Take Benicia, Solano County. Its little hot spots near the Carquinez Strait--think trees growing near sun-warmed asphalt--yield early almond blooms, often as early as New Year's Day.
At the Matthew Turner Park in Benicia, today, honey bees buzzed around the almond blossoms, gathering pollen and nectar. But the honey bees were not alone.
Yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, were foraging, too. It's always a treat to see honey bees in the almonds, but it's a double treat to see a bumble bee.
Pollination of California's almond acreage is as intense as it is huge. The 2016 almond acreage totaled 1.2 million acres--940,000 bearing and 300,000 acres non-bearing, according to a report issued in April 2017 by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, in cooperation with the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This year, California has more than a million acres of bearing almonds, and each acre requires two bee hives for pollination. The leading almond-producing counties? Kern, Fresno, Stanislaus, Merced and Madera.
Solano County, of course, doesn't make the list, but when you want to see the early almond blooms, it's the place to "bee."
Which reminds us of the research, Synergistic Effectgs of non-Apis Bees and Honey Bees for Pollination Services, published by an international team of scientists in the Jan. 10, 2013 edition of The Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The researchers, including pollination ecologist Neal Williams of UC Davis, found that honey bees are more effective at pollinating almonds when other species of bees are present.
When blue orchard bees and wild (non-managed) bees such as bumble bees, carpenter bees and sweat bees, are foraging in almonds with honey bees, the behavior of honey bees changes, resulting in more effective crop pollination, said lead author Claire Brittain, then of the Neal Williams lab. She earlier worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany.
“These findings highlight the importance of conserving pollinators and the natural habitats they rely on,” Brittain told us in a news release. “Not only can they play an important direct role in crop pollination, but we also show that they can improve the pollination service of honey bees in almonds.”
Agroecologist Alexandra-Maria Klein, now a professor at Leuphana University, served as the project lead while a postdoctoral fellow in the UC Berkeley lab of conservation biologist/professor Claire Kremen. In fact, Klein and Kremen initiated the project in 2008 and continued working on the project together in 2009 and 2010. Williams joined the team in 2010.
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, now a distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, identified 50 different species that the team found. They included bumble bees, small carpenter bees, sweat bees, digger bees, mining bees and blue orchard bees.
Take a look around you during the almond pollination season. The honey bees are not alone.
Have you ever seen a snakefly?
Not a snake. Not a fly. A snakefly!
They're predators but rarely seen. They eat insects such as aphids and mites. They have a long neck, or technically, an elongated prothorax, their most distinguishing characteristic.
We've seen them sprawled out--quite dead--on our porch lights. And we recently saw one spinning in a spider web in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. Imagine, a predator caught by a predator, in this case an orbweaver.
Snakeflies are fascinating insects. They're in the order Raphidiptera, which is comprised of two families, Raphidiidae and Inocellidae and "consisting of roughly 260 species," according to Wikipedia. "Members of this order have been considered living fossils, as the phenotype of a species from the early Jurassic period (140 million years ago) closely resembles modern-day species."
They certainly do look prehistoric. The order's name? Its derived from the Greek "raphio," meaning needle, and "ptera," meaning "wing."
Washington State University Extension entomologist Arthur Antonelli says in a WSU paper: "Snakeflies occasionally inhabit various area of houses by accident, but mostly live outside on trees. Though seldom seen, these insects are common in wooded areas, usually in association with bark."
Not this time. It bumbled into a spider web stretched between two butterfly bush branches.
So, here I am, an Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) perched on a rose bush in Vacaville, Calif., as dawn breaks. I'm eating aphids and minding my own beetle business, which consists of gobbling aphids and more aphids. And more aphids. Did I say more aphids? More aphids.
Wait, what's that? Something is heading straight toward me, its wings are flapping like crazy. Hey, I was here first. Go away!
Whoa, what are you doing? You've landed and you're licking me. What do you think I am, a honey stick?
That's what happened during a backyard encounter with an Asian lady beetle and a large syrphid fly. The fly, identified by senior insect biosystematist Martin Hauser of the Plant Pest Diagnostic Branch, California Department of Food and Agriculture, is a female Scaeva pyrastri.
Hauser and Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, agreed that the syrphid fly is "going after honeydew on the beetle's head." Honeydew is a sugary, sticky liquid that aphids secrete when they're feeding on plant juices.
"The beetle was full of honeydew from feasting on aphids," Hauser noted, "and that is what the fly was after."
"What's that?" you ask. As you edge closer, it takes off. "Missed it!"
Well, you won't want to miss the Bohart Museum of Entomology's open house on Sunday, Sept. 20 when the theme centers around dragonflies and damselflies.
Dragonfly/damselfly expert Rosser Garrison of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) will share his knowledge of dragonflies and damselflies---and showcase some of his global specimens. The open house, the museum's first of the 2015-16 academic year, is from 1 to 4 p.m. in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, corner of Crocker Lane and LaRue Road, University of California, Davis. Admission and parking are free.
Did you know that their ancestors existed before dinosaurs did? And that fossil records show that they were the world's largest flying insects, some with wingspans measuring three feet?
“Dragonfly relatives existed before the onset of the dinosaurs---Triassic Period, 250 to 200 million years ago,” Garrison said. Pointing out that these gigantic dragonfly-like insects had wingspans of about three feet, he said that “there was about 20 percent more oxygen in the atmosphere than there is now and other giant insects occurred during that period.”
Garrison will show some of his “Oh, My” dragonflies and videos. “Dragonflies are such neat creatures,” he said. “They are considered beneficial since both larvae---all aquatic--and adults are predators. But one is called the ‘Bee Butcher' and has a reputation for eating honey bees.”
Some interesting facts he related about dragonflies:
- They have a primitive flight mechanism compared to other insects, bees, butterflies, beetles and flies.”
- They, at least many dragonflies, mostly mate on the wing.
- They are not poisonous and they do not sew up people's ears (“devil's darning needles”). However, one group of large dragonflies are called—appropriately—"Darners."
- Larvae have a neat prehensile foldable lower lip unique in insects; it is used for capturing prey like mosquito larvae or even small fish.
Garrison is a senior insect biosystematist in the CDFA's Plant Pest Diagnostics Branch, Sacramento. He identifies various potential invertebrate pests (such as grasshoppers, true bugs and terrestrial mollusks) entering California and determines if they are threats to agricultural commodities.
Garrison's research has resulted in more than 80 published papers dealing with dragonflies, pest insects and includes monographic works and book chapters on tropical ecology and insect systematics.
Garrison was the senior author of two recently published volumes, “Dragonfly Genera of the ew World. An Illustrated and Annotated Key to the Anisoptera” (2006), and “Damselfly Genera of the New World. An Illustrated and Annotated Key to the Zygoptera” (2010), both published by The Johns Hopkins University Press). He has also contributed chapters on invertebrate ecology for “The Food Web of a Tropical Rain Forest” (Chicago University Press, 1996) and “Manu. The Biodiversity of Southeastern Peru” (National Museum of Natural History, 1996).
He has served as the editor of Odonatologica, the quarterly journal of the Societas Internationalis Odonatologica, since January 1998. He has researched and collected dragonflies throughout much of the world, including Puerto Rico, Argentina and Costa Rica.
Garrison received two degrees from the University of California, Berkeley: his master's degree in 1974 and his doctorate in 1979. His doctoral dissertation was on “Population Dynamics and Systematics of the Damselfly genus Enallagma of the western United States (Odonata: Coenagionidae) 1979, published in 1984.
He joined CDFA in December 2004 after serving as a senior biologist/entomologist for Los Angeles County, where he identified all potentially important agricultural invertebrate pests entering the county, and provided insect identification services and advice on their control.
Following the dragonfly/damsel presentation, five other weekend open houses are scheduled:
Saturday, Dec. 5, 1 to 4 p.m.: “Keep Calm and Insect On.”
Sunday, Jan. 10 from 1 to 4 p.m.: “Parasitoid Palooza II”
Saturday, Feb. 13: Biodiversity Museum Day
Saturday, April 16, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.: UC Davis Picnic Day
Saturday, July 31, 8 to 11 p.m.: “Celebrate Moths.”
The Bohart Museum, directed by Lynn Kimsey, houses a global collection of nearly eight million specimens, including 469 different species of dragonflies.
It is also the home of the seventh largest insect collection in North America, and the California Insect Survey, a storehouse of the insect biodiversity. Noted entomologist Richard M. Bohart (1913-2007) founded the museum.
Special attractions include a “live” petting zoo, featuring Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks and tarantulas. Visitors are invited to hold the insects and photograph them.
The museum's gift shop, open year around, includes T-shirts, sweatshirts, books, jewelry, posters, insect-collecting equipment and insect-themed candy.
The Bohart Museum's regular hours are from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. The museum is closed to the public on Fridays and on major holidays. Admission is free. Parking is free on weekends.
The next time you see a spider eating a bee snared in its web, look closely.
The spider may not be alone. It may have a dinner companion.
A freeloader fly.
The common name, "freeloader fly," refers to the Milichiidae family. These flies are very tiny, about 1 to 3 mm in length, so you may not notice them.
We took these photos with a 105mm macro lens last Friday at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre pollinator garden planted next to the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis.
These flies, identified by senior insect biosystematist Martin Hauser of the Plant Pest Diagnostics Branch, California Department of Food and Agriculture, are curious little critters. Note the large heads and the red eyes ("the eyes of Milichiidae are often red, though this need not be obvious because many species of the flies are small and dusky," according to Wikipedia.)
Bees are everywhere in the garden and so are the orbweavers--on the zinnias, cosmos, roses and the Mexican sunflowers.
Predator catches prey, and here come the freeloader flies. There is such a thing as a free lunch.
Sharing a meal with a hungry spider, however, may have dire consequences for the freeloaders. They may become a side dish to the spider's main course.