A partial solar eclipse is about to happen in Vacaville, Calif.
I am watching the insects: the honey bees nectaring on the African blue basil, an orbweaver spider munching on its prey, an assassin bug poised on a tropical milkweed, and a praying mantis lurking beneath a showy milkweed leaf.
Today (Aug. 21) is the long-awaited Great American Eclipse. The totality path will begin at 9 a.m. in Oregon, and stretch across the country to South Carolina.
Hmm, I wonder, how will the bugs in our pollinator garden react to a partial eclipse?
It won't be drastic, I predict. And it wasn't.
The partial eclipse in Vacaville began at 9:02 a.m. and reached its maximum (70 percent coverage of the sun) at 10:16. It ended at 11:38 am., a duration of two hours and 36 minutes.
The bees foraged before, during and after the eclipse, primarily on the African blue basil, which is usually covered with bees. During the height of the eclipse, however, as the skies darkened, a little more than half remained. After the eclipse, when the temperature increased and the wind ceased, the number of bees returned to normal.
"Honey bees tend to act like night is falling if the eclipse takes out quite a bit of the sunlight," says honey bee guru Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus and president of the Western Apicultural Society. "Then they 'wake back up' afterwards."
Despite the eclipse, the spider kept eating its prey. (Sure hope it wasn't that blue dragonfly, Libellula luctuosa, "the widow skimmer" I saw yesterday.) The praying mantis kept lurking. The assassin bug raised its antennae. And the bees--although fewer of them--just kept foraging.
Two stink bugs opted to procreate on the bluebeard, Caryopteris x clandonensis. A Gulf Fritillary fluttered by and stopped to sip nectar from the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). The assassin bug crawled higher on the milkweed, poised for an ambush.
The spider tugged its prey beneath a leaf, abandoning its web. Well, that's that, I thought.
Not so. The sticky web snagged a honey bee while the spider was polishing off its first prey. Okay, spider, you've already had your breakfast. You don't need a second helping. Not today."
I freed the struggling bee and off it buzzed to forage another day.
A partial eclipse, but a full escape...
Pity the poor honey bees.
They have to contend with pesticides, parasites, pests, diseases, malnutrition, stress and that mysterious malady called colony collapse disorder in which adult bees abandon the hive, leaving behind the queen, immature bees and food stores.
The primary pest of bees? The blood-sucking, virus-transmitting varroa mite, found in probably every hive in the country.
But there are other pests that target the honey bee as well--from praying mantids and dragonflies to birds and spiders.
It's a predator gauntlet out there to make the round trip from their hive to their foraging site and back.
We recently saw a honey bee trapped in a spider web stretched from a honeysuckle bush to a purple salvia. The bee's fatal mistake was taking a shortcut to the lavender patch.
The bee, incongruously bubble-wrapped by the spider for a future meal, twisted in the breeze.
It was not alone. A horde of freeloader flies, family Milichiidae, and probably genus Desmometopa, made sure of that.
It was a bad day for a honey bee but a good day for the spider and the flies.
Just another day for the predators and the prey. And a few square meals in the circle of life.
You'd never know that if you looked in the backyard of UC Davis entomologists Robert and Lynn Kimsey.
The UC Davis Entomology Club, advised by Robert Kimsey, is building a 40-foot-long black widow spider for the UC Davis Picnic Day Parade on Saturday, April 18.
Latrodectus hesperus has never looked so...well...huge!
And so colorful--right down to the distinctive red hourglass.
What's it like seeing a huge spider coming to life in your backyard?
“Well, it is very weird!” said Robert Kimsey, a forensic entomologist and longtime advisor of the club. “It is huge and currently in pieces as it is getting its skin and pedipalps and other minor body parts and whatnot. It is anatomically correct in every way! The students have been trained well in arachnology!”
“There are legs all over the place,” Kimsey said. Each is slightly less than 20 feet long. "Again, it is huge. I have to admit that there are some brilliant artists and engineers in this group! But looking out the windows into the backyard takes your breath away. Any non-biologist would completely go to pieces.”
Along with anyone suffering from arachnophobia.
The last time the the UC Davis Entomology Club entered a float in the UC Davis Picnic Day Parade was about 20 years ago. And yes, it was a black widow spider (see photo below)
“The spider idea collectively came from all members of the cabinet after hearing about past picnic days from Bob,” said Entomology Club vice president Alex Nguyen. “When we presented it to the club we received very positive feedback so we decided to commit to marching in the parade with a float this year.”
The spider represents a month of planning and two weeks of building, Nguyen said.
During the parade, Entomology Club president Marko Marrero will be inside the spider, hoisting it up, and walking with it, along with two people at each leg.
If you want to see the spider, the opening ceremony of the parade begins at 9:25 a.m. in the grandstands on the North Quad Avenue across from Wickson Hall. The parade begins at 10, snakes downtown, and ends at noon. Announcement locations include the beginning of the parade; second and D Street in downtown Davis; F street in front of PDQ Fingerprinting; and third and C Street in downtown Davis.
You can also see the spider after the parade. It will be showcased in front of Briggs Hall, off Kleiber Hall Drive, where scores of entomological events will take place, including cockroach races, maggot art, honey tasting, and fly-tying. There will be a bee observation hive, ant displays, and displays of mosquitoes, forest insects and aquatic insects.
The UC Davis Entomology Club and the Entomology Graduate Student Association will be working the booths, along with faculty and staff.
Membership in the UC Davis Entomology Club is open to all interested persons (email firstname.lastname@example.org). Members are faculty, staff, students (college and high school) and community residents.
They have at least one thing in common: they're interested in insects and other arthropods, including arachnids (spiders).
Even at picnics...and parades...
Take one honey bee and one Japanese anemone. Then add one jumping spider.
The results don't always turn out so well.
But today in the East Asian Collection Garden of the UC Davis Arboretum, everything turned out well--for the honey bee.
The bee foraged on the golden stamens of the Japanese anemone without becoming prey, despite the spider camouflage with an anther.
The East Asian Collection Garden is just one of 17 gardens or collections in the 100-acre UC Davis Arboretum.
Located near Mrak Hall, the "East Asian Collection is a popular place for picnics with open lawns and lovely views of Lake Spafford," according to the Arboretum website. "Cherry blossoms and daphne are standouts in winter and spring, while gingko and zelkova trees and ornamental grasses provide beautiful fall color."
Arboretum officials say the plants represent "a living museum."
Indeed they do. The gardens are also a good place for students, staff, faculty, flowers, insects and spiders to interact.
The beauty of the Arboretum defines the UC Davis campus.
You can't always choose your tenants.
Sometimes they choose you.
Take the case of our two bee condos, which are blocks of wood drilled with holes for native bee occupancy. One, with the smaller holes, is for leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.) The other, with the larger holes, is for blue orchard bees (Osmia lignaria), fondly known as BOBs.
The leafcutter bees were the first to occupy the bee housing. At one time we had 16 leafcutter bees and one earwig.
The blue orchard bee condo now has three tenants: two BOBs and one spider.
The webweaving spider spun its web and then crawled into the hole for the night to wait for morning.
And to wait for unsuspecting prey.
(Like to learn more about bee condos? See the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility website, UC Davis. Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, compiled the list of resources.)