Bumblebee Queens of Spring

Bumblebee Queens of Spring: Bombus bifarius. Copyright (c) 2008 Don Rolfs
Bombus bifarius,
Copyright © 2008 Don Rolfs

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

When crocuses are pushing through the snow in your garden, you might see another sign of spring: the flights of bees. Other bees may fly in spring, but few are as early or as boisterous as bumble bees. Utah is home to more than a dozen species of bumble bees, all of who belong to the genus Bombus (which in Greek means buzzing). All have a combination of black and yellow markings on their bodies. Some also have orange bands. Unlike honey bees that pass the winter warmly clustered in hives, bumble bees overwinter as solitary queens, dormant under a few inches of loose soil or leaf litter. These queens are quiescent all winter until warming soil beckons their reawakening to start their colony.

From March to May, watch for a behavior called nest searching, when the big, burly queen bumble bees fly low over the ground, stopping often to investigate holes in the earth or in building foundations. Bumble bees nest in small, insulated cavities, such as abandoned rodent burrows or bird houses. Once the queen finds a suitable nest site, she is out and about, foraging for pollen and nectar to provision her offspring. After a few days she will have sufficient food to begin laying eggs. Like all bees, her offspring progress through four life stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult. In just under a month, her daughters develop into adults, each chewing free of its cocoon.

Bombus griseocollis Queen
Foraging on Hedysarum
Copyright © 2008 Jamie Strange

These daughters take over foraging and nest construction duties, leaving the queen to remain in her nest and continue to lay eggs and incubate her brood. Workers are often much smaller than their mother, so don’t expect to see many big bumble bees again until autumn, when next year’s queens start the cycle anew, searching for mates and a spot to spend the winter.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy & Copyright © 2008 Don Rolfs & Jamie Strange

Text: Jamie Strange, USU USDA-ARS Pollinating Insect Research Unit

Additional Reading:

ID a Bumblebee, http://www.ars.usda.gov/Services/docs.htm?docid=10749

Bumblebee Watch, https://www.bumblebeewatch.org/
Bumble Bee Watch is a citizen science project through the partnership of The Xerces Society, the University of Ottawa, Wildlife Preservation Canada, BeeSpotter, The Natural History Museum, London, and the Montreal Insectarium.

Snow Fleas

Snow Fleas, Bridgerland Audubon Amalga Barrens Sanctuary
Copyright © 2008 & Courtesy: Jim Cane
Bridgerland Audubon Society

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Now, in the waning days of winter, you can see Nature’s winter flea circus perform. Look for warm snow surfaces that are peppered by tiny black flecks that resemble a parenthesis on your 1040 form. Bend down to regard these flecks carefully, or scoop some up. If they move, then you are likely eye to eye with snow fleas.

Fear not, for they aren’t really fleas at all. They aren’t even insects! Snowfleas belong to the order Collembola, the springtails, closest relatives to the insects. Springtails are so named for a fork-shaped appendage, the furcula, folded beneath the abdomen. The animal can snap its furcula open like a barrette clasp, catapulting the wee creature several inches forward through the air.

Springtails are rarely noticed, but it’s worth seeing their miniscule acrobatics. It helps to have something white against which to view them. The white warmed surface of the late-winter snowpack provides one opportunity. Or you can often see springtails by placing a white card on the needle duff of a conifer forest floor, where springtails help decompose fallen needles.

Atop the snow, snowfleas apparently graze for algae and fungal spores, but really, how would anyone know? In turn, are there wee predators from which snowfleas must, well, “flee” in this chilly habitat?

Snowfleas aren’t social, but they sure can be numerous. Last March, the manager of Bridgerland Audubon’s Barrens Sanctuary estimated a population of some 8 billion snowfleas springing about just within the confines of their 140 acre reserve.

With those kinds of numbers, pets and Utahns everywhere can be grateful that snowfleas really aren’t true fleas, leaving us to enjoy the pleasure of tromping around on a sunny winter’s day.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy & Copyright © 2008 Jim Cane

Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society http://www.bridgerlandaudubon.org

Additional Reading:

Edible antifreeze promises perfect ice cream, Tom Simonite, 11 January 2008, New Scientist
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13178

Beneficial/Neutral Insects, University of Minnesota Extension Service, http://www.extension.umn.edu/yardandgarden/EntWeb/Galleries/outdoor/beneficial/snowflea.html

Snow Flea, Study of Northern Virginia Ecology, Island Creek Elementary School, Fairfax County Public Schools, http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/snow_flea.htm

Boxelder Bug Poetry

Boxelder Bugs
Courtesy Michigan Department of Agriculture

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

Bill Holm, author, poet and essayist from Minnesota, died last week. He wrote and taught in the English department at Southwest Minnesota State University for 27 years. Why I do I mention this on a program about Utah nature? Because through his writing, he helped me come to terms with one aspect of Utah nature that I found troublesome at first —the ubiquitous and abundant boxelder bug.

“My boxelder bugs have odd preferences,” Holm wrote “They love radio dials, phonograph speakers, amplifiers, pianos, and harpsichords. Some would argue that this is because of the warmth and vibrations, but I prefer to think it is because of their taste for Bach and Vivaldi.”

The red and white bugs are essentially harmless. They might stain walls or carpets if you squish them. However, they are annoying primarily because they enter homes and other buildings in large numbers. Once in, they’ll find their way into your personal effects. Like your hair or your toothbrush or the glass of water you keep on the bedside table.

After hearing me go on a boxelder bug rant, a friend gave me Holm’s book Boxelder Bug Variations: A meditation of an idea in language and music. It changed my attitude toward with household invaders, as now I think of them as poetic. Maybe if I read a few verses, you will feel the same:
First, a boxelder bug prayer:

I want so little
For so little time
A south window,
A wall to climb,
The smell of coffee,
A radio knob,
Nothing to eat,
Nothing to rob,
Not love, not power,
Not even a penny,
Forgive me only
For being so many.

In this one, Holm describes a method for disposing boxelder bugs:

Take two bricks.
Creep deliberately up
Behind the boxelder bug,
Being careful not to sing—
This will alert him.
In a graceful flowing gesture,
Something like a golf swing
Or reaching for your lover in the dark,
Gather up the boxelder bug
On the surface of the left brick
Bringing the right brick
At the same time firmly down
Together with the left brick.
There will be a loud crashing,
Like broken cymbals,
Maybe a breaking of brick, and
If you are not careful,
Your own voice rising.
When the brick dust has settled
And you have examined your own hands,
Carefully,
You will not see the boxelder bug,
There is a small hole in the brick
And he is exploring it,
Calmly, like a millionaire
In an antique shop.

And finally, three boxelder bug haiku:

(1) Careful if you kill him!
There may be an afterlife
For both of you.
(2) Those black spots in your lamp?
Only bugs who didn’t make it
Into the next world.

And finally…

(3) The piano string stops trembling
But boxelder bugs
Keep dancing.

Thanks to Jen Levy for introducing me to boxelder bug poetry, and to Milkweed Editions for permission to reproduce Bill Holm’s work.

The Rocky Mountain Power Foundation supports research and development of Wild About Utah topics.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy Michigan Department of Agriculture

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Boxelder Bug Variations: A Meditation on an Idea in Language and Music, Holm, Bill, 1985, Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions http://www.milkweed.org/

Boxelder Bugs Fact Sheet, Erin Hodgson, Alan H. Roe, USU Cooperative Extension:
http://extension.usu.edu/files/factsheets/boxelder.pdf

Our Native Squash Bees

Our Native Squash Bees: Squash Bee, Peponapis_pruinosa, Courtesy and Copyright 2007 Jim Cane - All Rights Reserved
Squash Bee
Copyright 2007 Jim Cane
All Rights Reserved

Utah’s wintry weather seemed interminable this year, but at long last, full summer is upon us. Balmy days ripen the bounties of our orchards and gardens, including vast quantities of squashes: zucchini, crookneck, banana, butternut, and later, the pumpkins for Halloween. Squashes require pollinators. . Foraging bees inadvertently move the pollen from the male flowers to fertilize female flowers. Such pollination by a bee will result in the seeds you encounter when you slice open a squash. Without developing seeds, no squash will form, so pollination by bees is vital.

New research is showing that a specific group of unmanaged native bees is largely responsible for pollinating our squashes, gourds and pumpkins. From Maine to California, and all around Utah, these so-called squash bees are busily visiting flowers of all of our squashes, from acorn to zucchini. In fact, they are only visiting these flowers, as these bees are strict floral specialists. Beginning at dawn, male squash bees can be seen darting among squash flowers, seeking receptive mates and the odd sip of nectar to fuel their flight. Females load up on nectar and the bright orange pollen to cart back to their nests. Unlike honeybees, each female squash bee has her own nest, consisting of a simple underground burrow. She provisions each of her offspring with a cache of pure squash pollen and nectar. By 9AM, their frenetic morning of foraging complete, female squash bees head home to rest and work on their nests. Through their early morning foraging activities, they daily pollinate each day’s new flush of flowers.

Zucchini Squash with Flowers

If you grow squashes, you are likely to find their flowers being visited by squash bees. Look for these bees around breakfast time, between sunrise and 8:30. They fly more quickly and deliberately between flowers than the slightly larger, later-flying honeybees. Unlike honeybees, female squash bees carry their pollen dry in a brush of hairs on their hind legs. Later, you may discover sleeping male squash bees by pinching the wilted, closed flowers. A drowsy buzz reveals a defenseless male squash bee sleeping within. There he will snooze until dawn, which brings a new flush of flowers, and with it, another chance for every squash bee Romeo to find his buzzy Juliet. All this drama, and you thought you were just growing zucchini!

Our Native Squash Bees-Credits:

Photos: Courtesy and © Copyright 2007 Jim Cane
Squash Bee Video © Copyright 2008 Lyle Bingham

Text: Bridgerland Audubon Society: Jim Cane

Our Native Squash Bees-Additional Reading:

Squash Pollinators of the Americas Survey (SPAS), James Cane, USDA Pollinating Insect Research Unit, Utah State University
http://www.ars.usda.gov/Research/docs.htm?docid=12041

Celebrating Wildflowers, Pollinator of the Month, Squash Bees, Jim Cane, USDA ARS, Bee Biology & Systematics Lab, Logan, Utah
http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/squash_bees.shtml

Videos:

Squash Bee Peponapis & Sunflower Bee Melissodes agilis in Ontario 2, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXMmLjTYp3k
Squash Bee Peponapis & Sunflower Bee Melissodes agilis in Ontario 1, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0Hvfz1o3Iw

Bee Pollinators of Southwest Virginia Crops (revised 6 June 2010), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_etyEdu9fQ

Crop domestication facilitated rapid geographical expansion of a specialist pollinator, the squash bee Peponapis pruinosa, Margarita M. López-Uribe, James H. Cane, Robert L. Minckley, Bryan N. Danforth
Proc. R. Soc. B 2016 283 20160443; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2016.0443. Published 22 June 2016
http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/283/1833/20160443.abstract