Saturday, July 2, 2016

Of Bees and Bugloss

The golden glow of a recent early morning sunrise illuminates the stark barrens of Oakes Quarry Preserve in northeastern Greene County, Ohio. This site is the northernmost holding of the conservation tour de force known as the Beaver Creek Wetlands Association.

I've had opportunity to make brief visits to the site three times this summer, all for different objectives. The quarry was originally opened in the 1920's, and covers about 190 acres. In making lemonade from limestone, Nature has populated the aged quarry with lots of interesting things, not the least of which are birds. While the habitat above may look non-diverse, its surprising how many birds occupy the site. Prairie Warbler, Green Heron, Spotted Sandpiper, Field Sparrow, Belted Kingfisher, Killdeer, Eastern Towhee, and of course the quarry's most famous residents, Lark Sparrows.

As I explored the quarry's open floor, the plant life naturally caught my eye. There are some tough natives colonizing the sun-drenched arids, such as these Black-eyed Susans, Rudbeckia hirta. But what was of most interest to me were some unusual "weeds".

The strange little Bracted Plantain, Plantago aristata, grows in profusion in the rocky barrens. This is a TOUGH little plant. A native of the western U.S. and adjacent Canada, it is indigenous as far east as Illinois. In modern times, abetted by large-scale disturbance, it has spread eastward throughout Ohio and beyond.

I don't see Bracted Plantain very often, but it is easy to overlook. Plants often stand only a few inches tall, and it often grows in xeric waste zones, such as gravelly road verges, that few of us frequent. Upon close inspection, the plant does have its charms, and I took the opportunity to add it to my photographic bucket list.

Far more conspicuous than the Bracted Plantain was this can't-miss weed, the Viper's Bugloss, Echium vulgare. This is another one that I seldom see, perhaps again because I do not frequent railroad ballast and other very dry highly unnatural sites favored by this species.

Viper's Bugloss is indigenous to Eurasia, and is sometimes also known by the colorful names of Blue Devil or Blueweed. The "viper" part of the typically used name comes from the shape of the bony nutlets (fruit), which are said to resemble a serpent's head.

The curious word "bugloss" comes from old Greek and means "ox-tongued". It probably alludes to the long pinkish stamens that are conspicuously exert from the flower corolla.

As I rarely see this weed, I took full opportunity to create images of the ultra-showy flowers on my last trip to Oakes Quarry. The onset of a brief summer rainstorm wetted the plants, creating an even showier look.

I've long been fascinated with "weeds". While the definition of weed is not hard and fast, it might be summed as "a weed is in the eye of the beholder". To me, the definition should be a bit more exacting than that. A weed is a plant originally not native to the area in which it now occurs (using European settlement as the benchmark for this part of the world).

Weeds can be placed in two broad categories: the innocuous curiosities, and the invasive scourges. Kudzu, bush honeysuckles, Purple Loosestrife, and Garlic Mustard clearly fit the latter category. But the vast majority of weeds are not particularly invasive, don't overrun native plant communities, and often only flourish in heavily altered habitats, such as this quarry. The Viper's Bugloss is a good example of an innocuous curiosity, at least insofar as I am aware.

It didn't take long to realize that, nonnative weed or not, the native bumblebees were smitten with the bugloss flowers. Here, a bumblebee sleeps off yesterday's nectar binge next to some flowers. Efficient pollinators in the extreme, bumblebees typically sleep on or next to the flowers that they hunt for nectar. Once the morning sun warms them enough, they shake awake and immediately plunge back into the nectar troughs.

NOTE: "Bumblebee" is often written as two separate words: "Bumble bee". However, given the widespread awareness of these insects and the frequent usage of the name in either aforementioned form, I think it is better to adopt the compound word "bumblebee." These valuable insects warrant their own compound name, and such treatment keeps with a growing trend towards commonsense adoption of compound words.

A bumblebee is caught in action, dropping onto a bugloss flower. This particular image involved some luck, some skill, and some knowledge of bumblebee behavior. When a bumblebee arrives at a plant, it will generally begin systematically working its way around the plant's flowers. Thus, the observer can predict fairly well where its next floriferous destination will be, and be ready with the camera.

For this image, I had the camera prefocused - but handheld - on the bugloss flower. When the bumblebee came near, I tripped the shutter. A bit of luck, though, and most such shots would be throwaways. I used the remarkably high resolution Canon 5DS-R with the Canon 100mm L macro lens and twin lite flash units. Settings were f/11, 1/200 of a second (camera's sync speed), and ISO 100.

A bumblebee stuffs its head deep within the corolla of a bugloss flower. Gluttonous nectar-seekers, bumblebees rank high among our most valuable pollinators. While this crop of bumbles was smitten with the alien bugloss flowers, they are supremely important to the pollination of our native flora.

While I think the bumblebees in these photos may be Two-spotted Bumblebees, Bombus bimaculatus, I am by no means certain and would appreciate a definitive identification by someone who knows better. There are at least 18 species of bumblebees in the genus Bombus recorded from Ohio, and I find most of them maddeningly similar.

If you would like to learn more about bumblebees, and try to identify those that you see, there is a free publication, the Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States. It contains a wealth of information about these interesting and valuable insects, and can be had for free RIGHT HERE.


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4 comments:

Sue said...

Thanks for the link on bumblebees. I so love and appreciate their efforts.
A few years back, my "bee guy" was late bringing his hives. I was worried about my blueberries, but not to worry. I was delighted to see half a dozen of those fat bumbles tirelessly working my berry bushes. They did a great job!

And on the subject of tough plants, when I was in Wyoming last year, hubby and I took BACK roads and the wildflowers were spectacular (early June). I couldn't believe the rocky, cracked, dry, inhospitable places some of them were growing. Some were the size of nickles, but gorgeous beyond belief. It's amazing what you can see in places you'd never suspect. I wished at that point I had your skills with a camera.

Sorry about the novel. I guess this post hit on a couple of notes. Sorry.

Lisa Greenbow said...

I love your picture of the levitating bumblebee.

Auralee said...

I am reading Bernd Heinrich's book "The Homing Instinct," which features many fascinating discussions of honeybee behavior. Now I need to read more about bees. Thanks for another wonderful post.

Jim McCormac said...

Thank you all very much for your comments!