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."
Today (Labor Day) began just like any other day.
And it ended just like any other day, except for the Labor Day celebrations that we humans plan.
For Nature's predators and prey that frequent our garden, however, it was an intertwining of life and death.
A western spotted orb weaver, Neoscona oaxacensis, spun a web on our tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii, and snagged, killed and wrapped a honey bee. Using the web as its lifeline, it tugged the bee into the shadows to eat it, undisturbed.
The tower of jewels, in bloom now for five months, looks like a tower of bees when the honey bees, syrphid flies, and carpenter bees share it. The plant is looking a little ragged now--it's going to seed--but it's still producing spectacular reddish-pink blossoms.
The spiders know where to spin their webs. They will be back tomorrow, as will the honey bees.
The 40 mile-per-hour howling wind didn't seem to bother the syrphid fly, aka hover fly and flower fly.
It clung to a blossom on the tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii, and proceeded to nectar. Its wings sparkled in the morning sun.
This is a pollinator and one that's often mistaken for a honey bee.
A honey bee it isn't. It's a fly.
If you want to read more about them, be sure to check out entomologist Robert Bugg's UC ANR publication, Flower Flies (Syrphidae) and Other Biological Control Agents for Aphids. Click on the link for access to a free 25-page PDF.
When there's so much pain, grief and sorrow in the world, it's time to shut off the TV, log off the computer, exit the house, and photograph honey bees.
Watching honey bees foraging in the tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii, is therapy enough. They are sisters, sisters with a job to do, and so little time to do it. Buzzing from one blossom to another, gathering nectar and pollen, they are a symphony of color, grace and sound, unlike the cacophony that savagely screams from the 10 o'clock news.
"The murmuring hum of bees on a warm afternoon is surely part of everyone's mental picture of a perfect summer day," write Christopher O'Toole and Anthony Raw in their book, Bees of the World. "But that relentless hum, soporific perhaps, to the idling human, is in reality the produce of a machine-like urge to work--to work against the clock of the seasons, to gather enough pollen and nectar before the weather breaks, before the blooms fade."
What they do every day is for the greater good--the good of the colony. They set an example that the human race should follow.
Yet the winter of 2012-2013 may prove to be the worst yet for the declining bee population, according to Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology.
Meanwhile, we all need to bee-lieve that the worst is over.
In more ways than one.