Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Intermittent Invertebrate: Series Introduction

It has been a while, hasn't it? 

I just drafted and deleted several paragraphs about why it has been a while since my last post and then wondered why I felt the need to explain why I was gone.  Silly, right? 

I was gone (figuratively speaking)! Now I'm back (time permitting)! Huzzah!

I was trying to come up with something clever along the lines of Wordless Wednesday, Photo Phriday, etc. for a new subject on the blog, but was not having luck until I settled on what probably best describes my current blogging style- sporadic posts which will now include pictures of insects found on the farm. Yes, they aren't as cute as baby goats or Stella, but they certainly are a part of the farm (integrated pest management, baby!), and an important aspect to try keep in balance for optimal produce production. I think some of them are kinda pretty too.

My interest in bugs was first stoked by my high school biology teacher who gave us the choice of collecting and identifying 60 different types of insects or doing some other project that sounded much less interesting to me at the time.  One of the first things I learned was that spiders are not insects (too many legs), and that "true bugs" are a type of insect, but not all insects are considered to be a type of bug for classification purposes.  My family lived in a suburban housing tract that backed up to open space, and I quickly discovered that I could easily collect more insects in the open grassland than I could in our manicured back yard, even though all that separated the two spaces was a four foot high wooden fence.  I remember being amazed at just how many different types of flies there are since I had assumed that flies were pretty much one type of annoying bug, and was quite surprised at how many niches in the ecosystem they occupied.  Once I started keeping an eye out for individual insects, I started seeing more detail in the world- like instead of just a swarm of insects on the porch light, there were moths, leaf hoppers, and oooohhhh a lace wing!

Cuckoo Bee on oregano flowers- click on image to further embiggen

This interest was renewed last year when a few of my blogging friends wrote about pollinator week, and I decided to take a look at what insects, besides our honeybees, were visiting our summer blossoms.  I expected to see mostly bees, but I am pretty sure I saw more wasps at the flowers, and I came to learn that many of the insects that we consider "beneficial bugs" rely on nectar sources to complete some parts of their life cycle, which probably means that the dearth of nectar sources affecting honeybees is also affecting the predatory wasps that help keep "pest bugs" in check.  This is one of the reasons that I often end up letting our herbs flower- we don't get as large of a harvest, but they tend to have more blooms than ornamental plants, with a wealth of nectar for the insects.

A few notes on photographing pollen/nectar seeking insects: there's a reason the early bird gets the worm- pollinators are not early risers.  Insects are generally more active with higher temperatures, so  in the middle of summer, that can mean some pretty sweaty photo sessions in the garden.  I've also discovered that in a digital era, insect photography brings back some of the thrill/uncertainty/crushing disappointment of film developing where you just never know if you actually got the shot of the teeny tiny bee until you have a chance to review the photos in detail after your session is over.  These little creatures move so quickly, often in evasive flight patterns, that they can be difficult to keep track of, and even if you do manage to keep track of them, it can be difficult to convince the camera lens to focus on them (too small of a thing, too many other options in view to focus on).

These first pictures feature cuckoo bees (and oregano flowers, which are incredibly small), a type of bee I was not aware of until I took these pictures.  They sort of straddle the line between two insects most people are aware of: bees- which are fuzzy and gather pollen on themselves, and wasps, which are smooth bodied and have no mechanism for intentionally gathering pollen.

This cuckoo bee seems to be visually checking nectar levels...or making sure this isn't a trap.

You'll notice that the cuckoo bees in the first and second pictures (they are two different types- if you look closely, the stripe patterns are slightly different, and the leg colors are different) have no pollen on them, and pollen gathering is one of the traits bees are generally known by.  So at first I thought these might be wasps, but then again, they don't have the typical wasp profile with the narrow elongated waist, and they are ever so slightly fuzzy, which put them back into the bee family.  Cuckoo bees, as it turns out, are not pollinators who only visit flowers to consume nectar, and are predators of other bee species- usually of a type they are closely related to.  Bees actually evolved from predatory wasps, so it would make sense that the cuckoo bee would have some waspish traits, making it initially challenging to identify them. 

Apparently, the flower was indeed worthy of stopping for- love the green eyes on this cuckoo bee

Both wasps (yellow jackets, paper wasps) and bees (honey, and to some extent bumble) can be social hive dwellers, but the majority of our California bee species live alone, either in the ground or in some type of wood.  Where the cuckoo bird lays its eggs in the nest of another species of bird, which then ends up raising the cuckoo chick(s) as their own, the cuckoo bee engages in similar behavior, known as kleptoparasitism.  It will find a ground dwelling bee, usually a pollen-gathering type, and lay its eggs in the cells the host bee has provisioned for its own eggs. The cuckoo bee larvae hatch, earlier than the host larvae, and eat through the provisions, and usually the host larvae as well, if the mother cuckoo bee didn't already do so when she was laying her eggs.

While at first I was disappointed to find that these were bee parasites, as opposed to the native bee species I was hoping to catch on camera, I have since read that they are an indicator of a more complex habitat.  So I am not sure that I would call these a particularly beneficial insect, but they may fit into the "indicator that you're doing something right around here insect" category. Because there are many types of cuckoo bees, I am sure I'll be posting more pictures of them in the future.

Oh, and I took this for scale:

While I know insects aren't everyone's favorite topic, I think knowing what they are and what they do makes them have less of an "ewww" factor, and I always find that the more you know about the natural world, the more you see.