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.
A partial solar eclipse is about to happen in Vacaville, Calif.
I am watching the insects: the honey bees nectaring on the African blue basil, an orbweaver spider munching on its prey, an assassin bug poised on a tropical milkweed, and a praying mantis lurking beneath a showy milkweed leaf.
Today (Aug. 21) is the long-awaited Great American Eclipse. The totality path will begin at 9 a.m. in Oregon, and stretch across the country to South Carolina.
Hmm, I wonder, how will the bugs in our pollinator garden react to a partial eclipse?
It won't be drastic, I predict. And it wasn't.
The partial eclipse in Vacaville began at 9:02 a.m. and reached its maximum (70 percent coverage of the sun) at 10:16. It ended at 11:38 am., a duration of two hours and 36 minutes.
The bees foraged before, during and after the eclipse, primarily on the African blue basil, which is usually covered with bees. During the height of the eclipse, however, as the skies darkened, a little more than half remained. After the eclipse, when the temperature increased and the wind ceased, the number of bees returned to normal.
"Honey bees tend to act like night is falling if the eclipse takes out quite a bit of the sunlight," says honey bee guru Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus and president of the Western Apicultural Society. "Then they 'wake back up' afterwards."
Despite the eclipse, the spider kept eating its prey. (Sure hope it wasn't that blue dragonfly, Libellula luctuosa, "the widow skimmer" I saw yesterday.) The praying mantis kept lurking. The assassin bug raised its antennae. And the bees--although fewer of them--just kept foraging.
Two stink bugs opted to procreate on the bluebeard, Caryopteris x clandonensis. A Gulf Fritillary fluttered by and stopped to sip nectar from the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). The assassin bug crawled higher on the milkweed, poised for an ambush.
The spider tugged its prey beneath a leaf, abandoning its web. Well, that's that, I thought.
Not so. The sticky web snagged a honey bee while the spider was polishing off its first prey. Okay, spider, you've already had your breakfast. You don't need a second helping. Not today."
I freed the struggling bee and off it buzzed to forage another day.
A partial eclipse, but a full escape...
Hey, honey bee, I'll race you to the flowers.
Okay, but you'll lose. I can go faster. Watch me!
The scene: a male bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus, and a worker honey bee, Apis mellifera, are buzzing along at breakneck speed toward the lavender in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
They nearly collide but Mr. Bumble Bee pauses in mid-air and gives Ms. Honey Bee a free pass---and just in time for National Pollinator Week, when all of our pollinators need free passes! That starts out with two crucial steps: plant bee-friendly flowers and avoid using pesticides. Feed them food, not poison.
The end result here: plenty of nectar for everyone.
Bombus melanopygus, also known as the black-tailed honey bee, is among the bumble bees featured in the book, Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University), the award-winning work of Paul H. Williams, Robbin W. Thorp, Leif L. Richardson and Sheila R. Colla.
Thorp, a distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, is also the co-author (along with Gordon Frankie, Rollin Coville, and Barbara Ertter) of California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists. They offer great information on bee identification, but also crucial advice on how to attract and retain bees in your garden.
Happy Pollinator Week!/span>
So, here we are, a couple of stink bugs hidden in the lavender. Unnoticed. Undetected. Undisturbed.
We're loving the lavender, and we're in the process of providing the world with more stink bugs.
"Okay, we know, we know. We're red-shouldered stink bugs (Thyanta pallidovirens). You humans named us but you don't define us. You guys think we're pests and are always trying to research our reproductive behavior. And you're bound and determined to control us and our offspring.
"But, could we just ask for some privacy, please? Oh, what's that sound? Sounds like a buzz saw coming right at us!"
The honey bee touches down next to them and stops to sip some nectar. Her antennae brush against the couple. "Move!" she says to the stink bugs. "I'm trying to work here."
Nobody moves but the bee.