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.”


  1. Great shots! Well worth the wait. I hope you get to feeling better soon. I giggled at the thought of all that equipment for such a small subject. Aren't they facinating??!!

  2. Your dedication to learning about your surroundings and those who share it with you is nothing short of amazing! Two hours?!

    Well worth the reward even if you didn't get to the rest of the day's adventures.

  3. What an amazing find! I just love the way you describe everything. Makes me feel like I am sitting next to you and Dale.
    And I learn something new overtime I come here.

  4. I could never in my life sit for two hours like the two of you did, waiting for something. You're admirable...and a fantastic narrator.

  5. What a wonderful adventure! I just love the mystery solving part of nature-watching and you've captured it beautifully!