Butterflies and Bees: out takes

Pollination is serious business--get in line, busy bee!
You find some funny things when you start reviewing your photo files looking for images to delete (file sizes are big these days!). So the other day I posted a photo sequence of a Lasioglossum bee [UPDATE: chalcid wasp] lying in wait inside a flower to surprise a Cassius Blue butterfly in the act of taking a drink. In case you missed it, here's one of the images: Yup. But I'm not sure I want it now! Another image I took that day was one that I hadn't even considered posting. It was a typical throw-away image of a Martial Scrub-Hairstreak nectaring so deep behind a flower cluster that you couldn't even see its head. It was both underexposed and (at first glance) uninteresting. Here's a crop of the main subject, with a bit of Photoshop processing to try to bring out some detail in the badly exposed image (shooting darkish wings against a brightly sunlit white wall isn't easy):
Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon martialis), head-deep in the weeds.

Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon martialis), head-deep in the weeds.

Normally I discard these underexposed images without even a second thought, but for some reason right before I hit "delete" my eye was drawn to the left of the image. I decided right away to save this one despite its rather poor technical quality because it was such an interesting and serendipitous capture of insect behavior: Pollination is serious business--get in line, busy bee!There's another (maybe even the same one as in my previous post!) bee waiting in line for this flower! Here's the full size detail of the bee; just enough to see that it is indeed a bee, and most likely in the genus Lasioglossum[UPDATE:wasp in the family Chalcidoidae]. Lasioglossum_20150903 If I'd been trying, I'd probably have had to spend hours and hours, and I still might not have been able to get even this nice an image of this tiny bee in flight. I'm amazed by the people who can take good images of flying bees insects.  

Butterfly Sage: bees love it, too!

Hmm...Let's see whether there's any nectar in this here Cordia globosa flower.
Birds love it. Bees love it. Maybe even educated fleas love it. But butterflies probably love it the most. What is it? Why, butterfly sage, of course. I've written before about the merits of this plant variously known as butterfly sage, blood berry, bonbon rond, guérit-tout, gout tea, Curaçao bush, and more. All these names, and many more, according to Dan Austin, refer to this Florida-native shrub with the shaggy leaves, white flower heads, and red fruits, Cordia globosa. Mockingbirds are so partial to the abundant red berries and its densely branching habit that pairs will stake them out as nesting places and defend them against all comers. (The berries aren't particularly ornamental, though, because they're so small.)
Cordia globosa. Boca Raton, FL, September 6, 2015.

Cordia globosa. Boca Raton, FL, September 6, 2015.

Honeybees are on the flowers from dawn till dusk. And even though it's not a larval host plant for any butterfly that I know of, it's one of the best butterfly nectar plants around, particularly for the smaller butterflies like the Fiery Skipper and the smaller blues and hairstreaks. In my yard, the following species have been seen on it (hit the links to recent photos for some species; the other species listed are ones for which I'm confident that I had photos before the hard-drive crash of Thanksgiving 2014):
  • Atala Blue (Eumaeus atala)
  • Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa)
  • Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (S. martialis)
  • Cassius Blue (Leptotes cassius)
  • Ceraunus Blue (Hemiargus ceraunus)
  • Horace's Duskywing (Erynnis horatius)
  • Fiery Skipper (Hylephila philaeus)
  • Monk Skipper (Asbolis capucinus)
  • Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
  • Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia)
  • Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
  • Queen (Danaus gallipus)
  • Great Southern White (Ascia monuste)
In addition to the ones listed above, I'm fairly certain that several other butterflies who frequent the yard also enjoy it, to wit:
  • Little Yellow (Pyrisitia lisa)
  • Barred Yellow (Eurema daira)
  • Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole)
  • Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)
Heck, even dragonflies love it:
Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Boca Raton, FL, March 19, 2015.

Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Boca Raton, FL, March 19, 2015.

One of the reasons it's such a good butterfly (and bird) plant is that the leaves and branches are stiff enough to support the weight of larger butterflies, but its flower clusters (inflorescences, to be technical) are shallow enough to allow short-tongued species to reach in:
Cassius Blue butterfly with a face full of Cordia globosa flower. Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

Cassius Blue butterfly with a face full of Cordia globosa flower. Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

In fact, the flowers are so small and so inviting that they also attract the tiny halictid bees in the genus Lasioglossum chalcid wasps in the family Chalcidae, which seem to enjoy crawling around inside small flowers like Richardia, Lantana, and Cordia. Of course, when butterfly meets wasp, there's sometimes a bit of a standoff. And that's what I found just the other day in the photo sequence below. In this first shot, the butterfly (a Cassius Blue) has just landed on the flower head and hasn't yet probed it. The wasp appears to be playing a game of hide and seek, or perhaps peekaboo:
Hmm...Let's see whether there's any nectar in this here Cordia globes flower.

Butterfly: Hmm... Let's see whether there's any nectar in this here flower. Wasp: Hmm... Let's see whether I can scare the nectar out of that butterfly!

Yup. But I'm not sure I want it now!

Butterfly: Better unfurl that proboscis and find out! Wasp: Better not!

Better unfurl that proboscis and find out!

Butterfly: Yipe! You can keep your nectar! There's plenty of other flowers on this bush! Wasp: You're darn tootin'!

The first shot was taken about two seconds before the second and third ones, which were taken at "the same time" according to my camera's info. If you look closely at the sequence of photos, you can see the butterfly backing away between the second and third shot after almost getting a proboscis full of wasp! I didn't get close enough to verify through the lens, but I'm pretty sure the wasp has a self-satisfied smirk on its face. And, in case you were wondering about the Cole Porter reference that started this post, here's a picture of a pair of Cassius Blues enjoying the convenience of the butterfly sage plant in one of the most fundamental of ways:
Cassius Blue pair enjoying the butterfly sage. Boca Raton, FL, August 30, 2015.

Cassius Blue pair enjoying the butterfly sage. Boca Raton, FL, August 30, 2015.

References Austin, D. 2006. Florida Ethnobotany. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis. Osorio, R. 2001. A Gardener's Guide to Florida's Native Plants. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Dragonflies gone missing?

Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina). Boca Raton, FL, September 5, 2015.
I haven't seen nearly as many dragonflies in the back yard this summer as I have in years past; I'm not sure why. But it seems that nowadays I have to travel if I'm to see anything like the diversity or abundance of species I'd enjoyed in my back yard for the four years we've been in the new place. So the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend I went to Yamato Scrub, camera in hand, hoping to score an odonate fix. I managed to find quite a few, as well as some lovely little butterflies. As usual, I saw many more than the few who cooperated for the camera. Here are two, one each from the dragonfly and damselfly groups. First, the lovely red dragonfly Tramea onusta, called the Red Saddlebags (there is a Carolina Saddlebags as well; almost indistinguishable except that the black spots on the tail in Red are only on top, whereas in Carolina, the black goes all the way down the sides):
Carolina Saddlebags (<em>Tramea carolina</em>). Boca Raton, FL, September 5, 2015.

Red Saddlebags (Tramea onusta). Boca Raton, FL, September 5, 2015.

And here's a damselfly. This one's a bluet, I suspect Atlantic (Enallagma doubledayi), but I can't rule out Familiar (E. civile) without having the specimen in hand and an argument with specialists:
Bluet damselfly, probably Atlantic (<em>Enallagma</em> sp.). Boca Raton, FL September 5, 2015.

Bluet damselfly, probably Atlantic (Enallagma sp.). Boca Raton, FL September 5, 2015.

I think the broad bar of blue connecting the "eyespots" (called postocular spots by specialists) on the back of the head argues strongly in favor of Atlantic over Familiar, but it's by no means conclusive. Here's the bit I'm talking about:
<em>Enallagma</em> eyespots with broad blue bar connecting them.

Enallagma postocular eyespots with broad blue bar connecting them.

According to Paulson, who wrote the book on these bad boys, "postocular spots larger in Familiar and without occipital bar, but overlap." Bonus picture: Ceraunus blue butterfly, Hemiargus ceraunus:
Ceraunus blue (<em>Hemiargus ceraunus</em>). Yamato Scrub, September 5, 2015.

Ceraunus blue (Hemiargus ceraunus). Yamato Scrub, September 5, 2015.

I love how the blue in the tailspot lights up so brilliantly in the right light. References Paulson, D. R. 2011. Damselflies and Dragonflies of the East. Princeton: Princeton UP.    

Senna and sulphurs

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana.
This spring I overhauled the front part of the front yard, getting rid of some scraggly dune sunflower and replacing it with some more long-lived plants. (Not that dune sunflower is bad or short-lived, but I have it in many other areas of the yard as well, and it needs frequent cutting back to keep it looking nice.) I put in some of the usual suspects with lovely little flowers: beach creeper (Ernodia littoralis), blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), and a few actual wildflowers (a wild petunia, among others). I also put in three (count 'em, three!) little plants on which I pinned some rather high hopes: Bahama senna (Senna mexicana var. chapmanii).
Chapman's or Bahama Senna (Senna mexicana). Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015

Chapman's or Bahama Senna (Senna mexicana). Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015.

These are also called dwarf senna, so I suppose I shouldn't count on them to grow very large, but the pictures I've seen of them in my plant guides show some tremendously flowering plants, with big yellow flowers dominating the scene. That one lonely bloom in the picture above was supposed to be just the first of many. Hasn't worked out that way; once the blooms that were on the plants when I brought them home from the nursery were gone, there were no more. Rufino Osorio's guide mentions that they flower most profusely in autumn and spring, so perhaps a long period of summer dormancy isn't anything to worry about. But they also never seemed to grow. Whenever I went out to look at them, I saw snapped-off new growth, as if the plants were just too brittle for our breezy locale. I checked for insect damage but could never find a culprit, even though I know that several lovely yellow butterflies use these as their larval host plants (which was one of the reasons I'd brought them into the garden, after all.) Recently, however, as I was out pulling weeds after several months of heat-induced procrastination, I noticed what I'd probably just been overlooking for the past few months: a big, bright green and yellow caterpillar munching contentedly on the leaves, practically denuding the branches it was on:
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana.

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana.

The bright blue outlines around the black spots, combined with the yellow racing stripe on a green body are distinguishing characteristics of the lovely Cloudless Sulphur butterfly, an insect whose devotion to its larval host plant is reflected in its taxonomic name: Phoebis sennae. This caterpillar, despite its bright colors, just blends right into the leaves and stems of the host plant. It's the same kind of camouflage enjoyed by some parakeets. Take a look at them out of their natural setting (on a telephone wire, for example) and you'd wonder just how in the heck they could ever conceal their bright green colors. Why haven't they all been eaten by predators? But then you watch an entire flock of them just completely disappear into the green-leaved canopy of a large tree and it hits you: their camouflage is just perfect for where they evolved. At least, that's what I'm telling myself after months of apparent obliviousness to these quite large caterpillars trimming my bushes so effectively. Here's what this lovely young rascal will eventually turn into:
Cloudless Sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

Cloudless Sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

Here's another shot of a different larva, from the top (I just love the symmetry of the spots and the "wings" of the senna leaves):
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana. Top view.

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) caterpillar on host plant, Senna mexicana

And a different adult:
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, August 12, 2015

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Boca Raton, FL, August 12, 2015.

We have lots of butterflies here in south Florida. And if we plant pretty little plants that they enjoy, we can enjoy even more of them!

Depth of field redux

A couple of years ago as I was just starting out in macro photography I experimented a little bit with depth of field using a beautiful male Citrine Forktail damselfly. Since then I've switched to a new macro lens and taken a lot more photos, but not much has changed. I still love how depth of field can be used to capture different elements of a scene; how it can make for a tack-sharp picture where everything's in focus or highlight just the item of interest and leave the rest blurry (know-it-alls call this this bokeh). Me, I'd like a little less bokeh in my pictures, since I'm usually shooting macro. I dream of a macro lens that might have more than a few millimeters of depth of field. Nonetheless, playing around with it is fun. One weekend morning I was able to sneak up on a couple of different butterflies nectaring on different flowers of the same small plant, Spanish Needles (Bidens alba or B. pilosa depending on which botanist you subscribe to, although the latest edition of Wunderlin and Hansen specify that B. alba is our common weed and B. pilosa is rare). Those of you who aren't on a mobile device should be able to hover your cursor over the image to watch how the narrow depth of field makes the effect of focal point very clear: these two butterflies are only a few inches apart, but they might as well be miles:
Mallow Scub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa) nectaring on Spanish Needles. Boca Raton, FL, May 10, 2015

Mallow Scub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa) nectaring on Spanish Needles. Boca Raton, FL, May 10, 2015. Put your cursor over the image (or click here) to change the focus to the foreground butterfly, Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole).

Those of you who can't hover your cursor will have to click the link in the caption to see the second image, which has the advantage of bringing it up at a larger size, as well. To prove that no butterflies were harmed in the making of this photo experiment, here's a shot of the sulphur departing the scene afterward:
Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole) doing a backflip. Boca Raton, FL, May 10, 2015.

Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole) doing a backflip. Boca Raton, FL, May 10, 2015.

If I'd had a wider depth of field, perhaps the darn thing would even have been in focus! And, just for fun, here's the butterfly staring me down with righteous indignation for this gross violation of his privacy:
Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, May 10, 2015.

Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole). Boca Raton, FL, May 10, 2015.

Fiddlewood flowers and true garden pests

Gardeners who plan their gardens for wildlife often see that planning rewarded. The thing is, it's sometimes hard to tell whether that reward is, as the computer programmers say, a feature or a bug.  That is, we plant the plants we do because we're interested in more than just the way the garden looks to us; we want it to attract the attention of the native fauna as well. But of course we also try to manage the garden so that there are plenty of beautiful plants and flowers throughout the year. So although we experience at least as many "pest" infestations as gardeners who plant for traditional garden beauty, we handle them differently. For example, we have rather yucky-looking caterpillars attacking our beautiful passionvines to the point of defoliation at times. Sounds like a bug, right? But at the same time, it's a feature: those caterpillars grow up to be beautiful butterflies. The damage to the plants is ephemeral; passionvines not only refoliate rapidly, they're notorious for popping up at many different places in the garden, whether you wanted them there or not. (Again, hard to tell whether that's a feature or a bug!) The caterpillars of passionflower butterflies (the heliconians, Zebra, Gulf Fritillary, and Julia) eat the passionvines for the chemical defenses they provide. These caterpillars aren't pests; they're friends. We manage their infestations by planting enough of the vines in out-of-the-way spots that they can defoliate them, should the population require it, without sacrificing the lovely flowers everywhere. The same is true for many of the "weeds" that grow in our diverse lawns. Cheesytoes , Spanish Needles, Trefoil (Desmodium sp.) , and the like—all of these are attractive to insects, which in turn attract lizards and birds and other wildlife to the garden. It's not the same as a true ecosystem, but it's nice to see some life in our yards, instead of the sterile no-fly zones of monocultured lawns, manicured weekly by gas-guzzling and noise-polluting "landscaping" crews. There are, however, some pests that even the most tolerant of wildlife gardeners would like to control. In the second week of May I started to notice my Fiddlewood (Citharexlyum fruticosum) starting to come into flower, which is very exciting. This is a beautiful and ornamental native plant. The wildlife value of its flowers is limited, because it flowers for such a short time each year, but when it's in flower, my goodness! It sure is pretty:
Fiddlewood (Citharexylum fruticosum) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Fiddlewood (Citharexylum fruticosum) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

For more on the name of this plant, check out the post over at Eat the Weeds. I quote just a very few relevant words here (lightly edited):
When Linnaeus was naming plants, the English words “violin” or “fiddle” were not common in his time; plus, he preferred classical names. He knew the wood was used to make musical instruments so he named it  “guitar wood shrub,” Citharexylum fruticosum. That got stretched into Guitar Tree and then Fiddlewood Tree. Now you know. The most common name for the tree in the Caribbean islands is “old woman’s blisters”—read it’s used for a lot of ailments. Boiled twigs and decoctions are used if you’re chilled. When mixed with Strongback and Spoonbush it is used for sores. Boiled with mahogany, lignum vitae, Doctor Club roots, Snowberry and papaya latex, it was used to aid indigestion… or perhaps create it…. Also beware… insects of all sorts love the tree so you will encounter them, in numbers. The fruit pulp is edible but not prized. Do not eat the seeds.
Unfortunately for those who garden for aesthetics in addition to wildlife value, as noted by Green Deane in the above quote, this beautiful small tree serves as the larval host plant of a particularly annoying insect, a communal-feeding caterpillar, Epicorsia oedipodalis (I've written about it before). Since the time of that write-up, the UF/IFAS program has released a paper on them that wasn't available to me until I started researching this post. (About time, guys!) Here's the relevant section of the paper for gardeners and native plant enthusiasts:
This leaf-eating pest does no permanent damage to the plant, the shrub simply puts out a new flush of leaves. From an ecological perspective, the larvae themselves may serve as a valuable food source when baby birds need feeding during the spring dry season in Florida.
While I'm sure it's true that the feeding damage isn't permanent, and that this is indeed a worthy caterpillar, and a worthy moth too, for that matter, it comes in feeding hordes so large that they can completely defoliate young trees (and mine is only a couple of years old). So rather than letting nature take its course, I've been trying to manage the tree by systematically removing the caterpillars whenever I notice the characteristic signs of their presence: long webs running along the flower stalks (you can see it in the above picture if you click through to the full-sized version), skeletonized or discolored, dead, or dying leaves:
Signs of Epicorsia infestation. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Signs of Epicorsia infestation. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Maybe once my tree is a bit older, I'll be able to practice the more ecologically sound approach and leave them on the tree. For now, though, I'm in protective mode. If you clicked through to look at the first picture of the fiddlewood flower, you noticed the long webbing running up the flower stalks; there are usually several caterpillars hiding in those protective zones. And since this hideout was running along the longest and nicest flower stalk, I needed help to remove the caterpillars without damaging the flowers. So I turned to my lovely and talented wife, whose up-close vision is far finer than mine, and whose hands are far steadier, for help:
Surgical removal of caterpillars from flower stalk. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Surgical removal of caterpillars from flower stalk. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

If you look closely at the image above, you can see the little caterpillar in it:
Detail of caterpillar removal.

Detail of caterpillar removal.

And here's a larger one that she'd removed a minute earlier:
Caterpillar about to meet its maker. Boca Raton, FL. May 14, 2015.

Caterpillar about to meet its maker. Boca Raton, FL. May 14, 2015.

And here is a jar full of hundreds of these little guys that I've removed via leaf-pinching and simple snipping over the past several days:
Caterpillars in a jar.

Caterpillars in a jar.

No, I'm not going to try to raise them. I'm just going to keep them in that peanut butter jar until the trashmen come to haul it away with the rest of the garbage next week. These caterpillars also enjoy three other native plants in our region, two of which (Pigeon Plum and Lancewood) I have in my yard. Fortunately, according to the Featured Creature report, "less damage has been noted on these hosts." (The third host, Sea Grape, is a close relative of Pigeon Plum.) And, as usual with the UF/IFAS people, they suggest the nuclear option for homeowners interested in control of these infestations: Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as the way to make sure no insects survive in your yard ever. (They say that "this Lepidoptera-specific material is toxic to caterpillars but relatively non-toxic to beneficial organisms like predatory and parasitoid wasps, predaceous bugs, and vertebrates (birds, lizards, people, etc.)."  Sorry, IFAS, there's no way I'm going to apply that butterfly-killing bomb anywhere in my yard! References Kern, W. 2015. "Featured Creatures: Fiddlewood leafroller." Publication number EENY-617. Available at http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/ORN/fiddlewood_leafroller.htm

New backyard insect: Megachilid bee sp., subgenus Chelostomoides

Being a backyard naturalist has its ups and downs. It's fun to get to know your little corner of the earth well enough to know when something new (to you, if not to science) appears there. Lately I've been noticing how many different species of bees there are. Of course the most common bee in the yard is the good old honeybee, imported long ago from Europe. But in addition to Apis mellifera there are scores of other species. All of them are much harder for the uninitiated to identify, and even the initiated often can't tell them apart without a specimen and a microscope. No matter how good one's photographic skills, wild, unrestrained bees are unlikely to sit still for their portraits long enough to be sure of capturing enough field marks to guarantee a successful identification. Still, one can make educated guesses once one becomes familiar enough with the local apifauna. In my yard I can be(e) fairly certain of the following four species: Agapostemon splendens, the gorgeous little bee with the green thorax and, depending on sex, green (for the girls) or black-and-yellow (for the boys) abdomen. Here's one on one of our 11 official state flowers in the genus Coreopsis, C. leavenworthii:
Sweat bee (halictid) Agapostemon splendens on Leavenworth's Tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii). Boca Raton, FL, May 12, 2015.

Sweat bee (halictid) Agapostemon splendens on Leavenworth's Tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii). Boca Raton, FL, May 12, 2015.

Megachile petulans, the leafcutter bee with the big head and stout abdomen, loves to appear on my patches of Dune Sunflower (Helianthus debilis):
A leafcutter bee (Megachilid petulans). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

A leafcutter bee (Megachilid petulans). Boca Raton, FL, October 5, 2014.

Halictus poeyi is the small bee with the low profile:
Sweat bee (Halictus poeyi). Boca Raton, FL, February 7, 2015.

Sweat bee (Halictus poeyi). Boca Raton, FL, February 7, 2015.

Coelioxys dolichos, the cuckoo bee (the "common" name is Carpenter-mimic cuckoo leaf-cutter), looks pretty wicked:
The cuckoo bee with the crazy name: Carpenter-mimic Cuck-leaf-cutter (Coelioxis dolichos). Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015.

The cuckoo bee with the crazy name: Carpenter-mimic Cuck-leaf-cutter (Coelioxis dolichos). Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015.

I'm familiar enough with the GISS and markings of these four bees that I can be reasonably sure which one I'm looking at even before I take the picture. That reasonable surety is bolstered if I get a clear enough photo to bring up on my camera's screen, and if there's still doubt, taking it inside to view on the large monitor will usually seal the deal. But when some bee I haven't seen be(e)fore drops by, you can bet there's a flurry of activity. Like the other day when I saw a small dark bee zipping around the White Indigoberry (Randia aculeata), which is in flower now and literally abuzz with activity, I became obsessed with getting a good picture. And it was a challenge. The bee was about the size of H. poeyi, but black with white hairs instead of yellow, and it had no pollen-collecting hairs on its legs as that halictid species does. For several minutes all I got were shadows, butt shots, and empty foliage that the bee had just vacated. Eventually, though, I managed to get a couple of shots that were good enough to post to bugguide.net in hopes of an ID. Here's a better shot than those, taken a day later:
Megachilid bee, subgenus Chelostomoides. Boca Raton, FL, May 13, 2015.

Megachilid bee, subgenus Chelostomoides. Boca Raton, FL, May 13, 2015.

The ID didn't take long at all. About 10 minutes after I posted the shots, I got a notice that they had been placed in the interesting category "Megachile Subgenus Chelostomoides." Four species are found in Florida, according to John Pascarella's incredible1 online resource Bees of Florida. According to the information there, the large (very large) group of bees in the Megachilidae can be characterized by the following general features:
Long-tongued bees, rectangular labrum that is longer than broad and broadly articulated to the clypeus (Michener 2000). Other features that help distinguish the Megachilidae in the Southeastern U.S. are the lack of a basitibial plate (except in Lithurgus), 2 submarginal cells in the wing with the second submarginal rather long. The metasomal sterna have scopa present except in the parasitic forms. The scopa typically found on the hind legs of other bees is absent.
Not being an expert in bee terminology, I find only the first and last of the above-listed characters to be useful (they have long tongues and they don't have pollen-gathering hairs on their legs). This group of bees is one I'd not heard of before, so I did a bit of research. It turns out this group is unlike many of the other megachilids of North America, which are commonly called "leafcutter bees," the members of the subgenus Chelostomoides do not cut leaves to line their nests (Oh, those misleading common names!). Instead, they use resin, mud, or other materials. Which of the four species found in Florida, or whether this is a new one, I doubt I'll be able to determine. If you bothered to click through to the page from Bees of Florida you probably noticed how many of the shots needed to confirm ID were extreme close-ups of dead vouchered specimens; not something I'm likely to do here. But it sure was fun to watch this little bee zipping around the shrubbery! References bugguide.net Michener, C. 2007. Bees of the World, 2nd ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP. Pascarella, J. Bees of Florida. Online resource available at http://entnemdept.ifas.ufl.edu/hallg/melitto/intro.htm.  

Step into my parlor…

...said the spider to the lady beetle. And yet, nothing happened. This morning before work I went out and, as usual, was taking pictures of whatever I could find in the yard. I found this lovely Southern Sprite damselfly (first of the season):
Southern Sprite (Nehalennia integricollis). Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015

Southern Sprite (Nehalennia integricollis). Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015

It's always a pleasure to see these relatively rare damselflies. (Odd, too, how abundance is so tied to locale: Everglades Spite (N. pallidula) is considered very rare, while Southern Sprite isn't, and yet I get dozens and dozens of the former over several months and very very few of the latter. I guess being near the Everglades is conducive to the occurrence of Everglades Sprite? While most people across the range of these insects are not near the glades...) When I was finished with the sprite's photo session I wandered over to the patch of dune sunflower I have growing along the drive. I noticed one flower had two petals sort of curved upward toward each other, indicating, most likely, the presence of a hunting spider. (That is, a spider that hunts without using a web.) It had tied the petals together with a strand of silk; you can see them curling up toward the camera in the photo below:
Thomisid spider waiting for breakfast. Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015.

Thomisid spider waiting for breakfast. Boca Raton, FL, May 8, 2015.

Thomisid spiders are commonly known as "crab spiders" (not to be confused with Gasteracantha cancriformis, commonly known in south Florida as a "crab spider," although most naturalists call it the spiny-backed orbweaver to avoid confusing it with the "true" crab spiders like the one above). The true crab spiders are so called because their front pairs of legs are drastically elongated, much like the pincers of a crab. It's one of the largest spider families, with over 2,000 species worldwide. There are at least 130 species in 9 genera in the United States, so identification to species level is left to the true spider experts, the araneologists (as distinct from the arachnidologists, who study arachnids in general, which includes arthropods from other orders such as scorpions, mites, ticks, and chiggers, in addition to the Daddy Longlegs, which aren't true spiders at all). While I was taking pictures of this unusual flower-trapping arrangement (normally I see the petals of the flowers curled down, rather than up), I noticed a wee little lady beetle about to become breakfast:
Lady beetle, meet spider. Boca Raton, FL. May 8, 2015.

Lady beetle, meet spider. Boca Raton, FL. May 8, 2015.

And then the strangest thing happened: the spider just remained motionless while the beetle climbed on the spider's back, tumbled off onto the disk portion of the flower, and then scurried away out of sight!
Let's make a closer acquaintance.

Let's make a closer acquaintance.

So long, and thanks for stopping by. (The beetle is visible to the lower left of the spider.)

So long, and thanks for stopping by. (The beetle is visible to the lower left of the spider.)

I wasn't able to snap a picture of the scene as the beetle left, but I was certainly surprised to see what I assumed would be a typical predation scenario turn into nothing at all. In case you're curious, the lady beetle looks very much like the "metallic blue" lady beetle, Curinus coeruleus, although it's by far the smallest one of them I've ever seen. References Marshall, S., & G.B. Edwards. 2008. Florida’s Fabulous Spiders, 4th ed. Hawaiian Gardens, CA: World Publications. Ubick, D., P. Paquin, P. E. Cushing, & V. Roth (eds.). 2005. Spiders of North America: An Identification Manual. Keene, NH: American Arachnological Society.

Sweat Bees, or, spring is happening…

...and the bees are buzzing with excitement. I was out in the yard at lunchtime, as usual, and I noticed more than the usual activity around the flowerbeds in front. There were these little yellow blurs zipping from flower to flower in the Gaillardia1. These are among the prettiest flowers in south Florida, although I must be honest, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When I brought my native plant book to my son's preschool to show to the director, one of the native Floridians who had been there for decades burst out "that's a weed!" To which my response was "what better type of flower to plant in an area with lots of preschoolers than a weedy, hardy, one?" It didn't carry the day, though, and there are no beautiful Indian Blanketflower plantings at the preschool. Oh, well. Sure is ugly, right? gaillardia_pulchella Where was I? Oh, right. Out in the front yard, trying to figure out what these little yellow blips were. There were at least two, but I was never able to focus on them long enough for a picture. They would zip crazily along their patrol beat, skipping from flower to flower, alighting ever so briefly to find it empty and move on before I could so much as twitch my shutter finger. I wound up turning in circles trying to draw a bead on one of them but had to give it up after a few futile attempts. Soon, though, I noticed a much calmer, green-colored blip that resolved into a bee digging for pollen all across these little plants. You can see how successful she's been by how puffy and yellow her legs are:
Sweat bee, Agapostemon splendens, Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

Sweat bee, Agapostemon splendens, Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

She was working hard, keeping her head down and doing her best to ignore that little yellow blip buzzing around, but after a while it became impossible: as soon as one of the blips noticed her, it plunged down at her and appeared to be trying to carry her off! Earlier I had been trying to figure out whether these yellow guys were some sort of robber fly or hunting wasp, but this interaction narrowed down the possibilities enormously: it must have been either territorial aggression or an attempt to get down to business. A minute or two later when one of the yellow blips finally settled on one of the flowers, perhaps to rest and reconnoiter a little bit, I was able to suss it out to my satisfaction. I zoomed in with my lens (not literally, of course, since it's a fixed focal length macro, but...) to reveal this:
Sweat bee, Agaspostemon splendens male (note the lack of pollen-carrying hairs on the legs). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

Sweat bee, Agaspostemon splendens male (note the lack of pollen-carrying hairs on the legs). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2015.

The attacker was none other than a male A. splendens looking to, ahem, get busy. I wasn't able to get pictures of any of the attacks, but this node over at bugguide.net should give you an idea of the general nature of the proceedings, should you care to follow the link. Kudos to photographer Tim Lethbridge for that work! I'm surprised, in retrospect, by how yellow the blips of the male bees on their patrol flights appeared; their thorax looks green in the pictures. I think, though, that it must give off a bit of a gold highlight which, combined with the yellow and black stripes on the abdomen as opposed to the green and black of the female, is probably responsible for the great difference in GISS. According to Eric Grissell (2010: 220), sweat bees are "the most behaviorally complex of all the so-called solitary bees, ranging from solitary to communal, semisocial, and primitively eusocial." Grissell provides some good information for the amateur taxonomist as well: the term "sweat bee" is a bit of a simplification, since this family includes entire groups of bees that aren't all that interested in alighting on our arms and trying to drink up our sweat. (Although to be fair, many bees in the genus Lasioglossum reportedly do exhibit this behavior, although I've not witnessed it personally.) He calls the bees in the genera Augochlorella, Augochlora, and Agapostemon " 'little green bees' because they have no common name and they are little and green." I also have to give props to the Xerces Society for the accuracy of their description of the genus: "a fast-moving metallic green blur over summer flowers is probably an Agapostemon." These bees are generally solitary nesters in bare soil, so it's important to remember to leave some bare patches here and there if you want to encourage them. References Grissell, E. (2010). Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in the Garden. Portland: Timber Press. Mader, E., Shephard, M., Vaughan, M., Black, S., and LeBuhn, G. (2011). The Xerces Society Guide to Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America's Bees and Butterflies. North Adams, MA: Storey.
1 2 3 4 5 18