One of the reasons I started this blog was to share some of the ups and downs of the field work. Today will be a bunch of ups because I've been having a blast, and enjoying the critters I'm seeing.
Look at that face. Some might say is the face only a mother could love, but I love it too. While I was counting floral visitors yesterday, this Conopidae, or thick-headed fly (no, I'm not being rude, that is really the common name) left her chive perch and took to my data sheet. If you think "bugs are icky," I implore you to consider this fly. Note the reddish hue, the tightened waist, and the slightly elongated antennae. All of these traits very closely resemble a wasp I've seen in the area (though I haven't caught a photo yet). This fly is harmless, but mimics it's wasp so well that even my trained eye required a second look.
This tricolor bumblebee was having a hard time waking up. I know people say I shouldn't anthropomorphize insects, but she was clumsy and slow, the same way I feel before coffee. I'm sure most people in the Pacific Northwest can relate to this Seattle area bumblebee. Insects require external heat for their energy, and they also need nectar. Nectar is full of carbohydrates (the fancy word for sugar) which acts just like a great cup of joe. Pollen is the protein shake and provides the longer lasting energy that the bees require, and also use to stock in their nest to feed to their offspring. After all, you'd probably give your kid a plate of scrambled eggs before you'd give them coffee too, right?
Hoverflies, or Syrphid flies, are another great example of mimicry. When my 4 year old niece saw a syrphid, she said "Auntie Rachel, why does that fly look like a bee?" First off, I was very impressed that this little gal could tell the difference between a fly and a bee (I must be doing something right), but I was also very impressed that she thought there might be a reason. My response was easily understood by her, so I explained it this way to a group of adults and they were also amazed. The language is a little different, but the message is the same. Mimicry is a common defense mechanism in the animal world. For example, if you were a bird, and you had eaten a bee and been stung, you would think twice about eating something that looked like a bee. You might also warn your chicks against eating things that look like bees. This fly has similar characteristics as a bee (primarily the bright yellow and black stripes) and is therefore left alone by the birds and other predators. The fly doesn't have to go through the pesky task of creating a stinger or venom, which require a significant amount of energy. The fly can benefit from the work of the bee. But don't think that syrphids are just a bunch of deadbeats that are taking advantage of the bees. Syrphids are great pollinators as adults, pollinating a wide range of flowers. As immatures (called larvae) syrphids are voracious predators, attacking such garden and farm pests as aphids and leaf hoppers. Syrphids are doing double duty and working hard for you all their lives.
I spend a lot of time explaining to people that bees are generally not aggressive and if you leave them alone, you can work side by side for the greater good. In the wool carder bee's case though, I do have to scrape a bit of egg off my face. The wool carder is a native of Europe, and while not aggressive toward humans, can be very territorial and aggressive toward other bees. They are part of the Megachilidae family of leaf cutter bees, and their very large mandibles explain why. They use their huge chompers (in the photo above - yellow and black to the right of the eye) to cut leaves and use them to line their nests. They also use these tools to bite other bees (and wasps, flies, and any other insects) and tear off their wings if they get too close to the wool carder territory. It's a vicious world, and everyone has a stake in it. Luckily, these bees aren't super common (at least in the Pacific Northwest) and are therefore not doing too much harm to our other pollinators. Even though it's a little gruesome, you have to admit, it's pretty cool to see a bee defending her home so strongly.
I am having an excellent time collecting information to share on the blog and podcast. I've got a great episode lined up for June, and I'm already collecting info for July as well! Thank you for joining me on this wonderful journey!