It is not a good time to be a butterfly.
Especially if you're a monarch butterfly that eclosed on Jan. 5 in cold and rainy Vacaville, Calif. while all--or most--of your counterparts are overwintering along coastal California or in central Mexico. You don't even count; scientists and citizen scientists have already counted the overwintering monarch population and you're not there.
They do not know you exist.
You're nestled inside an indoor meshed butterfly habitat on a kitchen counter. Outside, a storm brews, not unlike the nearby coffee pot gurgling away. Inside, fingers of warmth comfort you. You sip a mixture of honey and water, and then orange juice. You sample the raspberries and blueberries. At night you perch on a rosemary branch. You wake up to the sounds of National Public Radio and the coffee pot gurgling. People come and go and look at you. "What are you doing here?" You ignore them.
You are alone. Your parents met and mated sometime in November. Your 11 siblings and cousins all eclosed on the last of the tropical milkweed, leaving you with basically nothing. You are the last one. A mid-life chrysalis if there ever was one. And now a maverick in the making. It's too cold and rainy to fly.
And then one of those humans comes by with a silkscreened garden flag and lifts you gently out of your zippered habitat. You eagerly investigate your new territory. You see a male monarch and a honey bee looking back at you. Life imitating art, or art imitating life?
Everybody eats in the pollinator garden.
Maybe not at the same time, but they all eat.
We noticed a syrphid fly, aka flower fly/hover fly, heading toward a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) in our pollinator garden. Alas for the fly, it was occupied. Occupied by a honey bee (Apis mellifera).
The honey bee soon buzzed off, and the syrphid claimed it.
The honey bee returned and took a turn.
Then another fly, a drone fly (Eristallis tenax), claimed it.
Interesting that all three are sometimes called "bees," much to the chagrin of entomologists and other scientists. It just goes to prove that not all floral visitors are flies.
- Honey bee: Order, Hymenoptera; Family Apidae
- Syrphid fly: Order, Diptera; Family Syrphidae
- Drone fly: Order, Diptera; Family Syrphidae
But they do have several things in common: (1) they're insects (2) they're pollinators (3) they're hungry and (4) they like nectar just as much as humans like sugar, especially on Halloween. And doesn't orange symbolize Halloween?
Extra, extra, read all about it!
This "extra" has nothing to do with a special edition of a newspaper.
This "extra" deals with something that may puzzle you.
This "extra" refers to the passionflower vine (Passiflora), the host plant of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae).
About this time of year, the Gulf Frit caterpillars have probably skeletonized your passionflower vine. It's the Halloween poster child of the plant world.
But why, then, are honey bees foraging on a flowerless Passiflora? Their activity has nothing to do with pollination. They're foraging on the leaves and stems. And they're not seeking water.
Extension apiculturist (emeritus) Eric Mussen, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, answered that question with three little words: "Extra-floral nectary."
It's a subject unfamiliar to many non-botanists and non-biologists.
Wikipedia describes it this way: "Nectar is a sugar-rich liquid produced by plants in glands called nectaries, either within the flowers with which it attracts pollinating animals, or by extrafloral nectaries, which provide a nutrient source to animal mutualists, which in turn provide antiherbivore protection."
Lenore Durkee of Grinnell (Iowa) College wrote a scientific paper, "The Floral and Extra-Floral Nectaries of Passiflora," published in the October 1982 edition of the American Journal of Botany, that answers the question and explains the phenomenon.
She defined extra-floral nectaries as "glands that secrete primarily sugars and are found on the vegetative portions of many species of plants."
In her research, Durkee studied the extra-floral nectaries of nine species of Passiflora with light and electron microscopy prior to and during secretion. In her abstract, meant for botanists, she wrote: "There is no evidence of ER or Golfi participation in the secretion of nectar. The vascular tissue supplying the nectary is characterized by companion and pholem parenchyma cells which are usually larger than the sieve elements, a configuration similar to that found in leaf minor veins. In the petiolar nectaries, large masses of membrane-bound protein are commonly found in these cells. This protein is absent in laminar nectaries."
That's probably TMI (too much information) unless you're a botanist.
No worries. The bonus is this: the next time someone asks you why honey bees are foraging on the leaves and stems of your Passiflora (don't you hear that all the time?), you can answer "Extra Flora Nectaries" or "EFN." You can explain that flowers produce nectar but extra-floral nectaries are just nectar-producing glands physically apart from the flower. And, you could add that EFN occurs in more than 2000 plant species in more than 64 families, according to scientists at University of Florida Extension.
Ants like EFN, too.
So do a lot of other insects, including those hungry Gulf Fritillary caterpillars that eat everything in sight...and out of sight...
Well, not just pink. All other colors, too.
It's National Honey Bee Day on Saturday, Aug. 20.
That's when we officially celebrate the honey bee, Apis mellifera, which the European colonists brought to the Jamestown colony in Virginia in 1622. The honey bee didn't arrive in California until 1853 when a beekeeper brought colonies to the San Jose area.
How did National Honey Bee Day originate? U.S. beekeepers launched the event in 2009. In fact, they petitioned the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture to recognize and pay tribute to its smallest agricultural worker, to spread awareness, and to advance beekeeping. This year's theme: "Beekeeping: A Hobby with a Sweet Taste."
When bees are out foraging, they bring back to the colony four essentials: nectar, pollen, water and propolis (plant resin that's used as a glue to seal small spaces).
But that's not the only thing they bring back to the hive.
They can also bring back pesticides that can kill or harm a colony.
Just in time for National Honey Bee Day, the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM), affiliated with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, has developed and published Bee Precaution Pesticide Ratings "to help pest managers make an informed decision about how to protect bees when choosing or applying pesticides."
Cheryl Reynolds, senior editor/interactive learning developer for UC IPM, wrote a piece today on the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology website about the project, first describing the UC IPM mission as "to protect the environment by reducing risks caused by pest management practices."
"The bee precaution ratings are based on the reported effects of a pesticide's active ingredient on adult honey bees or their brood," Reynolds wrote. "You can find and compare ratings for active ingredients including acaricides (miticides), bactericides, fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides."
"Ratings fall into three categories," she noted. "Red, or rated I, pesticides should not be applied or allowed to drift to plants that are flowering. Plants include the crop AND nearby weeds. Yellow, or rated II, pesticides should not be applied or allowed to drift to plants that are flowering, except when the application is made between sunset and midnight if allowed by the pesticide label and regulations. Finally, green, or rated III, pesticides have no bee precautions, except when required by the pesticide label or regulations."
Reynolds emphasized that the bee precaution pesticide ratings "are not the pollinator protection statements on the pesticide label."
"Each crop in the UC Pest Management Guidelines has links to the bee precaution ratings and provides guidance on how to reduce bee poisoning from pesticides," Reynolds pointed out.
Meanwhile, Happy National Bee Day! Thank a bee! And if you want to become a beekeeper, UC Davis offers classes.
So here's this tattered old worker bee seeking some nectar from the broadleaf milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. She looks as if she's not only been around the block a few times but around the county several dozen times. Her wings look too ragged to support her flight back to her colony. She'll probably live just a few more days. Worker bees live only four to six weeks in the peak season, and this is the peak season.
She bends her head and sips nectar, only to realize she is not alone. She encounters long antennae...the long antennae of a monarch caterpillar munching on a blossom. Whose plant is this? The bee wants the nectar. The monarch caterpillar wants the entire plant. This is the larval host plant of the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. The caterpillars turn into veritable eating machines, devouring the leaves, flowers and some of the stems. Without milkweed, no monarchs. It's a matter of survival.
The tattered old bee touches antennae with the hungry caterpillar--Well, hello, there, dining companion!--and she backs off. There will be another blossom--if she moves quickly to claim it.
Another bee, this one much younger than the senior citizen bee, buzzes over to nearby blossom while another caterpillar, partially hidden, munches away. The bee gets stuck in the sticky mass of gold pollinia and struggles to free herself, just as another bee flies off with some of that gooey "winged" substance, anchoring her flight. She will remove it. She will return. The nectar is too enticing.
Just another chapter in the Saga of the Milkweed, the Bee and the Caterpillar...