- Joe Dlugo
Winter Bees at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Texas
A bee safari in December is generally a bad idea. That is unless it's your lucky day. My idea of a lucky day this time of year is finding myself in central Texas in warm sunny weather among wildflowers. Alas, there I was. Not just among wildflowers, but in the epicenter of the American wildflower world, the University of Texas at Austin Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Named after its co-founder, the former First Lady and ardent conservation advocate, the Wildflower Center has been given no small task of being the official Texas state botanic garden and arboretum. Honoring the diverse habitats across an enormous state, the center claims an unfathomable 900 Texas native species are planted on its nearly 300 acres lying 9 miles south of downtown Austin. In addition, planted on its internet database is detailed information on all the wildflowers of North America. As anyone who has ever Googled a plant species will attest, it is the Center's website that shows near the top almost every time. One would expect a place like this would attract a few bees.
Granted, this still was December and even in the sub-tropical south it is not the season any chamber of commerce would be promoting wildflower tourism (the locals spoke glowingly of April). There are flowers about, but only a handful of species and one must look closely to find them. However there they are, and they had bees visiting.
The flower of the hour was shrubby boneset (Ageratina havanensis). Abloom in a few gardens on the premises, this hill country native was keeping the bees busy in a season of scarcity. An exciting find was this white plasterer bee (Colletes sp.).
From a few feet away they appear as little streaks of white, almost ghostly in appearance as they fidget through the dense flower heads. A closer look reveals yellow hairs and black integument (fancy bee word for exoskeleton). The name "plasterer" comes from their habit of lining their underground nests with a sort of water-tight "wallpaper." If you're going to build a home in the dirt (as 70% of bee species do), it helps to keep things tidy and waterproof.
Also alighting on the white flowers was the extraordinary metallic green bee, Augochloropsis sp.. I would spot several of these bees on my visit, all females. I once heard someone call them jewel bees, but I'm not sure anyone else does. I will use it here and hope it catches on, as their scientific name is a mouthful at best for such a beautiful bee. None showed any sign of pollen collection that would indicate current nesting status. If they were collecting pollen to feed their young you would notice clumps of it adhered to the hairs (scopae) on their hind legs. Perhaps they were out filling up on energy for potential cold days ahead.
When I took my eyes off the glowing green bees on the snakeroot I would find the lone bumble bee of the day, Bombus americanus, in the courtyard on gayfeather, Liatris mucronata. It was a male and of impressive size. I expected to see more bumble bees about on a December day since their large hairy bodies do well in the cooler air, but my logic must be too simple compared to mother nature's.
Moving on to a new patch of snakeroot in the Luci and Ian Family Garden, I would find evidence of a nesting bee, the ligated furrow bee, Halictus ligatus. Although the photo doesn't show it in great detail, this female had a significant amount of pollen collected on her hind legs. She'll bring that back to provision her nearby nest in the ground. These small but chunky bees have big heads with eyes set far apart, and on the edges of their cheeks there are little horns that unfortunately don’t show in this image. When they work the clustered flower head they dip their heads and probe vigorously, a lot like an armadillo looking for grubs under leaf litter, an analogy I’m sure the locals can relate to.
The smallest bee of the day would go to the ever-common everywhere Dialictus sweat bee. I would only find two of these bees this day, one in the Family Garden using a patch of turk's cap (Malvaviscus arboreus) and this female near the parking lot on golden eye (Viguiera dentata). The mallard duck of the bee world, beautiful in its iridescent olive green but overlooked and under appreciated for being so plentiful.
I would finish my day in the sunny parking lot in another patch of golden eye, this time again with the glorious jewel of a bee, Augochloropsis sp.. It would likely be the last native bee I would see for the year since home is in the much cooler and bee-less coastal Washington. I savored the moment, imagining its green glowing likeness would do nice for a Christmas ornament.
Speaking of imagination, it sure was a treat to see bees and flowers in December, but to think of a time when the meadows would be polished in a sheath of bluebonnets and paintbrush and extraordinary numbers of native bees about them all. I am plotting another bee safari for another day.