If there's any flower that should be crowned "Autumn's Majesty," that would be the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), aka "Torch."
A member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), it carries "the torch of life" throughout spring, summer and autumn, but it's especially important in autumn when few plants offer sustenance to insects, especially to migrating monarchs. The colorful annual has been blooming in our yard since April, reaching 10-to 15-foot heights (thanks, drip irrigation).
What loves this delightful orange blossom, besides the human beings who grow it?
Over a weeklong period, we photographed dozens of autumn critters, including monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, hover flies, honey bees and crab spiders.
Every bee garden needs an "Autumn Majesty" and the Mexican sunflower fills the bill. When it goes to seed, finches and other birds will take what's left.
She's right. Just as birds maintain a "home tweet home," honey bees and honey connoisseurs insist on a "home sweet home."
But how much do we know about honey? We know that European colonists brought the honey bee to Jamestown in 1622 and we know that a San Jose beekeeper brought the honey bee to California in 1853.
Harris, quoting from the National Honey Board, defined honey as "the substance made when the nectar and sweet deposits from plants are gathered, modified and stored in the honeycomb by honey bees."
She went on to say that:
- A honey bee gathers nectar from an assortment of flowers. Nectar is very high moisture--about 80 percent water.
- The worker (bee) drinks the nectar through her proboscis, eventually filling up her crop or honey sac.
- Once the sac is full, she will return to the hive. While in flight, the nectar is mixed with the enzyme invertase.
- Upon her return, the forager gives her nectar to the house bee.
- The bee actively engaged in processing nectar pumps out the contents of her honey sac into a flat drop on the underside of her proboscis. She draws it up and repeats the process for about 15 to 20 minutes.
The Honey and Pollination Center is hosting a Honey Sensory Experience Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10-11 at UC Davis so you can learn all about honey, taste honey varietals from all over the world, and hear what researchers are doing.
The all-day course, to take place in the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science's Sensory Building on Old Davis Road, is for beekeepers, bakers, mead makers, honey lovers, packers, importers, professional buyers, honey producers, and "anyone who wants to gain expertise in the aroma of honey analysis," said Harris. "Over two days, expert teachers will guide participants through a unique tasting and educational odyssey."
For the past nine months, the center has been working with a team of sensory experts and trained tasters in the sensory lab in the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology. The panel analyzed the flavor, aroma, color, pollen and nutrition of three varietal honeys with samples produced across the nation. The center's goal is to create a description of each varietal honey's unique characteristics.
“We have about 300 varietal honeys here in the United States,” Harris pointed out. “Many aren't produced each year. And some years actually have a better crop than others. Our center's goal is to help consumers understand what each varietal honey should really taste like.”
Well-known varietals include orange blossom and clover honeys, although these are rarely pure varietals, Harris said.
“According to current honey labeling laws, the varietal listed on the label need only be the predominant floral source. Simply, a blended honey of 23 percent alfalfa, 25 percent wildflower and 25 percent cotton with 27 percent orange blossom can be labeled ‘Orange Blossom Honey.' Swap out the orange blossom for clover and you have a new varietal.”
The Honey and Pollination Center, at the forefront of honey sensory research, developed the first-ever Honey Flavor and Aroma Wheel. The wheel has been featured on National Public Radio, at the Smithsonian, and at tastings and specialty food conferences across the country.
In addition to Harris, the presenters will include Orietta Gianjorio, member of the Italian Register of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey; Hanne Sivertsen, sensory researcher, UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology; Amy Myrdal Miller, certified nutritionist and owner of Farmer's Daughter Consulting, Sacramento; Joyce Schlacter, certified quality control specialist and director of food safety and quality, Smitty Honey, Iowa; chef Mani Niall, owner of Sweet Bar Bakery, Oakland, Calif. and Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño, based in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Niall, known as “Baker to the Stars,” served as a chef to Michael Jackson and a chef for the National Honey Board in the 1990s. He is the author of the book, Covered in Honey: The Amazing Flavors of Varietal Honey.
Miller, a UC Davis graduate, is an “amazing nutritionist,” Harris said. She is a farmer's daughter, a highly regarded public speaker, published author, and founder and president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting, a privately-held agriculture, food, and culinary communications firm.
The course, which includes breakfast and lunch each day, is $625. To access the agenda and to register, see http://honey.ucdavis.edu/events/honey-sensory-experience-an-introduction.
Bees and blister beetles, yes.
We remember writing about her work in April of 2013 when she addressed the Nor Cal Entomology Society (now folded) about her research on how blister beetle nest parasites cooperate to mimic the sex pheromone of a digger bee. She had just returned from the Mojave National Preserve, tracking the solitary bee Habropoda pallida and its nest parasite, a blister beetle, Meloe franciscanus.
Fascinating research! Saul-Gershenz, who grew up in New York, studies the chemical ecology and parasite-host interactions of solitary native bees and their nest parasites across the western U. S., including the coastal sand dunes of Oregon and the Mojave Desert in south-central California.
"The solitary bee is the first native bee to emerge in the spring on the Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve," she told us. “The adult beetles emerge on the dunes in the winter months at Kelso Dunes and feed exclusively on the leaves of Astragalus lentiginosus which leafs out in January."
The bee's emergence is generally synchronized with the onset of blooms of the Borrego milkvetch, which is the sole host plant of adults of the blister beetle at Kelso Dunes.
Basically, the larvae of the parasitic blister beetle produce a chemical signal or allomone, similar to that of a female bee's pheromone to lure males to the larval aggregation. The larvae attach to the male bee on contact and then transfer to the female during mating. The end result: the larvae wind up in the nest of a female bee, where they eat the nest provisions and likely the host egg.
Leslie is now Dr. Saul-Gershenz. She received her doctorate in entomology in May 2017. And on Wednesday, Oct. 18, she will share her research at her exit seminar, "Host Range Evolution of the Bee Parasite Meloe franciscanus," set from 4:10 to 5 p.m. in 122 Briggs Hall, Kleiber Hall Drive.
"We report that different populations of M. franciscanus exhibit local adaptations that mimic both the behaviors and the chemical composition of the sex pheromones of locally available bee host species," she writes in her abstract. "We compared a population of M. franciscanus larvae, known as triungulins, parasitizing nests of Habropoda miserabilis (Hymenoptera: Apidae) from the coastal sand dunes of Oregon with a population parasitizing the congener H. pallida in the Mojave Desert in south-central California. We determined that M. franciscanus populations are the same species using molecular analyses.
Working in collaboration with the Neal Williams bee lab and the Steve Nadler molecular lab in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, she and chemical ecologist Jocelyn Millar at UC Riverside found that multiple populations of the blister beetle Meloe franciscanus are locally adapted to different bee hosts in different allopatric populations. (Professor Williams is a pollination ecologist, and Nadler is a nematologist and chair of the department.)
The UC Davis evolutionary ecologist also explored which functional traits of hosts are useful for predicting parasite host range. In another study, she brought together a dream team of bee biologists and received funding from the Bureau of Land Management to study the impact of utility-scale solar development on desert bees. This study documented that these landscapes are biologically rich, even in drought years, and contain a minimum of 114 species of bees including six undescribed species of bee.
The significance of her work?
"Our research has added to the understanding of the communication signals of bees in the genus Habropoda," she related. "We now know that they use long-chain hydrocarbons for the female sex attractant and vary the position of the double bounds in different components and vary proportions of these components to avoid cross attraction among closely related species. Parasites co-opt this communication channel to deceive male bees in the Meloe-Habropoda system.
"In our host functional trait research we show that annual host abundance and host abundance from year to year, as well as local temporal overlap are highly predictive of host range."
Results on the impact of utility-scale solar development on desert bees showed high bee species diversity in the Mojave and western Sonoran region. "This suggests the importance of careful regional planning and additional research to protect this area of significant floral and fauna biodiversity," she said.
Future plans? To continue her research.
Leslie Saul-Gershenz, recipient of numerous grants and author of a number of publications ranging from peer-reviewed papers to books, is the co-founder of the Bay Area-based SaveNature.Org and director of Research and Conservation (1988 to present). The international conservation consortium works with partners to protect ecosystems around the world.
She is also a 2004 graduate of The Bee Course, an intensive 10-day workshop sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz. One of the instructors is Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, also one of her many collaborators.
Among her other current collaborators: scientists Lynn Kimsey, Neal Williams, Tom Zavortink, Rebecca Hernandez, all of UC Davis; Terry Griswold, USDA-ARS, Bee Biology Lab; Monica Geber, Cornell University; and John Ascher, National University of Singapore.
Her next presentations of her research will be at the Entomological Society of America's annual conference, "Ignite, Inspire, Innovate," scheduled Nov. 5-8 in Denver,Colo., and the California Native Plant Society Conservation Conference, scheduled Feb. 1-3, 2018 in Los Angeles.
Friday the 13th is not an unlucky day--not when migratory monarchs make a pit stop at your home on their way to their overwintering sites.
Today a male monarch fluttered into our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., and sipped nectar from a tropical milkweed. We offered him a choice: Mexican sunflower, lavender, verbena, butterfly bush, sedum, lantana or the tropical milkweed.
"Make mine milk (weed)," he seemed to say as he lingered on the plants.
We're hoping his buddies will stop by, too. Any time.
Friday the 13th is considered an unlucky day in Western superstition, according to Wikipedia. "It occurs when the 13th day of the month in the Gregorian calendar falls on a Friday, which can be the case at least once every year, and up to three times a year. In 2017, it occurs twice, on January 13 and October 13. There will be two Friday the 13ths per year until 2020, where 2021 and 2022 will have just one occurrence."
In its online entry, Wikipedia outdoes itself. It lists all the Friday the 13ths that have occurred since 1900, and will occur until 2100.
There's even a special name for it: "paraskevidekatriaphobia." That's Greek. Paraskeví means Friday, and dekatreís, 13. American psychotherapist Donald E. Dossey (1934-2016), who specializied in phobias and stress management, coined the term in the early nineties. He reportedly claimed that anyone able to pronounce the word would be cured of it.
"Paraskevidekatriaphobia" does not exist in our household. Indeed, Friday the 13th is a lucky number. Our son is a Friday the 13th baby. So when that day rolls around--no matter how many times a year--we rejoice.
It's a bonus when monarchs flutter into our yard.
The day originated back in the 1800s as a way to recognize and thank farmers for all the work they do to feed our nation--and the world.
It's also time to thank a beekeeper.
When beekeeper Kim Flottum of northeast Ohio, the 30-year editor of Bee Culture, addressed the recent Western Apicultural Society's 40th annual conference at UC Davis, he predicted that the nation's 250,000 beekeepers (who manage around 4 million colonies) will turn into a million beekeepers in five years.
A million. We can only hope!
Flottum applauded "the incredible rise of new beekeepers in the last 10 years."
"The urban, surburban and country beekeepers are younger than the norm and we have more women beekeepers than ever," said Flottum, who launched the magazine, BEEKeeping, Your First Three Years, two years ago. "This isn't like the 1970s Green Movement--I'm old enough to remember that. It's got legs! But watch out for an ugly urban disaster like a major beespill or bad honey recall."
Beekeepers are becoming more and more diverse, specializing in honey production, pollination services and queen bee breeding. Pollination services and queen bee breeding are the most profitable, Flottum said. Honey, not so much.
"If I'm in beekeeping, pollination services is sure bet," he said. "Beekeepers now get 200 bucks a colony for almond pollination in California. Pollination is more profitable than honey. Bee breeding? Queens can sell for as much as $40 or $50."
"In the United States, we eat on the average 1.2 pounds a year, but in Canada, it's 2.5 or 2.4 pounds." He lamented that unsafe and/or questionable honey from China floods our nation's supermarkets and is being sold at undercut prices. (Some statistics indicate that a "third or more of all the honey consumed in the U.S. is likely to have been smuggled in from China and may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals"--Food Safety News.)
It's important for American beekeepers to label their honey "Made in America" or localize it by city or state, he said.
Flottum also touched on such issues as honey bee health, nutrition, loss of habitat, poor quality forage, and pesticides.
The varroa mite/virus is the No. 1 problem for beekeepers, he said. "Other stresses include nutrition, nosema, pesticides...All of these can be fixed with money, increased diversity of bee stock, and a move way from both ag and in-hive legal and illegal chemicals."
Meanwhile, thankfully, the appreciation of honey bees seems to be growing. Brought here in 1622 by European colonists in Jamestown, Va., bees now pollinate about one-third of the food we eat.
Happy Farmers' Day. Happy Beekeepers' Day.
(Editor's Note: Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño and her colleagues at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis, teach beekeeping and bee health workshops. See the Niño lab at http://elninobeelab.ucdavis.edu/. The UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center is hosting a two-day course on honey, Nov. 10-11.)