While folks from Alaska to Colorado to New York to Maine are shivering in freezing temperatures, here in sunny California--well, at least parts of the Golden State are sunny--bumble bees are foraging on winter blooms.
Bumble bees? On the first day of the year?
Yes. We spotted a dozen yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, nectaring this morning in Benicia, Solano County, Calif.
They were foraging on jade at the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park and on rosemary at the Benicia Marina. Honey bees and syrphid flies joined them. We also saw some hungry predators--birds--chasing them.
For the last several years, several of us bumble bee aficionados--led by Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis--seek to find and photograph the first bumble bee of the year.
Last year the big winner was naturalist and insect photographer Allan Jones of Davis. At 2:02 p.m., on Friday, Jan. 27, he alerted us: "Two Bombus melanopygus on manzanita just east of the redwood grove (UC Davis Arboretum)."
And then he found another melanopygus. It was a three-in-one day.
The story behind the story: Inspired by Robbin Thorp, a small group of eager bumble bee aficionados--naturalists and insect photographers Gary Zamzow and Allan Jones of Davis, and yours truly of UC Davis--launched the First-Bumble-Bee-of-the-Year Contest six years ago.
It's a take-off of Art Shapiro's "Beer for a Butterfly" contest. Shapiro, a distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, offers a pitcher of beer for the first cabbage white butterfly (Pierae rapae) of the year found in the three-county area of Sacramento, Yolo and Sacramento. He launched the contest in 1972 as part of his long-term studies of butterfly life cycles and climate.
For us bumble bee aficionados, the prize isn't a pitcher of beer. There's no prize. It's basically to provide a few more eyes to help Robbin Thorp track early-season bumble bees.
Thorp is the co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday).
Meanwhile, look around for bumble bees in your area. You won't find them in the "deep freeze" states like Alaska, North Dakota or Minnesota. And you certainly won't find them in Hettinger, N.D., where the temperature dipped to a negative 45 degrees today.
But if you're in Benicia or another sunny place, it's a Bumble Bee Kind of Day and what a way to begin the New Year!
Happy New Year!
Honey bees aren't the only bees out foraging.
We saw our first native bee of the season on Jan. 25 at the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park.
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, identified it as a female sweat bee, Halictus rubicundus.
"The head shape, lack of long curled hairs below at the base of the hind leg, and the bent basal vein in the wing" helped him identify it as a Halictus. The lack of facial foveae confirmed it was not an Andrena.
"Nice early record for this species," added Thorp, who is the co-author of California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heydey) and Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press.)
Halicutus rubicundus is found in Europe, northern Asia, and across the United States and Canada, according to the book, The Bees in Your Backyard, A Guide to North America's Bees, by Joseph S. Wilson, assistant professor of biology at Utah State University, and Olivia J. Messinger Carril, who received her doctorate in plant biology from Southern Illinois University and "has been studying bees and wasps for more than a decade," according to the publisher, Princeton University Press.
You can see more images of this sweat bee on BugGuide.Net.
So, one sweat bee down. Hundreds more to go as the seasons unfold.
Quick! Find the damselfly!
This damselfly (below) is so camouflaged that it's difficult to see her.
Her? She's a female Argia vivida, as identified by Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis; and dragonfly/damselfly/butterfly aficionado Greg Kareofelas, a volunteer at the Bohart Museum.
The males are a bright blue.
We didn't see both genders, though, when we were looking for damselflies in a bed of Spanish lavender last weekend in Benicia.
Argia "is a genus of damselflies of the family Coenagrionidae and of the subfamily Argiinae," according to Wikipedia. "It is a diverse genus which contains about 114 species and many more to be described. It is also the largest genus in Argiinae. They are found in the Western Hemisphere."
Like their cousins, the dragonflies, they're predators that eat other insects.
Argia vivida are known as "dancers" because of "the distinctive jerky form of flight they use which contrasts with the straightforward direct flight of bluets, forktails and other pond damselflies," according to Wikipedia. "They are usually to be seen in the open where they catch flying insects on the wing rather than flying about among vegetation picking off sedentary prey items. They tend to land and perch flat on the ground, logs and rocks. When perched, they usually hold their wing slightly raised above the abdomen."
That's what this one was doing./span>/span>
The almonds are blooming! The almonds are blooming!
Well, at least one almond tree in the Benicia State Recreation Area is blooming. On a drive to Benicia on Christmas Day, we spotted several blooms on an almond tree. The tree, a foot from the parking lot, was getting a little southern exposure--and soaking in the warmth of the sun bouncing off the asphalt.
California almonds don't usually bloom 'til around Feb. 14--Valentine's Day--but this tree has always been an early bloomer. It was blooming on New Year's Day in 2014.
Unfortunately, the honey bees hadn't found it yet.
But they did find the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, where jade and oxalis have burst into bloom, and they also found the winter vegetables in the Avant Community Park in downtown Benicia. The bees were working the broccoli blossoms, two bees at a time.
Who says broccoli isn't good for you?
The painted ladies are on move.
Scores of painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) are now migrating north from their overwintering sites near the U.S. Mexico border.
"Fascinatingly, they arrived in Prescott, Ariz., the same day (as the ones spotted in Benicia)," said butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. "I think they're all from south of the border." The annual migration north varies, but can take place as early as late January and as late as mid-April.
The painted ladies spend the winter in the desert, where in the late winter, they breed on desert annual plants, Shapiro says. The adults emerge in February or March and immediately migrate into the Central Valley and foothills, where they breed. Around May, here in the Central Valley, you'll see the caterpillar offspring munching on borage, thistles, fiddleneck and mallows. Then the adults head toward the Pacific Northwest.
"The painted lady moves northward in a generational wave as the season progresses," Shapiro says on his website. "Frequently it disappears altogether from the lowlands in summer. Beginning in August the movement reverses and butterflies head south toward the desert wintering grounds."
"There is no evidence that this species overwinters successfully anywhere in our area, except for very rare individuals maturing in midwinter from really late autumnal larvae."
The painted lady migration may not be as popular as the monarch (Danaus plexippus) migration, but it's fascinating just the same.
Shapiro, who has monitored the butterfly population of California's Central Valley for 42 years, will be speaking at noon on Monday, March 24 on "Ecological Communities and the March of Time" in the Commonwealth Club, 595 Market St., San Francisco. For program detail and registration, please see the club website. His talk is open to the public. For a discount, access the website and use the coupon code, "friendsforshapiro," said spokesperson Chisako Ress (firstname.lastname@example.org).