Have you ever seen a syrphid, aka hover fly or flower fly, that resembles a bumble bee?
Volucella bombylans is a fascinating fly that engages in identify theft. Of a bumble bee. It's a "wanna bee."
At first glance, it looks very much like a bumble bee, the Bombus melanopygus edwardsii, according to the late Robbin Thorp (1933-2019), distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California. Unlike a bumble bee, however, the fly has short stubby antennae and two wings instead of four. And, of course, it cannot sting.
Most of the species in the genus are inquilines, that is, they lay their eggs in bumble bee and wasp nests, and the larvae consume the host larvae.
We were fortunate to see a Volucella species recently in Vacaville. There's only one valid species of Volucella in North America, Volucella bombylans, according to Andrew Young, a postdoctoral fellow at the California Department of Food and Agriculture who addressed the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology at a Feb. 5 seminar (pre coronavirus pandemic). "However, DNA evidence points to this being a species complex. So, I think it would be most accurate to call it Volucella bombylans complex right now."
If you have a chance, listen to Young's fascinating seminar, "The Natural History of Syrphidae: From Pollinators To Parasitoids." You watch it free here. Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis professor of entomology introduced him.
His abstract: "Syrphidae (Dlptera) is a species-rich family of true fly, with over 6200 described species worldwide," he says in his abstract. "Often known as flower flies or hover flies, syrphlds are likely the most significant group of pollinators outside of the bees--especially in Arctic climates. While research into their pollination-related behavior is still nascent, other aspects of flower fly biology have been relatively well-studied."
"Adults of many species are well-known for their impressive mimicry of stinging Hymenoptera, and known larvae display a degree of habitat diversity that is unusually broad for a single family of Diptera. Many larvae are predators on soft-bodied insects such as aphids, and therefore, show potential for crop-pest management, while others are aquatic filter-feeders that may have value in waste-management applications."
Young studied Syrphidae in the lab of Stephen Marshall, professor of entomology at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Marshall and Young are among the six co-authors of Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America" (Princeton University Press, 2019), a book described as "a groundbreaking guide to flower flies in North America."
How would you describe the year 2017?
Survival of the fittest?
In the insect world, it's more like "survival of the flittest."
If you've ever pulled up a chair in a pollinator garden and sat back and observed all the activity, sometimes it's like road rage on the freeway and aisle anger in the supermarket.
- Have you ever seen a male long-horned bee (Melissodes agilis) doing a protective fly-by, trying to save a food source for the female of his species?
- Have you ever seen a male long-horned bee challenging a Western tiger swallowtail seeking nectar from a Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia)?
- Have you ever seen a syrphid fly targeting a honeydew-laden lady beetle, aka ladybug, on a rose?
- Have you ever seen a honey bee and bumble bee racing for the nectar on catmint (Nepeta)?
You may if you plant a pollinator garden. Plant it and they--bees and butterflies and other pollinators--will come.
In Chinese astrology, 2017 was The Year of the Rooster. Coming Jan. 1: The Year of the Dog. But there's no "Year of the Insect."
If entomologists had their way, one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig), would be switched to an insect. Insects matter. Indeed, scientists trace the first known fossil record of insects back some 400 million years ago. The insect? A springtail.
Insects easily outnumber us and all other life forms. The population of the world today is 7 billion, according to a World Population Clock. Insects? "At any given time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive," says the Smithsonian Institute. This amounts to to largest biomass of the terrestrial animals.
Other fascinating points to ponder from the Smithsonian Institute involve undescribed and described species:
"Most authorities agree that there are more insect species that have not been described (named by science) than there are insect species that have been previously named. Conservative estimates suggest that this figure is 2 million, but estimates extend to 30 million. In the last decade, much attention has been given to the entomofauna that exists in the canopies of tropical forests of the world. From studies conducted by Terry Erwin of the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Entomology in Latin American forest canopies, the number of living species of insects has been estimated to be 30 million."
"In the United States, the number of described species is approximately 91,000. The undescribed species of insects in the United States, however, is estimated at some 73,000." Four insect orders comprise the largest numbers of described species in the U.S.:
- Coleoptera (beetles): 23,700
- Diptera (flies): 19,600
- Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps): 17,500
- Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies): 11,500.
Today (the last Friday before the New Year) is a good time to think about "survival of the fittest" and "survival of the flittest" as we glance back at 2017 and look forward to 2018.
Happy New Year! And may all your gardens be pollinator gardens filled with bees and butterflies. And, a few syrphid flies, lady beetles...and...
It's cool how honey bees and syrphid flies gravitate toward the Iceland Poppy.
It's a winter plant, and frankly, there isn't much to eat out there.
The Iceland Poppy (Papaver nudicaule), a bowl-shaped, papery flower, fills the bill.
The name is a misnomer. It's not native to Iceland. It's from the cooler regions of Europe, Asia and North America, and the mountains of Central Asia. Botanists first described it in 1759.
Like all poppies, they're poisonous. In fact, scientists tell us that all parts of poppies are poisonous. That's because they contain toxic alkaloids. This one, P. nudicaule, contains a benzophenanthidine alkaloid, chelidonine.
Nevertheless, it's a unique, delightful plant. Each flower bursts forth from a hairy, leafless stem that curves like a question mark. When a strong gust of wind further punctuates the plant, the petals drop to the ground. Spent. How fragile are the flowers!
Cultivars can be yellow, salmon, pink, orange, rose, cream and white, as well as tri-colored. The ones in our bee garden are Champagne Bubbles, 15-inch plants in yellow, orange, pink, scarlet, apricot and cream.
Some of the other cultivars bear equally enticing names like Flamenco, Wonderland, Party Fun, Illumination, Meadow Pastels, Victory Giants, Oregon Rainbows and Matador.
Today the honey bees and syrphid flies (aka hover flies or flower flies) jockeyed for position, almost engaging in critter combat in a swirl of autumn color, a veritable kaleidoscope of activity.
Matadors in the Champagne Bubbles...