This afternoon we got a call about some bees that were swarming in a residential neighborhood near us. We had caught a swarm the other day and that was a very good thing, as both of the colonies in our Apiary #1 had died out in the last few weeks. The first swarm went into our Green hive and earlier today they appeared to be settling in nicely, making orientation flights. They were a decently sized swarm, filling up about 10 cm in a 5-gallon bucket and, as long as they have a queen that gets herself mated they should do fine.
That swarm was in a tree, requiring the use of the swarm-catching-bucket-on-a-long-pole that Alex rigged up.
Once the bucket was in place under the swarm Alex gave it a good thump to knock the bees off the cluster. Given the density of the foliage it wasn't possible to get all the bees to fall into the bucket, so he left the bucket perched nearby. If the queen had fallen with the first clump into the bucket, the rest of the swarm should follow her scent and join her.
Which they did. And now they live in our Green hive.
Today's swarm was very different. These bees had just started gathering on the ground near a fire hydrant, and lots of bees were still in the air. They had formed a large patch on the ground. The resident of the house where the swarm was said the bees had been in a cluster hanging from the tree by the curb. This is typical swarm behavior. However, sometimes the queen falls from the cluster and ends up on the ground; because she's a weak flyer she usually stays there, and of course all of the workers eventually end up where she is.
Knowing that the queen was somewhere in that mass of bees on the ground, Alex's strategy was to find her and catch her in that little trap. The workers will follow the scent of their mother (or sister), so if we place the trapped queen where we want the bees to go, chances are we can persuade them to follow her.
It turned out that there were two queens in the swarm, which can happen. When a colony is preparing to throw its first swarm of the season, the workers will make some queen cells in the old hive. That way, when they depart and drag the old queen with them, the hive won't be left queenless. Sometimes one of the new queens emerges just as the swarm is taking off and gets caught up in the melee.
Alex found two queens on the ground. One he caught in the little trap, and one he caught by hand and set in the bucket. Without the security of a second trap the queen in the bucket was 'balled'--the bees literally killed her either accidentally (i.e., by smothering her) or deliberately (because they didn't like her for some reason). Anyway, when all was said and done the swarm was left with a single queen.
And it works!
Eventually most of the bees were in the box. Alex released the queen from her little cage and prodded her to go down. The last thing we wanted to see was her taking off into the air again! She eventually crawled down, and the bees did exactly what they were supposed to do.
Once most of the bees had made their way into the box, Alex closed it up. We'll let it sit there until evening, when the last of the stragglers should head inside. Then we can bring them home and install them in our Rose hive.
This weekend I was supposed to take a photographer and his assistant into the field to hunt for staurozoans. I mean a real photographer, one who has worked for National Geographic. He also wrote the book One Cubic Foot. You may have heard of the guy. His name is David Liittschwager. Anyway, his assistant contacted me back in March, saying that he was working on something jellyfish-related for Nat Geo and hoped to include staurozoans in the story, and did I know anything about them? As in, maybe know where to find them? It just so happens that I do indeed know where to find staurozoans, at least sometimes, and we made a date to go hunting on a low tide. Then early in May the assistant contacted me to let me know that David's schedule had changed and he couldn't meet me today, and she hoped they'd be able to work with me in the future, and so on.
None of which means that I wouldn't go look for them anyways. I'd made the plans, the tide would still be fantastic, and so I went. And besides, these are staurozoans we're talking about! I will go out of my way to look for them as often as I can. Not only that, but I hadn't been to Franklin Point at all in 2018 and that certainly needed to be remedied.
The sand has definitely returned. The beach is a lot less steep than it was in the winter, and some of the rocks are completely covered again. This meant that the channels where staurozoans would likely be found are shallower and easier to search. But you still have to know where to look.
See that large pool? That's where the staurozoans live. They like areas where the water constantly moves back and forth, which makes them difficult to photograph in situ. And given that the big ones are about 2 cm in diameter and most of them are the same color as the algae they're attached to, they're a challenge to find in the first place. I looked for a long time and was about to give up on my search image when I found a single small staurozoan, about 10 mm in diameter, quite by accident. It was a golden-brown color, quite happily living in a surge channel. I took several very lousy pictures of it before coming up with the bright idea of moving it up the beach a bit to an area where the water wasn't moving quite as much. I sloshed up a few steps and found a likely spot, then placed my staurozoan where the water was deep enough for me to submerge the camera and take pictures.
Cute little thing, isn't it? I had my head down taking pictures of this animal, congratulating myself on having found it. When I looked around me I saw that I had inadvertently discovered a whole neighborhood of staurozoans. They were all around me! And some of them were quite large, a little over 2 cm in diameter. All of a sudden I couldn't not see them.
I know I've seen staurozoans in the same bottle green color as the Ulva, but this time I saw only brown ones. As you can see even the animals attached to Ulva were brown. Staurozoans seem to be solitary creatures. They are not permanently attached but do not aggregate and are not clonal. Most of the ones I found were as singles, although I did find a few loose clusters of 3-4 animals that just happened to be gathered in the same general vicinity.
Not much is known about the biology of Haliclystus, or any of the staurozoans. I collected some one time many years ago, and brought them back to the lab for closer observation. They seemed to eat Artemia nauplii very readily, and I did get to observe some interesting behaviors, but they all died within a week or so. Given that I can find them only in certain places at Franklin Point, they must be picky about their living conditions. Obviously I can't provide what they need at the marine lab. The surging water movement, for example, is something that I can't easily replicate. I need to think about that. The mid-June low tides look extremely promising, and my collecting permit does allow me to collect staurozoans at Franklin Point. Maybe I'll be able to rig up something that better approximates their natural living conditions in the lab.
Every once in a while some random person drops off a creature at the marine lab. Sometimes the creature is a goldfish that had been a take-home prize at a wedding over the weekend (now weddings taking place at the Seymour Center are not allowed to include live animals in centerpieces). Once it was a spiny lobster that spent the long drive up from the Channel Islands in a cooler, and became the Exhibit Hall favorite, Fluffy. This time the objects had been collected off the beach and brought in by somebody who thought they might still be alive.
These white objects are egg masses of the California market squid, Doryteuthis opalescens, that had been cast onto the beach at Davenport. Sometimes the masses are called fingers or candles, because they're about finger-sized. Each contains dozens of large eggs. Squids, like all cephalopods, are copulators, and after mating the female deposits a few of these fingers onto the sea floor. Many females will lay their eggs in the same spot, so the eggs in this photo represent the reproductive output of several individuals. The cephalopods as a group are semelparous, meaning that they reproduce only once at the end of their natural life; salmons are also semelparous. After mating, the squids die. Not coincidentally, the squid fishing season is open right now, the idea being that as long as the squids have reproduced before being caught in seines, little harm is done to the population. Most of the time the squids are dispersed throughout the ocean, and the only time it is feasible to catch them in large numbers is when they gather to mate.
These egg masses look vulnerable, but they're very well protected. The outer coating is tough and leathery, and the eggs must taste bad because nothing eats them. I've fed them to anemones, which will eat just about anything, and they were spat out immediately.
The eggs were brought to the Seymour Center because the person who brought them in thought they might make a good exhibit. I happened to be there that day and got permission to take a small subset of the bunch so I could keep an eye on them. And they did and still do make a good exhibit.
16 April 2018: I obtain squid eggs!
At this stage it is impossible to tell whether or not the eggs are alive. The only thing to do was wait and see.
30 April 2018: After waiting two weeks with apparently no change, I decided it was time to look at the egg fingers more closely again. Lo and behold, they are indeed alive! Look at the pink spots in the individual eggs--those are eyes. And if you can see the smaller pink spots, those are chromatophores, the 'color bodies' in the squids' skin that allow them to perform their remarkable color changes.
9 May 2018: A week and a half later, the embryos definitely look more like squids! Their eyes and chromatophores have darkened to black now. The embryos are also more active, swimming around inside their egg capsules. You can see the alternating contraction and relaxation of the mantle, which irrigates the gills. Squids have two gills. More on that below.
At this point the squid fingers began to disintegrate and look ragged. They became flaccid and lightly fouled with sediment.
14 May 2018 (today): Almost a month after they arrived, my squid eggs look like they're going to hatch soon! I didn't see any chromatophore flashing, though.
In the meantime, some of the eggs on exhibit in the Seymour Center have already started hatching. The first hatchlings appeared on Friday 11 May 2018. The hatchlings of cephalopods are called paralarvae; they aren't true larvae in the sense that instead of having to metamorphose into the adult form, they are miniature versions of their parents.
Peter, the aquarium curator at the Seymour Center, allowed me to take a few of the paralarvae in his exhibit and look at them under the scope. The squidlets are about 3mm long and swim around quite vigorously. Trying to suck them up in a turkey baster was more difficult than I anticipated. But I prevailed!
You can actually see more of what's going on in a video:
The cup-shaped layer of muscular tissue that surrounds the squid's innards is the mantle. When you eat a calamari steak, you are eating the mantle of a large squid.The space enclosed by the mantle is called the mantle cavity. Because the paralarvae are transparent you can see the internal organs. Each of those featherlike structures is a ctenidium, which is the term for a mollusk's gill. The ventilating motions of the mantle flush water in and out of the mantle cavity, ensuring that the gill is always surrounded by clean water.
And now we get to the hearts of the matter. At the base of each gill is a small pulsating structure called a branchial heart ('branch' = Gk: 'gill'). It performs the same function as the right atrium of our own four-chambered heart; that is, boosting the flow of blood to the gas-exchange structure. So that's two hearts. Between the pair of branchial hearts is the systemic heart, which pumps the oxygenated blood from the gills to the rest of the squid's body. This arrangement of multiple hearts, combined with a closed circulatory system, allows cephalopods to be much more active swimmers and hunters than the rest of their molluscan kin.
I expect that my fingers will hatch very soon. If and when they do, it will be a challenge getting them to eat. I've never tried it myself, and cephalopods are known to be difficult to rear in captivity. But I'm willing to give it a shot!
This weekend a subset of my students and I spent a day at the Fort Ord Natural Reserve (FONR) to participate in the 2018 spring Bioblitz. We were supposed to visit FONR for a class field trip in early March to do some vegetation studies, but that trip was rained out. Today's visit was sort of a make-up for that missed lab; because it's a Saturday I couldn't compel the students to attend, but I offered a little extra-credit for those who did. It just so happened that Joe Miller, the field manager at FONR, had organized a Bioblitz for another group of students, and he welcomed my Ecology class as well.
Located adjacent to the city of Marina in Monterey County, FONR is one of five natural reserves administered by the campus of UC Santa Cruz. The other four are the Campus Reserve (on the main campus of UCSC), Younger Lagoon Reserve (on UCSC's Coastal Science Campus), Año Nuevo Natural Reserve (up the coast in San Mateo County), and Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve (along the Big Sur coast). FONR occupies some 600 acres of a former military base that was closed in 1994. The reserve opened in 1996. As with all the other UC natural reserves, FONR exists to provide students, teachers, and researchers with natural lands to be used as outdoor classrooms and laboratories. Field courses at UC Santa Cruz and CSU Monterey Bay make extensive use of FONR, and students carry out independent studies and internships there.
After all of the participants arrived at the Reserve, Joe described the activities he had planned for the day. He told us that we could wander around the Reserve on our own if we wanted, but there were several hikes we could choose to join:
One to where some people were finishing up the day's bird banding activities
One to collect samples of environmental DNA
One to ID various tracks in the sand
One to the different habitats and vegetation types
One to check out some pitfall traps for small rodents and reptiles
Because my knowledge of the local flora is sorely lacking, I went on the plant hike with Joe. Many of the spring wildflowers had either finished or were finishing up their yearly bloom. The poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is looking amazing this year; I think it has been able to take advantage of two consecutive wet seasons with a decent amount of rain. There were many poison oak plantlets scattered around all over the place, and the established bushes are lush and green. There is no way I didn't come into contact with the stuff at least once on this hike, so today is going to be the true test of whether or not I am allergic to it.
Much of the terrain at FONR is a maritime chaparral. The soil is extremely sandy (Pleistocene sand dunes, Joe says) with a poor nutrient load and water content. It's not a desert, because we do get a fair amount of precipitation along the Monterey Bay, but the plants have adapted to thrive with low soil moisture levels. It's also often very windy, and there are no trees. Even the coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), which can be magnificently massive and meandering, are stunted here. Much of the foliage is low-growing perennial shrubs or annual plants.
Joe led us through the habitats of the Reserve, mostly on trails but also along narrow-to-nonexistent tracks that we called Poison Oak Lane, Rattlesnake Drive, and Tick Alley. And yes, we did see a rattlesnake! My husband spotted it, right about where he was going to put his foot. It wasn't a big snake, maybe half a meter long, and was sunning itself in a narrow opening between manzanita bushes. I didn't stop to take a picture because there wasn't a good space to do so, and I wanted to let other hikers pass the snake quickly. The snake didn't seem to react to us, but it's always a good idea to leave them alone.
Just beyond where we saw the rattler, Joe had found a pair of southern alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata) mating. When Joe picked them up the male had grabbed the female with a bite behind her head; he does this to keep her from running away, and it also shows his strength and suitability as a father for the female's offspring. The lizards didn't like being interrupted in copulo, so to speak, and the male released the female and escaped back to the ground, leaving his lady love behind in Joe's hand. Hopefully they were able to find each other again once they were both let go.
To me, the picture above exemplifies what a Bioblitz is all about. We have two people examining a natural phenomenon, and one of them is taking a picture that he will presumably upload to iNaturalist. People learn a lot when they participate in a Bioblitz--they usually see things they've never paid attention to before, and when their observations are ID'd or corroborated by the community of iNat experts, they get to put a name to the thing they saw. True, it's a better learning experience to sit down with a specimen, hand lens, and book to figure out what an organism is, but most people don't have either the inclination or the luxury of time and the necessary books. And while I'd rather have people look at the real thing with their eyes instead of their phones, getting people to go outdoors and pay any attention at all to their surroundings is a minor victory. I find Bioblitzes to be a little unsettling sometimes. My preferred method for observation is to examine fewer things in greater depth; this is what my graduate advisor Todd Newberry referred to as "varsity" observations. I don't think a Bioblitz has any place in varsity studies, because of its very raison d'être--to record as many observations as possible--means to some degree that instead of taking a deep look you have to glance-and-go. Still, it does have its place in natural history, and I value it as a way to get more people involved in science.
I was on the plant hike, so many of the organisms I photographed and uploaded to iNat are new to me. Some are California endemics and all have adapted to survive in the difficult conditions of a maritime chaparral.
And I did see one of the California native thistles. Invasive thistles are such a problem that the knee-jerk response is to stomp on them or yank them out of the ground. This one, for which I'm still waiting on an ID confirmation, is silvery and sort of looks like cobwebs. Joe said that its blossom is a bright pink.
And one of my newish old favorite wildflowers, Castilleja exserta, was there. The purple owl's clover occurs throughout California; in 2017 I saw a lot of it on my wildflower excursion to the southern part of the state. It varies in color from purple to pink to white and thus has multiple common names.
We also saw a lot of the peak rushrose, Helianthemum scoparium. It is a California native species that does well in dry, sandy areas, such as throughout most of Fort Ord.
While I was leaning down to photograph this plant, one of the Reserve volunteers pointed out a much paler version nearby. He told me that most of the time the peak rushrose has brilliant yellow flowers, but there are always a few that have this much more delicate color.
And speaking of yellow, I discovered another new-to-me organism! What at first glance looked like a blotch of spray paint on a tree trunk turned out to be something much more interesting--a gold dust lichen in the genus Chrysothrix.
The lichen book1 that I have describes two species of Chrysothrix, both of which can be found in coastal regions of California. The species have some overlap in habitat, with C. granulosa usually living on bark and occasionally on wood or rock, while C. xanthina can regularly be found on bark, wood, and rock. Nor is color by itself an entirely useful characteristic: C. granulosa is described as brilliant yellow, and C. xanthina can be brilliant yellow, yellow-green, or yellow-orange. There are certain tests that would be able to distinguish between the species, but field ID when the lichen is 'brilliant yellow' remains problematic. So while I'd guess that this specimen is Chrysothrix granulosa (based on a combination of color, location, habitat, and good old-fashioned gut feeling) I can't be at all certain.
The discussion of lichens brings us around to the animals. Did you know that fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants? Well they are, despite being included in more botany than zoology courses. And of course we did see animals on our plant hike. Hawks and turkey vultures soared overhead, song birds and hummingbirds flitted among the trees and shrubs, alligator lizards mated, and there was that one rattlesnake, which even the people on the herps walk didn't get to see. As we hiked through the various plant communities in the Reserve, Joe occasionally called out "If you see a horned lizard, catch it!" A woman in our group, Yvonne, managed to do so, despite being loaded down with a backpack and a camera. She pounced on it and held it up for us to photograph.
Cute little thing, isn't it?
The last critter we saw as we were walking back to the gate after lunch was a juvenile gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer). By the time I got there the snake was resting in the road. It was a very pretty snake. I wanted to take it home and release it into my yard, where there are enough gophers to feed an entire family of snakes, but alas, collecting is not allowed at the Reserve. I do wish that a gopher snake would move into my yard, though.
It is now about 24 hours since we got home. We did our tick checks and didn't find anything, thank goodness, then showered and scrubbed. There's no doubt that we were both exposed to poison oak; it is impossible NOT to be, this time of year. This is the real test for whether or not I am allergic to it. I haven't been so far, but there's a first time for everything and I will never say that I will never get it. My husband, who gets poison oak very easily and very badly, says it could take up to two days to be sure. I'm not itchy today. Tomorrow may be a different story, though.
1Sharnoff, S. 2014. A Field Guide to California Lichens, Yale University Press
For several years now I've been lusting for a good compound microscope. I wanted one that I could call my very own, and thus justify allowing people to use it only after they have been trained by ME in how to use it correctly, and I wanted it to have certain features that the old lab scope I'd been using didn't have. Or maybe had but didn't work that well. I never wanted anything especially fancy or high-tech--no USB capability or polarizing light necessary. I knew I wanted a non-standard set of objective lenses (10x, 20x, 40x) so would probably not be able to buy a microscope off the shelf, so to speak. I also wanted to take really good photographs through the scope, using my DSLR. The iPhone-through-the-eyepiece does surprisingly well, but it felt like it was time to grow up and use a real camera to take photomicrographs.
These were the must-have features:
A 20x objective! Most compound scopes have 4x, 10x, 40x, and 100x objectives. That jump between 10x and 40x is huge, and I got spoiled because the old lab scope has a 20x objective that provides the perfect magnification for my needs. Seriously, that 20x is the Goldilocks of objective lenses!
Brightfield, darkfield, and phase-contrast lighting
A trinocular head so I can attach my DSLR and still have two eyepieces to look through while the camera is mounted
Fortunately, microscopes are not like cars, and it is quite possible to mix and match features to build the exact instrument to suit one's needs. I did some research, decided for real that I DID NOT require either polarizing or differential interference contrast (DIC) lighting, each of which would have raised the cost by quite a bit, and bit the bullet, placing the order in early April. Some of the parts were on backorder, delaying delivery for a few weeks, and the microscope arrived last week.
I didn't have time to do more than open the boxes and see what was inside.
After this quick peek I had to wait over a busy weekend before diving into the boxes yesterday. I didn't want to try to assemble the microscope after a day of teaching, when my brain would be tired. I'm already not the most mechanically inclined person in the world, and knew I needed a fresh brain to tackle this oh-so-crucial job. Monday was the first day that I didn't have stuff scheduled in the morning, so I could devote a few hours to it.
Step 1: Remove plastic wrapping from the body and remove pieces of tape in the order mandated by the directions.
Step 2: Attach the trinocular head.
Step 3: Screw in the objective lenses. As the self-nominated Queen of Cross-threaded Fittings I was especially careful to get these right. One of the things I like about this microscope is that it comes with space for five objective lenses, so if I decide in the future to add a 100x objective or upgrade one of the others, I'll have space to do so.
The microscope went together pretty easily. It feels solid and well built.
Step 4: Find something microscopic to look at!
I picked up a piece of red filamentous alga which I thought would be Antithamnion defectum, made a wet mount, and slid it under the lens. And oh my word, the image is beautiful!
Switched to phase-contrast and was just as impressed:
See how much more definition you get with phase-contrast lighting? One of the reasons I really wanted phase-contrast is that it makes transparent organisms, which white light just passes through, visible.
And the pièce de résistance, a different piece of the same alga viewed in darkfield:
I am going to love playing with this new toy! Tomorrow I'll collect a plankton sample and do some real photomicrography. Stay tuned.