Some folks call them "bumble bees," but they're not.
In size, the female Valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa varipuncta) resembles a bumble bee, but certainly not in color.
The female Valley carpenter is solid black with metallic wings. The male of the species is a green-eyed blond, fondly known as "the teddy bear" bee because it's fuzzy-wuzzy and cannot sting. Entomologists will tell you that the male and female are dramatic examples of sexual dimorphism. Yes, they are!
We've been seeing a lot of female Valley carpenter bees lately on our blue spike salvia, (Salvia uliginosa). They engage in nectar-robbing: this occurs when bees circumvent the usual plant-pollinator relationship and "cheat" by entering a flower from the outside to steal nectar. They drill a hole in the corolla to reach the nectar, thus avoiding pollination or contact with the anthers.
Similar-looking insects include bumble bees, cactus flies and horse flies, according to California Bees and Blooms, a Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists,by UC-affiliated authors Gordon Frankie, Robbin Thorp, Rollin Coville, and Barbara Ertter. "Carpenter bees are shinier and have less hair than fuzzy bumble bees. Carpenter bees have two pairs of wings, and they have long, slender, elbowed antennae, while fly mimics have only one pair of wings, and short stubby antennae."
The Valley carpenter bee is California's largest carpenter bee.
They're large but they're elusive. They usually don't linger long for you to grab a photo. This one did. It was early in the morning, and like a true human morning person, she declined to move fast./span>
The three men pause in front of the Kate Frey Pollinator Garden at the Sonoma Cornerstone and begin to read the sign.
"The Pollinator Garden by Kate Frey," one man reads out loud. "It's brand new, come back soon and watch as it grows. This flower-filled and colorful garden is a pollinator garden. All the plants offer food resources of pollen and nectar for pollinators such as native bees, honey bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and beneficial insects. Pollen is a protein, mineral and fat source and is primarily a larval food for bees, while nectar is composed of various sugars and is the main food for pollination and the adult life stage of many beneficial insects."
They watch the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds--buzzing, fluttering and swooshing--in a rush of colors.
"Beautiful garden," one says.
"Do you want to see a praying mantis?" I ask.
I had earlier spotted a mantis in the vegetation--a female Mantis religiosa (species identified by praying mantis expert Lohit Garikipati, a UC Davis entomology student who rears mantids).
Californians commonly see native mantids, Stagmomantis limbata and Stagmomantis californica, as well as this introduced one, M. religiosa.
"I don't see it," one of the men says. "Where is it?"
"There," I point. "Camouflaged."
"You have a good eye," he comments. "Wow, I haven't seen a praying mantis since I was a kid." He whips out his cell phone for a quick image.
The praying mantis made his day.
It's always a good day when you encounter a praying mantis.
Kate Frey, a resident of Hopland, is the author of the award-winning book, The Bee Friendly Garden, with Professor Gretchen LeBuhn of San Francisco State University, a book that details how to design an abundant, flower-filled garden that nurtures bees and supports biodiversity. She's a two-time gold medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show and co-founder of The American Garden School. (Read this Bug Squad post to learn her favorite plants and how to attract pollinators.)
As Frey told the crowd at the 2018 UC Davis Bee Symposium, hosted last March by the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center and the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology: "Whether you plant them, nurture them, or walk through them, bee gardens make us happy."
They do, indeed. Praying mantids do, too.
You're heard these idioms:
- The early bird gets the worm
- First come, first served.
- The second mouse gets the cheese.
But have you ever seen a Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) eclose and then see her...well...engaged?
Such was the case on Labor Day, Sept. 3 in our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
The female (we'll call her "Bride-to-Be") finishes eclosing and is hanging from her empty chrysalis, just drying her wings on the passionflower vine (aptly named) and getting acquainted with her new life stage and leafy surroundings.
Then, whoosh. A suitor (we'll call him "Groom-to-Be") appears out of nowhere. Well, from somewhere, but somewhere quite threatening. He looks tired and worn out, too fragile to fly. (As a colleague said: "He's accumulated a lot of frequent flier miles.") His ragged wings indicate a recent encounter with one or more predators, maybe a bird or a praying mantis. But he lucked out in the Predator-Prey tally: the final score, Butterfly, 1: Predator 0.
He lucks out again. He's the first to arrive at the altar. Our camera catches the action.
"In some Heliconius, the males locate female pupae and may even copulate with the female before she ecloses!" commented butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology. "They are related."
Labor Day, 2018.
Our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., usually draws dozens of them in the summer as they flutter around, sip nectar from the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) and lay their eggs on their host plant, milkweed.
Then in late summer and fall, the migratory monarchs from the Pacific Northwest pass through on their way to their overwintering sites in coastal California, including Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz.
Something is happening this year, and it's not good.
As a "monarch mom," I reared and released more than 60 in 2016. This year so far: zero, zip, zilch. In fact, I never saw a single monarch in our pollinator garden this year until Monday, Aug. 13, and then again today (Friday, Aug. 30) when a male fluttered in and hung around for several hours.
This time last year and in 2016? Often five to seven sightings a day.
"What's going on with the monarchs?" I asked butterfly expert Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored the butterfly population in central California for more than four decades and maintains a research website. "All I have on our milkweed are aphids and milkweed bugs, and occasional bees and hover flies."
I also haven't seen a single monarch on the UC Davis campus. Neither have fellow photographers and naturalists who keep an eye out for them.
Background: Shapiro has been surveying fixed routes at 10 sites at approximately two-week intervals since 1972. They range from "the Sacramento River delta, through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains, to the high desert of the western Great Basin." As he says on his website, "the sites represent the great biological, geological, and climatological diversity of central California." As of the end of 2006, he has logged "5476 site-visits and tallied approximately 83,000 individual records of 159 butterfly species and subspecies. This major effort is continuing and represents the world's largest dataset of intensive site-specific data on butterfly populations collected by one person under a strict protocol. We have also collated monthly climate records for the entire study period from weather stations along the transect."
So, what's going on with the monarchs?
"You are not alone (in not sighting them)," he related in an email yesterday. "I have seen one adult monarch in the Valley in the past five weeks (and about 6 in the Sierra, migrating westward). I have not seen a single wild larva in 2018. Anywhere! Everybody's talking about it. We know there was some breeding at Fallon, Nev., but only a couple of adults have been seen in Reno. Either they are breeding in recondite places, which is possible, or the population is in serious collapse. We will know which by early November when we see what shows up at the overwintering sites. One thing is certain: it's not due to milkweed shortage!"
The statistics on his Looking Backward section of his website indicate these monarch sightings:
- 2015: 100
- 2016: 64
- 2017: 54
- 2018: 20
Note that this is the time of year when citizen scientists in entomologist David James' migratory monarch research program at Washington State University (my alma mater) tag and release them throughout much of the Pacific Northwest. (See Bug Squad)
They should be passing through our area soon. In fact, the third anniversary of "The WSU Traveler" is rapidly approaching: On Labor Day, Sept. 5, 2016, one of the tagged butterflies from James' citizen scientist program in Ashland, Ore., fluttered into our yard (see above photograph). The monarch, a male, hung around for five hours, sipping nectaring and circling around.
The background: Citizen scientist Steven Johnson of Ashland tagged and released the male, No. A6093, on Sunday, Aug. 28. It "flew 285 miles in 7 days or about 40.7 miles per day," James told us. "Pretty amazing. So, I doubt he broke his journey for much more than the five hours you watched him--he could be 100 miles further south by now. Clearly this male is on his way to an overwintering colony and it's possible we may sight him again during the winter in Santa Cruz or Pacific Grove!”
Maybe we'll see another tagged one this year? The odds do not look good.
As the WSU Facebook page, Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, related today:
"While the migration from the PNW (Pacific Northwest) to California has been underway for about 2 weeks, September is when it really ramps up. Unlike the migration in eastern USA this year, our migration is subtle and comprised of much smaller numbers of butterflies. In fact there will be very few Monarchs migrating south from British Columbia, Washington and northern Idaho because we simply did not have significant summer populations in these areas this year. However, our research-based WSU breeding/tagging program will result in hundreds of tagged Monarchs migrating from various parts of Washington State. Apart from the celebrated Washington State Penitentiary tagging program, this year we also have more than 30 members of Cowiche Canyon Conservancy (Yakima) and the Washington Butterfly Association (Seattle, Spokane) each rearing and tagging small numbers of Monarchs. The first tagged Monarchs from this program were released yesterday (August 30) so watch out for them as they head south! And please be ready to capture an image on your phone that you can email to us."
So, if you see a tagged monarch butterfly from the WSU program, kindly photograph it and send the information to David James and his fellow researchers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every sighting helps.
Ever seen the male European wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) protecting its turf?
It's "no-holds barred" on our blue spike sage (Salvia uliginosa) and frankly, it's a delight to see and photograph.
The highly territorial male body-slams all floral visitors, including honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees and butterflies that are trying to seek a little nectar, too.
The wool carder bee (so named because the female scrapes or cards leaf fuzz for her nest) is an Old World bee belonging to the family Megachilidae (which also includes leafcutter and mason bees, among others). Accidentally introduced into the United States from Europe, this pollinator was first discovered in New York State in 1963, and then spread across the continent. Scientists found it in Davis, Calif. in 2007.
In size, wool carder bees are comparable to honey bees. They're readily distinguished, however, by their striking yellow markings on their black abdomens, and yellow faces. Males are considerably larger than females, and have a spine on either side of the last two abdominal segments and three spines on the last segment, according to Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis. Those spines have been mistaken for stingers, but only females have stingers.
One thing's for sure: their highly aggressive behavior tends to make honey bees forage faster! They don't want to get bonked! (Davis insect photographer Allan Jones aptly calls them "bonker bees.")
In our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., European wool carder bees seem to prefer blue flowers, especially our blue spike sage.
In fact, noted entomologist George Eickwort, writing in 1980 in the journal Psyche, observed that they seem to prefer "blue flowers with a relatively long throat."
We've seen the male carder bees protect patches of lamb's ear, foxgloves, catmint, oregano, cosmos, African blue basil, and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
However, they seem to go "bonkers" over bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis) and blue spike sage (Salvia uliginosa).
A blue plate special...