Backyard Orchard News
To bee or not to bee.
Not to bee.
The flying insect hovering over the
It's commonly known as a hover fly, drone fly, flower fly, syrphid fly or "syrphid," says Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis who researches native pollinators from his headquarters in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on
"These are good honey-bee mimics," he said, "but note the short stubby antennae and bulging face." Also note the large eyes! (Reminiscent of the eyes of the male honey bee, the drone).
The hover fly moves like a helicopter, holding perfectly still for a moment or two, and then darting upward, downward and backward in flight.
Unlike bees and wasps, syrphids have two wings, not four. Also a syrphid-notable: black and yellow stripes on their abdomen. The coloring helps fool would-be predators.
In their larval stages, syrphids dine on plant-sucking pests like tasty aphids, thrips, mealybugs and scales, or munch on decaying matter in the soil or in ponds and streams.
They're the good guys. And girls.
These beneficial insects are like the ladybird beetles (aka ladybugs) and lacewings of the garden. In their larval stages, they prey on pests, and in their adult stages, they pollinate flowers.
Prey 'n pollinate, that's what they do best.
It’s like going to the circus.
A bee circus.
When you see honey bees gather pollen from a gaura (Gaura linheimeri), it’s as if they ran off and joined the circus. You'll see hire-wire (er...high-stem) acts, somersaults, pirouettes, cartwheels and cliffhangers.
They teeter on the edge of a petal and then petal-push to the other side. They buzz upside down and then right themselves. They're under the Big Top and then varoom, they've over it.
The gaura, a leggy perennial, is a native of North America and a member of the Onagraceae family. Its butterflylike flowers, pink and white, are drop-dead gorgeous.
The gaura is also known as "the wand flower," "the butterfly bush" and "the bee blossom."
In our bee friendly garden, it will forever be "the circus flower."/h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>
Ah, a gaura!
Under the Big Top
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