What's for dinner?
A crab spider, camouflaged in our lavender patch, didn't catch a honey bee, a butterfly, an ant or a syrphid fly.
No, it nailed a green bottle fly.
We couldn't help but notice. The fly's metallic blue-green coloring stood in sharp contrast to the white spider.
One venomous bite to kill it. And soon the fly, Lucilia sericata, was toast. Milk toast.
Crab spiders don't build webs to trap their prey. They're cunning and agile hunters that spring into action when an unsuspecting prey appears on the scene. They belong to the family Thomisidae, which includes some 175 genera and more than 2100 species. And they're ancient: spiders date back 400 million years ago.
Do you like spiders? You should.
“Spiders are an incredibly diverse group with more than 50,000 species described with probably another 200,000 remaining to yet be discovered,” says spider expert Jason Bond, the Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
It's worth repeating what Professor Bond said about spiders at the Bohart Museum of Entomology open house, “Eight-Legged Wonders,” on Saturday, March 9.
The five good reasons to like spiders:
- Spiders consume 400-800 million tons of prey, mostly insects, each year. Humans consume somewhere around 400 million tons of meat and fish each year.
- Spider silk is one of the strongest naturally occurring materials. Spider silk is stronger than steel, stronger and more stretchy than Kevlar; a pencil thick strand of spider silk could be used to stop a Boeing 747 in flight.
- Some spiders are incredibly fast – able to run up to 70 body lengths per second (10X faster than Usain Bolt).
- Athough 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.
- Some spiders are really good parents –wolf spider moms carry their young on their backs until they are ready to strike out on their own; female trapdoor spiders keep their broods safe inside their burrows often longer than one year, and some female jumping spiders even nurse their spiderlings with a protein rich substance comparable to milk.
If you attended the Lavender Festival last weekend at the six-acre Araceli Farms at 7389 Pitt School Road, Dixon, you were in for a real treat.
Planted in April 2017, the fields glowed with seven varieties of lavender: Grosso, Provence, White Spike, Royal Velvet, Violet Intrigue, Folgate, and Melissa.
This is a family-owned business: parents Robert and Araceli and daughter Justina grow pesticide-free lavender and produce handmade, all natural products. They also host lavender festivals, lavender U-Pick, events, and workshops. (See the family's website and Facebook page.)
Last Saturday the lavender fields buzzed with honey bees from "Clay's Bees," belonging to Clay Ford, who owns the Pleasants Valley Honey Company. He and his wife, Karen, sell their honey at Farmers' Markets in Vacaville and Fairfield and other venues. Soon they'll be adding lavender honey.
But back to the fields: visitors delighted in wreathing lavender around their heads and necks, purchasing lavender products, and photographing one another in the fields. They came with tripods, professional cameras, and cell phones. But most of all, with smiles!
A day in the country with rows and rows of aromatic lavender definitely yields lots of smiles, joy and laughter.
Virtually unnoticed were the insects: Cordovan honey bees, the color of pure gold, rushed to gather the pollen and nectar, as if they knew the fields would be harvested Monday, June 24. We spotted a few yellow-faced bumble bees (Bombus vosnesenskii), cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae), and scores of migratory painted ladies (Vanessa cardui). "This is the second post-desert generation (Vanessa cardui), so altogether three generations have been involved," butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, told us Sunday, June 23. "The flight began here March 17--so today is the 98th day!"
Visitors browsed the vendor booths, all offering products or information. Drawing bee enthusiasts was Tora Rocha of the Pollinator Posse, a Bay Area-based organization that she and Terry Smith founded in Oakland in 2013 to create pollinator-friendly landscaping in urban settings and to foster appreciation of local ecosystems through outreach, education and direct action. Rocha, a retired Oakland parks supervisor, says that eco-friendly landscape techniques are at the heart of their work. They envision a day "when life-enhancing, thought-inspiring green spaces will grace every corner of the city and the world beyond." And spaces filled with bee condos for native bees! They make and sell AirBeeNBees for leafcutter bees and mason bees. (Check out their Facebook page.)
The owners of Araceli Farms love being lavender farmers. "Like anything in life, there wasn't a linear path to this," Justina relates on her blog. "Looking back on it now, I see how I was being prepped for this role, but I had no idea. After college, I landed a highly-sought after job with tons of prestige; it was incredible and I was so excited, but after some time I knew it wasn't my future. It didn't spark passion nor fuel my envisioned."
The lavender farm does.
One of the Araceli Farms employees, Maria Gonzalez of Dixon, sporting a curved harvesting knife, a wide-brimmed hat and an even wider smile, said she's been working the fields for two years.
And lovin' the lavender.
It's easy to love.
(June 17-23 is National Pollinator Week.)
"How many? Does anyone know?"
No one did, but by the end of the Pollination Education Program, sponsored by CAMBP, all 72 youths from the Sutter Creek and Ione area of Amador County did: 20,000.
They also learned that there are 4000 species of bees in the United States, 1600 species in California, and 350 in Yolo County.
And they learned that pollinators include honey bees, bumble bees, butterflies, sweat bees, hummingbirds and syrphid flies.
"Can you all say entomologist?" Mather asked. "Does anyone know what entomology means?"
"Insects," said one youth.
"Yes, entomology is the scientific study of insects," Mather told them. That's what each and everyone of you is today: entomologists! Okay?
She explained the life cycle of a bee: from egg to larva to pupa to adult. "Males are called drones," she said. "Females are called worker bees."
Toward the end of the program, Mather told the students: "You are ready for the university. As soon as you graduate from high school, I hope to see you guys here. You are all excellent, very respectable, responsible and mature scientists. I want you to please take the knowledge that you gathered here today and share it with family and friends."
The Pollinator Education Program (PEP), developed two years ago by CAMPB director and Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, along with staff research associate Bernardo Niño, aims to provide a fun, immersive educational experience "to help kids of all ages understand the importance pollinators play in the lives of humans."
At the recent session, Mather shared data on native bees, explained the life cycle of a honey bee, encouraged students to be citizen scientists, and demonstrated how to carefully collect bee specimens with a bee vacuum in a catch-and-release activity.
Volunteer Robin Lowry managed the “Planting for Pollinators” and “Be a Beekeeper” station. Students tried on beekeeping suits and tested the equipment, including a smoker and hive tools.
Volunteer Julia Wentzel introduced the concept of "pollinator specialists" and engaged the students in creating a "pollinator" which they then used to transfer "pollen" to different shaped flowers. Diverse floral sources are integral to honey bee health, she said.
Matthew Hoepfinger, staff research associate in the Niño lab, opened a bee hive (inside a screened tent) and showed the students the queen, workers and drones.
Just before boarding the buses for home, the students sampled several varietals of honey. "This is really good!" a girl said. "I want more."
Ron Antone of the UC Master Gardeners of Amador coordinates the annual program, working with Amador school officials, parents and master gardeners. This year he coordinated two groups:
- Jackson Elementary. 62 third graders, 3 teachers, 2 aides, 3 parents and 2 Master Gardener volunteers from Amador County.
- Ione Elementary. 72 third graders, 3 teachers, 7 parents, 3 Master Gardeners and 3 volunteers from Farms of Amador.
The UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology operates the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, with Elina Lastro Niño serving as the garden's faculty director and Christine Casey as the manager. Two others from the Niño lab--staff research associate Charley Nye, manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, and staffer Christine Torres--assisted with the pollinator education programs.
"It takes a village as they say," Mather said.
That it does.
A tip of the bee veil to CAMBP, PEP, the Niño lab, and the UC Master Gardeners of Amador County for their roles in educating youth about pollinators.
Have you ever wondered about sexual size dimorphism in the tropical spiders, the golden orbweavers?
The females are sometimes 10 times larger and 100 times heavier than their male counterparts. And the webs that the females weave are huge--they can be as wide as five feet in diameter.
And, yes, the females cannibalize the males, says Jason Bond, professor and Schlinger Chair in Insect Systematics, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology,
“Sexual size dimorphism (SSD) often seems to be correlated with extreme morphological, behavioral and life history phenotypes in either sex,” says Bond, senior author of a newly published paper in the Journal of Systematic Biology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society of Systematic Biologists.
Through phylogenomic (the intersection of the fields of evolution and genomics) and comparative analyses, Bond and his colleagues found that golden orbweavers “ignore biological rules.”
The global team of 11 scientists--from Slovenia, China, Taiwan, Czech Republic and the United States (UC Davis, Smithsonian Institution, University of Idaho, University of Florida and University of Vermont)--unraveled a complex evolution of sexual size and dimorphism and found that Nephilid female gigantism is a “phylogenetically ancient phenotype, over 100 million years old, though their magnitudes vary by lineage.”
The spiders belong to the genus Nephila and family Nephilidae; the members are known for constructing huge or exaggerated webs. The species thrive in warmer regions throughout the world, including Australia, Asia, Africa (including Madagascar) and the America. One species, N. clavipes, is found in southern United States, from Texas to North Carolina.
For the paper, “Golden Orbweavers Ignore Biological Rules: Phylogenomic and Comparative Analyses Unravel a Complex Evolution of Sexual Size Dimorphism,” the team tested two biological rules: Cope's rule and Rensch's rule. Cope's rule postulates that population lineages tend to increase in body size over evolutionary time. Rensch's rule is a biological rule on allometric patterns of male and female size. Neither rule applied to the golden orbweavers.
First, the scientists established the backbone phylogeny of Nephilidae, using 367 anchored hybrid enrichment markers, and then combined these data with classical markers for a reference species level phylogeny.
In conclusion, the scientists proposed a new clade, a group of organisms evolving from a common ancestor. They resurrected the family Nephilidae and proposed the new clade, Orbipurae, to contain Araneidae Clerck 1757, Phonognathidae Simon 1894, new rank, and Nephilidae.
The researchers proposed “taxonomic changes based on the criteria of clade age, monophyly and exclusivity, classification information content, and diagnosability. Spider families, as currently defined, tend to be between 37 million years old and 98 million years old, and Nephilidae is estimated at 133 million years old, thus deserving family status.”
“Nephilid female gigantism is a phylogenetically ancient phenotype (over 100 million years old), as is extreme sexual size dimorphism, though their magnitudes vary by lineage,” they wrote. “Despite the sometimes conflicting trends seen within Nephilidae, the clade stands as the most extreme example of female-biased SSD among terrestrial animals, as far as we know.”
The Jason Bond lab and the Chris Hamilton lab, Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Nematology at the University of Idaho, Moscow, provided the anchored hybrid enrichment data and phylogenomic analysis.
Co-authors of the paper, in addition to Bond and Hamilton, are
- Matjaž Kuntner of the National Institute of Biology, Ljubljana, Slovenia; the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; and Hubei University, China;
- Ren-Chung Cheng, Biological Institute ZRC SAZU, Ljubljana, Slovenia, and National Chung Hsing University, Taiwan;
- Matjaž Gregorič, Nik Lupše and Tjaša Lokovšek, all with the Biological Institute ZRC SAZU, Ljubljana,Slovenia (Lupse is also affiliated with the Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic);
- Emily Moriatry Lemmon and Alan Lemmon, Florida State University, Tallahassee;
- Ingi Agnarsson of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution; and University of Vermont, Burlington; and
- Jonathan Coddington, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.
The research drew funds from Slovenian Research Agency grants, from the U.S. State Department through a Fulbright visiting scholar; ZRZ Director's Fund, National Science Foundation, Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant and funds from Auburn University, Alabama. Bond joined the UC Davis faculty in July of 2018 from Auburn University after a seven-year academic career there, where he served as professor of biology and chaired the Department of Biological Sciences. He also curated the arachnids and myriapods (centipedes, millipedes, and related animals) at the Auburn University Museum of Natural History.
It's National Pollinator Week. Do you know where your pollinators are?
If you're thinking bees, butterflies, beetles, birds (hummingbirds) and bats, you're correct.
But what about European paper wasps (Polistes dominula)? They're pollinators, too, says associate professor Amy Toth of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University, Ames, who researches wasps and coined the hashtag, #wasplove.
Several years ago she delivered an excellent presentation to our UC Davis Department of Entomomlogy and Nematology, and I later asked her 10 reasons why we should love wasps.
It's worth repeating:
- They are pollinators.
- They contribute to biocontrol of lepidopteran pests in gardens and on decorative plants.
- They have been shown to carry yeasts to winemaking grapes that may be important contributors to the fermentation process and wonderful flavors in wine!
- They are the only known insect (Polistes fuscatus) that can recognize each other as individuals by their faces.
- They are devoted mothers that will dote on their young all day long for weeks, defending their families with fury.
- Their social behavior, in my opinion, is the most human-like of any insect. They know each other as individuals, and are great cooperators overall, but there is an undercurrent of selfishness to their behavior,
- They are artists. They make perfect hexagonal nest cells out of paper, which they make themselves out of tree bark + saliva.
- They are extremely intelligent. They're predators, architects, good navigators, and great learners. Among insects, they have large brains, especially the mushroom bodies (learning/memory and cognition area of insect brain).
- They are beautiful, complex, and fascinating creatures!
That's Amy Toth's list. To that, I'd like to add one more: they are quite photogenic!
The European paper wasp, so named because of its European origin, is relatively new to the United States. Scientists tell us that the P. dominula was not recorded in North America until 1981. P. dominula was first discovered in the United States in the late 1970s near Boston, Mass. Entomologists worry that it is displacing the native species of Polistes wasps.
Interestingly enough, last year at this time--this very date--European paper wasps were building a nest beneath the overhanging lip of a recycling bin near the Mann lab on the UC Davis campus.
And today they're doing it again. Same place. Same bin. Same spot.
Wrong place. Wrong bin. Wrong spot. It won't be there for long.