What was that!
If you grow Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) in your pollinator garden, you've probably noticed the fast-flying longhorned male bees being totally territorial.
Their job is to target whatever's on the Tithonia. It doesn't matter if it's a bumble bee, a honey bee, or a butterfly--it's fair game.
As the late Robbin Thorp (1933-2019), a global expert on bees and a distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, used to say about the male longhorned bees, Melissodes agilis: "They're trying to save the flowers for their own species, per chance to mate with them."
Watching the territorial behavior is jaw-dropping, but imagine if you're a butterfly trying to sip a little nectar.
"Oh no! What was that heading straight at me?"
"Horrors! Here he comes again! Can't a pollinator get a little peace around here?"
The longhorned bee, Melissodes agilis, is just one of the more than 1600 species of bees found in California. If you want to learn more about them, be sure to read California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday, 2014), co-authored by scientists from UC Berkeley and UC Davis.
"California Bees and Blooms (co-authored by Gordon Frankie, Robbin Thorp, Barbara Ertter and Rollin Coville) holds a magnifying glass up to the twenty-two most common genera (and six species of cuckoo bees), describing each one's distinctive behaviors, social structures, flight season, preferred flowers, and enemies," according to Heyday.
That it does. And if you try to stop the action with your camera, it helps to set the shutter speed at 1/3000 to 1/4000 of a second. (The two images of the bee and painted lady butterfly captured with a Nikon D500 camera, mounted with a 70-180 mm macro zoom lens, with the aperture set at 5.6 and ISO at 800. Image of the bee and monarch taken with a Nikon D800 mounted with a 105mm lens, and with similar settings.)
It's always a good day when you encounter a dragonfly on Main Street USA.
Such was the case on Wednesday, July 17 when seemingly out of nowhere, a shiny Tramea lacerata "black saddlebags" appeared in front of me on the sidewalk fronting the Vacaville Chamber of Commerce.
Its habitat is near ponds, lakes, ditches, slow streams, or other bodies of water, but there it was.
"It is a freshly emerged female, probably on its maiden flight," said naturalist Greg Kareofelas of Davis, an associate with the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis. "This is its most vulnerable time. If it gets through the next day or so, off to fast flying it will go and you will never get close to it again."
I gingerly picked it up and photographed it on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). Half an hour later, I witnessed it fly over our fish pond, never to be seen again. At least by me!
This species, found throughout North America, is included in a Bohart Museum's poster, "Dragonflies of California." Designed by Fran Keller (then a doctoral student in entomology at UC Davis and now an assistant professor at Folsom Lake College), with images by Kareofelas, the poster is available in the Bohart Museum's gift shop in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, UC Davis campus.
The black saddlebags dragonfly belongs to the Order Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies), suborder Anisoptera (dragonflies) family Libellulidae (skimmers), genus Tramea (saddlebags) and species lacerata (black saddlebags). "It flies constantly, often gliding, perches infrequently," according to BugGuide.net. The University of Michigan biokids website yields more information.
It's easily distinguishable. Says Wikipedia: "It has distinctive wings with characteristic black blotches" at its proximal ends, "which make the dragonfly look as though it is wearing saddlebags. The black saddlebags is a relatively large dragonfly at about 5 centimeters in length. The body is thin and black, and the female may have lighter spotting or mottling dorsally. The head is much wider than the rest of the body and is dark brown in color...Some populations of this dragonfly undertake migrations. Both the larvae and adult forms are efficient predators of mosquitoes so they are a helpful insect to have in wet areas where mosquito infestations occur." A wonderful predator...
Of predators, sidewalks and black saddlebags...
Boys' Night Out!
Have you ever seen a cluster of longhorned male bees sleeping overnight on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia)?
Every day around sunset, the longhorned bees, probably Melissodes agilis (tribe Eucerini), call it a day and head for their favorite flower (bedroom), which happens to be Tithonia in our pollinator garden in Vacaville. If you grow flowers for the native bees, and you wake up early in the morning before they do, you may see them, too.
The late native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp (1933-2019), distinguished emeritus professor at the University of California, Davis, used to call this behavior "Boys' Night Out."
"Most frequently, the boy bee overnight clusters are single-species clusters," said Thorp, co-author of California Bees and Blooms, a Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, with UC-affiliated authors Gordon Frankie, Rollin E. Coville, and Barbara Ertter. He previously identified some of ours as Melissodes agilis.
In a previous Bug Squad blog, Thorp responded to a reader's inquiry about "stings" from the clustering bees. "Boy bees cannot sting," he pointed out. "They lack a stinger which is a modified ovipositor in their wasp ancestors. Occasionally a girl bee may spend the night out if she is caught by sudden drop in temperature. Usually she will not be part of a group sleep over. So don't attempt to handle unless you are confident you can tell boy bees from girl bees or they are too sleepy to defend themselves."
The reader also asked: "Typically how close to the girls' nest(s) do the boys' slumber? I want to try and make sure I don't touch it when planting at end of summer."
"Boy sleeping aggregations are based on a suitable perch and not related to where females are nesting, but probably no more than 100 yards from the nearest female nest," Thorp answered. "Females nest in the ground and have rather distinctive round holes about the diameter of a pencil or slightly smaller, sometimes with small piles of dirt around them looking like mini-volcanos. The holes may be widely separated or clustered together depending on the species, but each female digs her own burrow."
The reader also wondered: "When watching the boys tonight, about ten of them started waking up and kicking each other. They finally settled down and started to nestle back in for the 'night'--it was only 6 p.m.--but I wasn't sure if my presence was getting them riled or they tend to act like kids sharing a bed?"
Said Thorp: "The boys usually settle in as the light dims in the evening. Cool, and drizzly conditions may modify bed time. Each establishes his own spot, so there may be some jostling for position initially."
Longhorned bees are among the more than 1600 species of undomesticated bees that reside in California. The co-authors of California Bees and Blooms focus on 22 of the most common genera and the flowers they frequent.
"The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough."--Rabindranath Tagore
When we think of orange and autumn, we think of the marriage of the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), and the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
The silver-spangled Gulf Fritillary, a showy orange butterfly, looks like two different species. When it spreads its wings, it's orange. The underwings: silver.
"Dazzling," agrees butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology.
"This dazzling bit of the New World Tropics was introduced into southern California in the 19th Century --we don't know how-- and was first recorded in the Bay Area before 1908, though it seems to have become established there only in the 1950s," he says on his website.
"It can be quite common in the East and South Bay --particularly in Berkeley--and has been found breeding spontaneously as far inland as Fairfield where, however, it is not established. There are scattered records in the Central Valley and even up to Folsom, perhaps resulting from people breeding the species for amusement or to release at social occasions."
The Gulf Frit bred in Sacramento in abundance on Passiflora in the early 1960s, Shapiro relates. "It seems to have died out by the early 1970s, however. Intolerant of hard freezes, it still managed to survive the record cold snap of 1990 that largely exterminated the Buckeye regionally!"
Its host plant: Passiflora or passionflower vine. Plant it and they will come (at least in this area)!
"Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."--Nathaniel Hawthorne
Henrietta, our Stagmomantis limbata praying mantis, perches on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
She is as patient as she is persistent.
The drone fly, aka syrphid and also known as a hover fly or flower fly, makes the fatal mistake of touching down on the same blossom.
Henrietta eyes it hungrily. Faster than a blink of the eye, she snares it, clutching it between her spiked forelegs.
"Well, of course, I like drone flies," she appears to be saying, between mouthfuls. "Thank you for asking."
Praying mantids are not known for their table manners. It's grab, hold and eat.
The cycle of life in the garden.