I have an observation I was fortunate enough to see in person last September (2021) that I’d like to share, including a short video or two I filmed, and a wonderful animation slide made for me by one of our local San Juan Island artists, April Randall, who I asked to illustrate what I witnessed, but did not have an opportunity to record on camera.
We are entering the season – late summer/early fall, when some species of ants and termites send out their winged reproductives, also known in scientific lingo as “alates.” These flying individuals have reached reproductive maturity and their purpose is utilitarian: to fly away from home, mate, and establish a new colony…IF they are lucky enough not to be eaten or fall to some other random fate in nature.
Over the past seven years, I’ve been able to watch as one particular colony of Western Subterranean Termites (Reticulitermes hesperus) sends out their offspring to do exactly this. The event happens annually during the first 12 days of September without fail. They swarm to the surface, exiting en-masse out of the little hole in the ground, to launch out into the great, wide world. The air is filled with their tiny black bodies and translucent wings – wings that last just long enough for them to disperse far enough away from home, so as to not compete with the parent colony.
Many, or probably it would be fair to say “most” of these winged reproductives or alates, aren’t successful, if by defining success, your measure is for them to begin a new colony. However, if you measure success from another perspective – that of Mother Nature, this event is indeed a success – for Mother Nature hasn’t forgotten the food web and the myriad of other species who must forage for food in order to survive.
In the videos below, you will see a close up of these Western Subterranean Termite alates emerging from their underground colony which lies below our driveway in a network of old Douglas fir roots that were cut down long ago by the former homeowner. As “momma” to a bearded dragon, I included some video of my pet, Drago, feasting on these termites as they emerged. Bearded Dragons are known to dine on termites in their native range in Australia, so I thought, “Why not?” Yes, he loves them! What I unfortunately don’t have video footage of is what we saw after we came back into the house. There was a little flock of Yellow-Rumped Warblers waiting for us (mostly for Drago) to leave that spot. As soon as the coast was clear, those little birds were down on the ground, eating the termites as fast as they emerged.
So here’s where I brought April into the picture. April made the animation and I think it’s important because it gives you something to share with your friends about how the food web works – or how it’s supposed to work. It’s also important because many, many people automatically see termites as something bad, a PEST. While that may be true if they are eating your home, it isn’t true in this case.
These termites have never bothered our home (not once in 7 years). We border a wooded area and there is plenty of habitat that termites need for survival. Some pest control operators will tell you right off though, that you have to be proactive. Get rid of the colony. Well, they also want you to PAY them, so don’t believe everything you hear. What I’d like you to consider is how Mother Nature is providing for these little birds – and other species of wildlife. The Warblers (and other wildlife) don’t have a grocery store to pop into whenever they are hungry. They rely on seasonal (often temporary surges) where food is abundant, so they can eat enough, storing energy to survive whenever they can’t find food. Feast or famine is a common theme for wildlife. They may even have to travel for long distances to take advantage of a resource. Because Yellow-Rumped Warblers can live for 6-7 years, they may well remember how to find this exact spot on our property each year.
Please feel free to share with you friends and family. I hope you enjoy the animation. This year, I’m going to be waiting with my camera in hopes of capturing this special moment.
About Reticulitermes hesperus:
Lifespan of a Queen – up to 30 years
Geographic Distribution: along the Pacific Coast (BC-CA-Mexico) east to ID & w. NV
References, Further Reading, and Artist Information
Our native pollinators were slow to emerge this year in the San Juans because of the cool weather. Usually, we can rely on flies, solitary bees and wasps, and even moths, ants, and others to pollinate our fruit trees. I did see some species of flies out this spring, but again, weather conditions were poor.
We have PLENTY of “pollinators” out in our yard right now. So, in trying to explain to people when they ask me about a decline in native pollinators, I have a few points I like to throw out for consideration.
1) honey bees are poor pollinators to keep on the island. It has to be above 50 degrees for them to come out of the hive.
2) native flies and other insects like moths (which fly at night and we don’t typically see) are better at pollinating in cooler temperatures. While they also won’t be out if it’s rainy and super cold, they can fly in temperature ranges lower than 50 degrees F.
3) the critical importance of native pollinators may not be in their “pollination” services – but their role as pest predators and/or role in the food cycle for other organisms, and for creating biodiversity in our ecosystem, which helps keep everything healthier. I think this part is important. If you look at some of the plants we put in our gardens (native perennials), they actually do not require pollination to survive and reproduce, but do offer pollen and nectar to many insects, spiders, and hummingbirds. Looking further at the food web, we need a variety of native insects for more than pollination. Tachinid flies, syrphid flies, solitary wasps, ants, and even spiders can be pollinators, but also help regulate populations of orchard, garden, and forest pests.
My take on all of this is as humans, our focus has largely been on how to grow food over environmental conservation and maintaining balanced, functioning ecosystems. With climate change, many of our food growing operations may fail. Our fruit trees (at least none that I know of) are not native. In spite of the best intentions, conditions may decline to a point where we can’t produce great fruit here. Weather is only one limiting factor. We have poor soils or no soil in many locations, limited water resources, and the pressures of continuing development resulting in loss of natural habitats. I don’t have the answers for you when it comes to fruit production or any way to personally mitigate climate change, so we may have to figure out a substitute for growing apples, plums, and such.
Let’s go back to the importance of native pollinators though. If you think of our island as a living organism with many different functions, it is important to have all the essential pieces to keep the “body” healthy. These native pollinators (and the native plants they visit), and all the other myriad species of invertebrates, fungi, birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, soil, water, etc. are all part of the “body,” a body that has to fight off occasional or repeated assaults from being thrown off balance by exposures to external forces. Just like we need a variety of foods and minerals and other things to keep our body healthy, so does an ecosystem. We need all of these pieces (and that includes our native pollinators and all the other diverse species) to keep our island home healthy.
As to the fruit trees and other food crops requiring pollination, for now, some of these issues can be mediated by planting around your orchard and garden with plenty of diverse native species and providing habitat for all of these native species to develop. Some of our practices of cleaning and sanitizing our orchards and gardens, burning yard clippings, and applying fertilizers and pesticides can adversely affect the biodiversity needed to help our food production thrive.
I imagine it can be frustrating to see an orchard fail to produce fruit. My grandparents were tenant farmers and wholly dependent on growing cotton and corn and the bit of garden and livestock they had around the home on the property they did not own. When it was a drought year, and crops failed, things were utterly miserable. Destitute would be a better adjective. I believe we may have an inherent desire to be “part of the land,” and grow our own food, but sometimes, despite our best efforts, conditions aren’t favorable. Crops fail. Historically, we have tried (and failed) to control some of these external forces – like applying pesticides in amounts that probably will poison us forever.
I’ve gone way beyond the “pollinator” topic here, but it is next to impossible for me to see a one-dimensional issue. We have a much larger and more complex picture before us. How do we either re-create or maintain a healthy functioning system, navigate the perils of climate change, and feed ourselves? I like to believe that protecting diversity in our ecosystems is an important facet of this complex, multi-layered crisis we face.
I found this little green beetle (and another sad little black and yellow beetle missing its antennae) in the pool yesterday. The black and yellow beetle is alive and… well, sort of living in a special habitat right now because of those missing antennae.
The green one was completely waterlogged and lifeless. I had left it on the table next to Drago’s enclosure last night, thinking I’d pin it and keep it in my collection. I am SO GLAD I DIDN’T stick it with a pin! This morning, I found it moving those little legs around at me. It was alive! RIP woke up.
This is a Golden Buprestid Beetle (Buprestis aurulenta). They are a native species in the Pacific Northwest. I have referred to them often as the Rip Van Winkle beetle because they take such a long time to develop from egg to adult. In fact, the record is 51 years!
Why so long? Well, the developmental time depends a lot on the quality of what they’re eating (they develop in dead or dying trees) and miscellaneous environmental factors. When they come out as an adult, they leave behind a little oval hole. I think it adds character to your wood trim if you have them “sleeping” in timber used to build your house.
We had one in our door trim that didn’t make it all the way out and probably had been stuck for awhile before I noticed. It became a fascinating object to show anyone who came to visit our home.
I’m not sure what gives them this beautiful iridescence, but they are undeniably one of nature’s jewels, thus the name “Jewel” Beetle.
I’m wondering if anyone is following the grasshopper outbreak in Oregon? If you don’t know about this, I’ll fill you in and include some links. Perhaps we need to round up our “mean-ole, hummingbird murdering mantids” (EXTREME SARCASM HERE!) and send them south to help out. Just kidding. If you read through the attached list of sources, you’ll see in one where they’ve now determined the mantids don’t have much of an impact on controlling grasshoppers (Fries, 2021).
If they are so bad (and from historical reports, they can indeed reach proportions on the scale of a Biblical plague), what do we do about them? Why is there such an outbreak?
Grasshopper populations cycle periodically, but it’s thought they are worst when conditions are dry. One theory is that a fungus that controls populations isn’t viable in these conditions and only works when we have damper weather.
Historically, control methods have been pretty toxic – everything from arsenic bait to other drastic measures – all environmentally hazardous. If you review old agricultural journals, records of exploding grasshopper populations conjure up images of something you’d see in a horror movie, only it was real. Historical photos exist of a landscape stripped of vegetation; bare fields and trees. Handles were eaten off wooden farm implements and fenceposts were eaten too. Crops were lost, people starved. There’s a reason it’s called a PLAGUE. 🦗🦗🦗
So, this is happening now in Oregon. Aphis is coordinating aerial spraying of wide swaths (millions of acres ) of land with an insecticide called diflubenzuron. Studies have shown diflubenzuron reduces populations of bees, butterflies, beetles, and many other species of insects. Aquatic invertebrates consumed by endangered fish and trout are also vulnerable (Xerces Society, 2022). Xerces Society has a federal lawsuit against Aphis to fight this grasshopper managment strategy. Application of this insecticide directly threatens endangered species like yellow-billed cuckoos, black-footed ferrets, bull trout, Ute ladies’-tresses orchids, Oregon spotted frogs and Spalding’s catchflies which are present in multiple states in which the insecticide spraying program operates (Xerces, 2022).
What can we do if we don’t spray? Well, I would encourage folks to look at the studies about the benefits of eating grasshoppers. They aren’t much different than shrimp. At a minimum, they could be netted, dried, and manufactured into feed for poultry, fish, and swine. We have to stop the madness. Dumping chemicals is only bringing our apocalypse closer. We won’t survive. The grasshoppers probably will. 🦗🦗🦗🦗🦗🦗🦗
Lopez-Santamarina A, Mondragon ADC, Lamas A, Miranda JM, Franco CM, Cepeda A. Animal-Origin Prebiotics Based on Chitin: An Alternative for the Future? A Critical Review. Foods. 2020 Jun 12;9(6):782. doi: 10.3390/foods9060782. PMID: 32545663; PMCID: PMC7353569. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7353569/
Shah AA, Totakul P, Matra M, Cherdthong A, Hanboonsong Y, Wanapat M. Nutritional composition of various insects and potential uses as alternative protein sources in animal diets. Anim Biosci. 2022 Feb;35(2):317-331. doi: 10.5713/ab.21.0447. Epub 2022 Jan 4. PMID: 34991214; PMCID: PMC8831828. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8831828/
The Western Tent Caterpillar is probably one of the most studied and also one of the most loathed insects in the Pacific Northwest. I’m hoping to change attitudes by shining a light on some of the ecological facets of the species and how it connects to the larger food web. We often deem something a pest before really considering the whole picture. Is there anything good about a caterpillar eating leaves off a tree? It depends on a lot of factors. Why not take time to examine the web…and I’m not referring to the tent here either.
It was just last week in my community (San Juan Island), that I heard a story about a woman who fell and hit her head after getting on a ladder to BURN the tent caterpillars out of her fruit trees. Hmmm. Please don’t try this at home. It isn’t safe. Burning the tents out of trees can actually do more damage to the tree than the caterpillars do by eating the leaves.
The photos below show something that happens to the tent caterpillars we may not notice in our panic to eradicate them from our trees. The egg on the caterpillar was laid by a parasitic Tachinid fly. It chose the head, so the caterpillar can’t chew it off its body. The egg is shed when the caterpillar molts, but the fly is already developing inside the caterpillar. It will literally eat the caterpillar from the inside out. So, when you clip off those tents and throw them into the fire, you are also killing the natural and best pest predators along with them. Naturus interruptus! We do more harm than good by intervening.
The Western Tent Moth caterpillars are affected by a few other parasitoids. Braconid wasps also attack them. Some lay eggs on the cocoons. There is also a nucleopolyhedrovirus that infects them when populations are high. In my rush to get this out, I may come back and edit, but I’ve referenced lots of great information below so you can read more about this on your own.
To add to all of this, over the weekend, my daughter and I found some tents in the orchard trees on our property. I might just be the ONLY resident in the San Juans excited to see them. Hmmm. Well, what I found was even more interesting. The tents had dead caterpillars inside and living family groups of earwigs. We also found a super cute jumping spider!
I was curious about this because earwigs are known to be garden pests, I did find some studies about earwigs that are PREDATORY on species of Lepidoptera. While these studies addressed other species of moths, the gist was that the plant species sends out a chemical signal that calls pest predators when it is being attacked by caterpillars. Every plant and pest predator sends and responds (respectively) to various signals, some very specific to each relationship. The plant is calling in the army! It may not always be earwigs, but there are wasps, flies, and others that come to aid the plant when it is under attack. Yes, it is very cool!!!
Oh, and those Western Tent Caterpillars turn into adult moths in mid summer. They are attracted to light. Turn off your outdoor lights. Nature will thank you and you will be less attractive to the mating moths. Many moth species also tend to fly off en-masse when they are mate seeking. These periodic, seasonal pulses of terrestrial invertebrates in our region end up in nearshore marine habitats when they fly out over the ocean.
Various studies have surveyed the stomach contents of Chinook and Coho Salmon, and other fishes in nearshore marine habitats during their first year at sea. Two studies I found reported finding Western Tent Moths and Spruce Budworm Moths (species considered as pests in northern boreal forests) in sampled gut contents. Brodeur et al., (1987) reported the following from one survey, “The incidence of several juvenile coho collected after the storm which had stomachs that were distended with over 100 of these insects exemplifies the ability of these juvenile coho to readily exploit these allochthonous inputs into the marine environment.” They were referring to the “pest” species, (Choristoneura occidentalis) or Spruce Budworm Moth in this instance. In Brennan et al. (2002), sampling of salmon in Central Puget Sound found insect prey included Western Tent Moths (Malocosoma sp.), and that “Lepidoptera in 2002 diets were gravimetrically dominated by tent caterpillar moths (Malocosoma sp.) 51% of Lepidoptera category by weight.” They also reported that Lepidoptera in their samples “were only abundant in 2002.” Coincidentally perhaps, this was a year of a recorded outbreak of tent caterpillars in WA state.
Other studies acknowledge terrestrial invertebrates as a better quality food than marine crustaceans for developing salmon. Periodic, cyclic, or seasonal events resulting in abundant insect flotsam in marine habitats may be missed, or difficult to record, but undoubtedly play a role in feeding fish in nearshore marine habitats.
Take away point here. Even bugs we see as pests have a role in ecosystems. Salmon and other species of wildlife don’t have grocery stores to visit when they need a meal. They rely on seasonal and periodic availability of food. It’s all they have, and it’s important for us to appreciate that.
Please take a moment to scroll through some of the photos below. Definitely check out the fantastic animation by April Randall about the adult moths flying out over the shoreline and being eaten by salmon! Don’t miss checking out those references and reading material too. If you are curious to know more, shoot me an email and I’m happy to send you literature for further reading.
References and Further Reading
Bell, K., Naranjo-Guevara, N., Santos, R., Meadow, R., & Bento, J. (2020). Predatory Earwigs are Attracted by Herbivore-Induced Plant Volatiles Linked with Plant Growth-Promoting Rhizobacteria. Insects, 11(5), 271. https://doi.org/10.3390/insects11050271
Cooper, Dawn & Cory, Jenny & Theilmann, David & Myers, Judith. (2003). Nucleopolyhedroviruses of forest and western tent caterpillars: Cross-infectivity and evidence for activation of latent virus in high-density field populations. Ecological Entomology. 28. 41 – 50. 10.1046/j.1365-2311.2003.00474.x.
Furniss RL, Carolin VM. 1977. Western forest insects. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, D.C. Miscellaneous Publication 1339. 654 p.
Knight, G. A.; Lavigne, R. J.; and Pogue, M. G. 1991. “The Parasitoid Complex of Forest Tent Caterpillar, Malacosoma Disstria (Lepidoptera: Lasiocampidae), in Eastern Wyoming Shelterbelts,” The Great Lakes Entomologist, vol 24 (4) Available at: https://scholar.valpo.edu/tgle/vol24/iss4/7
Rodstrom, R & Resources, Greenwood & Portland, Oregon & John, J & Brown, John. (2017). FOREST AND WESTERN TENT CATERPILLARS Insect Pest Management in Hybrid Poplars Series. 10.13140/RG.2.2.24262.37442.
Witter JA, Kuhlman HM. 1972. A review of the parasites and predators of tent caterpillars (Malacosoma spp.) in North America. Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station. Technical Bulletin 289. 48 p.
Additional References***Updated 06.23.2022
Brennan, J.S., K.F. Higgins, J.R. Cordell, and V.A. Stamatiou. 2004. Juvenile Salmon Composition, Timing Distribution, and Diet in Marine Nearshore Waters of Central Puget Sound in 2001-2002. King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, Seattle Wa. 164pp.
Brodeur, R. D., Mundy, B. C., Pearcy, W. G., & Wisseman, R. W. 1987. The neustonic fauna in coastal waters of the northeast Pacific: abundance, distribution, and utilization by juvenile salmonids. Oregon State University Publication ORESU-T-87-001.
Brodeur, R. D. (1989). Neustonic feeding by juvenile salmonids in coastal waters of the Northeast Pacific. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 67(8), 1995-2007.
Brodeur, R. D., Lorz, H. V., & Pearcy, W. G. (1987). Food habits and dietary variability of pelagic nekton off Oregon and Washington, 1979-1984. NOAA Technical Report NMFS 57. U.S. Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service.
Cheng L, Birch M. 2008. Insect flotsam: an unstudied marine resource. Ecol Entomol 3:87–97.
Cheng L. 1975. Marine pleuston: animals at the sea-air interface. Oceanogr Mar Biol Annu Rev. 13:181–212.
Cheng, L., M. C. Birch. 2009. Terrestrial insects at sea. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. 57, 4, (995-997).
DNR TreeLink. Tenting in the Trees. 2012. WSU Extension Puget Sound Stewardship E-Newletter 5:4
Drake, V.A., D. R. Reynolds, Radar Entomology: Observing Insect Flight and Migration (CABI, Wallingford, UK, 2012).
Duffy, E.J., D.A. Beauchamp, R. Sweeting, R. Beamish, and J. Brennan. 2010. Ontogenetic diet shifts of juvenile Chinook salmon in nearshore and offshore habitats of Puget Sound. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society. 139:803-823.
Glick P. 1939. The distribution of insects, spiders, and mites in the air. Washington D.C.: US Department of Agriculture.
Green K., 2011. The transport of nutrients and energy into the Australian Snowy Mountains by migrating bogong moths Agrotis infusa. Austral. Ecol.36, 25–34.
Gutierrez, L. 2011. Terrestrial invertebrate prey for juvenile Chinook salmon: Abundance and environmental controls on an interior Alaskan river. MS Thesis, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK.
Hardy AC, Cheng L. 1986. Studies in the distribution of insects by aerial currents. III. Insect drift over the sea. Ecol Entomol. 113:283–90.
Helm RR. 2021. The mysterious ecosystem at the ocean’s surface. Plos Biology. Apr;19(4):e3001046.
Holland RA, Wikelski M, Wilcove DS. How and why do insects migrate? Science. 2006 Aug 11;313(5788):794-6. doi: 10.1126/science.1127272. PMID: 16902129.
Hu G, Lim KS, Horvitz N, Clark SJ, Reynolds DR, Sapir N, Chapman JW. Mass seasonal bioflows of high-flying insect migrants. Science. 2016 Dec 23;354(6319):1584-1587. doi: 10.1126/science.aah4379. PMID: 28008067.
Landry J. S., Parrott L., Could the lateral transfer of nutrients by outbreaking insects lead to consequential landscape-scale effects? Ecosphere7, e01265 (2016).
Locke, A., S. Corey. 1986. Terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates in the neuston of the Bay of Fundy, Canada. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 64(7): 1535-1541. https://doi.org/10.1139/z86-228
Satterfield, Dara & Sillett, T & Chapman, Jason & Altizer, Sonia & Marra, Peter. 2020. Seasonal insect migrations: massive, influential, and overlooked. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 18. 10.1002/fee.2217.
Hello Everyone! Meet my new bug friend, Radar Love ❤️ He must have crashed the wrong party. Radar gone wrong! I found him floating in our pool, in the midst of those raucous “dippers” (the Diplotaxis beetles). Radar Love was so happy I didn’t let him drown, and even happier that I didn’t stick him with a pin and add him to the bug equivalent of a stamp collection. We hung out together for a bit and I took some photos and video to remember him by. Radar Love was released into the forest so he can make more of his kind.
Location: San Juan Island
ID: Geotruipidae (Odonteus obsesus)
Special thanks to my friend, Michelle Sloan Bos and Tyler Hedlund for ID assistance with this. I was rushing to get ready for my special spider outing. More about that later. For now, enjoy this rare and exciting sighting of a most special little beetle that calls San Juan Island his home.
When you study insects, or even birds for that matter, you start to understand you have to get to know plants a bit too. It’s all connected.
Plants (including trees and shrubs) provide food and shelter for many different species of animals. Admittedly, I just don’t know a lot about the parts of plants, beyond things like a tree trunk, bark, limbs, branches, leaves, or stems or flowers, nuts, fruit. The obvious parts.
There are some not so obvious parts. Like these extrafloral nectaries. Huh? Sounds weird. Keep reading.
Extrafloral nectaries (EFN’s) are glands occurring on more than 2000 plant species in 64 families. Extrafloral literally means outside of the flower. When we think of nectar, we usually think of little bees and hummingbirds flying around, visiting pretty flowers to sip nectar and in the process, pollinate all of our plants. It’s just that plants are a bit more complex. These glands are located in various places on plants (including trees and shrubs), and may be found on the laminae of leaves, petioles, rachids, bracts, stipules, pedices, fruit, etc. (Mizell, 2019).
These glandular secretions are a fascinating part of how plants attract and sustain a diverse, ecological community, providing sustenance for a multitude of species, including both pests and predators. You can find ants, aphids, beetles (including ladybugs), bees, wasps, and possibly even birds utilizing this excretory faucet to sip what consists of mostly carbohydrate-rich sugar, but also comprised of a wide array of amino acids and other nutrients.
Why are these important? Well, scientists are still trying to fully understand all of the diverse relationships around extra-floral nectaries. It is thought perhaps, beyond attracting organisms to a food source, they play a role in orchestrating a plant’s defense strategy against predators. They also are believed to provide a source of food and/or beneficial nutrients for various organisms during the off-season – when flowering and pollen sources are not available. They may also reduce conflict between ants and other pollinators by partitioning resources (Villamil & Stone, 2019).
Bentley, B. L. (1977). Extrafloral nectaries and protection by pugnacious bodyguards. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 8(1), 407-427.
Holopainen JK, Blande JD, Sorvari J. Functional Role of Extrafloral Nectar in Boreal Forest Ecosystems under Climate Change. Forests. 2020; 11(1):67. https://doi.org/10.3390/f11010067
Villamil, N., Boege, K., & Stone, G. N. (2019). Testing the Distraction Hypothesis: Do extrafloral nectaries reduce ant-pollinator conflict?. The Journal of ecology, 107(3), 1377–1391. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.13135
Did you know spiders don’t just eat bugs? That’s right! You can amaze your friends when you share your knowledge about our eight-legged friends chowing down at the salad bar.
Researchers have observed various species of spiders (over 60 species worldwide) feeding on plant foods to supplement their invertebrate prey (Nyffeler et al. 2016). What exactly does this mean? Are they going to eat the leaves of your garden plants? Nah! Not to worry. They are primarily pest predators in your garden – little helpers to keep those aphids away.
Spiders have long been thought to only consume insects and other invertebrates. However, in recent studies, we are finding this isn’t entirely the case. Observations of spiders foraging in nature has broadened our understanding of the diets of our arachnid friends. Our prior assumptions were incorrect. Spiders actually eat pollen grains, floral and extra-floral nectar, Beltian and Müllerian bodies (structures produced by plants on their leaf tips or petioles, plant sap, honeydew (a plant-derived sugar produced by homopteran insects like aphids), seeds, spores, and even the vegetative material in the guts of their invertebrate prey (Nyffeler et al. 2016).
I found several papers on this topic, but one of the most interesting to me talked about how pollen is an important source of protein for spiders in early spring when prey may be scarce. It also pointed out that pollen is a critical food source for newly hatched spiderlings. Baby Orbweavers for instance. We have these here in the San Juans. They are delightful!
Well, since the pollen floats through the air, quite a lot will stick to webs, landing exactly where the little spiders can easily access it. Smith and Mommsen (1984) even found that Orb Weaver spiderlings doubled their life expectancy by eating pollen. Eggs and Sanders (2013) concur that pollen is an important dietary supplement for Orb Weaver spiders and found that juvenile orb weaving spiders’ diets consist of approximately 25% pollen.
So, now you know! Our little spider friends, or some of them at least, are more complex than we knew. It’s a good reminder about how important it is to eat a varied and healthy diet. We can put this into practice ourselves. Good nutrition is vital for health and survival – for all living beings.
Nostalgia reigns over the little European (now re-named Western) honey bee (Apis mellifera). We think of honey in terms of “liquid gold” or perhaps reminiscent of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, gobbing it all over himself as he dips his paw into the honey jar. Honey bees are indeed important pollinators, and the economic driver of the honey industry. You can stick the almond industry in along with them because, “without honey bees, we wouldn’t have almonds, right!” More on this if you keep reading.
If you delve into how we use honey bees for pollination, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to the plight of the honey bee. Going back to the almond industry, I can tell you it isn’t pretty. Here, and in other monoculture systems, the honey bee must collect pollen and nectar from one, single, solitary food source. Then that bee and her hive family are loaded onto a truck with many other hives, and delivered to yet another industrial monocrop to do the same thing again. Maybe this time it’s an apple orchard, or soybeans, or sunflowers. In every instance though, the nutrient deficiencies can’t be ignored. Honey bees need a diverse array of nutrients just like every other living organism. They aren’t healthy because of how we are keeping (and exploiting) them (McGivney 2020).
The honey industry brought in $321.22 million U.S. dollars in 2021 (Statistica, 2022). They are packed and stacked in boxes, driven across the country, unloaded in unfamiliar territory, hunger staved off temporarily with a jar of high fructose corn syrup, or sugar water (if they’re lucky), while they familiarize themselves with the new surroundings, and are off to work immediately. They are unpaid transient workers. Valued, and needed, but treated much like the migrant workers we count on to move about the country picking our food crops.
Of course, we are told, the nation won’t eat if we don’t have bees! Partly, this is true. The part that needs clarifying is, Which bees exactly do we need to pollinate our food crops?
I’ll disclose here that I am a former honey bee keeper. Former being the point! I quit. I became enlightened. Not by the unrealized dreams of liquid gold, not from stings received, but rather by the dings of my brain firing at the connections I started to make from my observations and from searching for scientific literature that supported what I was observing.
When I was working on my MS in Entomology and Nematology from the University of Florida, I took a beekeeping course as part of my curriculum. Part of the requirement for the course was to shadow other beekeepers and set up a hive of my own. I enthusiastically set off on these tasks. Keeping my own hives was an incredibly fascinating experience.
Here in our island community, I mentored high school students who set up a hive at the community garden and gave several public talks to various organizations as part of their senior project. I’ve acted as a consultant for other beekeepers, loaned out beekeeping equipment, suits, literature, and several extension agencies have used photos I took of honey bee queens and varroa mites in their educational materials.
Keeping honey bees was fascinating. Yes, I was stung, but it was mesmerizing to watch them working. At one place that I lived, I kept them just outside of my daughter’s bedroom, and to open the window and smell the honey bees was like entering heaven. It was intoxicating.
As to my success in keeping honey bees on San Juan Island, I can tell you it’s a mixed bag. My longest-lived colony survived three years. Mostly, later in the season, the bees would be attacked by wasps, and the hives completely raided. Honey bees died in winter from a lack of food and reduced numbers. Bees ball up together inside the hive in winter. If the population is small, they just can’t generate enough heat to stay warm.
For a few years, I bought new packages of bees. That was also a mixed bag. Some years, the queen died right away. Other packages of bees came with varroa mites. Most packaged bees for purchase are available after they’ve already been at work in other parts of the country pollinating in crop systems where the climate is warmer. They’re worn out and not necessarily healthy.
You see, many people selling bees to hobby beekeepers also make money from renting bees for crop pollination. The queens are reared separately and artificially inseminated. When your package of bees is packed for shipping, they plop the newly fertilized queen into the box with the tired little workers who have been to California, Nebraska, Iowa, or who knows where else before they arrive for you to pick up. As these packaged bees became more and more expensive, my “hobby” was yielding the most expensive, tiny jar of honey you could ever imagine.
There were multiple other things I observed when keeping bees. Like they would gang up on the poor, solitary bumble bee trying to feed on the single dandelion in the yard and kill it. Not the dandelion. They killed the bumble bee.
They actually killed a lot of bumble bees from my observations. I didn’t like it. I also quickly noted that with our cool spring climate, the honey bees didn’t like to come out of the hive until sometime in May or June, way after all the trees had flowered. Honey bees don’t like to fly unless the temperature is over 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I was making a lot of sugar water for them. In case you haven’t noticed, the price of sugar is becoming quite expensive.
That’s another thing. Sugar water is nutrient poor. Honey bees, or pretty much any other organism will never thrive on sugar water alone. It would be like giving your kid cans of Pepsi or Coca Cola every day and nothing else. Of course, they would not be healthy. They’d probably have a shortened life and die before they became a teenager. Honey bees, humans, and pretty much every other organism on the planet needs a diversity of nutrients to survive. Who out there remembers taking a Fred Flintstone vitamin tablet as a kid? Well, there’s a minimum daily requirement for more than humans. Honey bees need a diversity of flowers, trees, mineral rich soil, and clean water to thrive. They also need to collect anywhere from 20-130 lbs per year of pollen and 120-900 lbs per year of nectar, to sustain ONE hive (Goulson, 2003).
So, don’t we have those things out here in the San Juans? Hmmm. Let’s see. Spring temps don’t warm up until after fruit trees, forest trees, and lots of other native shrubs have already flowered or set off pollen. Our soils are poor and deficient in certain minerals like selenium. There’s a LOT of bedrock, but obviously we have some parcels that are exceptions. Summers are hot and dry. I doubt even in a good season, there’s enough pollen and nectar to support all the hobby hives we have now in the islands.
If you’ve lived here for a few seasons, you might note that summer going into fall we have a dearth of vegetation. Pretty much the only wild plants blooming are our non-native Tansy and California Poppies. Of course, the noxious weed folks urge us to pull all the Tansy. It’s toxic. We should do our best to remove it when possible because if you are keeping bees (and continue to do so after reading this), you don’t want Tansy pollen or nectar in your honey. It will damage your liver.
Back to making my point. What bees are we supposed to save? 1. Honey bees? or 2. Those other bees that don’t give honey, but might actually be better suited for pollinating things we have in the San Juans?
If you pick 2, you’re trending along with me. As an entomologist, I can suggest that supporting native bee species will be much healthier and sustainable for our fragile island ecosystem. Why? Well, native bees are already suited for this geographic climate. Bumble bees, Andrena bees, Mining Bees, Leafcutter bees, along with flies, wasps, beetles, moths, ants, and even spiders are all pollinators that work well in our island habitat. In fact, flies are probably one of our most effective early pollinators for fruit trees in the San Juans.
But won’t honey bees pollinate too? What about my garden plants or my orchard trees? Well, again, it’s really not an optimal climate. If you are still holding out, I can offer additional research that might be convincing. While not particularly applicable to the San Juans, since as I’ve already stated, honey bees aren’t going to be flying when our orchard trees are blooming, current research in mainland agro-ecosystems is indicating that wild bees actually increase fruit set in apple orchards (Mallinger & Gratton, 2014), and strawberries pollinated by wild bees are larger than strawberries pollinated by honey bees (MacInness and Forest, 2019). That’s only two papers, but if you take time to go through and read these, look at their references. You’ll find additional citations indicating similar findings in other studies.
What if we ignore everything you’ve written here and keep ordering packages of honey bees?
Good question. Certainly, you are within your right to order honey bees and keep them. Some folks may be determined to try and raise bees in an attempt to get honey. All I can say to that is good luck! I personally have switched from using honey to using agave as a sweetener, or quit using sweeteners altogether. It’s a personal choice, but also motivated by my own economics as well as my concern for preserving a diverse and sustainable population of invertebrates and conserving diverse and healthily functioning ecosystems. Also, please don’t interpret my position as “anti-agriculture.” That wouldn’t be fair. We have to eat, but I do believe in progress and making better choices as the planet becomes more populated. There are a LOT of people to feed. We need to figure out how to do this sustainably, without displacing our diversity of wildlife or injuring the planet’s ability to support life.
It’s a fact that native bees are being displaced in ecosystems under pressure from loss of habitat and competition from managed honey bees. In their 2018 literature review, Hatfield et al., state that “honey bees displace native bees from flowers, alter the suite of flowers native bees visit, and have a negative impact on native bee reproduction.” Citing Anderson & Anderson 1989; Paton 1990, 1996; Wills et al. 1990; Dafni & Shmida 1996; Horskins & Turner 1999, Hatfield et al., continue by stating, “honey bees potentially impact native bee species by removing available supplies of nectar and pollen,” essentially outcompeting native pollinators who are left without enough food to survive and reproduce.
How many hobby bee keepers are in the San Juan Islands? Are there enough to impact native populations of pollinators? Doubtful we could come up with an accurate number or assessment. It would be great to have a count and map of locations of honey bee hives in the islands. The Washington State Department of Agriculture does have a requirement for beekeepers to register their hives annually with the state (WSDA 2022). This isn’t set up to harass beekeepers, but to be able to contact you should there be an issue of concern, ranging from disease to threats from non-native species such as the Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia), a species the state is tracking to prevent further spread. If hobby beekeepers are adhering to state laws by registering their hives, scientists will be better at assessing the impact of honey bees on populations of native pollinator species, especially under the unknown parameters of a warming earth.
What are my recommendations? Well, I’ve shared why I quit keeping honey bees. We have a small orchard and keep a little vegetable garden where my husband helps me grow some strawberries, tomatoes, peas, salad greens, and a few other things. The past few seasons, because of my affinity for bug viewing over gardening, I planted some things near my garden plants that I knew would attract pollinators. For instance, I have Nepeta varieties of catmint near my tomatoes. Those purpley-blue flowers on the catmint attract all sorts of pollinators who also happen to visit my tomatoes, peas, strawberries, and more.
Judging from the diverse collection of bugs (and birds) in our garden/orchard area, I don’t believe we need any honey bees at all for pollination. I love watching the varied native bees, especially the fuzzy bumble bees that pollinate our tomato plants. Oh, one last thing! These native pollinators aren’t out to defend a colony like the social honey bees. This means they are WAY less likely to sting you. Oh, I’ve sustained a sting or two from an occasional bumble bee, but that was because they were hanging out on my blue yoga pants, and I accidentally squeezed them when I was squatting down to pull some weeds. Bugs love the colors blue, purple, and black. I learned my lesson. Now I wear blah, sand-colored clothes when I’m gardening.
Thanks for reading. I hope you will consider my points. This is not meant to be an indictment against honey bees or honey bee keepers, merely a perspective on the impacts we may have on our island ecosystem in keeping honey bees. The bumble bees, and other native pollinators will appreciate not being displaced. They’re worth saving, and thank you for recognizing their role in our food web.
Goulson, D. 2003. Effects of introduced bees on native ecosystems. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 34:1-26.
Hatfield, R.G., S. Jepsen, M. Vaughn, S. Black, E. Lee-Mäder. 2018. An Overview of the Potential Impacts of Honey Bees to Native Bees, Plant Communities, and Ecosystems in Wild Landscapes: Recommendations for Land Managers. 12pp. Portland, OR: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Mallinger, R.E. and Gratton, C., 2015. Species richness of wild bees, but not the use of managed honeybees, increases fruit set of a pollinator-dependent crop. J Appl Ecol. 52: 323-330. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12377
Yesterday I was the lifeguard. And, I had swimmers needing saving!
Here’s one of the species I used a piece of cardboard to rescue from drowning. This is a beetle in the family Histeridae, also known as a Clown Beetle. I told him no more clowning around without a life jacket. 🤣 Watch as it wrings its hindwings out, rolling them in under the leathery elytra (the outer wings).
I believe this beetle is in the genus Margarinotus. For ID beyond this, I’d need more time and a lot of patience. However, I can tell you I’ve learned some species of Hister beetles are associated with the nests of rodents, birds, and even ants and termites. They are pest predators, meaning they eat other insects at all life stages. They also are especially adept predators of fly eggs. You can often find them in leaf litter, dung, carrion, and under tree bark, or living in those ant mounds where they may be fed by ants, eat the leftovers the ants discard, or in some cases, they eat the ants!
Some other curious tidbits about these beetles include their acting ability. They play dead (Thanatosis) to deter predators. The word Hister is derived from Latin and means “Actor.”