And the yellow.
On a camping trip last week to Doran Regional Park, Bodega Bay, we admired our neighbors' display of American flags—bordered with a dozen honey bees.
These bees, however, didn't buzz. They spun.
The colorful yellow, black and white mobiles attacked the wind like fierce little windmills, livening up the campground.
“Are you beekeepers?” I asked the neighbor.
“No,” she replied. “We just like bees.”
So did George Washington (1732-1799), the founding father of our country.
Mount Vernon research historian Mary Thompson notes that George Washington was the first U.S. president to keep bees. In Washingtonpapers.org, she writes that his "indentured English joiner," Matthew Baldridge, received 300 nails at the Circle Storehouse on July 28, 1787 "to make a bee house."
"Two days later, Matthew received another 200 nails for the same project," Thompson notes. "In addition to getting honey from his own bees, George Washington is known to have purchased honey, as well as other foodstuffs such as chickens, eggs, vegetables, and fruit from his slaves. Honey, for example, was acquired at various times from Nat (a blacksmith); Davy, who was an enslaved overseer;and carpenters Sambo an Isaac, indicating that they, too, probably kept bees."
Thompson says President Washington also liked cake spread with honey and butter: "A visitor from Poland reported that Washington had “tea and caks (sic) made from maize; because of his teeth he makes slices spread with butter and honey….”
And, according to step-granddaughter Nelly Custis, Washington "ate three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey," and "drank three cups of tea without cream."
The founding father also liked gifts of honey. Knowing his fondness for honey, sister Betty Washington Lewis gifted him with a "large Pot of very fine in the Comb," when the president was recovering from a serious illness.
The Mount Vernon research historian also relates: "At the close of Washington's presidency eight years later, among the many things the family packed to ship back to Mount Vernon from Philadelphia was 'one demijohn with honey.' A demijohn was a very large glass bottle, covered with wickerwork."
Honey for the hoecakes, hoecakes swimming in honey...
For the past three decades, woolly bear caterpillars have accurately predicted a Republican or Democrat win in the U.S. Presidential elections.
This year, despite the pollsters, pundits and political fervor, the woollies again successfully predicted the outcome.
Just as noted UC Davis ecologist Richard “Rick” Karban and his lab prognosticated.
Karban and his fifth-year doctoral student, Eric LoPresti, study the woolly bear caterpillars, which populate the cliffs of the Bodega Marine Reserve, above the Bodega Marine Laboratory, Sonoma County. The fuzzy reddish-black caterpillars, which feed primarily on lupine, are the immature form of the Ranchman's Tiger Moth, Platyprepia virginalis.
Sometimes the population booms; other times, it's a bust, said Karban, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In their 30-year census of the same lupine patch, they noticed that when the population thrives, a Democrat heads to the White House. When the population dives, the Republicans take over.
And why not? “Paul the Octopus had a pretty good run predicting soccer matches in 2012, so perhaps the woolly bears have earned as much credibility at forecasting this presidential election,” Karban said last May.
Although most polls forecast a Democratic win, the UC Davis Woolly Bear Presidential Election Outlook did not.
However, they are not all that pleased with the outcome. “We're kind of bummed,” Karban said. “We didn't want to believe that the woolly bears were predicting a red outcome.”
The scientists, who study insect-plant interactions, first announced their presidential outcome predictions in a poster displayed at the 2014 Ecology Society of America meeting, held in Sacramento. Then this year, on April 25, they expanded on the concept, complete with intricate charts plotted in red and blue, in LoPresti's Natural Musings blog, “The Woolly Bear Presidential Election Outlook 2016,” co-written by scientists in the Karban lab.
“Each March, Karban censuses the same patches of lupine that he has for over 30 years,” LoPresti explained in Natural Musings. “The study asks a vexing question: Why are there are so many caterpillars in some years and so few in others? Many insects, including pests cycle like this, therefore it is of keen interest to many. Dozens of papers later, Karban, his students, and his collaborators have answered a great many questions, including how caterpillars deal with parasites, whether population cycles are influenced by rain, whether caterpillars enjoy eating plant hairs, and how caterpillars avoid their predators.”
The woolly bears, as presidential forecasters, drew national attention. Washington Post reporter Karin Bruilliard ran with it in a piece published April 26: “These Fuzzy Little Caterpillars Are Better at Predicting Elections Than Most Pundits.”
“Who's going to win the presidential election?” Bruilliard asked. “Heck if we know. Try to answer that question without a crystal ball and you'll run head-on into a dizzying array of national polls and state polls, fundraising tables and delegate counts, endorsements and prediction markets.”
LoPresti posted in his Natural Musings blog on April 25 that the woollies “seem to be leaning Republican.”
“Given their (pollsters') wildly erroneous predictions thus far for both primaries, trusting their predictions for the general election seems ill-advised,” LoPresti wrote. “The woolly bears, on the other hand, have a 100% accurate prediction record over the past 30 years. In years of low abundance, a Republican is elected, and in years of high abundance, a Democrat.”
“A superficial examination suggests that 2016 will be a Republican year – woolly bear abundance is not particularly high,” LoPresti noted. “However, looking a little closer, it may not be. The number of woolly bears per lupine bush in 2016 (0.53) is higher than the average Republican year by 152% and is 36% above the highest Republican year ever recorded (1988). However, it is only 27% of an average Democratic year and still only 36% of the lowest Democratic year (2008). This result is without presidential precedent in the last 30 years.”
What about the next presidential election, now that Vice President Joe Biden has indicated he might run?
“The woolly bears have not weighed in on Joe Biden,” Karban said.
Karban, internationally known for his work on plant communication, is the author of the book, Plant Sensing and Communication (University of Chicago Press), hailed as a landmark in its field. He has researched plant communication in sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) on the east side of the Sierra since 1995.
Plants can eavesdrop, sense danger in the environment, and can distinguish friend from foe, Karban says. A plant under a predatory attack will emit volatile chemical cues, enabling its neighboring plants to adjust their defenses to better protect themselves.
Karban is featured in the Dec. 23-30, 2013 edition of The New Yorker in Michael Pollan's piece, “The Intelligent Plant: Scientists Debate a New Way of Understanding Plants."
Ah, the little intricacies of life...
We were walking along a stretch of the coastal town of Bodega Bay when we spotted something we'd never seen before: a bubble on a syrphid fly.
Syrphid flies, also known as hover flies or flower flies, are pollinators, just like honey bees. As floral visitors, syrphids are often mistaken for bees. They're not. They're flies.
But what was the bubble?
Several of our UC Davis entomologists weighed in.
"Weird, I wonder if that's an egg," said one entomologist. "Looks like the ovipositor is extended."
Said another: "If this were a honey bee, I would suggest that you shot your first defecation photo." (Spoken like the true honey bee expert he is!)
And another: "My guess is that droplet is fly (note: brace yourself--here comes the "p" word) poop, composed mostly of digested pollen grains that the flies commonly feed on. If you look closely at the abdomen of these flies, you often see the gut outlined with yellow or orange through the semi-translucent membrane areas of the abdomen due to the pollen they have ingested."
We asked fly expert and senior insect biosystematist Martin Hauser of the California Department of Food and Agriculture's Plant Pest Diagnostic Branch for an I.D. of this syrphid fly. "A female Sphaerophoria," he said.
And, oh, yes, the bubble is not an egg. It's the "p double oh p" word with pollen inside. Hauser pointed out that the eggs are oval and white, so the yellow bubble is not an egg. Check out this photo of syrphid eggs on the bugguide.net website, Hauser said. And here's a image on bugguidenet.com of the syrphid fly ovipositing.
Sounds like a good question for an Entomology 101 quiz...
Or the Linnaean Games...