prairie

Wildlife Wednesday: Native Bees of Houston

Wildlife Wednesday: Native Bees of Houston

When most people think about bees, they think about honeybees, a species of bee that was introduced to the U.S. from Europe. Its one of the most numerous bees in the area, and if you have flowers in your garden, you’re likely to see many of them. However, honeybees aren’t the only bees that pollinate flowers around Houston. There are many more species of bees beyond honeybees, and many overlooked species of native bee that visit Houston gardens. Here, we’ll look at a few species of these native bees.

Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica), pictured above, as the name would suggest, nest by chewing holes into dead wood on branches, logs, and sometimes the wood in human made structures. Here in the park, we’ve noticed them burrowing into picnic tables, the picnic pavilions, and the border pieces on the outside of the house. Though this may be vexing, they rarely cause serious damage to structures. Unlike, honeybees, they’re not truly eusocial (colonial) bees, but live in loosely knit groups, in which there is a dominant female. Unlike “queen bees” though, the dominant females are not the only reproducing females in their group. Some carpenter bees, like the Southern Carpenter Bee (Xylopcopa micans), pictured left, are considered “solitary bees”, living in only in mating pairs.

While carpenter bees are large round bees, they are not bumble bees, which are in a different family. You can tell the difference by looking at the abdomen, which is bare on carpenter bees (look left) and furry on bumble bees (look down and to the right).

American Bumblebees (Bombus pennsylvanicus) are wide ranging fat fuzzy bees that can be seen flying slowly from flower to flower. Like carpenter bees, they are often too large to fit into some flowers to feed on nectar, and will “nectar rob”, chewing into the base of the flower to get at the nectar, without coming into contact with the pollen. Regardless of this occasional behavior, bumblebees are important and numerous pollinators for a wide variety of native flowering plants. The American Bumblebee is colonial, often excavating burrows in the ground and under logs and rocks, but have a more variable and changing social structure than that of honeybees.

The American Bumblebee, like many species of bumblebee, is declining in numbers, due to habitat loss and overuse of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids.

Metallic Green Bees (Agapostemon spp.), with their shiny green exoskeletons, are rather conspicuous when they visit a flower. Some are completely green, while others are green in the front with a yellow striped abdomen. They are in the Sweat Bee family, Halictidae, so named for their habit of occasionally landing on humans and drinking their sweat, which can be a welcome source of salts and other nutrients for bees (some butterflies, flies, and small beetles do this as well). Metallic Green Bees live communally in underground burrows. Each mating pair has its own separate burrow, where they raise their young, but the burrows are all close together, which helps with defense against predators and parasites.

Sweat bees, which are generally small bees, are important pollinators for smaller flowers, which larger bees may ignore.

Thanks for joining us this week, to learn more about some of our native bees. If you don’t find these animals in your own garden, take a trip out to the nature center sometime, and visit our native wildflower gardens or our Pocket Prairie.

See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

~ Many species of our native bees are in trouble, because of development and overuse of pesticides. You can help by planting native and wildlife friendly flowers, leaving some space for ground nesting bees, and not using neonicotinoid pesticides.

To find out more about how you can help bees, visit: https://xerces.org/bumblebees and https://www.fws.gov/pollinators/pollinatorpages/yourhelp.html

photographs: Eastern Carpenter Bee by Daniel Schwen | Wikipedia; Southern Carpenter Bee by Bob Peterson | Wikipedia; American Bumblebee by Diana Terry Hibbits | EOL; Metallic Green Bee by Jon Sullivan | Wikipedia

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Wildlife Wednesday: Lost Animals of the Coastal Prairie

Wildlife Wednesday: Lost Animals of the Coastal Prairie

There was a time, before European settlement of this part of Texas, when the area in and around the nature center would have been tall grass prairie as far as you looked. Most tall trees would have occurred on a few raised areas or along the banks of bayous. Today, 99% of this ecosystem is gone, and along with it, many of the animals that once inhabited this region. Though you may know that large herds of American Bison once roamed this area, and that morning bird song would have been deafeningly loud, you may not know about some of the predators that once prowled the tall grasses of our Coastal Prairies. Today, we’ll have a look at 4 lost species.

While most people think of Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) as creatures of Central and South American rainforests, these medium sized predators actually inhabit a variety of habitats, including deserts and grasslands, and once roamed our prairies. Today we have an extremely small population of possibly around 50 in the Southern tip of Texas, but they once ranged up the Texas coast all the way to Easternmost Louisiana. These spotted cats were driven to extinction in the state through overhunting and destruction of habitat, but have been reestablished in in the Lower Rio Grande Valley through conservation efforts by landowners, environmental groups, and government agencies, like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Jaguars (Panthera onca) are another rainforest cat that is actually more variable than many people realize, and may live in a variety of ecosystems, beyond just rainforest. Like ocelots, jaguars once ranged our prairies and bottomland hardwood forests along the gulf coastal part of the state to the Eastern edge of Louisiana. Jaguars were killed off in Texas in the early 1900s, and have not returned to the state since, but they are slowly reestablishing themselves in Southern Arizona. These large powerful predators need a lot of land to roam in, and like ocelots, need to be able to roam back and forth across the border with Mexico, in order to maintain viable hunting grounds and territories.

Louisiana Black Bears (Ursus americanus luteolus) used to range all through East Texas and down the Gulf Coast to Northern Mexico. By the early 1900s, this subspecies of the Black Bear had been made extinct in the state of Texas through overhunting and destruction of habitat. Over the last few decades, conservation and reintroduction efforts in Louisiana have increased the numbers of these endangered bears, and they are slowly reappearing in East Texas forests. We have also recently seen Mexican Black Bears reintroducing themselves into West Texas, in and around the Big Bend area.

Though we are accustomed to seeing coyotes in this part of Texas, historically, they ranged much further to the West of us, and our native wild dog in this region of Texas was the Red Wolf (Canis rufus). These critically endangered predators were not only hunted to extinction in the state of Texas, but are almost functionally extinct in the wild, only living in parts of the Southeastern U.S. with help from conservation organizations and government agencies. It is not clear that this species will be able to escape total extinction in the wild, as they still face extreme pressure from poaching and habitat degradation in the few areas in which they still occur outside of zoos and assurance colonies.

While its a bit sad to think about, its important to know what we’ve lost, and what we could have again, if we wanted to reestablish our native ecosystems to a more historically natural state. Well, I hope you enjoyed our brief look at a few species we once had roaming the land that the Nature Center now occupies.

Thanks for joining us, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs via: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Jesse McCarty | Flickr CC

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