Tuesday, May 14, 2013

And the bees are back too

Bombus rufocinctus Queen at Elephant Ears

This last week has seen bumble bees (preferred to 'bumblebees' by some) on the wing in central Alberta. All flying at the moment are fall-mated queens newly emerged from hibernation and intending to found new colonies. This one is a queen of a red morph of Bombus rufocinctus nectaring at the flowers of an Elephant Ear (Bergenia cordifolia).
T2-3-4 red-orange = Red-banded Bumble Bee (B. rufocinctus)
One of the more variable and confusing of the local species, the Red-banded Bumble Bee has numerous colour morphs. Like many insects with a noxious taste (and bad taste rather than the ability to sting is thought to be more important), bumble bees that tend to look like each other are more likely to be left alone to go about the business of raising a family. This is called Müllerian mimicry. Unfortunately, bees that all want to look alike leave many a bee-afficionado scratching their head when trying to put a name on them.
Bombus moderatus Queen wishing I would go away
Names are important, especially scientific names, if we want to keep track of species. Ten years ago when the Home Bug Garden was starting to take form, we had regular visits from the Yellow-banded Bumble Bee Bombus (Bombus) terrricola. Since then that species has become very rare, perhaps gone (I think I saw a queen at the Royal Alberta Museum last week). But a new Bombus (Bombus) has come along, Bombus moderatus (aka cryptarum). I suppose that is a good thing, a White-tailed Bumble Bee (or Cryptic Bumble Bee if you prefer obscure common names) is an interesting addition to the pollinator fauna, but what's up with the Yellow-banded? 
Andrena milwaukeensis Graenicher, 1903, tanking-up at Coltsfoot. Seemingly too small and obscure for a common name, would we miss it if one spring it didn't show up?
Of course, bees too shuffle off their mortal coils - should that give us pause? Does it make sense to get all flustered about the decline of a bug, even one with a generally nice reputation and useful lifestyle like a bee? Sure plants need pollinators, but aren't there plenty of them out there? Well, seeming not so much as there used to be in places like the United Kingdom and North America
A fat cat secure in its knowledge that food will always miraculously appear
If a bee disappears will we miss its buzz? Not unless we can put a name on the buzzer. For most bees that is not such an easy thing, but hope is on the horizon, at least for bumble bees. A new citizen science project for North Americans is about to take wing: Bumble Bee Watch (http://bumblebeewatch.org/) and a new field guide will soon be out:
Williams, P., L. Richardson, R.Thorp & S.R. Colla. (To be released spring 2013) A Field Guide to the Bumblebees of North America. Princeton University Press.
From sun to rain in 13 hrs: So long sunny weekend
Now, if the weather would only cooperate. It isn't only cats and people that enjoy sunny weekends. This is a critical time for the spring bees - all are starting their nests and need some sun and warmth to fly and to encourage the flowers to bloom. Alas, this is Alberta.

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