Today (Labor Day) began just like any other day.
And it ended just like any other day, except for the Labor Day celebrations that we humans plan.
For Nature's predators and prey that frequent our garden, however, it was an intertwining of life and death.
A western spotted orb weaver, Neoscona oaxacensis, spun a web on our tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii, and snagged, killed and wrapped a honey bee. Using the web as its lifeline, it tugged the bee into the shadows to eat it, undisturbed.
The tower of jewels, in bloom now for five months, looks like a tower of bees when the honey bees, syrphid flies, and carpenter bees share it. The plant is looking a little ragged now--it's going to seed--but it's still producing spectacular reddish-pink blossoms.
The spiders know where to spin their webs. They will be back tomorrow, as will the honey bees.
Ever seen honey bees foraging for water on your outdoor clothesline?
When Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the University of California, Davis, addresses beekeeping associations, he tells them to "always provide water for your bees on your property. Otherwise, they will visit the neighbor's hanging laundry, bird bath, swamp cooler, dog dish, leaky hose connection, etc."
Bees collect nectar, pollen, propolis (plant resin) and water for their colonies. On very hot days, you'll see scores of bees at a water fountain, bird bath, or pond.
Kim Flottum, editor of the Bee Culture magazine, writes in his book, The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden: "A summer colony needs at least a quart (liter) of water every day, and even more when it's warm."
Flottum points out: "Water is as necessary to your bees as it is to your pets and to you. Whatever watering technique you choose for your bees, the goal is to provide a continuous supply of fresh water. This means while you are on vacation for a couple of weeks, when you get busy and forget to check, and especially when it's really, really hot--bees always need water."
With temperatures soaring to 100 degrees today in Yolo and Solano counties, that's good advice.
Mussen and Flottum acknowledge that bees are industrious and will find water somewhere even if their regular source is unavailable. "Water is used to dissolve crystallized honey, to dilute honey when producing larval food, for evaporation cooling during warm weather, and for a cool drink on a hot day," Flottum writes in his book.
We've watched bees gathering water from our bird bath. We've seen hawks, doves, squirrels, crows, finches and bees sipping water there--as well as our cat, Xena the Warrior Princess. Not all at the same time, though! The Cooper's Hawk reigns supreme.
At the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, bees can sip water from a slanted board propped against a slowly dripping faucet, or from the specially designed watering devices at the nearby Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee friendly garden that doubles as an educational resource.
Bees know exactly where to return for the same water source. "Foragers seem to seek water sources that are scented," Flottum says.
This could be from a roadside ditch, storm drain, fish pond, dog dish or bird bath.
"Foragers will mark unscented sources of water with their Nasonov pheromone so others can locate the source too," Flottum writes.
Flottum's book is one of the "must-have" books for a beekeeper's library or for anyone wanting to learn more about bees.
You can read more about bees in Mussen's newsletters, from the UC apiaries, posted on his website.
You'll want to join the Butterfly Ecology Talk and Tour presented by naturalist Steve Daubert.
Daubert, a molecular scientist in the UC Davis Department of Plant Pathology, not only writes scientific technical text, but he also writes short stories, illustrated with his own photographs. He blogs at threadsintheweb.com.
The free butterfly tour around campus, sponsored by the UC Arboretum, is set for 11 a.m. to 12:30. He'll discuss the "flowers that sustain our native butterflies and the plants that support these larval stages," according to Arboretum officials.
The participants will meet on the Wyatt Deck at the Arboretum. All ages are welcome. No reservations are required. (See maps)
"I would hope we see at least tiger and pipevine swallowtails, field and duskywing skippers, gray hairstreak, alfalfa sulfur and cabbage white--and when anything else floats by, we will be ready," Daubert told us.
Daubert recently published a 200-page book, The Shark and the Jellyfish: More Stories in Natural History, which a critic says "presents 26 gripping new stories in a sequel to his acclaimed earlier natural history anthology," Threads from the Web of Life: Stories in Natural History.
Daubert "teaches by drawing you into the drama, excitement and beauty of nature," commented Don Glass, host of the National Public Radio-syndicated program, "A Moment of Science." (Vanderbilt University Press, July 2009)
On his website, Daubert writes: "There are countless stories out there in the wild world. They bubble up from the middle of the ocean or from a shady streamside eddy—from anywhere you stop to appreciate the natural out-doors. Those ideas grow and fuse; they evolve when viewed from each other’s perspective. Sometimes they present themselves as narratives that demand to be written down and explored further. Such as the spontaneous inspiration for the tales written on this site.”
Daubert describes himself as a “writer of short stories in ecology, geology, astronomy—topics from the natural world.” Read more about him here.
Meanwhile, check out his stunning photograph of the variable checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas chalcedona). That alone will draw you into his world of "spontaneous inspiration."
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!