Monday, May 2, 2016

Floral Visitors 19

Preface ~ This year has been wrought with challenge, risk, and excitement with our new baby girl (two daughters now) and my recent employment with a local beekeeping company (I was formerly employed at a local cabinet factory, a far cry from my interests). Both are huge changes essentially happening simultaneously. That being said, I am delighted to discover new interactions between plants and pollinators that seem strange and unexpected. Given that much of the "prime pollinator time" is when I'm working and taking care of my daughters, I am given the opportunity to photograph plants and insects at odd times of the day when most bees are inactive. Nocturnal and crepuscular pollinators are often neglected in the eye of pollinator conservationism, some even considered pests, even though efforts to support bees and butterflies (the allegorious prom queens of pollinator conservationism) will likely support a range of other mildly valuable pollinators. I've also included in this post a few non-pollinating organisms that are beautiful (to me anyway) and ecologically useful in other ways. Enjoy!
Honeybee (Apis mellifera) foraging on poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum)
I was shocked to discover a huge mass of poison oak in bloom on the side of the road, absolutely teeming with bees and other pollinators. Honeybees were the most surprising, as I have seen poison oak in bloom many times in the past but never have I seen a honeybee show the slightest interest. Other pollinators included solitary bees, probably Andrena, and dermestid beetles (Anthrenus).

Apis on Toxicodendron
Honeybees were gathering both nectar and pollen, as evident by the pollen sacks shown on this bee and others I witnessed. I can't help but wonder: What will the honey taste like? Does the pollen or nectar contain the same skin-irritating compounds found in the rest of the plant? I wouldn't question the safety of eating the mature honey derived from this plant. Evidence of other poisonous or toxic plants being used to make honey (From the nectar of Euphorbia or Rhododendron, for example) suggests that the mature honey is perfectly safe to eat once mature. Microbes (kingdom Archaea, similar to bacteria) in the gut of honeybees (specifically the "honey stomach" or crop) break down the complex molecular structures into simple sugars that honeybees can digest, i.e. honey. Apparently poison oak varietal honey is available from some beekeepers, and it is worth a fortune (but this could be because it is derived from poison oak rather than the actual flavor; I'd love to hear from someone who has tried it).

Apis (lower right, in flight) and Toxicodendron
Poison oak is in the Anacardiaceae family, which includes a wide range of plants seldom in cultivation, and a few surprises such as Anacardium occidentale (cashew tree), Mangifera indica (mango tree), and Pistacia vera (pistachio). It is also related to Rhus (sumac), in which all species of Toxicodendron were once included. Other species of Toxicodendron include T. radicans (poison ivy), T. vernicifluum (Chinese lacquer tree), and T. vernix (poison sumac) among many others. All species of Toxicodendron (and to a much lesser content, Anacardiaceae in general) contain urushiol, an oily organic allergen that causes contact dermatitis. It can take a few to several incidents of contact before an allergic reaction occurs, so some individuals may think [wrongfully] that they're immune. The oil can adhere to anything, including fabric, and until it is washed can contact skin and spread the oil, resulting in a rash. I haven't got it yet, though I have a feeling it will happen eventually due to my plant addiction, or rather my incessant need to get a decent photo.

Lomatium dissectum with Andrena
Each year a local roadside is filled with the large inflorescences of Lomatium dissectum, a carrot relative with medicinal attributes. The umbels it produces are roughly eight inches across, some bigger still. I decided to stop and look one day, only to find tiny solitary bees, Andrena sp., foraging on the abundant resource. Unfortunately it was mid afternoon and the sun was low and direct causing some of the photos to be bleached out.

Lomatium dissectum with Andrena
Lomatium dissectum roots, and perhaps other lomatiums, are used in herbal medicine as antivirals, though to exceed the correct dosage could lead to a rash on the torso.

Lomatium dissectum
Andrena ♀ on male Quercus kelloggii catkins
Many plants this year have experienced an intense bloom. Trees have been no exception, including some of the oak trees. Oak (Quercus) is monoecious meaning it produces separate male and female flowers. The female flowers are minute and grow to become acorns if pollinated. Male flowers are produced in catkins yielding abundant pollen. It is unlikely that they produce nectar (even though some beekeeping sources claim it so), but are instead sources of honeydew (the exudates of sap-sucking insects). Bees, like this female Andrena mining bee, were seen to be foraging on the male catkins on a variety of days while the tree was in bloom. I doubt that bees contribute much in the way of pollination of what is typically considered a wind-pollinated tree since the female flowers offer no incentives for the bees to visit.

Quercus kelloggii with gall wasps (Cynipidae), flying left of the lowest leaf
I took this photo since the light was wonderful and was surprised to find I had captured what appear to be three tiny gall wasps in flight left of the leaf at the lower middle of the photo. Gall wasps are active as new growth appears since it is in this surge of plant hormonal growth that they lay their eggs on leaf and flower. The process causes the trees to grow the galls which the wasp larvae use to pupate. This is how the oak apple is formed, large conspicuous galls that can reach a similar size to an average apple. As far as I know, adult gall wasps do not live for very long and don't eat so they are not likely to contribute to the task of pollination, yet they surely serve as a food source for other animals.

A carpenter ant (Camponotus sp.) sizes up an orb weaver (Araneus sp.)
These two are unlikely to play a role in pollination, yet are interesting characters in my garden. The spider on the bottom right is an orb weaver, a term used for the family Araneidae and the usual suspects when it comes to the spiraling wheel-shaped webs so often associated with spiders. This one, probably a female, is helping to keep my plants safe by capturing pests, and perhaps a few pollinators (everyone's got to eat).

The ant is a large carpenter ant, Camponotus sp. They are omnivorous, feeding on honeydew, tree/plant sap, other insects (dead or alive), and a variety of other materials. Despite their name, they do not eat living or otherwise undamaged wood, but will nest in wood that has been softened by fungi or rotted by other means. In nature, these ants are much needed recyclers of forest debris, shredding dead wood into finer bits that can be further broken down by microarthropods and finally microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi, recycling nutrients and soil-building matter and making them available to plants.

Ariolimax columbianus (Pacific banana slug) eating oyster mushrooms growing on a decaying log in the forest understory
Banana slugs are also unlikely to play a role in pollination, though they do help break down matter in the forest understory where there is sufficient humidity to sustain them. This one was feeding on some very large oyster mushrooms that were growing out from a decaying log. I have also heard that banana slugs eat feces of probably many animals, no doubt a vital role. As is the case with all the "recyclers," banana slugs break material down into smaller grains that can then be broken down into nutrients and soil building particles by soil microorganisms. Eventually nutrients are made available to plants and the cycle starts over again: Plants absorb nutrients; fungi decomposes dead plants; banana slug eats fungus; soil microorganisms eat slug poop; microorganisms die and release nutrients derived from said slug poop. Circle of poop life.

Harpaphe haydeniana
Yet more decomposers I happened upon recently while exploring a local forest, a pair of beautiful forest millipedes were wandering about in search of food or shelter. Their conspicuous, and gorgeous markings should be taken as a sign that they are not to be eaten or handled since this is probably one of many cyanide secreting species of millipede. Like other millipedes, they are scavengers, mostly vegetarian, and contribute to the breakdown of decaying forest materials into fine matter more accessible to microorganisms.

Harpaphe haydeniana mating
I felt fortunate to have seen one, lucky to have seen two, and then they decided to mate. How cool is that? Very, indeed.

Agulla ♀ on Lamium maculatum
This was a surprising find, particularly since I had never seen this before. This is a snakefly (order Raphidioptera), unrelated to true flies (order Diptera). These are beneficial to a garden, or anywhere, as they are predatory in both larval and adult stages. As larvae their food probably consists of microarthropods such as mites, springtails, and thrips while the adults feed on aphids and other pests.

Agulla ♀ on Lamium maculatum, what a cutie!
They are often seen on flowers, but it is far more likely that they are on the hunt rather than feeding on floral resources.

Agulla ♀ on Lamium maculatum
The "stinger" on her back is actually an ovipositor, which is where the eggs come out. Snakeflies can't sting people.

A weevil (family Curculionidae) eating a wild strawberry flower (Fragaria vesca)
Weevils are beetles in the family Curculionidae, also affectionately known as snout and bark beetles. They are often regarded as pests, and probably best serve the garden as a food source for more beneficial creatures. There is always the chance, however, that this weevil or one like it will stumble across a flower such as this one and transfer pollen to a fertile stigma. The hairy body of this one would certainly hold onto some pollen.

Forficula auricularia ♀ on Dasiphora fruticosa 'Abbotswood' (syn. Potentilla fruticosa)
Though this looks similar to the Fragaria flower above, this is a flower of Dasiphora fruticosa (a white form) though they are both is the same family: Rosaceae, the rose family. This is a small woody shrub that blooms over a long period, and bridges the gap between the spring ephemerals and the summer blooming flowers. Bees of various types are attracted to the flowers, which are abundant, during the daylight hours while darkness brings a different player to the game. European earwigs, Forficula auricularia, although seldom if ever considered as pollinators, are common visitors of flowers at night. They are mostly nectar feeders, though they occasionally appear to be eating pollen as well.

Forficula auricularia ♀ on Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus'
The more I wander about the garden in the dark, the more often I find earwigs on/in the flowers. This one appears to have the wrong body shape for this rosemary flower, and is reduced to floral visitor status (rather that pollinator), and maybe even nectar thief. Fortunately, mint family plants (Rosmarinus is one) produce ample nectar on many flowers.

Forficula auricularia ♀ with a harvestman (order Opiliones) on Alyssum montanum 'Mountain Gold'
Pincher bugs, again, on the open inflorescences of Alyssum montanum in my rock garden, this time accompanied by many harvestmen (order Opiliones). They harvestmen appeared to be feeding on nectar, which isn't that far fetched seeing as they are omnivorous scavengers. Harvestmen are related to spiders, yet are differentiated by having all their segments fused into what appears to be a single segment. Another differentiation between harvestmen and spiders, mating is direct with the former because the males have a pene/aedagus (aka a penis) while males of the latter secrete semen directly from their abdomen and scoop it up into a sack made from their silk glands only to forcibly plunge it into the [usually larger] females with one of his pedipalps (the arm-like appendages near their mouths).

Alyssum montanum 'Mountain Gold' is an excellent plant for beneficial insects, including honeybees, and is attractive for most of the year. After flowering, simply trim the dead flowers and enjoy the leaves.

Forficula auricularia ♀ with a coating of pollen on Iris chrysophylla
Still not convinced that earwigs may act as pollinators? It is hard to ignore the pollen grains coating this individual. I have observed directly that they feed on both pollen and nectar during the night, and in the day they enter flowers (if the flowers are large enough) to hide out until the sun goes down. It is conceivable that during hiding out, the pollen from their bodies contacts the stigma, and pollination is achieved. Another consideration is that since earwigs can fly (many will deny it, but they do possess wings which are folded and hidden) and thus may move between flowers in the dark. This would be difficult to observe, since their reaction to a perceived threat (me with a light) is met with letting go of whatever they're attached to and falling to the ground (quickest escape) rather than fly away.

Crane flies (Tipuloidea) mating on a daffodil early in April
Though they probably play a minor role in pollination, crane flies do have a relationship with flowers. This is the third year in a row that I've seed this species on Narcissus in my garden.

Crane flies (Tipuloidea) mating on a daffodil early in April
Crane flies do feed on flower nectar, though I have seldom witnessed it.

Anchusa azurea is highly attractive to bumblebees and other pollinators
One of my favorite plants in my garden, Anchusa azurea bridges the gap between the spring ephemerals and the summer bloomers. It is related to borage and forget-me-nots, and is similarly attractive to bees and even hummingbirds as I witnessed on many consecutive days last year. Bumblebees are the primary visitors at this time, honeybees will probably began to show interest in the coming weeks. It blooms over a long period, all year if chopped to the ground at the first signs of seed formation. It isn't invasive like Echium or Symphytum (comfrey), but likely has nectar with a similarly high sugar content.

Ranunculus repens with a honeybee
I'll end this post with an odd sighting. In one of the apiaries of my new employer, creeping buttercut is running rampant. I have long read that honeybees seldom, if ever, work buttercups due to their toxicity which extends into the pollen and nectar. Despite this, honeybees were frequently seen on the flowers, also despite the abundance of alternate floral resources available at the time. From my observations they seemed to be collecting both pollen and nectar, though more emphasis on the latter. Another observation worth mentioning, they seemed to stumble around inside the flowers and sometimes spend several minutes before taking off, seemingly befuddled. Peculiar.

Ranunculus repens with a honeybee

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