Backyard Orchard News
A bee on a ball.
When it flowers, the button-willow (Cephalanthus occidentalis), also known as willow buttonbush, honey ball, and button ball (oh, that’s so close to butter ball!) attracts honey bees and butterflies like you wouldn’t believe.
The ball-like flowers look like pincussions and it's fascinating to watch the honey bees buzz in and out of "the spikes."
UC Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen says it's a favorite of honey bees.
The button-willow is a small tree or bush that grows along stream beds. We spotted this one (below) on restored native pollinator habitat in Yolo County.
Back in 1931, UC Davis entomologist G. H. Vansell listed 175 species of plants as good "nectar yielders" in his still-authoritative UC publication, Nectar and Pollen Plants of California. Vansell wrote that "six of the most important sources of nectar in California are the sages (Salvia), alfalfa, orange, wild buckwheats, starthistle and Christmas berry; of these, the sages, wild buckhweats and Christmas berry are native."
Vansell mentioned that the button-willow, because of its riparian location, "is abundantly supplied with moisture and is easily 'worked' by bees."
It still is.
Heading for the Nectar
A bee on a ball
If you were a queen bee, you'd be laying about 1500 to 2000 eggs today. It's your busy season.
"She's an egg-laying machine," said bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis. "And she's the mother of all the bees in the hive." During the peak season, that amounts to about 50,000 to 80,000 workers (sterile females) and 1000 to 2000 drones (males).
Worker bees take care of her every need. They feed her, groom her and protect her, Cobey said, "and then they have the additional tasks of rearing and feeding her young."
The queen bee is easy to spot in the hive; she's the biggest bee. And wherever she goes, you'll see her court (workers) surrounding her.
Beekeepers mark her with a colored dot on her thorax so she's easily visible. (School children, when asked to single out the queen bee, say "She's the one with the dot!")
On her maiden flight, the queen bee mates with some 12 to 25 drones and then she heads back to the hive to lay eggs for the rest of her life, "usually two or three years," said Cobey, who is internationally renowned for her classes on "The Art of Queen Rearing" and "Instrumental Insemination and Bee Breeding."
The queen bee destroys any and all competitors for her "throne" by stinging and killing them. Unlike worker bees, she does not die after she stings.
Interestingly enough, only female bees can sting. Drones, or male bees, have no stingers (despite what Jerry Seinfeld's character said in The Bee Movie). Their only purpose is to mate with the queen. Then they die.
It's a matriarchal society. The girls (worker bees) do all the work; they serve as nurses, guards, grocers, housekeepers, construction workers, royal attendants and undertakers. It's not surprising, then, that during the summer, their life span is only four to six weeks.
Meanwhile, if you're the queen bee, there's no reproductive rest for you! You have about 1,999 more eggs to lay today.
The queen bee and her court
A Marked Queen Bee
"Omigosh, what's that? A gray hairstreak?"
If it's in your hair, you consult a mirror, your favorite salon, or just ignore it.
If you're an entomologist or a lepidopterist, a gray hairstreak is delightful. "Omigosh, check that out! A gray hairstreak!"
A gray hairsteak is a butterfly (Strymon melinus). It’s basically gray with a large orange spot near its tail. It probably derives its name from the fine gray hairlike markings that cross the undersurface of the hind wings. If you look closely, you’ll see threadlike tail projections, resembling antennae.
It’s not a beautiful butterfly, as butterflies go, and oh, do they go! Fast and low-flying, it is difficult to photograph. If you catch it nectaring, that’s your best shot.
In its caterpillar stage, it damages bean, corn and cotton crops.
Renowned butterfly expert Art Shapiro of UC Davis, who maintains an excellent butterfly Web site, says hairstreaks belong to the subfamily (Theclinae) and the gossamer-wing butterfly family (Lycaenidae).
"The gossamer-wings are a very diverse and complex family with at least 4750 species worldwide," he says. "In California, they can be grouped into the coppers (subfamily Lycaeninae), the blues (subfamily Polyommatinae), and the hairstreaks (subfamily Theclinae)."
The gray hairstreak is considered a weedy butterfly. "Weedy," as Shapiro explains on his Web site, "is a general term for organisms that are typically associated with habitats that are disturbed by human activities or are dominated by non-native, invasive plants."
Adults visit an immense variety of flowers, both wild and cultivated, says Shapiro. Indeed, the gray hairstreak is one of the most polyphagous butterflies known; it feeds on scores of different flowering plants.
In our bee friendly garden, a male gray hairstreak nectared last weekend on sage, sharing it with assorted honey bees.
Then like a streak, he was gone.
The gray hairstreak butterfly
Tail of the butterfly
Eye to eye with a butterfly
Build it and they will come.
Baseball’s “Field of Dreams?”
No, a bee nesting block. Think "bee condo."
It’s an artificial nesting site made of wood and drilled with different-sized holes and depths to accommodate the diversity of native pollinators. Often the bee block is nailed to a fence post. Native bees, such as leafminer bees and blue orchard bees, build their nests inside the holes.
Fact is, North America is home to about 4,000 species of native bees. (The common honey bee is not a native; colonists brought it here from Europe in the 1600s.)
Members of the Xerces Society, an international organization "dedicated to protecting biological diversity through invertebrate conservation," are keen on protecting the habitat of native bees and other native invertebrates. As part of their public outreach program, they publish books, pamphlets and fact sheets. These include Pollinator Conservation Handbook, Farming for Bees, and the fact sheet, Bumble Bees in Decline.
As for the bee condos, thousands are sold each year in the
Vaughan, who escorted a group of us on a recent Yolo County farm tour, said many of our native bee species are much more efficient than honey bees at pollinating some crops.
"For example, only 250 female orchard mason bees (genus Osmia, also called blue orchard bees) are required to effectively pollinate an acre of apples, a task that would require 1.5 to 2 honey bee hives--approximatley 15,000 to 20,000 foragers." (Source: Farming for Bees, a Xerces Society publication.)
Native bees sport such names as miner, carpenter, leafcutter, mason, plasterer or carder, reflecting their nesting behaviors.
See the bee (below) heading toward the bee block? Xerces Society member Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis who researches native pollinators, including bumble bees, says this is a female leafcutting bee, "probably the introduced Megachile apicalis, a specialist on Centaurea species, especially yellow starthistle."
The leafcutter bee, as its name implies, cuts leaves to form its nest.
We've all heard of the cuckoo clock.
And most of us have heard of the cuckoo bird (Cuculus canorus), which lays its eggs in the nest of birds of other species.
But the cuckoo bee?
Yes, there is a cuckoo bee. The female lays her eggs in the nests of other solitary nesting bees.
They resemble wasps. You can see these slender-waisted bees hovering low to the ground, sneakily searching for burrows of other solitary nesting bees.
Like an identity thief, they try to avoid detection. They slip into a a burrow and lay their eggs in the host's nest. The hatched larvae then eat the host's food and parasitize (kill and eat) the host's larvae.
Some cuckoo bees are more abrupt and don't smuggle their eggs into a nest. In Insects of the World, Walter Linsenmaier writes how a few species of Sphecodes, invade the nests of mining bees (Halictus), and "with naked force when necessary" slaughter "everything that opposes them."
Then the cuckoo bee flings the opposition out the entrance. Did anybody say "cruel world?"
Cuckoo bees are not nice and they're not ready to make nice. If this is a world of The Givers and The Takers, then they're the takers.
I captured this image of a cuckoo bee last week. Said Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis: "It's a cuckoo bee, probably the genus Triepeolus (maybe Epeolus) and probably a male."