Or to put it more precisely, three Bombus melanopygus queens.
Early this morning, in between dark and dawn, three black-tailed bumble bees buzzed around our porch lights. Now, bumble bees don't venture out at night and they certainly don't head for porch lights--they head for flowers in the daytime--so immediately we're hypothesizing an infestation by the parasitoid phorid fly, Apocephalus borealis, aka "zombie fly."
We had earlier heard Professor John Hafernik of San Francisco State University discuss this fly at an entomological meeting in Sacramento.
The female flies lay their eggs in bumble bees, wasps and honey bees. Certainly not a nice thing to do. Eventually the eggs hatch into larvae and emerge from the dead host.
It was Hafernik who discovered that the "zombie fly" infests honey bees. He and his colleagues published their work, "A New Threat to Honey Bees, the Parasitic Phorid Fly, Apocephalus borealis," in PLOS One in January 2012. They revealed that the parasitized, disoriented honey bees leave their hives at night and head for the lights.
"After being parasitized by the fly, the bees abandon their hives in what is literally a flight of the living dead to congregate near lights," said Andrew Core of the Hafernik lab. 'When we observed the bees for some time—the ones that were alive—we found that they walked around in circles, often with no sense of direction."
Zombies. Or "ZomBees."
Hafernik and crew sounded the alert. They launched a citizen science project called ZomBee Watch, sponsored by the San Francisco State University Department of Biology, the San Francisco State University Center for Computing for Life Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Fast forward to today...and the three bumble bees buzzing around our porch lights. That erratic, uncharacteristic, porch-light behavior prompted us to take them to native pollinator specialist/bumble bee expert Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis. Thorp is a co-author of the pending Bumble Bees of North America: An identification Guide (Princeton University Press).
It was he who identified them as Bombus melanopygus queens.
Thorp placed them in his "comfy" bumble bee-rearing chamber/observation box in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, provided nourishment (which the ladies accepted gracefully) and now it's wait-and-see.
Phorid flies? Nematodes? Something else? Nothing?
Don't know. However, as of 5 p.m. today, all three are alive.
"Just checked your three fuzzy ladies," Thorp reported. "They are still active and doing well."
In addition to carbohydrates, Thorp gave them a protein patty made by staff research associate/beekeeper Billy Synk, manager of the Laidlaw facility.
"I'll put in a pollen lump or two tomorrow," Thorp said, "to see if any are interested in becoming broody and starting a nest."/span>
Several honey bees and at least one lady beetle (ladybug), also discovered the "hot spot" in the garden as the temperatures climbed to 52 degrees.
A bumble bee in Benicia? On Christmas Day? Who would have thought?
This bumble bee species, identified by native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, is one of only 250 species worldwide in the genus Bombus. It's native to North America.
Thorp is one of four co-authors of the newly published and long-awaited Bumble Bees of North America: An identification Guide (Princeton University Press). The book is billed as "the first comprehensive guide to North American bumble bees to be published in more than a century." It allows us to identify all the 46 bumble bee species found in North America, and also to learn about "evolutionary relationships, geographical distributions and ecological roles."
Lead author is Paul H. Williams, a research entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London. In addition to Thorp, other co-authors are Leif L. Richardson, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Dartmouth College; and Sheila R. Colla, postdoctoral fellow at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and a project leader at Wildlife Preservation Canada.
Meanwhile, back to Benicia. Like North America's bumble bees, the Benicia Capitol has a rich history. Erected in 1852 and located at 115 West G St., it served as California's third seat of government. Legislators convened there from Feb. 4, 1853 (the year the honey bee was introduced to California) to Feb. 25, 1854.
Today, 160 years later, the Benicia State Capitol is the only surviving pre-Sacramento capitol. Let's hope we can still say that about bumble bees 160 years from now--and the years to come.
If you like community gardens, then you'll want to visit the Avant Garden at the corner of First and D streets in Benicia.
The Benicia Community Garden (BCG) signed a lease agreement in the fall of 2010 with Estey Real Estate to establish a downtown community garden. The land is for sale, but until it's sold, it's a community garden.
The mission of Benicia Community Gardens? "To encourage and enable local citizens to establish and care for gardens throughout the city that provide ongoing sources of healthful food, fellowship, beauty and discovery."
According to their website, the Avante garden is called that because "it represents an experiment not only to provide wider opportunity for more people to observe and practice organic urban farming, but also, because BCG will be making private, undeveloped property in the heart of our historic commercial district productively used for growing food."
Residents lease individual plots and grow such foods as tomatoes, peppers, kale and cabbage. Ornamental flowers line the fence. Signs warn guests not to reap the benefits of what other have sown.
We stopped by there last Sunday afternoon and were amazed that despite the colder weather settling in, insects abound. We saw such pollinators as honey bees, a yellow-faced bumble bee, a hover fly, a carpenter bee and a green metallic sweat bee, as well as a pest, the spotted cucumber beetle. Assorted cabbage white butterfles, also pests, fluttered around the cucurbits.
What a treasure! A good place to spend part of a Sunday.
The yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, is back.
We spotted some overwintering queen bumble bees gathering nectar on a hebe bush last Sunday at the Berkeley marina.
Distinguished by their yellow faces, yellow head pile, black wings, and a bold yellow stripe on their lower abdomen, they bumbled around the hebe as if they were newbie pilots.
The warm weather invited them out of their underground nests. RSVP accepted. The hebe proved to be a good host, enticing them with the sweet scent of nectar. Soon the queens will be starting rearing a colony, and the worker bees will emerge.
Hebe (genus Hebe), a native of New Zealand, grow wells along the coast. Gardeners who tend the marinas around the San Francisco Bay seem to favor it.
So do the bumble bees.
The bush germander (Teucrium fruticans) is definitely a great fall-winter plant that's a magnet for bees. Just look at the bees that frequent the germander in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven on Bee Biology Road at UC Davis.
As soon as the temperature rises to a sunny 50 or 55 (good bee-flying weather), the honey bees head over to the haven from the nearby Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility.
Last Saturday's visit to the haven yielded an "out-to-lunch" bunch that included a dozen honey bees in the germander and one syrphid fly (aka flower fly or hover fly). Bumble bee aficionado Gary Zamzow, one of the volunteers in the haven, found something better: A bumble bee, a queen Bombus melanopygus or black-tailed bumble bee, foraging in the germander.
The germander bush is one of several plants blooming in the haven in the dead of winter, according to Missy Borel, haven volunteer and program manager of the California Center for Urban Horticulture at UC Davis. Among the others blooming or just finishing a bloom:
- Autumn sage (Salvia greggii)
- Blanket flower (Gallardia)
- Bulbine (Bulbine frutescens)
- Butterfly rose (Rosa mutabilis)
- Catmint (Nepeta)
- Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii)
- Coreopsis (Coreopsis)
- Red hot poker (Kniphofia)
- Dwarf plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides)
- Oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Betty Rollins’ )
- Lavender (Lavandula)
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus)
- Sage (salvia)
- Seaside daisies (Erigeron glaucus 'Wayne Roderick')
"Honey bees in California will seek forage on warm sunny days in California," Thorp noted. "Some Asteraceae and mint family flowers will continue blooming and provide some food for honey bees, but they primarily rely on their stored honey to get them through the winter."