Category Archives: Uncategorized

I’ll Have Some Salad Said the Spider! 

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.  

Spiderlings with Pollen Plates
Orb Weaver Spider on Web

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).  

Tree Pollen collected in ground vegetation

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!  

Orb Weaver Spiderlings on my garden chair

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.  

References

Eggs B, Sanders D (2013) Herbivory in Spiders: The Importance of Pollen for Orb-Weavers. PLoS ONE 8(11): e82637. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0082637 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0082637

Nyffeler, M., Olson, E. J., & Symondson, W. O. C. (2016). Plant-eating by spiders. The Journal of Arachnology44(1), 15–27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24717357 https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjp9dWF97n3AhXQLTQIHTh1CF0QFnoECBsQAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.jstor.org%2Fstable%2F24717357&usg=AOvVaw0mZYSQxF6kMinvaqvgB4UT

Smith RB, Mommsen TP. Pollen feeding in an orb-weaving spider. Science. 1984 Dec 14;226(4680):1330-2. doi: 10.1126/science.226.4680.1330. PMID: 17832631. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.226.4680.1330

Save the Bees! Which Bees? 🐝🐝🐝

My former bee keeping days!

To Bee or Not to Bee

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.  

Varroa mite on European honey bee (Apis mellifera) – photo by Cynthia Brast-Bormann

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.

Honey bee killing bumble bee – photo by Cynthia Brast-Bormann

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. 

p.s.  If you aren’t a beekeeper, but you’re interested in helping native pollinators on the island, establishing gardens with diverse species of native plants will help ensure they have a bounty of healthy and nourishing food sources available.  You can check out Washington Native Plant Society at https://www.wnps.org , WSU’s Master Gardener Foundation of San Juan County at https://www.mgfsjc.org , or the Xerces Society – https://xerces.org/publications/plant-lists/pollinator-plants-maritime-northwest-region for native species lists.  

References:

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.  

MacInnis, G, Forrest, JRK. 2019.  Pollination by wild bees yields larger strawberries than pollination by honey bees. J Appl Ecol. 56: 824– 832. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13344

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

McGivney, A. 2020.  ‘Like sending bees to war’: the deadly truth behind your almond milk obsession. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe 

Statistica – https://www.statista.com/statistics/191993/value-of-honey-production-in-the-us/

Washington State Department of Agriculture https://agr.wa.gov/services/licenses-permits-and-certificates/summary-descriptions/apiary-registration

Bugs Like the Color Blue

Bugs like Blue. I found a bunch of these little ones yesterday floating on the surface of our above ground pool. They were also all along the outside of the pool (which is blue). I scooped out all the ones that were struggling in the water and watched as this one dried itself off. It reminded me of watching my cats grooming after finishing a meal of Fancy Feast wet cat food.

Listrus Flower Beetle on Side of Pool – April 7, 2022 – San Juan Island, WA

A Soft-Winged Flower Beetle, these are in the family Melyridae (Genus Listrus). At only about 2 mm in size, they were indeed pretty tiny. Listrus beetles feed on both pollen and nectar. They are covered with dense setae (little hairs) that pollen easily adheres to. Check out the paper reference below and learn how they have been recognized as one of the most important pollinators of plants in Western North America.

Listrus sp. flower beetle

Reference: Jonathan R. Mawdsley. (2003). The Importance of Species of Dasytinae (Coleoptera: Melyridae) as Pollinators in Western North America. The Coleopterists Bulletin, 57(2), 154–160 pdf link at Bioone.org *Note* It will directly download the pdf when you click the link. https://bioone.org/journals/the-coleopterists-bulletin/volume-57/issue-2/541/The-Importance-of-Species-of-Dasytinae-Coleoptera–Melyridae-as/10.1649/541.pdf?casa_token=luFq1Z9jff4AAAAA:3-9zCg42504MZ0w5J1bfFu28XAWIA91G8bbrmDfDckmhTGAI6FTAjgcgBQVqCv847ogua3mL

Porch Light Bug Viewing – Who’s Watching Whom?

Some of you might cringe at the idea of standing below a porch light while an eclipse of moths (yep, that’s what a group of moths are called) are whirling and gyrating around your head. I find it fascinating, even as they hit at my face or hair, before bouncing back towards the light or disappearing off in the dark night.

Camera in hand, I wait for them to settle on the wood siding beneath the glow. Stealthily, I focus my lens to capture the delicate shimmer of scales and patterns, or eyes and antennae of my subject. Last night, I actually felt I was the one being observed.

This particular moth is in the genus Hypena. The species is Hypena decorata. It is a medium sized (15-18mm), somewhat drab moth. This species is sexually dimorphic – meaning the males look differently than the females. Males are slightly larger than females, with sooty brown forewings marked with two white spots near the apex or bottom edge of the wing.

Male Hypena decorata moth

Females of this species are more mottled in coloration, some with a purply hue. They also have a small patch of raised dark scales in the median area. More about distinguishing male and female specimens can be accessed here http://pnwmoths.biol.wwu.edu/browse/family-erebidae/subfamily-hypeninae/hypena/hypena-decorata/

On occasion, there can be an odd form, like this one I found in August of 2019 https://buggingyoufromsanjuanisland.com/2019/08/22/hypena-decorata/

Food/host plants for Hypena decorata are nettles  (Urtica spp.) in the Urticaceae. These moths range from BC to Southern California. There appears to be two broods per year (April and August). Adults come to lights and can be found flying from April to September.

While this may appear to be merely another drab, ordinary moth, I want to show you the photos I took of the male and the nearby female last night. I missed it when I first went through my photos, but the second time around, it definitely appeared that the male moth was turning his head to watch me. Sort of like how Drago, my dragon lizard will do the same thing.

It’s a mysterious world, and much more rich when we recognize we aren’t the only ones that are aware. Some humans (I’m ashamed of researchers for this) do horrible things like cut off moths antennae to try and figure out how they fly (or can’t fly after being mutilated in this way). If we could only recognize they have a desire to live, find mates, food, and shelter – just like humans, maybe we would care more.

References and Further Reading

Bradley H. Dickerson, Zane N. Aldworth, Thomas L. Daniel; Control of moth flight posture is mediated by wing mechanosensory feedback. J Exp Biol 1 July 2014; 217 (13): 2301–2308. doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.103770

Bugguide https://bugguide.net/node/view/511337

Bugging You From San Juan Island (Hypena decorata) https://buggingyoufromsanjuanisland.com/2019/08/22/hypena-decorata/

Pacific Northwest Moths (Hypena decorata) http://pnwmoths.biol.wwu.edu/browse/family-erebidae/subfamily-hypeninae/hypena/hypena-decorata/

Thompson, A. 2007. Mystery of Moth Flight Uncovered. LiveScience https://www.livescience.com/4338-mystery-moth-flight-uncovered.html

Author’s note – When it comes to experimenting on living beings, the aim of science shouldn’t always be to prove a hypothesis. Sometimes we need only to experience the extraordinary wonder of meeting the spirit within some of earth’s most unassuming characters. Be kind to those around you. Even the ones with scales and chitin.

Dolerus sp. Sawfly

I found another species of Sawfly in our above ground pool today. This one is entirely black. Size is approximately 7-8mm. This looks to be in the genus Dolerus. From what I’ve found about host plants, it looks like the larvae feed on most grasses and horsetail. Females deposit eggs into the plant tissue where they hatch and the larvae will feed for approximately one month before exiting and pupating overwinter in the surrounding soil. There is one generation (univoltine) per year and adults emerge in early spring. Adults are recorded as feeding on tree sap from Maple (Acer), Apple (Malus), and Pear (Pyrus). They also take nectar from Willow (Salix) flowers, and from Cherry and Plum (Prunus) flowers. This means they do provide some pollination activity.

Looks like WWU Biology Department is working on a web page for Sawfly identification, but it’s not up and running yet. You can find their link below and bookmark it to check out at a later date.

Dolerus sp. Sawfly
Dolerus sp. Sawfly – San Juan Island, WA 03.29.2022
Dolerus Sawfly – Specimen #2

References and Further Reading

Baine Q, Looney C (2019) Plant associations for three sawfly species (Hymenoptera, Tenthredinidae) in the Pacific Northwest. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 74: 27–33. https://doi.org/10.3897/jhr.74.46795

bugguide.net https://bugguide.net/node/view/13561

Looney C, Smith DR, Collman SJ, Langor DW, Peterson MA (2016) Sawflies (Hymenoptera, Symphyta) newly recorded from Washington State. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 49: 129–159. doi: 10.3897/JHR.49.7104

Sawfly GenUS https://idtools.org/id/sawfly/factsheet.php?name=17498

WWU Biology PNW Sawflies http://pnwsawflies.biol.wwu.edu/accounts/login/

Strawberry Muppets

Orthosia transparens – the Transparent Quaker Moth

I’d really love it if I could rename this moth. Strawberry muppet heart moth is what I’d call it. Check out the little heart-shaped markings on it’s wings.

Orthosia transparens – with heart mark on wing

Orthosia transparens is a medium sized (15-17mm) , brownish red Noctuid moth that flies in our region in early spring. The common name for the species is Transparent Quaker Moth.   Caterpillar food plants include salal (Gaultheria shallon), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), and rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum). This species is native to the PNW region and not considered pests of economic significance. A map of the geographic distribution can be accessed here – http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/species.php?hodges=10479

Noctuidae is the family with the awful common name, “cutworm,” which leads folks to deem them evil little garden gremlins that should be stomped on or tossed out on the ground for birds to scavenge. Not all cutworms are bad, and certainly many more of us would embrace them if we knew they were going to turn out to be so cute.

I’m fine with a bit of herbivory on our salal, madrone, and rhododendrons. These little Strawberry Muppets are welcome to fly to my porch light any spring night.

Check out the gallery below for more photos and if you’re interested in reading more about this moth, check out my friend, Dan’s nice write up on his blog here – http://10000thingsofthepnw.com/2022/02/03/orthosia-transparens-transparent-quaker-moth/

Thanks for reading!

Is He Stuck or Just Sleeping?

I found this tiny bee who looked to be stuck to a thorn on my Bois D’Arc tree this afternoon. At first glance, I thought perhaps a March fly, and a dead one at that, but it turned out this is a most likely a “he” Nomad bee, and he wasn’t stuck at all, but just sleeping.

Nomad Bee – Stuck or Just Sleeping (March 26, 2022)

I learned something new today about bees that I did not know. My friend, Eric Eaton’s wife (link to Eric’s book about wasps in my Read More section) , shared with me that some bees will often sleep in this manner, attached to a substrate like this thorn or a twig, by their mandibles. Thanks Heidi! 🙂

Nomad Bee – Stuck or Just Sleeping (March 26, 2022)

Nomad Bee – Stuck or Just Sleeping (March 26, 2022)
Nomad Bee (March 26, 2022)

My bee was definitely gripping the end of the thorn with its mandibles. Before I found out my bee was only napping, I wasn’t certain what was going on. I worried maybe the bee had fallen victim to some weird fungus and was now locked in a death vise. Worries unfounded! The little bee released his grip as I was about to clip the end of the twig (with bee attached) and take it into the house to view under the microscope.

Nomad bees are pretty cool. They are cuckoo bees, cleptoparasites of other bees (usually Andrena bees or Melitta bees) and target the nest provisions gathered by the host bees for their own young. Nomad bees will find the nests of host bees using olfactory and visual cues. The fertilized female will lay her eggs in these nests, where her offspring will develop after devouring the offspring of the host bee, and eating the food the host parent had provisioned.

Nomad Bee (March 26, 2022)

Check out the video footage of this little bee as he woke up this afternoon and read more about Nomad bees in the attached links in my Read More section.

Read More About Nomad Bees Here

  1. Bugguide.net – Nomada https://bugguide.net/node/view/5211
  2. Alexander, B. A. 1994. Species-groups and cladistic analysis of the cleptoparasitic bee genus Nomada (Hymenoptera: Apoidea). University of Kansas Science Bulletin 55: 175-238. (Full Text)
  3. Eaton, Eric. 2021. Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect. Princeton University Press. https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691211428/wasps
  4. Rankin, C. 2021. Introducing the Nomad Bees. Natural History Society of Northumbria. https://www.nhsn.org.uk/nomad-bees/

Thanks for reading!

Cynthia Brast is an independent entomologist living on San Juan Island. Check out her YouTube Channel, Bugging You From San Juan Island to see more amazing 6 and 8-legged creatures found in the San Juans. https://www.youtube.com/user/buggingyoufromsji/featured

A Little Weevil House

Key Words: masting, Curculio, Quercus, mast seeding, acorn weevil, diapause

I picked up these acorns (Quercus sp.) when I visited my folks recently in Texas. They have several oak trees on their property and there was an abundance of acorns all over the ground this year, so I brought a few home with me in a ziplock bag. I like acorns. My mom used to draw little faces on them and I had acorn “people” to play with when I was a child.

Acorn “person”

I also found a very cool bug under one of those oak trees while I was there. This strange looking creature is one of the Nut and Acorn Weevils (Curculio sp). It has an extremely long snout. When you find out how this weevil uses it to DRILL, you may be amazed. The adult female weevil will use this drill on her very long snout to make a hole in those acorns!

Nut and Acorn Weevil (Curculio sp).
Nut and Acorn Weevil (Curculio sp).
Nut and Acorn Weevil (Curculio sp).

Keep reading. It really is amazing.

A female weevil will make a hole in the acorn so she can put her eggs inside it!

Hole drilled by Nut and Acorn Weevil

Because I like word games, I thought I’d point out to you that rearranging the letters in the word weevil will make the words “we live?” Well, those eggs hatch into baby weevils who LIVE in a little house that is an acorn (and sometimes in other nuts too). Some folks call them grubs or worms. They are actually the larvae of the adult weevil mom who selected the acorn for her nursery.

If you are assessing this situation from an agricultural perspective (say that nut is a pecan), invested in harvesting a profitable crop, you might be feeling very worried. Sometimes the worry may indeed be justified, but in many cases, like with these acorns, the tree has evolved a strategy to deal with occasional waves of weevils and other insects we consider pests. In actuality, they are just utilizing the resources of the tree like we do when WE (the humans) eat the nut or fruit.

Larvae of Nut and Acorn Weevil (Curculio sp).

I’m going to name the trees’ strategy of dealing with this bug FEAR NO WEEVIL. However, the actual scientific moniker for this strategy (and it applies to other pests and adverse weather stressors as well) is MASTING. The word mast has been used since way back in the Middle Ages to refer to the acorns and seeds of forest trees that drop and accumulate on the ground. It comes from Old English, mæst. Essentially, masting is an ecological term referring to the highly variable and often synchronized periodic cycles of fruiting/seeding in the reproductive processes of trees (both forest and fruit trees).

How is it a strategy for circumventing the deleterious affects of pests? Well, the idea is that in some years, bumper crops of nuts and seeds are produced in order to satiate the predators, so some are left to germinate and continue new generations. In this particular case, you could think of it as the oak trees sacrificing some of their offspring to the weevil gods. When there are more acorns than there are adult female weevils, some of those acorns will escape the weevil drill and makeover into little bug nurseries.

In reality, this relationship is much more complicated. In some cases, acorns parasitized by only a few weevil larvae will germinate, while those acorns with many larvae will not. The trees’ bumper crops of seeds and nuts will also cycle with years of low production, where resources are scarce for the weevil (and other organisms). Nature is incredibly dynamic though. Studies show some species of weevils have adapted a counter mechanism to circumvent the trees’ strategy of masting. It’s called prolonged diapause. This means these weevils are able to sleep longer (more than one year) as they develop in order to synchronize adult emergence with years when the trees’ seed/nut production is high.

If you are interested in reading more about the history and MYSTERY of masting, I encourage you to delve into the literature I’ve listed in the references below. It’s quite fascinating – especially going back in history to the link between masting and pannage. Way more than I can cover here. Check it out.

References

Baldwin, M. 2021. Pigging out in the forest: the Common of Mast (Pannage) in Britain https://www.wildlifeonline.me.uk/blog/post/pigging-out-in-the-forest-the-common-of-mast-in-britain

Bugguide 2021. Curculio. https://bugguide.net/node/view/6682

Higaki M (2016) Prolonged diapause and seed predation by the acorn weevil, Curculio robustus, in relation to masting of the deciduous oak Quercus acutissima. Entomol Exp Appl 159:338–346. https://doi.org/10.1111/eea.12444

Jefferson, R. 2006. Why Are More Acorns Falling? Excessive Drops of Nuts from Oak Trees Is Part of Normal ‘Mast Year’ Phenomenon. Scientific Times. https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/33795/20211006/why-more-acorns-falling-excessive-drops-nuts-oak-trees-part.htm and https://youtu.be/EQ748TZcuqs

Jesse, L. No date. The dark side of collecting acorns. Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. https://www.extension.iastate.edu/news/2007/sep/072107.htm

Koenig WD. 2021 A brief history of masting research. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 376: 20200423. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0423 Koenig, W. D., & Knops, J. M. H. (2005). The Mystery of Masting in Trees: Some trees reproduce synchronously over large areas, with widespread ecological effects, but how and why? American Scientist93(4), 340–347. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27858609

Nut Leaf Weevil

I found a’nutter weevil! They’ve been everywhere this week! Looks like this may be the Nut Leaf Weevil (Strophosoma melanogrammum). These weevils feed on the leaves of broad leafed shrubs. I saw it on a chunk of rotting alder. It was pretty small and tough to photograph in low light. Probably about 3.2 mm in size. San Juan Island, WA October 13, 2021.

Strophosoma melanogrammum 

“Spider Bites Woman’s Lip”

The headline, Spider Bites Woman’s Lip popped out in my news feed yesterday. As an entomologist, these bizarre reports are click bait for me. I bit. As I read through the linked piece, my first thought was, “Yes!” Someone was definitely hallucinating!”

My other knee jerk conclusion is we have doctors who have absolutely no diagnostic skills whatsoever. In reconsidering, he may not be the one at fault though, or at least not entirely. In fact, it would be interesting to hear the physician’s side of this story. Did he definitively state it was a Brown Recluse Bite? Or, did he suggest it “might be?” Are the patient and the Newsweek reporter the ones guilty of the hyperbole here?

It’s got to be fantastic to be featured in Newsweek, right? Please note my sarcasm! The media is a huge problem when it comes to sensationalizing stories and egging on the screaming fear folks have around spiders. You’re welcome to take a look at this story yourself, but please come back because I’m gonna tell you what’s wrong with it!

https://www.newsweek.com/spider-bite-womans-lip-brown-recluse-hospitalized-hallucinate-virginia-kayaking-1636005

First off, there is NO spider. No one collected a spider. No one brought a spider to the doctor to ID. Even if there had been an actual spider, since when have physicians become expert taxonomists and actually have the skills to identify arachnids or insects. Strangely, the story reports the woman didn’t even think much about the bite when it happened. Her words. Not mine. I really wonder about this mystery “spider.”

Secondly, the bite occurred, I presume, when she was paddling her kayak through a waterway. Brown Recluse spiders don’t make webs in the air, and certainly not over the water like that. Of course, I suppose it is possible for a spider to have been in the kayak, crawled up her legs and torso, and then crawled all the way up to her face where it bit her on the lip. You’d think she would have seen it. Also, Brown Recluse spiders like to live with other Brown Recluse spiders, so it’s difficult to imagine not finding a spider somewhere in the kayak to bring to the doctor.

Third. Lots of things can cause spider bite-looking lesions. I’m surprised the doctor declared it a Brown Recluse bite. There is no test to diagnose that someone has been bitten by a Brown Recluse. Again, no spider was brought in, so why was this deemed a spider bite when it could have been numerous other things? For instance, UC Riverside’s Department of Entomology webpage about Brown Recluse Spiders states,

The following can cause lesions similar to the lesion from a bite of a Brown Recluse spider …mites, bedbugs, a secondary Staphylococcus or Streptococcus bacterial infection and “Three different tick-inflicted maladies have been misdiagnosed as brown recluse bite: Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and the bite of the soft tick, Ornithodoros coriaceus. “

If you want to read more about this, you can check it out here – https://spiders.ucr.edu For a complete list of look-a-like medical conditions, I’ll refer you to this chart https://spiders.ucr.edu/causes-necrotic-wounds-other-brs-bites And, I’ll add my own too, “Various species of bees, wasps, and even thrips can cause lesions that appear to be the feared spider bite.” https://buggingyoufromsanjuanisland.com/category/thrips/

What about her hallucinations? My first thought was she has had an outbreak of a herpes lesion and could have developed herpes simplex encephalitis. Please DO look this up! I did. It’s one of the side effects of getting a nasty cold sore. https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/encephalitis-herpes-simplex/

Now, I’m not a doctor. I didn’t take this woman’s medical history. I’m just pointing out some OTHER possibilities. Possibilities that are actually much more likely than the sensationalized over-reaching claim it was a Brown Recluse spider. Hmmmm… Hysteria and hyperbole. I hope she recovers, and I hope she will be able to kayak again soon. I just wish there was a way to stop the inevitable slaughter of innocent spiders that will ensue. It’s a shame.

***Note*** We do NOT have Brown Recluse Spiders in the San Juan Islands. Please take a look at the attached distribution map and show it to anyone who tries to convince you otherwise. https://spiders.ucr.edu/spiders-map

Thanks for reading!

References:

A complete list of publications about the Brown Recluse Spider (Loxosceles reclusa) can be found here: https://spiders.ucr.edu/publications

https://www.amazon.com/Brown-Recluse-Spider-Richard-Vetter/dp/0801479851

https://bugguide.net/node/view/3349

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