Saturday, July 30, 2011

The bee with the golden leg

Subject: the bee with the golden leg(s)

Our native post oaks and big bluestem grass can take the
high heat and drought. So can prairie natives like blazing star
and compass plants. Birds that nest in our former prairie land,
like Dickcissels, take this weather in stride. At the very least,
they aren't obviously wearing any big floppy sun hats and none
I've seen recently were lathered up with sunscreen.
This is their time.
It's like there are whole different worlds that exist side-by-side.
I was reminded of this on a visit to Searles Prairie Natural Area
in Rogers this morning. Searles is just 10 acres, and it is all that
is left of what was about 25 square miles of native Ozark prairie,
now rebranded as Rogers and Bentonville.
I park my car off highway 102. Yards and fields outside Searles
look just like yards and fields all over northwest Arkansas:
brown, crisp, overdone, burned up. Except, that is, where lawn
or flowerbed is still being watered.
By comparison, Searles is seriously green. Native prairie plants
there -- the same that settlers who came here in the 1830s
saw -- put down roots and evolved strategies to deal with July
and August. A true green zone it is.
You see big swaths of purple. These are blazing stars, with
stout straight stalks maybe three feet high. In the middle
of this high heat and drought, it's all about lush purple flowers.
They are doing this without water piped from Beaver Lake.
Midst the purple are patches of tall compass plants, marked
by bright yellow flowers, many on a single stout stalk
six feet high. Each stalk has a few to maybe a dozen flowers,
4-5 inches in diameter, and these are natural magnets.
American Goldfinches perch up there, brilliantly,
as do Dickcissels.
Bring on the heat.
Through my spotting scope I see bees with golden hind legs.
They radiate pure gold in flight. Turns out this is another part
of what makes Searles a green zone. Their bodies are hairy
and the hind legs are big and flat. When they visit flowers
the pollen sticks to hairs on their bodies. They periodically
comb the pollen onto these special hind legs. So who is
this bee who spins gold from dogdays?
I ran this question by Amber Tripodi, PhD candidate
in entomology at UA-Fayetteville, AKA "the bee gal."
Her answer: Svastra obliqua, a long-horned bee
(in the Apidae family with honey bee, bumble bees,
and carpenter bees). Some just call it the sunflower bee,
because it is so fond of them.
There is a fair amount of concern that we are losing
our bees because many agricultural crops require their
service as pollinators. To my untrained eye, bee
population looks pretty healthy out in the green zone
of native prairie. I'm not so sure about what surrounds
it and our future in the asphalt zone. You have to wonder
whether or not we are clever enough to sustain our
ever extending way of life. To paraphrase the bard,
it may be something like "To bee or not to bee,
that is the question."
What I mean is:
what impacts bees, impacts birds, impacts people.
JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas

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