Yes, after a l-o-n-g, cold, hard winter, bumble bees are emerging.
At least in Solano County.
At 11:20 a.m. today (Wednesday, Jan. 13), we spotted a yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, foraging on oxalis near downtown Benicia.
What a delight! A January bumble bee and the first one we've seen this year.
So, this is a good time to mention the inaugural Robbin Thorp First-Bumble-Bee-of-the-Year Contest, sponsored by the Bohart Museum of Entomology and coordinated by Bohart director Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis professor of entomology.
Just photograph a clearly identifiable bumble bee in the two-county area of Yolo or Solano, and submit it to email@example.com with the time, date and place. The winner receives bragging rights and a special gift from the Bohart Museum. Plans call for a Bohart coffee mug with a bumble bee image.
The contest memorializes native pollinator specialist and Bohart associate Robbin Thorp (1933-2019), UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor of entomology. Professor Thorp, 85, who died June 7, 2019, was a global authority on bumble bees, and always looked forward to seeing the first bumble bee of the year. He launched an impromptu contest several years ago with a small group of bumble bee enthusiasts/photographers (including yours truly) from Yolo and Solano counties. (Note: I am not a contestant.)
Early Bumble Bees
The black-tailed bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus, is usually the first bumble bee to emerge in this area, Thorp used to say. It forages on manzanitas, wild lilacs, wild buckwheats, lupines, penstemons, clovers, and sages, among others. In early January, it's often seen on manzanita blossoms in the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. B. vosnesenskii forages on such early bloomers as oxalis, jade, mustard and wild radish, and then on a variety of plants throughout the year. Both species are natives.
Thorp, a 30-year member of the UC Davis entomology faculty, from 1964-1994, co-authored two books, Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University, 2014) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday, 2014). He achieved emeritus status in 1994 but continued to engage in research, teaching and public service until a few weeks before his death.
A tireless advocate of pollinator species protection and conservation, Thorp was known for his expertise, dedication and passion in protecting native pollinators, especially bumble bees, and for his teaching, research and public service. He was an authority on pollination ecology, ecology and systematics of honey bees, bumble bees, vernal pool bees, conservation of bees, native bees and crop pollination, and bees of urban gardens and agricultural landscapes.
Ready to join the hunt for the first bumble bee of the year in Yolo and Solano counties? Camera ready? Walking shoes laced? Go!
The grant, titled "Strengthening Honey Bee Health and Crop Pollination to Safeguard Food Availability and Affordability," and headed by principal investigator Boris Baer, a UC Riverside professor of entomology, also includes Davis, San Diego and Merced campuses. “I'm very excited about so many different kinds of bee expertise joining forces through this project,” Baer said.
Honey bees pollinate more than 80 agricultural crops, including almonds, apples, blueberries and cherries. The pollination services of these tiny agricultural workers account for about a third of the American diet. However, pesticide exposure, spread of parasites and pathogens, habitat destruction and environmental changes are challenging beekeepers, resulting in decreased pollination services and increased food prices.
The grant is an important one. Co-principal investigator Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, which operates the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, says it well: "Most excitingly, this funding will not only support research that will help improve pollinator health so crucial for California's agriculture, but it will provide opportunities for training of students and postdoctoral scholars. Work focused on improving honey bee stocks via novel tools aligns well with ongoing work in the Niño lab and will further cement collaborations with beekeepers and growers.”
Niño, who works closely with California beekeepers, launched and directs the California Master Beekeeper Program, which uses science-based information to educate stewards and ambassadors for honey bees and beekeeping.
Other co-principal investigators are James Nieh and Joshua Kohn of UC San Diego, and a trio from UC Riverside: Kerry Mauck, Tsotras Vassilis, and Kim Hyoseung. At Merced, Marilia Palumbo Gaiarsa serves as a co-investigator.
The UC scientists plan a three-pronged approach to resolve the issue: develop better breeding programs, better medications and treatments, and better tools to monitor bee health in the hives. Small “listening and smelling” devices will be placed inside the hives to monitor bee health.
"Safeguarding honey bees and their pollination services requires beekeepers to be better able to manage the health and survival of colonies, which requires research into the causal factors and interactions affecting pollinator health, and the development and implementation of novel tools in close collaboration with industry partners. To do this, we will form a California wide, cross disciplinary research network and
- experimentally study the ecological and molecular factors and their interactions that affect honey bee health and their interactions to identify biomarkers of their health
- use the knowledge gained to develop and deliver new, effective solutions for stakeholders, including remote sensing of bee health, a marker-assisted breeding program, and the development of novel medications,
- build a research industry nexus to conduct collaborative research. We will also develop and deploy new extension and outreach modules that will be offered through UC Cooperative Extension statewide. We will support California beekeepers to build and maintain a sustainable and profitable beekeeping industry, which has implications for food security on a national level."
The co-principal investigators also noted in their grant proposal that "The current coronavirus pandemic and impending recession is putting more pressure on agriculture to provide sufficient and affordable food. Honey bees are key to such efforts, and supporting a California based beekeeping industry also decreases the state's dependence on managed pollination from elsewhere, thereby creating new jobs and income."
Funding also will help provide research opportunities for undergraduates, including underrepresented students, with the goal of ensuring that the pipeline of students who enter research, academia, industry, and multiple other professions reflects the diversity of the communities in which they learn and work.
This is all a win-win situation.
As Kohn said in a UC San Diego news release: “This network of bee researchers comprises a unique mixture of expertise that can apply highly multidisciplinary approaches to benefit the honey bee industry essential to the production of many of California's most economically important crops."
Yes! It's among dozens of fact sheets (mostly insects but some arachnids and other non-insects) posted on the Bohart Museum website. All can be accessed and downloaded at no charge.
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and a UC Davis professor of entomology, writes the fact sheets, including this one, titled "Widow Spiders."
"Widows are large, distinctive spiders in the genus Latrodectus," Kimsey writes. The Latrodectus mactans or black widow is found throughout the world in warmer regions, while the brown widow, L. geometricus, is found in warmer parts of the United States, including California.
You'll find widow spiders in and around homes, garages, barns and other human-made structures in California. "They build a tough, messy-looking three dimensional web in or behind objects in secluded and protected locations," Kimsey relates.
"During the summer months they may also commonly be found outside under shrubs, and other garden plants, or near porch lights," she says. "These spiders are excellent at controlling insects, particularly flies and crickets. They do not particularly like feeding on cockroaches, but will do so when other insects are unavailable."
What most folks seem to want to know about them are the bites. How painful and toxic are they?
"All spiders have painful and sometimes dangerous neurotoxic bites, but often give dry bites, with no venom," Kimsey points out. "In fact these are the only spiders in the United States with neurotoxic venom. The bites cause extreme physical discomfort and illness for several days to a week and can only be treated symptomatically. Common symptoms include pain in the vicinity of the bite, muscle aches, severe abdominal pain, vomiting, muscular cramping, sweating, fever and head- ache. The bite location itself may go unnoticed."
"There is usually no swelling at the site of the bite, where a small necrotic lesion may form, which heals slowly over a period of weeks or months. Black widow bites are rarely life threatening but may be dangerous for small children or individuals with chronic health problems. There have been no deaths from the bite of this spider for decades. Black widow bites can be dangerous for pets and can be fatal to small dogs or cats."
Kimsey advises that control is not necessary "unless a black widow is in an area frequented by people, particularly children, or by pets. It is important to remember that these are very shy spiders and never bite unless physically threatened."
Noted spider authority Jason Bond, the Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and his lab usually present a program at the Bohart Museum on spiders at least once a year or engage with folks at the open houses.
The Bohart Museum of Entomology, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, UC Davis campus, is the home of nearly 8 million insect specimens, plus a live "petting zoo" (Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks and tarantulas) and a gift shop. The Bohart is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic but the online gift shop is open, where you can find insect-themed t-shirts, hoodies, jewelry, posters, books, pens, and stuffed animal toys, as well as insect-collecting equipment.
If you have roses blooming in your yard in the winter--or trying to bloom--check to see if there's a lady beetle, aka ladybug prowling around.
A lady beetle can eat as many as 5000 aphids in its lifetime, so they're the good guys and gals in the garden.
"These beetles have become a cultural icon of sorts because of their appearance and their beneficial habits," writes UC Davis professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, in her insect fact sheet on Lady Bugs and Lady Beetles. "Both adults and larvae feed on aphids and other small, soft-bodied insects...They are ferocious predators on small insects."
Lady beetles do have predators, though, despite (1) their bright red "warning" coloration that yells "Hey, wait, don't eat me! I don't taste good!" and (2) the toxic chemical, isopropyl methoxy pyrazine, that oozes from their joints when they're disturbed.
Ever seen that? We did one summer when a cellar spider nabbed a lady beetle in its web and began eating it.
It probably didn't eat it all...
Learning more about insects ought to be one of your New Year's resolutions.
Here's a good place to start: read the UC Davis Bohart Museum of Entomology's Insect Information Sheets.
Terry Erwin of the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Entomology estimates the number of living species of insects at 30 million. "Insects also probably have the largest biomass of the terrestrial animals," according to the Smithsonian website. "At any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive."
Some other points from the Smithsonian scientists:
- "In the United States, the number of described species is approximately 91,000. The undescribed species of insects in the United States, however, is estimated at some 73,000. The largest numbers of described species in the U.S. fall into four insect Orders: Coleoptera (beetles) at 23,700, Diptera (flies) at 19,600, Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps) at 17,500, and Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) at 11,500."
- "Certain social insects have large numbers in their nests. An ant nest in Jamaica was calculated to include 630,000 individuals. A South American termite nest was found to have 3 million individuals. Locust swarms are said to hold up to one billion individuals."
- "Insects have remarkable fertility and reproductive abilities, which have usually led to the vast numbers of individuals in nature. East African termite queens have been recorded to lay an egg every two seconds, amounting to 43,000 eggs each day. To appreciate the population potentials of insects the example of the housefly is sometimes used, stating that the descendants of one pair of this insect, provided that they all survived during a five month season, would total 190 quintillion individuals."
"Recent figures indicate that there are more than 200 million insects for each human on the planet! A recent article in The New York Times claimed that the world holds 300 pounds of insects for every pound of human."
So, if you weighed all the bugs of the world, they would weigh much more than all the people in the world. (See fivethirtyeight.com)
The Bohart Museum information sheets will inform you about ants, beetles, wasps, bees, mites, ticks, flies, butterflies, moths, true bugs, praying mantids, Jerusalem crickets (aka potato bugs), earwigs, booklice, and additional home pests (no, not the permanent occupants of your home).
The fact sheets also cover such non-insects as spiders (arachnids), house centipedes, springtails, sowbugs, scorpions, lawn shrimp, and earthworms and the like (if you don't like them, you can at least appreciate them).
One of the bees featured is the European wool carder bee, Anthidium manicatum. It's a "species of European megachilid bee that has successfully colonized North America," Kimsey writes. "However, North America isn't the only place these bees have invaded. They are now found in north Africa, South America, Asia the Canary Islands and even New Zealand."
The bee, introduced into the United States from Europe in the early 1960s, was first detected in New York state "but has rapidly spread throughout North America since then," Kimsey points out. "The first California collection was in the early 2000's and the bee had reached Davis by 2007."
"Wool carder females are particularly fond of lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina) and as a result this is often where males are found. Females use their jaws to scrape, or card the hairy leaves to collect fibers. They can be pretty entertaining if they decide that wool socks are good sources of fibers, too" (as what happened to Bohart associate Tom Zavortink.)
Male wool carder bees are aggressively territorial. They'll attack other bees, including honey bees and carpenter bees, "and even small birds, like hummingbirds," Kimsey says.
Photographer Allan Jones of Davis calls the male wool carder bees "bonker bees," because they bonk or bop off would-be competitors from floral resources--or they try to.
The wonderful world of insects...