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Ask Dr. Universe Plants, Animals, Microbes

Dear Dr. Universe: We have a lawn full of clovers that bumble bees love. Where do bumble bees live? Do they have hives or live underground? I love watching them. Do they live through winter? –Karen, Arizona

Dear Karen,

When it comes time for bumble bees to find a home, it’s pretty much up to the queen bee.

That’s what I found out from my friends Rachel Olsson and Elias Bloom. They are graduate student researchers here at Washington State University and really curious about bees, too.

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Dr. Universe: I have a ginormous question for you. How come non-biodegradables take like a million, billion, zillion years to decay? -Madeline C., age 8

Dear Madeline,

You’re right. It can take a really long time for some things to decay.

If we buried an apple peel in the backyard it might only take a few weeks to break down into the soil. But if we buried a plastic water bottle, it would probably still be there hundreds of years from now.

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What is the smallest insect on Earth? -Laurenz, 8, Molino, Philippines 

Dear Laurenz,

When I saw your question, I set out to explore with my bug net and a magnifying glass. I was searching all around for tiny insects when I ran into my friend Laura Lavine, a Washington State University scientist who studies bugs.

She said there are nearly a million different kinds of insects on Earth. The smallest of all the known ones are called fairyflies.

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How do plants hold dirt? -Gordon, Pullman, WA

Dear Gordon,

The other day, I wandered into a Washington State University greenhouse and ran into my friend Mechthild Tegeder, a professor and expert on plants.

She gently dug a small plant out of a pot so we could take a closer look. When she lifted it up, I pawed at the clumpy soil hanging from the bottom to reveal some stringy roots.

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What is Dr. Universe's favorite experiment? -Garrett, 8th grade, Eastern Washington

Dear Garrett,

You know, your question reminds me of a couple other science questions from curious readers. Evangeline, age 7, wants to know why her hair is black. Sureya, age 8, wants to know why some people have curly hair.

It just so happens that one of my favorite science projects explores our questions about what makes us unique. It has to do with our DNA, or the blueprint for life.

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Dear Dr. Universe, How does a chameleon change colors? -Jasmine B. 12, Nepean, Canada & Marie F., 11, Ghana

Dear Jasmine and Marie,

There’s something about a chameleon’s darting eyes, long tongue, curled tail, and ability to climb that makes it a fascinating animal to watch. Especially when it’s changing colors.

And the latest research on your question suggests that how a chameleon changes has more to do with light than scientists once thought.

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Why is yawning contagious? -Grant, 10, Pullman, WA

Dear Grant,

When I got your question, I met up with my friend Hans Van Dongen, a scientist at Washington State University in Spokane. He works in a research lab where they study sleep. As a cat who appreciates naps, it’s one of my favorite places to visit.

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Why do bees make hexagons in their hives? Why not any other shape? -Aditya, 10, New Delhi, India

Dear Aditya,

When bees make hexagons in their hives, the six-sided shapes fit together perfectly. In fact, we’ve actually never seen bees make any other shape. That’s what I found out when I visited my friend Sue Cobey, a bee researcher at Washington State University.

Cobey showed me some honeycombs where the female bees live and work. Hexagons are useful shapes. They can hold the queen bee’s eggs and store the pollen and honey the worker bees bring to the hive.

When you think about it, making circles wouldn’t work too well. It would leave gaps in the honeycomb. The worker bees could use triangles or squares for storage. Those wouldn’t leave gaps. But the hexagon is the strongest, most useful shape.

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Dear Dr. Universe, Please answer this question: Do animals dream? What dreams do they get? I humbly request you to answer these questions. BYE! Or should I say MEOWY! -Prahlad R.

Dear Prahlad,

After a quick catnap and a stretch, I went to visit my friend Marcos Frank, a scientist at Washington State University who studies animal sleep.

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If mollusks have such heavy shells to drag around with them, how have they spread all over the ocean? -Michel W.

Dear Michel,

Mollusks, from land snails and slugs to oysters and mussels in the sea, have a few things in common. They have a head. They have a soft middle part that holds their organs. Then, some have a muscle that’s known as a “foot.”

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Dr. Universe: Are aliens real? -Lily, 10, New York City, NY Is there life on other planets? -Heidi, Cincinnati, OH 

Dear Lily and Heidi,

Well, we don’t know for certain. Looking up to the stars at night, I’ve often wondered if alien cats are out chasing alien mice or taking naps on other planets.

My imagination aside, your questions are like those scientists are asking, too. And it’s no wonder we are so curious.

With billions of planets in our galaxy, including small Earth-like worlds, the possibility of life out there is an exciting thought to many people. So, humans have set out to look for planets that might support life.

In fact, this month scientists announced the Kepler spacecraft’s discovery of … » More …

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Dr. Universe: What is something a lot of people might not know about sharks?

It’s Shark Week, so I made a visit to my friend Jon Mallatt. He’s a Washington State University biologist who has studied the jaws of ancient sharks.

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Jon Mallatt: Some of them, such as tiger sharks, cat sharks, and even great white sharks, have quite large brains—relative to their body weight— and are intelligent. They are not “primitive” animals. The shark relatives, Manta rays and devil rays, have even larger brains than any shark.

Dr. U: How long have sharks been around, anyways?

JM: At least 420 million years and maybe 460. It is … » More …

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I saw a caterpillar and a butterfly in the neighbor's yard. So my question is, what exactly happens inside the little sack they're in while they transform into a butterfly and HOW exactly do they do it?  -Eston

Dear Eston,

Springtime sets the stage for one of the greatest transformations in the natural world.

“It’s the construction of a butterfly or moth from caterpillar soup,” said my friend David James, an entomologist at Washington State University. James studies the science behind metamorphosis, or how a creature transforms.

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Why are ripe fruits sweet and why is it so important?  -Alexa, Schenzhen, China

Dear Alexa,

My friend Kate Evans said the answer really depends on whether you want the perspective of a person, a plant, or even a cat. Evans is a plant scientist at Washington State University in Wenatchee, where she investigates fruit in the Apple Capital of the World.

She explained how long ago, wild apples actually grew in forests. Without farmers around to plant them in orchards, trees had to scatter their own seeds to survive.

For some trees, the key to survival is growing sweet, ripe fruit.

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Can you grow stuff like thread, cloth, silk, and most importantly, clothing? -Jay, Colorado

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Dear Jay,

We can use all kinds of animal, bug, and plant materials to make cloth. Even some of the tiniest living things on the planet can make cloth, too.

I heard about this from my friend Hang Liu, a Washington State University professor who studies the science of materials we use and wear every day.

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Do bats have habits? -Elliot 

Dear Elliot,

You are onto something. Quick, to the bat-lab! That’s where I met up with my friend Christine Portfors, a scientist at Washington State University who studies fruit bats.

Portfors explained that while bats don’t quite have habits like humans, they do have behaviors.

Bats are nocturnal. They sleep during the day and wake up in the early evening. The first thing they’ll do when they wake up is fly around and around their caves for a while.

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Dear Dr. Universe, Do bugs have hearts and brains? -Nick

Take a look inside a bug and you’ll find one brain in its head and other little brains called “ganglia” along its whole body. These tiny control centers help insects see, taste, and smell. They also help them quickly escape threats, like other bugs.

“If you had little brains everywhere else, you would also be much quicker,” says bug expert Laura Lavine. Read More ...