Remember that line in Gertrude Stein's 1913 poem, Sacred Emily: "A rose is a rose is a rose"?
Well, to paraphrase Stein: "A bee is a bee is a bee...except when it's not a bee."
In a recent interactive feature in the New York Times, writer Joanna Klein wondered how we can save the bees if we don't recognize them. She asked "Can You Pick the Bees Out of This Insect Lineup?" and posted an image of bees and wanna-be bees.
All entomologists, we're sure, passed. Many others--those who think every floral visitor is a honey bee--probably not.
Bee expert Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, passed it with flying colors--colors that included that gorgeous photo of a metallic green sweat bee. "Photo editors for news articles need to take this test judging by all the images of faux bees that accompany a variety of articles on bees, especially articles designed to educate the public about bees," commented Thorp, who, by the way, is the co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: an Identification Guide (Princeton University Press) and California's Bees and Blooms: a Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday). "I suspect that this is what Joe Wilson had in mind when he created the plate of bees and faux bees."
Joseph S. Wilson, as you may recall, co-authored The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America's Bees (Princeton University Press) with Olivia J. Messenger Carrill. Wilson is also featured in a fantastic TED talk on "Save the Bees! Wait, Was That a Bee?"
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, gets that a lot--"Is this a bee? Is that a bee?" She recently wrote a piece in the Bohart Museum newsletter about flies masquerading as bees.
Three of the easiest ways to differentiate a fly from a bee:
- A fly has one set of wings. A bee has two sets.
- A fly has short, stubby antennae. A honey bee doesn't.
- A fly has no corbicula or pollen basket. A honey bee (worker bee) does.
A bee is a bee is a bee...except when it's not a bee. Take the New York Times' quiz.
At the end, you'll be asked the number of bee species in the United States. Get ready...
The bush germander (Teucrium fruticans) is definitely a great fall-winter plant that's a magnet for bees. Just look at the bees that frequent the germander in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven on Bee Biology Road at UC Davis.
As soon as the temperature rises to a sunny 50 or 55 (good bee-flying weather), the honey bees head over to the haven from the nearby Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility.
Last Saturday's visit to the haven yielded an "out-to-lunch" bunch that included a dozen honey bees in the germander and one syrphid fly (aka flower fly or hover fly). Bumble bee aficionado Gary Zamzow, one of the volunteers in the haven, found something better: A bumble bee, a queen Bombus melanopygus or black-tailed bumble bee, foraging in the germander.
The germander bush is one of several plants blooming in the haven in the dead of winter, according to Missy Borel, haven volunteer and program manager of the California Center for Urban Horticulture at UC Davis. Among the others blooming or just finishing a bloom:
- Autumn sage (Salvia greggii)
- Blanket flower (Gallardia)
- Bulbine (Bulbine frutescens)
- Butterfly rose (Rosa mutabilis)
- Catmint (Nepeta)
- Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii)
- Coreopsis (Coreopsis)
- Red hot poker (Kniphofia)
- Dwarf plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides)
- Oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Betty Rollins’ )
- Lavender (Lavandula)
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus)
- Sage (salvia)
- Seaside daisies (Erigeron glaucus 'Wayne Roderick')
"Honey bees in California will seek forage on warm sunny days in California," Thorp noted. "Some Asteraceae and mint family flowers will continue blooming and provide some food for honey bees, but they primarily rely on their stored honey to get them through the winter."
Every insect looks prettier when it lands on a tower of jewels (Echiium wildpretti).
When in full bloom, the 9-to-10-foot-high plant, native to the Canary Islands, blazes with firecracker-red flowers. It's a showstopper.
Syrphid flies, aka flower flies or hover flies, battle with honey bees to sip the sweet nectar.
The flower flies flit in and out of the blossoms, barely visible.
However, these insects suffer from an identity crisis. Their wasp-like coloring wards off predators. That same coloring confuses people, too. The average person on the street--or in a flower bed--thinks they're bees.
They're not. They're flies.
UC Davis-trained entomologist Robert Bugg wrote an excellent pamphlet on flower flies that's downloadable free from the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Titled Flower Flies (Syrphidae) and Other Biological Control Agents (Publication 8285, May 2008), it will help you identity flower flies.
Not bees. Not wasps. Flies.
That's what it takes to capture images of syrphids, aka flower or hover flies.
They are oh, so tiny and they move oh, so quickly. As the morning dawns, you wait, camera poised, near their preferred blossoms. You'll need a keen eye and a quick trigger finger--not to mention a good macro lens and a high shutter speed to freeze a moment in time and space.
If you're stealthy and don't startle or shadow them, you can observe them nectaring just inches away from you. This is big game hunting, but with little insects.
And, another frozen moment in time and space.
If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it's probably a duck.
If it looks like a bee, buzzes like a bee, and visits flowers like a bee, it might not be a bee.
It could be a fly, or more specifically, a syrphid or flower fly.
Syrphids, also known as hover flies (from the family Syrphidae and order Diptera), are everywhere.
They hover over flowers like a helicopter over a meadow and then touch down. You'll see them nectaring blossoms, zipping from one flower to the other. When they're shadowed or startled, off they go.
Several of them were nectaring on our newly opened pink cactus blossoms this morning.
To the untrained eye, syrphids are often mistaken for honey bees. However, think number of wings (honey bees have four wings, syrphids have two), overall size, distinct coloration, and different antennae. Different antennae? Yes. Honey bees have long antennae bent at a right angle. Syrphids have a specialized bristle (arista) on the end of each antenna. It looks like a knob.
So, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck.
If it visits flowers, it might not be a bee. It could "bee" a fly.