When was the last time you sighted a bumble bee? Photographed it?
It's National Pollinator Week and one of our favorite bumble bees is the yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii. It was also a favorite of internationally renowned bee expert Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, who passed away June 7 at age 85. (See obituary)
In fact, all bumble bees were his favorite, including the elusive Franklin's bumble bee, found only in a small range in southern Oregon and northern California and now feared extinct. We remember a July 2010 interview with Thorp:
“People often ask the value of Franklin's bumble bee," Thorp told us. "In terms of a direct contribution to the grand scale of human economies, perhaps not much, but no one has measured its contribution in those terms. However, in the grand scheme of our planet and its environmental values, I would say it is priceless.”
“Loss of a species, especially a pollinator, diminishes our global environment,” he said. “Bumble bees provide an important ecological service--pollination. This service is critical to reproduction of a huge diversity of plants that in turn provide shelter, food (seeds, fruits) to diverse wildlife. The potential cascade of effects from the removal of even one localized pollinator may affect us directly and indirectly.”
Thorp treasured bumble bees and encouraged everyone else to do so, too.
The yellow-faced bumble bees are native to the west coast of North America, from Baja California to British Columbia. They're important pollinators, especially important for their buzz pollination of tomatoes, peppers and cranberries. Buzz pollination occurs when they grab a blossom and shake it, dislodging the pollen. Honey bees can't do that.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation recently posted that one quarter (28 percent) of North American bumble bees are in some degree of extinction risk. "Bumble bees face many threats including habitat loss, disease, pesticide use, and climate change." (See more information on bumble bees on the Xerces' site.)
Meanwhile, "across the pond," London has established a seven-mile long bee corridor of wildflowers just for pollinators.
"The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) said wild mammals had declined by 82 per cent since 1980, space for natural ecosystems had halved, and one million species were now at risk of extinction as a result of human action," according to a May 7, 2019 article in The Independent newspaper. "Insect pollinators are vital for the maintenance of ecosystem health and for global food security. Insects are required to maintain the existence of 75 per cent of crop species, 35 per cent of global crop production and up to 88 per cent of flowering plant species," reporter Harry Cockburn wrote.
Want to learn more about the bumble bees around us? A good start is to read these two books, both co-authored by Thorp in his retirement: Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University, 2014) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday, 2014).
And, if you would like to get involved in citizen science, Bumble Bee Watch seeks your sightings.
Bumble bees foraging on almond blossoms.
Make that the yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, in Benicia.
Sunday morning as the temperatures soared to 62 degrees in the Matthew Turner Park, Benicia, near the Carquinez Straits, bumble bees competed with honey bees for a share of the golden nectar on the blossoming almond trees.
We witnessed near collisions as lumbering bumble bees lugged incredibly heavy loads while their more streamlined cousins, the honey bees, darted, ducked and dipped to avoid them. Definitely a need for air traffic controllers!
"Bumble bee, bumble bee, cleared for take-off."
"Honey bee, honey bee, stand by."
"Bumble bee, bumble bee, permission to land."
"Honey bee, honey bee, exit runway."
"Bumble bee, bumble bee, line up and wait."
"Honey bee, honey bee, cleared for take-off."
What a sight to see and what a beauty of a day to see bumble bees in Benicia.
While folks from Alaska to Colorado to New York to Maine are shivering in freezing temperatures, here in sunny California--well, at least parts of the Golden State are sunny--bumble bees are foraging on winter blooms.
Bumble bees? On the first day of the year?
Yes. We spotted a dozen yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, nectaring this morning in Benicia, Solano County, Calif.
They were foraging on jade at the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park and on rosemary at the Benicia Marina. Honey bees and syrphid flies joined them. We also saw some hungry predators--birds--chasing them.
For the last several years, several of us bumble bee aficionados--led by Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis--seek to find and photograph the first bumble bee of the year.
Last year the big winner was naturalist and insect photographer Allan Jones of Davis. At 2:02 p.m., on Friday, Jan. 27, he alerted us: "Two Bombus melanopygus on manzanita just east of the redwood grove (UC Davis Arboretum)."
And then he found another melanopygus. It was a three-in-one day.
The story behind the story: Inspired by Robbin Thorp, a small group of eager bumble bee aficionados--naturalists and insect photographers Gary Zamzow and Allan Jones of Davis, and yours truly of UC Davis--launched the First-Bumble-Bee-of-the-Year Contest six years ago.
It's a take-off of Art Shapiro's "Beer for a Butterfly" contest. Shapiro, a distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, offers a pitcher of beer for the first cabbage white butterfly (Pierae rapae) of the year found in the three-county area of Sacramento, Yolo and Sacramento. He launched the contest in 1972 as part of his long-term studies of butterfly life cycles and climate.
For us bumble bee aficionados, the prize isn't a pitcher of beer. There's no prize. It's basically to provide a few more eyes to help Robbin Thorp track early-season bumble bees.
Thorp is the co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday).
Meanwhile, look around for bumble bees in your area. You won't find them in the "deep freeze" states like Alaska, North Dakota or Minnesota. And you certainly won't find them in Hettinger, N.D., where the temperature dipped to a negative 45 degrees today.
But if you're in Benicia or another sunny place, it's a Bumble Bee Kind of Day and what a way to begin the New Year!
Happy New Year!
Down on the farm...the Loma Vista Farm....
When the Loma Vista Farm--part of the Vallejo City Unified School District--recently hosted its annual Spring Festival, scores of folks came to see the animals, buy a plant or two, and participate in the many activities.
But if you looked closely, you could see that the farm, located at 150 Rainier,Vallejo, is also a pollinator habitat and home to many insects.
Lady beetles, aka lady bugs, munched on aphids in the garden (the garden feeds Vallejo school children as well). Those pesky spotted cucumber beetles also showed up. We spotted a beneficial insect (lady beetle) and a pest (spotted cucumber beetle) sharing a leaf.
A Western tiger swallowtail fluttered down to the aptly named butterfly bush for a sip of nectar. The caterpillar of an anise swallowtail dined on the leaves of its host plant, anise, also called fennel. (It smells like licorice to us!)
All the while, a colony of yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, went about their bees-ness, entering and exiting a hole in the ground in a pattern that would alarm human air controllers. They zigged, zagged and then bumbled through with huge pollen loads, sometimes nearly colliding.
The Loma Vista Farm is also the habitat of "Farm Keeper" Rita LeRoy, who has worked for the Vallejo school district for 25 years. She teaches students about nature and nutrition through hands-on farm lessons involving cooking, gardening, insect appreciation, and animal care. She is an avid entomological enthusiast, an insect photographer, and a member of the Pollinator Posse.
Founded in 1974, the Loma Vista Farm is described on its website as a 5-acre outdoor classroom that provides hands-on educational activities involving plants and animals for children of all ages and abilities. "We seek to increase students' knowledge of nature and nutrition while enhancing academic learning, ecoliteracy, and psychosocial development."
The farm offers field trips, after-school opportunities through 4-H, community service and volunteer opportunities, garden-based workshops for adults, and job training for college students, developmentally disabled young adults, and disadvantaged youth.
It's open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. during the school year.
It's open to insects year around!
It's raining bumble bees in our pool.
Yellow-faced bumble bees (Bombus vosnesenskii).
And honey bees (Apis mellifera), too.
While nectaring lavender, catmint, tower of jewels, sedum and other plants, some of the foragers land in our pool. Talk about no depth perception.
We fish them out and most survive. (A floating piece of styrofoam now provides them with a little protection from the untimely dips.)
For the two below, it was definitely a bad hair day.