Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bumblebee Photos (and Scientific Names)

We have created a poster of Bumblebees of Thurston County, Washington.  I've selected four of the best BBee photos of each species, two each male and female, that Nancy has taken over the past few years, and posted it to our Bumblebees page, along with some other information.  In process I am getting better with my i.d. of them.

To you who resist using scientific names, sorry.  But most of the common names are so confusing
as to be completely unhelpful, and I have omitted them.  For example, the early spring, brilliantly red Bombus melanopygus has a common name of "Black-tailed Bumblebee", even though its black tail is almost hidden from view.  The scientific term does roughly translate to black-tailed bumblebee, but using the scientific name is far less confusing even if at first it is harder to learn or to pronounce.

Sadly, scientific names are themselves far from clear sometimes.  Bombus californicus is being given a new scientific name or rather is having its species status demoted to subspecies status.  This demotion, combining it with a second species - B. fervidus of the eastern U.S. - based on genetic tests -- certainly not based on appearances -- is trying.  Californicus / fervidus is one of several bumbles that are hugely different in appearance but are identified as one species based on genetics and not on appearance and location.  At some point there will be a pendulum swing the other way, just as in the birding world for a while Baltimore and Bullocks Orioles were combined into a single species Northern Oriole, based on some hybrids showing up in the mid-west.

So thus it is that I made this poster partly because to highlight some of Nancy's work, and partly in response to two new Bumblebee books that are both exciting and exasperating.  Bumblebees of the Western United States and Bumble Bees of North America are two books with much in common, including some of the authors and some of the content.  They are rich in content and overwhelming in confusion.  The challenge of, and from my unscholarly point of view, the error made with these books, is a singular determination to speciate bees based significantly on characteristics that can only be determined by capture and kill techniques.  While capture and kill certainly results in one type of accurate result, and does reveal subtle and fascinating details, it clearly has its limits including in promoting reproductive success of bumblebee populations as well as in limiting identification to only a few specialized labs and researchers.
B. californicus (fervidus) female
Bombus californicus (fervidus) male

B. vosnesensikii male
B. vosnesenskii female
The alternative to laboratory examination is field studies - who feeds on what, who mates with whom, and so on.  It is not easy. It is not helped by how surprisingly different males may look from the females.  Consider Bombus californicus (B. fervidus ssp californicus).  The female B. californicus is a mostly black bee with one yellow band (terga) on her abdomen, and yellow shoulders, and a long black head; in contrast, the male B. californicus is a showy mostly all yellow bee that can appear to be strongly striped. Compare B. californicus to B. vosnesenskii.  These two different females bumbles both have yellow shoulders and a yellow band on the 4th terga, but the male vos looks very similar to his female compatriot, with, like her, one yellow band on a mostly black body.

There you have it.  Of course, now as we head into fall, field study slows hugely with most bumblebees closing camp and dying or (if new queens) headed to ground until spring.  Mid-September and we have seen a few fat new queen vos, laden with fluids and calories, and a few workers of a couple of tenacious fall species are still out there.  In the meantime, over the next few months we will sort through photos and observations and work on both this and other pages about our native pollinators.


Additional resources

Bumble Bees of North America,  Paul Williams et al, 2014

Bumblebees of the Western United States,  Jonathon Koch et al, 2012

Xerces Society,

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Language of Chickadees

We woke this morning to heavy rain, the first wet pounder after several weeks of hot & dry weather.  Native to the wet side of the Pacific Northwest, we find this a source of rejoicing.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
So does the world outside of our windows.  As I sit snuggled up in a warm fleece blankie, a small flock of chickadees shows up in the big picture window.  One works its way through the rhododendron beneath the window, picking off scale insects.  Another is using its tiny beak to glean out minute insects from between the shreds of moss that coats the branches.  As I look out the window beyond the rhododendron, I see several chickadees, working almost as a team, methodically providing insect removal service to our yard.  The yard is full of chick chick chick contact calls, as they keep in touch with each other.  The wet conditions deter them not at all.

We have a long relationship with chickadees.  For many years we had a tube feeder stuffed full of their favorite black oil sunflower seeds.  We kept it going year around, and the chickadees were very aware of this.  And on some level, they seemed to recognize us as their neighbors. They seemed to know we lived in the house and that we were no big threat. They also seemed to know that the tall lanky human guy was the one to refill the feeder. Over time they trained us to take care of them.  Here is an example:

In winter, chickadees take their time getting up.  I remember many weekend mornings while we were still in bed, hearing the small local flock of chickadees moving slowly alongside the wall outside our bedroom window.  They were working through the native yew and rhododendrons, quiet sleepy chick chick noises marking their progress.  We knew that their ultimate goal was the front yard, where the tube feeder of sunflower seeds sat.  This was a reliable source of breakfast food.

Every once in a while, the tall lanky guy neglected to fill the feeder.  When the chickadees rounded the corner of the house and discovered this serious betrayal, the sleepy contact noises burst into loud, imperative CHICKa dee  CHICKa dee CHICKa dee as they registered their deep unhappiness with this state of affairs.  But through the course of many years together, we had learned their language. That call was enough to get the lanky guy out of bed, into enough clothes to venture outdoors, where he filled the feeder.  The complaints then stopped, forthwith.

I remember one spring I was laid up with a bad knee, awaiting joint replacement surgery.  I spent a lot of time sitting around that spring, waiting for the operation that would give me relief and make me mobile again.  During that spring we put up a chickadee nest box on the front of the house, near our rarely used front door.  Our invitation was promptly accepted by a pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees, though they had to put a vigorous fight with others of their kind in order to “win” the box.

These chickadees entertained me during that long period of waiting.  I watched them ferry in beaks full of shredded moss to line their nest.  They were pretty sneaky about it:  they would fly into a nearby bush, moss hanging every which way out of their beaks.  They would lurk and look carefully around, very wary, before finally making a mad dash into the depths of the nesting box.  This went on for a few days and finally the nest was done.  From the outside, it appeared to be deserted, but looks were deceiving.  One of the pair was sitting in the box, quietly incubating a clutch of eggs.  The male often found a hidden perch high in a tree nearby.  He would sing a distinctive, mournful DEEE, Deee, dee, a series of notes in a minor, descending scale:  this is the distinct call of breeding chickadees.  As he sang (incessantly) and she sat, the eggs finally hatched and after a few days we would hear tiny peeps as the adults took turns, flying in to stuff their begging maws.

The nesting chickadees seem to get to know us and also knew the usual pattern of visitors to the yard.  For example, the postman always delivered to the wall slot just under the chickadee box.  The birds were not thrilled about his daily incursions but they accepted it with a quiet alarm call.  This call was distinctive: from inside the house I recognized it and would get up and check the mailbox.  They were always right.

They were more unhappy about cat visitors.  Our next door neighbor had a young hunting cat who regularly prowled the yard and killed birds.  The chickadees knew this cat and whenever it appeared, they would let loose a loud volley of Chick a DEE chick a DEE chick a DEE!!  When I heard that call, I knew to get up and chase off the cat.  After a couple of times, the chickadees knew I was available to provide this service and I believe they came to rely on me.  Who was training who, anyway?

While the cat was a serious threat, we had put the nesting box high up on a wall where it was out of the reach of cats, so there was no real risk.  However, the biggest threat to the young nestlings was Stellar’s Jays:  these are large birds who regularly prey on other birds’ eggs and nestlings; they of course fly and can reach into the nest box,  and the chickadee parents are very aware of this.  When the Stellar jay flocks made their circuit through the yard, the chickadees would sound their own version of screaming chickadee hysterics: CHICKA DEE DEEE DEEE CHICKA DEE DEEE DEEEE!!!!!!.  I heard that shrieking and jumped from my chair, chasing off the jays and once again earning my keep in the eyes of the chickadees.

Over that spring, I learned the different calls and was able to predict what the problem was even before I opened the door.  Sometimes I got a mixed message: one day I looked out the window saw Stellar’s Jays, but the call from the chickadees signaled a cat.  I opened out the door and watched the jays attacking the cat, who was attempting to hunt for one of their nestlings.  Jays have seriously long sharp beaks and the flocks they live in are only too happy to go after prowling cats.  As I looked out, it was clear to me that all of us: jays, chickadees and me were really enjoying the sight of the overfed cat put to scrambling, panicked flight.

After a few weeks, the hatchlings fledged and the nest box was empty once again.  But throughout the year, the chickadees continued to glean in our yard, to come to the feeder, speaking their own language and allowing us a window into their lives.  It remains one of my favorite memories as a bird watcher.

Janet Partlow
•  Photos by Nancy Partlow
•  Short YouTube by Nancy Partlow:  Chickadees at a nest box  (Mason bees in foreground)
•  The Black-capped Chickadee by Susan Smith.  A wonderful book on the lives of these birds.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cedar Waxwings at Tumwater Falls Park

Text, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow

I’ve known for quite a while that woody debris in a river creates great habitat for salmon. But until recently I didn’t realize it does the same thing for birds. My two latest blogs have been about interesting bird activity taking place on or near the log jam in the Deschutes River at Tumwater Falls Park. Less than one block from the busiest interstate highway on the west coast, this recently-created tangle of scoured tree trunks and branches seems a very unlikely wildlife haven.

That is why I was surprised once again to notice something intriguing happening there: a whole flock of birds flitting on and off the wood pile. What was going on? From far away, these birds looked rosy in color, so I thought at first they might be finches. But in checking them out through binoculars, I discovered they were cedar waxwings, and they were "hawking" - catching food on the wing.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I’ve always thought of cedar waxwings as fruit-eating birds. Yet apparently, they really like insects too, because that’s what they were going after on the log pile. Some sort of winged insect "hatch" was in progress, and as the tiny critters zipped sky-bound from the jumble of dead wood, the waxwings were launched into a frenzy of competition to see who could grab them first from mid-air.
Some of the birds seemed to be gathered around a small shaded area of the wood pile, like campers congregating around a campfire, staring intently into the flames. But what the birds were watching for were diminutive sparks of life flying upward into the daylight – sparks that were almost instantly snuffed out by the waxwings’ prowess. Other waxwings hung out on the periphery of the log jam, their sharp eyes open for any insects that made it past ground zero.

It was impossible to discern from so far away exactly what the insects were, but my sister Janet, who one day accompanied me to the platform overlooking the river, surmised that they must be termite "alates", the reproductive form of the insect, which could be either female queens or male drones. We referred to these creatures as "salmon flies" when we were kids.
It makes sense that termites would make a home in all that dead wood. It also makes sense that birds would take advantage of such a great source of protein, because it wasn’t just cedar waxwings going after the bugs. Several Violet-green swallows swooped back and forth low over the falls, snatching any insects the waxwings missed.

A Spotted sandpiper appeared on the scene to glean bugs that had fallen into the river. It was exciting to see it. Until a couple of years ago, I only knew sandpipers as the little birds that scurry around in big flocks at ocean beaches, poking their bills into the sand. I had no idea that there was such a thing as solitary, fresh-water sandpipers until I spied one foraging along the shores of the Deschutes estuary and asked Janet about it.  

This one was in full breeding plumage – dark on top with a white spotted belly and an orange beak. It blended in beautifully with its surroundings.

The waxwings too, were beautiful. One of the most nattily plumed of songbirds, waxwings seem to wear evening dress while the rest of the avian world wears workaday clothes.

Only a few of the birds that we saw had the red wing tips (not really wax, but extensions of adult secondary wing feathers) that the birds are known for, leading us to guess that most of them might be young, first-year birds. 
We had learned that the yellow coloration of the waxwings’ tail feathers are the result of diet, and that in recent years some birds have been observed with orange tail feathers due to their eating of non-native berries like pyracantha.

The frenetic insect hunt on the log jam continued for several weeks, until it eventually slowed down to a just a few birds participating. Maybe the waxwings lost interest as their favorite food, berries, began to ripen in the warm summer sun.
But as I have finally learned, there will always be something intriguing happening there, even if it’s not readily apparent. I now eagerly await the next natural wonders to be revealed by the Deschutes River at Tumwater Falls Park. 
Here are a couple more videos:
Cedar waxwings as viewed from the other side of the log jam: 
Spotted Sandpiper feeding off a log in the Deschutes River:

This link goes to a blog about a group of bird banders and their experiences with cedar waxwings.  It includes pictures of birds with orange tail feathers: 
Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds web site describes the cedar waxwing thus:
A treat to find in your binocular viewfield, the Cedar Waxwing is a silky, shiny collection of brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers. In fall these birds gather by the hundreds to eat berries, filling the air with their high, thin, whistles. In summer you’re as likely to find them flitting about over rivers in pursuit of flying insects, where they show off dazzling aeronautics for a forest bird.
Wikipedia’s entry on Cedar Waxwings explains how the species got its name:

These birds' most prominent feature is this small cluster of red wax-like droplets on tips of secondary flight feathers on the wings… The tail is typically yellow or orange depending on diet. Birds that have fed on berries of introduced Eurasian honeysuckles while growing tail feathers will have darker orange-tipped tail-feathers.
The Cedar Waxwing eats berries and sugary fruit year-round, including "dogwood, serviceberry, cedar, juniper, hawthorn, and winterberry", with insects becoming an important part of the diet in the breeding season. Its fondness for the small cones of the Eastern Red-Cedar (a kind of juniper) gave this bird its common name.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Dippers and the Caddisflies

By Nancy Partlow

I took my Dad to Tumwater Falls Park recently. I wanted to show him the Canada goose that was nesting in the wood pile atop the upper Deschutes falls. As I rolled him in his wheelchair to a platform overlooking the river, I glanced down and right in front of us I saw my favorite bird – Cinclus mexicanus, the American Dipper.
It was hunting from atop a log - diving quickly in and out of the swiftly flowing water behind the falls. I knew it must be feeding young, but there were no babies apparent in the immediate area. Dad and I were both amazed at how fast the bird was jumping in the river, retrieving its prey, knocking it on the log, and diving back in again. We couldn’t figure out what it was going after. They didn’t look like salmon smolts, which I had seen a dipper gathering in abundance last spring at the lower falls. What could they be?

The next morning I returned to the platform to check out the goose, which was still incubating eggs, and briefly caught sight of a Spotted Sandpiper flitting off the woodpile. Then, as I had hoped, the dipper returned to the log, this time with a baby. 

The bird resumed its activities of the previous day, but now with my zoom camera, I was finally able to figure out what its prey item was – fat, juicy caddisfly larvae. 

I was excited. I remembered learning about Deschutes River caddisfly larvae as a youngster. My brother, a fisherman, had shown me the clever little houses called “cases” that these aquatic insect grubs create out of the river-bottom materials of teeny pebbles and sand. It was one of those “isn’t nature amazing” moments that stick with you for the rest of your life. And here was the dipper eating them. There must have been hundreds of these creatures submerged beneath this small stretch of river because empty caddisfly cases littered the log’s surface. 

Fascinated, I watched as time and again the parent grabbed a larva by its head (the only part of the insect sticking out of the case) and banged the case on the log until the bug inside was knocked insensible and relaxed its grip on its only source of protection. The bird did this several times in a row until it had gathered up a mouth full of grubs, which it then unceremoniously stuffed down the gullet of the loudly-begging baby dipper.

Occasionally the caddisfly worm was so far inside the case that the dipper couldn’t grab its head. When that happened, the bird would take the whole case in its beak and knock it on the log to dislodge its tenant. 

Other times it tried unsuccessfully to poke its beak into the case to grab the recalcitrant food morsel inside.

Obviously, dippers have a well-honed search image for such underwater prey, no doubt aided by the protective shields on their eyes called nictitating membranes. Many people mistake the dippers’ striking white eyelids for these membranes, but bird authority David Sibley dispels that notion.

All of the parent bird’s feathers were worn from months of indefatigable use, but in spite of this, the dipper was singing! 

Dippers are America’s only aquatic songbirds, and this one was showing off its vocal prowess; perhaps teaching its baby how to sing, or maybe just warbling its exuberance at finding such a great food source. Whatever the reason, it was fun to hear.

Naturalist John Muir was enamored of the American Dipper, which he called the Water Ouzel, and wrote extensively about it. His description of its song is pure poetry:
The more striking strains are perfect arabesques of melody, composed of a few full, round, mellow notes, embroidered with delicate trills which fade and melt in long slender cadences. In a general way his music is that of the streams refined and spiritualized. The deep booming notes of the falls are in it, the trills of rapids, the gurgling of margin eddies, the low whispering of level reaches, and the sweet tinkle of separate drops oozing from the ends of mosses and falling into tranquil pools. 

The tranquility of the two dippers in front of me was abruptly ended when a crow landed nearby. All singing stopped, and the dipper baby, which had been bobbing incessantly, froze in place, becoming the proverbial bump on the log.
The crow, which seemed more interested in what the dippers were eating, soon moved on, at which point the baby tentatively explored the more placid waters next to the log. I enjoyed watching it learn how to become a dipper.

The next day when I returned to the park, I saw the parent dipper foraging the rapids below the upper falls, trying valiantly to keep two persistently-begging babies fed.
The parent was not nearly as successful in finding food as the previous day, and was too busy to sing. 
The water above the falls was noticeably lower and clearer, revealing a cobbled river bottom with no caddisfly cases to be seen.
Perhaps the dipper had hunted them all out. Hopefully, by next spring there will be another bumper crop of these intriguing insects to feed the next generation of dippers at Tumwater Falls Park.


All photos and videos by Nancy Partlow



Dippers must be pretty tough to survive the constant battering of their dynamic environment of cold, fast-moving water. Their range extends into northern Alaska, where they are able to endure temperatures down to 20 degrees below zero. A friend recently told me that the first time he ever saw an American Dipper was in a stream at Paradise in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Here’s a photo that gives a sense of how resilient these birds are:

Here are a couple of truly gorgeous images by photographer Eugene Beckes of an American dipper with caddisfly larvae in its mouth:


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Along the Shores of Puget Sound

It was over fifty years ago that I was a child, beach combing at my great-uncle Wilmot’s bay place on the western shores of Budd inlet. He had a small sliver of land along Little Tykle cove. It was a scary twisty road through a narrow ravine down to his place; those dripping fern-choked hillsides washed down rich sediments each winter into the bay. This created a fertile tidal estuary: it was as if nature herself set a banquet table for all of the marine life of the bay...
Little Tykle Cove, (Olympia, WA)

Shirley Patterson, circa 1930
I loved beach combing along these muddy shores. I came to it quite naturally: my mom Shirley also grew up along Budd Inlet and was an addict for agates and shells. Every low tide in summer she and my grandma would stuff all us kids into my grandma’s 1957 blue VW van and we’d tootle “down to the bay”, where we spent hours exploring the life of the mudflats. My mom was a self-taught beach naturalist and it was to her I would take my treasures and questions about what I saw. She always knew the answers; this magical beach world was as much home to her as it became to me.

One of my all time favorite shells are the Slipper Shells. These are pretty odd shells, fairly ordinary on top but when you turn them over, you see a thin half shelf inside. They were uncommon on Uncle Wilmot’s beach, but I learned to find them in one particular place right on the edge of the Little Tykle Creek as it emerged into the gravel-mud beach. To me these shells were profoundly magical: I thought of them as Faery shoes. Sometimes we also called them cradle shells and I imagined the Faery, packing their youngsters into these shells and floating them off under the starlight night...
Now some fifty years later, I am reviving my passion for beach combing. Here in the southern end of Puget Sound, we are fortunate to have a group called South South Estuary Association*.   For the past few years they have trained enthusiastic volunteers to be beach naturalists. These people take shifts at low tide in summer at several of our local beaches: these include Tolmie, Burfoot and West Bay Rotary park. Here the next generation of young beachcombers can come, pick their way around the tidal mudflats and also have access to people like my mom to help answer questions about the rich diversity of life.

I have joined the beach naturalists and am currently in training. We were asked to pick a “critter” and do a talk on it. I immediately jumped on the slipper shells. Here is what I found:

They are a kind of mollusk, known as a gastropod (stomach foot). They start out life as tiny larvae swimming in the plankton, but after about three -five weeks in the sea, they drop down to the sea floor, living in the deep sub tidal waters where we are unlikely to find them except in the lowest tides. Here they attach to some hard surface, growing into the snail that lives in this unique shell. And where they drop out is is generally where they spend the rest of their lives. They may live up to 10 years.

Slipper shells on a Moonsnail
They are filter feeders. When the plankton-rich tide comes in, they ooze out a fleshy mantle under their shell. This mantle produces mucous to which food particles can stick. They use cilia to reel these food particles back into their radula (tongue) and digest them. As long as they have access to a rich plankton source, they are good to go ( or stay, as in this case).

They attach to all kinds of hard surfaces: rocks, floats, pilings and other shells. Here is picture of several of them attached to a Moon Snail, another common marine animal on our beaches.

There are several species in Puget Sound. Probably the most common is one from the Atlantic beaches that was introduced with non-native oysters. This one with a white chalky outer shell is called Crepidula fornicata, a highly suggestive name which refers to their life habit as sequential hermaphrodites. The way it appears to work is that a female lands on the hard surface first. A male then comes along and attaches to her.
Cluster of Slipper shells, off Cooper Point, (Olympia WA)

Then other males may come along as well, attaching in turn until you can see quite a large pile of slipper shells. This system works well for reproduction: the animal has everything it needs right there and doesn’t have to move. However, if the female on the bottom of the dog pile dies, the other slipper shells have the ability to change sex! This is remarkable system.

The Atlantic species C. fornicata is quite numerous along the eastern seaboard. While they live in the deep intertidal waters, once they die their shells are cast up on the beach. Here is a photo published by "Maggie's Farm" from along the Connecticut seacoast, where literally thousands of slipper shells have washed ashore.

Slipper shells on a Connecticut beach, cast up by winter storms.
It has been years since I visited Little Tykle Cove, but recently my cousins inherited the place and moved back in. So my sister Nancy and I went down to visit; I knew exactly where to look for Slipper Shells and indeed I found them, right on the bank of Little Tykle Creek. That was a wonderful moment: it took me right back to my childhood, to those hours spent roaming that beach, learning from my mother and having my first naturalist seeds planted in me. My mom has now passed on, but somehow I just know she is having a great time exploring the tidal beaches of heaven, finding all the best shells and looking forward to the time when she can show them to me... .


Resources: South Sound Estuary Association 
Photo of cluster of slipper shells by Wendy Eklund


* South Sound Estuary Association is a local jewel.  They have lots of wonderful (free) education about our local estuaries.  They offer regular summer low tide walks, staffed by volunteer beach naturalists.  They lead monthly Pier walks at Boston Harbor marina, where at night a light is lowered off the dock:  all kinds of amazing creatures are drawn to the light.  There are local experts and volunteers who answer questions about what is seen.
      They also have a small building down by the Farmer’s Market at 608 Washington NE, Olympia.  Here for a small entrance fee you can visit this "estuarium" and see the salt water tanks, full of the wonderful creatures of Puget Sound.  Highly recommended.
     They are planning on moving to a larger facility on State Street, probably later this summer.  They are in the process of raising money and donations are always welcome. You can check their webpage at to find beach walk schedules, Pier night schedules, Estuarium hours and ways to donate. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Geese in the Woodpile

By Nancy Partlow

At Tumwater Falls Park a few weeks ago, I saw a goose wandering around the log jam at the top of upper Deschutes Falls.  It was such an odd sight that I had to take a second look. As I watched the goose settle into a certain spot, it occurred to me she might have a nest there.  Sure enough, when I looked through my binoculars, she was firmly ensconced atop a mound of carefully arranged sticks she had built to incubate her eggs. 

The next day I brought my Dad to see the goose.  At 96 years old with limited mobility, he doesn’t get much of a chance to experience wild nature these days.  I gave him my binoculars and pointed out where she was on the woodpile, since with her coloration she was very cryptic in that setting. 

We both enjoyed observing the bird through binos and camera screen, especially when she stood up in the soft, goose-down lined nest and gently turned her eggs to ensure even warmth from her breast. 

A few days later I returned to see if any of the babies had hatched, and was excited to note that she had three babies beneath her and some still-unhatched eggs in the nest.

I was kind of worried though, because throughout this whole thing, I had never seen a mate for the mother goose.  Could she raise a whole family on her own?
A couple days later, we were surprised to find the nest empty.  There were two adult geese poking around the nest, but no babies in sight.  What had happened to them? 

Just as we were about to leave, my Dad said, “There they are!”  The whole family was together; mother, father and six yellow, cute-as-could-be feather balls. 

The gander was very protective.  When two other geese, curious about the new babies, paddled near the nest, he pursued them up the river in an explosive fury of wings and honks.                                                   

The babies stayed near their mother, forming a tight little scrum whenever she moved away a few feet.  But as the mother moved around the woodpile, the babies followed her, struggling their way over the jumble of branches and sticks.  When she rested, they formed a beautiful scene.
I felt honored to have witnessed this process.


All photos and videos by Nancy Partlow

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Life Underfoot ~~ or ~~ The Pyramids of Beeza

Last Spring I was introduced to an aggregation of solitary bees nesting underground, in the lawn and landscape of an Olympia area home.  I was able to watch it regularly last year and this year have observed them a few times more.  The population remains robust as does my fascination for them.  While I have not actually counted, I suspect that there are tunnel entrances near a hundred.
I have learned a lot about these bees in the past year.  Tempting to describe this population a "colony", this inacurately suggests (at least according to bee experts) that there is organization and leadership.  So instead a massed population of solitary bees is called an aggregation -- a build-it-yourself housing complex minus the manager.  This aggregation that I'm watching starts where a concrete driveway and gravel parking bed borders a casual, mowed patch of lawn.  Along the gravel parking the (human) residents have placed lengths of round red timbers as a decorative border. Under the timbers the bees push and dig their way along the board and then continue excavating into the soil. Elsewhere are telltale soil mounds that surround each entry and these wonderful little pyramids, called tumuli, (singular: tumulus) extend several feet from the driveway edge into the lawn and garden beds.

It surprises me as to how many years I took for granted the many little mounds of dirt in garden edge and sidewalk crack, of life underground.  Admittedly they are mysterious and a bit frustrating.  Last year Janet and Nancy and I sat with these bees for an hour watching them, and Nancy and I each tried with only modest success to photograph them. These bees circle and circle several holes, forcing us into a guessing game of which hole to watch, and then "poof" the bee vanishes down one of them.  This year I tried again. Blurry as these photos may be, they are for now our best.
Look close - an ant "hitchhiker" on this one's back.
The bee did not fly until after the ant disembarked.

Identification of ground nesting bees begins with how the bee forms her individual nest cells and what physical adaptations she possesses for building underground. Some bees are easy to identify on the wing and in the flower.  Many are not.  Some are bigger than a honeybee, many more are very small.  Of the thousands of species of bees in the world, 70 percent are said to nest in the soil.   Seventy percent!!  That means that even in western Washington there likely are several dozen species of ground nesting bees. 

Bee approaching ground nest. Nancy Partlow 2013
The three main ground-nest building families (in North America) - Andrenidae, Halictidae, and Colletedae, are separated by very different UNDERGROUND habits.  Identification often requires a microscope, a shovel, or both. 

• Halictidae includes sweat bees, are usually very small and metallicly shiny.  Many are communal, sharing a common entrance and for a few there is even some shared provisioning and patroling, though usually every female is an egg layer. Some do not nest in the ground.

drawing from UC Riverside 2003 webpage
 adaped from from Stephen et al., 1969
UCR link no longer works.
• Colletidae bees are a "short-tongued" solitary bee and and also called polyester bees, because they coat each cell wall with an organic polyester that becomes a waterproof sack.  Using glandular secretions, she paints the cell with her very distinctive tongue.  She provisions into the sack a wet mix of pollen and nectar, lays one egg, and seals it up.  Often the food mass is soupy and the egg may be attached to the sack above the food. 

• Andrenidae bees are a "long tongued" ground nesting bee.  The female plasters a (different) glandular mix onto the cell wall with a special paddle part of her hind end; her mixture glues the soil together.  The food mass is typically more solid than Colletids.  Some andrenids are parasitic "cuckoo bees" that rely on others bees to build and provision nests that they then overtake.  There are many different species of Andrenidae bees; the subject of this blog is probably one. *

There are other groups of bees that also nest underground.  Bumblebees often nest in the ground, depending upon what they find that suits them, and have different habits.

When a year ago I started watching these bees I also started this post, then set it aside.  Perhaps it is a character flaw, but if I'm going to write about some creature and pretend that I know something, I want to be to able to identify it at least to family and hopefully to genus.  Here it is, a year later, and still I remain unable to put a name to this bee.  In this last year it did become a minor mission to learn more about mining bees.  The mission will continue.  And, while I still have not identified the subject of this post, I am at least more at peace with my public ignorance.


* I have since learned from fellow bee friend Rusty that this is indeed an Andrenid bee. Getting this bee to Genus will have to do, is where our knowledge stops, is as far as her informant is willing to go.  If pressed, we might be able to narrow it down to one of a dozen or two possiblities, based on location, size, etc., but I am pleased that I can get this far -- and presently not driven to go farther.

Visit Rusty Burlew's page for better photos and more detailed info as to why these are Andrena.
GB 5/23/14

Bugguide - Native Bees of North America

Photos Glen Buschmann unless otherwise credited.