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...
Ever seen assassination attempts in your garden?
They are not pretty if you're the prey. Neither are the successful attempts.
Take the Zelus renardii, aka the leafhopper assassin bug.
They've been hanging out in our nectarine tree, cosmos, passionflower vine and Cleveland sage. They stalk or lie in wait and then jab their prey with their long rostrum, injecting a lethal saliva. Next: they suck out the contents. They "assassinate" such pests as aphids, leafhoppers, and caterpillars of the cabbage white butterfly.
Assassin bugs also feed on beneficial insects, too, such as bees, lacewings and lady beetles, aka ladybugs.
They're often confused with kissing bugs. Can "assassin bugs can carry Chagas disease, which can transmit to humans?" a reader asked.
We asked noted entomologist Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, for comment and clarification.
"Assassin bugs and kissing bugs belong to the same family of insects, the Reduviidae," Kimsey said. "However, biologically they are very different. Kissing bugs belong to 20 or more species in the subfamily Triatominae. They are nocturnal blood feeders, and you almost never see them during the day. Most of these species in California are infected with the protozoan that causes Chagas disease, but because of differences in how they feed, few if any can actually transmit it to humans."
"The pathogen is transmitted in their droppings and have to be inhaled or scratched into the skin," Kimsey pointed out. "This only happens if the kissing bug defecates during feeding. The California species do not defecate until they leave the host and go back to a resting site, so the chances of getting Chagas disease from a bug in California are cosmically small. The assassin bugs you see during the day belong to an entirely different group of reduviids. They are all predators on other insects. Some of them, like the common garden assassin bug Zelus, are irritable biters but they do not transmit any kind of pathogen to anything."
Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you go hungry.
Take the case of the huge jumping spider (a female Phidippus audax or bold jumping spider, as identified by Wade Spencer of the UC Davis Bohart Museum of Entomology) hanging out in our Spanish lavender. Hey, pretend I'm not here! It stealthily crawls up and down the stems, blending into the shadows. It summits the flowers, looking for bees. Where are the bees? Where is my dinner?
The predator and the prey. The hunter and the hunted. The jumping spider, with four pairs of eyes. The honey bee with five eyes (two large compound eyes and three smaller ocelli eyes). The jumping spider's bite is venom. The honey bee's sting is venom.
If they meet, it will be deadly. The spider will shoot venom in the bee, paralyzing it.
Meanwhile, the honey bees are buzzing from flower to flower, some oblivious to the dark shadow lurking near them. No ambush today.
Sometimes you go hungry.
It's one of the most recognizable of all insects--if you can find it.
Ever had someone poke you and point toward a plant: "Look, there's a praying mantis?"
"Right there. See it?"
"No. Where is it?
"Right there. It's right there. Can't you see it?"
People aren't the only ones who can't see it. Neither can their prey, including honey bees, bumble bees, sweat bees, long-horned bees and assorted butterflies. Praying mantids are so camouflaged that they look like part of the plant.
We recently spotted a praying mantis clinging to our broad-leafed milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. The milkweed is meant for monarchs, their host plant, but it's also occupied by many guests, including lady beetles (aka ladybugs), lacewings, aphids, carpenter bees, honey bees, milkweed bugs, moths and spiders.
The praying mantis checked out the milkweed as people would a restaurant menu. It crawled along in the shadows, emerged into the sunshine, and crawled back into the shadows again, before summitting the plant.
It caught no prey. But it did look. A monarch circled the milkweed and fluttered off, heading toward a narrow-leafed milkweed. A lady beetle scurried down a leaf. A milkweed bug slipped behind a leaf.
And the aphids, well, they kept on eating.
The ever-patient praying mantis, with its elongated body, spiked forelegs, long antennae, and triangular head, complete with bulging compound eyes, is like no other insect. It's an ambush predator, totally equipped to be a predator and snag prey in a split second. Thankfully, it's not interested in us!
It's a sin to kill a mockingbird, wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee in her classic novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"Mockingbirds don't do one thing except make music for us to enjoy," one of her characters, Miss Maudie, wisely observed. "They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corn cribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
Harper Lee's work came to mind yesterday when we saw a praying mantis devouring a monarch butterfly on our butterfly bush, located next to several milkweed plants. We watched the clipped monarch wings flutter down and land among the leaves.
It was a female monarch. She may have stopped to sip some nectar during her egg-laying mission. The hungry predator ambushed her.
The shock of seeing a delicate monarch gripped between spiked forelegs stuns you, especially when you've just reared two monarchs and have two more to go.
"Umm, do you mind?" we wanted to ask the mantis. "Please eat the cabbage white butterflies, stink bugs and aphids, not the monarchs."
Praying mantids are considered beneficial insects, but all we've seen them eat are honey bees, sunflower bees, butterflies and an occasional Gulf Fritillary caterpillar. However, they do eat ants, wasps, flies, and moths, as well. The larger praying mantids prey on hummingbirds.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation summed up the monarch decline well on its website: "Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) of North America are renowned for their long-distance seasonal migration and spectacular winter gatherings in Mexico and California. The monarch butterfly population has recently declined to dangerously low levels. In the 1990s, estimates of up to one billion monarchs made the epic flight each fall from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to sites in the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City, and more than one million monarchs overwintered in forested groves on the California Coast. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that only about 56.5 million monarchs remain, representing a decline of more than 80% from the 21 year average across North America."
Okay, praying mantis. We know. It was only one. You have to eat, too. You needed the protein to lay your ootheca. But have you ever considered how tasty and prevalent cabbage white butterflies are?