We're accustomed to seeing honey bees pollinating the almonds.
But carpenter bees do, too.
We spotted a female Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, foraging in an almond tree on Feb. 24 in a field adjacent to the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis.
Sounding like a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, this lone carpenter bee buzzed loudly as she visited one blossom after another. She was on a mission: a do-not-linger, do-not-stop-me, and get-out-of-my-way mission.
The Valley carpenter bees, about the size of bumble bees, are the largest carpenter bees in California. The girls are solid black, while the boys are blond with green eyes. We can't count how many times people think the males are "golden bumble bees."
It's rare to get an image of "a blond and a brunette" (male and female) in the same photo. Gary Park, a contributor to BugGuide.net, did just that. Check out his amazing photos of a pair mating.
Carpenter bees derive their name from drilling holes in untreated, unfinished wood to make their nests. Only the females excavate the wood. Contrary to popular opinion, they do not eat the wood. To prevent these bees from nesting in your fence posts or deck, just paint or varnish the wood. We know some folks who like having them around and leave wood untreated and unfinished.
First and foremost, however, carpenter bees are pollinators. Excellent pollinators.
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor entomology at UC Davis, tries to convince people to live with these bees as “they are important pollinators in our environment and have potential as pollinators of some crops.”
And it's not only a book you can't refuse, but you can reuse over and over again. It's that fascinating.
This ebook, meant for youths in grades 4 through 12 but equally enthralling to us adults, will tell you about the ants that live in the Big Apple, what they do, how they survive, and where to find them. They include the carpenter ant, lasius ant, odorous house ant, crazy ant, winter ant, Asian needle ant, winnow ant, big headed ant, thief ant, acrobat ant and honeyrump ant.
Truly, there is a honeyrump ant.
The book was written by entomologist Eleanor Spicer Rice and biologist Rob Dunn of the Your Wildlife group, a public science program based at North Carolina State University that engages the public "in the exploration and scientiﬁc study of the biodiversity in our daily lives."
Why ants? Dr. Eleanor says she loves all insects but is "particularly fascinated by ants." In earning her doctorate in entomology from North Carolina State University, she studied the behavior and interactions of two invasive ant species, the Argentine ant and the Asian needle ant. "Ever since she was a little girl exploring the swamps and woods around her hometown of Goldsboro, North Carolina, Eleanor has had a boundless curiosity for the natural world," according to the author description. "When she's not turning over logs or poking at the cob-webby corners of her basement in pursuit of a six-legged critter, Dr. Eleanor is sharing her passion about entomology through writing (see her website."
Rob Dunn, a biologist and writer in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University, craves being around insects, too. The author description: "Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful, and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it."
There's also a University of California, Davis connection. Two connections, actually. The book's amazing insect images are primarily the work of Alexander "Alex" Wild while Andrea Lucky served as the scientific advisor. Both received their doctorates in entomology from UC Davis, studying with acclaimed ant specialist Phil Ward, professor of entomology.
Wild, now a biologist in Illinois and a full-time professional insect photographer, has published his work in National Geographic, Discover, Smithsonian Magazine, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and numerous other publications and museum exhibits. He writes the Compound Eye blog for Scientific American and the Myrmecos blog. Lucky is an evolutionary biologist and biodiversity scientist at the University of Florida. One of her goals (in addition to her research interests) is "to make science accessible and available to the general public, particularly to make the process of ‘doing' science accessible to non-scientists."
The book is a wonderful means of linking young people with science, and teaching all of us about an insect that is so common among us, but yet so unfamiliar.
When a honey bee stings you, she makes the supreme sacrifice and dies. She's usually defending her colony. In the process, she leaves behind part of her abdomen. A beekeeper simply scrapes the sting with a fingernail or a hive tool to stop the pulsating venom and continues working.
But is it ever possible for a bee to "unscrew the sting?"
A beginning beekeeper asked Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, that very question last week.
She prefaced her question this way: "Richard Dawkins wrote in his biography that he observed a bee working her stinger out of his hand--unscrewing, so to speak--thereby not losing her stinger or her life. Is this true? I'm just a beginning beekeeper but have read many books on the subject and have never come across this interesting bit of information."
Mussen has been asked thousands of questions about bees since he joined the UC Davis faculty in 1976. Bee stings are just one of the topics. Like all beekeepers, he's been stung many times. It's no big deal. However, one documented bee sting (below) turned out to be rather a big deal. It went viral. (It went from winning a feature photo contest sponsored by the Association for Communication Excellence (ACE), an international association of communicators, educators and information technologists, to being named the Huffington Post's "Most Amazing Photos of 2012"; one of the Sacramento Bee's top 10 news stories of 2012; and My Science Academy's top photos of the year. Along the way, scores of websites named it "Picture of the Day." It also will appear in a number of books.)
The photo (taken by yours truly) shows Mussen being stung by a bee in the apiary of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis. At the time, we were walking through the apiary when he noticed a bee loudly buzzing around him. "Get your camera ready, Kathy," he said. "The bee's going to sting me."
That's exactly what the bee did. If you look closely, you can see the abdominal tissue, aka "guts," as she's trying to pull away. Usually a bee sting is a clean break.
So, can a bee "unscrew the sting?"
"As you may know, the sting of an adult worker honey bee has backward-pointing barbs that tend to hold the bee sting in the victim's flesh," Mussen told the beekeeper. "However, how well the sting stays stuck depends upon how deeply it was pushed in. Yes, some bees seem to make only a half-hearted effort to sting. The point of the sting pierces the skin, but doesn't go in very deeply. At that point, the sting can be pulled out if the bee begins to leave. It goes back up, inside the bee, but I do not know if, or how much, damage was done to the bee."
"These half-hearted stings are more commonly encountered with quite young workers. Sometimes the sting remains, but no venom is felt. Sometimes, a slight tinge of venom is momentarily noticed, then it is gone. So, while most stings are the full-blown, driven-pretty-deep-into-the-flesh type, there are less assertive attempts that result in intermediate sting results. The sting cannot be 'unscrewed,' because the barbs on the sting are directly across from each other and not in a spiral. However, the barbs are larger as the sting penetrates deeper."/span>
The purplish-blue spiked flowers attract honey bees, bumble bees and syrphid flies.
And visitors. And photographers.
The honey bees were buzzing all over the Echium last Sunday, Feb. 16, as were syrphid flies, aka hover flies or flower flies. But a yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, preferred to hide beneath the leaf of a passionflower vine (Passiflora). Next time!
The towering Pride of Maderia, which can easily reach a height of six feet or more, is the pride of the Portuguese island of Madeira, where it's endemic. It's an evergreen bush planted as a drought-tolerant ornamental, particularly in coastal communities. It even gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.
Wikipedia informs us that the genus name is derived from the Greek "echion," and that the root word "echis" means "viper." Think snake. Apparently the shape of the seed resembles that of a viper's head. Another interpretation: there's an age-old belief that another Echium species, Echium vulgare, aka "Viper's Bugloss," is a remedy for the adder's bite.
However, Echium candicans is not so popular in the state of Victoria, Australia, where it is considered "a high weed risk" and its very presence prompts the Department of Primary Industries to send in the troops...er...alerts.
The first blooms of the year in Bodega, though, are cause for celebration.
And speaking of bees and blooms, you'll want to sign up for the "Pollinator Gardening Workshop, Your Sustainable Backyard,"set Saturday, March 15 at UC Davis. Hosted by the California Center for Urban Horticulture (CCHU), it will take place at Giedt Hall, UC Davis campus, with a side trip to the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Garden, just west of the campus, on Bee Biology Road.
Registration is underway at on the CCHU website.
CCHU program manager Anne Schellman says that this will be an informative workshop where participants will learn:
- How to identify common bee pollinators
- How to make a landscape pollinator-friendly
- Which plants pollinators prefer
- The latest research about honey bee health and pollinator habitat
- How UC Davis helps honey bees at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Garden
Honey bee and native pollinator specialists with the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology will be among the speakers. (See previous Bug Squad blog.)