- "I just saw a golden bumble bee. I think it's a new species! Can I name it?"
- "I just saw a huge bee and it's gold in color and all fluffy with green eyes!"
- "I just saw a huge bumble bee flying around in our backyard. It's yellow and I think it's a pest."
It's the male Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, which native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of California, Davis, calls "the teddy bear" bee.
Like all male bees, it doesn't sting.
But what's unusual about this bee is its color, golden with green eyes. It's sexual dimorphism at its best, because the female Valley carpenter bees are solid black.
The Valley carpenter bee is the biggest carpenter bee in California. And it scares the living beejeez (dead beejeez, too) out of young children, teenagers, and adults. Just about everybody and everything, including the family dog and cat.
As Thorp told us several years ago for a news story:
"Xylocopa varipuncta occurs in the Central Valley and southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and southward through Mexico. It is large (about the size of a queen bumble bee), with all black females and golden/buff-colored males with green eyes. Females have dark wings with violet reflections."
Some folks think it's a pest. It's not. It's a pollinator. Let it "bee."
We're accustomed to seeing honey bees pollinating the almonds.
But carpenter bees do, too.
We spotted a female Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, foraging in an almond tree on Feb. 24 in a field adjacent to the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis.
Sounding like a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, this lone carpenter bee buzzed loudly as she visited one blossom after another. She was on a mission: a do-not-linger, do-not-stop-me, and get-out-of-my-way mission.
The Valley carpenter bees, about the size of bumble bees, are the largest carpenter bees in California. The girls are solid black, while the boys are blond with green eyes. We can't count how many times people think the males are "golden bumble bees."
It's rare to get an image of "a blond and a brunette" (male and female) in the same photo. Gary Park, a contributor to BugGuide.net, did just that. Check out his amazing photos of a pair mating.
Carpenter bees derive their name from drilling holes in untreated, unfinished wood to make their nests. Only the females excavate the wood. Contrary to popular opinion, they do not eat the wood. To prevent these bees from nesting in your fence posts or deck, just paint or varnish the wood. We know some folks who like having them around and leave wood untreated and unfinished.
First and foremost, however, carpenter bees are pollinators. Excellent pollinators.
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor entomology at UC Davis, tries to convince people to live with these bees as “they are important pollinators in our environment and have potential as pollinators of some crops.”
There's an old saying that "good things come in threes."
Well, they also come in twos.
When insect photographers manage to get two insects in the same photo, it's a "two-for."
Autumn is in full swing now, and the colder weather is settling in, but insects continue to provide a variety of diverse photo opportunities.
Two of a kind: a pair of mating Gulf Fritillary butterflies on a passionflower vine, two female sweat bees on goldenrod, and two female Valley carpenter bees on a passion flower.
Gulf Fritillary butterflies: Agraulis vanillae.
Sweat bees: Halictus ligatus.
Valley carpenter bees: Xylocopa varipuncta.
But if you look closely, there are three insects in the Valley carpenter bee photo. The other is a Gulf Fritillary caterpillar.
Good things come in threes, too.
University of Minnesota honey bee researcher Marla Spivak, in her TED talk on honey bee health, referred to bees as "flower feeders."
That they are. Flower feeders.
As are other pollinators from butterflies to beetles to bats.
But it's a special treat to see butterflies, honey bees and carpenter bees sharing blossoms of the same plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora).
Several years ago a UC Davis professor planted a fenceline of passionflower vines at her residence off east Covell Boulevard, Davis. This year she is reaping her reward: Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), honey bees and Valley carpenter bees are all over it. Why Gulf Frits? The passionflower vine is their host plant. You can see the entire life cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult in her yard.
The Valley carpenter bees (Xylocopa varipuncta) are frequent foragers, too. The females frighten many people because of their size and loud buzz. They're a solid black, in sharp contrast to the males, which are golden with green eyes.
We didn't see one predator Thursday in her Davis yard.
In our yard, we have scores of predators on our passionflower vines: scrub jays, European paper wasps, jumping spiders, ladybugs, assassin bugs and an occasional praying mantis. Although the jays pick off the caterpillars from our passionflower vines, they don't seem to go for the adults.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, points to research published in a 2007 edition of the Journal of Chemical Ecology that indicates that the Gulf Fritillary adults are poisonous to birds. A team of scientists from Maryland, Virginia and Georgia wrote in the abstract of their article, “Novel Chemistry of Abdominal Defensive Glands of Nymphalid Butterfly (Agraulis vanillae): “Abdominal defensive glands of both sexes of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly, emit a pronounced odor when disturbed…we suggest that the constituents in the glands may play a defensive role against potential avian predators.”
The article relates that Linnaeus (1758) first described the tropical butterfly and noted that its brilliant coloration of the reddish-orange butterfly makes it conspicuous.
Bees, butterflies and sunflowers at the California State Fair?
The state fair, which opened July 12 and ends July 28, is a good place to see a bee observation hive, honey bees on sunflowers, carpenter bees on petunias, and butterflies in the Insect Pavilion, aka Bug Barn.
If the purpose of a fair is to educate, inform and entertain, then that's what this fair does. A recent stop at the 160th annual fair provided a glimpse of what's going on in the entomological world--and what shouldn't be going on in the petunia patch.
At the California Foodstyles in the Expo Center, beekeeper Doug Houck of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers' Association and his daughter, Rebekah Hough, urged folks to find the queen bee, worker bees and drones in the bee observation hive. Then the fairgoers sampled the honey.
At the Bug Barn, mounted butterflies drew "oohs" and "ahs." Just a few of the butterflies: Monarchs, Western Tiger Swallowtails, Great Purple Hairstreaks, Dusty-Winged Skippers, Red Admirals, and Painted Ladies. The Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis, home of nearly eight million specimens, provided some of the butterflies.
Outside the Insect Pavilion, a garden thrived with tall-as-an-elephant's-eye sunflowers. Honey bees and sunflower bees buzzed among the heads--sunflower heads and fairgoers' heads.
The most disconcerting scene: teenagers screaming when they heard and saw the female Valley carpenter bees nectaring petunias. "Ick, big black bees!" said one as she quickly ran off.
"Carpenter bees," a middle-aged bystander commented dryly as she sauntered off to see the sturgeon display.
Another teenager approached the petunia patch, and she, too, bolted. "They're going to sting me!" she yelled.
It's rather sad that the first reaction on seeing bees in a flower bed is not "pollinator" or "pretty flowers" or "pink petunias" but "sting."
When did "Big Fun" become "Big Scare?"