What all the Buzz is About

 

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Blue-banded bees (Amegilla cingulata) on a mountain devil (Lambertia formosa).  Illustration by Rachel Diaz-Bastin.

 

Honeybees get a lot of buzz, but what about nature’s bigger buzzers? Those adorably-awkward bumbling bees that spend their days bumping into flowers. They are fuzzy, they are loud, and they are often joyfully colorful. The blue-banded bee from Australia is no exception. In fact, I dare you to find a more magical-looking bee!

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Blue-banded bee (Amegilla cingulata). Photo by Srikaanth Sekar.

But there is more to the blue-banded bee than resplendent blue butts.

Blue-banded bees aren’t technically bumblebees (bumblebees belong to the genus Bombus, while blue-banded bees belong to the genus Amegilla), but these furry flyers share some common traits. Notably, both blue-banded bees and bumblebees have the ability to shake pollen out of flowers using a technique called “buzz pollination”.

Buzz pollination (also called sonication), is a feat of strength and endurance that honeybees just can’t match, and it is critical to the 20,000 or so species of plants that depend on it for reproduction.

Flowers that have evolved buzz pollination are unique. They don’t simply put their protein-rich pollen out like cookies on a table for any Tom, Dick, or hairy insect to eat. Making pollen takes time and energy! So these flowers keep it tucked inside tubular stamens that few but the biggest bees are able to access.

To accomplish this a bee will typically grab a stamen with its jaws and vibrate its flight muscles hundreds of times a second. It has to hold on tight though, otherwise the vibrations could send it flying off the flower! Bees experience some totally tubular forces 30 times greater than gravity as they buzz for pollen. That’s near the limit of human endurance, and definitely more than Taylor Swift has ever accomplished, even in her most shakiest offiest of days.

Take a look at this video!

Some plants, like corn, ragweed, and oak trees, cast their pollen to the wind in order to reproduce. Others depend on pollinators like bats, birds, butterflies, and bees to act as their personal pollen distributors. Many flowers use nectar as a lure, and advertise widely to insects and birds to come and eat. But flowers that depend on buzz pollination are looking to attract very specific bees and insects, a relationship that was shaped over the course of evolution. Over time, as their pollen became more difficult to access, natural selection favored bigger bees that could shake their flowers harder.

Many of our important crops evolved in this way, such as cranberries, tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants.

That’s why big bees are so agriculturally important. Take Australia as an example. While surprisingly not the birthplace of Koala Yummies, Australia also sadly does not have any native bumblebees. For that reason greenhouse-grown tomatoes there are currently hand-pollinated using an “electric bee” (basically a tuning fork that releases pollen via vibrations in a similar way to bees).

In order to combat the extra time and money that hand-pollination requires, some folks in Australia have suggested importing European bumblebees to do the job. But what if these non-native bumblebees escaped their greenhouse enclosures into the surrounding environment?

As this Simpsons clip explains, that could spell ecological disaster.

Not to fear, though, because it turns out there is a better solution right in Australia’s backyard: the native blue-banded bee! Hard to imagine that these Aussie stunners were ever overlooked in the first place, but recent research has shown that they are quite successful in pollinating greenhouse tomatoes, thank you very much. In fact, they may even be better at it than bumblebees!

Bumblebees use their flight muscles to shake pollen out of flower anthers, but it turns out that blue-banded bees use a technique that’s infinitely more hardcore, but familiar to metal fans: headbanging. With a headbanging rate of  350 times per second – which could put even the most die-hard metal fans to shame – blue-banded bees can shake flowers at a greater frequency than bumblebees.

The blue-banded bees’ vibration also makes pollination more efficient, enabling them to spend fewer time on each flower while collecting more pollen.

Did I mention they are cute too?

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Female blue-banded bee. Photo by James Niland.

What a win-win! And a reminder of how important jumbo bees are, wherever they are found.

So the next time you hear a big ol’ bee buzzing furiously on a flower, you will know that they aren’t having a panic-attack, they are carrying on a long and glorious tradition of shaking out their pollen snacks, and in the process, ensuring the survival of thousands of plants, many of which we know and love.

 

 

 

 

 

They’ve Lost Those Lovin’ Peelings

Somewhere, perhaps on the island of Mindanao, Philippines, a very special species of eucalyptus is loosing it’s bark, and with each flaking strip, living artwork is being created. This, fellow travelers, is the rainbow eucalyptus:

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These colors of the rainbow eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta), may look like the stuff of unicorn dreams and of hypno-toad-induced euphoria, but they are created naturally as layers of this amazing bark peels away in strips at different times and different parts of the tree.

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While the newly exposed bark is bright green, as it ages this color turns to dark green, then a bluish/purplish (and when I say blue I am super serious!). Can you imagine walking through a grove of blue trees?!

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From there the colors change again to pink, orange-red, and finally a maroon-ish brown before the bark is ready to exfoliate itself once more.

Rainbow Eucalyptus Chris

The rainbow eucalyptus is the only species of eucalyptus native to the northern hemisphere, occuring naturally in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines. However, it is widely grown as an ornamental tree in wet and humid places all over the world, and in the Philippines it is farmed for use as pulpwood to make paper. I know what you are thinking, “that’s gotta be the most awesome paper on the planet!” But eucalyptus trees in general are very fast-gowing and have an inner core with fibers that are pefect for making WHITE paper. Dissapointing, I know.

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Eucalyptus trees are thirsty! So thirsty, in fact, that they are often planted in malaria-prone areas of Africa to dry up the swamps, thus eliminating mosquito larva habitat. And beacuse they are so water-saturated, eucalyptus wood must be allowed to dry slowly, or it risks cracking and warping. In extreme climates differing from it’s native habitat, eucalyptus wood is also susceptible to expansion and cracking. But if properly dried and kept at the right humidity, eucalyptus is extremely durable and strong, and can be used in furniture, boatmaking, and didgeridoos! Yay!

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Your best bet for seeing these trees without buying a ticket to Indonesia or taking massive amounts of drugs and wandering through your local park is to go to the windswept and astoundingly green Hana coast of Maui, Hawaii. There you can see these 240 foot trees growing along the highway!

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In conclusion, even if it was as useless as Pauly Shore at a comedy convention, the rainbow eucalyptus would still be one of those amazing species that reminds us how much beauty there is in the world. It makes me so happy to know things like this exist, I hope it makes you happy too! rainbow eucalyptus 8

Thank you so much to Christopher Martin for allowing me to use some of his beautiful images! More of his work can be found here: christophermartinphotography.com

The New Butterfly

In the insect world butterflies definitely get all the good press, they are the charismatic microfauna, the tiny pandas, the gleaming ambassadors of our field. And for good reason, BUT there are other, less well-known species that are equally extravagant. Imagine, for a moment, a creature with colorful, butterfly-like wings AND a comically large snout, sound too good to be true?

BAM!

Pyrops pyrorhynchaCan you hear Gonzo weeping with envy?? I can! But to be fair I hear he’s really emotional. Nevertheless, Planthoppers from the family Fulgoridae are a fascinating group of insects. Like their cicada and aphid relatives, fulgorids have mouthparts that are designed for piercing plants and siphoning up the fluids, yum! But fulgorids are quite uniqe in having these ridiculously elongated heads, called “protuberances”, and some of them have wings that look like a neon jaguar…

Saiva gemmataThe protuberance is actually hollow inside, and it was once believed, most noteably by the 18th-century entomologist and scientific illustrator, Maria Sibylla Merian, that it could emit light at night, earning fulgorids the common name “lanternflies”. What a whimsical idea! Almost as whimsical as her lovely illustrations:

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Sadly, no evidence of this light-producing ability has ever been found, however Carl Linnaeus adopted the theory without question, giving several genera of fulgorids such lovely names as laternaria, phosphorea and candelaria. It’s easy to imagine those big snouts lit up like lanterns!

Fulgorid 1Pyrops viridirostrisAphaena submaculata consanguinea

In reality the protuberances probably serve as a survival mechanism used to confuse pretadors. With a head that looks like it could be an abdomen, predators literally do not know which end is up, likely attacking the wrong end and giving the fulgorid a better chance at escape. It is still somewhat of a mystery, however.

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Species belonging to the genus Fulgora have got to be the most bizarre looking of all, as their head processes are hugely enlarged, earning them the nickname “peanutheads”.

Fulgorid 4And some species of fulgorid have short noses, less silly, but still gorgeous! The variety and patterns of color in the world of entomology seems endless, especially in the tropics, where most fulgorid species are found.

Aphaena submaculata consanguinea

Many thanks to Victor Smith at the California Academy of Sciences for taking these amazing photographs!