Saturday, November 27, 2004

Secret Life of a Blond Bee

May 1, 2004, San Francisco Chronicle
"Uncovering the secret life of a blond bee"
by Ron Sullivan


List of plants in the garden described in the article

Two years ago, Cynthia Typaldos sent a slightly off-topic note to our native plants e-mail list: "I saw an enormous orange bee yesterday in a grape vine. Twice as big as my resident bumble bees. All orange, and very furry. As orange as the California poppy. Very loud buzzing. Just the one, have never seen a bee like this before. Anyone know what it is?"

One answer she got was from Royce B. Riggan Jr.: "You have written a perfect description of the male carpenter bee. They are very different from the females that constitute the bulk of the individuals. I'm uncertain of Web site illustrations, but there are excellent photographs in Hogue, 1993, Insects of the Los Angeles Basin, p. 349. You are probably looking at the valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta."

However, says Typaldos, most of the people she talked to doubted that identification, as her Saratoga garden is far from Southern California. The bee disappeared eventually, and she was left with a mostly unsupported conviction about her blond visitor.

Then he came back, same place, same habits, the next year. By this time some of us had nicknamed her blond beau BOB, for Big Orange Bee. This year he was back yet again -- and this time, Cynthia was ready with a camera. By the canny stratagem of watching the bee's routes and waiting with her camera focused on a spot he'd been to, and where she thought he would return, she got a splendid shot of an elusive target.

She posted the portrait to the list, and agreement was fast this time: She was hosting a male valley carpenter bee. He looks like a flying teddy bear.

BOB's at the edge of his range here, it seems. Most of his species live in what the guides call "the deserts of the Southwest"; in the United States, that includes Central and Southern California and Arizona, at least. That would explain why it was outside our experience -- that and the fact that males are a distinct minority in his species.

Females are big, too, and solid black. They could pass as just another kind of bumblebee, though in fact they're not closely related.

He was being conspicuous on purpose. He was looking for a date, and rather than hanging out in bee singles' bars or hogging some choice nectar source that females would use, he was showing off his golden gorgeousness, and buzzing up a symphony and wafting a bee perfume onto the air.

This sweet scent, which he's producing in a pair of glands on his thorax and rubbing over his body as he flies, is strong enough that humans can smell it, though at last report Typaldos hadn't managed to. If a female bee does show up and act interested, he'll daub some of it onto an inviting spot and wait for her to land and mate.

In spite of being such a show-off, BOB was hard to photograph because he never seemed to sit down. Typaldos never saw him visit a flower to feed, no matter how long she watched him. He just buzzed around the ceanothus and the lemon and the grapevine, by turns.

So what was BOB eating? His mother feeds him. His sisters might, too. The whole family stays at its original nest, and the girls provision their genetic missionary with lots of nectar (which he carries in a crop, bird-style except that it's in his abdomen) before they go out to forage and look for their own mates.

BOB is lucky; other xylocopa species' females stop feeding their sons and brothers as soon as the latter can fly. But typically he will die in winter, while his sisters will hibernate and make their own nests in spring. So this year's hunk is most likely BOB III.

Those nests are what got the carpenter bees their name. A female excavates a small hole, usually in dead wood, and she rolls up a yummy ball of pollen and nectar, stuffs it into the hole, lays an egg on it, and walls it off with homemade wood pulp. Then she repeats, for maybe eight eggs a year in her gallery.

They have to wait their turn to leave after hatching. Since this is a small, single-family house rather than a colonial hive like honeybees', and since they're not all that plentiful even in the desert, they do negligible or no damage and aren't dangerous to our own homes.

They aren't even dangerous to Typaldos as she gets her close-ups and sniffs for bee perfume, as males have no stingers and females, who do have them, don't like to sting. All that scary buzzing is just bee song.

So how does Cynthia rate, that she gets to entertain this unusual visitor? She's done several things right, without actually looking for carpenter bees.

She hired Jeffrey Caldwell to design and help plant a garden that's varied -- mostly California natives along with a few edibles and plants she just plain likes, all going in gradually and thoughtfully.

She has flowers that attract bees, including the female carpenter bees that BOB is eager to meet. And she left a snag standing in her yard; when a Douglas fir died, she had it trimmed down to maybe 20 feet and most of the limbs lopped off. It's surprisingly inconspicuous, as it's being embraced by a second Doug fir behind it.

The bees might be nesting there, and it seems to be attracting the woodpeckers she wanted it for: There's at least one Nuttall's in the neighborhood. She has another big tree, a handsome locust that blooms profusely and, since she's had a few low limbs removed, keeps its considerable bee traffic safely above human head level. She doesn't use insecticides because with natives, one rarely has to. And she has variety, not a monoculture; this also reduces the need for pesticides.

All this is happening in a little yard in a suburban neighborhood that's mostly lawns and borders and bun-shaped shrubs. Cynthia told me that when she walks down her street, most yards are silent while hers is abuzz with chirps and whistles -- the birds and the bees, and the frogs too. She got interested, and she's observant, and she rented expert imagination and left herself open to surprises. And here she is with her bee soap opera, yearly, playing at her front door.

Ron Sullivan is associate editor at Terrain (www.ecologycenter.org/terrain/index.html), where she writes A Sense of Humus, and garden editor of Faultline magazine (www.faultline.org). Beginning June 9, the Dirt column will appear on the second Wednesday of each month.

14 Comments:

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At 12:31 PM, Blogger wilder said...

Hello,
I've een reading the blog, and articles. We live in San Jose near Coyote Creek, and last year 2006 we say 2 blond bees in the yard.
- had to look them up as well. They were a kick. We stood there looking at them as they were investigating the ivy. They turned looked us straigt in the eye for what seemed like an eterninty, then turned and buzzed off.
We'll keep an eye for them this year as well. Hope they return.
LM

 
At 5:50 PM, Blogger Peggy said...

Thank you so much for this informative article! I saw an orange bee in the backyard, and was a little startled, to say the least! I'm glad he's harmless, but still...that buzzing.....

 

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