On finding a black swan

Today’s post is a short adventure in photo identification.

Earlier this week, I had the chance to survey about sixty acres of orchard in the Wenatchee Valley for native bees.  (I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the valley slopes, but this was my first substantial survey on the valley floor.)  I haven’t really processed all that I learned: I’ll probably write a longer post when I do.

The short version is that I didn’t find anything.  If the orchardist didn’t have rented honeybees (which he did), there would be no crop at all this year.  That was not what I expected, and so I was motivated to photograph anything that looked even slightly out of the ordinary.

One of the things that caught my eye was a layer of dead bees surrounding an irrigation drip.  I don’t know what killed them: there were half a dozen similar drips, all of which were clearly attractive to the bees, but only the one was dangerous.  I noted it, recorded it so I could refer it to the orchardist for further investigation, and moved on.

Early Miners, part 2

This week we return to the local mining bees.  After I wrote about the ones living in my alley, Evan Sugden told me about a similar aggregation right off the Burke-Gilman Trail, just west of UW campus.  That was interesting, so I went to check it out before the Friday afternoon showing of More than Honey (which is an excellent film, by the way.)

By the time I got there, things were settling down for the day, and there were only a few bees flying.  Even so, I was able to catch a nice bit of drama: a cuckoo bee (that is, a kleptoparasite, probably Nomada spp.) picked the wrong nest to raid, and was rudely evicted by its resident female.  The light was starting to fade, but I was still able to get a decent shot:

How to Spot a Western Bumblebee

It’s time for a quick public service announcement.

I am completely thrilled that the Western Bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis) has provoked so much interest over the past few months.  I intend to spend the next few months collecting data on as many local populations as possible, so I strongly encourage anyone and everyone to report any workers, and especially any nests, that you see.  The more populations we learn about, the better our chances are of understanding their decline and (I hope) their recovery.

That said, it’s easier to report a sighting of B. occidentalis if you can tell it apart from other bees, so here you go:

How to tell Western Bumblebees apart from Anything Else*

(*) On the West Coast, between San Diego and Vancouver Island

Little Carpenter Bee

This week’s subject is a LBB (Little Black Bee, with apologies to any birders in the audience.)

Once you get used to the idea that not all bees look like honeybees, you will start to see a lot of little black bees.  The next thing you will learn is that they are maddeningly difficult to tell apart.  There are no field guides.  Most of the identification keys presume that you have access to a dead bee and a binocular microscope, and they frequently end with dissected genitalia.  (No joke.)  

I do not own a binocular microscope.  I have no plans to buy one.  (Disclosure: I do have access to a few at the UW, but I rarely use them.)  I spend a lot of time thinking about how to ID bees with a camera and a hand lens, and I have reached the conclusion that there are groups of LBBs that simply cannot be identified to species.

Right now, I’ll settle for ID to genus.

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