Busy as a bee is no joke! Our hardworking pollinators – pretty and persevering!

honey-bee-brazilian-sage-i77a1269-maria-de-bruyn-resHere it is, 7 November, and the honey bees were still busily working over the Brazilian sage, lantana and chrysanthemums in my garden. The Eastern carpenter bees were absent today, perhaps because of the cold night we had, but a few butterflies were flying among the flowers. We know that some of our pollinators are in serious trouble, but my garden has nevertheless been blessed this year with a steady stream of pollinating visitors who were to be seen on the varied blooms morning, noon and almost night.

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I’d enjoyed seeing the bees, butterflies and syrphid flies in the past, but started paying even more attention to them as pollinators this year as I worked on the “Healthy Bee, Healthy Me” project initiated by the non-profit organization Keep Durham Healthy.

 

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The project expresses its goal as follows: “…to establish educational pollinator gardens in proximity to pre-existing community gardens to ensure the sustainability of nectar and pollen sources for our honey bees, native bees, butterflies and other pollinators throughout the year, and to increase the yield of the food crops grown within the community gardens.” Some of my photos were used in one of their interpretive garden signs and next year more community gardens will join the project.

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Science knows that more than 250,000 plants are pollinated by over 100,000 different types of animals, but not all plants require assistance from pollinators for fertilization. In abiotic pollination, fertilization occurs without another organism as an intermediary – for example, through movement of pollen from male vegetative anthers to female stigma by the wind (called anemophily) or water (called hydrophily). However, much fertilization occurs with assistance from biotic vectors, which not only include bees, butterflies and flies but also moths, birds and mammals (e.g., lemurs, squirrels, opossums, monkeys and bats; here you see a hummingbird clearwing moth – Hemaris thysbe – getting nectar.) How cool is that!

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The most efficient pollinators are the bees. Some species like honey bees (Apis mellifera) and bumble bees have pollen baskets (corbiculae) on their legs – a concave portion of their hind leg in which pollen can be stored as a ball. It starts out small but eventually gets fairly big so their little tibia begin to look like barbells. The color of the pollen can differ from bright yellow to brown to red to white, depending on the pollen of the flowers visited most often.

 

american-bumble-bee-i77a0763-maria-de-bruyn2-res    american-bumble-bee-male-img_5492-maria-de-bruyn-bg

American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus)

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Common Eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens)

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Honey bees

The attractive little honey bees, which vary in their coloring, are known to pollinate about one-third of the popular foods eaten by humans, including items such as tomatoes, peas, beans and other fruit.

honey-bee-i77a7652-maria-de-bruyn-res    honey-bee-i77a6542-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1315-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen visiting tubular flowers, like the Brazilian sage (Salvia guaranitica), the bees don’t look for nectar by entering the flower as do the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) with their long bills. Rather, they alight on the base of the corolla tube so that they can drill down into the flower to extract the nectar at the source.

honey-bee-i77a7849-maria-de-bruyn-res       de-bruyn-maria-carpenter-bee-brazilian-sage-2-i77a7250

Honey bee                                                  Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)

The clearwing moths and butterflies, like the Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus), have long tongues that they use to probe the flowers as they hover. Nevertheless, they can get pollen on their legs or bodies and transport it to another plant, although they are not as efficient at this as, for example, the sweat bees and carpenter bees.

eastern-tiger-swallowtail-pollen-i77a5259-maria-de-bruyn-res    eastern-tiger-swallowtail-i77a3693maria-de-bruyn-res

These bees have scopae rather than pollen baskets on their legs, i.e., structures comprising dense masses of compressed hairs into which pollen grains are pressed.

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Small carpenter bee (Ceratina)

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Female sweat bees (Augochlorella)

long-horned-bee-melissodes-i77a3343-maria-de-bruyn-res   long-horned-bee-melissodes-i77a3428-maria-de-bruyn-res

Long-horned bee (Melissodes)

Sometimes the bees manage to get their whole bodies covered with pollen, which can make species identification more difficult but creates some interesting views.

eastern-carpenter-bee-i77a2601-maria-de-bruyn-res    eastern-carpenter-bee-i77a3750maria-de-bruyn-res

four-toothed-mason-wasp-monobia-quadridens-i77a2039-maria-de-bruyn-bgWasps can carry pollen as I saw almost daily when the four-toothed mason wasps (Monobia quadridens) visited my yellow passionflowers (Passiflora lutea). Here you can see the pollen collecting on the head of a male, whose sex can be determined by the fact he has 7 abdominal segments and curved antennae (females have straight antennae and 6 abdominal segments). How’s that for a bit of obscure information for the non-entomologist?

The syrphid flies, often known as bee mimics, help pollinate, too. A number of these flies are honey-bee size and can be confused with the bees easily.

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Flat-tailed leaf-cutter bee (Megachile mendica)

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Transverse flower fly (Eristalis transversa)

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Syrphid fly (Eristalis dimidiata)

Others are itsy bitsy, tiny flyers that can have pretty interesting abdominal patterns. I couldn’t see the patterns even with my glasses on; enlarging the photos revealed their beauty, which could make for interesting fabric patterns in my opinion.

syrphid-fly-toxomerus-marginatus-i77a5952-maria-de-bruyn-res   syrphid-fly-toxomerus-geminatus-i77a5943-maria-de-bruyn-res

Syrphid fly (Toxomerus marginatus)                      Syrphid fly (Toxomerus geminatus)

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Syrphid fly with a lovely golden sheen (Eupeodes subgenus Metasyrphus)

The pollinators don’t appear to begrudge one another nectar – different species will share space on particularly popular plants.

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Eastern carpenter bee and monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

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Eastern carpenter bee and sweat bee

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Eastern carpenter bee, sweat bee and syrphid fly

Occasionally, the pollinators do not live out their usual short lifespans as predators catch them for food. This Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) had been eyeing a bumble bee and was slowly moving toward it but the bee flew off before the mantis could complete its lunge. Later the mantis managed to snag a honey bee, however.

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While on a walk one day, I suddenly was startled by the loudest buzzing I had ever heard, coming up behind me. It sounded angry, intense and was rather piercing for a buzz. I turned just in time to witness a giant robber fly (Promachus) settle on a grass stem with a bumble bee that it had just caught. The buzzing stopped fairly quickly as the fly proceeded to ingest its meal.

 

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Various organizations and agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, are drawing attention to the endangerment of pollinator species. The main threats include loss and degradation of habitat as we pave over an increasing amount of natural space and plant lawns instead of native plants in yards. Using pesticides in landscaping areas is further threatening many of the insects on which pollination depends.

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Planting pollinator gardens is a way in which we all can contribute to saving our pollinators; if you don’t have your own yard, you can volunteer with a project to create a community garden. And then you can watch these fascinating insects with appreciation for their contributions to us!

A working farm as a nature reserve

cattle I77A8663© Maria de Bruyn resTo continue the saga of Braeburn Farm, I’d like to introduce you to some of the non-avian wildlife to be found there. As a vegetarian, I’ll admit I was originally a bit reluctant to go there, but I must acknowledge that the farm management does many things to give the cattle a good life.

Red Devon cattle I77A6581© Maria de Bruyn resThey keep their herd of Red Devons (Bos taurus) to about 300 animals and allow the calves to reach the age of at least 3 years. Some cows and bulls are allowed to grow much older (10-12 years or more) and they enjoy a peaceful life before they go to market, rotating through the farm’s varied habitats, which include meadows and fields, ponds, woods and creeks. No pesticides are used in the habitats and the vegetation is allowed to grow as naturally as possible. Farm manager Nick said that when it is time to shift the cows to a new pasture area, he just calls them. The older cows know that they will be enjoying fresh and different veggies so they follow him willingly, leading the rest of the herd along.

My visits in June and July showed how this farm is cultivating biodiversity among plants and wildlife. The fields were dotted with thistles, white clover (Trifolium repens), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and many other plants.

brown-eyed Susan I77A7112© Maria de Bruyn res        Moth mullein Verbascum blattaria I77A5812© Maria de Bruyn res

Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)                           Moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria)

Bees and butterflies were abundant, showing that the farm’s methods are good for the pollinators.

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Clouded sulphur (Colias philodice)                             Clouded skipper (Lerema accius)

Least skipper IMG_0155© Maria de Bruyn    Sachem skipper I77A7026© Maria de Bruyn res

Least skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor)          Sachem skipper (Atalopedes campestris)            cabbage white I77A6735© Maria de Bruyn res         monarch I77A6970© Maria de Bruyn res

Cabbage white (Pieris rapae)                      Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Leaf-footed bugs (Leptoglossus phyllopus), margined leatherwing soldier beetles (Chauliognathus marginatus), bees and various species of syrphid flies (also known as hoverflies and often mistaken for bees) were exploring the thistles.

leaf-footed bug Leptoglossus phyllopus IMG_4412© Maria de Bruyn res   leaf-footed bug Leptoglossus phyllopus IMG_4400© Maria de Bruyn res

margined leatherwing soldier beetle IMG_4437© Maria de Bruyn resMargined leatherwing soldier beetle

Eastern carpenter bee 2 I77A6964© Maria de Bruyn res            syrphid fly Sphaerophoria I77A5781© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)            Syrphid fly (Sphaerophoria)

common oblique syrphid fly Allograpta obliqua IMG_4418© Maria de Bruyn res

Common oblique syrphid fly (Allograpta obliqua)

Syrphid fly - Palpada vinetorum IMG_4422© Maria de Bruyn bg    Syrphid fly - Palpada vinetorum IMG_4422© Maria de Bruyn res

Syrphid fly (Palpada vinetorum)

Elsewhere, the nymph of a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) moved along large leaves.

Wheel bug - Arilus cristatus IMG_4499© Maria de Bruyn    Wheel bug - Arilus cristatus IMG_4481© Maria de Bruyn res

It pays to look down at your feet as you wander through the fields in the early morning. The grasses are covered in tiny webs that glisten with water droplets. Underneath are the tiny red dwarf sheetweb spiders (Florinda coccinea) that may show themselves if you stay very still.

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dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0127© Maria de Bruyn   dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0121© Maria de Bruyn

In the vegetation below you can also see other insects, like the Spur-throated grasshopper (Melanoplus), or the Forage looper moth (Caenurgina erechtea).

spur-throated grasshopper Melanoplus IMG_0152© Maria de Bruyn res      Forage looper I77A5943© Maria de Bruyn res

Various dragonflies and damselflies balance on grasses and sometimes alight on the ground (the former hold their wings out when resting and the damselflies fold their wings along their bodies).

halloween pennant I77A6315© Maria de Bruyn res   halloween pennant Celithemis eponina I77A6337© Maria de Bruyn res

Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina)

Double-striped American bluet Dancer damselfly I77A6155© Maria de Bruyn res

Double-striped bluet damselfly (Enallagma basidens)

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Widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)

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Common whitetail (Plathemis lydia)

At the creek crossings, you may see a common sanddragon dragonfly (Progomphus obscurus, a lifer for me!), paper wasps (Polistes) or a viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) having a drink or looking for a mate. The viceroy mimics the monarch but can be distinguished easily with the line crossing its wings horizontally when you see it rest.

Common sanddragon dragonfly I77A6480© Maria de Bruyn res    Common sanddragon dragonfly I77A6508© Maria de Bruyn res

paper wasp Polistes I77A6454© Maria de Bruyn bg       Viceroy I77A6432© Maria de Bruyn res

Walking through the fields, you may also occasionally spot a mammal although they are not as easy to see as the other wildlife. As I trudged around a pond, this white-tailed deer fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) was startled from its hiding place – showing off the part of its anatomy for which the species is named and looking as if s/he was sporting a very large feather.

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On one outing, Nick and I spotted a couple darling raccoon kits (Procyon lotor), who wasted no time scurrying for cover when they spotted us.

raccoon I77A7213© Maria de Bruyn res     raccoon I77A7225© Maria de Bruyn res

Red Devon cattle I77A6617© Maria de Bruyn resThe farm is a great place to spend quality time outdoors. You can contact the farm management to schedule a visit and they will instruct on which fields and areas are open for visitation. And if you should wander by mistake into a field with some of the cattle, you needn’t worry as the Red Devons are likely to walk away or just watch you as they are a placid breed. I hope that Braeburn Farm becomes a popular birding and wildlife observation area so that we can continue enjoying visits there.

See anything good?

Sandy Creek path IMG_4981© Maria de Bruyn resThat’s a common question I get when I am out on one of my nature walks. Since I carry a camera with a large zoom lens and often a smaller camera, too, it’s obvious to passersby that I’m out observing nature. And I realize that when they ask the question, what they really want to know is whether I saw anything unusual or spectacular.

A recent walk at Sandy Creek Park in Durham, NC, was a case in point. I told one couple who posed the question that my most memorable sighting so far had been a male ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata) – the iridescence of its body and wings in the sunlight was wonderful. They smiled a bit uncertainly and the lady of the pair admitted that she didn’t know anything about damselflies as they walked on.

ebony jewelwing I77A0417© Maria de Bruyn res   ebony jewelwing I77A0469© Maria de Bruyn res

Fragile Forktail damselfly I77A0648© Maria de Bruyn resAn hour or so later, another couple asked if I had “seen any good ones?” I repeated my delight in seeing the male damselfly, adding that the female is not as striking with her brown color and white spots. “Yes,” said the man, “that is often the case with other species. In our species, though, it’s the females who shine.” That may be the case some of the time, but my day was made by seeing a female damselfly that was a member of a new species for me – the fragile forktail (Ischnura posita).

 

My experience is that I find some beauty in almost all the wildlife I see (ticks and chiggers are an exception). So I want to share a few of those “good things” I saw at Sandy Creek Park last month in a two-part blog “tour”. In this first part, I’ll continue on with the insects.

Identifying dragonflies is not easy since the females and males can look quite different. The great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans) provides an example – the male lives up to his name with a blue hue and large size, but the female shows off her beauty with a brown and yellow abdomen.

great blue skimmer dragonfly I77A0715© Maria de Bruyn res    great blue skimmer dragonfly I77A0741© Maria de Bruyn res

The Eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) has distinctively different appearances as a male and female. The adult male is a blue individual, sometimes with a bit of greenish tint; the female – and the immature males! – is brilliant with different shades of green. I remember being excited when I first spotted a female as their green color is so striking.

Eastern pondhawk I77A0721© Maria de Bruyn res  Eastern pondhawk I77A0749© Maria de Bruyn res

blue dasher I77A0172©Maria de Bruyn resThe blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) has some stripes, as do some of the bumble bees. The brown-belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis) lives up to its name with a brown stripe, while this American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus) feeding on a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) has white bands. Like honey bees, the latter bee has pollen baskets (corbicula) on its hind legs in which it stores pollen. I enjoyed watching this individual – s/he would dip down into the flower, back up a bit, and then plunge forward again, almost always keeping the pollen basket above the tip of the flower.

Brown-belted bumble bee I77A0218©Maria de Bruyn res   American bumble bee I77A0763© Maria de Bruyn2 res

Bumble bee I77A6297© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The pollen gatherers were numerous during both visits and willing to share the sources of their bounty – here you see a bumble bee (Bombus), syrphid fly (Toxomerus marginatus) and sweat bee (Halictus) feeding peacefully together on a coneflower (Echinacea).

 

 

Eastern carpenter bee IMG_0768© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

The milkweed plants were attracting many species of pollinators; here an Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) was enjoying a meal.

 

 

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While there were many, many bees the days of my visits, there were fewer butterflies but the common buckeye (Junonia coenia) was stunning!

 

 

The little wood satyr (Megisto cymela) and dun skipper (Euphyes vestris, to the lower right on the milkweed) were not as colorful, and some people might even call them dull, but they are still nice to see and the Eusarca moth (Eusarca confusaria) was also an evenly colored beauty. I had grown up thinking moths usually fly at night, attracted by lights so it still draws my attention when I see them in the daytime.

Little wood satyr I77A0584© Maria de Bruyn res         Eastern carpenter bee IMG_0804© Maria de Bruyn 2 res

Confused Eusarca moth Eusarca confusaria I77A5701© Maria de Bruyn

Even a somewhat tattered American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) offered a pretty view.

American lady I77A6238© Maria de Bruyn res

The broad-headed sharpshooter (Oncometopia orbona), a leaf hopper, and the spotted pink lady beetle (Coleomegilla maculata) are tiny but such colorful insects that close perusal of the vegetation helps you spot them (and presumably makes it easier for birds to see them, too?).

broad-headed sharpshooter Oncometopia orbona I77A0592© Maria de Bruyn      Spotted pink lady beetle I77A0081©Maria de Bruyn bg

Emerald ash borer trap I77A0719© Maria de Bruyn res

 

One beetle that we don’t really want to see is the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis), an invasive species that came to the USA from Asia. The larvae of these beetles kill ash trees and the park administrators have hung a trap box for them to determine whether this species has reached the park.

 

 

Spotting mammals is not always easy at the park but one day fellow birder Jim was kind enough to alert me to an opossum (Didelphis virginiana) in a tree when we met on a walking path. He told me approximately where it was and I spotted that one and another in a nearby tree; I thought it might be a mother and grown offspring but that was a guess and I certainly couldn’t confirm it. As these are nocturnal animals, it was pretty cool for me to see two in broad daylight. The only marsupial found in the United States and Canada is a beneficial animal for us humans (and other wildlife) as they could eat up to 4000 ticks in a week! 

opossum IMG_0605© Maria de Bruyn res     opossum I77A5788© Maria de Bruyn res

One of the pair demonstrated that they can open their jaws widely – watching him/her slowly stretch that mouth offered me a surprise; I would think it couldn’t go any further and the animal continued to show that s/he could really please a dentist who would like lots of space to investigate those teeth.

opossum I77A5897© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern cottontail rabbitI77A5578© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

The Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) was not so lucky, carrying a fat tick in its ear. Too bad the opossums couldn’t come by and groom him/her and remove that pesky arachnid!

 

The park is not only attractive for the entomologists. Reptile enthusiasts can spot turtles fairly easily, especially in the spring when they are looking for places to lay their eggs. A large painted turtle was crossing a field looking for a spot, while an Eastern mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) was trundling down a paved path one morning, not far from a pond which often has many painted turtles and red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), like this one – who must have been a bit bothered by a bird feather caught in its shell.

Eastern mud turtle IMG_0741© Maria de Bruyn res    Red-eared slider I77A5941© Maria de Bruyn2

Which bird could it have been? I’m thinking a swallow – see part 2 of the tour for a view of the species and more of the wonderful biodiversity that can be seen in the park.