Tuesday, March 29, 2022

What’s this Bug? The Valley Carpenter Bee.

Closeup of a male Valley Carpenter Bee.
After decades of living in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, I had never seen a golden bee until we found one floating in the pool last year. I was stumped as to what kind of bee it was, so I took a picture and brought it to my office full of bug people. I was informed that the golden fuzzy thing was a male carpenter bee (Xylocopa varipuncta), also known as Valley Carpenter Bees, Golden Carpenter Bees and Teddy Bear Bees.  Whatever you call them, they are really pretty.

Like many other species in the natural world, the male of the Valley Carpenter Bee (VCB) is flashier than the female. The males are a beautiful golden color, whereas the females are a flat black. She doesn’t get the looks, but she gets the size – the females are considerably bigger than the males. As a whole, carpenter bees (Xylocopa spp) are the largest bees in the US.

Female Valley Carpenter Bee
The VCB is a large, stout bee that may seem scary to some people, but it is generally a docile creature. This is due largely to the fact that they don’t have hives to protect. Instead of creating hives, the females build nests in wood (hence the “carpenter” moniker) in which to lay their eggs. They’ll tunnel into a wood host and creature multiple brood chambers. They will place a dollop of Bee Bread (a nutrient-packed, dough-like mixture of pollen, nectar and bee spit) in each chamber, lay an egg on top of it, and seal the chamber. The females will be in and out of the nest, collecting pollen and nectar, laying eggs and tending to offspring, storing pollen, or prepping the nest to be their winter home. These lady bees are not aggressive but will sting if you push them or mess with their nest. 

A piece of wood with the characteristic tunnels made by carpenter bees.
carpenter bee tunnels
While female VCB are tireless and social home-makers, the males are more solitary. According to this article, they will help their mate set up a nest and then will spend the remaining weeks of their lives in the area around the nest they’ve made. They do not live in the nest, instead they will bed down under leaves or in flowers in the area. Males in search of  a mate will be attracted to an active nest, so there can be some intense aerial fighting by the males over territory and females. A protective male VCB can probably ruin the day of a bee interloper but poses no risk to humans. They can dive-bomb you and buzz loudly around your head, but that is the most they can do as they have no stingers. Stinging is a right reserved only for the females apparently.

A golden male carpenter bee held between two fingers.
Many people have a generally unwarranted animosity towards carpenter bees. The belief is that they can and will do serious damage to structures. While this is certainly within the realm of possibility, it is not the norm in regard to VCB. These bees avoid painted or stained wood (which covers most man-made buildings) and head instead for the deciduous oak trees in their habitat. When oak isn’t convenient, they will go to any raw, soft or rotting wood. They do not feed on the wood; their need is simply a sturdy and safe place to start their family. Your best bet for keeping carpenter bees away from your house is to be proactive and take steps to block access to the wooden areas you want to protect. Fill in cracks and holes, paint and varnish exposed areas and add screening or flashing to the ends of timber. All of those steps are effective; use all of them to be extra-sure.

Like other native bees, VCB are crucial for pollination. But VCB are not completely altruistic when it comes to pollinating. Because they are so big and round, they are unable to reach the depths of long, narrow blooms. Instead of passing those flowers by, they skip the pollinating bit altogether -  they pierce the side of the flower and suck the nectar out. This belies the whole concept of mutualism between plants and pollinators, but it appears the VCB did not get the memo on that. Luckily, there are a lot of native blooms that the VCB can get into and pollinate.

Closeup of the face of a male Valley Carpenter Bee.
These beautiful, golden bees can be found from Texas to California and down into Mexico and Central America. If you live in those areas, keep an eye out for these guys buzzing around. This is the time of year when these males are at the height of their activity – by late spring they will be gone. It's a real treat to see one, I hope you get a chance to. But, in case you don’t, here’s a video.

Submitted by Pam
A gold covered bee flapping its wings.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Four-Legged Pest Control

The back of a grey cat in foreground facing a barn.
 Pest Control is an issue that anyone who keeps  domestic animals is well aware of. Here at ARBICO we offer lots of natural and non-toxic ways to address all sorts of pests. But we do not carry the oldest method available – the cat. Ever since cats started hanging around with people at least 10,000 years ago, they have been feeding on insects and rodents that are drawn to humans and the animals we raise.

 Whether you have a big ole’ farm or a small homestead, you owe it to yourself and your animals to have a barn cat. If you have resisted the idea of cat ownership perhaps I can sway you with some of the good reasons to have one.

 First of all, let’s talk rodents: Everyone knows that cats go after mice; their predilection for hunting rodents is hard-wired in them and they are indefatigable in their efforts. Mice are not just gross, but they carry multiple nasty diseases that you don’t want introduced into your barn. Since keeping your animals healthy to maintain their value (and avoid vet fees) is arguably the most important part of raising livestock, rodent control is essential. Additionally, rodents can affect your bottom line if they decide that your livestock feed is a convenient meal. Feed is expensive and any loss to rodents can do real damage to that bottom line. The minimal cost of maintaining a couple of barn cats is definitely worth it for the protection they offer.

Close-up pf a grey striped cat trying to reach a bug.
Cats help keep insect numbers in check by hunting and eating them. While eating insects is not a vet-approved diet for a cat, they can generally do so with little or no trouble (learn more here). Which is a good thing, since a cat will chase down anything that flutters, crawls, flies, or skitters past it. Felines cannot clean up an infestation for you, but they may be able to keep numbers down enough to prevent one. And even one less fly is a blessing. According to this lady, flies are “sky raisins” to cats.

A tabby cat walking in the hay through horse stalls.
Barn cats are working animals, as opposed to family pets. They need to remain independent and tolerant of people, but not aggressive and hostile. A full-on feral cat will probably not make the best of barn cats and a housecat can’t be expected to do the work. You can sometimes bring a wild cat around to your way of thinking, but what you really need is a cat that is somewhere in between. Semi-wild if you will. Your best bet for acquiring this sort of cat is to adopt a feral one through an animal shelter. A feral cat that has been in a shelter will be at least somewhat conditioned to being around people and will have learned to see us as their food source. An even better adoption choice would be through a group that works with feral cats (this one focuses candidates for barn cats). A cat you receive from both kinds of places will have been fixed and vaccinated, greatly reducing the potential for disease as well as roaming and marking behavior.

A tabby cat drinking from a black bucket with a blue bowl of food in front of it.
Acquiring a barn cat requires some commitment on your part. Although they are not pets, they are not wildlife either. You should be prepared to do what’s necessary to keep them healthy and fed. It may seem counter-intuitive to feed them if you want them to hunt mice and stuff, but it’s the thing to do. Not only is it compassionate, but you’ll also get better results from your little hunters. A well-fed cat will not only stick around, but it will also be able to spend its time patrolling its realm (aka recreational hunting) as opposed to the constant hunt for food which could lead them far away. 

The face of grey and white cat sleeping in the hay.Along with feeding them, you should provide shelter as well. Like many of your other animals, they could be easy pickings for predators, so they will need a safe and cozy place for them to hunker down at night. Feed them at the end of the day in the location where you want them overnight and they will quickly learn where they should be at nightfall. In the morning, let them out when the chickens and everyone else goes out.

Two cats by a barn door. One is black and white and one is greyish brown.
There are a few factors to consider that will work to keep your felines happy and at home. First of all, you should  be in a rural, or at least semi-rural, area in order to keep your cats (and only your cats) on the job without interference. That being said, you may find a cat useful in town in a warehouse or nursery type of setup (with active monitoring). In truth, if your cats are spayed or neutered they will not be as attractive to or attracted by other cats. Secondly, when you adopt, you should take home a pair if you can. A cat that has a companion will be happier and more likely to stay put.

A white cat face and a pig's snot sticking out from a pen.
Bringing a barn cat into your world is an excellent way to give an animal a good life while keeping pests in check. They will love (maybe, they’re cats after all) and appreciate you for the chance, but your other animals will like them there as well. They like the
companionship of cats as much as people do - except for chickens. Chickens and cats have to learn to get along.
A balck and white cat and a chicken fighting over a bowl of food.

There is a surprising amount of information out there on barn cats. If this blog has gotten you to think about them, I encourage you do a quick search to get more information.

  Submitted by Pam





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