What a match--honey bees and pomegranate blossoms.
Watching the golden bees forage amid the brilliant red blossoms in the late afternoon is a delight to see, especially when the sun backlights them.
The ancient fruit, native to Iran, is one of the world's first cultivated fruits. Thankfully, it is now "trendy" in California, with some 30,000 acres of pomegranates in production. We treasure its ruby-red kernels, tart flavor, and high antioxidant content. Since ancient times, the fruit has symbolized health and fertility. It's been said that Adam and Eve weren't tempted by an apple in the Garden of Eden, but by a pomegranate. In Egypt, the pomegranate was known as "The Fruit of Kings."
Spanish settlers introduced the pomegranate tree to California in 1769. The honey bees came later: 1853.
But when you think about it, honey bees and pomegranates have been together for millions of years--just not in California.
The pomegranate tree in our yard is 86 years old and has seen generations of bees come and go.
A promenade in the pomegranates...
A spider web is one of nature's most marvelous wonders. It's art, it's architecture, and it's engineering.
The silk is as beautiful as it is deceiving. It's 10 times stronger than Kevlar; as sticky as cotton candy covered with honey; and as flexible as a classical ballet dancer.
It's also a restaurant of sorts when the sticky strands nab unsuspecting prey. Unlike humans sitting down at a restaurant to order a meal from the menu, a spider never knows what's on the menu until it "magically" appears. It could be a honey bee, sweat bee, carpenter bee, spotted cucumber beetle, ladybug, lacewing, crane fly, another spider or some other critter.
We saw this newly woven wheel web on our front porch this morning. As the sun rose, the web glowed, glistened and glittered. An orbweaver at work..setting the dinner table...
The intricate web made us think of E. B. White's children's novel, "Charlotte's Web." Charlotte, a barn spider, kept writing messages such as "Some Pig" to try to save the life of a pig named Wilbur.
The farmer got the message, but in the real world, the spider's message is not about saving a life, but entrapment.
"Where do foraging bees go to die?"
That question was asked this week of honey bee guru Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, who serves as the statewide Extension apiculturist.
"Do they return to the hive? Do they retire and live out their last days inside?" he was asked.
We've all seen worker bees in the throes of death. After all, they live only four to six weeks in the busy season. But the queen bee, which can lay some 2000 eggs a day, quickly replaces them.
"Since we do not know exactly where they go, we say that they fly off in the final moments of life, lose altitude and land on whatever is beneath them, moribund," Mussen says. "They are still able to sting for quite a few minutes, as can be attested to by neighbors who find moribund bees in their lawns or swimming pools, but they die relatively soon. Bees have enzyme systems that deal with flight and when the enzymes give out, so does flight."
Mussen points out that "a few of the dying bees, maybe 15 or so, of the 1,000 or more that die daily (in a colony) during the spring, summer, and fall, do die in--or in front of--the hive."
When those bodies lose some moisture, the "undertaker bees" carry away the lighter-weight bodies and drop them 150 feet or more away from the hive, studies show. "Most of the rest just drop, somewhere, when they no longer can forage or stay in the air," Mussen says. "Bees do fly up to four miles from the hive in any compass direction, so they drop out there in that 50-square mile area."
I usually can't get within 25 yards of a dragonfly.
Not so in our back yard.
A flame skimmer or firecracker skimmer (Libellula saturata) has apparently decided that this is where he wants to be.
Last Saturday, for nine hours, he perched on a six-foot-high bamboo stake, leaving only for a few seconds at a time to snag a flying insect before returning to eat his prey.
The flame skimmer, about a 2.5-inch Odonata, looks prehistoric. In fact, according to a UC Berkeley website, "The oldest recognizable fossils of the group (Odonata) belong to the Protodonata, an ancestral group that is now extinct. The earliest fossils so far discovered come from Upper Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) sediments in Europe formed about 325 million years ago. Like modern-day dragonflies, the Protodonata were fast-flying with spiny legs that may have assisted in capturing prey; their wingspan was up to 75 centimeters (30 inches). The group went extinct in the Triassic, about the time that dinosaurs began to appear."
Meanwhile, back in our yard (325 million years into the future), Big Red kept snagging insects and flying back to his six-foot-high perch to eat them. Then occasionally he'd claim a five-foot-high bamboo stake. Too much high rise? A little acrophobia?
At first I kept my distance, hoping I wouldn't frighten him. However, he just looked at me as if I were part of the permanent landscape. Camera movement didn't faze him. After capturing multiple images from every angle possible, I thrust the macro lens about an inch away from his head. He did not move.
Am I a dragonfly whisperer or just lucky?
The flame skimmer prefers a habitat of warm water ponds, slow streams or hot springs. We have a fish pond, a pool and a birdbath in our yard, so I guess that's why he hangs out here.
And we have the perfect perches--bamboo stakes. They're meant to stake our tomato plants but now they're "dragonfly sticks."
We suspect Big Red won't last long. A Mama scrub jay is nesting in our shrubbery and when her babies chirp for food, off she flies in search of a tasty morsel. Mama Bird chased a bright orange gulf fritillary butterfly (missed!) and now, I expect, she'll go after Big Red.
It's a bug-eat-bug world out there, and sometimes it's a bird-eat-bug world when you don't want it to be.
The lady beetle, aka ladybug, was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
We don't know how she managed to get tangled in the cellar spider's web or why the cellar spider opted to have her for dinner instead waiting for a tasty honey bee, a nutritious leafcutter bee or a plump bumble bee.
Nevertheless, we came upon this predator-prey attack in our backyard. It was too late to save the ladybug.
Ordinarily, the ladybug's bright red coloration serves as a "warning" to predators. Plus, ladybugs are known to ooze a foul-tasting chemical that tastes so bad that predators leave them alone.
"The bright colors of many coccinellids discourage some potential predators from making a meal of them," according to Wikipedia. "This phenomenon is called aposematism and works because predators learn by experience to associate certain prey phenotypes with a bad taste. A further defense known as 'Reflex bleeding' exists in which an alkaloid toxin is exuded through the joints of the exoskeleton, triggered by mechanical stimulation (such as by predator attack) in both larval and adult beetles, deterring feeding."
So why the cellar spider's unusual menu choice? "The spider's 'taste buds' probably weren't very good," quipped a UC Davis scientist.