Bee-autiful and Bee-zarre

…even the insects in my path are not loafers, but have their special errands.

~Henry David Thoreau

About two weeks ago, we took a hike at one of our favorite springtime destinations, Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, one of the many wonderful properties owned and managed by the Triangle Land Conservancy. We have been impressed and amazed by the variety and abundance of spring wildflowers that carpet the ground here and were hoping to catch the flowers at their peak. This year, we were lucky, and hit the trout lilies at their height of bloom. While Melissa and her sister went off for some exercise with a brisk hike along the trail, I did my usual snails pace walk/crawl, camera in hand, looking for anything interesting along the way.


Windflower, Thalictrum thalictroides (click photos to enlarge)

Many flowers (especially the spring beauties and trout lilies) were still closed due to the chilly temperatures and overcast skies. But the windflowers were doing their thing, quivering in the slightest breeze, flowers (with their white sepals, no petals) facing skyward.

hepatica entire plant

I found a few hepatica, Anemone americana, with their newly emerging fuzzy leaves

spring beauty bee?

Spring beauties, Claytonia virginica, opened up as the day warmed

Trout lilies in bloom

Trout lilies, Erythronium umbilicatum, with their dappled leaves (resembling the pattern of a trout)

After an hour or so, the sun started to shine and the flowers opened, beckoning the early season pollinators.

honeybee on trout lily

Honeybee visiting a trout lily

I was hoping to observe and photograph some of the elusive pollinators, so I was alert for any movement near the open blossoms as I eased along the trail.

native bee visiting spring beauty in Piedmont of NC

Small native bee on spring beauty

I searched for spring beauty bees, a specialist on their namesake spring ephemerals with pink pollen. I did capture one photo of what I think is a spring beauty bee (see the first photo of spring beauty above), but the bee on this plant looked different.


native bee collecting pollen from trout lily in NC Piedmont fore

A small native bee with a full pollen load

I started seeing this bee on many plants, especially the abundant trout lilies.

native bee visiting spring wildflowers in Piedmont of NC

We found a group of bees flying low over the ground near the trail juncture

At one point along the trail, we noticed a concentration of these bees flying low over the ground. I knelt down to photograph one on the leaf litter, and as I focused for another shot, it disappeared into the leaves. That’s when I noticed a nearby mound of soil with a pencil-sized hole and a pair of large eyes peering out at me.

native bee at entrance to nest tunnel in sandy soil near creek w

Bee looking out of its burrow entrance

And this is where my photos of this amazing creature end, but its fascinating story begins. We watched these bees for quite awhile and discovered what looked like a colony scattered over a large swath of ground in the floodplain of the creek. Many of the entrance mounds to their burrows were partially hidden in the leaf litter, but all were about the size of a golf ball with one hole near the top. The bees appeared to be going in laden with pollen and then exiting free of that cargo, presumably having stored it for their soon to be developing young. That night, after trying to identify the bees with various online resources, I uploaded a few images to Bug Guide and heard back the next day from a couple of their helpful experts. These are a type of plasterer bee (also called cellophane bees) – the experts best guess is this one is Colletes inaequalis, the unequal cellophane bee. The reason for their groups’ unusual common name is that females produce a secretion from their abdomen that is a type of polyester which becomes the brood cell for their young. Though these bees are solitary (a female digs her own burrow and tends it herself), they tend to nest in aggregations (sometimes in groups of hundreds or more nests), especially in sandy soil on south-facing slopes. She creates several brood cells that resemble small plastic bags in side chambers of her one-foot deep tunnel, stocks them with a liquid pollen and nectar mix, and then suspends one egg above the food larder in each cell. The more I learned about this species, the more fascinating it became. Some researchers are studying the brood cell material to see if it can be synthesized for a biodegradable plastic! To learn more about the biology of this fascinating bee (and to see some amazing photos of an excavated nest chamber and brood cell) visit these two links – Polyester bees: Born in a Plastic bag and Nature Posts: Bees That Dig Holes in the Ground.

native bee at entrance to nest tunnel in sandy soil near creek

Closer view of a docile cellophane bee

There were quite a few references to people being alarmed at finding aggregations of these bees in their yards, but there is no need to be concerned about them as they tend to be quite docile. They are among the earliest bees to be(e) active and then only for a few weeks before the entire colony is reduced to the developing larvae and pupae being underground until the following spring. Plus, they are important pollinators of early spring wildflowers, so let them be(e). One other interesting note, and an indicator of how climate change is impacting species large and small – researchers using historical museum datasets and more recent bee-monitoring data looked at the timing of spring emergence of this (and several others) species of native bees. Over the past 130 years there has been a significant shift toward earlier spring time emergence with an average ten days earlier now than in the late 1800s. That trend has been most pronounced in the last 40 years. With all these bees are doing for us (pollination services), telling us about our changing climate, and the possibility of synthesizing their unique polyester secretions, we should appreciate these fascinating master burrowers and protect them and their kin.



The Procession

Come with me into the woods where spring is advancing, as it does, no matter what, not being singular or particular, but one of the forever gifts, and certainly visible.

~Mary Oliver

I have been busy these past couple of weeks, busier than I like, especially for this time of year. It is the time of year when change happens quickly.

Giant chickweed

Giant chickweed in flower (click photos to enlarge)

I walk around the yard with coffee mug in hand, and I see new things appearing everywhere, as if by magic. We have a name for this magic – we call it Spring.

Toothwort flowers

Toothwort is a host plant for falcate orangetip butterflies

Spring is marked by us woods-watchers as a season of firsts – the first spring ephemeral wildflowers, the first snake of the season (a garter snake this year), the first opening of a buckeye bud, and the first falcate orangetip butterfly. All of these, and more, happened this week in these woods.

Spcebush twig with flowers

The tiny yellow flowers of spicebush are among the first to appear in spring

The swollen buds of the yellow spicebush flowers (Lindera benzoin) finally burst open this week. They are small, and could go almost unnoticed, except that they are an abundant splatter of color on the otherwise bare twigs in a few spots in the yard.

Trout lily flower bud

Trout lily buds are popping up throughout our shade gardens

One of my favorite spring wildflowers is the trout lily, Erythronium americanum. The mottled leaves are said to resemble the speckled skin of a trout, hence this common name. It also goes by a host of other names throughout its range including dogtooth violet (by the way, it is not a violet), fawn lily, and adder’s tongue.

Trout lily flower from above

Trout lilies are equally beautiful from above

This delicate beauty spends most of the year (40+ weeks) unseen by us, as just a bulb underground. If the plant is too young, or starved of enough nutrients, the bulb produces only one leaf, and no flower. But when things are going well for the plant, the bulb produces two leaves and a single nodding flower.

Trout lily flower clump

Dense clump of trout lily flowers

Trout lilies can form dense stands with large clumps of flowers and their arrival is surely one of the most anticipated floral displays of any woodland spring.

Spring beauty flowers 1

Spring beauty flowers (photo taken in late afternoon when flowers are starting to close for the night)

Blooming in concert with the trout lilies is another common spring ephemeral, the aptly named spring beauty, Claytonia virginica. Spring beauties can vary in color from a delicate white with faint lines to flowers having bold pink stripes on each petal. Spring beauty produces nectar and pollen to attract pollinators such as various flies and bees (especially the spring beauty bee, a pollen-specialist on spring beauty flowers). This flower is protandrous, meaning the flowers separate the timing of when they behave as a male flower (with pollen available) and when they act as a female flower (by making the stigma receptive to pollen). Each flower acts as a male for approximately one day. Then, the flower will act as a female for one day or more (generally up to a week). This helps ensure cross pollination by reducing the chances that the female plant parts receive pollen from the same flower. In the photo above, the flower on the left is older than the flower on the right. Note how the anthers have started to wither and are laying down on the petals. The anthers in the flower on the right are upright, and bright pink with pollen, and the three-part stigma is still fused together.

Wind flower bud

Windflower bud about ready to open

While these flowers are starting their short-lived blooming period, a host of other plants are waiting in line, ready to add their colors to the annual procession of a woodland spring. These next few weeks will see a steady stream of new species carrying their banners through the awakening woods. It certainly is one of the cherished “forever gifts”, and all we need to do to receive it is to take a moment, slow down, and look in the woods around us.

Redbud flower buds

Redbud trees will be flowering in the next few days