Well, weather permitting, you can begin searching for the first bumble bee of the year in the two-county area of Yolo and Solano. If you photograph it and you are judged the winner, a prize awaits you--in addition to bragging rights.
The third annual Robbin Thorp Memorial First-Bumble Bee-of-the-Year Contest will begin at 12:01, Jan. 1. The first person to photograph a bumble bee in the two-county area and email it to the sponsor, the Bohart Museum of Entomology, will receive a coffee cup designed with the endangered Franklin's bumble bee, the bee that Thorp monitored on the California-Oregon border for decades.
Contest coordinator Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and a UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology, said the image must be taken in the wild and emailed to email@example.com, with the time, date and place.
The contest memorializes Professor Thorp (1933-2019), a global authority on bees and a UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor of entomology, who died June 7, 2019 at age 85. A 30-year member of the UC Davis faculty, he retired in 1994 but continued working until several weeks before his death. Every year he looked forward to seeing the first bumble bee in the area.
The black-tailed bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus, is usually the first bumble bee to emerge in this area, Thorp used to say. It forages on manzanitas, wild lilacs, wild buckwheats, lupines, penstemons, clovers, and sages, among others.
Two scientists shared the 2022 prize: UC Davis doctoral candidate Maureen Page of the Neal Williams lab, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, and horticulturist Ellen Zagory, retired director of public horticulture for the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. They each photographed a bumble bee foraging on manzanita (Arctostaphylos) in the 100-acre Arboretum at 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 1.
Page photographed a black-tailed bumble bee, B. melanopygus, while Zagory captured an image of the yellow-faced bumble bee, B. vosnesenskii.
Fittingly, they both knew and worked with Thorp, a tireless advocate of pollinator species protection and conservation and the co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University, 2014) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday, 2014).
This marked the second consecutive win for a member of the Williams lab. Postdoctoral researcher Charlie Casey Nicholson of the Williams lab and the Elina Lastro Niño lab, won the 2021 contest by photographing a Bombus melanopygus at 3:10 p.m., Jan. 14 in a manzanita patch in the Arboretum.
Both Page and Nicholson are alumni of The Bee Course, which Thorp co-taught from 2002-2018. Page completed the course in 2018, and Nicholson in 2015. The nine-day intensive workshop, geared for conservation biologists and pollination ecologists and considered the world's premiere native bee biology and taxonomic course, takes place annually in Portal, Ariz., at the Southwestern Research Station, part of the American Museum of Natural History, N.Y.
In July 2016, Page participated in a "Bumble Bee Blitz" organized by Thorp and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Mt. Ashland, where, she said, "we searched for Bombus franklini and Bombus occidentalis--two very rare west coast bee species. We unfortunately did not find B. franklini, which is now recognized as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.”
The prized coffee cup features an image of the bee specimen, photographed by Bohart scientist Brennen Dyer, now collections manager, and designed by UC Davis doctoral alumnus Fran Keller, a professor at Folsom Lake College. Previous winners are ineligible to win the prize.
Origins of the Contest. The contest actually originated in 2012 as a little rivalry between the late Professor Thorp and his "posse"--three of his bumble bee aficionados: Allan Jones and Gary Zamzow of Yolo County and yours truly of Solano County.
The Davis folks (Yolo County posse) looked for them in the manzanita bushes in the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. Me? As the sole member of the Solano County posse, I headed over to Benicia to the marina and to the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park grounds. I always see them in December and/or January foraging near the marina on rosemary, and on oxalis, rosemary and jade on or near the state capitol grounds. And once on a rose in downtown Benicia.
In 2017, Jones found both a female and male in the Arboretum. At 2:02 on Jan. 27 to be exact. "After finding and photographing two males just east of the Arboretum's redwood grove, he spotted and photographed a female just west of it," we wrote on our Bug Squad blog.
"Surprising to see males this early in the season," Thorp told us. "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," the professor told Jones, "you got two firsts for the season at one time."
"I'd pat myself on the back if I were more flexible," Jones replied.
Pats are good. So is the prized coffee cup that awaits the 2023 winner.
California's almond pollination season typically starts in mid-February, around Valentine's Day, but along the Benicia waterfront, the almond trees sometimes blossom as early as Jan. 1.
The climate is warm and temperate. The bees are hungry, eager to leave their hives to gather pollen and nectar for their colonies. The blossoms beckon. Bees and almonds. Almonds and bees. The Almond Board of California calls it "Nature's perfect duo."
"When almonds trees bloom, bees get their first food source from our orchards' nutritious pollen," according to its website. "While bees are only with us for two months of the year as they pollinate the crop, we work to support their health for all twelve."
We stopped by Matthew Turner Shipyard Park in Benicia last Sunday morning just to see bees at work.
Nature's pastel paintings--the serenity of the pinkish-white blossoms, the soul of the blue sky, the sound of the water, and the spirit of the bees.
This is the real almond joy.
What does science tell us about this?
In a recently published EurekAlert news story, titled "Research Reveals Why Plant Diversity Is So Important for Bee Diversity," researchers at the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex, related that bumble bees have distinct advantages of honey bees.
"In the study, published in the journal Ecology, the researchers used stopwatches to determine how many flowers a bee visited in one minute," according to the news release. "Using a portable electronic balance to weigh each bee, researchers found that, on average, bumble bees are almost twice as heavy as the honey bees. This means that they use almost twice as much energy as honey bees. The stopwatch results showed that they visit flowers at twice the rate of honey bees, which compensate in terms of energy efficiency."
Bumble bees dominated on such species as lavender and "were visiting flowers at almost three times the rate of honey bees."
"While they forage on the same flowers, frequently we find that bumble bees will outnumber honey bees on a particular flower species, while the reverse will be true on other species growing nearby," said Professor Francis Ratnieks. "What was remarkable was that differences in foraging energy efficiency explained almost fully why bumble bees predominated on some flower species and honey bees on others."
The professor said that in essence, "bumble bees have an advantage over honey bees in being faster at visiting flowers, so can gather more nectar (energy), but a disadvantage in being larger, and so using more of the nectar energy to power their foraging. On some flower species this gave an overall advantage to bumble bees, but on others to honey bees."
(The late Robbin Thorp (1933-2019), distinguished emeritus professor at UC Davis and a global bumble bee expert, told us that bumble bees are earlier risers than honey bees and can forage at lower temperatures. He co-authored Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday Press).
The Sussex researchers studied 22 flower species in southern England and analyzed the behavior of more than 1000 bees. They found that "energy efficiency" is a key factor when it comes ot mediating competition.
"Bee body weight and the rate at which a bee visits flowers determine how energy efficient they are when foraging," according to the news article. "Body weight determines the energy used while flying and walking between flowers, with a bee that is twice as heavy using twice as much energy. The rate at which a bee visits flowers, the number of flowers per minute, determines how much nectar, and therefore energy, it collects. Together, the ratio of these factors determines bee foraging energy efficiency. On some flower species such as lavender, bumble bees dominated and were visiting flowers at almost three times the rate of honeybees."
The researchers said that energy (provided by nectar for bees) is a fundamental need, but the fact that honey bees and bumble bees do not compete head on for nectar is reassuring in terms of conservation and co-existence.
As Ratnieks explained: "Bumble bees have a foraging advantage on some plants, and predominate on them, while honey bees have an advantage on others and predominate on these. Bee conservation therefore benefits from flower diversity, so that should certainly be a focus on bee conservation efforts. But fortunately, flowering plants are diverse."
The abstract in Ecology:
"Revitalizing our understanding of species distributions and assembly in community ecology requires greater use of functional (physiological) approaches based on quantifiable factors such as energetics. Here, we explore niche partitioning between bumble and honey bees by comparing a measure of within‐patch foraging efficiency, the ratio of flower visitation rate (proportional to energy gain) to body mass (energy cost). This explained a remarkable 74% of the variation in the proportions of bumble to honey bees across 22 plant species and was confirmed using detailed energy calculations. Bumble bees visited flowers at a greater rate (realizing greater energy benefits) than honey bees, but were heavier (incurring greater energy costs) and predominated only on plant species where their benefit : cost ratio was higher than for honey bees. Importantly, the competition between honey bees and bumble bees had no consistent winner, thus highlighting the importance of plant diversity to the coexistence of competing bees. By contrast, tongue : corolla‐tube‐length ratio explained only 7% of the variation (non‐significant). Our results confirm the importance of energetics in understanding community ecology and bee foraging niche and highlight the energetic tightrope navigated by foraging bees, since approximately half the nectar energy gained was expended in its collection."
Bumble bees foraging on almond blossoms.
Make that the yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, in Benicia.
Sunday morning as the temperatures soared to 62 degrees in the Matthew Turner Park, Benicia, near the Carquinez Straits, bumble bees competed with honey bees for a share of the golden nectar on the blossoming almond trees.
We witnessed near collisions as lumbering bumble bees lugged incredibly heavy loads while their more streamlined cousins, the honey bees, darted, ducked and dipped to avoid them. Definitely a need for air traffic controllers!
"Bumble bee, bumble bee, cleared for take-off."
"Honey bee, honey bee, stand by."
"Bumble bee, bumble bee, permission to land."
"Honey bee, honey bee, exit runway."
"Bumble bee, bumble bee, line up and wait."
"Honey bee, honey bee, cleared for take-off."
What a sight to see and what a beauty of a day to see bumble bees in Benicia.
Bring on the bumble bees!
In yesterday's Bug Squad blog, we mentioned the unusual first-of-the-year bumble bee sightings at the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park. We captured images of the yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, nectaring on jade, Crassula ovata, the morning of Jan. 1, 2018. They were packing cream-colored pollen.
Bombus vosnesenskii were also out and about at the Benicia Marina--same morning, same day--but on a different floral species: rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis. This flower, too, yields a cream-colored pollen.
But wait! The bumble bees we saw foraging on the rosemary were packing orange pollen, as bright as Halloween pumpkins.
What happened? They didn't get it from the rosemary. It came from another plant, perhaps the early blooming California golden poppies which yield orange pollen (and no nectar).
Rosemary, which blooms nearly year-around in this area, belongs to the mint family, Lamiaceae, which also includes peppermint, spearmint, basil, lavender, marjoram, germander, thyme, savory, and horehound. One of the distinguishing features in this family: square stems.
When you think about it, rosemary's presence at the marina is quite appropriate. It derives its name from the Latin "dew" (ros) and "sea" (marinus), or "dew of the sea."