It's not a $64,000 question, because there's no reward--just bragging rights.
Robbin Thorp (1933-2019), a global authority on bees and a distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, launched the first-bumble-bee-of-the-year contest with a small group of bumble bee enthusiasts/photographers.
Professor Thorp, Allan Jones, Gary Zamzow, all of Yolo County, and yours truly, of Solano County, are founding members. Later UC Davis doctoral student Kim Chacon with the Geography Graduate Group (and on track to receive her doctorate in June 2020), joined the group. Chacon, who studies "habitat connectivity issues for bees at a landscape scale" (see her website on Resilient Bee Landscapes), worked closely with Thorp until his death in June 2019. She is a 2018 alumnus of The Bee Course, co-taught by Thorp.
The first bumble bee to emerge in this area is the black-tailed bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus. 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.
With the dawn of the new year and weather permitting, Jones, Zamzow and Chacon make individual bee-lines for the manzanita plants in the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. Me? I head over to Benicia where bumble bees forage on rosemary or jade.
"Surprising to see males this early in the season," noted Thorp, who co-authored the books, Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists. "Unusual to see males before any workers are on site. Could be from a gyne that overwintered but was not mated before she went into hibernation; or maybe the sperm she received were not viable; or maybe she was unable to release sperm from her spermatheca to some eggs as they passed through her reproductive tract."
"At any rate," Thorp told Jones, in congratulating him, "you got two firsts for the season at one time."
In 2018, yours truly scored by photographing a B. melanopygus on Jan. 1 in Benicia--on rosemary at the marina.
In 2019, Chacon triumphed on Jan. 10 with an image of B. melanopygus, on manzanita blossoms at the UC Davis Arboretum. She earlier spotted one on Jan. 9 in the Arboretum but had no camera with her.
Professor Thorp, 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. He co-taught The Bee Course from 2002 to 2019. Held annually at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz., this is an intensive nine-day workshop affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History and draws scientists from all over the world. It's geared for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists, and other biologists who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees. This year's dates are Aug. 16-26; the deadline to apply is March 1.
Sadly, this year's Yolo-Solano bumble bee contest won't be the same without the legendary Robbin Thorp.
In his memory, we've renamed the contest, the Robbin Thorp Memorial Bumble Bee Contest. He would have liked that.
It's mid-February and early morning in Vallejo, Calif.
Westringia is blooming along a walking path near the Glen Cove Marina.
Suddenly out of no where, there's a flash of yellow and black. A black-tailed bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus, buzzes by our camera and heads for the Westringia.
Good choice. The Westringia, a genus in the mint family and endemic to Australia, is a late-winter blooming plant that provides nectar and pollen when just about nothing else around does. It's tough. It can take it, whether it's the California drought, heavy rains, hot sun, or cold temperatures. And here, near the Carquinez Bridge, it forms a healthy hedge of white flowers and light gray-green leaves. And it's blooming profusely, beckoning bees.
Bombus melanopygus is the kind of bee that lingers not. One minute you see it, the next minute, it's gone. It knows what it needs, where to get it, and how long to stay to elude those predatory wasps.
That brings to mind the recently published research from Queen Mary University of London that indicates that bumble bees not only possess complex navigational skills, rudimentary culture, and emotions, but they can even use tools. Tools!
It's fairly well known that bumble bees can learn to pull a string to get a sugary reward by watching other bees perform the task. Now Olli Loukola, a behavioral ecologist at Queen Mary University of London, says that in the UK study, bumble bees pushed around a small, yellow ball to a specific target to get a sugary reward.
Of course, bees in the wild, including those buzzing around the Westringia in Vallejo, don't pull strings or push balls, but they do shove aside the flower petals to get at that sugary reward--nectar.
The bumble bee brain is about the size of a sesame seed, but if you say it has a "bee brain," that would not do it justice.
Check out the video and news story on the Science journal website.
What an unexpected find!
It was the first day of 2013 and what did we see: a queen bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus, aka black-tailed bumble bee.
Like scores of others, we decided to take a walk on Jan. 1 in the Benicia State Recreation Area. Located in Solano County, just outside the city of Benicia, the 447-acre park on State Park Road offers a view of the Carquinez Strait amid lush grasslands, rocky beaches and a marsh filled with cattails about to lose their charm as they go to seed.
It's a good place to walk, run, cycle, and engage in picnicking, fishing, and bird watching.
And bee watching.
When the temperature hits 55 degrees, it's common to see honey bees foraging among eucalyptus, manzanita and wild mustard this time of year.
In mid-morning, Jan. 1, the temperature registered 50 degrees. No honey bees did we see. But as we stopped to admire the manzanita in the native plant garden, we spotted her: a black-tailed queen bumble bee, as later identified by native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor, UC Davis Department of Department.
"Yes, a queen of Bombus melanopygus, earliest of our bumble bees to emerge from hibernation and start nests each year," Thorp said. "I had heard that some were flying in December in the Bay Area. Keep an eye out for the first workers or first queens with pollen loads. Those will be the signs that nests have been established. Otherwise, seeing queens out on a nice sunny warm day, even sipping nectar, may mean that they are just stretching their wings and checking things out between naps, before getting down to the serious business of starting a new nest."
This species of bumble bee is native to western North America and is found from California to British Columbia and as far east as Idaho. "In the southern part of its range, the third and fourth segments of the abdomen are black instead of the red color seen in the northern populations, and this black color form was formerly known by the name Bombus edwardsii," according to Wikipedia.
Now it's Bombus melanopygus.
Soon we saw that we were not alone. Several other queen bumble bees quietly appeared, all to sip the sweet nectar of manzanita on the first day of 2013.
Soon we expect to see them with a load of pollen.