Digging Into Nature

I was hiking with my daughters, and noticed perfectly drilled holes in the trail itself.  At first I thought it might be due to the poles so many hikers use for stability as they climb, but as I looked closer I realized these were tunnels.  And upon the entrance of some of these tunnels were traces of pollen!  This, of course, made me pause and wait for a few minutes, in hopes of crossing paths with my favorite pollinators, native bees.

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The three of us patiently waited, and before long in came a bee, a very fast bee who dove into the tunnel bearing loads of pollen all over her legs.  I was ecstatic, and began clicking away with my camera.  The unfortunate part was I was without my trusty macro lens, which would’ve been so much better at capturing the tiniest of details.  This just means I need to go back soon!

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These two bees were fighting over the tunnel.  Maybe they were confused about whose tunnel was whose?  The one on the top was finally shoved off by the one in the tunnel; bee battle at its best.  You can see the leg warmer hairs on her legs in the photo below.  These hairs are called scopa, which are thick hairs that curve back toward the surface from which they grow. This works well for carrying pollen without having to mix it with nectar and pack it in as honeybees do.

IMG_9157I suspect these bees are of the Diadasia genus, as many of the tunnels we saw had walls around the entrance of the nesting tunnels.  Additionally, they were nesting in the compact soil of the trail itself, which is also characteristic of Diadasia bees.  Finally, they had thick hairs on their hind legs.  Diadasia love cactus and mallow blooms, making them key players in the reproduction of these plants.

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As we were observing this area, we came across two more species of bees.  One was nesting in the side of a hill, and she had a much different appearance from the bees nesting on the trail.  She lacked the thick scopa on her hind legs, which makes me think she had a belly full of scopa, but she was too quick for me to get a closer look. She also had really pretty green compound eyes, whereas the others had black compound eyes.  This bee looks to be Anthidium, a wool carder bee, who uses the hairs of plants to line their nests, and to partition between developing bees.  She is known for taking over abandoned tunnels, or sometimes even digging her own, but this is the exception to the rule.

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As if these two discoveries weren’t enough, we found one more buzzy bee nesting in a tunnel on the trail. Her coloring was much different from the other two with black and yellow stripes and black eyes.   She appeared to be playing Peek-A-Boo with us as she peered out and dropped back into her tunnel upon seeing our persistent presence. This is a bee I was very excited to see, as I suspected it might be Paranthidium, and upon a closer look, I can confidently say it was!

Paranthidium typically uses vacated nesting tunnels and partitions between rooms of developing bees using two plant resin walls with pebbles in between.  However, I have a hard time believing she did none of this excavating, as the pile of soil around the opening appears to be fresh.  Paranthidium bees like sunflower family plants, which is where all the resin comes from, and there were many in bloom where we went hiking.

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What a fantastic day this was!  I had a big smile on my face, as my girls jumped with delight at all the activity in one small area.  All of these sightings because we took a few minutes to wait and watch the ground beneath us.

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The next time you see perfectly drilled holes, take pause and see who resides there, chances are it’s a bee of sorts! Now waggle with us, and share this story with your friends!

 

 

Beneath Our Noses

The peculiar thing about humans is, we don’t notice many things unless we are cued to do so.  Thousands of different bees flies beneath our noses without us ever noticing simply because we don’t know to look for them.  My challenge to you is to stop and look closely at the flowering plants along your walk to work, or within your yard, and count the different insects you see visiting those flowers.  There is a world to discover just by observation.

 

Xylocopa: A Carver of Wood

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While visiting Madeira Beach my family ventured up to Florida Botanical Gardens and found a bee that is very rarely found in Colorado.  The carpenter bee, Xylocopa, is known for carving perfectly round tunnels into soft wood for nesting.  Carpenter bees are solitary nesters of wood and plant stalks.  They use sawdust to partition between developing bees (See a PHOTO here) .  In the eastern parts of the US carpenter bees nest in wood, but in the desert areas of the west, they nest in yucca stalks, among other plant stalks.

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They have large, meaty mandibles that are used for creating these perfectly round openings, and can sometimes become a perceived nuisance.  However, they are important pollinators all over the world. They pollinate passionfruit flowers, Brazil nuts, and in some countries, tomatoes  (Learn more with The Bees in Your Backyard).  Their size can make it challenging to fit inside some flowers to extract nectar, so you will see them robbing flowers of nectar, as seen below.

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Nectar robbing consists of grabbing onto the outside of a flower and cutting a slit at the base of the bloom to suck the nectar out without ever touching the pollen, or reproductive parts of the flower.  Thus, not serving as an important pollinator to that flower.  However, flowers replenish nectar stores within minutes of a bee’s visit, so this is unlikely to have a significant negative affect on the flower’s reproductive potential with the thousands of other species of bees taking an interest in these blooms.

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Bumblebees are visiting some of the same flowers the carpenter bees were also robbing.  The difference between the bumblebee and the carpenter bee is the amount of hairs on their bodies.  The abdomen of carpenter bees is smooth and shiny, whereas the bumblebee’s abdomen is hairy, and often striped with various color patterns.

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Interestingly, I did spot a honeybee sucking nectar from the holes this little carpenter bee had made in these blooms.  The ‘bad’ habit seems to be appreciated by some other bee species…might as well benefit from another’s efforts.

This is what makes vacations that much more exciting for me; collecting more bee photos, and opportunities to share with you!  I would love to hear stories of carpenter bee experiences from you, and any photos you have tagged with #thebeeswaggle.  Thank you for joining the movement to know our bees, and protect our bees.

Pollinators Support Biodiversity

Biodiversity is the variety of life.  It showcases the relationships between all life forms on Earth.  It is the web of life, connecting all life on Earth in an interdependent web of function, purpose, and necessity.   It can be a protective mechanism against catastrophic failure of life.

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Biodiversity provides:

A wide array of foods and materials, which contributes to the survival of all.  Examples include: medicines derived from plants; 7000 species of plants are also food sources for other species.

Genetic diversity, which defends against diseases and pests.

Example:  Monoculture crops are not diverse, genetically or otherwise,  and are thus             susceptible to influxes of pests and disease, which is one reason why farmers of these crops are so dependent on chemicals to sustain crops. Planting hedgerows with a variety of plants encourages natural pest control for crops via predatory insects and birds.

Ecological services, which are functions performed by many species that result in sustaining life on Earth, and are a supported by biodiversity. Within each ecological service there are many species at play.

Some examples of ecological services are:

Decomposition of waste

       Water purification

       Pest control

       Flood moderation

       Soil fertility

       Pollination

Adaptability to disturbances, which is achieved by a concerted effort of many life forms repairing the damage done by a natural disaster, or another form of disturbance.

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Every piece of every ecosystem is important and each piece depends on the other pieces. We, as humans, are part of a planet-wide ecosystem, and we depend on many different systems for our survival.  One extremely important web we depend on is that of the pollinators.

Pollination supports biodiversity!  It is a mutually beneficial relationship between the pollinator and the pollinated. One without the other would be catastrophic. Pollination supports diversity of plants, as well as the animals that feed on those plants.  This beneficial relationship reaches broadly to birds, small mammals, large mammals, other insects, and us!  If this relationship were lost, many ecosystems would implode.

Pollinators contribute to biodiversity and life on Earth in ways that are significant to every ecosystem existing today.  Roughly 90 % of all flowering plant species are specialized for animal-assisted pollination!  7000 plant species are a form of food for other species.  Many of these flowering plants develop food only as a result of visiting pollinators, and this food supports the lives of countless species, including humans!  The disappearance of pollinators would inflict catastrophic consequences on the entire planet.

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The diversity of pollinators alone is staggering!  There are 20,000 bee species accounted for on Earth, and there are likely more. This number does not account for the hundreds of thousands of species of flies, moths, butterflies, birds, bats, and beetles who also pollinate flowering plants.

Our pollinators are struggling due to habitat loss.  The US alone hosts 40 million acres of turf, which useless to supporting biodiversity (The Humane Gardener). Some populations of butterflies have declined as much as 90%!  Honeybee colony losses are at an all time high!  What do you think that means for our native bee species?  I can tell you it isn’t good.  The struggle is due to: loss of habitat, lack of food, and pesticide use.  

The fact that pollinators are broadly struggling threatens the balance of biodiversity, and life on Earth!  

You can help by doing the following: add back habitat (shelter, food, and water), plant flowering plants, STOP the use of all pesticides (including: insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides), and teach future generations how to coexist.

 

Where the Wild Things Grow

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The ‘Blue Marble’ image of Earth captured in 2012.

“We are lucky enough to share our little rock with perhaps ten million different species, and many of them have not yet been given a name,” Dave Goulson put so eloquently in his book, A Buzz in the Meadow. Our planet is a world of opportunities for discovery.  He chose the word share, which isn’t something we Homo sapiens are very good at, at least when it comes to wildlife.  Wildlife is a ‘them versus us’ framework in our human minds.  We remove ourselves from the inclusion of being part of the animal kingdom, disconnecting ourselves, thus removing the possibility of considering the millions of other lives and their value to our planet.

We have yet to identify all the life our planet is host to, which also means we haven’t yet discovered the millions or even billions of purposes all these living organisms fulfill just by living.  Without knowledge of the complexity of our planet’s countless co-evolved relationships, how can we expect to care?  With this lack of understanding we continue to “fix” the landscape using manmade chemicals, forcing our ignorant understanding of how things should be upon nature.  Acting out of ignorance has never been a wise pursuit, so why do we choose this mode when it comes to the natural world?  Humans began as a wild species living off the land, knowledgeable about all the resources one could find beneath their feet.  Somewhere along the way we decided as a species that we could better manage that which hasn’t needed our foolish hands manipulating it for millions of years.  After only hundreds of years, we have managed to really mess things up, but this isn’t a fixed path.  I propose we shift our priorities and embrace the wild around us as well as within.

Currently, our government spends billions (last proposed budget was a whopping $19.1 billion) of tax dollars on space exploration! With visions of establishing the first colony on Mars, which looks extremely uninhabitable and undesirable when compared to Earth, at least to me.

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Imagine if our government put even half the space budget toward conservation for our beloved Earth to be our forever home.  The thing is, at least for now, billions of dollars won’t go toward conservation, but we have the power as individual home and landowners to make a major impact.

 “…in the United States we’ve covered with turf grass more than forty million acres-an area about eight times the size of New Jersey,”  Nancy Lawson in The Humane Gardener.

Much of this turf covered acreage is found in our yards, you know the ones we have control over?  Our yards could be host to a surprising amount of life if transformed into wildscapes.  Wild sounds scary, but for many reasons going wild is just what we all need to make a difference for our planet and ourselves.

Benefits to Wildlife

“Our increasingly urban population has dwindling opportunity to encounter wildlife, and some brownfield sites proved just such green spaces right on our doorstep,” Dave Goulson writes in his latest book, Bee Quest.

Brownfield spaces are man-made waste piles, which, when left alone provide a sanctuary for wildlife looking for a new home due to human activity that has rendered “home” uninhabitable.  When the wild moves in a brownfield, over time it is teeming with life.  In fact these naturally rehabilitated plots have been found to be hosts to struggling species.  Endangered species could be found anywhere if we are keen on observing, and wildlife is forced to use whatever space is available, even if it is an old heap of soot.  Natural habitats are disappearing daily, and displaced lives are forced to make do with whatever quiet plots of land remain.

When plots of land are developed into parking lots, homes, or other human designated areas, wildlife is pushed out, and forced to find all new resources.  This isn’t a gradual change, but sudden, and sudden changes are steep adaptation curves that not all species can survive. The more this happens, the fewer habitat choices remain, and wildlife could either cease to exist, or we could take this opportunity to help by putting habitat back where it has been lost.  This action, even in the smallest plots, can help stitch the landscape back together, as Audubon Rockies Habiat Heroes program calls it, and it can look something like this!  Congratulations to the readers (Baker-Brenningstalls) who received the Habitat Hero Gold Award for this wild-scape in Denver, CO.  It’s absolutely stunning, and I have no urge to find it and “weed” it, do you?

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Plant and they will come.  This is absolutely true, and has been documented in many instances, including my own yard. Some wonderful examples in North America can be found in a fantastically quick read, The Humane Gardener by Nancy Lawson.  Wildlife is looking for resources, and the land we live on could provide the perfect oasis in the middle of human development, no matter the size.

This return to the wild won’t be exactly as it once was, but as Professor Marc Bekoff states in his book Rewilding Our Hearts, “Strictly speaking, then, these ecological efforts don’t rewind to achieve what was. But what they do is to make room for much more diverse, healthy, and sustainable ecosystems that are as natural as they can be, given our omnipresence.”

The story of Knepp Castle is an excellent example of this and is described in Dave Goulson’s book, Bee Quest.  Knepp Castle located in West Sussex is one example of allowing the wild to take over.  It sits on land that was once farmland full of monocultures that have gradually been allowed to transform into a sanctuary for countless wild species.  Sir Charles Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree own this property, and they have allowed the property to rewild.  This has meant no pruning, no tilling, no pulling, no mowing, or chopping dead trees down.  Such radical behavior! For the land at Knepp Castle this process is working quite nicely, with nature’s checks and balances in place to allow for a gradual turnover of the land, returning it to its naturally beautiful state.  Get a better sense of Knepp Castle.

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This is termed rewilding, and something I am proposing we do in our otherwise useless turf laden parts of our yards.  Who doesn’t enjoy watching the happenings of wildlife? And what better place to enjoy such things than our own yards.  Rewilding is not only good for wildlife, but for us domesticated homo sapiens who have lost touch with our own wild roots.  Rewilding requires us to sit back and enjoy the transformative view, as nature takes control.  Rewilding requires us to readjust our own perspective of what beauty is in a yard, as well as what the purpose of our land is. It affords us opportunities to learn that wildlife isn’t as scary once we understand the behavior and motivation of each wild critter.

 

Benefits to Us

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How often do you venture out to saunter through a forest along a trail such as the one above, and say to yourself, “someone should really trim these hedges, and pull these weeds, it all looks so disheveled and disorganized?”

I never think this, but I do take in all the scenic beauty, and anticipate the odds of crossing paths with wildlife.  Taking these adventures into nature fills my bucket, makes me feel whole and at peace, unlike anything else can, and this feeling has been proven to be a true beneficial need to our livelihood.  Living in the moment is not something we are great at in the modern developed world, and nature facilitates our return to the present; it helps us to have better focus in a relaxed state.  Studies have shown decreases in blood pressure, stress hormones, and lower heart rates with just minutes spent walking through forests.  National Geographic article with more detail on nature’s health benefits.

“It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character … is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect,” Frederick Law Olmsted wrote to urged California to protect Yosemite.

The calming effect of more trees, more vegetation, and more wild sounds and smells is undeniable, and can easily be brought back to the footprint of our home.

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Nature doesn’t have to be a thick forest to have beneficial effects on us; it could be in our yards and still impose life extending changes.  So, why not bring these benefits to our yards? Less travel to get to a natural space, more “green” in practice, and beautiful in its entirety.

Money is another resource we will recover in the process of going wild.  Choosing native vegetation requires little to no manual watering, which translates to a little extra cash in your pocket.  It is a self-sustaining system of life support, as native life has co-evolved to do just that.  It’s not just about plants providing resources to living organisms, but also about living organisms supporting plants.

This monetary incentive coupled with the prospects of having our own little oasis should be plenty of “selfish” reasons to drive us to the wild side of gardening.  Every plant becomes a stage for wild performances to be observed and enjoyed by anyone willing to sit and watch, and it’s free of charge!

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Pollinators, birds, mammals, vegetation can surprise us when we let them. I liken perfect green turf to plain white walls with no character, no artistic points of interest, boring and kind of depressing.  Nature’s wild is living artwork that decorates our lives in ever dynamic ways if we let it. 

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“Worldwide populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish have declined by 52%, and more than 40% of invertebrate pollinators are in danger of vanishing from our planet,”  Nancy Lawson in The Humane Gardener.

Imagine what help all those millions of acres of transformed turf could mean to wildlife! We have the power to bring the wild back, which in turn reduces our water bill, energy spent keeping the perfect lawn, and overall stress.  What’s not to like about this proposition?  This requires we stop and take notice; spend more time outside observing with no particular agenda, but to watch.  Keeping things clean and tidy in our yards creates more work, and never rivals the beauty we find out in nature.

Let’s get wild and create yards where the wild things grow!  What’s good for the wild is good for bees! Bzzzz

 

 

 

 

Pollen: Tales Beyond the Sneeze

Many of us can relate to that moment when you accept spring’s invitation to step out and saunter in the warm sun to hear all the vibrant sounds as nature awakes from the slumber of winter, to smell all the fragrances floating on the breeze, and then it hits you, a series of powerful, uncontrollable sneezing fits! Upon recovery, your eyes are filled with tears, and your nose is running in an effort to clear that tiny nuisance, pollen.  Profits are made in efforts to assist our terrible reactions to pollen, and many of us would rather it not exist, so what is it; why does it exist; and who really needs it?

Pollen is a tiny package formed to carry plant DNA, which is only half of the ingredients needed for plant reproduction.  Pollen is formed by the male part of plants (stamen), and is transported to the female part (pistil) with the intent of forming seeds, which produce more of the same plants.  The challenge pollen has is getting from one place to the next.

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Wind, water, and pollinators are modes of transport for pollen.  If it is transported by wind and water, the surface of pollen will be smooth, more aerodynamic, and sometimes may include little air sacs to capture the wind as a parachute does.  If it is transported by pollinators, it will be rough and spiky, which is more conducive to sticking to things as Velcro does.

As seen below, pollen viewed under an electron microscope, is very unique, and the plant it came from can be identified by the shape, texture, and color of the pollen granule.  Pollen is not always yellow; there is green, red, orange, brown, purple, blue, white, and many other colors.  Plants are not all the same, so why would pollen all be the same?  In fact, natural areas have pollen signatures, the composition of which is unique, and very useful to us.

pollen grains photoThis is a photo taken with an electron microscope; pollen is in the micron range of size, so not visible to the naked eye.

FUN FACT:  Pollen signatures are very useful to detectives when finding a body, or location of a crime, as pollen sticks to fabric, and suspects aren’t going around committing crimes in the nude.  The clothing will contain samples of the pollen signature of the place the crime occurred, making it easier to narrow a search, and often leading to justice.  Who knew pollen could be a part of an investigative team? Watch a brief talk about it here:  Pollen’s Story

img_3374.jpgThe bottom row in this photo contains individual pollen provisions for individual mason bee eggs, which are divided with mud walls.  This pollen is mixed with nectar, and will be consumed by the bee larva. Pollen is a high protein food.

Pollen is not only important to for plant reproduction, but also to bees for feeding their young.  Bees are motivated and designed to carry pollen; some are better at pollinating than others, but all bees, with the exception of cuckoo bees, seek pollen.

IMG_7285Ceratina is a tiny black bee with a cute little face. This one thought she was hidden, but I caught her on camera!

Ceratina bees eat pollen and carry it in their transport tummies, not to be digested, but rather carried back to their nest.  So, Ceratina bees have hair, but not as much as the bees who carry pollen on their bodies.  Pollen is most often carried on the outside of a bee’s body.

IMG_4477The belly of this Leafcutter bee is orange with Lupine pollen.

One modality is scopa, which is thick curved hairs that could be located on the bottom of the abdomen, as is the case with Leafcutter bees, or on the hind legs, as is the case with Digger bees. Pollen is stuffed into these hairs by the bee as she collects it from flowers, but is not mixed and bundled with nectar.

img_4749Look at all that yellow pollen all over this digger bees hind leg scopa, and body!

Bees such as bumble and honey, carry pollen in baskets on their hind legs termed corbicula.  The back of the leg is concave and smooth with  basket like hairs curved around the front of it.  Honeybees and bumblebees will mix the pollen with nectar and glob it onto the corbicula as seen below.

IMG_0023That orange ball on this bumble’s leg is pollen mixed with a little nectar to make it sticky.

The hairs of bees are hooked, and sometimes frayed at the tips to pick up the Velcro like pollen, and in addition to this, there is a charged relationship!

close up of pollen on honeybee's hairsThis is a closeup of pollen stuck to the hairs of a honeybee.  Notice the branching on the hair shafts.  This characteristic of bee hair is one strong reason pollen is so readily carried by bees.  Photo was taken by the Centre for Electron Optical Studies at The University of Bath UK.

As if the structural relationship weren’t fascinating enough, when bees fly they generate positive electrostatic charge all over the hairs on their bodies.  Flowers have an electric field across their surface area, and pollen carries a negative charge.  This explains why the bumblebee below has pollen clinging to all parts of her face; more hair means more positive charge.

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When the flower hasn’t been visited in a while, that surface charge is very strong, and pulls on the positively charged hairs on the bee.  This signals to the bee that the nectar and pollen stores are full, and this flower is worth landing on.  Before the bee even lands to get a sip of nectar, the pollen begins to jump from the flower to the bee’s hairs.  This pollen is then carried from flower to flower, and eventually some brushes off onto the center of the flower, the stigma, and if it’s the correct stigma, the pollen will dig a tunnel down to the egg, and a seed will form, and more of the same flowers will bloom as a result of this perfect partnership.

READ MORE ABOUT THIS REMARKABLE STORY HERE

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Right down to the tiniest interactions, such as pollen to the hair of a bee, our world is made up of marvelous collaborations with magical results!  One could never cease to be amazed when studying and learning of the natural world’s secrets.

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places,” Roald Dahl.