It's Thanksgiving Day and time to give thanks for NOT what we WANT, but what we HAVE.
And, not for what we OWN, but what we CANNOT.
That includes the yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii.
On the morning of Nov. 12, we traveled to the Sonoma Cornerstone, Sonoma, to check the plants and pollinators in Kate Frey's amazing pollinator garden. Kate Frey, co-author of The Bee-Friendly Garden" (with UC San Francisco professor Gretchen LeBuhn), is a world-class garden designer and pollinator advocate.
Flashback to Sept. 23, the last time we visited the Frey garden. We noticed monarch butterflies, painted ladies, honey bees and--one bumble bee, a hungry queen Bombus vosnesenskii, newly emerged from winter hibernation to grab something to eat. Sometimes on warm sunny days, the queens will disrupt their hibernation to search for nectar. They. Are. Hungry.
At 12:30 on Nov. 12, the temperature rose to 62 degrees.
And then we saw her, The Queen. The Queen. Resplendent in gold and black, she buzzed loudly toward the spiked floral purple plant, Salvia indigo spires (Salvia farinacea x S. farinacea). Honey bees quickly moved out of her way as she claimed the nectar, all of it. Her wings glowed in the sunlight and her buzz seemed loud enough to break the sound barrier.
Is there anything more bee-utiful?
One bumble bee. One queen. A royal moment.
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.
It was not a good way to welcome an admiral.
The Red Admiral butterfly, that is.
The Vanessa atalanta fluttered into our pollinator garden on Sunday, July 16 in Vacaville, Calif., and touched down on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
The warmth of the sun, the rich nectar, a soft breeze, and all was well.
For a little while.
Several territorial male long-horned bees spied the stranger and pulled out the welcome mat. In a frenzy, they began dive-bombing the colorful black and red butterfly, trying to chase it away. "Those flowers are for our girls!" they seemed to say. "Leave! Now!"
Everywhere the butterfly went, a squadron of bombers followed. The sailboat-like wings proved a clear target.
One bullet-of-a-bee, probably a Melissodes agilis, slammed into the butterfly's wings, and that was enough.
"This pollinator garden's not big enough for both of us!"
She's in Vacaville, Calif., and the garden she is visiting today is a veritable oasis of blooms: Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and lavender (Lavandula). And it's filled with bees.
That's why she's here.
Just as crooks rob banks because "that's where the money" is, predators hang around pollinator gardeners because "that's where the prey is."
The predator is hungry. Ah, what's that? She glides from her perch, her wings glowing in the morning sunshine. She circles the garden and quickly returns with a pollen-laden bee in her mouth.
She ignores the photographer sitting a few feet from her and begins to eat.
But what bee? What bee is on the dragonfly menu?
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, distinguished professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, identified the bee from one photography angle (second photo below): a female sweat bee, genus Halictus.
"But what species?" asked Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis.
Here's another angle (first photo below), showing the head.
That's all it took. "The bee is a female of Halictus ligatus, based on the head shape, especially the pointed part of the back right side of the head," Thorp said.
Amazing. Who would know that?
Robbin Thorp, that's who.
Robbin Thorp knows bees like we know the way home. World-renowned for his bee expertise, he co-authored of California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, and Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide and co-teaches at The Bee Course, an American Museum of Natural History workshop held annually at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz. The workshop is geared for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists and other biologists who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees. This year's workshop is set Aug. 21-31.
Meanwhile, the dragonfly polishes off her meal, gazes at the photographer (What, are you still here? Sorry, I don't share!), and off she goes, zigzagging over the garden.
She will be back. She's punched only one hole of his meal ticket. Many holes--and many bees--remain.
Here's the scenario: Our pollinator garden is buzzing with the sights and sounds of honey bees. Ah, spring! A few feet away, California scrub jays are nesting in the cherry laurel hedges. They leave periodically to gather food for their young. Dozens of honey bees are foraging in the Spanish lavender. They leave periodically to deliver nectar and pollen to their colonies.
It's Saturday, April 22, and I leave to cover the 103rd UC Davis Picnic Day. I am unaware that the scrub jays are having a picnic of their own in our Spanish lavender.
Scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica) eat bees. Honey bees. And lots of other insects, too, plus frogs, lizards, grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables. And yes, they will raid bird nests, eating the eggs AND the young.
But back to the bees. Our resident scrub jays seem to like our tenant honey bees a lot more than they should! We've seen them pick off a foraging bee, thrash it on the sidewalk, and decapitate it, leaving behind the bee abdomen (complete with stinger).
Scrub jays are intelligent. Never denigrate a scrub jay by calling it a "bird brain."
But what happened in our pollinator garden Saturday afternoon was totally unexpected.
Yours truly, shoeless but not sockless, walks out the back door and into the pollinator garden. I pad past the year-around bird feeder filled with seeds. (Our birds never go hungry!) I walk along the cement sidewalk separating the pollinator garden from the bed of Spanish lavender. And then...Ouch! What was that? Intense pain shoots up my foot. Feels like a barbed hook. A venomous barbed hook.
When that happens, it's important to remove the stinger (apiculturists call it a "sting") or the venom will keep pumping. We do and it doesn't.
Then, being the curious sort, I walk back to the sidewalk--this time wearing shoes!--and see dozens of headless bees. A veritable carnage. I pick one up for closer investigation, and I get stung again. On my hand. By a dead bee.
What are the odds? Well, it happens. Dead bees can sting.
“As you are aware, the nervous system of insects is quite a bit more decentralized than is our own,” says UC Cooperative Extension apiculturist emeritus Eric Mussen, who completed 38 years of service in 2014 but continues to maintain an office in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology
“A honey bee sting, even when detached from the bee body--particularly the brain, from a mammalian point of view--can continue to operate: dig the sting in deeper and pump in the venom,” he says. "So, the still fresh and functional abdomens of decapitated honey bees can function just as they do when ripped from the body by stinging. It doesn't matter how the sting gets into your tissue, the exoskeleton, muscles, nerve ganglion, and venom sac act just like they would from a real sting. The trick, in your case, was to step on the abdomen at the perfect angle to push the sting into your skin. From then on, nature took over."
"Have I heard of people being stung by excised bee stings before?" Mussen asks. "No, I haven't, but it makes perfect sense to me that it happened."
The next day, I walk into the yard, and I see and photograph a scrub jay decapitating a bee, discarding the abdomen. It has apparently learned not to mess with the business end of a bee.
As for me, I have learned not to go shoeless in the pollinator garden...or I may get the business end of a dead bee.