The Little Things: An Entomological Perspective

Male sweat bee (probably Halictus tripartitus) on mustard plant. (c) 2012 MRS All rights reserved.

This past Labor Day weekend, I went on a camping trip with my in-laws to Big Sur. Some people go to Big Sur with a copy of Dharma Bums in their back pockets. Other people go there to take in the beauty of the landscape and the fresh sea air. Still more people visit to retreat into the stillness of the redwood forest. Nearly all have digital cameras slung around their necks, ready to capture the beauty of the moment. But while you can find most tourists crowding around the railing to take majestic photos of things like this:

You can always pick out the -ologists because we are foolishly squatting, blocking the trail, taking photos of bugs and weeds:

(c) 2012 MRS

A cloud of these little guys, so small that they could easily be mistaken for small flies, were swarming the weeds on the side of the trail. Based on the length of the antennae, the striping of the abdomen, and the color of the legs, I am betting they are male sweat bees (Halictus tripartitus). While male bees typically come out earlier in the season than females (see The Dastardly Deeds of Male Bees), Halictus tripartitus males arrive on the scene later in the season than the hardworking females. This is because sweat bees are social, with a single female waiting out the Winter and founding a nest (complete with workers, drones, and future queens) in the Spring. Because the first generation of offspring she produces are entirely female workers (it’s a lot of hard work to establish a nest), there is no point in laying male eggs until later. Remember: male bees are pretty much useless except for mating. So in late Summer/early Fall, once the party has been long over for most bee species, we see swarms of these late arriving sweat bee males, looking for action.

Pollen grains under a SEM microscope (Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College)

We are fortunate to live in a reality in which beauty surrounds us on all scales, from the microscopic pollen grains sticking to the hairs of the bee to the vast ocean serving as a backdrop to the scene. Our interests and backgrounds often shape the focus and scale in which we perceive this beauty. One of the great pleasures in my life has been learning how to appreciate the world in different ways, from landscapes to plants and insects to human art forms. This blog acted as a vehicle for me to share one way in which I perceive beauty in this world. It has been a lot of fun for me, and I hope that you are enjoying it as well. Thanks for reading!

Mimulus sp.. (c) 2012 MRS All rights reserved

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6 responses to “The Little Things: An Entomological Perspective

  1. This is an amazing account of the beauty that surrounded us on this trip. Unfortunately, I did not see it from your unique perspective, and failed to notice the plant-life and the different insects you featured here. As I am reading your blog, I realize how many things I actually don’t see in my day-to-day life, and I thank you for inspiring me to open my eyes and take a second look.

    • Thanks for your kind words. As an artist, I am sure that there are many things you see and appreciate to which I am entirely oblivious. Let’s learn from each other!

  2. . “Remember: male bees are pretty much useless except for mating.” Ooops reminds me of another specie (to which I belong)…. Just being funny. But yes, there is so much beauty around us both macro and micro. Thanks for highlighting the micro part.

  3. Your technical insight with the bonus of appreciation for beauty make for such an interesting read! Congratulations! I really enjoy your selection of beautiful photos!

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