Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Early Spring Pollinators

This hasn't been a great spring for pollinators. The weather has been so cold and wet that there haven't been a whole lot of insects out. They need dry and warm, with temps of at least 50 degrees to emerge and become active. However, on the few precious days meeting that criteria, I emerged to sneak some peeks into the secret lives of insects. Nothing could be more cheering after a long, dark winter.

Some of my favorite pollinators are the first queen bumblebees of the year. Breaking dormancy from their underground hibernacula (latin for "winter residence"), they are hungry for nectar after their many months sleeping in the earth.

Bombus melanopygus was my first sighting, easy to recognize by her bright red stripe around the middle. I was surprised to see her with her head buried deep in a hyacinth blossom, a plant that until that moment, I didn't know offered any liquid nourishment for insects.

My second encounter was with a Bombus vosnesenski queen on a heath bush. Heath is a wonderful early spring pollinator plant, attracting many different types of insects to its multitude of tiny nectar-rich blossoms.

A few days later I spied a Bombus mixtus queen sitting on a sunny wall. She seemed to be shivering, perhaps having just crawled out from her subterranean refuge, although she flew away smartly enough a few minutes later.

Willow catkins offer important early spring sustenance for many insects, like this unidentified fly, which seemed to be either eating or harvesting pollen on the first and only warm day in late March.

Another fly, its body and foot pads flecked with golden pollen grains, rested on an unopened catkin. These young willow trees were planted as part of a wetland buffer mitigation for an apartment complex built a few years ago and are only now starting to flower in abundance.

I was delighted to see our native trillium attracting some attention from a bee mimic, possibly Malota posticata, a member of the large and endlessly varied syrphid fly tribe. How could I tell it was a fly and not a bee? Its short, stubby antennae, and its two, instead of four wings, which is why it is in the order diptera; di: two, ptera: wings. This little critter also flew like a fly - very fast.

I've come to learn that even dandelions can be important early spring pollinator plants, and have been forced to think twice about removing these invasive weeds from the lawn.

When the weather hasn't cooperated for insect watching, I've snuggled in to read the Xerces Society's recently released "Attracting Native Pollinators" which offers an engrossing alternative for learning more about these amazing and important creatures.

Pollinator Week is June 20 - 26 this year. What a great idea! I'd never heard of it until stumbling onto the terrific Pollinator Partnership web site at http://www.pollinator.org/. There are currently no Pollinator Week events listed for Washington state on the site, although we can all celebrate pollinators by welcoming them into our gardens, and by opening our hearts and minds to the incredible beauty of small things.

Nancy Partlow

Xerces Society Attracting Native Pollinators

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Pollinator home page: http://www.fws.gov/pollinators/

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