Getting lucky

As with many things in life, catching a swarm of honey bees is all about opportunity and availability. In other words, luck. Bees swarm in the spring, as the nectar flow and lengthening days result in near-exponential population growth within a colony, and the bees run out of space in their hive. Capturing and rehiving a swarm is one of the best ways for a beekeeper to increase the number of hives in her apiary, for a few reasons:

  1. It’s cheap! Darn near free, except for the minor cost of whatever modified box or bucket used to contain the swarm. For example, for a few years we used an ordinary cardboard file box (the type you’d buy for about $2 at any office supply store) with mesh-covered windows as our official swarm catching box. Last year my husband bought a 5-gallon bucket with lid from a hardware store, cut some windows in it and taped on some mesh. It works better than the box, which was falling apart anyways and needed to be replaced. Still super cheap, too.
  2. Swarms come from locally adapted colonies. True, the mother colony that threw the swarm may have originated as a package colony bought from a commercial beekeeper from anywhere in the country, but at the very least it survived the winter here, which hints at potential long-term suitability for this particular location.
  3. Every swarm that is captured by a beekeeper and rehomed in a managed apiary is a swarm that will not turn a neighbor’s home/garage/fence/etc. into a hive. In terms of responsible beekeeping, this is a Really Good Thing™. It is much simpler to relocate a swarm than to remove an established colony from, say, inside the wall of a house. Most homeowners don’t like being told that in order to get rid of the colony of bees that has taken up residence between the studs in a wall, the wall will have to be cut open to make sure that all the bees, wax combs, and honey are removed.

Ye olde swarm-catching bucket

Until this past weekend it had been an unfortunate spring for us as beekeepers. For the first time in our eight years donning the veil we had lost almost all of our hives over the winter; all of the hives at our house had died, and we were down to 1.5 hives at our second apiary. We had also missed out on a couple of swarm calls, which either came in when we couldn’t deal with them or another beekeeper got to the swarm first. One swarm flew off before we arrived to pick them up, ironically as we were on our way down the highway so I could give a talk on beekeeping to the Watsonville Wetlands Watch.

Much of that luck changed this past Saturday, when we got a call about two swarms in a backyard apple tree. Given that it was a sunny morning, we decided to capture the swarms before the scout bees found a new home site and persuaded their sisters to move into it. They were both good-sized swarms, one a bit larger than a basketball and the other about the size of a football.

Two swarms in an apple tree
15 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Those streaky blurs in the sky aren’t UFOs or dust streaks on the camera lens; they’re bees in flight.

The swarms were both about 8 feet off the ground, which puts them nicely within reach of an ordinary ladder. We had brought a ladder with us and the homeowner had one as well, so we could catch both of the swarms at the same time. In the spirit of full disclosure: I can’t take any credit for catching these swarms, as I was taking pictures instead of being useful.

Swarm of honey bees in an apple tree
15 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Swarm catching is pretty simple when the bees are clustered in a tree like this: You place a box (or bucket or whatever) under the swarm and either shake the bees into the box or cut the branch they’re clustered on and lower that into the box. Shaking tends to send a lot of bees into the air, but as long as the queen ends up in the box the rest of the bees will eventually find their way to her. When they’re all in the box you close it up and take it away.

The “small” swarm captured into a cardboard box
15 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The large swarm went into the bucket:

The “large” swarm going into the bucket
15 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

We brought the swarms to the apiary. The next step was to pour the bees from the box and bucket into their intended hives. And this is where our luck changed. One of the swarms, instead of settling into our Blue hive boxes, took off into the air. This happens sometimes, when for whatever reason the queen flies and all of the workers go with her. If the beekeeper is lucky they land some place accessible and can be recaptured. This swarm gathered very briefly in the poison oak at the top of a dead coffeeberry bush, then flew away across the street. I was unable to see where they were headed.

The good news was that the larger swarm was much more cooperative and remained in the Purple hive where they were dumped. Joining them in this apiary is the Rose hive, which was a split from one of our downtown hives. The weather on Sunday and Monday was cold and rainy, and today was the first day the bees had a chance to get out and fly. Today (Tuesday) we saw them orienting to their new home. We shouldn’t have any rain for the next several days, which will give them lots of time to forage. Swarms are usually primed and ready to go into building mode as soon as they reach their new home, so the queen in our Purple hive can start laying immediately (assuming, of course, that she was the old queen from the mother hive that threw the swarm; if she’s a virgin she’ll have to go on her mating flights first). It’ll be three weeks before we see an increase in the number of bees; in the meantime the population will decline as bees die off due to natural attrition. Thus around mid-May we should start seeing some big orientation events. Fingers crossed!

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Ghosts

I seem to have a need to keep investigating seastar wasting syndrome (SSWS) and trying to make sense of what I and others see in the field. I think it parallels my morbid fascination with the medieval Black Death. In any case, I’ve devised a plan to continue experimenting with one aspect of the potential recovery of one species, the ochre star, Pisaster ochraceus.

The first step of this plan was to collect a few more stars, which I did back in early March. For the past year or so the stars had been becoming more abundant at certain sites, leading to hope that the populations were beginning to recover and speculation as to whether these individuals were pre-SSWS survivors or post-SSWS recruits. I think they are survivors, because it seems highly unlikely that a star can grow from teensy (a few millimeters in diameter) to hand-sized on a few years. This is what I want to address experimentally in the lab.

The three stars that I collected seemed to adjust well to life in the lab. They all ate well and were crawling around in their tank. Then, last Friday (31 March 2017, to be exact) I checked on the stars as I usually do and was horrified to see this:

Dismembered bits of an ochre star (Pisaster ochraceus)
31 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Knowing from experience how quickly this can happen, I’d guess this star had begun ripping itself into pieces in the previous 24 hours. And meantime, its tankmates had stuck themselves to the underside of the cover of the tank. This is not unusual behavior and once I poked them both to make sure they weren’t getting mush I decided not to worry about them for the time being. The important thing was to remove the not-dead-yet pieces of the exploded star and bleach the tank before returning the apparently healthy stars to it.

One of the most horrific aspects of SSWS is that it is both blindingly fast and agonizingly slow. It appears to strike out of the blue, by which I mean that stars can look absolutely fine one afternoon and be torn to bits the next morning. And it’s slow because the individual pieces can live for hours or even days before finally dying.

31 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

This star broke itself into five pieces. The three pieces of arm had started getting mushy but still responded by sticking harder when I picked them up. That larger section with two arms and the madreporite was actually walking around the bowl. The torn-off pieces were all oozing sperm into the water, so at least I know this individual was a male. Small comfort, that, when I had to bag up the pieces and throw them in the trash.

Being confronted with the specter of SSWS, I wondered exactly what it meant. I’ve never been under the illusion that SSWS goes away entirely. I suspect that it is always present in the wild, possibly at low enough levels that we don’t notice it for decades at a time. Seeing one dead star, which presumably was infected in the field before I brought it into the lab. . . does it mean the plague is rearing its ugly head again? Or is this a one-off that I just happened to catch? There’s only one way to find out, and that is to see if there are more sick stars in the field. So that’s what I did the following two days. I had planned to visit three intertidal sites where I expect Pisaster ochraceus to live, but my concussed brain allowed me to drive to only the two nearest sites.

I went to Natural Bridges on Saturday, where I’d been seeing lots of ochre stars over the past several months. I hadn’t seen a sick star there for years, although at the outbreak of the plague in 2013 the ochre stars disappeared suddenly. In the past couple of years I’d been happy to see lots of healthy hand-sized stars there. Last weekend it seemed I saw fewer stars than I had gotten used to seeing, but none of them were sick. Whew!

Pair of healthy Pisaster ochraceus at Natural Bridges
1 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The next day I went to Mitchell’s Cove, where I’d collected those three stars back in March. I did see lots of great-looking stars, some as small as ~6 cm in diameter and others bigger than my outstretched hand.

Trio of healthy Pisaster ochraceus at Mitchell’s Cove
2 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

But I also saw this:

Arm of a P. ochraceus that was killed by SSWS at Mitchell’s Cove
2 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

This is all that remains of an ochre star that apparently succumbed to SSWS. No other body parts are visible in the vicinity, and this arm bit was barely hanging on to the rock. Given how quickly stars can disintegrate when SSWS hits, this one probably began showing symptoms the previous day, while the tide was in and nobody would have seen it. And who knows how many other stars got sick and died without anybody noticing.

The take-home message is that I need to not let SSWS fall off my mental radar. I hope to god that my six remaining P. ochraceus in the lab remain healthy and that I can spawn them in a couple of weeks. I’ve obtained from a friend some small dishes seeded with food that tiny juvenile stars may be able to eat. I’m not too worried about getting through the larval development stage, although I probably shouldn’t get too cocky about that. In any case, it’s the post-larval juvenile survivorship that I’m really interested in. This year I don’t have Scott to help me with the husbandry and data collection. I will instead be working with another colleague, Betsy. We have a spawning date at the end of April, when the next phase of my ongoing SSWS investigation will begin.

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They deserve a prettier name than “rockweed”

As spring arrives in full force, the algae are starting to come back in the intertidal. The past two mornings I went out on the low tides to look for something very specific (which I did find–more on that later) and noticed the resurrection of the more common red algae. So early in the season the algal thalli are nice and clean, not yet having been fouled or munched. And, like all babies, they’re pretty dang cute.

Here’s a little clump of Endocladia muricata, a red alga with the common name ‘scouring pad alga.’ I’ve also heard it referred to as ‘pubic hair alga,’ by a former instructor of marine botany who shall remain nameless.

Endocladia muricata growing on the test of the large barnacle Tetraclita rubescens, at Natural Bridges
1 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

What I tried, and failed, to capture in this photo is that the strands have little thornlike extensions that give them the texture of . . . a scouring pad. Here’s a better picture of a larger clump, and if you squint you might be able to see what I’m talking about.

Endocladia muricata
1 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And here’s another baby red, this gorgeous little piece of Plocamium. When they’re young like this the branching structure is easier to see. And isn’t that color splendid? Especially with the green of the fresh young surfgrass.

A baby Plocamium, growing among the surfgrass Phyllospadix scouleri
1 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

What I was really thinking about this morning were the morphological similarities that can make it very difficult to distinguish between different species. For example, there are three species of rockweeds that are common around here: Fucus distichus, Silvetia compressa, and Pelvetiopsis limitata. Rockweeds are brown algae but are usually olive-green in color, and live in the high mid-intertidal above the mussel zone. In some places all three species occur together. Fucus (see below) is easy to recognize because its blades are wider and somewhat straplike, with prominent midribs. When Fucus is reproductive the tips of the blades become swollen and full of a gooey mucilage, which contains the gametes. There are other interesting things about sex in Fucus, and at some point I may address those in a later post.

Fucus distichus, a rockweed, at Franklin Point
17 July 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The other rockweeds, Silvetia and Pelvetiopsis, are a lot more difficult to distinguish. They both have less straplike blades. They share a generalized dichotomous branching pattern, but in neither is it as consistent as it is in Fucus.

Pelvetiopsis limitata at Mitchell’s Cove
2 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Silvetia compressa at Mitchell’s Cove
2 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This morning these two specimens were growing side by side. In terms of scale the overall length of Silvetia is about twice that of Pelvetiopsis. Keeping that in mind, what you can’t tell from these photos is that Silvetia is also coarser and stiffer, like pasta that is about a minute short of being cooked al dente–not hard, but still more firm that you’d probably like it to be. Pelvetiopsis, on the other hand, is rather soft and much more flexible.

If I were to ask you to contrast these organisms based solely on the photos above, you might say that Silvetia looks somewhat less orderly than Pelvetiopsis. And you would be right! The almost-but-not-quite-dichotomous branching in Silvetia doesn’t always occur in the same plane, resulting in a thallus that doesn’t lie flat. Look at this:

Silvetia compressa at Mitchell’s Cove
2 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

See how those branches, especially the terminal branches, don’t all come off in the same direction? That’s what I mean. A cross-section of Silvetia‘s blades would be somewhere between flat and cylindrical, also contributing to the tendency of this thallus not to lie flat. This means that when you press it it does get a little mashed looking.

Pelvetiopsis, on the other hand, is a much more regular beast. The blades are distinctly linear in cross-section and generally branch in one plane. One other thing to note is that in Pelvetiopsis the terminal branch tips are very short relative to the overall thallus length compared to those of Silvetia.

Blade tips of Pelvetiopsis limitata
2 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

A fair question to ask is: How can you tell the difference between a baby Silvetia and a full-grown Pelvetiopsis? Absolute size might not be a useful characteristic, but the other morphological traits are. The branching orientations and overall blade shapes are fairly consistent throughout the size range for each species. Consistent enough, at least, to make a good gut-level first ID guess.

I wanted to write about this because I saw the organisms, checked them off in my head, and then backed up a bit. I found myself second-guessing my instincts when it came to identifying these specimens. I mean, I know these organisms. Or, I think I do. It’s frustrating to look at the creatures I see regularly in the intertidal, organisms whose names I learned many years ago (even through the inevitable taxonomic name changes), and say to myself, “Wait a minute; is that right?” This led me to seriously consider these two rockweed species and evaluate what I really know about each of them. How do I know that one specimen is Pelvetiopsis, when it looks a hell of a lot like a baby Silvetia? I think this unusual self-doubt has to do with post-concussion syndrome. For the past several months I’ve known that words fly out of my mind as I’m trying to recall them. Why not names as well? At this stage in my recovery I’m supposed to be slowly challenging my brain as well as continuing to rest it. Finding that balance has been tricky. In a few weeks I will have my early morning low tides back. It will be easier for me to drive to intertidal sites then, and I’m going to use tidepooling as therapy. It has been good for my soul in the past, and I hope that it will also be good for my brain in the near future.

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The hunt concludes

Day 3 (Saturday 25 March 2017): Highway 25

We spent our second night on the coast in Morro Bay and came home via Highway 25. I would have enjoyed a drive up the coast, but given the road closures in Big Sur that wasn’t a possibility. Highway 25, however, proved to be a very pretty drive. It was nice to see wildflowers closer to home, too.

Almost all of the hills sported bright yellow patches, some denser than others. At first I thought they were goldfields, but as we got closer I could see that the color was too bright and lemony to be goldfields, and the plants proved to be wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis). Mustard is widely considered a weed in California. Its native habitat is the Mediterranean basin, and one hypothesis is that it arrived in California with the Franciscan friars who established missions up and down the state. Mustard is one of the first plants to bloom every spring, and it covers hillsides, agriculture fields, and the side of the road.

Scenery along Highway 25
25 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Scenery along Highway 25
25 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Highway 25
25 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

For the first time in several years the oak trees appear to be flourishing this spring. There was a lot of rain this past rainy season, and it’s such a relief to see the trees coming back to life. I’d forgotten what it is like to see so much green in a California landscape. I mean, just look!

Oak trees along Highway 25
25 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Unfortunately for us, most of the land through which Highway 25 winds is private owned, which means we couldn’t just wander off on some back road to get closer to the wildflowers. We did happen upon some lupines which were growing conveniently along the side of the road. These were the big purple bush-type lupines. They were not growing in any kind of park or protected area, so I tossed a couple of sprigs into the plant press.

Lupine (Lupinus sp.) along Highway 25
25 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

25 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

By this time the light was fading as the sun began to set behind the western hills, so we headed home. I made it through three days of riding in the car without having a panic attack, which is much better than my concussed brain could have managed a few months ago. All in all it was a great trip, made even better because we got to spend some time with friends and family. These superblooms don’t occur every year, and I’m very glad that I was able to see some of this one.

If you’re considering making a trip to see the wildflowers in the desert areas of southern California, stop thinking about it and just go! If you can spare even a single night away, you will see some awesome displays of Nature’s majesty. And it won’t last much longer, so go now. Don’t worry so much about actual destinations; just keep your eyes open for blooms wherever you can see them and be prepared to travel off the beaten path, because the flowers could be anywhere.

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The hunt resumes

Day 2 (24 March 2017): Tehachapi, Antelope Valley, and Wind Wolves

We spent the night in Bakersfield and the next morning (24 March 2017) headed up over Tehachapi Pass and headed into Antelope Valley.

It had been many years since I’d driven over Tehachapi Pass, and I didn’t remember ever having seen Joshua trees before. Maybe I was always sleeping on that part of the trip. Once we got past the windmills at the top of the pass–most definitely Not Good for my concussed brain–and started descending into the valley there were Joshua trees all over the place! So cool! And with this year being the 30th anniversary of U2’s best (in my opinion) album, how appropriate.

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) in the Tehachapi Mountains
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

To my admittedly inexperienced eye, Joshua trees are the symbols of the Mojave Desert, as the saguaro is the symbol of the Sonoran Desert. None of the Joshua trees that we saw at Tehachapi were blooming, although I heard from a friend that they were in bloom slightly farther south at Lancaster.


Continuing on, we drove through the desert scrubbiness and eventually could see orange splashed onto the distant hills. We stopped to pick up sandwiches at a corner market and then headed towards the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. And bang! all of a sudden we were in the poppy fields.

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in Antelope Valley
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

California’s state flower grows as either a perennial or an annual, depending on how much water it receives. In desert areas in the south it behaves like an annual, whereas in moister areas along the coast and in gardens it can come back as a perennial. There are several subspecies of E. californica, each adapted to a particular habitat within the state. Blossom color varies from a golden yellow (very similar to that of fiddlenecks, actually) to a deep intense orange.

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in Antelope Valley
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Our intent was to stop at the visitor center of the park and pick up a trail map, but we never got there. We arrived at early mid-day on a Friday, when everybody from Los Angeles showed up, and the line of cars trying to get into the park was backed up almost to the road. Um, no thanks. Besides, we saw all these poppies from the road, and could find places sort of off the beaten track with fewer people tromping around with selfie sticks than would be inside the actual park. Now I’m not one to discourage people from visiting our state parks, but if you decide to go here, try to arrive earlier in the morning on a midweek day. And time your visit for a sunny day, when the poppies will be open.

Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and goldfields (Lasthenia californica) near the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Field of poppies (Eschscholzia californica)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And looking up towards the hills we saw pastel paintings. The orange flowers are poppies, I’m guessing that the yellow is goldfields, and the purple is lupines.

And in terms of lupines, Antelope Valley was the best place we visited. When we made plans to come here I had grandiose ideas of capturing that perfect iconic photograph of purple lupines and orange poppies together. You know the one. Unfortunately I think we arrive a week or two early to catch the peak of the lupine bloom. I never did see nice full lush poppies and blooming lupines in the same spot.

We did, however, see several nice lupine bushes in the various washes around the poppy reserve. Honeybees were glad to see them, too.

A deep purple lupine (Lupinus sp.) in Antelope Valley
24 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A foraging honeybee checks out the lupine blossom
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong


As glorious as the poppies were, we needed to keep moving in order to meet up with friends on the coast. Working our way westward we stopped at the Wind Wolves Preserve, an ecological reserve managed by the Wildlands Conservancy. I had never heard of the place and wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a lovely surprise.

There are, of course, no wolves in this part of California. So then, why the name? According to a sign at the head of the wildflower trail, the name refers to the Preserve’s long grasses, which undulate like running animals when the wind blows through them. I wasn’t carrying the tripod with me so I didn’t try to take any video. However, on our way from Antelope Valley we stopped at Tejon Pass, where the wind was blowing pretty well. I took this video there.

It does look like one of those aerial views of a herd of galloping ungulates, doesn’t it? Perhaps not wind wolves, exactly, but at the Preserve it was easy to imagine how the place got its name. The wildflower walk, a bit less than a mile long, winds through rolling hills covered with grasses and dotted here and there with flowers. There were several small groups of people hiking the trail, and it wasn’t uncommon to have them disappear completely from the landscape when they got lost in the grasses as the trail dipped into a small depression.

Wind Wolves Preserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Wind Wolves Preserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

No doubt the resemblance to running wolves will be stronger when the grasses are a bit taller.

We were perhaps two weeks ahead of the bloom and most of the flowers were just starting to open up. The overall effect was a cool wash of green dotted here and there with bright splashes of color. There were lupines, of a smaller ground-growing type rather than the bush lupines we had seen in Antelope Valley, and a plant that we had first seen a lot of on the Carrizo Plain, another whimsically named flower called purple owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta). As its scientific name implies, owl’s clover is a member of the paintbrush family of plants.

Purple owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta) and a small, dark lupine (Lupinus bicolor, perhaps) among the grasses at Wind Wolves Preserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And this might well be my favorite photo of the entire trip:

Purple owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Horned lark (Eremophila alpestris)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

We had already seen many familiar and not-so-familiar birds on the trip, and it was at Wind Wolves that I saw my first ever horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). This individual wasn’t very shy at all; it let us approach within 2 meters on the trail before running off ahead to wait for us again. It had such expressive postures, and a curious look on its face. If there hadn’t been a family with small kids behind us on the trail, I could have watched this bird for a long time. But we couldn’t block the trail just because there was an interesting (to us) bird standing in it, so we let the family pass and the lark flew off into the grasses. They are social birds so no doubt it had friends and family of its own to join.

We saw lizards, too, most notably the western side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana ssp. elegans). These lizards have very interesting gender expression, depending on color morph: there are three male morphs (orange-throat, yellow-stripe, and blue-throat) and two female morphs (orange-throat and yellow-throat). Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? The female morphs differ in egg-laying strategy. Orange-throat females lay many small eggs and defend territories, while yellow-throat females lay fewer larger eggs and are less territorial.

Western side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana ssp.elegans)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Work by Barry Sinervo’s group at UC Santa Cruz showed that the three male color morphs also have different reproductive strategies. They are locked in an evolutionary game of rock-paper-scissors: each color can dominate one (but not both) of the other colors. Note that in this context ‘dominate’ doesn’t necessarily mean that one lizard beats up the other, but rather has greater reproductive success than the other. Orange-throats are the most typically testosterone-driven males; they are more aggressive towards other males and control territories containing several females. Yellow-stripe “sneaker” males hang around the edges of an orange-throated male’s territory and sneak copulations with females while the territory holder’s attention is elsewhere. Blue-throats have an intermediate level of aggression; they can defend a single female from other blue-throats and yellow-stripes, but not against an orange-throat. In a nutshell:

  • Orange beats Blue but loses (sometimes) to Yellow
  • Blue beats Yellow but loses to Orange
  • Yellow beats Orange (sneakily) but loses to Blue

Pretty dang cool, isn’t it?

Next installment: The voyage home

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