Oh, what serious webs they weave.
Perfect concentric circles. Perfect for snagging prey. Perfect for capturing a few photographic images.
Orb weavers take on the classic shape popularized by Charlotte the spider in E.B. White's children's book, Charlotte's Web.
They rid the garden of many flying insects, such as gnats, mosquitoes, and moths.
Occasionally a honey bee becomes entangled in the web. The orb weavers are not particular in what they kill, wrap, and eat. It's part of the fabric of life.
This orb weaver (below) is a western spotted orb weaver, Neoscona oaxacensis, as identified by senior museum scientist Steve Heydon of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Davis. Notice the round abdomen and the spots.
If you want to see some other garden spiders, check out the UC IPM website. Also, access BugGuide.Net, where scientists and citizen scientists have posted some great images of these amazing western spotted orb weavers.
Your mother laid an egg, you hatched into a caterpillar, and you're eating as much as you can before you spin into a chrysalis and then emerge, as a butterfly, ready to start the life cycle over again.
You are not aware of the European paper wasp, its long legs dangling, moving through the leaves and eating the newly laid eggs around you. The wasp lurks in the deep, dark shadows as you finish one bite and reach for another.
Then you see the predator coming after you.
It does not end well for you. You have become protein for the wasp to feed its young.
For several weeks now, the European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) have wreaked havoc on the Gulf Frit population on our Passiflora. Sometimes they pair up in twos, sometimes in threes and fours, and once a horde of five descended
They follow the fluttering butterflies as they touch down on a leaf to lay an egg. Then they eat the eggs, kill the caterpillars, and tear apart the chrysalids.
European paper wasps are relatively new invaders from Europe; they were first spotted in the United States in 1981 in Massachusetts. They are now colonizing the entire country, taking over the native wasps' territory.
There's good news and then there's bad news. If you like having European paper wasps around to prey on the larvae of hornworms, cabbageworms and tent caterpillars, then you may consider them beneficial insects. But if you're trying to rear a few butterflies, such as the Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), then they're Public Enemy No. 1.
Studies show that they can also be cunning.
According to an article out of Michigan State University: "A Cornell University researcher has found that certain female wasps, without nests of their own, 'sit and wait' for an opportunity to adopt an orphaned nest or hijack a nest from another queen. These sit-and-wait female wasps prefer to adopt the most mature nests, probably because these nests will produce workers the soonest, and colonies with workers are very likely to survive. Once a queen adopts a nest she will eat the former queen's eggs and young larvae and replace them with her own eggs. The older larvae and pupae, which belonged to the former queen, are allowed to complete development and may eventually help rear the adopting female's offspring. Ferocious hunters, paper wasps feast on caterpillars."
"The nests are usually founded by a single Queen or Foundress, who starts her nest in May having hibernated as a mated queen throughout the winter often in the company of all the other mated females from their parental nest."
See photos of European paper wasps on BugGuide.net.
Meanwhile, we figure that only about 10 percent of the Gulf Frit eggs will ever make it into butterflies--no thanks to assorted predators.
But a few will make it, and what spectacular butterflies they will be!
The world's "100 Most Endangered Species" are back in the news again, and well they should be.
Back in 2012, The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Zoological Society of London released a list of the 100 Most Threatened Species when the IUCN World Conservation Congress met in South Korea.
That means more attention to Franklin's bumble bee (Bombus franklinii), a critically imperiled bumble bee that UC Davis native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp has monitored since 1998.
Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology, says the distinctively marked bumble bee has the most restricted range of any bumble bee in the world. Its habitat is--or was--a small area of southern Oregon (Douglas, Jackson and Josephine counties) and northern California (Siskiyou and Trinity counties).
Franklin’s bumble bee frequents California poppies, lupines, vetch, wild roses, blackberries, clover, sweet peas, horsemint and mountain penny royal during its flight season, from mid-May through September. It collects pollen primarily from lupines and poppies and gathers nectar mainly from mints.
Thorp and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation are the forces behind the Franklin's bumble bee campaign to find it and protect it. See the Xerces website for more information about the bee.
Thorp sighted 94 in 1998; 20 in 1999; 9 in 2000 and only 1 in 2001. Sightings increased slightly to 20 in 2002, but dropped to 3 in 2003. Thorp saw none in 2004 and 2005; one in 2006; and none since. Now scores of people from all walks of life are looking for it, but no one has found it.
Franklin's bumble bee is one of several insects on the worldwide list. The other species include several butterflies, Actinote zikani, Parides burchellanus and Pomarea whitneyi; the Seychelles Earwig (Antisolabis seychellensis); Beydaglari Bush-cricket (Psorodonotus ebneri); and a damsel fly (Risiocnemis seidenschwarzi).
Or Franklin's bumble bee.
It's an annual workshop held at the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS) in Portal, Ariz. for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists, and other biologists "who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees," according to organizer Jerome Rozen Jr. of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York.
AMNH launched the course at SWRS in 1999. This year's nine-day workshop will take place Aug. 25-Sept. 4.
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, has been teaching at the workshop since 2002. Thorp, who received his doctorate in entomology from UC Berkeley, served on the UC Davis faculty from 1964 to 1994, but although he officially "retired" in 1994, he never really did. He continues his research, writings and bee identification at his office in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis.
Frankly, we at UC Davis don't know what we'd do without him. Thorp maintains a massive educational, research and public service work that brings national and worldwide pride and distinction to UC Davis. No one can say “pollinators” without thinking of Thorp. For example, MacArthur Foundation Fellow Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist with the UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, said she would never have attempted her much-cited Yolo County pollinator project without his expertise. He not only helped develop the protocol, but he identifies all the species—about 60,000 of them since 1999.
Robbin Thorp will turn 80 years young during The Bee Course. Shhh--don't tell anyone. (P.S., he says it's okay to "tell.")
Thorp and his colleague John Ascher, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore and research associate at the American of Natural History, New York, and a key scientist at BugGuide.Net, were working today at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis. We captured a quick image of them (below).
Ascher, who received his doctorate in entomology from Cornell University, has taught at The Bee Course since 2004.
The Bee Course textbook is The Bee Genera of North and Central America, Michener, C.D., R.J. McGinley and B.N. Danforth, 1994, Smithsonian Press.
Why in Portal, Ariz.? It's one of the richest bee faunas in North America.
All the instructors are volunteers. In addition to Rozen, Thorp and Ascher, the 2013 team includes Stephen Buchmann of Tucson, who received his doctorate in entomology from UC Davis; James H. Cane and Terry Griswold of the USDA-ARS Bee Biology and Systematics Lab at Utah State University, Logan; Lawrence Packer of York University, Toronto, Canada; and UC Davis alumnus Ronald McGinley of Dewey, Ill. (he obtained his doctorate in entomology from UC Berkeley and then worked at Harvard University and the Smithsonian before joining the Illinois Natural History Survey).
The participants, usually around 22, come from all over the world. They will return home with a collection of properly labeled bee specimens--and a comprehensive knowledge about bees.
From the website: The course "emphasizes the classification and identification of more than sixty bee genera of North and Central America (both temperate and tropical), and the general information provided is applicable to the global bee fauna. Lectures include background information on the biologies of bees, their floral relationships, their importance in maintaining and/or improving floral diversity, inventory strategies, and the significance of oligolecty (i.e., taxonomic floral specialization). Field trips acquaint participants with collecting and sampling techniques; associated lab work provides instruction on specimen identification, preparation and labeling."
And the course significance: "The field of pollination ecology explores the reproductive biology of plants in general, including the biotic and abiotic agents associated with pollination and seed-set. This is of interest for basic research and understanding of world communities and also has significant practical impact as it relates to pollination of economically important crop plants, to survival of endangered plants, and to plant reproduction in threatened habitats. Pollen is moved between receptive flowers by wind, water, birds, bats, beetles, flies, etc., but the 20,000 species of bees worldwide play a dominant role in the sexual reproduction of most plant communities. This course will empower students with 1) the confident use of The Bee Genera of North and Central America, 2) an appreciation for the biological diversity of bees, and 3) sufficient background to learn more about bees and investigate pollination and conservation problems with greater insight."
Said Thorp: "It is a great experience for students to interact with instructors and especially with their peers from around the world. Instructors all donate their time to teach in the course, but benefit from the chance to get together with colleagues and a new cohort of interesting students each year. Every class is different. that is, it takes on its own personality, and each student brings something new and different to the mix."
It’s good to see so many children’s books being published about bees.
One of the latest ones is Buzz About Bees (Fitzhenry & Whiteside) by former elementary school teacher Kari-Lynn Winters, who asked for—and received—one of my photos of beekeeper Brian Fishback of Wilton wearing a bee beard.
Fishback, a former volunteer at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis, is a past president of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers’ Association and spends a lot of time educating people—especially schoolchildren—about bees. He also teaches beekeeping classes.
“From the first moment I opened a hive and held a full frame of brood covered with bees, I was in utopia,” Fishback said of his first encounter with bees in 2008. “Everything came together. In my hand I held the essence of core family values.”
That same year, he and his wife Darla purchased a ranch in Wilton and renamed it the BD Ranch and Apiary. They are their two daughters are pursuing a self-sustaining life. “I catapulted into this way of life, knowing that honey bees would provide us with pollination as well as a natural sweetener,” Fishback recalled.
And the bee beards? It’s an educational and entertaining activity best done in the spring when the nectar flow is heavy, when the temperatures are optimum, and when the bees “are fat and happy,” says noted bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, formerly of UC Davis and now with Washington State University. She has coordinated bee beard activities at Ohio State University, UC Davis and now WSU.
“Don’t try this at home—not without a seasoned bee-beard coordinator who adheres to the necessary preparations and precautions,” Cobey says. “The fact that honey bees are venomous insects with the ability to sting when threatened, must be respected.”
Why bee beards? Beekeepers, she points out, are not only passionate about bees but fascinated with them. Donning a bee beard provides an opportunity to observe bee behavior up, close and personal--to literally "look the bees in the eye."
The beekeepers who participated in Cobey's beard activity last year at the Laidlaw facility agreed that the beards are "heavy, hot and they tickle." After all, we're talking about wearing 10, 000 bees!
As for Winters' new book, it's a colorful, easy-to-read work with lots of interesting facts about honey bees and other bees. It does, however, contain some incorrect information, such as:
- “The swarm can contain tens of thousands of worker bees—all following the queen.” The queen doesn’t lead the swarm, as anyone who has read bee scientist Tom Seeley’s book on The HoneyBee Democracy knows.
- Winters quotes Albert Einstein as saying: “If bees disappeared, humans would have only four years left to live.” Only problem is: Einstein didn’t say that. That’s an urban legend.
- Winters also writes that cell phones may cause interference with a bee's navigational system, which bee scientists have long discounted. She advocates creating a “cell phone-free zone” near the bee hives. “Post signs and ask people not to use cell phones in that area.” We've seen scores of beekeepers answering their cell phones in the apiary or returning phone calls.
Overall, though, this is an interesting book, with catchy chapter titles, such as “”The Whole Ball of Wax” and “Bee-Ing Alone.” We passed it around in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. One bee scientist really liked the “Waggle Dance” poem on page 2. “Pretty good,” he said.
In addition to honey bees, Winters also touches on carpenter bees, mining bees, leafcutter bees and mason bees, which should inspire youngsters to go out and try to find them. She relates the difference between bees and wasps. She offers instruction on how to build a blue orchard bee (BOB) condo or nesting site (which we have in our back yard). There’s a fun game, “Leave Me BEE,” included in her book. And, a great recipe for a honey/lemon gargle.
By the time children finish reading the book, they're likely to (1) want to become an beekeeper (2) want to become a bee researcher or (3) just want to glean more information about bees.
For sure, they'll all appreciate bees more, thanks to this buzz about bees.