We all take shortcuts.
We look for the shortest line at the supermarket, we use keyboard shortcuts, and we text ”how r u?”
So, why shouldn't honey bees use shortcuts? They do.
If you've ever watched a carpenter bee drill a hole in the corolla of a tubed flower to get at the nectar—this is "nectar robbing" or bypassing pollination—you may have seen a honey bee come along and sip nectar from the hole. Why work hard to get at the nectar when it's right there for the taking?
This is the insect version of a convenience market!
Take the foxgloves (family Plantaginaceae, genus Digitalis). Sometimes you'll see a honey bee trailing or shadowing a carpenter bee that moves from corolla to corolla.
Short cut to the nectar!
Valley carpenter bees are passionate about passionflower vines (Passiflora).
You see these black bees foraging on the blossoms. Tiny grains of golden pollen, looking like gold dust, dot the thorax.
Their loud buzz frightens many a person, but wait, they're pollinators.
Valley carpenter bees (Xylocopa varipuncta) are found in the Central Valley and southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and southward through Mexico, according to native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis.
These carpenter bees are large (about the size of a queen bumble bee). The females are solid black, while the males are golden/buff-colored with green eyes.
We receive scores of calls about "golden bumble bees." They're the male Valley carpenter bees, sometimes nicknamed "Teddy bears."
The females are the only ones we've seen in the passionflower vines, though.
The males? They must be cruising somewhere else, patrolling for females.
Most of the time we see female Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) laying their eggs on the leaves, and male Gulf Frits searching for females.
A gold rush of sorts.
When the female Valley carpenter bees forage among the passion flowers (Passiflora), they turn from solid black to a mixture of gold and black.
The pollen on their head, thorax and abdomen stands out like magical gold dust, as if sprinkled by the Good Fairy.
On a recent photo expedition in west Vacaville, we watched Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanilla) colonize a passionflower vine (Passiflora incaranata). Meanwhile, these huge Valley carpenter bees buzzed in and out of the purple-centered white flowers.
A golden opportunity, to be sure.
"Just wanna be your teddy bear..."
When Elvis Presley sang that, his fans swooned.
Well, there are bee fans that can't get enough of the "teddy bear" bee, aka the male Valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa varipuncta).
It's often called a "golden bumble bee." Golden, it is. Bumble bee, it is not.
The female of this carpenter bee species is solid black.
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, spotted this male Valley carpenter bee yesterday in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research at UC Davis. He does research in the half-acre bee friendly garden. (By the way, it's located on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus, and is open from dawn to dusk. There's no admission.)
We at UC Davis periodically receive phone calls about "golden bumble bees." The green-eyed, golden-haired carpenter bee does attract a lot of attention.
"Oh, let me be, your teddy bear."
Or better yet, let me "bee" your teddy bear.
When you think of a teddy bear, you think of a huggable stuffed animal.
Not so entomologists. When they think of a teddy bear, they think of the male Valley carpenter bee.
It's a green-eyed, fluffy golden insect that's nicknamed "teddy bear." You can hug it, too. Unlike the females, male carpenter bees don't sting.
When a Davis resident recently cut down a plum tree, hordes of buzzing insects tumbled out. Seeking identification, the resident carted a chunk of the wood and the golden insects into the Bohart Museum of Entomology.
What were they?
“Male carpenter bees, Xylocopa varipuncta, also known as Valley carpenter bees,” said entomologist Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology.
“Some of us refer to these males as ‘teddy bear’ bees, because of their yellowish-brownish color and fuzzy burly bodies,” said UC Davis emeritus entomology professor Robbin Thorp, who studies pollinators. “The females are all black with violaceous (violet) reflections on their dark wings.”
Carpenter bees, so named for their ability to tunnel through wood to make their nests, carve with their mandibles (jaws) but do not ingest the wood. Only the females excavate the tunnels, which average six to 10 inches in depth.
Thorp says he tries to convince people to learn to live with these bees as “they are important pollinators in our environment and have potential as pollinators of some crops.”
“Carpenter bees are beneficial in that they pollinate flowers in native plant communities and gardens,” he said. “That far outweighs any damage to wood structures.”
California is home to three carpenter bee species. I've seen X. tabaniformis orpifex buzzing around my backyard but never The Golden One.
What a gorgeous insect!