Only fools mess around with bees, wasps, and hornets as they collect nectar and go about their business while visiting flowering plants. Relentlessly curious predators and other trouble makers quickly learn that patterns of white, yellow, or orange contrasting with black are a warning that the pain and anguish of being zapped with a venomous sting awaits those who throw caution to the wind. Through the process of natural selection, many venomous and poisonous animals have developed conspicuously bright or contrasting color schemes to deter would-be predators and molesters from making such a big mistake.
Visual warnings enhance the effectiveness of the defensive measures possessed by venomous, poisonous, and distasteful creatures. Aggressors learn to associate the presence of these color patterns with the experience of pain and discomfort. Thereafter, they keep their distance to avoid any trouble. In return, the potential victims of this unsolicited aggression escape injury and retain their defenses for use against yet-to-be-enlightened pursuers. Thanks to their threatening appearance, the chances of survival are increased for these would-be victims without the need to risk death or injury while deploying their venomous stingers, poisonous compounds, or other defensive measures.
One shouldn’t be surprised to learn that over time, as these aforementioned venomous, poisonous, and foul-tasting critters developed their patterns of warning colors, there were numerous harmless animals living within close association with these species that, through the process of natural selection, acquired nearly identical color patterns for their own protection from predators. This form of defensive impersonation is known as Batesian mimicry.
Let’s take a look at some examples of Batesian mimicry right here in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Suppose for a moment that you were a fly. As you might expect, you would have plenty to fear while you spend your day visiting flowers in search of energy-rich nectar—hundreds of hungry birds and other animals want to eat you.
If you were a fly and you were headed out and about to call upon numerous nectar-producing flowers so you could round up some sweet treats, wouldn’t you feel a whole lot safer if you looked like those venomous bees, wasps, and hornets in your neighborhood? Wouldn’t it be a whole lot more fun to look scary—so scary that would-be aggressors fear that you might sting them if they gave you any trouble?
Suppose Mother Nature and Father Time dressed you up to look like a bee or a wasp instead of a helpless fly? Then maybe you could go out and collect sweets without always worrying about the bullies and the brutes, just like these flies of the lower Susquehanna do…
FLOWER FLIES/HOVER FLIES
So let’s review. If you’re a poor defenseless fly and you want to get your fair share of sweets without being gobbled up by the beasts, then you’ve got to masquerade like a strongly armed member of a social colony—like a bee, wasp, or hornet. Now look scary and go get your treats. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!
What’s all this buzz about bees? And what’s a hymanopteran? Well, let’s see.
Hymanoptera—our bees, wasps, hornets and ants—are generally considered to be our most evolved insects. Some form complex social colonies. Others lead solitary lives. Many are essential pollinators of flowering plants, including cultivars that provide food for people around the world. There are those with stingers for disabling prey and defending themselves and their nests. And then there are those without stingers. The predatory species are frequently regarded to be the most significant biological controls of the insects that might otherwise become destructive pests. The vast majority of the Hymanoptera show no aggression toward humans, a demeanor that is seldom reciprocated.
Late summer and early autumn is a critical time for the Hymanoptera. Most species are at their peak of abundance during this time of year, but many of the adult insects face certain death with the coming of freezing weather. Those that will perish are busy, either individually or as members of a colony, creating shelter and gathering food to nourish the larvae that will repopulate the environs with a new generation of adults next year. Without abundant sources of protein and carbohydrates, these efforts can quickly fail. Protein is stored for use by the larval insects upon hatching from their eggs. Because the eggs are typically deposited in a cell directly upon the cache of protein, the larvae can begin feeding and growing immediately. To provide energy for collecting protein and nesting materials, and in some cases excavating nest chambers, Hymanoptera seek out sources of carbohydrates. Species that remain active during cold weather must store up enough of a carbohydrate reserve to make it through the winter. Honey Bees make honey for this purpose. As you are about to see, members of this suborder rely predominately upon pollen or insect prey for protein, and upon nectar and/or honeydew for carbohydrates.
We’ve assembled here a collection of images and some short commentary describing nearly two dozen kinds of Hymanoptera found in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, the majority photographed as they busily collected provisions during recent weeks. Let’s see what some of these fascinating hymanopterans are up to…
LEAFCUTTER AND MASON BEES
BUMBLE BEES, CARPENTER BEES, HONEY BEES, AND DIGGER BEES
YELLOWJACKETS AND HORNETS
We hope this brief but fascinating look at some of our more common bees, wasps, hornets, and ants has provided the reader with an appreciation for the complexity with which their food webs and ecology have developed over time. It should be no great mystery why bees and other insects, particularly native species, are becoming scarce or absent in areas of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed where the landscape is paved, hyper-cultivated, sprayed, mowed, and devoid of native vegetation, particularly nectar-producing plants. Late-summer and autumn can be an especially difficult time for hymanopterans seeking the sources of proteins and carbohydrates needed to complete preparations for next year’s generations of these valuable insects. An absence of these staples during this critical time of year quickly diminishes the diversity of species and begins to tear at the fabric of the food web. This degradation of a regional ecosystem can have unforeseen impacts that become increasingly widespread and in many cases permanent.
Editor’s Note: No bees, wasp, hornets, or ants were harmed during this production. Neither was the editor swarmed, attacked, or stung. Remember, don’t panic, just observe.
Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York, NY.
With the gasoline and gunpowder gang’s biggest holiday of the year now upon us, wouldn’t it be nice to get away from the noise and the enduring adolescence for just a little while to see something spectacular that isn’t exploding or on fire? Well, here’s a suggestion: head for the hills to check out the flowers of our native rhododendron, the Great Rhododendron (Rhododendronmaximum), also known as Rosebay.
Thickets composed of our native heathers/heaths (Ericaceae) including Great Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, and Pinxter Flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides), particularly when growing in association with Eastern Hemlock and/or Eastern White Pine, provide critical winter shelter for forest wildlife. The flowers of native heathers/heaths attract bees and other pollinating insects and those of the deciduous Pinxter Flower, which blooms in May, are a favorite of butterflies and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.
Forests with understories that include Great Rhododendrons do not respond well to logging. Although many Great Rhododendrons regenerate after cutting, the loss of consistent moisture levels in the soil due to the absence of a forest canopy during the sunny summertime can, over time, decimate an entire population of plants. In addition, few rhododendrons are produced by seed, even under optimal conditions. Great Rhododendron seeds and seedlings are very sensitive to the physical composition of forest substrate and its moisture content during both germination and growth. A lack of humus, the damp organic matter in soil, nullifies the chances of successful recolonization of a rhododendron understory by seed. In locations where moisture levels are adequate for their survival and regeneration after logging, impenetrable Great Rhododendron thickets will sometimes come to dominate a site. These monocultures can, at least in the short term, cause problems for foresters by interrupting the cycle of succession and excluding the reestablishment of native trees. In the case of forests harboring stands of Great Rhododendron, it can take a long time for a balanced ecological state to return following a disturbance as significant as logging.
In the lower Susquehanna region, the Great Rhododendron blooms from late June through the middle of July, much later than the ornamental rhododendrons and azaleas found in our gardens. Set against a backdrop of deep green foliage, the enormous clusters of white flowers are hard to miss.
In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, there are but a few remaining stands of Great Rhododendron. One of the most extensive populations is in the Ridge and Valley Province on the north side of Second Mountain along Swatara Creek near Ravine (just off Interstate 81) in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Smaller groves are found in the Piedmont Province in the resort town of Mount Gretna in Lebanon County and in stream ravines along the lower river gorge at the Lancaster Conservancy’s Ferncliff and Wissler’s Run Preserves. Go have a look. You’ll be glad you did.