If you enjoy climbing the cliffs of Bodega Head on the Sonoma coast, keep your eyes out for bears--woolly bear caterpillars, that is.
The so-called "woolly bear caterpillar" is reddish, black and woolly and has a voracious appetite much like that of Joey Chestnut. It is the Ranchman's Tiger Moth caterpillar, Platyprepia virginalis.
Richard "Rick" Karban, professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, studies this critter. "It has a taste for most alkaloid containing plants, like fiddleneck, although it doesn't appear to sequester the alkaloids," he told us. "The alkaloids may help caterpillars survive their parasitoids, however."
The reserve, which surrounds the Bodega Marine Laboratory, is a unit of the University of California Natural Reserve System and is administered by UC Davis.
Several woolly bear caterpillars were munching on fiddleneck. Another rolled around near a patch of California poppies and we couldn't tell what its menu included. It looked good, though!
You can read Karban's research on "Diet Mixing Enhances the Performance of a Generalist Caterpillar, Platyprepia virginalis," published last February in the Ecological Entomology journal.
Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but the honey bees just kept on working.
We recently visited an apiary in Glenn County, and the honey bees were all over the fiddlenecks in patches adjacent to the hives. A springtime scene of golden flowers and buzzing bees. An artist's dream...a photographer's delight...
The fiddleneck (genus Amsinckia) is kissing cousins with borage and forget-me-nots in the family Boraginacae. The flower-laden stems curl over like the head of a fiddle or violin in concert. And when a honey bee forages on the fiddleneck, the stems bend even more.
I think there's a country song there somewhere. It bends, but doesn't break. Tune in, tune out. It's livestock's poison but bee's nectar.
Fiddle de-dee (good!) for the bees...fiddle de-dum (bad!) for the livestock.
It's worth the wait.
The two towers of jewels (Echium wildpretti) are blooming in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, the half-acre bee friendly garden next to the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis.
The plant is a biennual and it blooms the second year and that's it. Plant specialists call this a monocarpic (dies after flowering).
There's no better place for the towers of jewels to "bee" than next to the six million or so bees at the Laidlaw facility.
The garden is open from dawn to dusk (no charge) year around. It's located on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus.
If you go, bring your camera!
It's spectacular. It's awe-inspiring. It's a work of art.
And it's home to a feral honey bee colony in Vacaville.
A Vacaville resident contacted us awhile back about a feral honey bee hive built 30 feet off the ground in a Modesto ash tree.
The bees anchored the comb among the limbs so well that it survived the winter storms of 2010-11. Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet...nor colony collapse disorder...
It's still viable. Bees forage in the gardens, tend to their brood, and make honey.
Noted apiculturist Norm Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis, and author of a newly published book, "Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees," estimated that the feral bees probably built it in the spring of 2010. Leaves hid it from public view until winter.
Bee folks at UC Davis speculated that the heavy rains and severe winds would topple it. Not so. It's still going strong.
Some cities, including Vacaville, have ordinances prohibiting bee swarms or feral bee colonies. If bees build it, the homeowner/tenant must remove it. (6.24.130 Wild swarms of bees. "No person shall keep, maintain, or allow to remain on any property, lot or parcel of land under his or her ownership or control any wild swarms of bees.")
It's easy to see why a city would pass such an ordinance--especially in areas with Africanized bees, which are more defensive than the European/western honey bee.
With this colony in Vacaville, however, the bees are minding their own business and the neighbors don't mind at all. (Note: the homeowner is pursuing removal, but wants to save the bees.)
Meanwhile, it's a colony to bee-hold.
There's something about maggots that non-forensic entomologists don't like.
"Those are the larvae of a fly," a mother told her inquiring daughter last Saturday at the Maggot Art table at Briggs Hall, UC Davis campus. The occasion: the 97th annual UC Davis Picnic Day.
Maggot Art? It's been part of the UC Davis Department of Entomology's featured Picnic-Day attractions since 2003.
It started with graduate student Rebecca O'Flaherty, who coined the name, "Maggot Art," and established it as an educational curriculum. She's taught youths and adults alike to dip a maggot in non-toxic, water-based paint and let it crawl (or guide its movements) on white paper. Voila! Maggot Art!
“The beauty of the Maggot Art program,” O'Flaherty told us a few years ago, “is its ability to give hands-on, non-threatening experience with an insect that most people fear or loathe.”
So last Saturday, scores of children crowded around the table awaiting their turns. Once finished, they literally danced away with their masterpieces.
Can't you just see the result? A favorite aunt or uncle comes to visit and there's a colorful "painting" on the refrigerator.
That's definitely a conversation piece.
Anyway, one of the Maggot Art artists at UC Davis Picnic Day was entomologist-artist Diane Ullman, associate dean for Undergraduate Academic Programs, UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology. Ullman and colleague Donna Billick co-founded and co-direct the UC Davis Art/Science Fusion Program and on occasion invited O'Flaherty into their classrooms to teach Maggot Art.
Last Saturday, when Ullman volunteered to staff the Maggot Art table, she found a little time to create her own insect art--again.
"It's just like old times," she said.