Several UC Davis bumble bee enthusiasts--encouraged by native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor of entomology--compete every January to find the first bumble bee of the year in Yolo and Solano counties.
It's a friendly competition. Gamers include Allan Jones, Gary Zamzow, both of Davis, and yours truly.
We have a winner!
On Thursday, Jan. 10 doctoral student Kim Chacon photographed a black-tailed bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus, on manzanita blossoms in the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden.
What a delightful find! And in between the rain drops!
This species is native to western North America, ranging from California to British Columbia and as far east as Idaho. It's commonly found on manzanitas, wild lilacs, wild buckwheats, lupines, penstemons, clovers, and sages, among others.
Chacon actually spotted an earlier bumble bee on Jan. 9 at 2:10 p.m. in the UC Davis Arboreutm, but had only her cell phone with her that day. It was a Bombus melanopygus on Arbutus in the Ericaceae section.
She captured some images with her cell phone, but "there was a big downpour about 15 minutes and I didn't bring my good camera, so I went home for the day. I know from my research that this particular location in the Arboretum is a hot spot for bees. The banks and flowering vegetation get plenty of sun. There are three possible spots in the Arboretum, according to my research, and this one had blooming flowers first."
But on Jan. 10, "I woke up determined to get good photos with my good camera!" She walked over to the Ericaceae section again in the Arboretum and spotted a Bombus melanopygus at 3:58 p.m. (See photos below)
Chacon, a UC Davis PhD student in geography, studies "habitat connectivity issues for bees at a landscape scale."
"Lack of habitat connectivity is listed as the main reason for native bee declines and yet, thus far solutions only include stand alone gardens, with randomly spaced unspecified plant species," she commented. "A spatial habitat problem such as destruction and fragmentation needs a spatial solution. I am working on solving this complex problem with the help of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Part of my research involved weekly monitoring bee visitation of bees throughout the UC Davis Arboretum for one full year. I learned about the trends of bee-flower visitation within each unique themed garden, specifically, how they function as novel ecosystems. When I graduate I hope to design effectively connected landscape habitat for bees. I would also love to design educational gardens, showcasing bee diversity!"
Chacon is a 2018 alumnus of The Bee Course, a nine-day intensive workshop affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History and held annually at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz. It's offered for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists, and other biologists who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees. This year's dates are Aug. 18-28, and the deadline to apply is March 1, 2019.
Thorp is one of the veteran instructors of The Bee Course; he has taught there annually since 2002. A member of the UC Davis entomology faculty from 1964 to 1994 and internationally recognized for his expertise on bees, he achieved "distinguished emeritus professor" status in 2015. He co-authored the UC California book, California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday) and Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press).
Thorp continues his research, writings and bee identification at his office in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis.
It was the morning of Jan. 1, 2018, a year and four days ago.
While strolling the grounds of the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, we captured images of yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, nectaring on jade, Crassula ovata. They were packing cream-colored pollen from the jade. The same day, we spotted the same species nectaring on rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, by the Benicia marina, but packing orange pollen, probably from the nearby California golden poppies.
Thus began our Year of the Insects.
So far this year, we haven't spotted a single bumble bee in Solano or Yolo counties. It's too early in the season (except for hot spots in Benicia, Solano County, where even some almond trees bloom on Jan. 1!)
Nowadays, though, the talk isn't just about "bumble Bees," the insect, but "Bumblebee," the movie, as in the 2018 American science fiction action film. It's about a Transformers' character of the same name, described as "battle-scarred and broken."
Why is the insect spelled "bumble bee," two words? The Entomological Association of America (ESA), in its newsletter, Entomology Today, explains: "...entomologists use two words if a common name accurately describes the order to which a particular insect belongs. For example, all true flies belong to the order Diptera, so true fly names will be spelled using two words by entomologists--house fly, horse fly, pigeon fly, or stable fly, for example. However, despite their names, dragonflies and butterflies are NOT true flies --their orders are Odonata and Lepidoptera, respectively — so they are spelled as one word." (Check out the ESA Comman Names of Insects Database.)
So there you have it: bumble bee, the insect, and Bumblebee, the movie.
And sometimes there's a serendipity moment when the two meet.
We remember back in April of 2017 when native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Nematology and Nematology, was displaying bumble bees at a Bohart Museum of Entomology open house.
Thorp, a global authority on bumble bees, is the author of Bumble Bees of North America: an Identification Guide (Princeton University) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday).
So was he ever surprised when in a defining moment, 6-year-old Adne Burruss of Irvine (his mother, Sigrid, is a geneticist and UC Davis alumna) walked up to him wearing a Bumblebee t-shirt. Adne wanted to look at the "other" bumble bees.
So do we! So do we!
Sometimes they barely notice you.
Such was the case of a yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, spotted on our Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a bee worth?
If you want to learn more about bumble bees, be sure to check out the landmark book, Bumble Bees of North America, an Identification Guide, co-authored by our own Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis. It's the first comprehensive guide to North American bumble bees to be published in more than a century.
Thorp is one of the veteran instructors at The Bee Course, held annually at the Southwestern Research Station in Portal, Ariz. This year's course is Aug. 20-30. (The deadline to apply was March 1.) It's a nine-day intensive workshop offered for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists, and other biologists "who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees."
The Anise Swallowtail, Papilio zelicaon, fluttered into our pollinator garden and headed straight for the Verbena.
Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, identified the gender: "it's a girl."
The Anise Swallowtail, our first sighting of the season, bypassed the butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii.
But she'll be back--hopefully to gather some more nectar and lay her eggs on our fennel.
The Verbena patch was a little too populated for her liking--honey bees and yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, wanted their share of the nectar, too.
"The Anise Swallowtail is a complex set of ecological races, or 'ecotypes,' whose seasonality has been adjusted by natural selection to match that of their host plants," says Shapiro on his research website. He's studied butterfly populations in central California since 1972.
"In multivoltine populations the spring brood is typically small, pale, heavily marked with blue and with narrow dark borders on all wings. Summer individuals are larger, with richer yellow color, broader black borders and little or no blue in males. Univoltine populations tend to be intermediate between these extremes. The small larvae resemble bird droppings. Large larvae are pale green with black bands containing orange spots; in hot, dry sites there is more green and less black, while under cool, humid conditions the green may even disappear! The pupae may be brown or green."
Read more about the swallowtail, including its food sources, on Shapiro's web page.
Meanwhile, whether you see your first Anise Swallowtail of the season or the last of the season, you'll want to see more of this yellow-mellow butterfly!
It was billed as the second annual Butterfly Summit, hosted last Saturday by Annie's Annuals and Perennials in Richmond.
But a yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, foraging on Anchusa azurea (a member of the borage family), apparently didn't like the focus on butterflies.
Butterfly Summit? How about a Bumble Bee Summit?
For several minutes, we watched this industrious bumble bee zip in and out of the Anchusa. It zig-zagged between a Delphinium Cobalt Dreams and a Linaria triornithophora, Three-Birds Flying.
With her heavy load of orange pollen, she appeared to be bogged down, perhaps too heavy to fly?
We remember National Public Radio running a piece on "Heavy Loads of Pollen May Shift Flight Plans of the Bumble Bee," which aired in August of 2015. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce drew attention to research by biologist Andrew Mountcastle of Harvard University, work published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Despite what you may have heard, bumble bees do not defy the laws of physics when they fly," Greenfieldboyce related.
Fact is, they just fly differently than airplanes. "They flap their wings, and their wings bend and twist as they flap them," Mountcastle told her. He said that when bumble bees carry a pollen load, rather than a nectar load, "they are more stable, but less maneuverable in flight."
Bottom line: bumble bees are very good at flying, even when they're loaded with cargo (pollen).