“Humble bee”

Abs and I went for a walk in Great Meadows in Concord, Mass. We spent some time looking at native pollinators, of which my favorite was a bumble bee (Bombus sp.) working the blossoms on Purple Loosestrife and goldenrod:

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It reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about bumble bees, called “The Humble Bee.” When I got home I looked up the poem; it wasn’t as good as I had remembered, but I did like the fourth stanza, which captures something of the flavor of a warm July day in New England:

Hot midsummer’s petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tune,
Telling of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers,
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found,
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer and bird-like pleasure….

San Mateo, Calif., to Winnemuca, Nev.

As usual on one of these cross-country trips, I got a late start on the first day. Carol was going off to Lake Tahoe with her friend Elaine, and I sat and talked with Elaine while Carol finished getting ready. Elaine has lived all her life in the Bay Area. She grew up in the city — that is, in San Francisco. Even though San Jose is more populous and has more land area, San Francisco is “the city” in the Bay Area, while San Jose is not even a place. Joan Didion, a fifth generation Californian, once wrote that the problem with California is that every place is starting to look like San Jose; not a real place, just featureless sprawl; but San Francisco is still a real place, and so it remains “the city.”

Even though I’m a relative newcomer to the area, Elaine and I both agreed that the Bay Area is a lovely place to live — except for the traffic and the cost of housing. Then Carol was ready to go, and they left, and I finished packing the car and started driving sometime after eleven.

I got to Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area at a quarter past two, my head still buzzing from the Bay Area traffic. At Parking Lot B, I got out of the car. Marsh Wrens were calling all around me. Through the cattails and rushes I could see that there was still water in some of diked areas. There were flowers everywhere: most prominent were banks of plants in the carrot family — call it Queen Anne’s Lace — with nodding umbrelliform flowers three to seven feet off the ground. I stopped to watch honeybees buzzing around these flowers.

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There were plenty of birds, too: Black-necked Stilts, White-faced Ibis, Snowy Egrets, Greater Yellowlegs, and many more feeding in the shallow water. As usual at Yolo Bypass, the birds were very aware that there was a human nearby, and as I got closer they moved farther away.

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Then it was time to get back on the road. Up over the Sierras where I could see dark clouds and lightning to the east, then down into Reno where the roads were still wet from a thunderstorm. Thence up through the Humboldt River valley, with dark clouds all around. Everywhere I looked, the hills were washed with a faint green, the desert coming to life after rain. At dusk, I pulled over to get gas near Mill City, and pulled over near the exit ramp to stretch my legs. As I walked through the low grass, grasshoppers sprang to life to get out of my way, and small burrs wormed their way into my socks, and swallows swopped close to my head catching evening insects.

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Ants

Recently, I stumbled across the AntWeb site, sponsored by the California Academy of Sciences. Once you create a login (and all you have to provide is a username and password, no other info), you have access to tons of photographs of ant specimens, taken through a powerful microscope. Of particular interest to me is the online field guide to California ants, with photos of nearly all of the 270 resident species. The curator of the California pages writes:

“Prominent California ants include seed-harvesting species in the genera Messor, Pheidole and Pogonomyrmex; honeypot ants in the genus Myrmecocystus; a diverse array of species in the genera Camponotus (“carpenter ants”) and Formica; native fire ants (Solenopsis spp.); velvety tree ants (Liometopum spp.); and the introduced Argentine ant (Linepithema humile). This last named species is particularly common in urban and suburban parts of California, where it establishes dense populations and eliminates most native species of ants.”

I’ve always thoughts ants were interesting creatures. Now having looked through dozens of photos of ants I will go further and say that they are beautiful creatures. Even the Argentine ant appears beautiful, in spite of the destruction it does to native arthropods.

I am also fascinated by the written descriptions; these descriptions have their own kind of beauty, which may be found in their economy and laconic precision. Here, for example, is how to identify the Argentine ant — remembering that you will need a powerful binocular microscope to see all these details:

Diagnosis among workers of introduced and commonly intercepted ants in the United States. Antenna 12-segmented. Antennal scape length less than 1.5x head length. Eyes medium to large (greater than 5 facets); do not break outline of head; placed distinctly below midline of face. Antennal sockets and posterior clypeal margin separated by a distance less than the minimum width of antennal scape. Anterior clypeal margin variously produced, but never with one median and two lateral rounded projections. Mandible lacking distinct basal angle. Profile of mesosomal dorsum with two distinct convexities. Dorsum of mesosoma lacking a deep and broad concavity; lacking erect hairs. Promesonotum separated from propodeum by metanotal groove. Propodeum with dorsal surface not distinctly shorter than posterior face; angular, with flat to weakly convex dorsal and posterior faces. Propodeum and petiolar node both lacking a pair of short teeth. Mesopleura and metapleural bulla covered with dense pubescence. Propodeal spiracle bordering posterior margin of propodeal profile. Waist 1-segmented. Petiole upright and not appearing flattened. Gaster armed with ventral slit. Erect hairs lacking from cephalic dorsum (above eye level), pronotum, and gastral tergites 1 and 2. Dull, not shining, and color uniformly light to dark brown. Measurements: head length (HL) 0.56–0.93 mm, head width (HW) 0.53–0.71 mm.”

Great Meadows, Concord, Mass.

It was a perfect New England summer day — breezy, about 85 degrees, gentle blue sky — so Carol and I decided to take a walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge this afternoon.

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Above: Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Concord, Mass., looking north over the lower impoundment

 

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Above: Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)
 

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Above: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), with unidentified pollinator