it is another case of "if you plant it, they will come."
Right now the common desert shrubs called brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) are in full flower.
Many pollinators use the flowers as a source of nectar and pollen, including honey bees, butterflies, and flower flies.
In addition to the dainty little flower fly on the right, this flower has another visitor, an easily recognizable one. It is a lady bug, or more accurately lady beetle, of course.
Many of the flowers had lady beetles sitting on them. Why?
It is well known that lady beetles can supplement their diets with flower pollen, but these plants also offer something else.
Lady beetles are mostly aphid specialists. The larvae eat many aphids per day. The aphids feed on the brittlebush, which in turn feed the lady beetles.
The plants actually support two kinds of lady beetle. In the above photograph is the seven-spotted lady beetle, Coccinella septempunctata. Common in Europe, it was introduced to North America in the last century. As the name suggests, it has seven black spots on its forewings.
The species we encountered first is the convergent lady beetle, Hippodamia convergens. Native to North America, you can tell these beetles by the two "converging" white lines on the back of the thorax.
The number of spots on the wings of convergent lady beetles varies a lot and sometimes the spots are tiny/nonexistent like on the beetle in the photograph above.
Now you are an expert, can you figure out what species of lady beetle is featured in the header of this blog?
Where did the lady beetles come from?
Lady beetles migrate.
Aphids are cool season insects, so here in the low desert they arrive in late winter and early spring. By summer the aphids are gone and so are the lady beetles. The beetles fly into the mountains where they may complete another generation and/or form large aggregations to overwinter. When temperatures begin to warm, they fly back to low lying regions to start the cycle again.
The bottom line is that without the brittlebush and without the aphids, we wouldn't see lady beetles.
I haven't really made a big announcement about it, but on October 6, 2020 my picture book, How to Build an Insect (illustrated by Anne Lambelet) is coming out. There is a preorder page on Amazon, but -- sorry -- no cover yet.
To celebrate, I'm starting a series of posts to encourage children to learn about insects through building models, creating art and making crafts. Each post will feature ideas for a particular insect group.
Just in time for spring, let's make some bees!
Because we are looking at bees from a STEAM perspective, it is important to emphasize that bees are insects. They have three distinct body regions: head, thorax, and abdomen. Bees have six legs and four wings attached to the thorax. They have eyes and antennae on their heads. Creating an accurate model will reinforce these facts.
First, gather photographs of bees and age-appropriate books on the topic. Freshly emerged this month and with many starred reviews, we recommend the picture book Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Eric Rohmann. For a full summary and review, fly over to our sister blog, Wrapped in Foil.
Activity 1. Paper models of bees
Markers and/or crayons
Glue sticks or tape
Computer paper or newspaper for wings
For the youngest children, cut out ovals for the head, thorax and abdomen, as well as paper strips to be the legs and antennae. Cut elongate triangles of white paper or newspaper for wings.
Have the children assemble the parts and glue together.
Cut out body parts from construction paper or computer paper, assemble, and decorate.
Detail Note: What color are bees?
Check out any bee craft on the internet and they are likely to have contrasting yellow and black stripes. Bold, contrasting colors like that are examples of warning coloration, a sign that animal is defended in some way.
Not all bees are yellow and black, though. They can be almost any color.
Honey bees are orangish to brown and black.
This sweat bee resembles the hues of a peacock: teal, blues, and purple.
This one is green and gold.
The bottom line is to let the children explore color. No need to limit them to yellow and black.
Activity 2. Draw bees
Older children may want to use their art skills and draw bees. Check out the video below for step by step instructions. Cool!
If a child is not confident about drawing, consider starting with a stencil.
The stencil can be filled in using crayons, colored pencils, or markers, but I chose oil pastels.
Make a heavy outline of the stencil with the oil pastel.
Using a finger or bit of tissue, draw the pastels from the edge by rubbing. This creates a shading effect.
Remove the stencil and fill in details like antennae, if desired.
Activity 3. Model bee
(Amazon Affiliate link)
Model Magic or air-dry clay
Chenille stems (also known as fuzzy stems or pipe cleaners)
Plastic water bottle (empty)
Form the head, thorax, and abdomen out of lumps of air-dry clay or Model Magic. Join them together. (Hint: Using short pieces of chenille embedded between the body sections will create added support.) Add contrasting-colored ovals to head for eyes.
Cut 2 chenille stem pieces for antennae and insert into clay head. Cut 6 chenille stem pieces for legs. Insert into clay thorax.
Cut elongate triangle wing-shaped pieces from an empty plastic water bottle to form wings. Overlap and embed the attachment end into the thorax, so the bottoms of the wings cover the abdomen.
I purposely left the instructions a bit vague to allow for creativity, but if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.