It's Day 6 of National Pollinator Week.
Meet the drone fly (Eristalis tenax), often mistaken for a honey bee.
The late Robbin Thorp, UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor of entomology, used to jokingly call it "The H Bee," pointing to the "H on its abdomen.
It's not a bee, though, it's a fly. It belongs to the family Syrphidae (which includes insects commonly known as syrphids, flower flies, and hover flies) in the order, Diptera.
The drone fly about the size of a honey bee. However, unlike a honey bee, the drone fly "hovers" over a flower before landing.
Drone fly larvae are known as rattailed maggots. They feed off bacteria in drainage ditches, manure or cess pools, sewers and the like.
But just think of the adult. It's a pollinator. Just like the honey bee.
And well you should: honey bees are the global workhorses of the pollination community and pollinate about one-third of the food we eat, including fruits and vegetables and some nuts, primarily almonds (California's almond acreage exceeds 1.6 million.)
But to continue the alliteration--butterflies, bats, birds and beetles are pollinators, too.
That includes "the good guys and gals," the lady beetles, aka ladybugs, which devour aphids.
However, this is National Pollinator Week and a good time to reiterate that insects can be both pollinators and pests. Take the blister beetles (family Meloidae, which contains about 2500 species) are one color or striped. Blister beetles are a pest of alfalfa and many species secrete a poisonous chemical called cantharidin, which protects them from their predators but is quite toxic to livestock, especially horses.
According to the Alfalfa Pest Management Guidelines published by the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM): “Blister beetles do not cause widespread feeding damage to alfalfa; however, they contain a chemical, cantharidin, which is toxic to livestock. Cantharidin is contained in the hemolymph (blood) of the beetles, and can contaminate forage directly, when beetles killed during harvest are incorporated into baled hay, or indirectly, by transfer of the hemolymph from crushed beetles onto forage. Horses are particularly susceptible to the toxic effects of cantharidin. Consuming as few as six beetles can kill a horse.”
A 2020 news story out of the Midwest related that beetle-infested hay purchased at an auction in South Dakota led to the deaths of 16 horses at a riding stable in Mauston, Wisconsin. Reporter Carleen Wild wrote that even a small amount of the bug itself or cantharidin "can be toxic enough to kill a horse within 72 hours." The horse owners reported what looked like "blisters and holes down their esophagus and throughout their insides."
The odorless, colorless chemical also blisters the human skin; physicians use it to remove warts.
That's one powerful chemical.
It's Day 3 of National Pollinator Week.
Fortunately, a tiger came to visit us--no, not the predatory jungle animal, Panthera tigris, but a newly emerged Western tiger swallowtail, Papilio rutulus.
This native butterfly is quite colorful, with black stripes accenting its brilliant yellow wings, and blue and orange spots gracing its tail. When it flutters into your garden, you stop everything you're doing and become a professional butterfly watcher until it leaves. It's the law, I think. Anyway, Western tiger swallowtails are almost hypnotic.
This fluttering tiger took a liking to our Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifola, and was totally unaware of a tiny longhorned bee, a male Melissodes agilis, heading straight for it.
Pretend you're the butterfly. Here you are, newly emerged and you've discovered a patch of Tithonia offering delicious nectar! Heaven scent! Then you see a speedy little critter targeting you. He's not about to make a lane change. There's no garden patrol to monitor his speed or aggressive behavior. He's coming for you. He aims to hit you and dislodge you from your perch.
This little bee, in fact, targets all critters occupying "his" flowers. He isn't out to sting the floral occupants, as one reader surmised. It's a male bee, and boy bees can't sting. Nor is he fighting over pollen. Males do not collect pollen or nectar for their colony--the females do.
So what is he doing? He's trying to protect or save the floral resources for the females of the species so he can mate with them. The late Robbin Thorp, noted bee expert and distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, used to talk about these little guys bullying all the floral tenants--from Valley carpenter bees to majestic monarchs to praying mantids. Sometimes an unfortunate Melissodes winds up in the spiked forelegs of a mantis. Or in the clutches of a spider. Or in the beak of a bird.
It's a jungle out there. Sometimes it's the survival of the fittest. Or the flittest.
Nothing says National Pollinator Week more than a honey bee coated in pollen.
Make mine yellow. Yellow pollen.
There's plenty of time to prepare. National Pollinator Week is June 21-27.
You can register your activities--make that "socially distant activities" to the official Pollinator Week events map.
You can request local buildings to light up yellow and orange in support of pollinators.
You can sign and mail proclamations to your governor in support of Pollination Week.
And, you can celebrate the week by taking an image of a pollinator.
We ventured over to the UC Davis Ecological Garden, Student Farm, Agricultural Sustainability Institute, to capture these two images of a honey bee blanketed with pollen as she foraged--appropriately--on a blanket flower, Gaillardia. The plant is a member of the sunflower family, Asteraeae, and native to North and South America.
The Pollinator Partnership, which sponsors National Pollinator Week, points out that about 75 percent of all flowering plant species "need the help of animals to move their heavy pollen grains from plant to plant for fertilization."
PP also relates that:
- About 1000 of all pollinators are vertebrates such as birds, bats and small animals.
- Most pollinators (abut 200,000 species) are beneficial insects such as flies, beetles, wasps, ants, butterflies, moths and bees.
- Pollinators are often keystone species, meaning that they are critical to an ecosystem.
Are you ready for National Pollinator Week?
You may have lost track of the hours, days, weeks and months due to the coronavirus pandemic, but how can you forget National Pollinator Week?
Especially if you've ventured out in your yard, garden or park and witnessed the pollinators doing what they do best.
National Pollinator Week, set June 22-28, is a "time to celebrate pollinators and spread the word about what you can do to protect them," according to the sponsor, Pollinator Partnership.
As they write on their website: "Thirteen years ago the U.S. Senate's unanimous approval and designation of a week in June as 'National Pollinator Week' marked a necessary step toward addressing the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Pollinator Week has now grown into an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles."
So, what can you do to observe Pollinator Week? The Pollinator Partnership says this year won't be a "typical Pollinator Week."
"We urge everyone to hold a socially distant, appropriate event. In an effort to lighten the load on state governments during this time, we are not pursuing formal state proclamations this year, but will continue to post proclamations that we do receive. Moreover, we encourage everyone to go outside and spend some time with the bees and butterflies that inspire hope in many."
And, when we think of Pollinator Week, we think of the honey bee totally dusted with pollen on a blanket flower, Gaillardia, in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
The bee just couldn't get enough of the pollen.
We just couldn't get enough photos. Bravo, Ms. Honey Bee!