Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Crocus Hotels

Today was another bumblebee hunt day. I was sitting in the sunny south-facing living room window around 2 pm, sluggish and trying to get myself out of the chair. Suddenly a Red-butt bumblebee queen (B. melanopygus) came bouncing around the window. The hunter-gatherer in me woke up abruptly and was more than ready to go outside.

So I gathered up camera, binoculars, sketchbook and insect collecting cup and went out the front door, juggling all these things as I went down the steps. Suddenly, eight feet ahead of me I saw a Red-butt: she seemed to be checking out some early orange crocus we have blooming along the walkway. I promptly dropped everything but the camera and managed to get a few shots of her, with her head deep in the flower taking in nectar, and her wide-load butt hanging over the edge.

Until last year, I was never much of a fan of crocus. But some field work last March changed my mind. I came home from a bumblebee survey around 4:15 pm. The sun was leaving the yard and the temperature was dropping rapidly. My eyes happened to catch the sight of a Red-butt bumblebee curled up in a white/purple crocus along the walkway. As I approached closely to check, she did not move. She almost appeared to be dead, though groggy movements of legs convinced me otherwise.

I knew the night was expected to get down in the 20’s. In a panic, I collected her along with the flower and brought her inside. I put her in a box away from the bustle of the house, and let her stay overnight. I did some quick research and found out that bumblebees like a solution of half sucrose, half water. I quickly made some up and added it to the box.

Throughout all this she barely moved. The next morning she barely moved. I put a dry towel in her cup, as she appeared both wet and disheveled. By noon, when I checked again, she had clearly groomed the wet off her fur, along with some crocus pollen, and looked normal, albeit groggy. I decided to put her outside in some heath flowers. She continued to be very sluggish. I left the house for work; by the time I returned around 3:00 pm, she had disappeared.

What I now believe is that these late winter queens spend much of their time in a torpid state, holding on to their reserves until better conditions arise. I think their active time of day in late winter is between 2 and 4 pm. I think now that as the temperatures dropped, she chose that crocus. Now I believe that I should have just let her alone. She knew what she was doing.

As it turns out, crocus flowers CLOSE UP at night, wrapping the bee in a protective floral cocoon. The crocus are full of both nectar and pollen so if the bee does wake up, she has food ready at hand. Finally, the crocus flower is tuned to the sun; it will not open up the next morning until it has the full life-giving rays of the sun on it. So in a way, it acts as a wake-up call for the torpid bee.

The bees know what they are doing. My job is to learn to trust them.


Resources: The Xerces Society

Monday, February 16, 2009

Anna's Hummingbirds: Red in beak & claw

We have had Anna’s hummingbirds in our yard since last Thanksgiving, when one made a memorable appearance in our front window. I was hugely surprised to see a hummer in late November. I went outside and checked the garden: we still had fuschia, figwort, penstemon and snapdragon all blooming, so in retrospect, it was not a huge surprise that hummingbirds would come to the table we had laid for them.

A few weeks later, in early December, we decided to put up perch-type window feeders to allow us some up close views of them. From my reading, it turns out that Anna’s each have unique and individual patterns of feathers, especially in the neck part called the gorget. From our close up views, photos and drawings, we determined that we had one female dominating in our yard.

She has a big gorget for a female, and some distinctive white feathers over her shoulder (scapular). We named her Big G, both for the gorget and also her supersize, dominant personality. There is another female with a miniscule gorget, a slightly shorter bill and a strong post-ocular spot: probably a first year female. We call her Little G. Finally there is at least one male who visits occasionally: he lives across the street at our neighbor’s feeders, and only every once in a while intrudes on Big G.

So this has been the pattern in winter. Big G rules the roost, chasing off all other birds. Little G sneaks in for occasional sips ( what David Hutchinson mentioned in his talk on Anna’s hummingbirds: “the sneaky acquisition of resources”). And I have watched on several occasions as Big G chases off the male from across the street.

So now we are in mid-February. Today was President’s day, a beautiful 50+ sunny day where spring makes some tentative steps forward. My friend Cathy and I came home from a happy day of watching hawks and were standing in the front yard around 4:30 pm, near the feeders. This is the time when we tend to see more of the hummers at the feeders as they fill their tanks to get through another cold winter night.

Suddenly, we heard a distinctive TZZZT song repeating over and over again: this is what David had described as the spring territorial song of male Anna’s hummers. Suddenly there were two males in the yard, circling around and around, chasing and TZZZTing each other, buzzing their wings with great abandon, puffing up their gorget feathers at each other and in general, displaying zero tolerance towards the other.

This went on for a good ten minutes, as Cathy and I tried to sort out who’s on first, what’s happening, where are they perching, etc. After awhile, we noticed Big G in the yard, perched in her usual spot on the south side of the lilac shrub ( not coincidentally 8 feet from the feeder). Contrary to her usual behavior, she sat very still and quiet. There were none of the usual chittering chip calls she makes to express her annoyance at any intruder.

Then we noticed that the census of males had dropped down to one: he perched in the maple tree maybe 8 feet from her and made nonstop TZZZT sounds, which she seemed to ignore. Finally he made a lunge straight at her: there was lots of chittering buzzing calls, swirling closed circling flights around each other. I had the sense they were beating each other with their wings, if not beaks and claws. One bird drove the other bird to the ground, under the low deck beyond our vision, but we continued to hear lots of vocalizing and beating of wings against the wood of the deck. Finally one bird shot off; we didn’t see what happened to the other bird. About 10 minutes later I saw Big G at the feeder, apparently none the worse for wear. I don’t know about the male. (When I told Glen about it later, we looked at each other with and speculated about how maybe he should go under the deck with a flashlight. We decided not to; I don't wanna know).
So Cathy and I stood there with our mouths agape, deeply stunned by the ferocity of the fight. I think we humans tend to think of hummers as delicate and sweet birds. Au contraire.

I include in this blog a picture I found on the internet; according to Sheri Williamson, the hummer expert who interpreted this photo, this was most likely a territorial fight, and the young bird lying dodo on the ground was the loser. The person who took the photo said that both birds got up and got away.



Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Rough skinned Newt and the Mallard

Mike from Maple Valley wrote in about Rough skinned Newts. He had heard that they could be toxic, and was wondering about this. It reminded me of a nature experience I had had.

It was in May several years ago that I was out at McClane Creek. For you out-of-towners, this is a DNR park with a freshwater stream and series of beaver ponds, enclosed by second-growth forest and surrounded by the Black Hills which rise west of Olympia. Local nature watchers love this place, Glen and I included.

In May there's a lot to see. On sunny days, the beaver ponds warm up and you can watch the Rough skinned Newts in great numbers.

So one sunny day, I'm sitting there, watching the birds, the newts, the blue sky overhead, enjoying the season. My attention is caught by some vigorous splashing by an adult male mallard duck, who has just come up with a Rough skinned Newt, and is happily chowing down on it. I watch in horrified fascination as this mallard gums and gags it down, softening it up enough to get it down his throat.

I had heard that these newts are extremely poisonous. I continued to watch the duck for some time, but it showed no ill effects. I later contacted Kelly McAllister, one of our local herpetologists who lives in Olympia. I told him this story; as I recall he said to me: "Well, that's one dead duck".

Apparently there is enough toxin in one rough skinned newt to kill 25 people (or ducks). That's how toxic they are. The toxin is extruded through the skin of the newt, and then has to get into the victim's stomach and be at least partially digested: it's when it hits the liver that it does its damage. That's why the mallard showed no ill effects right away. It also may be true that if you handle a newt, and you have a cut on your hand, it is possible enough toxin could get in to cause some trouble. So the rule of thumb is: either wear gloves when handling these guys, and/or wash your hands well afterwards.

Now I wouldn't necessarily give male mallards a membership to Mensa, but I still don't get it: how does this duck who spends his whole life in wetlands not know these newts are a problem?
Did he not taste the toxin on the newt's skin? Was he blind to the warning coloration?

You got me.


Photo by Miguel Vieira from flickr creativecommons

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The First Queen Yellow-Faced Bumblebee

Okay, now I know that spring is starting to ramp up. It was 60 degrees today, a full sun in a hazy sky and so warm I didn't need a coat. I had a bazillion other things to do, but by 2:30 pm I knew I HAD to go back to my favorite heather patch to look for more bumblebees.

Well, yesterday's Red-Butt Queen didn't show up. That was the bad news. The really great news is that a second species of just-emerging bumblebee queens was there: Bombus vosnesenkii. They are also called the Yellow-faced Bumblebees (for fairly obvious reasons)!

I love these queens. They are huge, as bumblebees go. They are big black bumblebees, with a distinctive thin yellow stripe on the lower abdomen, yellow shoulders and a fuzzy yellow face between black compound eyes. Their temperament is usually pretty mellow and this queen allowed me to get right up next to her, so I could actually get a good look at her. I watched her for ten minutes.

So keep your eye out for a likely patch of heather on a sunny, south-facing slope. You never know what you might find.


"The Natural History of Bumblebees" by Carol Kearns and James Thomson
"Humblebee Bumblebee" by Brian Griffin

The First Queen Red-Butt Bumblebee

Yesterday was a good day to go hunting for queen bumblebees. I’d been watching the Weather Channel, looking ahead for the right kind of day: early February, sunny, 50 degrees+, so I knew this day was coming. The spring bumblebees have also taught me that 2-4 pm on such days is the prime time, so I scheduled my day accordingly.

I went over to the mobile home park in Tumwater that is one of my preferred hunting grounds. I drove up to an old, very well-established hedge of heather that gets strong afternoon sun. And viola! As I drove up, I saw my first queen of the season: Bombus melanopygus. It was a great moment: full of joy, and a certain pleasure that I had learned enough about the bees to be able to predict how to find them.

This queen Red-Butt ( yes, we call them that, however rude it is: it’s very memorable) was probably born in May 2008. She came out of her hive a virgin; she probably spent a month or so feeding on pollen & nectar, especially from rhododendrons, helping restock the hive. She also likely found a male drone and began to carry his sperm. By the end of May, she found a place to live for the next several months: she chose a protected shady bank of soil, and began to dig. She dug out a long tunnel; finally at the end, deep enough to protect her, she created a small chamber called a hibernaculum. Here she curled up and sank into a deep torpor.

After eight months underground, the lengthening, warming days have helped her stir from her torpor. I also believe she may be able to smell the fragrance of the first flowers, and this may call her out. However it happens, she awoke. She dug herself back out of her hibernaculum and emerged into the sun. Here she angled the top of her thorax to warm herself from the sun’s rays, groomed off the dirt, used the scent plates on her antennae to find the smell of nectar and launched herself into the world once again.

I watched this queen bee for ten minutes. She was moving a little slow, but was very purposeful in her activity, clambering over the tiny heather blossoms, unfolding her tongue sheath, and probing inside the flowers for nectar. This life-giving nectar is critical to her survival in the next several cold weeks.

As the sun lowered in the sky, she finally took off, heading west northwest. She may return to her hibernaculum, or find another sheltered place to spend the night. As the days go on, she will start to seek out a place to build her hive: a mouse hole in the ground, a birdbox with last year’s chickadee nest, the wall of a cedar house where her mother may have nested the year before. Here she starts her own small hive, and the whole cycle of life begins again.

Hunting these bees has been a solitary pleasure, as few other people even know about them. But Glen and I have been teaching a class on our native pollinators; it was with great pleasure and pride that I arrived home after my own successful hunt and found an email/ photo from one of our students Bill Hansen, who had also seen his first Red-Butt Queen today.

And so the cycle of life goes on...

Thanks to Bill Hansen for his photo of the Queen on the white heather.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Red backed Jumping Spider

So it was Sunday morning. Glen was reading by the sunny front window, when I heard him say: "Whoa, Janet, get in here quick, there's a jumping spider with a red back!" That was enough to get me into the living room, grabbing the camera as I went.

He was right. This one is called (appropriately enough) the Red backed Jumping Spider, or Phiddipus johnsoni. At least, probably. A quick email/photo sent to Rod Crawford, our local spider expert from the University of Washington Burke museum said it was probably this species, one molt away from adulthood. He thought it might be overwintering here, and advised the best thing we could do for it was to let it find shelter in a cool place to finish out its winter life.

We caught it and took a few bad photos of it, (in the process making the decision it's time to get a macro lens for the camera). The spider withstood our curiosity quite well. Some sources describe this spider as "fearless" and indeed, that was my impression as well.

We have had a special fondness for jumping spiders for many years. My first memorable encounter was one summer. I was sitting in the living room reading, and my deep concentration was disturbed by a house fly, buzzing around me, the lamp, the windows, with that typical fly annoying behavior. I made a mental note to try and catch it to put outside the next time I got up, and went back to my book.

My concentration was again broken when I suddenly heard a very loud, very persistent odd buzzing from that fly. I got up to check it out (naturalists are hugely curious) and found it in the grip of a jumping spider. Apparently the fly had blundered into the window edge near a hunting jumping spider. The spider jumped out, seized the fly, wrapped all 8 legs around the fly and bit it, injecting its venom.

Until the venom took full effect, the spider could only squeeze all of those eight legs around the struggling fly, hang on grimly and wait for paralysis. I watched for about a minute, listening to the frantic buzzing, until finally, the fly went limp. The spider then scuttled off with its unwieldly prey.

Maybe the story is gruesome for some, but not for me. Predators have a place in the world, too. The only true difference between human and spider predators is that we humans hunt our meat in the local supermarket.

So Glen & I happily tolerate jumping spiders in our house, because they do a fine job of keeping other annoying insects under control.

So what happened to our Red backed visitor? It managed to get away, and drop somewhere behind the bookshelf. We hope it takes Rod's advice, and finds a cool, sheltered place to spend the rest of the winter. I look forward to seeing it again.


=Photos and background from Wikipedia
=Check out Rod Crawford's webpage: