The Echium wildpretii is commonly known as "The Tower of Jewels" but it ought to be known as "The Tower of Beauty."
That's especially when honey bees gather to collect the blue pollen and sip the sweet nectar.
Or when their wings glisten in the early morning sun.
Or when it's National Pollinator Week.
In our family, we call it "The Christmas Tree" due to two reasons: its height (it's as tall as a Christmas tree) and due to its spiked red blossoms, the color of Christmas.
The plant, in the family Boraginaceae, is biennial and it can reach 10 feet in height. You often see its purple-spiked cousin, the Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) growing wild in Sonoma, along the roads to Bodega Bay.
The species is endemic to the island of Tenerife. There they call it "Tenerife bugloss."
Whatever you call the plant, it's good to see it racing up the popularity scale as gardeners seek it for their pollinator gardens. There's even a Facebook page, "We got an Echium through the winter."
Common question: "Anyone got seeds for sale?'
Echium wildpretii is that pretty.
If any insect should be the "cover girl" during National Pollinator Week, it ought to be the honey bee (Apis mellifera)
Specifically, it should be the worker bee, although the queen bee and drones (males) have their place, too.
But it's the worker bee, the forager, that basically works herself to death. She's out gathering nectar, pollen, propolis and water for her colony. She never calls in sick. She never punches a time card. She never protests. As soon as the temperature hits around 55 degrees, she leaves the warmth of the hive to go to work.
She might not return. She may run into pesticides, pests or predators (think spiders, praying mantids, wasps, birds and the like). She may wind up spending the night on a lavender blossom when it's too cold or too dark to return to the hive. She may have to fly five miles on ragged wings and in ragged weather carrying a load heavier than she is.
Once inside, she shares her bounty with the colony. She dances to let her sisters know where she found it. This isn't America's Got Talent--these dances are not for money or fame, but for purpose. "Hey, I just found a large quantity of lavender about two miles away. It's great quality. Let's go get more."
Her weapon is her stinger, but she uses that only in defense of the hive, or when something crushes her (like a human being that accidentally steps on her). She can't be compared to an assault weapon such as an AR-15 that can shoot 25 rounds in 2.5 seconds. One sting and she dies. One barbed sting and it's all over for her.
And she's beautiful, whether she's golden, light brown or gray-black.
The Journal of Economic Entomology, published by the Entomological Society of America, graced its June cover with a honey bee. It's of a forager heading toward a tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii). The background: I captured the image several years ago in my pollinator garden in Vacaville, as I watched, awestruck, as the worker bees turned the tower of jewels into a buzzing tower of bees. Oh, sure, bumble bees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees, sweat bees, syrphids, butterflies and hummingbirds were working the blossoms, too, but it was this determined worker bee that caught my eye.
She probably died several weeks after that flight photo. Honey bees live only four to six weeks during the busy season. The queen bee, an egg-laying machine that can pump out 2000 eggs a day, quickly replaced her.
For a moment, though, as the bee headed for the tower of jewels, time stopped. The worker bee did not.
Happy National Pollinator Week!
Doom or gloom? Boom or bloom?
Today is Earth Day, and millions of folks around the world stopped--at least for a moment--to pay tribute to the 46th annual observance. They planted trees, weeded their gardens, greeted pollinators, or just thought about environmental issues.
Every Earth Day, we pay special attention to the tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii). The biannual, native to the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco, is a favorite in pollinator gardens, including ours. Seven feet tall and graced with pinkish blossoms splashed with blue pollen, it lives up to its name...tower of jewels.
Then it morphs into a tower of bees. Hello, honey bees, bumble bees, sweat bees and carpenter bees.
As they dive in, will they not only survive but thrive? If we each do our part, we can help the pollinators thrive.
Happy Earth Day!
We have this tall plant in our back yard.
How tall is it?
Tall enough to give weather forecasts. (It's never caught “short” by a sudden storm.)
Tall enough to see over the neighbor's fence to find a missing ball.
Tall enough to be "the resident tall plant" in the garden (sort of like "the resident tall person" in the office who's asked to change the clocks when Daylight Savings Time ends or begins).
Tall enough to be called a “tower.”
Tall enough to be prohibited from taking a short course.
Tall enough to have strawberry longcake instead of strawberry shortcake.
Tall enough to dunk if it were an NBA player.
It's THAT tall.
The "tower of jewels," appropriately named, can tower up to 10 feet or so. It doesn't stop short of growing.
When in full bloom, it's covered with red blossoms that resemble a decorated Christmas tree. It's a member of the Boraginaceae family, andeven boasts a scientific name that has "pretty" in it. Sort of. It's Echium wildpretii and is endemic to the island of Tenerife.
What's really amazing is that the tower of jewels turns into a "tower of bees" when it blooms. It attracts honey bees (check out the blue pollen), carpenter bees and bumble bees, as well as hummingbirds, syrphid flies, and a few spiders.
How grand and glorious can it get? "Wildpretii" grand and glorious.
To bee or not to bee--a photographer.
Capturing images of honey bees is a delightful leisure activity.
You don't have to sign up for a safari on another continent, or invest in thousands of dollars worth of camera gear.
You can do it all in your backyard (especially if you provide bee friendly plants). Or, you can head for a bee garden or park.
Lately, my objects of interest are the honey bees foraging on our tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii). Earlier this spring, five towers of jewels graced our backyard. Now we're down to one; the others are spent. (They're biennuals and have completed their life cycle.) The sole Echium apparently doesn't know it's time to quit; it has been blooming off and on since April.
Which is wonderful for the bees, beekeepers and photographers!
To get photos of honey bees, I don't poke 'em, prod 'em or pin 'em. I don't spray 'em, glue 'em or freeze 'em. The bees do what they do naturally; I am a visitor in their habitat. I quietly pull up a chair--keeping low to the ground and as obscure as possible--and watch them. No, they won't sting you when they're foraging. They are more likely to show defensive behavior when you're too close to their hive entrance (such as blocking their flight path); when you haven't smoked the hive properly; or when you swat at them.
Lighting is everything. Photography, in Greek, means "writing with light" and that's what you do. Write with light. A little backlighting and a honey bee absolutely glows. Adjust your camera settings and you can stop a bee in flight or capture the redness of its tongue (proboscis).
Early in the morning is the best time to photograph bees. Their flight muscles haven't quite warmed up yet; they move at a slower pace; and they linger longer on the blossoms. One of the bees below clung to the same Echium blossom for two hours before it buzzed off.
These photos were all taken around 7 a.m. the same day on the same plant. The tools: a Nikon D800 camera and a 200 mm macro lens.
Cameras are just that--a tool. They don't make the image; the photographer does. Folks who say "You must have a nice camera" don't understand the creative process or the making of an image. They would never tell a gourmet cook "You must have a nice set of pots and pans" or an artist "you must have some nice brushes" or an athlete "You must have a nice pair of shoes."
That being said, bee photography is something each of us can do, each in our own way.
Read your camera manual. Know the settings. Know what your camera can and cannot do. Learn from other photographers. Look at photos in art galleries, in publications, or on the web. Then head out for a bee safari.
On an African safari, you may not find "big game." But on an insect safari, you will always find "little game."