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.

 

 

 

 

 

Pretty Pretty Parasite

Next time you are in the garden, and you see something that resembles a tiny, flying rainbow whiz by, rest assured you are not hallucinating! The mirror-like, prismatic color of Chrysidine wasps it only easy to miss because they are so small, so let’s get a closer look!

Chrysis sororOK ok, now, if you are wearing your expensive L.L. Bean socks then I advise not to look at these next pictures, because these Chrysidine close-ups are gonna blow em right off!

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Stunning? Yes. But behind that shimmery sheen, these wasps have a dirty little secret: they are cleptomaniacs! Well, cleptoparasites to be exact, a term that describes any animal that steals food from another, whether they are members of the same species or not. Female Chrysidines lay their eggs in the nests of other species, such as wasps and bees, thus saving themselves the time and energy of procuring provisions for their young. This strategy has earned them the common name “cuckoo wasp”, after the birds which pull the same trick.

But Chrysidines take it one step further. Not only do they pawn off their parental duties, once their larvae hatch they proceed to gobble up the host’s larvae and food provisions, not necessarily in that order!

Chrysis_splendens_habitus_lateral_330Another common name for Chrysidines is “jewel wasp”, and it’s easy to see why. But it does make you wonder why a species that relies on sneaking undetected into the burrows of ground-nesting bees and wasps would be decked out in such bold colors. But, it is dark down in those nests, so once they are inside the colors probably aren’t too noticeable.

But Chrysidines do get caught sneaking around a lot, and their tough, highly structured, and multi-layered exoskeleton provides protection them from the bites and stings of angry hosts. In fact, it has been suggested that those metallic blues, oranges, pinks, and reds have no specific purpose, and are instead a by-product of light refracting through the open spaces in the many layers of cuticle that make up the Chrysidine exoskeleton. “Oooops, I’m accidentally fabulous!”

Chrysidines can’t sting, so passive forms of defense are all they’ve got. Their ability to tuck their head and legs into a tight little ball when they are found out, much like armadillos, hedgehogs, and pillbugs, is a strategy that is as practical as it is unwittingly adorable. The cupped shape of the inside of their abdomen allows them to do this.

ChrysidiniThere are so many situations in life where I wish I had evolved the ability to curl up into a perfect little ball.

It’s amazing to think of all the tiny insect dramas that are playing out in the garden and beneath our feet. And with roughly 3,000 species of Chrysidines found all over the world, you can find them practically anywhere, but they are especially abundant in desert regions as well as the warm Mediterranean climate of California. In fact I found this little guy in death throes on my windowsil!

WaspLSo next time you see one of these colorful little ninjas in your garden, just remember there is more to them than meets the eye!

Special thanks to Iziko Museums of South Africa at waspweb.org as well as Laurie Knight for letting me use their stunning images!

More of Knight’s amazing photos can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurie-knight/

Art Tips from a Shiny Beetle Lover

Of the 400,000 species of described Beetles on earth, and the 15,000 species of jewel beetles, Calodema blairi has got to be one of the most eye-explodingly beautiful!! Sometimes I look at a beetle so shiny and colorful that I kind of want to punch it in the face…this is one of those times.

Alas, there are only a handful of somewhat mangled photographs of this species on the internet and the specimens we have in the Academy collections are faded, SO, I decided the best thing to do would be to just go ahead and illustrate one of these little dudes.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, here’s some tips for capturing the ephemeral yet devastating good looks of a jewel beetle:

My medium of choice are prismacolor colored pencils because of their transparency and blending qualities. Start with your pencil outline on bright white paper (to create some of the bright highlights in iridescent beetles, I like to let some of the white paper show through). My paper of choice is usually Bristol Plate/Smooth, but Vellum works as well and provides some extra texture.

*Remember to keep your pencils VERY sharp! This can be highly annoying, but I know of no other way.

Start by laying down the darker parts of the beetle first (you don’t have to make them super dark yet, in fact, it’s best to leave some white showing through): 

Once you have the dark areas shaded in, continue by laying down the lighter colors. I like to blend and overlap the lighter colors over the darker ones. Also, in areas where you want to show highlights, either apply color VERY lightly or do not apply any color at all.

Brace your wrist, because now you are going to use a white colored pencil to blend all of these colors together! This will get rid of pencil marks and give your drawing a watercolor feel. After blending in this way, I like to go back over the whole thing with another layer of all of the colors, making sure to leave those highlights white! This will give your beetle a lot of depth.

To finish my beetle’s pronotum (thorax), and show how iridescent he is, I added a bunch of black and dark blue spots. I didn’t blend his elytra (wings), with white, but rather layered the colors from darkest to lightest and added extra dark shadows on the right hand side to show that the light source is coming from the upper left (the convention in scientific illustration).