Biological Inventories and One Thing Leads to Another

One of the projects I work on intermittently is a biological inventory of our farm.  I want to create a baseline of the species that live here, for future reference.

This is not an easy project, because I have to learn all the species as I go!  So far I have documented 49 species of birds, 9 of mammals, 12 of butterflies, 6 species of snakes, and so on.  This summer’s project is bumblebees.

I think of myself as a well-educated person, but as recently as four years ago, if you had asked me how many kinds of bees there are, I probably could have come up with three – European honeybees, bumblebees, and carpenter bees.  I had no idea there are hundreds of species of native bees in Texas alone.   As I started hearing more about colony collapse disorder in European honeybees, I also started to hear more about native bees.  I found out about a citizen science program run by Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas Bumblebees.  This is a great starting place for me, because bumblebees are big enough to see, they have really simple identification marks, and there are only nine species in Texas. 

So I have been taking pictures of bumblebees on the farm, so I can zoom in and see their identification marks to my brain’s content.  I never knew how quickly bees move on from one flower to the next!  I rarely get more than one photo per bee landing.

At first I thought I had two different bumblebee species, and I noticed that one species frequented the garden plants – loofah gourds and zinnias – while the other buzzed around only in the waterleaf, a native plant that grows around the pond.  I had a moment of picturing myself accepting the Nobel Prize for Bee Studies for this astute observation, but then I realized that only the ones in the garden were actually bumblebees – you can tell because they are furry all over.  The ones in the waterleaf are eastern carpenter bees – they have furry thoraxes, but smooth shiny abdomens.

American bumblebee

American bumblebee, Bombus pensylvanicus, on a loofah gourd blossom.  I am somewhat sure of the bee identification, but if anyone knows better, please correct me!

bumblebee in flight

This picture isn’t focused well, but you can see the pollen on her leg.

bumblebee on zinnia

Could she BEE any cuter?

eastern carpenter bee

Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginiana) on waterleaf. The bees are so heavy that when they land, they immediately tip the flower upside down, making photography tricky.

Eastern carpenter bee

Eastern carpenter bee, I am reasonably sure.  You would not believe how many hundreds of pictures I took to get a relatively focused shot like this.

During the hours I spent photographing the bees on the bright yellow loofah gourd blooms, I noticed that the blossoms look dented and worn only a few hours after blooming.  (You can notice it in that first picture, in the lower left.) They close up in the hot afternoon, and the next day those blossoms stay curled up, and it only takes the light force of a bee landing on them to make the blossom fall off entirely.  I would think that that meant those blooms were pollinated, and gourds would form there.  But there are bees on every flower every day, yet there are only about a dozen gourds on ten feet of vine, so I’m not sure.

But then I noticed that my birdhouse gourd vine has suddenly put on dozens of new gourds, but those flowers are never open when I’m outside.  They are either tightly furled white buds, or brown, shriveled-up petals.  So I realized they must bloom at night!  What is pollinating them?!  I will have to do a stake-out tonight and see!

Oh, and by the way, I take photographs just so I can slow everything down enough to match it to pictures in my various guidebooks, and figure out what I’m really looking at.  I’m not really a Photographer.  If you would like to see phenomenal photographs of insects, try Alex Wild Photography.  His pictures are crystal clear – to me it’s like sports car photography applied to insects.  I think I found him through a link on the Texas Bumblebees website,  but even if bugs “squick you out,”*  I think you will enjoy his photographs.

*I have been looking for an opportunity to use this, one of my favorite phrases from writer Maddie Cochere