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."
Ever seen a cuckoo bee?
They're also called parasitic bees or "kleptoparasites" or "cleptoparasitises."
They cannot carry pollen (no apparatus) and do not construct their nests. They lay their eggs in the nests of their hosts and then eat the food meant for the hosts. Or as the late Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, told us: "They eat the provisions, a pollen ball meant for the host offspring, and kill and eat the host larvae."
We've been watching a cuckoo bee, Xeromelecta californica, a parasite of the digger bee, Anthophora, as it forages on the African blue basil.
We've also been watching Anthophora urbana foraging on the basil. When the female leaves her nest to gather more food, the cuckoo bee takes the opportunity to lay an egg in her nest.
Sneaky, aren't they?
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).
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!
Benjamin Franklin reportedly said: "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."
What about the sleeping patterns of bumble bees?
Bumble bees are definitely early risers--if the weather cooperates. They usually forage earlier than honey bees and also in cooler temperatures.
We spotted this bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus, commonly known as a "black-tailed bumble bee," sleeping on a Spanish lavender blossom April 12 in a Vacaville, Calif. park.
Native to western North America and found from California to British Columbia and as far east as Idaho, it forages on manzanitas, wild lilacs, wild buckwheats, lupines, penstemons, clovers, and sages, among others.
Keep your eye out for this bumble bee, which is the first species we see in this area. It will be the focus of the Robbin Thorp Memorial Bumble Bee Contest, which starts Jan. 1, 2021. The Bohart Museum of Entomology, directed by Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis professor of entomology, will sponsor the contest to see who can find the first one of the year.
Professor Thorp (1933-2019), a member of the UC Davis entomology faculty for 30 years, from 1964-1994, achieved emeritus status in 1994 but continued to engage in research, teaching and public service until a few weeks before his death. In 2014, during his retirement, he co-authored two books, Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists. He was among the instructors (2002-2019) of The Bee Course. This is an intensive nine-day workshop affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History and held annually at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz. It's geared for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists, and other biologists who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees.
For the past several years, several of us bumble bee enthusiasts, encouraged by Professor Thorp, have tried to find the first bumble bee of the year in the two-county area of Yolo and Solano. He always expressed delight when we reported back to him. This year Allan Jones of Davis photographed one on Jan. 6 on a white manzanita in the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden (Yolo County) to win the contest. The bumble bee been found as early as Jan. 1 in Benicia (Solano County).
Still, no matter the month, it's a joy to see. This one's for you, Robbin.