When you visit the half-acre Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a bee friendly garden on Bee Biology Road at the University of California, Davis, you might just see a cuckoo bee.
The cuckoo bee (see below) is a male Triepeolus concavus, as identified by native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, who maintains an office in the adjacent Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility.
Thorp has been monitoring the garden not only since it was planted--in the fall of 2009--but BEFORE it was planted, to collect the baseline data. To date, he's detected more than 80 species of bees, "and counting."
The cuckoo bee, nectaring on a blanket flower (Gaillardia), is just one of the species he's found in the garden.
The female cuckoo bee lays her eggs in the ground nests of other bees, including the sunflower bee, Svastra. Cuckoo bees are kleptoparasites, meaning that they steal the food stores provisioned by the host bee. Cuckoos lack pollen-collecting structures (scopa). So when the cuckoo bee eggs hatch, the larva will consume the pollen ball collected by the hosts, and kill and eat the host larvae.
Like human kleptomanias, they've found a way to make it in this world at the expense of others.
Thorp annually teaches at The Bee Course, described as a "workshop offered for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists and other biologists who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees," and held at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz. This year's dates are Aug. 25 to Sept. 4. The workshop attracts people from all over the world, including dozens from the UC system.
It's a bug-eat-bug world out there.
Today we watched a syrphid fly, aka "hover fly" and "flower fly," circling a blanket flower (Gaillardia) and then touching down to sip a little nectar.
Syrphids are called "hover flies" for good reason. They "hover" over a blossom, helicoperlike. They're often mistaken for bees but to the trained eye, they really look nothing alike. Folks confuse them because both bees and syrphids are floral visitors and both are pollinators.
If it's a floral visitor, it must be a bee, right? Wrong.
Anyway, this syrphid touched down on the blossom to sip nectar, its wings glinting in the early morning sun. Finally, it spotted the danger, a jumping spider lurking on the other side. The crafty predator lunged. Missed!
When we returned a few minutes later, however, we saw the jumping spider beneath the petals, feasting on the syrphid.
Quickness is an attribute--whether you're a jumping spider or a syrphid.
If you want to learn more about flower flies, read entomologist Robert Bugg's "Flower Flies (Syrphidae) and Other Biological Control Agents for Aphids in Vegetable Crops" (Publication 8285, May 2008, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.)
Honey bees on blanket flowers (Gaillardia).
Honey bees on Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia).
The Girls of Autumn....not unlike The Boys of Summer...
Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, emphasizes that backyard gardeners should plant bee friendly flowers for all the seasons.
'Limited plantings of backyard, or even acres, of flowers will greatly improve the possibility of enhancing the native bee population in the area," Mussen says. "However, each honey bee colony requires an acre equivalent of forage on a daily basis, all during its active season. This seems to be pretty hard to accomplish, but honey bees will fly up to four miles from the hive in any compass direction to get food. That is an area of 50 square miles in which to find that acre equivalent."
G. H. Vansell, author of the University of California's treasured 1941 bulletin, "Nectar and Pollen Plants of California," writes that "six of the most important sources of nectar in California are the sages, alfalfa, orange, wild buckwheats, star thistle and Christmas berry; of these, the sages, wild buckwheats and Christmas berry are native." (Read this book online in openlibrary.org.)
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, has singled out some of the best native plants for bees. The information, gleaned his own experience and from Vansell's list, appears on the website of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis.
And if you want to look up individual plants, Thorp urges you to access Calflora (UC Berkeley).
Good advice and a good way to help the bees!
What's that little green bug on the head of the Gaillardia?
It's soft-bodied. It's miniscule. It's sucking plant juices.
We captured an image of this little green bugger shortly after we purchased several plants from an area nursery. It's a good idea to check your plants for aphids and other critters before you buy them or transplant them in your garden.
Gaillardia is a hearty plant, but it's troubled by aster yellows, a viruslike disease transmitted by those nasty aphids and leafhoppers.
A green aphid may look pretty on a reddish flower, but it is not your friend. It sucks plant juices, transmits diseases, and produces as many as 80 offspring within a week. Then there's that sticky, unsightly honeydew it secretes--and which ants tend.
California alone has more than 450 species of aphids, and they come in some of your favorite colors, including green, yellow, red, brown and black.
Favorite colors, but that's it. Nobody likes 'em...'cept for ladybugs, lacewings and syrphid flies...
Don't forget your sunglasses if you're heading over to the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee-friendly demonstration garden at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis.
That's because the Gaillardia is stunningly bright and beautiful.
And honey bees are all over it.
The Gaillardia, also called blanketflower--reportedly because it typifies the wondrous patterns of Native American Indian blankets--is a native perennial from the sunflower family (Asteraceae).
With all the rain we've been having lately, it's good to know that it's drought-tolerant.
The Gaillardia draws its name from M. Gaillard de Charentonneau, an 18th-century French magistrate who delved in botany.
Ready to see the haven? It's open from dawn to dusk every day. There's no admission fee.