If you're around creeks, ponds and irrigation ditches, watch for the dragonflies.
We spotted scores of variegated meadowhawks (Sympetrum corruptum) last Sunday along an irrigation ditch bordering a sunflower field in Winters, Calif.
Like helicopters, they hovered, soared, dropped, sped up and slowed down. Dragonflies can reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour, according to an article, "Chasing Dragons," in the current edition of Audubon.
Written by Jill U. Adams, the article details the art of watching dragonflies, and how this is becoming a passion like birdwatching.
Entomologists call dragonflies "odes," after their order, Odonata. They're also called "dragons."
"Dating back more than 250 million years, odes were around long before the dinosaurs appeared," Adams wrote.
"Odes are easy enough to find at a pond or stream around mid-morning, after the sun has warmed the air. They fly and perch, hunt and mate, from spring until fall."
She quotes dragonfly expert Larry Federman, education coordinator for the three Audubon New York sanctuaries, as saying: "Once you start watching dragonflies, you can't help but notice how amazing they are. They fly at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, zip forward and backward, pivot in a flash and hover with ease. They prey on live insects in midair, snapping up small bugs with their mouths or grabbing larger ones with their legs, then perching to devour them."
In Winters, we watched their mating rituals. Their bodies hooked together, their double set of wings glittering like precious jewels, they dazzled us with their maneuvers, speed and beauty. So fast, so very fast. (But things are not what they seem; be sure to read National Geographic's piece on the dragonfly mating game.)
What's spectacular about the Audubon feature is a row of 16 dragonfly abdomens lined up like arrowheads or surfboards.
And yes, among the 16 abdomens: the variegated meadowhawk.
It's not as striking as the flame skimmer (that one is firecracker red!), but its coloration is sure to please.
So you want to capture an image of a praying mantis.
You have to find one first.
Sometimes it's a case of hide 'n seek--it hides, you seek.
Mantises, or mantids, are camouflaged. Many camouflaged (cryptic) insects are "sit-and-wait predators," write emeritus professors Penny Gullan and Peter Cranston of the University of California, Davis, in the fourth edition of their popular textbook, The Insects, An Outline of Entomology, published by Wiley-Blackwell.
"(Crypyic insects)...may be defensive, being directed against highly visual predators such as birds, rather than evolved to mislead invertebrate prey," they write. "Cryptic predators modeled on a feature that is of no interest to the prey (such as tree bark, lichen, a twig or even a stone) can be distinguished from those that model on a feature of some significance to prey, such as a flower that acts as an insect attractant."
But we inadvertently discovered there's at least one good way to flush out a praying mantis--water your garden. It will hurriedly emerge.
This praying mantis (below), lurking on a tomato plant, apparently didn't like the burst of water that disturbed its stakeout.
It licked the water droplets from its forelegs--legs specialized to seize prey--and then flew to a nearby tree.
Their golden heads turned toward the sun, their fringed petals aglow, sunflowers set an amicable scene in a world sometimes darkened by strife and sorrow.
Take, for example, the sunflower fields along Pedrick Road in Dixon, Calif. They are spectacular. A Vincent Van Gogh painting come to life.
And, the bees make it happen.
The non-native honey bees (Apis mellifera), brought to America in 1622 by the European colonists, and the native sunflower bees (Svastra spp.) are everywhere.
It was not always like that. The sunflower bees were here first.
In fact, Native Americans began cultivating the sunflower (Helianthus annuus), a native American plant, 3,000 years ago. When the honey bee arrived, they called it "The White Man's Fly."
The Native Americans made "yellow dye from the petals and purple dye from the immature seeds" of sunflowers, according to What's That Crop? authors Janet Byron, managing editor of California Agriculture, and science and environmental writer Robin Meadows.
They place the value of California's 42,000 acres of sunflowers in the Central Valley at $9.5 million a year.
"Most of California’s sunflower crop is grown for oil, and it takes about 100 pounds of seed to make 40 pounds of oil," they wrote. "The remaining protein-rich meal is used in livestock feed. Besides producing sunflower seeds for snacking and cooking oil, the state also supplies most of the planting seeds sown by sunflower farmers nationwide."
You can follow them on their Facebook page, "What's that Crop?"
Latest statistics released in March of 2012 by the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, indicated that "California farmers were expecting to plant 39,000 acres of sunflowers for oil, down 2 percent from last year, and 7,000 acres of non-oil sunflowers, up 75 percent from 2011."
The annual NASS forecasts are based on a survey of more than 2500 California farmers during the first two weeks of March.
There are many reasons why honey bees don't come home at night.
One of them: a stealthy praying mantis.
If you like to photograph flowers, odds are that some day you'll see more than one insect on a blossom.
Look closely and you may see a praying mantis peering over the petals, watching a bee's every move.
It's not like a proud parent watching an offspring perform at a dance recital or lead a marching band or pitch in a Little League game. The look is fiercely intense, but for a different reason.
Such was the case yesterday at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven on Bee Biology Road at the University of California, Davis.
A honey bee nectaring on a zinnia turned to poke its proboscis deeper into the blossom, unaware of a hidden predator silently emerging from its stakeout.
Breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? Late night snack?
Not this time. The honey bee sighted the mantid and quickly buzzed off.
When youngsters meet Alyssa Fine, the first thing they ask is “Do you ever get stung?”
They also ask if the bee population is “still” declining and if she’s a beekeeper.
Yes, yes, and yes.
Alyssa Fine, 23, of Monongahela, Penn., is accustomed to answering questions. As the 2012 American Honey Bee Queen, sponsored by the American Beekeeping Federation, she’s an ambassador to the beekeeping and honey industries. One of her responsibilities is to educate the public about the importance of bees and the merits of honey.
And that’s just “fine” with her.
“I really enjoy this,” she said enthusiastically.
A 2010 graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness management, Fine is spending 11 days in California, one of some 23 states on her itinerary during her yearlong role as the American Honey Bee Queen.
She speaks at state and county fairs, festivals, schools, beekeeping association meetings and to the news media, spreading the word about the importance of bees. She monitors the American Beekeeping Federation’s Facebook page, and the kids’ blog, buzzingacrossamerica.com.
Fine also works closely with youth development groups, including Girl Scouts, 4-H, Boy Scouts. She hopes to “help bring back the beekeeping badge” for Girl Scouts.
Today she toured the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road at the University of California, Davis, and the adjacent Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee friendly garden that's anchored with a six-foot-long ceramic bee sculpture.
The sculpture, created by Donna Billick of Davis and cleverly titled "Miss Bee Haven," portrays a morphologically correct worker bee.
Alyssa Fine recognized the worker bee right away.
No stranger to bees, she's been around bees all her life. Her family owns the Fine Family Apiary in Monongahela, located 20 miles south of Pittsburgh. They keep about 150 hives and sell honey at farmers’ markets, at country stores, and via word of mouth. They also offer pollination services on area farms.
Alyssa's earliest childhood memories include running through a field of clover and getting stung by a bee; enjoying fresh comb honey on the front porch; and crafting scores of school projects on honey bees.
So, going from bee onlooker to bee fancier to beekeeper to Pennsylvania Honey Bee Queen to American Honey Bee Queen seemed quite natural. For, "bee-neath" the sash and the crown is a beekeeper who loves to talk about bees and their role in agriculture.
One thing's for sure: come next January, when her year as American Honey Bee Queen ends, she'll replace the crown with a bee veil.
Meanwhile, Alyssa is enjoying her California stay at the BD Ranch and Apiary in Wilton, owned by veteran beekeeper Brian Fishback and his wife, Darla, where they maintain 100 hives. Brian, a volunteer at the Laidlaw facility, is active in area, state and national beekeeping organizations.
Plans for the rest of the week? It's off to the California State Fair in Sacramento.
In fact, State Fair visitors can see their American Honey Bee Queen tomorrow (Thursday) and Friday at the Insect Pavilion where she will be greeting the public, handing out honey-based recipes, and answering questions in front of Fishback’s bee observation hive.
At 2 p.m. on Friday, she'll offer a special treat to State Fair visitors. She will present a cooking demonstration at 2 p.m. at The Farm. She'll prepare glazed skillet chicken, cole slaw and lemonade--all with honey, of course.
As for the Fishbacks, they've hosted an American Bee Queen for the past three years because they believe strongly in the American Beekeeping Federation's mission and message.
“Having an American Honey Bee Queen," he said, "is really good for public education, for people to learn about the importance of bees."