Monday, July 17, 2017

Pasting Pollinators

 
Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©
 
Neon-pink flowers are in currently in bloom along the  East Bay waterfront.  I didn't know what they were until  following the theory of, "to find bees, go where the flowers are",  I decided to check them out. I was delighted to discover that these blossoms are a terrific  food source for pollinators.   


Lathyrus latifolius, or  Everlasting Pea, is a widespread naturalized wildflower that blooms in shades of white to deep pink.
 
Lacking the heady scent of the bred-for-garden sweet peas, the flowers are nonetheless similarly beautiful. 
 
Queen Bombus vosnesenskii on wild pea flower.


The sturdy blooms attract a variety of pollinating insects with their nectar, predominately bumble bees, including a noticeable number of bombus queens of various species.
 
Honey Bee
Hoplitis bee

  
Cabbage white butterfly

Bombus melanopygus queen

I was glad to see  Bombus fervidus using these flowersNot one our most common, generalist bumble bee species B. fervidus instead seems to prefer particular plants, including, apparently, Everlasting Pea.  
 
Bombus fervidus
 
While taking pictures one day, I noticed a big blob of pollen near the head of a Bombus fervidus worker, which I thought very odd.  That is not where the pollen is supposed to go.   Was this an inept bee that didn't know where to store its pollen?  That seemed unlikely since bees are evolutionary experts at what they do.   


The mystery was solved only when I pulled up another image of this bee on my computer.  The stamens on these pea flowers, which remain hidden until a bee pushes its head into a blossom, sneakily pop up and paste it with pollen right at base of its wing. Since that is a hard-to-reach place for the bee to groom, the pollen stays there. 


This video shows the mechanism at work:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7B7s9rQ8lTY

Other bees are similarly dusted and smeared.

Hoplitis leaf-cutter bee
  
Western Little Leaf-cutter Bee

 
On this Bombus sitkensis the stamen looks like a tiny spatula slathering buttercream frosting on the bee. 
 
Bombus sitkensis




Blossom by blossom, pollen-pasted bees fertilize the pea flowers.   It's a clever strategy for this plant, and if the East Bay waterfront is any indication, a very successful one!
 
Since it's such great pollinator attractor, I considered gathering some pea seed for my yard, but reluctantly decided against it due to the plant's somewhat robust spreading habit. However, I think East Bay is perfect place for it, and I can only hope these gaudy pink wildflowers and their feasting bumble bees endure at this location for many years to come.
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Articles about Lathyrus latifolius:
 
 
 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Hope is the Thing With Feathers


Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©
At long last, our weather pattern  seems to be changing, but it was a hard winter and early spring.  In addition to the months of relentless rain and gloom, I lost my father.  We were very close, and since his death, the lack of  light and warmth outside has been the persistent accompaniment  to the internal struggles of a wounded heart.  The challenge has been to find a way back to some sense of normalcy and peace, and for that, as so often in the past, Nature has come to my rescue.

Dad wasn't a nature nut like I am, although he did enjoy getting outdoors.   My outdoor enthusiasms focus greatly on things with wings - native bees and birds. His passion centered on the kind of wings that allowed him to fly.  He was a flight instructor, which he loved doing.


Unfortunately, as he aged into his ninth decade, he was forced to give up this thing he loved. Truthfully by then, even walking had become a problem for him.  I tried to compensate  by taking him places in a wheelchair.   One of our most frequent haunts  was the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center, a great  place for a "nature fix", and the trail is well suited to handicapped access. 

We did this for several years until last fall.  The months surrounding his death were difficult, and although I was able to grab the occasional respite to observe the many beautiful ducks on the lake during the shortest days of the year,  I very much looked forward to the return of neotropical migrants.

It was almost a relief when the vernal equinox brought the first splashes of vibrant color to the CLIC in the form of Yellow-rumped warblers - a lot of them.  To my surprise, they  persisted for several weeks, enthusiastically hawking for flying insects from the  thicket of willow and alder trees that line the shore of the lake and the dike trails:  Yellow-rumped warblers hawking for insects from Capitol Lake shoreline
The rain didn't seem to bother them, and the beauty and antics of these birds, known as "butterbutts" for the splotch of bright yellow on their rear ends,  helped to lift my spirits at a time when I needed it most. 

I've always known that there are two forms of this warbler - the Audubon's and Myrtle races, but I was under the impression that we didn't get the later type here.  I was wrong. Both kinds were well represented at the CLIC this spring.

Audubon's warbler 
Myrtle warbler

By late April, I began to hear and see other kinds of warblers, like this Orange-crowned:

Orange-crowned warbler






















In mid-May, after nearly two months at the CLIC, the Yellow-rumpeds  finally departed for their breeding grounds, to be almost immediately replaced by the vibrant Yellow warblers, with their "sweet, sweet, sweet, I'm so sweet" songs.  Some of those will stay at the Interpretive Center for the remainder of spring and early summer to nest and raise young.

Yellow warbler






















Slowly, over weeks, as life has returned to the CLIC, so it has returned to me, like sap rising in a tree, or the first tentative song lifting from the throat of a bird at dawn. Earthly existence compels continuance and renewal, as hard as that may be to achieve.
Spotted towhee throwing back its head to sing























I know that I will never visit the Interpretive Center without thinking of my Dad and the many experiences we shared there. I take great solace in knowing that he now enjoys the  freedom of flight that he always longed for. 


I'll be with you on the trail, Dad. 

 In loving memory of Verne Partlow

More videos:

Another warbler seen and heard at the CLIC this spring:


Also:



Monday, May 15, 2017

Prairie (etc.) Appreciation Day

The prairies at Glacial Heritage Preserve, Thurston County, May 2017
Saturday May 13 was a cool rainy Prairie Appreciation Day. Janet and I were grateful for the canopy that sheltered us and our visitors during several impressive showers. At rather the last minute we were filling in as the main instructors at a booth on indigenous uses of prairie plants, training ourselves more deeply in everything from herbal remedies to camas harvest to making cordage from plants. Each of those topics could be a blog in itself.
Bud at Mima Mounds, spring 2014

This is the first time we’d been at P.A.D. since we lost Janet and Nancy’s father this year, two months shy of his 99th birthday. While we miss him a lot, it does free us up for more extended periods of nature exploration, not having to sort out our elder care assignments.

With this in mind we were confident that at some point Nancy would join us, and were delighted when several hours into our shift, Nancy strolled into our booth, camera in hand and bubbling over in the joy of the beauty of the prairies.

It was a break in both weather and visitors and so she was able (rather easily) to distract me with a “Glen, what do you think this bee is?”,  just a few yards outside.  She led me through some rain-soaked camas to one flower being visited by a rain-chilled bee.  At first glance it was a small bumble bee she had in her sights (and lens).  The bee had lots of fur and at first look seemed big enough to be a first generation bumble worker.  But as she and I studied it, other things were not right, starting with its “fur” coat.


Bombus fervidus (B. californicus)
Andrena transnigra? A wider face than Bombus

From the photos you can see that while on the thorax of this bee there is a dense pile, the pile on the abdomen is sparse, almost bare. Another thing that distinguishes her from a bumble bee is her face which is as wide as it is long; compare her face to the bumble bee Bombus fervidus (aka B. californicus). Finally, one can also see that on her hind leg is a great bristle of hairs, (scopa) designed to collect pollen.

It is because of her very furry legs that we also know that we are looking at a female, for only females are so well coiffed with pollen collecting leg fur.  We believe that this charming little bee is one of many mining bee who make a home on the Puget Sound Prairies, in this case probably (at least until corrected) Andrena transnigra -- who we know to reside here.  Here is a link to a few photos in BugGuide: Bugguide: Andrena transnigra .

If, by the way you have a different i.d. for this bee, please let us hear your thoughts.

- - - - - 
I close with a couple more thoughts about my father-in-law.  Bud was a man whose interests never really extended to watching birds, chasing insects or gardens and botanizing.  Flight was marvelous if it included an engine and stick he could control.  He loved a good meal as long as it wasn't messed up with too many vegetables, and a good conversation as long as it circled around family, friends, flight, or Hawaii.

Up until the last few weeks he was tolerant of excursions as long as a meal -- or at least a chocolate chip cookie or ice cream bar -- was part of the mission.  We had little else in common except family and just showing up. But that was enough to become good friends.  Towards the end being earthbound was not fun and certainly not easy.  But he kept a firm handshake, a sharp wit, and mostly a good sense of humor.  I miss that.

For Bud.
We went places.
Pau hana.
Glen


All photos, © Nancy Partlow

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Blog update

Hi all.  We have a few posts pending, but life has had some upheavals.  In the meantime we have put into our blog a new reference page with our three 11x17 Thurston County pollinator posters -- Bumblebees -- Flower Flies -- Bee Diversity.  Check it out.  (The different colored text means "Click here".)

Our study group continues too.  My current system of displaying all the monthly posters is a pain -- Blogger and I don't think the same way.  But here is our most recent announcement.

The May 22nd program is called "How Grows It?"

The short version is our program is garden bragging (and solemnizing).  And, we will start with a field trip at 5:30, but that has yet to be confirmed. (I'll rewrite this when it is.)

June 26 (no poster yet) will be Prairie Pollinators.  We will have a speaker from Center for Natural Lands Management, who operate the South Sound Prairies program.

This is a good time to mention that Saturday May 13th (in ten days) is the annual Prairie Appreciation Day at Glacial Heritage county park, between Olympia and Rochester.

In July the study group takes a break, no meeting.
August and beyond is not yet planned -- up to you -- what do you want?

Glen
May 3 2017

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Do worker bumble bees camp out?

Rusty Burlew is a beekeeper friend who lives in the same county and writes a regular (at least weekly!) blog about bees.  While these days she writes mostly about honey bees, she knows alot about native bees as well.  Anyway, I replied to a recent post of hers about bumble bees -- Honey Bee Suite / Bumble bee answers ... -- and she asked me to elaborate on whether or not worker bumble bees (the colony females who are not queens) stay out at night rather than going home to sleep.  The short answer -- yes -- was not enough for me.  But rather than fill her comment section I decided to add it to our blog roll.  I can't say how broadly this applies to all bumbles -- it is but a single experience.

Bombus melanopygus is a big boldly colored early season bumble common in Olympia (and the maritime Northwest).  She particularly likes old bird houses filled with old bird nests. We’ve recorded queens as early as the third week of January, but the weather has to cooperate and this soggy winter we’ve reached March and not seen a one.  (To illustrate this blog I'm using some older photos of Nancy's.)

The story.  One spring years ago I was asked to move a bumble'd bird house because of its poor location. The box was originally just a birdhouse ornament on an arbor that also supported the mailbox. Occupied one or two years by some bird, then the bumbles found it. This bee house was jostled with each mail delivery and the occupants were unhappy -- pointedly -- about the jostle. So was the Post Office, who notified the owner that she'd have to alter the setup. Thus, one night I corked and bagged the bird bee house and moved it, to our home a mile away. I'd not thought it all through, and being night and all, I just set the box down on the back shed steps intending to mount it later.

A call brought me back the next day, where many bumbles — at least a dozen, (I didn’t count) — were huddled together where their home used to be. The bumbles were homeless, and the colony was deprived of many of its workers. The huddle looked like a big number in a small bumble colony, (though a tiny number for honey bees). I’d moved a box the year before, and that colony failed. With the failure in mind I went home for my insect net intent on returning the homeless bumbles to their community — and that was my third mistake.

The bumbles had lost their home but not their sense of territory. My effort at netting the homeless bumbles was met with mostly empty netting. But I gained personal evidence that the homeless bumbles were queenless WORKERS who, even in the cool of the spring, had slept out at night, and upon returning “home” were defensive enough still to sting, (painfully!).  I'm still not as skilled as I'd like when it comes to distinguishing male from female bumbles, but a sting is definitely gender specific.

My other mistake was I learned that raccoons thought my temporary location was just for them -- low hanging fruit in a pretty wooden box. I'm sure they were stung too, but for them the wax and honey and larvae were no doubt worth the price of admission. If I’d first visited the shed I’d have known that even if had I recaptured the homeless bees, it would have been for naught.

These days, when asked to move a bumble nest, I try to find other solutions.  Unlike honey bees, bumble bee colonies are annual -- only living months -- so mostly I ask folk to be patient.  Usually bumbles do not reuse an old nest site, because wax moths and carpet beetles and a whole array of hungry camp followers consume the nest even as the colony fades once the new queens and drones emerge.  In hindsight, moving the mail box would have been easier -- but if I had done that, there would have been no story to tell.

Here is video made by Nancy a couple of years ago of B. melanopygus in a bird box: Bumbles in a bird nest box (video)

Glen