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!
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, greeted a visitor on Feb. 14 in his office in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility.
This visitor didn't talk, though. She buzzed.
And she buzzed right over to his window.
Well, hello, black-tailed bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus!
"Guess all one needs to do is sit and wait," he wrote in an email to bumble bee enthusiasts. "Eventually a gyne will find her way into one's office. This one was buzzing against my window just a few minutes ago trying to get back outside."
She came to the right place.
Thorp, a noted expert on bumble bees, is the co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalist (Heyday). He also teaches at The Bee Course, an annual workshop hosted by the American Museum of Natural History at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz. (The Bee Course is meant for "conservation biologists, pollination ecologists and other biologists who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees," according to the website. This year's course is Aug. 21-31.)
The black-tailed bumble bee, native to North America, is one of only 250 species worldwide in the genus Bombus.
What's next with Thorp's bumble bee?
A nest box in an almond tree near the Laidlaw facility--feed her some honey, make her feel at home, "then let her fly out, hopefully to return and establish a nest."
Insect photographer and naturalist Allan Jones of Davis discovered and photographed three Bombus melanopygus foraging on manzanita on Jan. 27 in the UC Davis Arboretum. In doing so, he won the science-based, friendly competition among a small group of bumble bee enthusiasts in Yolo and Solano counties searching for the first bumble bee of the year.
But Allan Jones went looking for his bumble bee; Thorp's bumble bee came to him...
Arthur Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, annually sponsors the "Beer for a Butterfly" contest, offering 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. This year he again won the contest; he collected a newly eclosed butterfly at 1:56 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19 near the Solano Park Apartments on the UC Davis campus.
But where's the first bumble bee of the year in the Yolo county area?
At 2:02 today (Friday, Jan. 27) naturalist and insect photographer Allan Jones of Davis 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: five years ago, a small group of keen-eyed bumble bee aficionados (Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis and co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide; and three naturalists and insect photographers Gary Zamzow and Allan Jones of Davis, and yours truly of UC Davis) launched our own contest.
In an unusual twist, Jones found both genders at the same time. After finding and photographing two males just east of the Arboretum's redwood grove, he spotted and photographed a female just west of it.
"Surprising to see males this early in the season," noted Thorp, who co-authored the book, California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists. "Unusual to see males before any workers are on site. Could be from a gyne that overwintered but was not mated before she went into hibernation; or maybe the sperm she received were not viable; or maybe she was unable to release sperm from her spermatheca to some eggs as they passed through her reproductive tract."
"At any rate," Thorp told Jones, in congratulating him, "you got two firsts for the season at one time."
Great job, Allan Jones! And the bumble bee season begins...
We remember seeing a varroa mite attached to a foraging honey bee one warm summer day in our pollinator garden. The mite was feeding off the bee and the bee was feeding on the nectar of a lavender blossom.
Didn't seem fair.
We've never seen a varroa mite on bumble bees or carpenter bees, but Davis photographer Allan Jones has--and he's photographed them. (See below)
When varroa mites tumble off a honey bee and into a blossom, they can hitch a ride on other insects, such as bumble bees and carpenter bees.
"Varroa have been recorded hitching rides on bumble bees and yellowjackets," observed native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis. "Varroa have been reported as feeding on larvae of these and other critters--but not successfully reproducing on them. Also bumble bees and yellowjackets typically overwinter as hibernating queens not as perennial colonies like honey bees. Thus they are not suitable hosts for Varroa."
Extension apiculturist emeritus Eric Mussen says that bees other than honey bees aren't reproductive hosts for the varroa mite.
"As far as I know, Varroa destructor may be able to find soft areas of the exoskeleton of insects other than honey bees and feed on them," he says. "I have no idea whether or not the substitute hemolymph would sustain the mites for very long. The mites have practically no digestive capabilities. They simply utilize the previously-synthesized bee blood, to which they seem to be perfectly adapted."
"Since the mites reproduce on honey bee pupae, there are a number of considerations about potential other reproductive hosts," Mussen said, citing:
- Are the nutrients of the substitute host close enough to those of honey bees to support immature mite development?
- Can immature mites that develop properly at honey bee cell environmental conditions (temperature and relative humidity) find a similar environment in the nests of other insects?
- Do other insects tolerate the presence of mites on their bodies or in their brood nests?
Like honey bees, bumble bees do segregate their pupae in single cells, Mussen says, but he was unable to find any studies devoted to whether bumble bee pupal conditions support Varroa destructor reproduction.
Sounds like a good research project!
That's the message we've all been waiting for.
Several of us bumble bee enthusiasts--Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, photographers Allan Jones and Gary Zamzow of Davis, and yours truly--have been searching for the first bumble bee of the year since...well...Jan. 1.
We've been hanging out near manzanita bushes, knowing that this is usually the place to find newly emerged bumble bees this time of year.
So today, Jones won. He headed over to "two beautiful manzanitas" near the off-ramps at Russell and Route 113, Davis, and spotted both the yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, and the three-banded bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus. He captured these images (below) at noon.
"I believe they are also at Hutchinson and 113, but I did not need to go that far," Jones mentioned. "The bees seemed very wary and were high overhead so I was only able to get record shots."
Good job, Allan! You nailed it!
And just in time for Valentine's Day.
Note: If you want to learn more about bumble bees, check out Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday) both co-authored by Robbin Thorp and other scientists.