Celebrating the New Year with Bumble Bees in Benicia

Celebrating the New Year with Bumble Bees in Benicia

While folks from Alaska to Colorado to New York to Maine are shivering in freezing temperatures, here in sunny California--well, at least parts of the Golden State are sunny--bumble bees are foraging on winter blooms.

Bumble bees? On the first day of the year?

Yes. We spotted a dozen yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, nectaring this morning in Benicia, Solano County, Calif.

They were foraging on jade at the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park and on rosemary at the Benicia Marina.  Honey bees and syrphid flies joined them. We also saw some hungry predators--birds--chasing them.

For the last several years, several of us bumble bee aficionados--led by Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis--seek to find and photograph the first bumble bee of the year.

Last year the big winner was naturalist and insect photographer Allan Jones of Davis. At 2:02 p.m., on Friday, Jan. 27,  he alerted us: "Two Bombus melanopygus on manzanita just east of the redwood grove (UC Davis Arboretum)."

And then he found another melanopygus. It was a three-in-one day.

The story behind the story: Inspired by Robbin Thorp, a small group of eager bumble bee aficionados--naturalists and insect photographers Gary Zamzow and Allan Jones of Davis, and yours truly of UC Davis--launched the First-Bumble-Bee-of-the-Year Contest six years ago.

It's a take-off of Art Shapiro's "Beer for a Butterfly" contest. Shapiro, a distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, offers a pitcher of beer for the first cabbage white butterfly (Pierae rapae) of the year found in the three-county area of Sacramento, Yolo and Sacramento. He launched the contest in 1972 as part of his long-term studies of butterfly life cycles and climate. 

For us bumble bee aficionados, the prize isn't a pitcher of beer. There's no prize. It's basically to provide a few more eyes to help Robbin Thorp track early-season bumble bees.

Thorp is the co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday).

Meanwhile, look around for bumble bees in your area. You won't find them in the "deep freeze" states like Alaska, North Dakota or Minnesota. And you certainly won't find them in Hettinger, N.D., where the temperature dipped to a negative 45 degrees today.

But if you're in Benicia or another sunny place, it's a Bumble Bee Kind of Day and what a way to begin the New Year! 

Happy New Year!