Which one is the most popular? Initially, it was the tropical milkweed, A. curassavica. We collected the first five caterpillars there. The A. fascicularis yielded the rest.
So, the count: narrowleaf milkweed, 11; tropical, 5; and showy, a no-show.
To date this year, we have released six monarchs back into the garden. The others went for university research. Elizabeth Pringle's laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno, needed male and female monarchs to rear a colony, and the UC Davis laboratory of Louie Yang needed some tachinid flies.
Unfortunately for us--and fortunately for the Yang lab--tachinid flies infested two of our "11-piece collection." The adult flies are parasitoids that lay their eggs in immature monarchs (among other hosts). The fly larvae hatch and eat their host from the inside out. In a chrysalid, you can tell a tachnid fly infestation by the large tell-tale "dented" brown spot, it looks somewhat like a rotten spot on an apple. In a caterpillar? Think withered and discolored. Then a bungee-like white string appears, and the larvae (maggots) slide down--probably gleefully--like a kid on a Goliath Slide at the county fair.
Tachinids, however, are considered beneficial insects. They lay their eggs in or on such pests as cabbage loopers, cutworms, cabbage worms, gypsy moths, hornworms, harlequin bugs, lygus bugs, cucumber beetles, earwigs and the like. (See Bug Squad blog for close-up images of the tachinid larvae and pupae.)
2016: A Very Good Monarch Year
The year 2016 was a very good year for monarchs in our pollinator garden; we reared and released 60-plus. Sadly, the numbers fell drastically in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Last year, no eggs, no caterpillars and no chrysalids, and only a few monarchs passed through. In fact, in 2019 we did not see our first monarch until Aug. 9.
This year we're noticing a comeback of sorts. We spotted the first monarch on May 24. We now see:
- Males patrolling our yard and chasing the females--morning, noon and evening
- Females laying their eggs on the narrowleaf milkweed that's beneath the honeysuckle vine or the tropical milkweed that's beneath the roses
- Both males and females nectaring on milkweed, butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), napping in the branches of the cherry laurels, and greeting any guests with flutter fanfare.
Life is good.
Sometimes the Gulf Fritillaries, Agraulis vanillae, that are hanging out on their host plant, the passionflower vine, mistake them for one of their own species and a pursuit begins.
Yes, the predators are out there: the California scrub jays, praying mantids, spiders, European paper wasps and yellow jackets. So are the tachinid flies and parasitoid wasps.
Would it be too much to ask them to...um....leave our monarchs alone? Yes.
Everybody eats in the garden. The menu choice is theirs.
Heads will not roll.
The Hunger Games will not begin.
Preying does not always work.
It's Aug. 2, 2020 and a praying mantis decides to occupy a specially stunning Mexican sunflower. Specifically, it's a female Stagmomantis limbata occupying a Tithonia rotundifolia.
It's a brilliant day, the kind of day that makes you love the world and everything in it. You know those kinds of days? No? Thought not. Me, neither.
A honey bee, Apis mellifera, lands on the Orange Blossom Special—no connection to the deluxe-passenger train that Johnny Cash made famous, the train that links New York City to Miami.
Ah, but it's a brilliant day, yes, indeed.
Ms. Honey Bee begins sipping nectar to share with her colony.
Ms. Mantis has no intention of sharing anything.
Ms. Mantis: “Well, hello there, Ms. Honey Bee! You are looking quite delicious today!”
Ms. Honey Bee: “Excuse me? Oh, yes, this nectar is delicious. Try some!”
Ms. Mantis: “No, thanks, I am a carnivore.”
Ms. Honey Bee: “Well, I'm a vegetarian!”
Ms. Mantis: “Well, I can bite your head off.”
Ms. Honey Bee: “That would not be a nice thing to do. Where are your manners?”
Ms. Mantis: “Manners? Do you think I'm Ms. Manners? I'm Ms. Mantis not Ms. Manners.”
Ms. Honey Bee: “Well, just telling you that I'm a vegetarian.”
Ms. Mantis: “I eat vegetarians.”
Ms. Honey Bee: "Not today!" Abruptly, she takes flight, buzzing off faster than Johnny Cash can mimic the "choo choo" of the Orange Blossom Special.
Conclusions? There are three:
- Heads do not always roll when a flower is double-occupied by a praying mantis and a honey bee.
- The Hunger Games do not always begin.
- Preying does not always work.
(Editor's Note: No organisms were injured in the making of these photographs. The mantis wanted to, though!)
But to entomologists, "The Beatles," means "The Beetles." You know, the ones with six legs and two antennae? A body comprised of a head, thorax, and abdomen?
We were delighted to see the National Public Radio (NPR) showcase insects on its Aug. 1st program, "Beetles Dominate As Scientists Discover New Animal Species."
"Beetles make up around 40% of all insect species ever described and around 25% of all animals," NPR teased. "Are there really that many different kinds of beetles, or do scientists have a strong pro-beetle bias?"
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyd interviewed Rachel Smith, the undergraduate student at the University of Kansas who discovered 18 species of water beetles when she was handed 2000 specimens to sort.
Are there really more beetles (Order Coleoptera) than any other insects? Yes.
Greenfieldboyd interviewed Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and Nematology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, and UC Davis alumnus Andrew Forbes, now an associate professor at the University of Iowa. Kimsey specializes in the Order Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and sawflies) and Forbes specializes in parasitic wasps.
They both agreed that beetle outnumber all other insects on earth.
"Collecting beetles was a hobby in the 1800s," Forbes told Greenfieldboyce. "People would go out and collect as many beetles as they could and then, you know, get together and compare the size of their beetle collections."
"So you have to figure that for every species of beetle, there are probably at least one or two wasp parasites or parasitoids," Kimsey said.
Indeed, we live on the "Planet of Insects," as natural history expert Jules Howard says in his newly published Encylopedia of Insects (Wide Eyed Editions, with Illustrations by Miranda Zimmerman), aimed for children, but meant to enthrall all ages.
"If aliens were to visit our planet and make a list of all of Earth's animals, they would quickly see a pattern," Howard wrote. "Nearly every single one of this planet's creatures they would notice, are from one strange group that has six legs, three segments to their body, and often, a pair of wings. We call these organisms the insects. Because the insect group accounts for 90 percent of life forms on this plant, alien visitors would be correct in calling this Planet of Insects. Truly, this is an insect world. You and I just happen to live on it."
Howard wants to share his love of insects with his bug-o-pedia book. He wants to inspire you. "To come to know them. To know their names. To shout from the rooftops about how amazing they are."
His message is important. insects aren't "creepy crawlers" or something abominable, scary or freaky. This planet--the Planet of Insects--is theirs, as Howard says. "You and I just happen to live on it."
With The Beetles.
Just when folks were beginning to think "it may be over and done" regarding Asian giant hornet sightings, it's not.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) has just trapped its first Asian giant hornet, Vespa mandarinia, which the news media dubbed "the murder hornet." (It's a name that makes entomologists cringe.)
In a news release published July 31, officials announced that they found a hornet in a WSDA trap set near Birch Bay in Whatcom County. "WSDA trappers checked the bottle trap on July 14 and submitted the contents for processing at WSDA's entomology lab. The hornet was identified during processing on July 29. This was the first hornet to be detected in a trap, rather than found in the environment as the state's five previous confirmed sightings were."
Sven Spichiger, managing entomologist for the department, said: “This is encouraging because it means we know that the traps work. But it also means we have work to do."
So WSDA will now use infrared cameras and place additional traps in the area. These are special traps to catch them alive. From the press release: "If they catch live hornets, the department will attempt to tag and track them back to their colony. Once located, the agency will eradicate the colony."
"WSDA hopes to find and destroy the nest by mid-September before the colony would begin creating new reproducing queens and drones. Until that time, the colony will only contain the queen and worker Asian giant hornets. Destroying the nest before new queens emerge and mate will prevent the spread of this invasive pest."
All in all, WSDA, citizen scientists and others have set out more than 1300 traps in Washington state.
"Those interested in trapping can still build and set traps on their own property," according to the news release. "Traps require weekly bait replacement and a commitment to mail the trap contents to WSDA if bees or wasps are collected. If a citizen scientist traps a live Asian giant hornet, they should call the WSDA Pest Program hotline at 1-800-443-6684."
"Because the number of Asian giant hornet workers increases as a colony develops, residents should be most likely to see an Asian giant hornet in August and September. If you think you have seen one, report it at agr.wa.gov/hornets. Provide as much detail as you can about what you saw and where. Also, include a photo if you can safely obtain one, and if you come across a dead specimen keep it for potential testing."
Noted hymenopterist Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, has been following the confirmed and unconfirmed sightings and recently talked about the Asian giant hornets on a podcast with urban entomologist Michael Bentley on his BugBytes podcast. Click here to listen.
Bentley serves as the director of training and education for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), headquartered in Fairfax, Va., and hosts NPMA's BugBytes. Kimsey, a global authority on wasps, bees and other insects, is a two-term past president of the International Society of Hymenopterists.
They talked about the history of the hornet, its biology, its range, its behavior, its stings, and the news media frenzy.
What was known then: two incidents occurred in North America last year. A single colony of the Asian giant hornet was found and destroyed Sept. 18, 2019 in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, Canada, and a single dead hornet was found Dec. 8, 2019 in nearby Blaine, Wash. Kimsey says they probably hitchhiked on a cargo ship,
Asian giant hornets, originating from Asia, can decimate a honey bee colony, and the Washington beekeeping industry is concerned that these invasive pests may become established here.
Meanwhile, many so-called "murder hornets" have turned out to be yellow jackets, European paper wasps, hover flies, hoverflies, moths, circadas and even a Jerusalem cricket (potato bug). Stephane De Greef, a Belgium-born entomology advocate, traveler, field guide, and photographer, earlier called the frenzy "a bloody dumpster fire." He launched a fun (and informative) Facebook page, Is This a Murder Hornet?" In a Facebook comment today, he pointed out that the findings are all within a 10-mile radius (see the map he posted below).
And it's sure to "bee" among the very best.
Eminent honey bee geneticist and biologist Robert E. Page Jr. has authored a 256-page book, “The Art of the Bee: Shaping the Environment from Landscapes to Societies” (Oxford University Press), to be published Aug. 6.
Did you know that honey bees are both artists and engineers?
As environmental artists, they are "responsible for the brilliantly colored flowers in our landscapes," and as environmental engineers, they engineer “the niches of multitudes of plants, animals and microbes.”
The book "is a long time in the making,” said Page, who received his doctorate in entomology at UC Davis and served as a professor and chair of the Department of Entomology (now Entomology and Nematology) before heading to Arizona State University (ASU), where he advanced to school director, college dean and university provost.
“Twenty-five years ago, my friend and mentor Harry Laidlaw (for whom the UC Davis bee facility is named) wanted to write a honey bee biology textbook,” Page recalled. When they finished the outline, “it looked very much like the excellent book by Mark Winston The Biology of the Honey Bee, published in 1987 by Harvard University Press. I decided we didn't need another one, and we still don't.”
The book differs in that it's a collection of “sparkling essays” that “read like mystery stories,” said Rudiger Wehner, professor and director emeritus of the Institute of Zoology, University of Zürich. “With these lucidly written stories, Page takes us on a delightful journey through the many biological traits that on the whole constitute the honeybees' social contract.”
Page said his book is geared toward “the person who has a basic knowledge of biology and a fascination with bees, perhaps an educated hobby beekeeper--there are a lot of them--or an undergraduate or graduate student with an interest.”
“Prior to the rise of flowering plants, the landscape was dull,” Page begins. “The first plants invaded land more than 450 million years ago. Species of ferns, horsetails, club mosses, and other “primitive,” non-seed-producing, non-flowering plants dominated. The earth was painted from a palette of green and brown. The first seed plants were gymnosperms, which originated around 100 million years later and eventually gave rise to the conifers that dominated the earth with massive forests. The first flowering plants, the angiosperms, appeared perhaps as early as 250 million years ago. The rise of flowering plants resulted in a burst of new plant species as they adapted to their insect pollinators, mostly beetles and short-tongued flies. Think of how the landscape changed. “
In addition to chapters on environmental artists and environmental engineering, Page includes chapters on social contracts, superorganisms, reproductive competitions, and concludes with “The song of the queen.”
In the epilogue, Page ponders the complexity of individual bees and their colonies, comparing them to humans. “Members of complex societies live close together in closed nests, shared home sites, villages, etc., or in closely connected nomadic tribes. As groups, they typically have a set of tacit rules by which they live that involves working for the good of the group, systems of group and resource defense, internal mechanisms of policing cheaters that don't cooperate and live by the rules, a division of labor often associated with group defense and gathering and sharing resources, and usually asymmetries and rules associated with reproduction. These same general characteristics seem to apply broadly across eusocial insects (aphids, termites, bees, ants, and wasps), eusocial rodents (naked mole rats), higher apes, and humans. Why? The similarities are inescapable due to the nature of social contracts; they must have specific elements to protect the power and will of individuals, whether citizens of the United States of America or workers in a honey bee colony. The contract binds individuals to a society, but the specific social organization evolves by reverse engineering. Natural selection acts on the whole colony; social structure evolves to fit the needs of the group within a given environment. “
Page points out that “Anthropocentric thinking can obscure the way we view nature and lead to false conclusions. Look at Aristotle and honey bee division of labor: For more than 2,000 years it was thought that the bees that work in the nest were postpubescent old men because they're hairy! In fact, the older bees forage and aren't hairy because the hairs break off as they age. I now see my work in a new light; we aren't so different, bees and humans. The elements of our social structures, and how they come about, have many similarities.”
Page is known for his research on honey bee behavior and population genetics, particularly the evolution of complex social behavior. One of his most salient contributions to science was to construct the first genomic map of the honey bee, which sparked a variety of pioneering contributions not only to insect biology but to genetics at large.
At UC Davis, he maintained a honey bee-breeding program for 24 years, from 1989 to 2015, managed by bee breeder-geneticist Kim Fondrk at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. They discovered a link between social behavior and maternal traits in bees.
Page has authored more than 250 research papers, including five books. Among them “The Spirit of the Hive: The Mechanisms of Social Evolution” (Harvard University Press, 2013) and “Queen Rearing and Bee Breeding,” with Harry H. Laidlaw (Wicwas Press, 1997). He is a highly cited author on such topics as Africanized bees, genetics and evolution of social organization, sex determination, and division of labor in insect societies.
Page, who received his doctorate in entomology from UC Davis in 1980, joined the UC Davis faculty in 1989 and left as emeritus chair of the Department of Entomology in 2004 when ASU recruited him for what would become a series of top-level administrative roles. He advanced from director of the School of Life Sciences to dean of Life Sciences; vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and university provost. Today he holds the titles of provost emeritus of ASU and Regents professor emeritus, as well as UC Davis department chair emeritus, professor emeritus, and UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor.
Page is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Brazilian Academy of Science, Leopoldina (the German National Academic of Science), and the California Academy of Science. He is a recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Award (Humboldt Prize, 1995), the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Fellowship (2013), James W. Creasman Award of Excellence at ASU (2018).