Backyard Orchard News
It's a curious-looking insect, the tachinid fly.
The first thing you notice are the thick, dark bristles covering its abdomen. By human standards, this insect, about the size of a house fly, is not pretty. No way, no how.
But there it was, resting on a purple-leaf sand cherry (genus Cistus, rockrose family Cistaceae) in our garden.
As an adult, the tachinid fly nectars on flowers. In its larval stage, it's an internal parasite. The female is known for laying her eggs in Lepidoptera caterpillars and in the larvae of other insects. Hostest with the mostest?
Lepidoptera is a order that includes butterflies and moths, and if you study them, you're a lepidopterist.
California has more than 400 species of tachinid flies. There's even one species called the "Caterpillar Destroyer" (Lespesia archippivora). It targets the caterpillars of those graceful Monarch butterflies we see flitting through the flowers.
Most folks will look at a tachinid fly and mutter "Yecch! That sure is a weird-looking fly."
By human standards.
That's what it takes to capture images of syrphids, aka flower or hover flies.
They are oh, so tiny and they move oh, so quickly. As the morning dawns, you wait, camera poised, near their preferred blossoms. You'll need a keen eye and a quick trigger finger--not to mention a good macro lens and a high shutter speed to freeze a moment in time and space.
If you're stealthy and don't startle or shadow them, you can observe them nectaring just inches away from you. This is big game hunting, but with little insects.
And, another frozen moment in time and space.
If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it's probably a duck.
If it looks like a bee, buzzes like a bee, and visits flowers like a bee, it might not be a bee.
It could be a fly, or more specifically, a syrphid or flower fly.
Syrphids, also known as hover flies (from the family Syrphidae and order Diptera), are everywhere.
They hover over flowers like a helicopter over a meadow and then touch down. You'll see them nectaring blossoms, zipping from one flower to the other. When they're shadowed or startled, off they go.
Several of them were nectaring on our newly opened pink cactus blossoms this morning.
To the untrained eye, syrphids are often mistaken for honey bees. However, think number of wings (honey bees have four wings, syrphids have two), overall size, distinct coloration, and different antennae. Different antennae? Yes. Honey bees have long antennae bent at a right angle. Syrphids have a specialized bristle (arista) on the end of each antenna. It looks like a knob.
So, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck.
If it visits flowers, it might not be a bee. It could "bee" a fly.
What's happening to our bees?
The International Bee Research Association (IBRA), a non-profit organization formed in 1949 that promotes the "value of bees by providing information on bee science and beekeeping worldwide," has just posted several free downloadable pamphlets on bees, including honey bees, bumble bees, and solitary bees. There's also a pamphlet on colony collapse disorder (CCD), the mysterious malady characterized by bees abandoning their hives.
The pamphlets are writen for UK audiences, but you'll glean much valuable information, too. The one on honey bees is especially good, offering solid, basic information. It focuses on the queen bee, workers (females) and drones (males). For example, a typical colony, in peak season, will number more than 50,000 bees. They include the lone queen, 300 drones, 25,000 older workers (foragers) and the 25,000 young workers who tend to the 9,000 larvae requiring food, and the 6000 eggs that will develop into larvae. The typical hive also includes 20,000 older larvae and pupae in sealed cells "that need no attention except to be left warm, at around 35 degrees C."
The pamphlet on CCD thoroughly explains the problem, describing serious bee losses as a "major threat to crops and ultimately to the nation's food supply."
(By the way, if you're a beekeeper or someone keenly interested in bees, you'll notice that an unlabeled photo gracing the cover of the CCD pamphlet is not a honey bee, genus Apis, but a female solitary bee in the genus Andrena. It is, however, a nicely captured image of a pollinator.)
So, what IS happening with CCD in California?
"This year CCD appears to be less detrimental to honey bee colonies in California, and the rest of the western U.S. states, than it has been over the past few years," UC Cooperative Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen, UC Davis Department of Entomology, told us today. "Part of this may be due to the fact that the beekeepers are paying more attention to the needs of their colonies throughout the season, instead of just around the end of the year. The improvement may also be due to the fact that the most susceptible colonies have perished. The beekeepers divide their remaining colonies into new colonies in the spring. The beekeepers are increasing their numbers of colonies using stocks that have survived in the past."
Bee on Pomegranate
"Gossamer" means something sheer, light and delicate, as in gossamer fabric.
You can also apply it to the wings of a carpenter bee.
We captured this image of a male carpenter bee (Xylocopa tabaniformis) nectaring on lavender.
The wings look sheer, fragile and airy. Note the thorax brushed with pollen.
On Gossamer Wings