Christmas in May?
When it's in full bloom, the aptly named "tower of jewels," Echium wildpretii, which can tower as high as 10 feet, looks very much like a Christmas tree. Think of the brilliant red blossoms as red bells.
Native to the island of Tenerife, it belongs to the family Boraginaceae. It's a biennial, meaning that it takes two growing seasons to complete its life cycle. In the Vacaville, Calif., area, it blooms in its second year, around mid-April and diminishes by mid-May.
Honey bees love its nectar and pollen. And the pollen? It's blue, which is always a surprise when beekeepers open their hives. "Where did that blue come from?"
Scilla sibirica (wood squill) and Epilobium angustifolium (fireweed) also yield blue pollen as does Gilia tricolor (bird's eye). Borage pollen is a bluish-gray.
"The importance of pollen to the health and vigor of the honey bee colony cannot be overstated," writes emeritus entomology professor Norman Gary of the University of California, Davis, in his best-selling book, "Honey Bee Hobbyist, The Care and Keeping of Bees."
"Honey satisfies the bees' carbohydrate requirements, while all of the other nutrients---minerals, proteins, vitamins and fatty substances--are derived from pollen. Nurse bees consume large amounts of pollen, converting it into nutritious secretions that are fed to developing larvae. During an entire year, a typical bee colony gathers and consumes about 77 pounds of pollen."
Gary adds: "Pollen in the plant world is the equivalent of sperm in the animal world. Fertilization and growth of seeds depends upon the transfer of pollen from the male flower parts (anthers) to the receptive female parts (stigmas)."
They're out there, and you don't have to crane your neck to see them.
Some folks mistakenly call them "mosquito hawks" or "mosquito eaters," but they are neither. They are crane flies, members of the family Tipulidae of the order Diptera (flies).
We've been seeing the slender, gangly, goofy-looking insects, Tipula oleracea, bump into walls and flower pots. This one (below) glided into the tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii, and just remained there for several minutes.
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology, emphasizes that they don't eat mosquitoes. "In fact, adult crane flies generally don't eat at all," she points out. "Their entire brief adult lives are spent searching for mates and laying eggs." Crane flies are attracted to lights at night and you may find them around your porch light.
"Adult crane flies emerge from the soil beneath turfgrass, pastures and other grassy areas in late summer and fall," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program, part of the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.. "The adults have very long legs and resemble large mosquitoes. Females mate and lay eggs in grass within 24 hours of emerging. Eggs hatch into small, brown, wormlike larvae that have very tough skin and are commonly referred to as leatherjackets. The leatherjackets feed on the roots and crowns of clover and grass plants during the fall. They spend the winter as larvae in the soil; when the weather warms in spring, they resume feeding. During the day larvae mostly stay underground, but on damp, warm nights they come to the surface to feed on the aboveground parts of many plants. When mature, the larvae are about about 1 to 1½ inch long. Around mid-May they enter a nonfeeding pupal stage and remain just below the soil surface. In late summer, pupae wriggle to the surface and the adults emerge. There is one generation a year."
This one (below) didn't find a mate on the tower of jewels but it did find a towering view. The plant can reach 10 feet in height.
Yes, they do, and yes, she did.
Painted lady butterflies, Vanessa cardui, do lay their eggs on Echium wildpretii, commonly known as "the tower of jewels."
However, this little lady (below) persistently returned a few times to find a bee-free spot. She finally claimed a chunk of space near the top of the 8-foot plant.
Temporarily. Until the bees reclaimed it.
"Echium is a borage," says butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology. "Boraginaceae are one of the favored host families, so I'm not surprised."
"They routinely breed on fiddleneck and popcorn flower," Shapiro says. "in 2015 they completely destroyed the borage crop at an herb farm in Solano County!" He recently saw them lay eggs on Helianthus, Cardooon (artichoke thistle) and Lupinus succulentus.
"It's been a pretty good cardui year but not as big as last year," said Shapiro, who has monitored the butterfly population in Central California since 1972 and publishes his research on his website. "They've been coming in waves for several weeks and there are still some, mostly old females ovipositing."
Said Bohart Museum of Entomology associate Greg Kareofelas, a naturalist and insect photographer: "Vanessa cardui probably has the greatest range of host plants as any butterfly. My question always is: What plant, won't it lay eggs on?"
So here I am, a male Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, just enjoying the nectar on this tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii, in Vacaville, Calif.
Some folks call me "The teddy bear bee."
Yes, I like that nickname. The late Robbin Thorp (1913-2019), UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor of entomology, used to call me "the teddy bear bee" and display me at the Bohart Museum of Entomology open houses, because, well, for one, I am "cuddly"; two, I resemble a teddy bear; and three, I don't sting.
The good professor always used to say "Boy bees don't sting." That's true, but I can bluff pretty well.
They also say I'm handsome, what with my golden blond hair and green eyes. Aww, shucks!
"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" Me.
But just don't mess with me.
So here I am, as I earlier mentioned, just enjoying my share of nectar on this tower of jewels. Ooh, the nectar is divine. Divine, I say.
Wait! What's that? A honey bee, Apis mellifera, is trying to horn in on my territory.
"Hey, I was here first, Missy!"
Ms. Honey Bee shrugs. "Sorry, buddy boy, I'll take what I want."
Oh, the audacity, the audacity, I say. Doesn't she know that I'm bigger than she is? Okay, she's got a stinger, but I'm bigger and I can bluff my way out of this.
Whoops, she's moving! She's moving toward me! Oh, dear! She's closing in on me.
Umm...bye, bye, Echium wildpretii...your nectar isn't as good as I thought it would be. Not with that honey bee refusing to keep her social distance! I'm outta here!
The predator and the prey...
Or the predator-to-bee.
Currently, honey bees are foraging on our tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii, in our family's pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. It's a veritable tower of bees.
They're side-stepping a little brown, carefully wrapped package: a praying mantis egg case, the ootheca. But sometimes they're stepping on it.
The "baby" mantids have not emerged yet, but soon they will. The siblings will eat one another before they turn to other prey.
The growing mantids will move from flower to flower and add the honey bee to their menu. Native bees, honey bees, butterflies...and it all begins right here--right here with the ootheca.
Everybody eats in the garden. Everybody.
The ootheca is a marvelous creation. Wikipedia tells us that ootheca is a Latinized combination of oo-, meaning "egg," from the Greek word ōon (cf. Latin ovum), and theca, meaning a "cover" or "container," from the Greek theke. Ootheke is Greek for ovary.
"Oothecae are made up of structural proteins and tanning agents that cause the protein to harden around the eggs, providing protection and stability," says Wikipedia. "The production of ootheca convergently evolved across numerous insect species due to a selection for protection from parasites and other forms of predation, as the complex structure of the shell casing provides an evolutionary reproductive advantage (although the fitness and lifespan also depend on other factors such as the temperature of the incubating ootheca)."
"The ootheca protects the eggs from microorganisms, parasitoids, predators, and weather; the ootheca maintains a stable water balance through variation in its surface, as it is porous in dry climates to protect against desiccation, and smooth in wet climates to protect against oversaturation. Its composition and appearance vary depending on species and environment."
The ootheca also protects against tiptoeing bees. They are totally unaware of what's in this little brown, carefully wrapped package. Its presence is not a present.