ago some scientists advocated pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere as they feared we might be entering a new ice age.

But a group of scientists have now suggested that the only reason we still have nuclear power plants running is so that Britain’s arsenal of nuclear submarines can be kept running.

‘It is clear that the costs of maintaining nuclear submarine capabilities are insupportable without parallel consumer-funded civil nuclear infrastructures,’ Professor Andy Stirling of the University of Sussex told the BBC. ‘The accelerating competitiveness of renewable energy and declining viability of nuclear power are making this continuing dependency increasingly difficult to conceal.’

Full Story (BBC News)

Why we won’t be living on Mars in 2050

The plant Venus, often described as 'Earth's evil twin'. Credit: Alamy/NASA

The plant Venus, often described as ‘Earth’s evil twin’. Credit: Alamy/NASA

It’s because we’ll be living on Venus instead, according to this story in Nature. The might be a hellishly hot ball surrounded by a highly toxic atmosphere, but it probably has a much better chance of one day sustaining life.

Full Story (Nature)

And finally… Quote of the Day

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’

 – John F. Kennedy