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.
Remember the biblical story about David and Goliath? How young David, the underdog, defeats a Philistine giant?
Sometimes you think the same kind of battle will occur in nature when a honey bee, Apis mellifera, encounters a much larger carpenter bee, the Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta.
We recently spotted a female Valley carpenter bee foraging on a mustard blossom, while her smaller cousin, the honey bee buzzed in, hoping to share. Both belong to the order Hymenoptera and the family, Apidae. The carpenter bee is a native. The honey bee is not.
What happened? The honey bee discreetly moved out of the way and let the carpenter bee claim her bounty.
California has three species of carpenter bees.
- The biggest is the Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta. It's about an inch long. The female is solid black, while the male, commonly known as "the teddy bear bee," is a green-eyed blond. Why teddy bear? It's fuzzy and does not sting--or as the late Robbin Thorp (1933-2019), UC Davis emeritus professor of entomology, used to say: "Boy bees don't sting."
- The second largest is the California carpenter bee or Western carpenter bee, Xylocopa californica, often found in the mountain foothill areas of northern and southern California. It's known for its distinctive distinctive bluish metallic reflections on the body, Thorp says. The females have dark smoky brown wings.
- The smallest is the foothill or mountain carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniformis orpifex. The females are black with light smoky-colored wings. The male has bright yellow marks on the lower part of its face and some yellow hairs on the top front of its thorax.
Still my favorite carpenter bee is the male X. varipuncta, the green-eyed blond. You don't see it as much as the female of the species, but wow! Now to photograph them in the same picture...
I call him the Mountain Boy.
A male carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniformis orpifex, appeared in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.,on Feb. 27, the earliest we've seen this species.
It's the smallest of California's carpenter bees and is often called the foothill or mountain carpenter bee.The females are black with light smoky-colored wings. The male has bright yellow marks on the lower part of its face and some yellow hairs on the top front of its thorax.
In addition to the mountain carpenter bee, California's species are:
- The Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, the largest of the California carpenter bees. It's about an inch long. The female is solid black, while the male, commonly known as "the teddy bear bee," is a green-eyed blond. Why teddy bear? It's fuzzy and does not sting--or as the late Robbin Thorp (1933-2019) distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, was fond of saying: "Boy bees don't sting."
- The California carpenter bee or Western carpenter bee, Xylocopa californica, the second largest of the California carpenter bees. It's often found in the mountain foothill areas of northern and southern California. It's known for its distinctive distinctive bluish metallic reflections on the body, Thorp says. The females have dark smoky brown wings.
Look around. You may find a "mountain boy" or a "mountain girl" foraging in your yard or local park.
If you join the thousands of visitors at the ninth annual UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day on Saturday, Feb. 15--a free public event showcasing 13 museums or collections--you might--might--see bumble bees (Bombus melanopygus and Bombus vosnesenskiii) in the UC Davis Arboretum or the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, but not these four:
- Franklin's bumble bee, Bombus franklini
- Suckley cuckoo bumble bee, Bombus suckleyi
- Western bumble bee, Bombus occidentalis
- Crotch bumble bee, Bombus crotchi
These four subspecies ARE on campus, however. They're mounted specimens in the Bohart Museum of Entomology.
The California Fish and Game Commission voted 3-1 on June 12, 2019 to place these four bumble bees on the proposed endangered species list, as petitioned by the Xerces Society, Center for Food Safety, and Defenders of Wildlife.
But many agricultural interests don't want them listed as endangered species, according to a news story by Capital Public Radio's environmental reporter Ezra David Romero.
Pollination ecologist Neal Williams, professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology was among those interviewed.
"Other points I made were that in addition to these species, there are others that appear to be declining, but might not yet be so rare. We need to look into these more carefully and work to safeguard their populations before they become so precipitously endangered. I also indicated that the biologies and historical distributions of these species are quite distinct and to me this suggests that we need to do more to understand mechanisms behind changes in their numbers. For example, contrast B. franklinii versus B. occidentalis, one that had a very restricted distribution the other that was so widely distributed."
The Xerces Society points out that "Bumble bees are important pollinators of wild flowering plants and agricultural crops. They are able to fly in cooler temperatures and lower light levels than many other bees, making them excellent pollinators—especially at higher elevations and latitudes. They also perform a behavior called 'buzz pollination,' in which the bee grabs the flower in her jaws and vibrates her wing muscles to dislodge pollen from the flower. Many plants, including a number of wildflowers and crops like tomatoes, peppers, and cranberries, benefit from buzz pollination.
The late Robbin Thorp 1933-2019), distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, and a member of the Xerces Society, was one of the strongest proponents of protecting bumble bees. Thorp, a global authority on bees and co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, honed in on Franklin's bumble bee, which once occupied one of the smallest ranges of bumble bees in the world. Its 13,300-acre range included Siskiyou and Trinity counties in California; and Jackson, Douglas and Josephine counties in Oregon. Today Franklin's bumble bee is feared extinct; Thorp last saw it in 2006.
Thorp hypothesized that the decline of the subgenus is linked to an exotic disease (or diseases) associated with the trafficking of commercially produced bumble bees for pollination of greenhouse tomatoes. Other threats may include pesticides, climate change and competition with nonnative bees.
If Franklin's bumble bee is given protective status, this could “stimulate research into the probable causes of its decline,” Thorp told us in an interview. “This may not only lead to its recovery, but also help us better understand environmental threats to pollinators and how to prevent them in future. This petition also serves as a wake-up call to the importance of pollinators and the need to provide protections from the various threats to the health of their populations.”
Meanwhile, be sure to attend the ninth annual UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day on Saturday, Feb. 15, to explore the diversity of life. You'll learn about bees, hawks, carnivorous plants, Native American artifacts, wine, yeast cultures dinosaurs and more. Here's hoping that bumble bees don't go the way of the....dinosaurs. (See some of the UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day highlights on Bug Squad)