Incredible. Absolutely incredible.
The Western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis) seems to be making a comeback of sorts in some parts of the West.
Reporter Michelle Nijhuis, in an Oct. 14th article in High Country News, wrote that this species was "once among the most common bumble bees in the Western United States (and Western Canada)." The population crashed in the 1990s and "all but disappeared from about a quarter of its historic range." Now, she says, it's recently been spotted in parts of Washington and Oregon.
Someone saw six species of the Western bumble bee pollinating blackberries just north of a Seattle.
That's good news indeed.
We remember last year when native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, was searching for the critically imperiled Franklin's bumble bee in its tiny range in northern California and southern Oregon, when a sole Western bumble bee appeared in front of him and his colleagues from the U.S. Forest Service. It was foraging on buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.) on Mt. Shasta, above 5000 feet.
Thorp and many other scientists fear that the Western bumble bee may go the way of Franklin's bumble bee.
That's why Thorp describes the Seattle find as "very exciting."
"Any finds west of the Sierra-Cascade crest are of prime interest. It is those western populations that took the sharp dive between 1999-2002. They do seem to be increasing, which is indeed encouraging."
"Many populations east of the crest seem to have persisted, through this decline," Thorp noted, "but were not carefully monitored during this time so we don't have the detailed data on their population trends that we would like."
Bombus occidentalis is sometimes called the "white-bottomed bee" due to its distinctive white markings on its abdomen. It is known for pollinating blackberries, cherries, apples and blueberries. It also is "an excellent pollinator of greenhouse tomatoes and cranberries, and has been commercially reared to pollinate these crops," according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation website.
Read about the decline of bumble bees on the Xerces website.
And if you live in the West, keep your eyes open for the Western bumble bee.
There also could be a "u" in mead, as in "you."
There's definitely a honey bee, as without the bee and the honey, there's no mead.
The UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, headed by executive director Amina Harris and headquartered at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, is planning a mead-making short course, billed as "the first of its kind in the country."
The event, "Mead-Making Short Course: From Honey to the Shelf," will take place Feb. 6-8, 2014 at RMI.
What is mead, you ask?
It's the world's oldest alcoholic beverage. "It's a fermented blend of pure honey and water," Harris says. Sometimes mead makers also add fruits and spices to produce a dry, semi-sweet, sweet or even a sparkling mead.
Mead, says Harris, is "the golden libation of the Norse gods, a staple throughout the Middle Ages." It's now making a comeback in the United States. More than 150 meaderies belong to the American Mead Makers' Association, according to president Chris Webber.
The UC Davis short course has engaged the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology and some of the country’s leading mead makers and experts.
“I met, Frank Golbeck, a fledgling mead maker, at a conference this past spring," Harris recalled. Golbeck asked if she could "put together a seminar of some sort could be put together for mead makers like him." Harris began pursuing the possibilities as soon as she returned to campus.
Since then, Harris has worked with Professor Dave Block, chair of the Viticulture and Enology Department, to create a program that will take participants from tasting and buying honey, right through the process including fermentation and filtration." Specialists will present the sensory aspects of mead: smells and taste, defects and texture. Also planned is a tour of the world’s first LEED Platinum winery at RMI.
“Once we had the program fleshed out, I began to contact the movers and shakers in the mead industry," Harris related. "With their help, we tweaked the initial plan and added some special tastings, educational panels and information about the current state of the honey bee and beekeeping.” International wine expert and local personality Darrell Corti will help lead a mead tasting to teach what to look for in a finished product.
As of mid-October, 20 persons have registered. They span the United States: Alaska, New Hampshire, Florida, California, Michigan, Missouri, Washington, and Colorado.
The Honey and Pollination Center's mission is to showcase the importance of honey and pollination through education and research. The Center works with the agricultural, beekeeping and food service industries. The stakeholders include growers, grocers, chefs and students.
Meanwhile, the year-old Center continues to be quite active. On behalf of the Center, the UC Davis Bookstore is selling Northern California wildflower honey and pollinator note cards.
Another project is to develop a Honey Tasting and Aroma Wheel. “As more and more people become interested in artisanal and varietal honeys, it is believed the Center could help them understand the depth and flavors of honey," Harris said. "The wheel will be a terrific education opportunity."
Additionally, the Center plans to develop a Master Beekeeping course offered through UC Davis.
Meanwhile, if you want to learn how to make mead, you can register for the short course for $425 before Dec. 1, 2013 and $500 afterwards. The program includes classes, tours and most meals. To enroll, access rmi.ucdavis.edu/events or email Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Want to friend the Center on Facebook? Go to https://www.facebook.com/UcDavisHoneyAndPollinationCenter.
When you visit the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis, be sure to check out the passionflower vine clinging to the fence.
You'll see female Valley carpenter bees (Xylocopa varipuncta) seemingly speckled with gold dust. This is actually a thick coat of pollen from their foraging ventures. Underneath that gold pollen, the females are a solid black. (The males of this species are blond with green eyes.)
One of the haven's founding volunteer gardeners, Mary Patterson, a retired cattle rancher and businesswoman who was honored in 2009 as a "Friend of the College" (UC Davis College of Agricultural and Natural Resources), planted the vine there.
The vine is doing quite well.
So are the carpenter bees.
Passionflower blossoms range in color from white to lavender to red, depending on the varieties. This one sports lavender blossoms.
Passiflora is the larval host plant of the Gulf Fritillary butterflies, Agraulis vanillae, a showy reddish-orange butterfly nicknamed "The Passion Butterfly." We spotted no eggs, caterpillars or chrysalids on this particular vine, however.
The Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, planted in the fall of 2009, provides a year-around food source for the nearby bees at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility and other pollinators. It also serves to raise public awareness on the plight of honey bees, and as an educational resource to help visitors decide what to plant in their own gardens.
Maintained by the UC Department of Entomology and Nematology, it's open year around, from dawn to dusk for self-guided tours. Admission? Free. But if you want a guided tour, there's a nominal fee of $3 per person. For more information, contact Christine Casey at email@example.com.
The date: July 22, 2012. The place: a sunfiower field in Winters, Calif.
We watched as a BBC crew set up their cameras while professional bee wrangler Norm Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, trained his bees for the documentary that would be titled "Ultimate Swarms."
Documentary host/zoologist George McGavin of Oxford, England, (he's an honorary research associate at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History), walked among the rows, rehearsing his lines.
Gary, who has wrangled bees for more than 40 years for movies, TV shows, and commercials (including approximately 18 movies, 70 or so TV shows, and about a half-dozen commercials) prepped McGavin about honey bee behavior.
The bees "are in a swarm state, completely non-aggressive," McGavin told the camera. "They're not protecting anything, not protecting their young or honey, simply protecting the queen in the heart of this swarm until a new home is found."
McGavin related that honey bees are worth "a staggering $180 billion a year, and without them over a third of all the food we eat wouldn't exist."
Honey bees are just one part of the one-hour "Ultimate Swarms," which will premiere at 8 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time and Pacific Time), Tuesday, Oct. 22 on the television show, Animal Planet.
In one segment, McGavin becomes the queen bee, thanks to Norm Gary and a swarm of 40,000 worker bees clustering on the host.
“Swarms," McGavin says, "are one of the greatest spectacles on earth.” Far from "being the ultimate nightmare, they are one of nature's most ingenious solutions."
"By joining together, even the most simplest of creatures can achieve the impossible," McGavin said.)
As for Gary, who will be 80 next month, says this was his last shoot as a professional bee wrangler. Last month he retired from beekeeping, after 66 years of keeping bees. "Training bees to do the right behavior on cue gets very complicated and gave me the opportunity to apply science as well as practical 'in-the-trench' beekeeping operations," Gary said, describing bee wrangling as "making bees 'act' in various scenes as called for by the script." A good example of his work is the bee scene in the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes.
However, Gary still has his specially patented pheromones (his invention), and he plans to come out of retirement to help UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Vice President Barbara Allen-Diaz fulfill her "promise for education" to help UC students in financial need. (See website to donate to the cause. If Allen-Diaz reaches her goal of $2500, the bee stunt will take place next spring at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis,)
The world's largest hornet (Vespa mandarinia) is huge.
Just how huge?
We photographed a two-inch specimen last week at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis. Among the insect musem's nearly eight million specimens is the giant hornet.
Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator, placed a honey bee next to it for size comparison.
The news about this hornet is not good. The Chinese news agency Xinhua declared that the insect is wreaking havoc in northwestern China. Some 42 people have died from its stings since last July and some 1600 others have been injured.
"The problem with this particular hornet is that it's big, sort of thumb-sized, and it packs a lot of venom," Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and UC Davis professor of entomology told National Geographic News.
"And its nests get fairly large, including maybe several hundred individuals. They are aggressive, they are predatory, and they have been known to kill and eat an entire colony of honey bees," she said.
The hornet destroy the entire colony within minutes.
As Kimsey says, this hornet is a predator and highly aggressive.