Category Archives: Friday Photos

Recapping a Great Presentation on Pollinators: Exploring Michigan Bees, Wasps, and Bee-wannabes!

In late January, the Oakland Township Natural Areas Stewardship program hosted an overflow crowd for an evening presentation by Caleb Wilson of Oakland University on protecting our backyard pollinators.  Throughout the presentation, I heard voices around me (including mine) whispering “Really?  I never knew that!” So I thought I’d share a few of those “Really!” moments with all of you.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Here’s a gallery of photos.  See if you can spot the differences between  bees, wasps and hoverflies (the “bee-wannabes” of the title.)  Then, read on to learn more about these important little insects! (Use the pause button if you need time for captions or a closer look.)

[Edit:  Please note that, at our request,  Caleb was kind enough to “fine tune” this piece for me shortly after it was published.  My thanks to him for that help and for a great presentation!]

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Caleb Wilson’s First Cool Facts about Bees

  • Approximately 4,000 species of bees inhabit North America (as compared to about 3000 species of vertebrates). Michigan hosts more than 465 bee species!
  • Western or European Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are not native to the U.S.  They were brought here by settlers who wanted a sweetener when sugar was still a luxury .
  • Bees are strict vegetarians. They eat sweet nectar and protein-rich pollen.  Wasps (suborder Apocrita that aren’t ants and bees), however, are omnivorous.  They primarily feed on nectar – but not pollen – and young wasps feed only on invertebrates –  like other insects, insect larvae (caterpillars) or spiders –  brought back to the nest by their mothers.
  • Bees are excellent pollinators since their “furry” bodies distribute a lot of pollen as they move from one flower to another.
  • Hover Flies (family Syrphidae) – the bee-wannabes –  are the second most common pollinator after bees. They imitate bee colors and patterns for protection from predators, but actually have no stingers. Neat trick!
  • Wasps  are less effective as pollinators because they have much less hair on their generally thin, smooth bodies so pollen does not stick to them.  Wasps benefit our gardens and other agriculture, though,  by controlling insect pests.

Checking the ID of Bees, Wasps and Hover Flies

  • Bees have wings which cover their petiole or “waists” (connection between their thorax and abdomen) when feeding,  so their waists can be difficult to see. Wasps have tiny waists and hoverflies have thick ones.
  • Bees and wasps have four wings – though the second set are hard to see since they are hooked together when flying and so they appear to have only two. Hoverflies only have two wings.
  • Bees are fuzzy, whereas wasps and hoverflies generally have very little hair or none on their bodies. Most bees have a hairy back leg, though European honey bees don’t.
  • Bees and wasps have eyes on the sides of their heads and longer antennae. Hoverflies have eyes on the tops of their heads (often touching) and short antennae.
  • If it’s visibly carrying  pollen on its legs or body, it’s some kind of bee.

Myths about Bees that Needed Correction

  • “All bees make honey.”  Uh, No… Most bees don’t make honey. Honey bees do, of course. And native Bumblebee queens store “nectar pots” to be eaten by their larvae as they develop – but no honey.
  • “All bees sting.”  Well, No, Actually. All female bees can sting; males can’t.  Honey bees can only sting once because their stinger is barbed to stay in your skin (ouch!) and as the honey bee pulls away, the lower part of her abdomen tears away and she dies.  Other female bees in our part of the world (for example, the bumblebee) and female wasps (the Yellow Jacket, for instance) have stingers without barbs and can sting repeatedly.
  • “Bees are aggressive.”  Wrong again.  Bees generally sting only to protect their hive. They will generally ignore humans otherwise. Wasps, however, can be more aggressive.
  • “Bees live in hives.”  Mmmm…some do, some don’t.  Honey bees are very social and do, of course, live in hives.   Bumblebees are social, too but they nest in the ground. Sweat bees form colonies with a queen and workers, but they don’t make honey and don’t have large numbers like a honey hive.  But most bees are solitary.  They live in burrows that they dig in the ground, or in cavities like logs, reeds, stems of dead plants, snail shells and such. Occasionally solitary bees lay their eggs in group areas for protection, but they each care for their own young rather than having communal hives. Social wasps, like Yellow Jackets (genus Vespula or Dolichovespula),  build elaborate nests but many wasps are solitary, too.

Why are Bees in Decline?

It turns out there are multiple factors:

  • A significant cause is that there are just fewer flowering plants! Urbanization has brought concrete and large areas of green lawn monocultures with fewer flowers. Agriculture has replaced fields full of diverse wildflowers with huge fields of soybeans and corn which are pollinated by wind, not by bees or other pollinators.
  • Insecticides like neonicotinoids and fungicides are in many treated seeds and seedlings or are sprayed on crops, killing bees as well as predatory pests and fungi.
  • Parasites and pathogens that used to attack other bees have now switched to honeybees.
  • Transportation throughout the year to various crops and other uses of agricultural bees can stress them. Bumblebees, for example,  are often kept in large greenhouses to pollinate tomatoes. In such settings,  they can develop viruses and parasites like Nosema bombi, which can then be spread to wild bees.

So Here’s How We Can Help Our Bees

  • Plant more flowers – native ones, preferably!  Find a native plant nursery here.
  • Leave those dandelions in your yard a little longer!  It’s often the only flower around in early spring and bees LOVE them!
  • Plant flowers of different species that will bloom at different times of the year so that nectar and pollen are present in spring, summer and fall.
  • Reduce the frequency of mowing  and raise the height of your mower if you can.
  • If you plant from seeds or seedlings, make an effort to determine if they have been treated with chemicals. This is not always easy to determine, especially when buying from large chain stores.
  • Some bees need bare patches of ground or rotten wood.  If you have an out-of-the-way bare spot on your property, bees will appreciate it.
  • You might build a bee hotel to host wild bees but be careful about its design, so it cannot host mold or attract parasites.  Here’s a site Caleb trusts for info on them.  They also need periodic cleaning.
  • Don’t buy a honey bee hive if you want to save native wild bees.  Honey bees are non-native and very important to agriculture, but studies show that they can have a negative impact on wild bees.  If you do decide to start bee-keeping, be sure you are fully educated by a trained professional and that you are prepared for a lot of work!  Giving up on a hive can be seriously detrimental to both the honey bees and the wild bees that live near them.
  • Leave wild plants somewhere on your property if possible, especially if you already have good habitat with native plants. If you have mostly non-native invasive plants or lawn, explore replacing some of these areas with native plants.
A native bumblebee and a non-native honey bee compete over a thistle

So consider befriending your helpful neighborhood pollinators and pest predators.  They spend their short lives in service to the flowers, fruits and vegetables that we all enjoy.  For lots more great identification photos and tips on helping bees, check out the Michigan bee website of Jason Gibbs from the Entomology Department at Michigan State University.  He offers three big take-aways about bees:  1) Feed them by planting untreated flowers and seeds; 2) House them by saving their habitat, leaving some bare soil, or building bee hotels; 3) Don’t kill them – limit or avoid use of insecticides. Pretty do-able suggestions, I’d say.

Click here to view the slides from Caleb’s talk for wonderful photos, useful charts and more info!

Photos of the Week: Restoring Nature’s Beauty with Fire? Yep!

Ben VanderWeide, Alex Kriebel and Volunteers Vinnie Morganti, Jim Lloyd and Parks Commissioner Dan Simon at Marshview Park for a “controlled burn.”

This week, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, Stewardship Specialist Alex Kriebel and a team of trained volunteers created a controlled burn around the sports fields at Marshview Park.  Our native plant species are adapted to fire after living for thousands of years with fire on the landscape. While lightning-sparked fires probably occurred occasionally, most fires in the last few thousand years were sparked by humans. The Native Americans in southern Michigan regularly used fire to clear and fertilize land for agriculture and to attract deer and other wildlife with tender, new growth, an early method of herding. As a result, our grasses and wildflowers have evolved to thrive after a burn. In fact, some grow only sparsely until a fire triggers them to emerge,  bloom and seed. And luckily, many of the invasive species in our parks, which didn’t evolve with burning, are weakened by fire.

The burn process begins after the crew reviews safety procedures and checks the wind, making sure that weather conditions allow the smoke to rise as quickly as possible to minimize effects on neighbors. Then fire breaks are created or double-checked where necessary by mowing or raking around the edges of the burn area. This gets rid of fuel that would allow the fire to spread where not wanted. In the case of the sports fields, the green grass and paths provided ready-made fire breaks.

The green grass of the sports field and the pathways provide fire breaks during a controlled burn.

Some members of the fire crew, under Ben’s supervision, use drip torch canisters to spread fire, creating a low creeping flame.

Volunteer Vinnie Morganti with a drip torch used to spread fire.

Others carry water tanks on their backs to spray trees or bushes that need protection and to put out all smoldering embers when the burn is complete.

Dr. Ben with a water tank to protect trees and put out smoldering embers
A volunteer drips fire while another crew member sprays trees and puts out embers
The fire spreads slowly across the burn area

The result will be burgeoning growth of native plants, including wildflowers and grasses.  After the first controlled burn in spring of 2016, Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) made an appearance at Marshview Park.  Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) burst forth in the summer along with the Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), whose huge leaves follow the sun during each summer day. (Photo below by Aaron Gunnar of  And in autumn, New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) made a glorious,  royal purple show around the edges of the sports fields while Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a native grass, filled the parking lot islands with its graceful russet stems. (Use the pause button if you can’t see the captions).

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And with these native plants come insects that nourish birds and other native wildlife, while the increase in beautiful butterflies delights the human eye.  So, yes, controlled burning paradoxically helps us restore the wild diversity of beauty that is Oakland Township’s natural heritage.

Photos of the Week: Migrators from the Arctic

As the township birding group departed Cranberry Lake Park last week, the bugling call of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) filtered down through the frosty air. Looking up, Ben drew our attention to a huge V-shaped flock of striking black and white birds arrowing across the cold November sky. Gifted local photographer Bob Bonin quickly captured this very special sighting .

A large flock of Tundra Swans called from a blue sky on a cold November morning at Cranberry Lake Park.

The Tundra Swans are so-named because they spend the summer on their breeding grounds above the tree line on the Arctic Circle. On river deltas, near large bodies of water, they build their nests on the chilly ridges formed by the thawing and freezing soil. During the 24 hour sun of an arctic summer, they feed themselves and their young on the lichens, mosses, and grasses of upland or wet meadow tundra. When the long dark of a far north winter started to set in, the swans we saw began their journey south. They passed over our area along their route, likely on their way to the eastern coast of the United States for the winter months.

But another much more modest arctic migrator arrived in the last month – the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea). (Many thanks again to Bob Bonin for sharing his photos!)

The American Tree Sparrow has arrived from its summer breeding grounds on the Arctic Circle and will spend the winter with us.

This brown and gray sparrow with a black spot on its breast also raises its young on the arctic tundra. After the male has attracted a mate by singing from the stunted, shrub-like trees of the Arctic, the pair construct a nest of white ptarmigan feathers right on the tundra itself. During the Arctic’s long summer days,  they feast and feed their young on insects. But here these modest brown birds, who have traveled so far to spend the winter with us, become vegetarians, peacefully searching out seed in the snow beneath our feeders. (Despite their name, Tree Sparrows spend most of their time on the ground or in shrubs.)

So while we humans may grouse about cold winter days, birds from the arctic must find our area quite balmy. High above, magnificent Tundra Swans wing their way to America’s east coast, bugling cheerfully along the way. And humble Tree Sparrows, leaving behind a dark, frigid arctic winter, treat the blizzards of a Michigan winter like a Florida vacation! Everything, as they say, is relative.

Photos of the Week: Tadpoles in Autumn?? Who knew?

Most of us assume that tadpoles are a wriggling sign of spring and summer. But wait – last weekend, tons of  little creatures were wriggling just below the surface of a large wetland at Charles Ilsley Park. My husband guessed tadpoles, but I thought, “Naah, tadpoles hatch only in the spring or summer!” Next morning, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide was kind enough to net some of the squirming critters from among the fallen leaves floating on the water.

Ben searched the water to net a tadpole

And despite the unlikely season, they turned out to be tadpoles, most likely Green Frog tadpoles due to their long, spotted, doubled-finned tails.  It turns out that larger frogs – American Bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana), Green Frogs (Rana clamitans)  and Northern Leopard Frogs  (Rana pipiens) – can take up to  2-3 years to reach adult size. So some of their young can still be in the tadpole stage when chilly nights grow long and leaves turn gold and crimson. These little tadpoles were preparing to slow their metabolism way down in order to hibernate underwater.

Frogs, though,  don’t hibernate like turtles, by digging down into the mud at the bottom of ponds. They’d suffocate if they did. Like adult frogs, tadpoles can breathe through their skin when completely submerged in oxygenated water. According to Scientific American, to keep water against their skin over the winter, they lie on top of the mud or only partially buried. Tadpoles have more surface area per volume than adult frogs do, so they can actually gather oxygen from the water more efficiently in the cold, motionless water.

Ben scooped out a tadpole and I took a quick series of  photos of it wriggling in a plastic specimen box. As a result, it’s possible to see a bit of how a tadpole moves itself forward by thrashing its double finned tail. So meet the tadpoles that taught me that autumn does not just mean long, cold nights, a cascade of brightly colored leaves and gray skies. It can also mean, of all things, tadpoles!

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Photos of the Week: Migrating Fall Birds

Every Wednesday morning the Oakland Township Birders gather at a township park for our weekly bird walk. Chickadees, Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, and Song Sparrows regularly greet us with their songs and antics, while Black-billed Cuckoos, Green Herons, and warblers are a special treat.

During the spring and fall we pay special attention to the birds using our parks as they move between their seasonal homes further north and south. On our walk at Draper Twin Lake Park this week we got great looks at a Hermit Thrush foraging quietly on juniper berries. Check out these great pictures that Bob Bonin captured on Wednesday.

A hermit thrush peers from behind a branch. Draper Twin Lake Park, October 25, 2017.
The hermit thrush shows off its throat and breast, highlighting the crisp dark-brown chocolate drops on a clean, white background that fade toward the belly. The warm reddish-brown tail also helps us identify this bird.


Nearby, White-Throated Sparrows bounced around in the thick brush, occasionally popping up to show off their clean white bibs and the splashes of yellow in front of their eyes.

This White-throated Sparrow shows off the beautiful colors and patterns on its head.

Before I started learning about birds a few years ago, I didn’t even know these species existed. But now I look forward to seeing these old friends each spring and fall, messengers of the changing season.