Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Birds and Bees

The birds and the bees are science. This is the part of the birds and the bees that your mother never told you.

First, an update on the robins. They were scarce yesterday. I saw robins in the yard, but they were not on the nest. However, she was at the nest this morning. I will have to see what they do today.

Yesterday I was just in the right place at the right time for these shots. I was about to leave to go on an errand, and walked around the garage to close a gate, and a black blurry glob fell from the sky right beside me. It was a trio of carpenter bees.

Remember I said that the male carpenter bees have a white cuticle on their face. Here, a male is hovering in flight, intent on the male and female on the ground below him.

The male bee that is mounted on the female bee stayed put for about two minutes, making thrusting motions that one would associate with such an act.

The male who was hovering decides to make a move. Never mind that another male is already in position.

They stayed this way for about a minute, with both males thrusting somewhat. Then the second male, probably frustrated, flew off a few feet and returned to hovering.

Here is the female afterwards. She acted exhausted, and spent a couple minutes cleaning herself, it appeared.

Here the persistent number 2 male is about to make his move again.

When he did, the female would make a fast and furious escape, or, if he mounted her, she would try to shake him loose. This went on for several minutes and then they flew off, the male in hot pursuit.

I don't know if they ever hooked up or if she lost him. But I do know that if things proceed as expected, there will be more carpenter bees soon.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Google Mars

Google Earth (Mars) is science. Now you can roam around Mars just like you can Earth. Go to earth.google.com for the free program or to upgrade your current Google Earth. click on the planet icon in the toolbar at the top and choose Mars. The tools to zoom and move around are the same as for Earth.

You can zoom in and see many named features and other areas of interest. For instance, here is the site of the Viking 1 Lander from the U.S. You can zoom in closer.

From there you can click on the yellow featured site icon and see a high resolution image. This is the first image sent by Viking 1, taken July 21, 1976. Read about the mission and find links to other images here. 1976, can you believe it? Over 30 years ago we were viewing these images from Mars!

Source: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA00563

Images of nature are science. Submit your images.

This Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus)photo was sent in by Ted. These guys are fairly common and their range extends from New York to Florida and west to the Mississippi River and beyond.

This one looks like it lost its tail. Oh well, just grow another.

Nancy sent this picture of a bee (appears to be a carpenter) flying among the wisteria.

Fact for the day: Japanese Wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) vines twine clockwise around the host plant and Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) twines counter-clockwise.

Other ways to distinguish the varieties: Chinese Wisteria has leaves divided into 7-13 leaflets, Japanese into 15-19. Chinese bloom before the leaves expand, Japanese during leaf-out. Chinese flowers open mostly at once, Japanese flower clusters open gradually.

The wisteria in my yard appears to be Chinese Wisteria. The vines twine counter clockwise, the plants are blooming before the leaves appear (for the most part). There are less than 13 leaflets on the leaves that have appeared and the flowers have all opened pretty much at once along each cluster.

This photo from the back yard shows wisteria tangling with a Yellow Lady Banks Rose, which is just beginning to bloom.

In this photo see notice white wisteria blooms along with lavender ones way up in the trees. White wisteria is more likely to be Japanese. Is this confusing enough?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Robins - The Beginning

Robins are Science. And very common in Bessemer.

Outside the porch window is a Camellia bush in which a Robin is intent on raising a family. From inside the house, I can photograph. I hope to improve my technique over the next few weeks. I have a difficult time focusing on the dark subject in the shadows. but I have an idea. Until then, these less than excellent pictures will have to do.

Right now the mom is working on the nest. She's in the center of this photo, with a beak full of grass.

The next three shots are just of the bird sitting on the nest, sort of trying it out for size. As I've watched, she brings straw or grass and places it in the nest, then hops in and sort of packs it down. she will shift a little, then content, it seems, head out gather more supplies just below the nest. These pictures were taken Saturday, and today she is continuing in the same manner.

Robins are often called the first sign of Spring, but they were here during the depth of winter, being recorded here in Bessemer during the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Robins are not innocent backyard birds, however. Over the next few weeks I will share what one source calls "the dark side of Robins." In this picture she is sort of flapping it seems to press the grass down into the nest.

Check back often to follow the Robins, and to learn more about their natural history. Fact for today: Robins, like many common birds, suffer a mortality rate of about 80% per year. Source: The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. 1977 Edition.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Pollination is Science. Yesterday I mentioned that carpenter bees are pollinators. They generally don't have as much hair on their abdomens as bumblebees, and don't carry as much pollen from flower to flower. As bumblebees fly, their wing flapping creates an electrical charge and when they land on a flower, pollen is attracted and caught on the hairs. When they land on the next flower, the charged pollen is attracted to the stigma (female part of the flower)because it is better grounded than the rest of the flower.

This carpenter bee is enjoying wisteria. I will try to get some bumblebee pictures later in the season.

We are all familiar with the honeybee (Apis sp), and this was the only one I saw on this day.

Honeybees are the most important commercial pollinator and are undergoing a decline for which the cause is not known. Colony collapse disorder may be caused by natural causes like mites or parasites, environmental factors such as climate change, or agricultural practices like pesticide use. It could be a combination of factors. Whatever it is, know that the concern is great and the research is furious to determine a cause. The symptoms include lack of adults in the hive with few or no dead adults present, capped brood present in the hive (bees usually won't leave until all adults have emerged) and food stores in the hive.

I can't tell you what kind of bee this is, but she is smaller than a honeybee. There are many species of bees. Some are tiny.

Wasps are important pollinators of some plants. Wasps are also plentiful and vary by species, and I have not identified this one. Adult wasps feed on nectar, and, oddly enough, many agricultural insect pests have a wasp species as an enemy. The female wasp lays eggs in the immature insect (caterpillar, for instance) and the wasp larva matures feeding on the host. Some wasps also feed on fruit or carrion.

The wind is a pollinator. We have been fortunate over the last few days to have rain which washed a lot of the pollen from the air and off of our cars and decks. Many of us have seen pine pollen being blown from pine trees in clouds of yellow. Anemophily is the term for wind pollination. Some crops, such as corn, and grasses are anemophilous. With corn, bees may still visit and get what they can, but wind is the primary method of pollination.

I will write more about honeybees and Colony Collapse Disorder in the future.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What this blog is about...Science!

I also post at Bessemer Opinions and there you might find a crazy mix up of politics, science, flowers, religion, human rights, art and music. You still will, but I take a lot more pictures and research a lot more science than you will ever see there. So a lot of the pics and science stuff will go here.

All the science won't come from Bessemer, but some will. But I might write about embryonic stem cells or planets in our solar system. This blog will be tweaked over the next few weeks with some neat apps.

Here's a start. I took these pictures in the backyard on Thursday, March 26, 2009.

Lizards are science. This is a Green Anole (Anolis carolinenses), commonly and mistakenly called a chameleon. They are in the Iguanid family. They lay single eggs about every fourteen days from April to September in leaf litter, trash or debris. Incubation takes 5-7 weeks. The babies are on their own. And cute, too.

They change color depending on mood and temperature and stress. When I moved from Bluff Park I caught several of these and released them in the yard here in Bessemer. I don't know if these are descendants or if there was already a population here (most likely) but I like to think the ancestors of these came with me.

How do they change color? A Cornell scientist explains:

Green anoles aren't able to control their color changes to the same extent that chameleons are. They change in between various shades of brown and green depending upon stress levels, colors in their surrounding environment, and temperature. A light green anole is generally active, happy, and stress free. When they are mildly stressed, or when they become sleepy and tranquil, they may become light brown. This change in shade from brown to green is caused by cells that contain melanin, the same pigment that is responsible for different human skin colors. These melanin-containing cells are highly branched and spread throughout the skin. When the anole is brown, the melanin in the cell is allowed to fill all the branches, masking the greenish cells beneath. When the anole is green, the melanin is concentrated at the bottom of the cells, so the green colors show through the transparent branches.

Bees are science. This is a Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica, most likely). They hang around our back deck because they enjoy boring into a wooden bench to make their hibernaculum, or nest. They also like the garden shed. Males often hover in anticipation of mating or warding off other males. I don't know what this one had in mind. Males have the white cuticle on their face, you can see it in this photo. Males don't sting.

They can be important early spring pollinators, especially with other pollinators in decline.

I hope they don't bore into the giant rocker. I think the deck and railings are safe. They are not wood.

Females do the boring and build the nests. Males just hang around flowers (thinking they might happen upon a female that needs a mate) or guarding their territory. Food and sex, sound familiar?

Flowers are science. Here are two Tulips that are blooming. Tulips don't do particularly well here, but these were here in 2000 when I bought the house, and bloom every year.