The Midday Sunflower Long-Horned Bee Huddle

July 16, 2015

The life of the bee as we often think of it is one of constant motion: buzzing, dancing, collecting, feeding, searching, and digging is all in a days work for the “busy bee.”  What many may not realize is that this perception of the bee is mainly from our frequent encounters with the females of the species which must not only feed themselves but also take care of their young.  Honeybees, which are highly unusual in their behavior compared to most bees, have workers that are specialized in gathering pollen and communicating its location through dance, building and cleaning the waxy hive, and taking care of their larval sisters. The vast majority of bee species, unlike the honeybee, are solitary: One female alone must take care of her young; there is no queen or workers to do all the grunt work.


Long-horned bee, photo by Kelsey Bailey

What is the male’s role in all of this? Unlike the females, which spring into action after they emerge from the pupal stage, male bees tend to loiter around the nesting sites or find a patch of flowers where the females are gathering in hopes of attracting a mate, the bee equivalent of scoping out the scene at the club. We observed a cluster of hopeful bee bachelors in a sleeping aggregation along the edges of the common sunflowers in the Nature Gardens. These ground-nesting, solitary bees are in the genus Melissodes, commonly called Long-Horned bees, which feed on sunflowers, daisies and asters.  The males of the species have noticeably longer antennae than the females. Additionally, the female’s hind legs are more conspicuous than the males, having specialized clusters of "hair" for gathering pollen, resulting in what looks like a fabulous pair of bright yellow leg warmers.  All tuckered out from the morning's activities, we were too late in the day to observe any male bees passionately pounce on any of the females who visited the sunflowers for a quick drink, but we did enjoy watching them “nap around the rosie” like hairy ornaments accenting the radiating petals.

Male Mellisodes bees on a sunflower in the Nature Gardens, photo by Carol Bornstein.

(Posted by: Lisa Gonzalez)


Purple Pollen Eaters: A Honey bee's Love Affair with Phacelia

April 1, 2015

Spring is here and everyone is totally digging the wildflower display in our Nature Gardens. Casey Schreiner from Modern Hiker even gave us a shoutout on Instagram

It's a good day for #wildflowers at the @nhmla!

The two flowers vying for your attention in this photo are, according to Carol Bornstein Nature Gardens Director and native plant guru, "the white-tipped yellow blossoms of tidy tips, Layia platyglossa, and tansy leaf phacelia, Phacelia tanacetifolia." Carol goes on to explain, "the nectar-rich, sweetly scented purple flowers of this taller annual are attracting droves of bees."  Boy is this true.

Earlier this week, Museum Gallery Interpretper, Ashley Hall, witnessed this first hand. Ashely’s seen bees in the garden hundreds of times, pointed them out to visitors, and taken lots of pictures of them. But this week something was different. Ashley noticed that the bees visiting the phacelia flowers had purple pollen baskets, or as the entomologists like to call them, corbiculae. 

We all know that hungry bees visit flowers for that tasty nectar treat that will fuel their active lifestyles. Some of this nectar will be taken back to the hive to be turned into honey, so they can eat it in the leaner winter months. But to supplement their carbo-laden diet, bees also collect pollen to add a protein punch. As bees are going from flower to flower they are also inadvertently transferring pollen—“picking up” pollen grains from the male flower parts (anthers), and then “dropping them off” on the female bits (stigmas). Thanks to this act of pollination, seeds will eventually form, ripen, and fall to the ground. In our dry California climate, wildflower seeds will wait all summer long, until the rainy season comes again in the fall (keep your fingers crossed with me). This sweet, long awaited rain will stimulate germination and ensure another crop of tansy leaf phacelia in our garden.


But why is phacelia pollen purple? When we think of pollen, most people think of a bright yellow powder. But in fact, pollen comes in a whole painters’ palette—from white to orange, and green to brown and red, even bright blue, fuschia, and purple! In traditional yellow pollen, the color is mostly derived from flavonoids, chemicals found in abundance in citrus. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of research on what makes pollen purple, but my guess is another colorful compound, anthocyanin which is present in blueberries and raspberries. Boy do I wish I had paid closer in Chemistry classes. Regardless of the ultimate chemical cause of the color, we’re sure glad Ashley took a moment to look closely at the bees buzzing around the gardens. Just imagine what you’ll find next time you put your nature eyes on in LA!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Blooming Agaves

February 11, 2012

More plant news from the North Campus. Recently some of our blue lotus agaves, Agave ceslii 'Nova', have begun to bloom. This is an impressive sight as these plants send forth long spikes, (between four and six feet long), that look a lot like giant asparagus stalks. This type of agave is monocarpic, meaning that it only flowers once, and this particular selection happens to flower at a relatively young age compared to other species. Incidentally, the genus is commonly called century plant because it can take decades for them to flower. The entire stand of this agave (approximately eight plants) is flowering at the same time, because they were all propagated from the same tissue culture, which is a common nursery practice for certain landscape plants. Although flowering signals the end of the plant's lifespan, we can expect to enjoy the flowers and fruits for the next several months!

Agaves reaching up to the floss silk treeThere are over 300 species of agave in the world, with 100 species native to North America. This large array of species includes well known agaves such as the tequila or blue agave, Agave tequilana, and the sisal or hemp agave, A. sisalana. Other species are also farmed to produce agave nectar, which is sweeter than sugar and honey. The blue lotus agaves we have planted are native to Mexico and are becoming more common in the nursery trade. As with all agaves, the flower stalks possess literally hundreds if not thousands of individual blossoms, which are visited by many kinds of pollinators. The flowers will be a pale yellow color and will hopefully attract the numerous Anna's and Allen's hummingbirds that are already resident in Exposition Park. Unlike other agave species, the ones planted on the North Campus will not attract mammalian nocturnal pollinators, aka bats, which is a shame since we will be very soon putting up a bat box (more on that to come later)!

Four stately stalks!Stop by the North Campus and check them out today! They are close to the Dueling Dinos on the North side of the Car Pak along Exposition Boulevard.

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)