Friday, August 19, 2011

Just Sitting on the Same Ol' Log: Part II of Jelly-Belly Bees

We were ready to pack up and head home when I ended my last post. I had been straddling a fallen log for nearly two hours. My butt felt concave ….
Long shadows darken half the pond edge. We’ve lost our light on the “jelly-belly bees.” Much of the pond is still in sunlight and mellow with darting dragonflies and damselflies. Each dragonfly has a twin reflected on the smooth surface of the still water. It is a very quiet pond. Sound carries easily.

Soft splashing interrupts our peace. It’s a Barrow’s goldeneye (duck) at the far end of the, but she isn’t alone this time. Swimming next to her we see one little duckling after another. Seven in all. The pond is as big as a city block, so the little ducklings are far away. Even so I tell Dale I want to watch for five minutes before we start the long drive home. Dale turns slowly on his stool; I switch from straddling my log to sitting broadside on it.

The ducklings look about a week old. The dark brown and white fuzz balls stay within a few feet of their Mama. The family is foraging along the northern edge of the pond, the sunny edge. Some ducklings dive for food, others skedaddle along the surface with their heads mostly underwater looking for aquatic creatures. I know that edge well. It will be full of dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, water striders, caddis larva, tadpoles, and backswimmers. This pond is too shallow for minnows to survive winter’s freeze.
Mama keeps a wary eye on us between her dives. We now realize she came over to check us out while we were photographing the leaf-cutting bee . She has decided those two big bumps are no threat. Now we’re being rewarded for sitting so still. All thoughts of heading home evaporate.

We can hear soft chatter between the ducklings. When Mama dives, water beads on her smooth head and back. The ducklings seem waterproof. All seven of them briefly climb aboard an old log which reaches down into the water. It is preen and fluff time, but not for long. Filling little stomachs takes over again.

Busy, busy, busy. The ducklings are three quarters of the way to us when suddenly, in a mad rush, the babies tear away from us. Tiny wings flail and ripplets sparkle in every directly as the ducklings head to the center of the pond. Mama is close behind. Why did they spook? They seemed oblivious to our presence, but perhaps it suddenly dawned on them how close we were. In any case, the goldeneyes hurry to a far log and clamber aboard. It’s a fuzzy row of nudging and settling: two ducklings on Mama’s left and five on the right. I get the impression all that time in the pond gave them cold feet. As they settle down for a nap, half of them have at least one foot sticking out behind, soaking up sunshine.

The female stays on the log just long enough for her babies to fall asleep, then slips into the pond to feed by herself. Does she communicate to the ducklings that they should stay put? So much goes on that we don’t fully understand.
All hell breaks loose. A bufflehead (a small species of duck) dares to fly in and land on this pond. It is either a female or juvenile bufflehead. In a moment the goldeneye Mama is air born and splashes into the water, trying to crash into the bufflehead. They chase underwater, on top of the water, back into the air. The two even go ashore and scramble over one log and under another. Back into the water.
The bufflehead rushes past the row of little ducklings. Nap interrupted. One by one they stand and watch the commotion.
The goldeneye chases the bufflehead directly towards us. She lands nearby, then turns and into the air again. Last seen the goldeneye is hot on the heels of the bufflehead as they both leave the pond and disappear through a gap in the trees. Three minutes later the goldeneye returns -- alone. She has a new worry now. Hikers have come around to her side of the pond. She gathers up her little flock from the log and swims into the shadows where she can hide her family in aquatic vegetation. Time for us to pack up and leave too.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Jelly-Belly Bees

Umpqua National Forest, Oregon, USA
Our first "Jelly-belly," only at the time we didn't know it was a jelly-belly.

My best laid plans often go astray, often for a positive reason. We’re back at the same pond that was the scene of July blog post, “Mother Nature’s Magic.” On that day I planned to walk around the pond and off to the next one, but only got about 100 yards before an emerging dragonfly caught my eye. Today I headed down to the pond with plans for a little walking, a lot of sketching, and no camera. I’ve pulled a muscle and don’t want to carry the five pounds of camera and lens. I think to myself, “For once I won’t be torn between photographing and drawing.” …. Ha!

I don’t even get as far along the pond edge as I did last time. I’m stopped at the sight of a black insect carrying a small leaf and zipping into a hole in a downed log. The hole is slightly smaller than a pencil’s diameter. I call Dale over so he can photograph. It’s probably a bee and it would be wonderful to photograph it with a leaf as an example of insect behavior.

Photographing the bee isn’t at all easy. She returns in about five minutes with another leaf but zips into the hole so quickly there is no time to react. This obviously is a two person job. Dale gets a stool, I sit on the log, and we both settle in to give it a try. I have the slightly easier job. I watch, hoping to spot the bee coming in from a few feet away. Dale has to have his eye glued to the camera viewfinder, the camera set on motor drive, and his finger on the shutter button. He starts shooting when I say, “Shoot!”, i.e. before he can actually see the bee. ….. so much for my walking and sketching plans. My full attention is needed if we are going to photograph this bee.
We do get a shot, but of course we want a better one. At least we can now verify it is some kind of solitary bee. It looks like a small version of the big black carpenter bee that has been laying eggs in a rotten piece of wood on our deck. This bee is smaller but also all black. Mostly we miss, but after an hour or so we have a decent shot of the bee zipping into the hole, carrying a bit of leaf.
A female Barrow’s goldeneye swims over to inspect us. We're a little suprised at how close she comes. Curious?

I suddenly get a sinking feeling. Did we inadvertently spook this duck away from the nest box that is nailed on a tall pine just a few feet from us! Oh I hope we haven’t been keeping her away! I walk around to the front of the box – no fresh scrapings. Whew! It’s an old box and if she was using it, she would be leaving little claw marks around the opening. This one is clean. The next nearest box doesn’t have a floor; but the one way over, on the far side of the pond, does show little scrapings. I’m sure that box is far enough away that she would have returned to it if she was still incubating. I have to use binoculars to see it clearly.

Zoom! After a much longer wait, our bee zips into the hole, but this time I see a flash of orange and no leaf! What does that mean? Now we are even more curious. Dale hikes back to the car for our biggest lens, a tripod, and a cable release. Pretty soon we’ll have enough equipment down here to set up camp.

Twenty minutes pass …. This is getting to be a lot of looking in one direction and feeling I can’t pay attention to the rest of the pond. A little while ago I heard a lot of splashing on the pond and took a quick peek – a bufflehead (a small type of duck) taking a bath. No sign of the Barrow’s goldeneye.
Finally we get a photo of our bee which shows the orange. I half expected to see big saddlebags of orange pollen on her legs like honey bees get, but this is very different. The bottom of her abdomen is now bright orange! She looks like a black bee I photographed a few days ago that had white there … and I couldn’t find in any of my insect books. Hummmm …. We’ll have to try to figure this out after we get home. (The white-bellied bee is at the top of this post)

And it is time to head home. I’ve been sitting like a bump on this log for nearly two hours. The shadows have grown long. Never did get to sketch or walk ….. but had a fascinating time sitting here with Dale.

…. And this post is getting so long, I’m going to quit here and continue on in my next post. Never fear, the next part won’t be about bugs ….. I’ll just say serendipity stepped in again.

Note: We did solve the bee mystery. Many bees are solitary bees. They are important pollinators, especially now that a lot of honey bees are in trouble. The hairy bottom of this bee’s abdomen makes it a member of Megachilidae, the leaf-cutting bees and the mason bees. The little hairs capture pollen when the bee visits flowers. Our bee would be one of many leaf-cutting bees.

Wikipedia further informed me that Megachilidae are excellent pollenators because they are so inefficient at gathering pollen. The bee collects the pollen to put in a cell in the log. She prepares the cell with bits of leaf, gathers pollen, and then lays an egg in there. The pollen will be the food supply when the egg hatches. It take nearly ten times as many trips to gather enough pollen for one egg versus other species of bees. Along the way the bee is fertilizing one blossom after another. Because the pollen gives the bee such a bright belly the bee’s colloquial name is “Jelly-belly bee.”

Friday, August 5, 2011

Crab Spiders

Oregon: July 2011
We have a date with a halibut -- we hope. In recent years commercial halibut season off the Oregon Coast has been carefully restricted to ensure a continued harvest. This year there was a ten hour season in late June. We placed an order for a 15 pound fish. Unfortunately our fisherman didn’t catch enough and we didn’t get our fish.

Yesterday was the second and last one day season for halibut. We don’t know if we got a halibut, but we’ve come over to the coast hoping. We have plans to pick 80 plus pounds of blueberries tomorrow, so picking up the fish tomorrow isn’t an option. Even if we don’t get a fish today, a trip to the Oregon Coast is always welcome.

First stop is a little picnic site in the Oregon Dunes Recreational Area. We have got the area to ourselves. So peaceful. Sun is just beginning to win over clouds. The bushes next to me are laden with big droplets of water. A bowed grass stem has droplets every half inch. I’ve got the lazies. I fall asleep with the car window wide open.

Zoom! A humming bird rudely interrupts my cat nap. The hummer is attracted to my red shirt and came within inches for an inspection. Ah well. I should be poking around to see what I can see.

We’ve parked next to a mowed clearing about the size of half a city block. A creek runs along he northern edge and the rest is surrounded by dense bushes easing into dense forest. The Oregon coast gets plenty of moisture and becomes almost impenetrable along its edges.

Pretty quiet. I hear varied thrushes, crows and wrentits, but can’t see any birds to sketch. An eight-spotted dragonfly lands near me. They like to ‘hawk’ for prey from an exposed perch. He sits and waits, then zips out and back to a different perch. Luckily I sketch quickly. He soon flies off, heading upstream.

The nearby blackberry bush is buzzing with bumble bees. One sits still for me and I start to sketch, expecting him to take off at any moment. (It’s the little black and white sketch on the left)

Duhhhh! I’m nearly done with the black and white sketch when I realize this little bee isn’t going anywhere. The bee hangs in the clutches of a big, white crab spider. The spider blends so well with the blackberry blossom that I didn’t notice until now!

The bee hangs motionless. The spider’s jaws are sunk into the bee’s forehead. Even with this going on other bees come and go, landing on the same blossom. Beneath the crab spider lies another bee, I assume an earlier victim.

Spiders inject a deliquescing solution, then sip out the spider’s innards. It is a slow process, so I have time to sketch.

After we are home I read a little about crab spiders. They are ambush predators, i.e. they wait for prey to come along and grab. Sometimes they wait in the same spot for days, even weeks. No stringing a spider web needed. Some crab spiders can gradually change color to match their surroundings. I soon find there are over 200 species of crab spiders just in North America, so there is little chance I’ll figure out exactly which spider I found, but I do know from the fat abdomen that it is female. The males are much slimmer.
Three days later I find two dead insects resting on a blackberryleaf. I remember my recent encounter and look higher in the bush. Sure enough! There sits a crab spider, sipping on a bee. This spider is a purer white and has faint pink markings on the sides of her abdomen. Already the bee appears to have had most of its juices sucked out. It is looking pretty ratty. The spider sucks on the abdomen for another half an hour, then drops it off her leaf.
Once finished with dinner, the crab spider immediately goes into her hunting pose. She sits on a leaf with with two legs spread open ….. waiting. We wait too. Wouldn’t it be exciting to see her actually grab a fly or bee! One comes near, but she is a patient lady, and waits for exactly the correct position. The bee flies off, not knowing what a close encounter it just had.

Careful inspection of the spider shows that her two front legs are much longer than the two back legs, thus giving her the ‘crab’ appearance. She uses the front ones for grabbing prey while she anchors herself with the back legs.

We wait with the spider for half an hour. She sits near enough to a blossom to reach out and grab should a bee land on the near edge of the flower. One bumble bee almost gets into position. The spider reaches out to touch, but the reach seems too far.

Gradually we lose our light and raindrops start to fall. Just as we are thinking about leaving we see her slip underneath the leaf and out of the rain. All I see now are the tips of her legs on one side of her body. The bees have quit flying and darkness will take over before long.

Time to head home.

* * *
Two days later: “Along came a spider and sat down beside her” …. This old nursery rhyme has been running through my head. I guess I’ve still got spiders on the brain. Now that I’ve found a couple of crab spiders I seem to keep bumping into them.
Two days after finding spider #2, Dale photographed a Washington lily growing in the Umpqua National Forest. When we got home, much to our surprise, we spotted another white and pink crab spider tucked deep in the blossom. Just a couple days later we were back at the same spot. Ms. Spider was still tucked in the same blossom and feasting on a large fly.
Suddenly crab spiders seemed to be everywhere. I found a bright yellow one feasting on a robber fly who got too near the daisy she was perched on.
Later in the day I sat down next to a crab spider so I could do a careful field sketch. She was beautiful -- bight yellow and strong red markings. She quickly accepted my presence even though I was only three feet from her. I nearly finished this little sketch before the flies and the heat drove me into the shade. I had watched for a good half hour without her catching any prey.