So I'm a praying mantis and being a top-notch real estate developer, I've located the best place in the pollinator garden. I have acquired the proper plans and permits to orchestrate complete control over the property.
Ah, the fragrance of the African blue basil. The tasty nectar. The nutritious meals that await.
The basil is buzzing with bees--bees that think they have property rights. I shall ambush them, grab them with my spiked forelegs (that's part of the environmental impact reports I submitted but it's more impact than anything else), and enjoy a leisurely breakfast.
They're flying all around me. Wow, they are so fast! I think my head is spinning.
Oh, wait, there's breakfast--the first and most important meal of the day. She's flying right toward me. I'll break the fast and make this fast.
Ah, but the sun feels so good and I haven't prayed yet. Can't breakfast wait?
Epilogue: "Breakfast" did wait. She buzzed by, to live another day.
(No insects were harmed in the making of these photographs.)
Have you ever pulled up a chair in your garden and watched honey bees foraging?
They are so intent on their "bees-ness" that they don't know you're there. It's a great opportunity to photograph them.
Sometimes, if you're lucky, they'll buzz over your head on their way back to their colony, and you'll see:
- The three main body parts: head, thorax and abdomen
- The two pairs of wings
- The three pairs of legs
- The pair of antennae
Such was the case in Vacaville this week when we were watching honey bees forage in our African blue basil, a bee magnet that we plant annually. We first learned of African blue basil, (Ocimum kilimandscharicum × basilicum 'Dark Opal'), through Gordon Frankie, UC Berkeley professor and the late Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis. They co-authored the book, California Bees and Blooms: a Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday Books) with Rollin Coville and Barbara Ertter, also affiliated with UC Berkeley.
Want to know more about honey bees? Be sure to read the newly published The Art of the Honey Bee; Shaping the Environment from Landscapes to Societies (Oxford University Press) by noted bee geneticist and biologist Robert E. Page Jr., who maintains strong ties to UC Davis and Arizona State University (ASU). Also learn about honey bee anatomy on ASU's web page, "Ask a Biologist."
Page, who holds a doctorate in entomology from UC Davis, is a former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. In 2004, Arizona State University (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.
Did you know a bee has a tool kit? Page lists the tool kit in his book, The Art of the Bee: a compass, an odometer and a path integrator.
'As 'central place foragers,' bees fly out from the nest site and explore the surrounding environment in search of food resources," writes Page, renowned for his research on honey bee behavior and population genetics, particularly the evolution of complex social behavior. "They return to the nest with the resources they collect. To do this, they need to be able to navigate out and find their way back. To aid them, they have a toolkit of navigation mechanisms."
One tool in their tool kit is their internal compass that depends on the location of the sun.
"As light from the sun passes through the atmosphere, it becomes polarized," Page writes. "The pattern of polarized light in the sky depends on the angle of the sun relative to where you are looking. Bees have special sensors in their eyes for detecting the polarized light patterns. On cloudy days, they can't see the sky; but they can still locate the sun using ultraviolet light detectors. Ultraviolet light penetrates cloud cover, allowing bees to use the location of the sun as a navigational marker. With heavy clouds, bees can get to and from a resource by relying solely on landmarks that they learn; otherwise, they stay home until the weather changes. However, as the earth turns, the sun is always changing location relative to the horizon, making it an unreliable marker unless you know the time of day, and bees do. They learn the movement of the sun across the sky and reference it to an internal clock. We know they have the clock because we can train them to forage at specific times of day. If you anesthetize a bee, you can stop her clock. When she awakens and takes a foraging trip to a learned foraging station, her flight path will be offset by the amount of time lost. In other words, she will misinterpret the direction based on the current location of the sun by the amount of time she was anesthetized."
"The odometer plus the ability to determine a flight vector (direction and distance) from a given landmark along a resource flight path, using their sun compass and internal clock, give bees the basic tools for navigation," Page writes. "The last tool in the toolkit is a path integrator that combines the compass and odometer information."
It's a fascinating book by Page, whose most salient contributions to science include constructing 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.
Meanwhile, take the challenge. Pull up a chair in your garden and watch and photograph the bees going about their "bees-ness."
It seems as if the image of the dogface butterfly is everywhere. It's on every California driver's license; on postage stamps; on a UC Davis Bohart Museum of Entomology poster created by Bohart associates Fran Keller and Greg Kareofelas; and in a book authored by Keller.
And now for the splash: the image appears on the labels of two California wines (Dogface Syrah and Dogface Cabernet Sauvignon), produced by Lone Buffalo Vineyards and Winery, Auburn, in collaborative projects with Pacific Land Trust.
Lone Buffalo is a longtime supporter of Placer Land Trust in its efforts to conserve 10,000 acres of natural and agricultural land in Placer County.
Keller, now a professor at Folsom Lake College (she holds a doctorate in entomology from UC Davis, studying with Professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum) recently visited Lone Buffalo to check out the 2016 Dogface Cabernet Sauvignon and to deliver copies of her children's book.
The history of the dogface butterfly, Zerene eurydice, is fascinating.
Found only in California, the dogface butterfly thrives at the Shutamul Bear River Preserve near Auburn, Placer County. The 40-acre preserve, part of the Placer Land Trust, is closed to the public except for specially arranged tours. (See Placer Land Trust's video of the butterfly habitat.)
The dogface butterfly, so named because of the poodle-like silhouette on the wings of the male, was adopted as the official California insect on July 28, 1972, but entomologists had selected it as the state insect as early as 1929. Their choice appears in the California Blue Book, published by the State Legislature in 1929. (Read more on how the butterfly became the state insect under the Ronald Reagan administration.)
The state insect made the news several years ago when Keller, Kareofelas and former UC Davis student and artist Laine Bauer, teamed to publish a 35-page children's book, The Story of the Dogface Butterfly.
The trio visited the Auburn site for their research, and Kareofelas also reared and photographed a dogface butterfly at his home in Davis.
The one-of-a-kind book is popular in elementary school classrooms. "The ecology, life cycle, taxonomy and conservation issues presented are relevant to grades K-6 that can be used in classroom curriculum,” Keller says.
Earlier, Kareofelas (photographer) and Keller (designer) created the Bohart Museum's dogface butterfly poster of the male and female. Both the book and the poster are available at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, 1124 Academic Surge, on Crocker Lane, UC Davis campus. (The Bohart is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and precautions.)
KVIE Public Television's "Rob on the Road" show recently featured the butterfly and its Auburn habitat. Kareofelas, who has served for several years as a volunteer docent for the Placer Land Trust's dogface butterfly tour, assisted with the "Rob on the Road" tour. It's online at http://vids.kvie.org/video/3002661342/
The California state insect never had it so good.
We've seen them ambushing prey, eating prey and looking for more prey.
They're members of the Thomisidae family of spiders. They can move sideways and backwards.
And they excel at camouflage.
Spiders consume 400-800 million tons of prey, mostly insects, each year, according to Professor Jason Bond, a noted spider authority and the Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
In comparison, humans consume somewhere around 400 million tons of meat and fish each year, Bond says.
And although "nearly all 47,000-plus spider species have venom used to kill their insect prey, very few actually have venom that is harmful to humans," Bond points out.
How many crab spiders have you seen nailing a pest? Or just hanging out on flowers, such as zinnias? They're there.
They excel at waiting, too.
So, folks, if you're in their migratory pathway and anticipate seeing them head toward their overwintering sites in coastal California, don't get your hopes up.
They're not coming. They are either non-existent or few and far between.
But we remember when they did.
Back on Labor Day, Sept. 5, 2016, a male monarch tagged "firstname.lastname@example.org A6093" fluttered into our pollinator garden in Vacaville. Washington State University entomologist David James traced it to citizen scientist Steve Johnson of Ashland, Ore., who had tagged and released it on Sunday, Aug. 28.
James calculated "No. A6093" flew 285 miles in seven days or about 40.7 miles per day to reach our Vacaville garden, which apparently is in a monarch migratory pathway. "Clearly this male is on his way to an overwintering colony and it's possible we may sight him again during the winter in Santa Cruz or Pacific Grove!” he said at the time. (No sightings reported.)
Still, it was a very good year for monarchs in 2016, as compared to previous years. We reared more than 60 in 2016. We saw dozens of migrating monarchs fueling up on nectar from the Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifola) and butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii). They arrived tattered and torn, and some could barely fly.
But come they did.
Not this year.
"It's been a very poor year for monarchs in the Pacific Northwest," James said. "In Washington, we had just two confirmed sightings of monarchs! This is the worst showing since I started taking records in 1999. I thought 2019 was bad (eight monarchs) but 2020 beat it."
"There were a handful of sightings in central and northern Oregon but they largely failed to cross into Washington," the entomologist said. "This is simply a result I believe of a very small overwintering population that had difficulty populating California and southern Oregon let alone locations further north."
"If future overwintering populations do not exceed more than 30,000, then this is what we can expect for the future; the monarch to be a rarity in Washington and BC."
Johnson, who rears monarchs in a vineyard in Ashland, says it was "a very poor year in the vineyard. We have three chrysalids right now and that will probably be it for us in the vineyard this year. They come from three 'cats that we found on the same day. We have seen far fewer monarchs than in any of the past years. Overall, to my knowledge, it has been a grim year in Oregon except for some isolated pockets."
Southern Oregon seemed to fare a little better for monarchs in the Pacific Northwest this year, James said, but "as Steve said, it was still way less than recent years."
"Idaho had quite a few monarchs, maybe as many as southern Oregon, but these arrived and bred from--I believe-- migrants that came from Mexico," the WSU entomologist said. "Populations in Arizona and Utah were also reasonable this summer. 'Leakage' 'of northerly spring migrants from Mexico is the ‘saving grace' of monarch populations in the West and may be the reason why monarchs can persist long-term in the West. This was a theory expounded by the late Lincoln Brower and I believe it has a lot of merit."
Johnson noted that the air quality in Ashland "at the moment (this morning) is 415—very hazardous."
How does all that poor air quality, all that smoke and ash from the wildfires raging across the West affect the migrating monarchs?
Thanks to James' tagging program and cooperators like Johnson, James now has "some limited data indicating monarchs do NOT have a problem migrating in very poor quality air. These data will appear in a publication I am preparing. Tagged monarchs released into poor quality air flew just as far and lived just as long as those that were released into good air."
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, who has monitored butterfly populations in Central California since 1972, has seen only six monarchs all year (the first one in Sacramento on Jan. 29) and "no eggs and no caterpillars at all." (See Bug Squad blog on his comments on "California monarchs on life support")
Naturalist Greg Kareofelas of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, has seen only one monarch all year and it was a female laying an egg on his milkweed in Davis. He is in the process of rearing it from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult. It's a chrysalis now.
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and UC Davis professor of entomology, and UC Davis forensic entomologist Robert Kimsey have not seen any in their Davis garden.
This year our Garvey family has managed to collect dozens of eggs and 'cats from our garden and rear them in three different batches. First batch: 5. Second batch: 11. The third batch? As of Sept. 1, we've reared and released 37 monarchs, with one chrysalis remaining. No. 38 should eclose in a few days.
Incredibly, our Vacaville pollinator garden seems to some kind of monarch magnet.
"I think Kathy and one gardener in the East Bay who is having a similar experience have all the monarchs in the region in their yards," Shapiro commented. "Very bizarre."
Very bizarre, indeed.