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A Very Showy Butterfly

There's a good reason why lepidopterists call the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) "showy."

Its bright orange-red wings, spangled iridescent silver on the underside, and a four-inch wingspan all point to "showy." 

The Gulf Frit is a tropical and subtropical butterfly with a range that extends from the southern United States all the way to central Argentina.  Back in September of 2009, butterfly expert Art Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, excitedly announced the re-appearance of the Gulf Frit the Sacramento metropolitan area after a four-decade absence, and in the Davis area after a 30-year absence.

Yes, the Gulf Frits are back. Thankfully, they've returned to creating a nursery of sorts on our passionflower vine and their host plant (Passiflora). The eggs, caterpillars, chrysalids and adults are a delight to see.

However, the cycle of life is in full force in our bee garden. The hawks are eating the scrub jays; the scrub jays are eating the bees; and the bees are just trying to mind their own "bee business" by collecting pollen and nectar for their colonies. Always opportunists, the jays nesting in our trees are also targeting the butterflies and caterpillars. (So, too, are such predators as spiders and praying mantids.)

Today we captured several images of a Gulf Frit in flight. If you look closely, you'll see that part of her wing is missing.

That was a close one!

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) in flight over a passionflower vine. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) in flight over a passionflower vine. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) in flight over a passionflower vine. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Gulf Fritillary checking out a place to lay her eggs. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Gulf Fritillary checking out a place to lay her eggs. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Gulf Fritillary checking out a place to lay her eggs. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Gulf Fritillary warming her wings on a passionflower vine. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Gulf Fritillary warming her wings on a passionflower vine. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Gulf Fritillary warming her wings on a passionflower vine. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Wednesday, July 9, 2014 at 9:39 PM

Honey Bees Need Water, Too!

These triple-digit temperatures make us all thirst for water.

Honey bees need water, too.

If you see them taking a sip from your birdbath or taking a dip in your pool, the "sip" means they're collecting water for their hive, and the "dip" could mean they're dying, says retired Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.

"Like most other animals, the bodies of honey bees are mostly water," he points out. "Thus, they need to drink water routinely as we do.  Additionally, water (or sometimes nectar) is critical for diluting the gelatinous food secreted from the head glands of nurse bees, so that the queen, developing larvae, drones, and worker bees can swallow the food.  They use water to keep the brood nest area at the proper relative humidity, especially when it gets hot and dry outside the hive.  Water droplets, placed within the brood nest area, are evaporated by fanning worker bees and that cools (air conditions) the brood nest area to keep the eggs and developing brood at the critical 94 degrees Fahrenheit required for proper development."

On extremely dry, hot days, all bee foraging except for water will cease, Mussen says. "Under those conditions it has been estimated that the bees may be bringing back nearly a gallon of water a day."

Unlike us, honey bees cannot simply turn on a faucet. "They will fly up to nearly five miles to find a suitable watering source," Mussen says. "Suitable to honey bees might not be suitable to us, but if it is moist, it may be visited.  Suitable to the neighbors is a separate question.  Honey bees can become quite a nuisance if they visit drippy irrigation lines or hose connections, birdbaths, pet water dishes, swimming pools, fountains, or wet laundry and the like. The water foragers become habituated to those sites.  If you try to dissuade the bees by drying up the source for a while, it becomes evident that the bees will visit the site every so often so they'll be around quickly after the water is returned."What to do? "People have tried to use repellents in the water, but the bees are likely to use the odor as an attractant when attempting to relocate the water source," Mussen points out.  "Some people have had success keeping bees and wasps out of their swimming pools with very lightweight oils or monomolecular films--their purpose is to prevent mosquitoes from being able to breathe.  But, if the water is splashed very much, you'll require a new layer."

And all those bees struggling in your swimming pool? "Not all moribund honey bees in a swimming pool are there because they were trying to get a drink. Every day, approximately 1,000 old honey bees from each colony die naturally.  This normally occurs during foraging, and the bees just flutter down to the ground, sidewalk, driveway, parking lot, or whatever they were passing over.  Some flutter into swimming pools.  They are not dead, yet, so they can and do inflict stings on people who bump into them on the surface of the water. "

Beekeepers should make sure there's a watering source on their property so the bees won't hunt for water elsewhere, Musssen says. It should be available all year around. "Once the bees are habituated to the site, most of them will use that source."

One good thing to know: Bees don't like to get their feet wet. In the Garvey birdbath, we have floating wine corks just for the bees. They can land on a cork to sip water or simply sip from the edge of the birdbath. Besides wine corks, you can also use a stone, a twig or a flat chunk of cork. The Melissa Garden, a privately owned garden in Healdsburg that was designed by internationally distinguished bee garden designer Kate Frey of Hopland, includes a flat floating cork in a fountain. On any given day, you'll see bees claiming it as their own.

Honey bees find water where they can. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Honey bees find water where they can. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Honey bees find water where they can. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A flat floating cork in the fountain of The Melissa Garden, Healdsburg, is great for bees to buzz down and safely take a sip. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A flat floating cork in the fountain of The Melissa Garden, Healdsburg, is great for bees to buzz down and safely take a sip. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A flat floating cork in the fountain of The Melissa Garden, Healdsburg, is great for bees to buzz down and safely take a sip. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Tuesday, July 8, 2014 at 10:33 PM

Karate Kick!

If you've ever watched a karate competition, you've probably seen the roundhouse kick, tornado kick, the reverse roundhouse kick or the flying side kick.

But have you ever seen a bee do that?

We were photographing sunflower bees on our Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) yesterday, trying to catch the territorial dive-bombing. We were shooting with a Canon E0S 7D equipped with a 100mm macro lens. Settings: ISO, 1600. Shutter speed,  1/1400 of a second. F-stop, 10.

If bees could engage in humanlike conversation, imagine this dialogue:

"This flower is mine! Get off! I want my ladies to have that flower!"

"No, it's not! It's mine. I was here first! Leave me alone!"

For awhile, a large bee, a male longhorned bee, Svastra obliqua (as identified by native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis), appeared to be the "king of the mountain." It held its ground...er...floral resource.

Suddenly, faster than my shutter speed, a smaller bee of a different species, a male longhorned bee, Melissodes (probably Melissodes agilis, Thorp said) headbutted Svastra,  a scene reminiscent of a World Cup play.

One swift kick by Mr. Svastra and a surprised Mr. Melissodes shot straight up in the air, whirling end over end. 

Roundhouse kick? Tornado kick? Reverse roundhouse kicK? Flying side kick?

Whatever it was, the "bee master" won.

And he wasn't even wearing a black belt.

A male longhorned sunflower bee, Svastra obliqua, foraging on a Mexican sunflower. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A male longhorned sunflower bee, Svastra obliqua, foraging on a Mexican sunflower. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A male longhorned sunflower bee, Svastra obliqua, foraging on a Mexican sunflower. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A male longhorned sunflower bee, Melissodes agilis (right), targets the larger Svastra obliqua. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A male longhorned sunflower bee, Melissodes agilis (right), targets the larger Svastra obliqua. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A male longhorned sunflower bee, Melissodes agilis (right), targets the larger Svastra obliqua. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Melissodes agilis shoots straight up after a powerful kick by Svastra obliqua. (PHoto by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Melissodes agilis shoots straight up after a powerful kick by Svastra obliqua. (PHoto by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Melissodes agilis shoots straight up after a powerful kick by Svastra obliqua. (PHoto by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Melissodes agilis (left) goes sprawling. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Melissodes agilis (left) goes sprawling. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Melissodes agilis (left) goes sprawling. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Monday, July 7, 2014 at 8:50 PM

How Revolutionary!

Sarah Albee
There's a fly on President George Washington's nose.

Why shouldn't there be?

When you pick up Sarah Albee's book, Bugged: How Insects Changed the World, you'll also see and read about mosquitoes, honey bees, beetles, fleas, bedbugs, mayflies, praying mantids, silkworms, and assorted other insects, or what she calls “The Good, The Bad and the Uggy.”

An entomologist's favorite subject. A kid's delight. A history book like no other.

Newly published by Walker Books for Young Readers (Bloomsbury), Bugged is about how insects influenced human history not only in America but throughout the world. It's especially good reading on the Fourth of July, Independence Day, when you're focused on fireflies and fireworks and pondering parades and picnics. (That's what I did today!)

Frankly, it's delightful to see a children's book on bugs (it's targeted for readers 8 and up but actually, it a good book for adults, too). It's not your usual history book: it's an easy-to-read, fun and cleverly written book full of sidebars, photos, cartoons, and illustrations.

Bugs, as we all know are loved, hated, feared, scorned or shunned. And misunderstood.

Cover of "Bugged"
“A hungry flea is just trying to get a bite to eat, a stinging bee is just trying to defend her home from invaders, and a dung beetle rolling a ball of poop is just trying to make a living,”  Albee writes.

“Most of my books and blog posts tend to be where science and history meet up--my goal is always to find a topic that is interesting and accessible to kids and get them interested in history,” Albee told us. In her last book, Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up, she devoted an entire chapter about "filth diseases," or insect-vectored diseases.

“That's what gave me the idea to do a whole book about them,” she said.

Albee, who says her inner child is 12 years old, loves bugs that are cool, amazing or just plain gross. No fairy tales here. No “Buttercup Goes to the Ball” here.

In her childhood, “I was the kind of kid that was always outside exploring, collecting, catching,” the Connecticut resident  acknowledged.

In her book, Albee touches on what she calls “the bad-news bugs”:

  • Public Enemy No. 1, the mosquito (think of all the mosquito-borne diseases, including malaria, yellow fever and dengue)
  • Public Enemy No. 2, the fly (it's to blame for sleeping sickness, typhoid and leishmaniasis, among others)
  • Public Enemy No. 3, the flea (Remember the Oriental rat flea transmitted the bubonic plague?)
  • Public Enemy, No. 4, the louse (Note: these critters, head lice and body lice, are not your friends. They may be close and personal but they are not your friends)

The beneficial insects, including honey bees, come into play, too. (And why not? There's a "bee" in her last name!) Albee  points out that honey bees are not native to America; European colonists brought them here in 1622. She also touches on honey bee health, mentioning the mysterious colony collapse disorder, characterized by adult bee abandoning the hive, leaving behind the queen bee and brood.

Although many people are afraid of bee stings, bee venom is “used to treat patients suffering from many ailments, including arthritis, back pain and skin conditions because it contains melittin, which is an anti-inflammatory substance,” Albee explains.

Reactions of little kids to her book? “It's been really great to see how much kids like the book," she said. "At school visits I use volunteers who dress up as doctors, and others as patients, and together we try to diagnose the insect-vectored diseases they're suffering from. Kids love the remedies we try--dosing with mercury, quarantine, bleeding and cupping, smoking cigars--all pretend of course."

Back to George Washington. If you don't know this, insects figured in our country's founding when we were battling Great Britain for our independence. As Albee correctly points out: Gen. George Washington “had both the female mosquito and the body louse on his side.”

She tells all in her chapter on “How Revolutionary!”

Related links:
Sarah Albee website
Sarah Albee interview with National Public Radio
Sarah Albee interview with the School Library journal

This photo of a bee sting, by Kathy Keatley Garvey, appears in Sarah Albee's book,
This photo of a bee sting, by Kathy Keatley Garvey, appears in Sarah Albee's book, "Bugged."

This photo of a bee sting, by Kathy Keatley Garvey, appears in Sarah Albee's book, "Bugged."

Posted on Friday, July 4, 2014 at 3:02 PM

Watch Out, Below!

"Summertime, and the livin' is easy," belted out Ella Fitzgerald.

She wasn't singing about bees, but she could have been.

Summertime, and the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy's rich and your ma is good-lookin'
So hush little baby, Don't you cry.--George Gershwin.

Not always so easy if you're a sunflower bee (Melissodes agilis) foraging on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).

Here you are, nearly tangled in a thicket of yellow pollen. You're absorbed. Totally.  In fact, you're absolutely oblivious to your surroundings.

Suddenly, you feel as if you're being watched. Watched. Targeted. Bombarded.

Fact is, you are.

Off in the distance, another male bee is speeding straight toward you in the proverbial beeline maneuver in a territorial war.

Pull up! Pull up! Ground proximity warning system.

Whew! That was a close one.

A male sunflower bee, Melissodes agilis, keeps a wary eye out as she forages on a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A male sunflower bee, Melissodes agilis, keeps a wary eye out as she forages on a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A male sunflower bee, Melissodes agilis, keeps a wary eye out as she forages on a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Ah, bliss. A male sunflower bee, Melissodes agilis, is head first in the pollen. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Ah, bliss. A male sunflower bee, Melissodes agilis, is head first in the pollen. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Ah, bliss. A male sunflower bee, Melissodes agilis, is head first in the pollen. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A male sunflower bee, Melissodes agilis (as identified by native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, in a territorial challenge. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A male sunflower bee, Melissodes agilis (as identified by native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, in a territorial challenge. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A male sunflower bee, Melissodes agilis (as identified by native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, in a territorial challenge. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Thursday, July 3, 2014 at 8:30 PM

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