Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Flight of the (tricolored) bumblebee

A typical beach scene at Wilderness State Park at the extreme northwestern tip of Michigan's lower peninsula. The mighty Mackinac Bridge, which crosses over the Straits of Mackinac into the upper peninsula, can be seen from this spot.

Beach-walking here is always interesting, especially for a natural philosopher such as myself. One is serenaded by various boreal warblers and other songbirds from the adjacent coniferous woodlands. Scads of mergansers, cormorants, terns, gulls and other waterfowl gad about offshore. If one is really lucky, a Piping Plover might be spotted - they nest locally.

For those with a botanical bent, it can be difficult to keep one's eyes to the sky, what with all of the interesting flora. The rocky beach was liberally strewn with the magenta blossoms of bird's-eye primrose, Primula mistassinica. Nearby mossy hummocks, partially shaded by arbor-vitae, harbor the diminutive calypso orchid, Calypso bulbosa. The latter was a major target for me, but alas, the late spring conspired to delay its blooming and I'd probably want to be heading back north this weekend to see it (which won't be happening).

But what would you know - in spite of all the avian and botanical distractions, it was a bee that caught my eye. Not long after venturing onto the beach, an utterly stunning bumblebee shot by, and the chase was on.

I'll have you know that I invested a good hour of my life to make these images, and that nearly all of the dozens of images that I made were no good. It was a windy day, and the dwarf willows upon which the bees were feeding blew about like rice paper in a hurricane. To obtain any semblance of a decent shot, I set my camera to shutter priority at 1/1600, and had to use one hand to hold the willow sprig steady.

Anyway, the little beauties are tricolored bees, Bombus ternarius, sometimes known by the (better) common name of orange-belted bumblebee. This is a bee of northern climes, ranging throughout much of Canada and south into the northern states. I had never seen one in the flesh, but knew it instantly because of its distinctiveness. In photos, the bee looked to be an entomological wonder, and I was not disappointed in the least upon finally making its acquaintance.

The tricolored bumblebee looks good from any angle, especially from the back. That fuzzy orange belt should give anyone pleasant pause, and I don't consider a single second of my apian adventure wasted time.

Insofar as I know, this bumblebee doesn't occur in Ohio, at least with regularity, but I will gladly accept correction on this point. At least I've never seen one, and I tend to give winged pollinators more than a casual glance. I can report that these tricolored bumblebees were the most difficult bumblebees to photograph of any species that I've encountered. Once spooked, which was easy to do, they would roar off, make a few circles, and shoot quickly out of sight. Chasing one was impossible, but fortunately a fair number of these animals were present and it only required inspecting a few flowering willows to turn up another.

Bumblebees are nearly perfection when it comes to cross-pollination.Note the pollen adhering to this specimen as it works over the flowers of this willow. Also note the tiny orangish spot in its yellow "fur", just above where the wing meets body. I believe that is a mite, and if you scroll up and look at the first bee photo, you'll see a few others near that bee's eye. Mites are ubiquitous on all manner of flying insects, but it takes a fairly heavy duty macro lens to pull them in.



Sue said...

I chuckled at the Latin name-Bombus. Somehow, that just "fits"

Anonymous said...

I've never seen a bee like this in that area, even with all the time I've spent up there. Thanks for the education Jim! Larry

Nichole said...

Are you familiar with http://www.bumblebeewatch.org/ ?

They are seeking photos and records of sightings of all bumble bee species. They'd appreciate some of these beautiful photos!