Sunflower fields as critter-friendly habitats — part 2: bees and bugs

Do you know why the common name in English for Helianthus is sunflower? The common name is the same in Dutch (zonnebloem), German (Sonnenblume) and several other languages. In French (tournesol) and Spanish (girasol), the common names refer to “turning to the sun”, an accurate description of how this plant behaves.

Sunflowers exhibit a phenomenon known as heliotropism — an inclination to turn East in the morning so that the developing buds are warmed by the sun. The plant heads track the sun during the day and, at night, they reorient themselves to face East again. So if you pay attention when you visit a sunflower field at different times of day, you’ll notice they face a different direction in the morning and afternoon.

It’s not only birds, butterflies — and people! — that enjoy sunflowers. When these flowers grow in abundance, plenty of varied insects come to enjoy them and I’ll share something about these “sun worshippers” with you.

Bees of varying sizes were feeding in the sunflower fields that I visited. The large carpenter bees (Xylocopa) were not difficult to spot with their smooth shiny abdomens.

The similar-sized, fuzzy-looking bumble bees (Bombus) were actively visiting one sunflower after another.

American bumble bees (Bombus pensylvanicus) were foraging on nearby hibiscus blooms.

At a different site in neighboring Durham county, where sunflowers bloom later, I saw bumble bees on partridge peas and other yellow flowers.

 

There, too, my attention was caught by a bee that looked quite different from others that I’d seen. It proved to be a leafcutter bee (Megachilid), which has large mouthparts that enables it to cut pieces of leaves, plant resins and soil to line its nest.

The leafcutter bees are interesting in their unique method of carrying pollen. Rather than collect pollen in baskets called corbicula on their hind legs, they gather the substance in a clump of abdominal hairs called a scopa or pollen brush.

Back at the sunflower fields, I observed one medium-sized cuckoo bee (Epeolini) eventually become covered with sunflower pollen. These bees do not have an anatomical structure for carrying collected pollen and the females, like avian cuckoos (or cowbirds), lay their eggs in other bees’ nests.

The much smaller Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) were very numerous. It was interesting to discover that for some time, the NASA website included a section on honey bees! It stopped being updated when the principal investigator retired but NASA maintains the site because of the valued information it contains. Some of the interesting facts they listed about these insects:

  • Bees can fly about 20 mph (32 kph).
  • The highest recorded number of eggs laid by a queen was 2,000 per day!
  • Bees have been on our planet for about 30 million years!
  • To make 1 pound (0.45 kg) of honey, bees need to collect nectar from about 2 million flowers!!
  • The average foraging bee (all females) makes about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
  • The main way in which honey bees communicate among themselves is via chemicals called pheromones.

The honey bees and common Eastern bumble bees make a good choice by spending lots of time in sunflower fields. Scientific studies indicate that ingested sunflower pollen enables them to suffer less infection from two common parasites, a real boon for bees who might otherwise succumb to colony collapse as a result of disease.

 

Both in the sunflower and other fields, it was fascinating to see other types of small bees as well. The small green sweat bees perhaps prefer more colorful blooms as that is where I mostly saw them.

These tiny non-aggressive bees are attracted to sweat because it provides them with moisture and salts.

There were some other interesting insects besides butterflies and bees in the sunflower fields and surrounding vegetation. While looking at some bumble bees circling a large sunflower head, I had inadvertently photographed a pair of much tinier insects near the center of the flower. I actually only noticed them when I was looking at the photos at home or I would have tried to focus on them better in the field.

When I enlarged the photo, I was able to get a somewhat fuzzy look at them and BugGuide identified them for me as sunflower seed maggots (Neotephritis finalis). These tiny insects have prettily patterned wings, but I discovered there is not a lot of information available about them; some research in North Dakota in 2008 concluded they might be a pest but no other data were easily available. They are a species of fruit fly.

Another insect seen on the sunflowers that many people find distasteful were the green June beetles (Cotinis nitida). The larva can damage vegetable and other plant roots, while the adults will feed on ripening fruit, so many gardeners will try to get rid of them.

A cute little syrphid fly, which BugGuide couldn’t identify specifically (a Palpada species), seemed to be alone with no fellow flies nearby.

There were several slender meadow katydids (Conocephalus fasciatus) to admire with their extremely long antennae.

The most interesting fact I discovered about them is that they have a soft song comprising ticks and buzzes that alternate for time periods of 1–20 seconds.

Sunflower fields are beautiful and spending time observing them as interesting wildlife habitats can really be enjoyable. These flowers also constitute a beneficial cash crop for farmers who can sell the seeds for sunflower oil, for human and avian consumption and the stalks for cattle feed.

And as if all those benefits don’t make sunflowers enough of a value-laden plant, scientific studies have also shown that they assist in phytoremediation, a process that helps remove and destroy polluting contaminants in soil, water, and air. Their deep taproots help aerate soil and make it richer for growing other subsequent crops as well.

Some sunflower fields may still be blooming through August and an online search can help you find them if you’d like to enjoy these wonderful flowers and their wildlife beneficiaries. If you have a garden, you might consider adding sunflowers to your vegetation mix if you don’t have them already. You can still plant some now in hopes of late autumn blooms.

This is a good time also to remember that the Ukraine became the world’s leading exporter of sunflower seeds until the currently ongoing invasion of the country brought this trade to a halt. Farmers who were still able to grow the country’s national flower are stuck with supplies and no income. Consider supporting organizations that are working to provide the Ukrainian people with humanitarian aid:

Quebec chronicles – the non-avian wildlife

While birding has become a beloved pastime for me, I think of myself mostly as a wildlife photographer. I enjoy observing (new) insects, reptiles and mammals as much as I like seeing birds and find their behaviors just as fascinating. So I was also on the lookout for non-avian wildlife during our recent migration trip.

You could tell that springtime was flourishing as plants were putting out new leaves and buds. There were gorgeous red (Trillium erectum) and white trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum).

 

Fiddlehead ferns were popping up everywhere. And a new flower for me was the white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda).

Yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) were emerging and red columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) dangled their pretty red and yellow blooms.

Red osier dogwoods (Cornus sericea) were in meadows at one park and in the area where we were staying, multiple shadbush (serviceberry, Amelanchier) trees were in bloom.

Quite an unusual plant turned up in Pointe au Pic near an area with local shops. I had not seen one like this before – a helpful member of a plant identification group told me it was a rhubarb (Rheum).

The dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) we saw were very large in comparison to those I’ve seen in North Carolina (NC). Interesting is that the official name in French is “pissenlit”, which literally translated would be “piss in bed” (although proper French speakers would say “Pisse au lit”). In any event, dandelions can not only be eaten in salads but also be used as a diuretic, so perhaps centuries ago the French Quebeçois were referring to the flower’s properties in describing it. Another French name for the bloom is “lion’s teeth” or “dents de lion” (from which the English word dandelion came).

The insects were taking advantage of those edible yellow flowers; both spiders and ants were busy crawling around them.

 

A beautiful syrphid fly was also busy getting its meal, while an unknown moth flitted down to rest in the middle of a road.

There were butterflies at the shorelines, like this Lucia azure (Celastrina lucia) and mussel shells rested on rocks.

 

 

A spur-throated grasshopper (Melanoplus) was hanging out on a pissenlit, and a diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella) turned up in a photo of another plant (not a great photo but a lifer insect for me).

A beautiful honey bee (Apis mellifera) was covered in pollen.

Another new insect for me was the tricolored bumble bee (Bombus ternarius).

A few mammals appeared during our spring vacation, although not the hoped-for moose. (We unfortunately saw one black bear, but it had been hit on the road.) On several days, I caught sight of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) bounding away, both in the area where we were staying and in the parks that we visited. I managed to catch a glimpse of an Eastern chipmunk, too, but it wouldn’t come out from behind some twigs for a photo shoot.

Much more cooperative were the American red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), which feed primarily on conifer cone seeds. They also enjoy other foods such as mushrooms, which were beginning to grow profusely like this nice morel.

The chickarees (another name for these rodents) were often out and about along the roadway where our rental house was located.

On one day, I ran into a small squirrel that seemed to have a problem with its left eye. However, it might have been a trick of the light. I tried to get another view, but the little rodent wouldn’t let me get around to its other side to take a photo. In any event, they are beautiful little creatures (generally smaller than the large gray squirrels that reside in my yard).

A very pleasant surprise during our trip was running into some groundhogs (Marmota monax, also known as whistle pigs and woodchucks). It is said that they tend to avoid swampy areas and like open fields and meadows but both woodchucks we saw were spotted near water. The first one we saw popped up near a cove on a paved road leading down to the water. The mammal was surprised by our group which had occupied a space between the water and nearby vegetation areas.

 

We tried to stay in one area so the groundhog could go around us, but s/he was uncertain about passing us, making several forays in our direction, turning around and then heading back again to get to the bushes and trees.

 

Finally, the groundhog screwed up its courage and ran at high speed past us and disappeared into the trees.

 

A couple days later, one of our group spotted another groundhog that was foraging in the newly leafing out shrubs alongside a creek that ran into a cove. The large rodent was agile and able to climb up into spindly little trees.

 

 

 

 

Its bulk also made it lose its footing a few times, but the mammal managed to hold on and regain its balance so that it could continue munching on the fresh food. It was delightful watching this beautiful rodent going about its daily business.

Another mammal that proved to be a bit elusive for me (others in our group were able to get some good out-in-the-open views) was the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus). During our first full day of exploring, we spotted one bounding away into the underbrush, which was quite exciting. Then a few days later in the Tadoussac dunes, a hare suddenly bounded out of nearby shrubs to dash across the sand into another group of shrubs. I didn’t get sharp shots as I only caught sight of it out of the corner of my eye and it was almost gone as I swung my camera around.

The hares that we saw were not yet done changing into their “summer” colors and still had some winter white fur on their impressive huge feet. These mammals begin breeding in mid-March and females may have up to four litters a year. They often communicate with one another using their feet, thumping them on the ground to make messages.

On another day, I spotted a hare foraging in a brushy area. In the winter, they eat twigs, bark and buds but in summer they can enjoy grasses, clover, dandelions and other green plants. This hare was enjoying the fresh food, but I felt sad looking at her (or him) as its head was covered in ticks. I don’t know if the animal was particularly vulnerable because it was young, maybe not completely healthy or just had the bad luck to have sat in a nest of the nasty insects. I hoped that the hare would be able to go on in health after the insects fell off.

 

 

The snowshoe hares prefer to be in dense groundcover, so they are somewhat hidden from predators (coyotes, fox, lynx, minks, owls, hawks) while they search for food. Their “cousins” back in my residential area, the Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) also need to worry about predators (owls, hawks, crows, raccoons) but one pair has become quite relaxed in my yard. Here you see dad (left) and mom (right).

As far as I can tell, they had one surviving offspring. They don’t generally seem too frightened, however, and almost everyday I see them lounging in a relaxed manner in the back yard, in contrast to those beautiful but elusive snowshoe hares. I was glad to have seen the hares though.

Two more Quebec chronicles to go: the “flashy” and yellowish birds and signs of humans along the St. Lawrence Seaway.

My one greed that I do not regret

 

My thoughts & walking wander
Sometimes in conjunction
& sometimes on different paths.

The wheezy red-winged blackbird
Calls out time on this quiet Sunday morning.

An hour’s worth of nature should do me today.
Enough to rejuvenate, calm down, re-fill with some contentment.

A dove’s hooo hooooo
A songbird’s chirrups
The hawk’s plaintive cry.

 

A united triumvirate causes the hawk to flee
As it appears to clutch a prize in its claws;
The flight is too fast to decipher its capture.
Nesting & fledging season continues, so the grackles’ vigilance is warranted.

 

As a vulture descends
Circling downward over my head, I wonder
What does s/he know that I don’t?
Or the grasshopper?
The Nez Perce people said: “Every animal knows more than you do.”

 

 

Lichen-covered and veined stones and rocks jut up from the dirt path.
My feet seek purchase since
An injured leg needs no more distress.

 

 

 

 

A silver-spotted skipper alights on spiky purple thistle
Beautiful white patch on velvety brown.

On another day the summer azures caught my eye.
So small with details of their beauty escaping the naked eye.
The wonders of technology bring them closer.

 

 

 

Someone else has been walking here, too,
Where wetlands waters once flowed.

 

The five-lined skink and Carolina anole
Are not coming out today.

 

The beaver pond is placid
The dragons dip and rise
Turtles break surface and sink
Frogs give a cry of alarm, jumping high-pitched into the depths.

A pair of kingfishers
Fly to and fro,
Practicing their observation skills

As they wait for their permanent colors to come in.

 

Leaves are trembling
Branches and twigs waving
The slightest of breezes beckons
And helps the cattails sway a bit.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s hot
Clothing damp and sticking.
Even the honeybee is not staying around long.

 

 

The brown thrasher, on the other hand,
Is enjoying a dust bath and sunbathing in the glaring light…
Until I surprise her/him from behind. Sorry!!

 

 

A three-way Japanese beetle gathering
Is staying put for a while
Eating up the leaves on which they rest.

 

 

A bright American goldfinch stops by.
I do not think of them as sad
Regardless of the name they were given.
Their brief presence makes me happy.

 

Two hours, 20 minutes…
Passed while admiring an eyed click beetle
And acknowledging deceptions in the natural world.

Two not-so-common looking buckeyes delight.
One a little tattered, showing age.
I can sympathize from experience.

 

 

The life-filled ground, plants, water and air
Enthrall.

An hour should do me?

An hour is enough?
It could suffice in some circumstances.
But the one greed I have, which I do not regret,
Is the desire for much more time among the non-human beings in nature.

The trails beckon.
Who’s waiting around the bend?