If you've ever tried to photograph male long-horned bees, Melissodes agilis, you know how fast they can fly and how quick they can dart.
They fly even faster when they're chasing the females of their species.
It was the last day of June. I was watching the female long-horned bees foraging on the Mexican sunflowers, Tithonia rotundifola, in our garden, and the territorial males targeting all "unwelcomed" visitors (honey bees, carpenter bees, and syrphid flies) and chasing prospective mates.
The University of California-affiliated authors of the book, California Bees and Blooms: A Buide For Gardeners and Naturalists, say it well: They "fly wildly around gardens looking for mates and stop occasionally to take a sip of nectar from flowers."
Yes, they do fly wildly--and you need a fast shutter speed to photograph them.
I set the shutter-speed of my camera, a Nikon D500 with a 200mm macro lens, at 1/8000 of a second. Other settings: f-stop 5, and ISO, 800.
Here they come! There they go.
Where DID they go?
At 1/8000 of a second, you can stop the action. You can stop time. You cannot, however, stop a determined suitor from chasing a mate. They don't slow down.
Ready or not, here I come!
"Wait, can you slow down a bit?" I ask. "I can't focus when you move so fast!"
No, sorry! I'm in a hurry!
Anthophora urbana, a solitary, ground-nesting bee, frequents our garden to forage on the catmint (Nepeta) and lavender (Lavandula). This bee is also called an urbane digger bee (see BugGuide.net).
This one encountered a honey bee, partly obscured by the foliage, but neither seemed bothered.
California is home to more than 1600 wild bees, including A. urbana, according to the University of California-authored book, California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday). They "populate and pollinate our gardens, fields, and urban green spaces," the authors say.
That they do. And there's a very good reason why this bee is photographed more often on flowers than in flight.
Sorry, I'm in a hurry!
Seen any bumble bees lately?
No? Me, neither.
It's almost the first day of spring, and bumble bees are as scarce as the proverbial hen's teeth. (Hens have no teeth, y'know.)
We've been watching our nectarine tree bloom. It's drawing honey bees, but no bumble bees.
Back on March 18, 2018, we spotted a number of bumble bees, including Bombus melanopygus, also known as the black-tailed bumble bee. This is one of the 27 species of bumble bees in California. We frequently see the yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, and sometimes Bombus californicus, aka the California bumble bee.
Our March 18, 2018 "poster child" on our nectarine tree, Bombus melanopygus, appeared to be nesting nearby, due to her frequent visits.
National Public Radio reported on Feb. 6, 2020 that bumble bees are declining because of the extreme heat: "Extreme temperatures are driving a dramatic decline in bumble bees across North America and Europe, according to a new study, in yet another way climate change is putting ecosystems at risk.
"Researchers looked at half a million records showing where bumble bees have been found since 1901, across 66 different species. They found that in places where bumblebees have lived in North America, you're about half as likely to see one today. The decline is especially pronounced in Mexico, where bumble bees once lived in abundance."
Pesticides and habitat loss are also key factors. Says National Geographic in a Feb. 6, 2020 article titled Bumble Bees Are Going Extinct in a Time of 'Climate Chaos': "Climate change is not the only factor behind the insects' decline. They are also threatened by pesticides like neonicotinoids—which are extremely toxic to all bees—destruction of habitat by development and conversion of wildlands into agriculture, the spread of pathogens, and the release of non-native bees for commercial pollination."
If you're interested in learning more about bumble bees, check out the book, California Bees and Blooms: a Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, the work of UC Davis and UC Berkeley scientists, including Robbin Thorp (1933-2019), distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, who also co-authored Bumble Bees of North America: an Identification Guide.
And if you see any bumble bees in your backyard in your yard between July 23 and Aug. 1, join the Third Annual Backyard Bumble Bee Count at https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/backyard-bumble-bee-count
As inaturalist.org says on its website: "Each bumble bee record submitted during the Backyard Bumble Bee Count helps researchers learn more about how bumble bees are doing and how to protect them and the environment we share. All observations collected July 23- August 1 will be included. For more information, including instructions, go to: https://backyardbbcount.wixsite.com/bumblebeecount."
Have you ever pulled up a chair in your garden and watched honey bees foraging?
They are so intent on their "bees-ness" that they don't know you're there. It's a great opportunity to photograph them.
Sometimes, if you're lucky, they'll buzz over your head on their way back to their colony, and you'll see:
- The three main body parts: head, thorax and abdomen
- The two pairs of wings
- The three pairs of legs
- The pair of antennae
Such was the case in Vacaville this week when we were watching honey bees forage in our African blue basil, a bee magnet that we plant annually. We first learned of African blue basil, (Ocimum kilimandscharicum × basilicum 'Dark Opal'), through Gordon Frankie, UC Berkeley professor and the late Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis. They co-authored the book, California Bees and Blooms: a Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday Books) with Rollin Coville and Barbara Ertter, also affiliated with UC Berkeley.
Want to know more about honey bees? Be sure to read the newly published The Art of the Honey Bee; Shaping the Environment from Landscapes to Societies (Oxford University Press) by noted bee geneticist and biologist Robert E. Page Jr., who maintains strong ties to UC Davis and Arizona State University (ASU). Also learn about honey bee anatomy on ASU's web page, "Ask a Biologist."
Page, who holds a doctorate in entomology from UC Davis, is a former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. In 2004, Arizona State University (ASU) recruited him for what would become a series of top-level administrative roles. He advanced from director of the School of Life Sciences to dean of Life Sciences; vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and university provost. Today he holds the titles of provost emeritus of ASU and Regents professor emeritus, as well as UC Davis department chair emeritus, professor emeritus, and UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor.
Did you know a bee has a tool kit? Page lists the tool kit in his book, The Art of the Bee: a compass, an odometer and a path integrator.
'As 'central place foragers,' bees fly out from the nest site and explore the surrounding environment in search of food resources," writes Page, renowned for his research on honey bee behavior and population genetics, particularly the evolution of complex social behavior. "They return to the nest with the resources they collect. To do this, they need to be able to navigate out and find their way back. To aid them, they have a toolkit of navigation mechanisms."
One tool in their tool kit is their internal compass that depends on the location of the sun.
"As light from the sun passes through the atmosphere, it becomes polarized," Page writes. "The pattern of polarized light in the sky depends on the angle of the sun relative to where you are looking. Bees have special sensors in their eyes for detecting the polarized light patterns. On cloudy days, they can't see the sky; but they can still locate the sun using ultraviolet light detectors. Ultraviolet light penetrates cloud cover, allowing bees to use the location of the sun as a navigational marker. With heavy clouds, bees can get to and from a resource by relying solely on landmarks that they learn; otherwise, they stay home until the weather changes. However, as the earth turns, the sun is always changing location relative to the horizon, making it an unreliable marker unless you know the time of day, and bees do. They learn the movement of the sun across the sky and reference it to an internal clock. We know they have the clock because we can train them to forage at specific times of day. If you anesthetize a bee, you can stop her clock. When she awakens and takes a foraging trip to a learned foraging station, her flight path will be offset by the amount of time lost. In other words, she will misinterpret the direction based on the current location of the sun by the amount of time she was anesthetized."
"The odometer plus the ability to determine a flight vector (direction and distance) from a given landmark along a resource flight path, using their sun compass and internal clock, give bees the basic tools for navigation," Page writes. "The last tool in the toolkit is a path integrator that combines the compass and odometer information."
It's a fascinating book by Page, whose most salient contributions to science include constructing the first genomic map of the honey bee, which sparked a variety of pioneering contributions not only to insect biology but to genetics at large.
Meanwhile, take the challenge. Pull up a chair in your garden and watch and photograph the bees going about their "bees-ness."
Have you ever seen a bumble bee sleeping?
If you slip out to your garden at night or early morning, you might find the male bumble bees asleep in, on or around the flowers.
The yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, frequents our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. By day, the bumble bees nectar on African blue basil, Mexican sunflower, lavender, salvia, foxgloves, catmint, honeysuckle, milkweed, California golden poppies and the like. Then at night, when the females return to their nests, the males find a cozy place to sleep.
They may cushion their heads on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) or straddle a lavender (Lavendula), holding on with their legs or mandibles.
Oftentimes they'll sleep safely and securely inside a flower that closes at night, such as a California poppy or a torch cactus.
Our Bombus residents seem to prefer the Mexican sunflowers and lavender.
Nighty-night. Sleep tight. Don't let the praying mantids and spiders bite.
Interested in bumble bees? Be sure to read the landmark book, California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday Press). the work of UC-affiliated authors Gordon Frankie, (the late) Robbin Thorp, Rollin E. Coville, and Barbara Ertte.
Thorp (1933-2019), a distinguished emeritus professor with the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, also co-authored Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press).