Last weekend a little critter made its first-ever appearance in our family bee garden. It was neither a grand entrance nor a grand insect.
"A fly!" I thought, as I looked at its knoblike bristle or arista on the end of each antenna.
But its body--what little I could see of it before it winged out of there--definitely resembled a wasp. A Western yellowjacket (Vespula pensylvanica) or European paper wasp (Polistes dominula).
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, identified it as a syrphid fly, genus Ceriana, family Syrphidae.
Talented Davis photographer Allan Jones captured an excellent photo of Ceriana in 2012. A full body shot: head, thorax and abdomen! His excellent image (second one, below) shows the distinguishing characteristics: two wings (fly), not four wings (bees, wasps), as well as the arista (fly) and the spongelike mouthparts (fly).
BugGuide.Net posted some excellent images of Ceriana on its site. Class: Insecta. Order, Diptera. Family: Syrphidae: Genus: Ceriana.
Ceriana is a genus of wasp mimics. Basically, it's a syrphid fly, a pollinator. It's also known as a hover fly or flower fly as it hovers, helicopterlike, over flowers before drops down to forage.
Would-be predators, no doubt, avoid Ceriana because of its coloration. "Oops, don't mess with that! That's a wasp!"
Picnickers who don't know a faux wasp from a real one would probably run from it, or swat at it.
"It's definitely a good mimic and probably gets a lot of protection from that coloration," said Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis.
Don't you just love watching bumble bees?
This morning we watched a yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii) foraging on lavender. It moved quickly from one blossom to another, barely allowing us time for a "bee shoot." It was "bee gone" every time we aimed the camera.
Finally, it cooperated.
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, identified it as a male, the first (photo of a male Bombus vosnesenskii) he's seen this season.
He thinks a prize is in order.
Thorp, co-author of the newly published Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton Press), and Davis photographers Gary Zamzow and Allan Jones and yours truly usually have a friendly competition to find and photograph the first bumble bee of the year, of the month, of the day, of the minute. Well, almost. It's "Bumble Bee Alert" a lot. On Christmas Day, I managed to capture an image of a black-tailed bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus, foraging on jade blossoms at the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, Solano County. (The black-tailed bumble bees emerge much earlier than the yellow-faced bumble bees.)
Now a Bumble Bee Watch group has launched a website to track bumble bee populations across the U.S. and Canada. This is a collaborative effort among several conservation groups and universities, according to the website and they need your sightings, including photos. As a spokesperson said: "The information will help researchers determine the status and conservation needs of bumble bees, and help locate rare or endangered populations. They will also help with identification!"
Well, today, I watched one male Bombus vosnesenskii, and he watched me.
My prize? Just enjoying--and appreciating--nature at its finest.
(Note: How can you distinguish a male from a female Bombus vosnesenskii? Said Robbin Thorp: "Boy bumble bees have an one more segment in the antenna and the abdomen than females do. The tip of the abdomen is also more rounded. Male bees do not have any pollen transport structures. In bumble bees, this means that the hind tibia is much more slender than in females which have corbiculae (pollen baskets). In Bombus vosnesenskii there is a second partial yellow band on the abdomen on T-5."
"The most accurate test of female vs male bumble bees, is to pick up a specimen with a bare hand. If you get stung, it is a female, if not, it is a boy bee. Boy bees can't sting, because they have no stinger. But I do not recommend this test unless you already know the answer! :)"
The three queen bumble bees (Bombus melanopygus) we found buzzing around our porch light the night of Jan. 9 are still very much alive.
Who would have "thunk?"
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, is caring for them at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road.
Thorp, who officially retired in 1994, maintains an active research and bee monitoring/identification program based as the Laidlaw facility. He recently co-authored a book on Bumble Bees of North America: An identification Guide (Princeton University Press), to be released in March.
So yesterday photographer/artist Allan Jones of Davis and I checked out "The Lovely Ladies at the Laidlaw." Yes, they're very much alive.
But it sure was strange on Jan. 9 to see them as as night fliers, or porch-light bumble bees. I figured they were parasitized. I figured that a florid fly, Apocephalus borealis, which lays its eggs in such insects as bumble bees, wasps and honey bees, had nailed them. I figured they'd be goners within a few days.
I hope I'm wrong.
It's long been known that Apocephalus borealis infests bumble bees. However, Professor John Hafernik of San Francisco State University and his colleagues caused quite a media stir when they discovered that this fly infests honey bees as well. They published their work, "A New Threat to Honey Bees, the Parasitic Phorid Fly, Apocephalus borealis," in PLOS ONE back in January 2012. They revealed that the parasitized, disoriented honey bees (which they nicknamed "Zombies" or "ZomBees") leave their hives at night and head for the lights.
"After being parasitized by the fly, the bees abandon their hives in what is literally a flight of the living dead to congregate near lights," said Andrew Core of the Hafernik lab. 'When we observed the bees for some time—the ones that were alive—we found that they walked around in circles, often with no sense of direction."
Fingers crossed that the three queen bumble bees aren't parasitized. Fingers crossed that they will survive. Fingers crossed that they will continue to be "The Lovely Ladies at the Laidlaw."/span>
Robbin Thorp saw it first.
Talk about an eagle eye.
Thorp, a native pollinator specialist and emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, was monitoring the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis, on July 23 when something caught his eye.
The California buckwheat was waving at him.
"While looking closely at the California buckwheat flower heads, I noticed a piece of one waving but there was no wind," recalled Thorp. "I watched a linear group of florets march across to another head. I tried to get a close-up on a flower head as background, but could not get the focus right."
So he placed the "unusual life form" on his finger to capture a better image. He captured it all right: a larva covered with buckwheat florets.
Later insect photographer Allan Jones of Davis, a regular visitor at the haven, obtained a spectacular photo of the camouflage.
Thorp identified the "unusual life form" as the larva of an emerald moth Synchlora (see http://bugguide.net/node/view/747823/bgimage). "The larva pupates with its camouflage still on then turns into a delicate green geometrid adult," he said. (See http://bugguide.net/node/view/316178/bgimage for the life cycle: caterpillar to moth).
Maybe it was serendipity, but Thorp found the larva during National Moth Week, July 23-29.
The photo just begs for a caption.
The praying mantis, with a female sweat bee grasped in its spiked forelegs, suddenly turns its head to look at the photographer.
Actually, three photographers: Davis insect photographers/bee enthusiasts Allan Jones and Gary Zamzow and I. We were shooting images in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, the half-acre bee friendly garden located next to the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis.
Jones, admiring the first image (below), commented "I love the way the mantis has set breakfast aside to stare directly at you." With that, Jones served up three captions:
"Oh, is that your bee?"
"What are you looking at?"
"Threat or prey?"
Meanwhile, we were obviously interrupting the praying mantid's bee breakfast.
"The female sweat bee is carrying some pollen she toiled to provide for her young," said native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at the UC Davis Department of Entomology. "The mantid is also ducking under a spider webline, and needs to be careful that it does not become the meal of another sit and wait predator. It's a real jungle out there!"
Thorp, who has been monitoring the garden since October 2009, a year before it was planted, has so far discovered 75 different species of bees--and counting.
Yes, sometimes amid the predators and the prey, it's definitely a "real jungle out there."