Native pollinators love ceanothus. Rosemary - not so much. And other observations

This past weekend was warm and buzzing with bees. The "Dark Star" ceanothus was alive with them, and with all sorts of insects hovering in and around the blossoms. It's a cultivar, but the insects don't seem to mind. The wealth of blossoms draws them like a magnet.

I was curious to know if they were also swarming over the rosemary that grows all around my dad's cottage, which is abuzz and full of blossoms. But on an informal survey, I noticed only honeybees on it.

I spent some time looking at and into the ceanothus, listening to the different kinds of buzzes, enjoying the variety of insects. Some tiny fly-like things, some fuzzy bumblebees - and of course, honeybees. But how to identify them? I'm having a hard time with this and it's a bit frustrating for me.

What kind of thing is this guy? A fly who has borrowed pollen baskets? How can I find out?
I tried online searches and an Audubon book, and the book Town Mouse gave me one year on California Insects - but I didn't get very far, or really learn very much. It's like my mind is too smooth yet for ideas to catch. I have to rough up the surface more with uncertainties and observations, to give ideas and facts something to stick to. I recognize this phase of learning. It's not comfortable but we must all go through it.

I didn't get very good pictures of the darting insects, I'm afraid, but I hope maybe someone can help me ID these bugs. Books are great but people are so much better!

Maybe the same kind of small dark insect, with big yellow baskets
You can see how small the little dark insect is, compared to this honeybee on a similar  blossom.
Watching, listening, one starts to notice more things. The bumblebees tended to stay within the bush more, not so much on the surface, for example. They were in the shadow a little more than the honeybees, and were harder to photograph.

The other day I had a lovely few moments watching some sparrows in a bush below me. Some dogs barked off to the right. The sparrows stopped what they were doing and looked towards the barking. They were still, and attentive. Then a person called to the dogs, from some location off to the left. The birds just turned their heads, and quietly and intently listened and looked in that direction. I'm used to seeiing them twitter and bicker and do all sorts of things very rapidly, but quietly attend to something in their environment like that, I hadn't seen before. They could have been fox sparrows. Or maybe gold crowned sparrows. My mind is beginning to have a little more purchase when it comes to birds. More than with the insects.

And what is this little high-humming bee thing, with a round body and a pointy-nose like a cartoon hornet?
Looks like a "large bee fly" in Audubon insect book. However they are not listed as living in California. Some other kind of bee fly maybe. I think someone has told me the answer to this question before. If only I could remember everything.

My photos are all blurry. But You can see how his wings stick out to the side, and his little roundish fuzzy body.

Same pointy-nose one. Trailing legs make him look like a big fuzzy flea. Smaller than a honeybee, and with a higher pitched buzz.

I got some great shots of this smooth stripy guy though - is it a wasp or a bee or a fly? What is the difference even? I know nothing! I think it's a fly.

Reason I got better shots of it - it didn't move so much. Is it a hover fly? It did hover a lot.

Here he is posing again. Thanks, Mr or Ms Mystery Critter. You look very polished.

This one wins the prize for cute and fuzzy. Big black and yellow bands. Some kind of California bumble bee, but what one? I began to know when these were around by the lower buzz they made compared to the overall honeybee buzz.
More shots of the fuzzy cute bumble bee.
There are 26 kinds of bumblebees in California! And 1000 kinds of native bees!

Other things I've been noticing lately:  - This morning as we were walking Duncan I spotted this beauty by the roadside - Trillium chloropetalum, giant wakerobin! Was it there yesterday?

And Sunday morning I saw the pigmy nuthatches inspecting their nest hole. The nest hole was too far from where I was sitting to see details, but I could tell one was flitting in and out and hanging around the entrance for maybe five minutes, and another was in the branches nearby. I love that dead madrone! We have watched them for a few years now. I'm wondering if there are other nesting holes in other madrones. I noticed white areas around a few other knot holes, and wonder if that is a sign.

It was a great weekend for noticing things. As I was planting out more local wild babies from the greenhouse - purple chalice clarkia, nodding needlegrass, buttercups (maybe not local, but locally native), naked buckwheat, and lupines - I saw an alligator lizard! They are shy though quite a bit larger than fence lizards. I only ever see them as they disappear into the undergrowth, but at least I got a good look at his retreating back and tail. Light brown and dark brown, with longitudinal sort of textured stripes. He was a good size, maybe 12 inches long. Or nine inches anyway.

I've also noticed in the "stats' area of this blog that generally the most popular post in any week is Town Mouse's Can You Explain the Whole Dry Creek Thing to me. Another popular post is one I did on Telling Alligator Lizards from Fence Lizards. I'm glad people are curious about this topic, and I hope the post helps them tell these wonderful guys apart. Telling things apart, such a useful and illuminating skill.

I also saw a thrasher up very close. I love how thrashers sing, and I love their strong downturned beaks. But I hadn't been close enough to one before to see that lovely pattern they have on their cheeks - dark brown on light brown streaks. You know, when mostly all you get are little brown birds, and little brown lizards - these subtle variations become more interesting over time! Here's a photo of a young one from a few years back that my dad took, when he was photographing visitors to the bird bath.

Thrasher, with strong downcurved beak - beautiful varied song - and (barely noticable here) nice cheek markings.

Little by little, the more time I spend in the garden, especially just sitting still and watching, quietly, the more I notice. More details emerge from the background. More life pops out and shows itself. It would take several lifetimes to learn and understand even a tiny fraction of what there is to know about this amazing spot right here where I am lucky enough to live. But each bright difference I do notice, each distinction in the multiplicity of things, is so very satisfying.

Perhaps I'll dip again into that California Insects book by Jerry Powell and Charles H. Hogue, and see if any more details about California bees and their look-alikes have found a niche for understanding to settle into.


I saw a bee-fly (Bombyliidae family) in the greenhouse the other day. They seem quite common here. Your smooth stripy guys are syrphid flies. There are thousands of species globally, so I won't dare guess as to species. They're great pollinators, and their larvae eat aphids too! Definitely an ally in the garden.
Country Mouse said…
Great! Thanks, CVF - I wonder how best to keep track of the learning. After a while things sink in. I look at a chickadee and I see "chickadee" but I look at other items and see "crickety thing" "bee-like thing" and I need to have a record of stuff so I can work with the info. I'll have to keep a good naturalist's notebook - I have a book on that (another gift from TMouse!).
Sue Langley said…
I agree with Clare. Last year I did a post called 'A bee and a wasp that are not'. Both turned out to be syrphid flies. One was an "H" bee, the ones us kids would play with because we knew they wouldn't sting.
There is a link to Bugfiles and the name of a man I email when I'm really stumped. Good luck with your IDs. That trillium is awesome!
Jeffrey said…
The pointy nose insect looks to be Bombylius major, the Greater Bee Fly, Plate 7b in California Insects, a UC Press Field Guide (1979) -- very useful for getting a line on common California insects.

Country Mouse said…
Ah! Thank you, Jeffrey!