The female black widow spider stood guard.
She clutched her two teardrop-shaped egg sacs, suspended from the web she'd earlier woven on the lip of the swimming pool. She spent the day crawling up, over and around them. Two sacs, about 300 eggs inside each one.
Her future offspring. Proud Mama. Dangerous Mama.
Below, honey bees buzzed in the catmint (Nepeta), a white cabbage butterfly fluttered about, ladybugs snatched aphids, and a cellar spider (aka "daddy long-legs," Pholcus phalangioides) waited for the spiderlings to emerge to partake of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Sometimes that can be a four-week wait.
The female black widow spider is a force to be reckoned with--her bite is the most venomous of all spiders in North America. The neurotoxic venom can kill humans, but that rarely occurs. Statistics show the human mortality rate is less than 1 percent.
Not so with the insects and other arachnids she traps in her web. They blunder into the sticky web, get stuck, get bitten, and get eaten. While they're struggling in the web, she punctures them and sucks out their body fluid.
Not a pretty picture. But it is when it's a house fly or cockroach!
The female black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus) is easy to distinguish. About half an inch long and shiny jet black, she's characterized by a red hourglass pattern on the underside of her bulbous abdomen. But don't bet on the pattern or coloring. Some black widows have a fragmented pattern, and some display no hourglass pattern or no red coloration at all.
You'll often find black widows in the garage, in woodpiles, rock piles, backyard clutter, in corners of sheds or playhouses, and sometimes inside your basement or elsewhere in your home. They spin an irregular, sticky silken web, conveniently located near their future prey.
This arachnid is named "black widow" because of the old wives' tale that she always kills her mate and consumes it after mating. Not true, scientists say. The mating ritual is not always violent.
However, it's when the female black widow is guarding her egg sacs that she's considered the most dangerous. When she bites humans, the bite itself can be painless or quite painful, but should always require medical attention.
That's because the venom is a powerful neurotoxin that causes muscles to contract. "This spider's bite is much feared because its venom is reported to be 15 times stronger than a rattlesnake's," according to a National Geographic post. "In humans, bites produce muscle aches, nausea, and a paralysis of the diaphragm that can make breathing difficult; however, contrary to popular belief, most people who are bitten suffer no serious damage—let alone death. But bites can be fatal—usually to small children, the elderly, or the infirm."
Be careful out there!
How do bumble bees plan their route to find the most rewarding flowers in the shortest distance?
That "is a mathematical puzzle which has vexed academics and traveling salesmen alike," according to an article in the June 29th edition of Science Daily.
So lead researcher Mathieu Lihoreau of Queen Mary, the University of London's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, set out to find why.
The researchers monitored the movement of a bumble bee, Bombus terrestris, and published their work in the British Ecological Society's Functional Ecology.
How are bumble bees like traveling salesmen/women?
Co-author Nigel Rain told Science Daily: "The Traveling Salesman must find the shortest route that allows him to visit all locations on his route. Computers solve it by comparing the length of all possible routes and choosing the shortest. However, bees solve simple versions of it without computer assistance, using a brain the size of grass seed."
For the project, the researchers made some flowers more rewarding than others, so the bees had to decide "between following the shortest route or visiting the most rewarding flower first," Lihoreau told Science Daily.
"We have demonstrated that bumblebees make a clear trade-off between minimising travel distance and prioritising high rewards when considering routes with multiple locations," concluded co-author Professor Lars Chittka in the Science Daily piece. "These results provide the first evidence that animals use a combined memory of both the location and profitability of locations when making complex routing decisions, giving us a new insight into the spatial strategies of trap-lining animals."
Interesting research. Interesting research, indeed. As an aside, foraging bumble bees don't appear to be as navigationally challenged as their traveling human counterparts--many of whom would not dare travel without GPS, maps, a front-seat passenger skilled in navigation, or handwritten notes from Aunt Mary.
Just wondering--might this research also correlate with human travelers' fast-food stops? Why do some hungry travelers stop at the first fast-food restaurant, without considering what heart-healthy, nutritious foods lie ahead?
If you're gearing up for the Fourth of July weekend, you'll probably head to the farmers' market, a roadside stand, or the produce department of your favorite grocery store for some freshly picked strawberries.
And you can thank a honey bee if your berry is fully formed. If it looks deformed "or not quite filled out," possibly "the seeds on that side didn't get pollinated," said Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty.
Among the fruits and vegetables that require bee pollination are almonds, (seeded) citrus, plums, cherries, apples, kiwi. melons, squash, pumpkin, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and vegetable seeds such as onion seeds.
The Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee friendly demonstration garden at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis, showcases a number of plants that require bee pollination, including almonds, apples, plums, blueberries, onions and squash. The garden, located on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus, is open to the public, year around, from dawn to dusk.
The goal of the bee haven is to provide a year-around food source for the bees at the Laidlaw facility, to raise public awareness on the plight of the honey bee, and to show visitors what they can plant in their own gardens to attract bees. And, it's a research garden. Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, is monitoring the dozens of different species of bees visiting the garden.
The strawberry patch is tiny--after all, this is a demonstration garden--but the berries are big. Staff and volunteers keep the garden weeded and occasionally, harvest a few strawberries.
The verdict: Berry, berry fine!
Male squash bees know just where to sleep--inside a squash blossom.
If you're growing squash and you head out to your garden just after sunrise, you'll probably see the males fast asleep, waiting for visiting females to arrive.
They're native bees, specialist bees that forage in squash, zucchini, pumpkins and gourds. The females nest in the ground; the males sleep in the blossoms.
We recently spotted a male squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa) asleep in a squash blossom at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee friendly demonstration garden next to the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis.
The squash bee thrust out his tongue for a sip of nectar and dew, and then darted from one squash blossom to another. His search for a mate proved fruitless that morning, but there's always tomorrow.
And meanwhile, a squash-blossom pillow to rest his head.
If it looks like a bee, sips nectar like a bee, and buzzes away like a bee, that doesn't mean it's a bee.
Last weekend we visited a Fort Bragg nursery specializing in succulents, and these "little white bees" were all over the red flowering thyme (Thymus serphyllum).
"Little white bees." That's what nursery personnel and visitors called them.
Not bees, though. Wasps.
But both in the order Hymenoptera.
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, identified it as a sand wasp, genus Bembix, probably B. americana.
"These wasps fly very rapidly and frequently visit flowers," Thorp said.
Being a wasp, it's a predator and a carnivore, not a vegetarian like the honey bee. It preys upon flies, hover flies (aka flower flies or syrphids), tachinid flies, lacewings, and other critters, taking the carcasses back to its ground nest to feed its larvae.
The sand wasp digs its nest holes in the sand, thus its name. Its abdomen looks something like a basketball referee: except instead of black and white stripes, it sports curvy black and white stripes.
Bug Guide indicates that North America is home to 19 species of sand wasps.
This one (below) seemed to be sipping nectar (adults feed on nectar).
Probably a "matter of thyme" before it nailed a fly.