A Mining Bee and a Mighty Fine Native Dandelion
I‘ve taken a few early morning walks in recent days to find birds at the prairies in the southern Puget Sound region. These are big places that split up the sprawl with a fair amount of sunny, open habitat. They can attract wild things that aren’t typically found in the turf grass and douglas-fir monoculture that surround. They also have a fair amount of interesting native botany to explore for man and beast alike, so of course I keep my ears tuned in on buzzing sounds if they could be had, but even an abundance of plants doesn’t beckon many bees at such early hours. Lo and behold, there is but one flower and one native solitary bee that defy the odds and open for business early in spite of our cool, often overcast summer mornings.
The flower, cut leaf microseris (Microseris laciniata) is a dandelion of sorts, and one that would go unnoticed, not only for that it looks like the common weedy dandelions that are found abundantly on the prairie, but also in that the mind of mankind is generally not open to the idea of diversity among dandelions. Just as the sweeping expanse of bee diversity is ignored by many who focus on one species, the honey bee, so too we find the cheerful yellow pollen factories of the dandelion world summed up into the one common, invasive, sometimes beloved species, Taraxacum officinale. This plant is a charming take on the basic familiar design of the dandelion, save for a larger flower head with visible orange stamens and a more narrow and gentle stem and leaf structure. Since by June much of the Puget Sound Prairie habitat is overrun with millions of dandelion blooms, cut leaf microseris would be overlooked except for the fact that it opens early in the morning and by 11:00 a.m. has closed and virtually vanished into the vast sea of non-native dandelions that do exactly the opposite.
Of course, these flowers require their pollinators, of which there are plenty on the prairie but in very short supply of during the cold western mornings. Bumble bees can warm themselves up to venture out without fear of stranding on a cold morning, however I rarely see them visit Microseris. Most native solitary bees are nowhere to be found in the early morning bloom time except for one: the iridescent green mining bees of the genus Andrena.
I’ve found it takes temperatures in the mid-50’s Farenheit to get these brilliant-looking bees going, and when they do the only dandelions open are the native Microseris. Although I have found them on other plants, it is rare to see them visit anything else if Microseris is available, and by the time these flowers close, the bees too are nowhere to be found. Certainly the couple of hours they have to forage is a very short window of opportunity to collect the pollen they need for their burgeoning nests, however one look at the amount of pollen one female can hold on her hind legs is impressive.
For those that wish to see the bees do their thing, it is the months of May and June that are the best. Since they keep hours in the generally cool part of the morning, they are a bit clumsy and will permit extremely close observation without interfering with them. They are easy going bees that will not sting. When you do look closely you may find them visiting other species of flower, a notably charming pairing is with sea blush, Plectritis congesta.
Lastly, For those a bit squeamish around bees or insects in general, I’ve provided a short video of good old-fashioned slo-mos for your enjoyment.
These images and videos were taken at Scatter Creek Wildlife Area and Glacial Heritage Preserve in southern Thurston County, Washington. These prairies are among the rarest of ecosystems on the continent and although I am partial to the bees, they are filled with curiosities for a diversity of minds.