Monday, May 21, 2012

Cuckoo Bee... Literally!

This is a Cuckoo Bee.
Yes, that was my first thought when I saw it hanging there on the branch tip!
I really thought the bee was cuckoo when I first saw it suspending itself from the end of the twig by its jaws.  Eventually I realized this is how the Cuckoo Bee spends the night.  What an incredibly odd way to sleep!
   Perhaps the bee is mimicking a flower, or a dried-up leaf.  Maybe it is safer hanging while sleeping.  Maybe the bee finds it easier to hang by its jaws rather than by its legs.  Whatever the case, I've observed the bee clamp its jaws on the tip of a small twig and hang there as evening approaches.  I've gone out at night (with a flashlight) and showed the kids the sleeping bee.  We have also checked to see if it was still there in the morning, and concluded the bee must spend most of its life in this unusual position.
   I've seen many of these Cuckoo bees patrolling areas where Miner Bees and Cellophane Bees like to nest.  I've read that Nomada species are cleptoparasites of other bees nests.  This means Cuckoo Bees lay their eggs in other bees nests and later the Cuckoo Bee's larvae eat the host's larva and food stores.  Here is a photo of a Cuckoo Bee...  one of many I saw roaming around an old road-cut in the woods.
 These reddish bees with yellow spots on their abdomen were patrolling every nook and cranny of the bank searching for miner bee nests.
   The other evening when I noticed this cuckoo bee examining a bush in our flowerbed, I ran for my camera.  When I returned, the bee was still there... crawling on the branches in a peculiar way, so I snapped a few shots and caught this amazing night-time ritual of a Cuckoo Bee.
Maybe...

Maybe not...
Ah ha! Just right!

Hey, look y'all!  No hands! No feet!

Watch this amazing feat of skill and daring!

I can sleep on my head!

   Incidentally, capturing these pictures was slightly difficult since the bee was bobbing and swaying with the gentle night-breezes.
  What better way for a flying insect to sleep than suspended horizontally from a swaying twig?
Sleep tight!... or, rather, Bite tight! Don't let the whatever bite...
Good night and sweet dreams, Cuckoo Bee!
...dreams of sustained, effortless flying...
..dreams of soaring and swooping along an endless, forested bank... full of nests of ground-nesting bees...
and, no, your nights won't all be full of artificial lightening flashes, so come back again.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Wild Lupine, Part II

Wild Lupine, or Sundial Lupine, has a few last stands here in Pennsylvania. 
 This roadside patch of Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) is one of the larger ones I have seen around here, so I stopped for some photos.
 I posted about this patch of Wild Lupine last time.  However, this time I want to look closer at the flowers. 
   As I photographed the flowers, I noticed many ants crawling on the Lupine's stems and flowers.  In fact, in one photo I snapped, a spike of flowers had at least ten ants.  In the picture below, some ants are exploring a flower.
 I wonder what the ants find attractive about Wild Lupine.  Are they farming aphids?  Stealing pollen?  Looking for nectar and not finding it?   Wild Lupine doesn't supply nectar, at least that's what I've read.  Here's a quote:
 "Pollen is the only pollinator reward offered by L. perrenis and its removal requires the manipulation of a pump mechanism in the flower..." (pg. 22. see footnote)

Oh, hey!  Here is a Bumblebee visiting the Wild Lupine!  Let's see what happens.
   In the picture above, the bee is beginning to land on a flower and is slightly depressing the "wings" of the flower.  The tip of the "keel" is poking out between the wings and is visible between the bee's head and its foreleg.  Notice the other flowers in the whorl are waiting to be "tripped".
In the photo below, a Bumblebee has landed on the flower and has depressed the wings exposing the keel.  The keel is pressed against the bee's mid-section.
 In the photo below, I tripped the piston and some pollen has been extruded from the tip of the keel.
 A metered dose of pollen by pushing down on the "wings"... reminds me of when I was a kid... enjoying candy from a nifty PEZ dispenser.
 Let's do that again!
Slight pressure reveals the tip of the keel. (above) 
Fully tripping the mechanism dispenses a bit of pollen. (below)
How's that for a bee-activated pollen-dispensing pump mechanism?
Well, the bumblebees were busy, so, to the right of the bee (photo below), some of the flowers have been tripped and need some time to recover and reset themselves.
   Look at Bumblebee's plump pollen basket!  Bumblebee and I have been well rewarded for manipulating those piston-action pollen dispensers.
   Now, I wonder... what were those ants after?  I guess that's a good excuse to stop again at the Wild Lupine patch, eh?  Besides, I kinda' like those lever-action Lupines.


The quote was from a dissertation by
Gregory Keith Shenk, "Developmentally plastic responses to pollinators by Lupinus perennis flowers and what they tell us about the pollination mechanism in the general lupine flower" (January 1, 2005). Dissertations Collection for University of Connecticut

Monday, May 14, 2012

Wild Lupine On The Shoulder

In my last post I said I brake for flowers...
    ... so, true to character, I stopped to photograph these Wild Lupine... even though they were on the shoulder of a fairly busy road.
    The Wild Lupines are classed as rare plants in Pennsylvania.  In fact, I've read numerous places that the Lupines are extirpated in Pa.  Well, not quite... I know of at least three separate patches around here.  Some locations where I've seen them are rather remote compared to this patch.
Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) is also called the Sundial Lupine. 
 Such a lovely flower... too bad it's rare.

I've observed that the Lupine's bright blue flowers seem hard to see from a distance.  I always thought that blue shows up well out in nature.
   Another observation is... How easy would it be for a right-of-way maintenance person to wipe out these rare plants?  Mow them down?  Hose them with some weed killer?  Scrape them away while widening the road?
   Somehow, this Wild Lupine patch has managed to survive on the shoulder of this road, and I count myself privileged to have experienced their beauty and examined their amazing design.  I'll post about the Lupine's pollination mechanism and a few other impressive features in my next post.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Wild Azaleas

I brake for flowers... at least when I'm on a country road or a woods-road. 
  I was pleasantly surprised when I stopped at a familiar spot out on a mountain top.  The Early Azaleas were blooming profusely!  I've passed this spot many times over the years, but somehow I didn't know these wild azaleas grew at this location.  Apparently, I never visited during the few weeks in the spring when these native azaleas were flowering.

 Since several species of native azaleas thrive in Pennsylvania, and several of them are very similar in appearance, I checked with the author of a native azalea website .  He says this is a patch of Early Azaleas, or Rhododendron prinopyllum.  I "keyed them out" and came close to the same conclusion.

  There were a number of patches of these lovely, flowering bushes scattered throughout the forest understory at this quiet mountain top location.
The delicate, pink and white flowers are worth inspecting with a hand lens.  Particularly,
the glandular hairs on the buds and flower tubes.  In the photo below, notice the menacing rows of glandular hairs exuding beads of a sticky substance.
Here is a close-up of the glandular hairs on a flower tube.
 I expect those sticky, glistening beads on the hair tips are part of the plant's defensive chemicals... affording some protection against herbivores.
 In the picture above my son isn't planning on eating the flowers.... what he is doing is just a boyish reaction to the whorl of flowers exhibited by these azaleas.
The wild azaleas are valuable to native bees and bumblebees.
I don't recall that these particular flowers had much of a fragrance.  However, some wild azaleas do have memorable fragrance.
 I know, because I have "followed my nose" through the woods to find the source of a pleasant smell... and found an azalea bush.

Oh, by the way, I stopped along a busy road the other day to photograph some rare flowers... they will grace my next post.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Bees that dig holes in the ground - Miner Bees, Part III

Our mining bee homeschool science project

   I thought the kids would enjoy digging into a bee's underground nest. Who wouldn't want to know what is down in those dark holes behind the little sand piles? 

  We cross-sectioned a burrow to learn about the nesting habits of the mining bees and also to learn what provisions the bee gathers for its larvae.
In the photo below, a cross-section of the bee's tunnel is visible above the trowel.
   Digging along the tunnel without destroying it was a real challenge because the tunnel took a few turns and there were a few obstacles like roots and pebbles in the sandy soil.  The bee's burrow went down about a foot before leveling out and ending in the brood chamber.  See the exposed tunnel in the picture below.
   The white "plastic bag" at the lower right of the photo is the brood cell liner.  I was surprised to find a lining in the brood cell because I thought we were digging out a miner bee's burrow.  Miner bees (Andrena spp) do not make a cell liner quite like this.  I obviously had jumped to conclusions on the identity of these bees.
  The burrow we profiled was made by a Cellophane Bee (Colletes).  Cellophane Bee brood chambers are lined with an amazing polyester cell liner... a plastic bag... that holds a mixture of nectar and pollen to feed the bee's larva.
   In my two previous posts on these bees, I called them Miner Bees but I didn't look closely at them before I made that assumption.  I should have made one of the bees stick out its tongue and say, "Ahhhhh". Cellophane Bees have a bi-lobed tongue, while miner bees have a pointed one. Also, there is a difference in their wing venation.  On the wings of Cellophane Bees, the second recurrent vein curves toward the wing margin.

 Compare that Cellophane Bee with a photo of a miner bee I found nectaring on some flowers on a nearby mountain.  On miner bee's wings, the same vein is straight.

  Brood cell lining of the Cellophane Bee.

   When we carefully dug along the Cellophane Bee's tunnel, we found that the bee had made multiple brood chambers about a foot down in the ground.  We also noticed that the tunnel levels out just before the brood cell.  These nests ,with their polyester liners, were always tilted at a certain angle like the one pictured below.
   Notice the small amount of the nectar/pollen mixture the bee has gathered and placed in the newly made nest liner.  The finished bag will be mostly full of food stores for its larva.  When the  bee is finished filling a bag, it lays an egg and attaches it to the upper part of the neck of the liner.  Then it plugs the opening with what looks like glued together sand.
   In the photo below, a young Cellophane Bee is peering out of its polyester home where it has been growing since last spring.  It's all there... the new bee, its brood cell liner, its plug, and even some of its food stores.  Soon it will venture out... stretch its wings.. etc.

   When the Cellophane Bee makes its "plastic bag" nest liner, it first lays down a mesh of silk and then coats it with the polyester.  The "plastic" forms when the bee mixes saliva with a secretion from its Dufour's gland which it applies over the silk fibers.  In the photo below, the silk fibers embedded in the polyester liner remind me of fiberglass and resin.
   We did an experiment to see if the brood cell liners are waterproof...  I filled the "little plastic bag" with water and held it up to the light.... look guys, no leaks!
Simply amazing!
   I guess you could say we unearthed a subterranean factory where fiber-reinforced plastic bags are manufactured.  Another way to look at it is; the bees bury barf bags to feed and house their babies.
Anyway, digging bee's nests was quite entertaining!
Shhh... digging the bees was also educational!

Part I of the Miner Bees