How would you describe the year 2017?
Survival of the fittest?
In the insect world, it's more like "survival of the flittest."
If you've ever pulled up a chair in a pollinator garden and sat back and observed all the activity, sometimes it's like road rage on the freeway and aisle anger in the supermarket.
- Have you ever seen a male long-horned bee (Melissodes agilis) doing a protective fly-by, trying to save a food source for the female of his species?
- Have you ever seen a male long-horned bee challenging a Western tiger swallowtail seeking nectar from a Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia)?
- Have you ever seen a syrphid fly targeting a honeydew-laden lady beetle, aka ladybug, on a rose?
- Have you ever seen a honey bee and bumble bee racing for the nectar on catmint (Nepeta)?
You may if you plant a pollinator garden. Plant it and they--bees and butterflies and other pollinators--will come.
In Chinese astrology, 2017 was The Year of the Rooster. Coming Jan. 1: The Year of the Dog. But there's no "Year of the Insect."
If entomologists had their way, one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig), would be switched to an insect. Insects matter. Indeed, scientists trace the first known fossil record of insects back some 400 million years ago. The insect? A springtail.
Insects easily outnumber us and all other life forms. The population of the world today is 7 billion, according to a World Population Clock. Insects? "At any given time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive," says the Smithsonian Institute. This amounts to to largest biomass of the terrestrial animals.
Other fascinating points to ponder from the Smithsonian Institute involve undescribed and described species:
"Most authorities agree that there are more insect species that have not been described (named by science) than there are insect species that have been previously named. Conservative estimates suggest that this figure is 2 million, but estimates extend to 30 million. In the last decade, much attention has been given to the entomofauna that exists in the canopies of tropical forests of the world. From studies conducted by Terry Erwin of the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Entomology in Latin American forest canopies, the number of living species of insects has been estimated to be 30 million."
"In the United States, the number of described species is approximately 91,000. The undescribed species of insects in the United States, however, is estimated at some 73,000." Four insect orders comprise the largest numbers of described species in the U.S.:
- Coleoptera (beetles): 23,700
- Diptera (flies): 19,600
- Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps): 17,500
- Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies): 11,500.
Today (the last Friday before the New Year) is a good time to think about "survival of the fittest" and "survival of the flittest" as we glance back at 2017 and look forward to 2018.
Happy New Year! And may all your gardens be pollinator gardens filled with bees and butterflies. And, a few syrphid flies, lady beetles...and...
You've heard of "musical chairs," that anxiety-driven elimination game involving chairs, music and players. When the music stops and a chair is eliminated, the players race for the remaining seats. No one wants to be the first loser.
Well, insects, too, play "musical chairs," but with flowers as chairs. The music: the flapping or buzzing of insect wings.
Such was the case this week as two syrphid flies, aka hover flies or flower flies, kept jockeying for the same Mexican sunflower blossom (Tithonia rotundifolia).
It was a close contest between the black hover fly or Mexican cactus fly (Copestylum mexicanum) and the hover fly (probably Eristalis tenax), which is often mistaken for a honey bee. Neither wanted to be the first loser.
Who won? Neither. They abandoned the "fight" and took flight, each heading for a different blossom to forage for more nectar and pollen.
Life is like that.
If there's any flower that should be crowned "Autumn's Majesty," that would be the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), aka "Torch."
A member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), it carries "the torch of life" throughout spring, summer and autumn, but it's especially important in autumn when few plants offer sustenance to insects, especially to migrating monarchs. The colorful annual has been blooming in our yard since April, reaching 10-to 15-foot heights (thanks, drip irrigation).
What loves this delightful orange blossom, besides the human beings who grow it?
Over a weeklong period, we photographed dozens of autumn critters, including monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, hover flies, honey bees and crab spiders.
Every bee garden needs an "Autumn Majesty" and the Mexican sunflower fills the bill. When it goes to seed, finches and other birds will take what's left.
We have bright faces in our Vacaville, Calif., pollinator garden.
The bright faces are usually that of assorted bees and butterflies nectaring on members of the sunflower family: Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) and blanketflowers (Gaillardia).
But we did not expect to see this bright face: a banded garden spider, Argiope trifasciata. Bright face? Argiope is Latin for “with bright face” while trifasciata is Latin for “three-banded.”
The Argiope trifasciata spider is found throughout much of the United States and Canada. It's also in Central and South America, Australia, the Mediterranean region, Africa, Sri Lanka, the South Pacific Islands, and China, according to Spiders of North America, which informs us that scientists have identified a combined total of 4000 spider species in the United States and Canada.
Argiope trifasciata is just one of them, but what a beautiful spider it is. Clever and cunning, too.
It had crafted a web inches from the ground between a showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, and bluebeard (Caryopteris clandonensis) amid patches of Mexican sunflower patch and African blue basil.
Exactly where the bees are.
It snared two of them one morning and wrapped them for later consumption.
Meanwhile, an opportunistic and hungry freeloader fly, family Milichiidae and maybe genus Desmometopa, figured the spider ought to share its prey. It stopped to feed on the wrapped bee.
So, in actuality, there were two bright faces in the garden--the banded garden spider and the freeloader fly.
The faces of the wrapped honey bees--not so much.
One of Buck Owens' signature songs that never failed to please his fan base was "I Got a Tiger by the Tail."
The Country-Hall-of-Fame singer, who died in 2006 at age 76, said the lyrics came to him after he noticed a gas station sign advertising "Put a tiger in your tank." (Source: Wikipedia)
"I've got a tiger by the tail, it's plain to see," sang Buck Owens. "I won't be much when you get through with me..."
Well, he's not the only one with a "tiger by the tail."
We recently spotted male longhorn bees, probably Melissodes agilis, targeting Western tiger swallowtails, Papilio rutulus, in our family's pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. The butterflies were trying to sip nectar from the 8 to 10-foot-high Mexican sunflowers (genus Tithonia).
Who knew that sipping nectar could be so difficult? The extremely territorial male longhorn bees kept trying to push the "tigers" off the Tithonia by dive-bombing them, slamming into them, and then regrouping for more aerial assaults. Their goal: to save the resources for their own species.
And then it happened. A longhorn bee slid through a tiger's tail.
A tiger by the tail.