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Find the Celestial Beehive

Starwatch

By Dennis Mammana- Every year around this time, when it seems that wintertime will just never end, I begin looking for signs of springtime.

As a child, I’d spend part of each February day on my knees in my mom’s garden, brushing away the snow in search of green buds that might be poking through the soil. I’m sure the neighbors must have wondered about the curious habits of that goofy kid down the street, but, ahh, when I found those first signs of life, it made all those strange glances worthwhile.

I was absolutely thrilled. The days would soon be growing longer; the temperatures would be rising; and the flowers of springtime were indeed on their way, accompanied by the most amazing of little pollinators: the bees.

If you think that bees and springtime come only to our terrestrial environment, think again, for you can easily identify them in the heavens as well.

This week, go outdoors not long after dark, and cast your gaze midway up in the eastern sky. There you’ll find a pair of bright stars named Castor and Pollux that represent the heads of Gemini, the twins. Directly below — much nearer to the horizon — shines the bright star Regulus, part of the constellation Leo, the lion.

Midway between lies the extremely faint constellation Cancer, the crab. And within it — just to the right of a line connecting the twin stars with Regulus — lies a hazy smudge of light known to astronomers as M44.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that astronomers aimed the recently invented telescope in its direction and discovered its true nature. Today, even inexpensive binoculars show it as a beautiful cluster of dozens of stars that give rise to its proper name, the Praesepe or the Beehive, perhaps so named because it appears as a collection of bees swarming around their hive.

If you’ve got a clear, dark sky far from city lights, you’ll find that the Beehive is not that difficult to spot with the unaided eye. If you live in or near a city, however, it might be totally impossible without some optical assistance.
The Beehive has been known to stargazers since at least the time of the Greek writer Aratos in 260 B.C. In 130 B.C., Hipparchus included it in his star catalog and called it “Little Cloud” or “Cloudy Star”. And the 2nd century A.D. astronomer Claudius Ptolemy described it in his famous book “Almagest” as “The Nebulous Mass in the Breast (of Cancer).”

Interestingly, ancient sky watchers used this cluster to forecast their weather. The philosophers Aratos and Pliny both wrote that when they could see the cluster, the skies would be fair, but when it was invisible, a change in weather was surely on its way.

Today we know that the technique works well because high cirrus clouds that often precede a storm can easily block this cluster from view while leaving the much brighter stars around the sky to shine through unaffected.
If you’re like I am and you have just about had enough of winter, go outside tonight; look skyward; and check out the Beehive. It’s a sure sign that springtime is not that far away.

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