Head-bangin’ bees

It was hard for me not to read an article with the title, “Shakers and head bangers: Differences in sonication behavior between Australian Amegilla murrayensis (blue-banded bees) and North American Bombus impatiens (bumblebees).”

A little background first: Sonication is another term for buzz pollination. Buzz pollination is a special way that some bees get pollen from flowers. For a number of flowers, bees collect pollen sort of accidentally by just rubbing up against the flower parts naturally as they drink the flower’s nectar. They become dusted with pollen and thus collecting nectar is almost “by mistake.” The bees then use their legs to brush the pollen grains from their fur onto their back legs so that they can carry it back to the nest.

Pollen is the bees’ source of protein for feeding larvae, so that the larvae can grow into adult bees. Collecting pollen also helps the flowers, too, because any stray grains on the bee’s body that she misses can be transferred to the next flower she visits, thereby allowing for plant reproduction.

In some flowers, like tomato plant blossoms or blueberry plant blossoms, bees can’t get pollen so easily. For these types of flowers, the pollen is kept inside cone-like structures called anthers. There are pores in the anthers and somehow the bee must get the pollen out. And how do bees do this? Bumblebees use buzz pollination: they grasp the anther tip with their mandibles (mouthparts), curl their body around the anther, and hang on with their legs. It looks like this:

A bumblebee buzz pollinating a tomato flower. Image courtesy of The Pollination Homepage.

Then comes the cool part: The bumblebee shakes her flight muscles really fast, without flapping her wings, causing the bee and the flower to vibrate. This shakes the pollen out of the anther pores and the pollen falls onto the bee’s belly. (Think of it like shaking a tree to get the fruit to fall down.) This is called buzz pollination because when the bee shakes her flight muscles it actually makes a high-pitched buzz sound. (If you find yourself by some blueberry or tomato flowers, listen for the quick bzzzzzttt! sound of the bumblebees!) The bee can then brush the pollen from her belly onto her back legs and voila! She scored some pollen.

Honeybees have never been observed buzz pollinating flowers, so bumblebees are quite special in this regard.

Anyway, back to the article: So up until now I thought that bees buzz pollinate by using the procedure I just described: grabbing onto flower anthers and shaking like crazy! But it turns out there is a species of bee in Australia–the blue-banded bee–that does things a little differently…


A blue-banded bee approaching a tomato flower. Image courtesy of Pollinator Link.

The authors of the article report that they observed both North American bumblebees and Australian blue-banded bees as they pollinated cherry tomato plants. They took some high-speed videos and found that the blue-banded bees grasped the flower like bumblebees, but they didn’t grab the flower with their mandibles. Instead, when they shook their flight muscles, it caused their head to bang up against the anthers. The tapping of their head up against the anthers released the pollen.

Head-bangin’ bees!

The authors couldn’t conclude which was a more efficient way to get pollen: by shaking or head-butting the anthers. But it shows just how unique different species can be in their behaviour.

Another cool point is that little brown marks are left on the anther cone after it has been buzz pollinated. Commercial tomato growers call these marks “bee kisses,” and they are a sign that bees have visited the flowers. The authors note that the “bee kisses” left by head-butting the anthers were similar to those left by shaking.

A special note: Have you heard of neonicotinoid pesticides in the news? They are a type of pesticide that have been linked to colony collapse disorder in honeybees and to other damaging effects in bees. There is evidence that these pesticides interfere with bumblebees’ buzz pollination behaviour.


Reference: Switzer, C. M., Hogendoorn, K., Ravi, S., & Combes, S. A. (2016). Shakers and head bangers: Differences in sonication behavior between Australian Amegilla murrayensis (blue-banded bees) and North American Bombus impatiens (bumblebees). Arthropod-Plant Interactions, 10, 1-8. DOI: 10.1007/s11829-015-9407-7.



It’s painful to have to walk a dog around 5:45 a.m., especially in winter.

But in some ways it’s rather peaceful.

If it’s not cloudy then you can see the stars. There’s hardly any cars on the roads. There’s a bunny here and there.

And all you can hear are our footsteps. The world feels fast asleep.

Lately it’s been rather playful on our walks, too. I’ve brought along a cloth frisbee or a Kong toy on the end of a rope and tossed it for Spirit, our almost-one-year-old border collie/lab mix, in a schoolyard nearby. Spirit is a natural at fetch. There’s something about seeing her race after the toy, grabbing it, and proudly prancing back to you, that warms the heart. Especially when she does a little victory lap before dropping the toy at your feet.

It’s also endearing to see the accumulating frost around her snout and on her whiskers, the longer we play in the cold.

By the time we need to head on home, the chickadees have woken up and are chirping their hellos. The sky has turned an almost sepia tone.

And Spirit is still prancing. And I have a bit of a spring in my step, too.

Simple pleasures: a dog, a toy, and a field.

Spirit with her chin on her favourite blanket.

My favourite Christmas ornament

There is a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old in our home, so needless to say our Christmas tree was assembled quite early this year.

My son and daughter’s eager little fingers plucked ornaments out of the box one after another. Then I spotted it.

“Wait!” I cried.

The kids froze with wide eyes. I slowly took out the little ornament that was squished between a drummer boy and a rather dilapidated angel. It was a tiny Santa made out of wood, felt, and cotton. There was a hardened glob of glue on his hat where the white pom-pom used to be. A face made out of green marker with uneven eyes and a lopsided smile.

It was my all-time favourite Christmas ornament!

I made that ornament when I was in kindergarten. Ms. Loveland’s class. The little Santa was for sale at the school Christmas bazaar that year and my mom and I made sure we bought the right one out of the herd of similar little wooden-felt-hatted-cotton-ball-bearded kin.

That ornament went on our tree every year.

“Why do you like that Santa so much, Momma?”

Hmmm. I could explain to my daughter that the little Santa symbolizes such an innocent time in my life, that it brings back all kinds of memories of Christmases and grandparents and the saintly Ms. Loveland. But I know what answer will suffice in widening their eyes once again.

“I made it,” I told my daughter, “when I was your age.”

Sure enough, I could almost see the gears turning in her head. She was trying to imagine how this Mommy in front of her could have ever been 4 years old.

So welcome to our tree this year, little Santa. When Christmas wraps up I think I’ll keep you in a more special place, instead of tossed in the box with that drummer boy and dishevelled angel.

Hi! I’m Monica.

Hello! My name is Monica. I’m Dana’s office plant.

I’m rather special if I do say so myself. Why? Because Dana hasn’t killed me yet!

(Although she did leave for vacation for a week and no one watered me and so I was rather droopy when she returned… But I prevailed! I hope we never, ever have a close call like that again. Right, Dana?!)

Apparently Dana has a pretty bad track record when it comes to houseplants. Last I heard she killed about 14 or something like that. She seems rather nice and treats me well (okay, except for the week vacation). So what does she do wrong?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m an office plant. And/or that I’m an ivy. We ivies (ivys?) are a pretty hearty bunch. Case in point: the week vacation. (Oops, I brought that up again.)

I even keep growing more leaves! I’ve been on Dana’s desk for over three months now and my vine has grown extensively.

I have it pretty good here. I have a nice view of the street with the occasional exciting firetruck that goes whizzing by. Dana is quiet and drinks lots of coffee and tea. (Some of her teas smell really good!) She mostly types and reads. It’s a quiet life and I like it.

But maybe one day she’ll bring me a friend?

Valencia: Where even the animals are chillin’ 

After a couple days in Barcelona we decided to travel to the city of Valencia. The City of Arts and Sciences caught our interest. Plus, there have been protests in Barcelona and we thought it best to stay clear.

It was difficult not to run into protesters in Barcelona’s city centre, who were protesting for Catalonia’s independence from Spain.
Valencia is beautiful. Less tourist-y than Barcelona, less traffic, and a bit slower-paced. (Not that Barcelona was a swarming beehive.)

The view from outside our hotel.
I love the vibrant blue sky up against the colourful buildings!

We took a walking tour of the city…

Artists painting decorative fans (when not talking on cell phones).

…and then went to the BioParc, essentially Valencia’s zoo. Even the animals were laid back! But that was more likely because of the hot weather.

This giraffe was like six feet away. Amazing. The zookeepers must have smeared something on the trees because the giraffes were licking them like crazy.
These ring-tailed lemurs were one of my favourites. They were just up in the trees directly above us!
This gorilla wins the Chillaxin’ Award by a landslide.

At dinner we had beers with unicorns on them, and I had calamari, which was delicious but did not look at all like I had expected!

Unicorns make great beer.
I ate it all!

The next day we went to the local aquarium.

Oh Sharky, how you terrify me…

Last but not least, every city has its oddities. Here are three Valencian oddities we spotted:

1. The first hotel we stayed in was movie-themed. We got the Pinocchio room. (I had a compulsive urge to colour him in.)

2. An elaborate street performer.

3. A man playing a trombone under a bridge.

In the science museum is an ultra-cool sculpture of DNA:

And here are some extra shots of the city:

I tried paella!! But the kind without snails.

Barcelona: Beauties and Oddities

Right now I am whipping through the Spanish countryside on a train that’s going 200km/h. We’re on our way to Valencia after spending a couple of days in Barcelona.

To me, Barcelona is a lovely mix of beauty and oddity. Four of its beauties, in no particular order:

1. The Sagrada Família. We walked there, turned a corner, and BAM! There it was. I literally gasped. 

Pictures don’t do it proper justice. The mish-mash of serious churchiness and cartoony whimsy is my kind of art. I never thought I would be so mesmerized by a church. Unfortunately we were only able to see the outside as tickets were sold out. No surprise there.

2. Park Güell. Fantastic walking trails with a Gaudi masterpiece nestled here and there. The stuff of fairy tales. I’m really digging Gaudi!

3. Tapas!!

4. Sandcastles on the beach—with FIRE!

Then there are the occasional oddities. Here are five and again, in no particular order:

1. A yaht complete with shrink-wrapped helicopter.

2. A man walking downtown carrying an ocillating fan.

3. A young woman walking downtown carrying a toaster.

4. A beepy-boopy electronic tune of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” coming from seemingly nowhere. Is it someone’s ringtone? No. Is it a car alarm? No. We finally see a tipped-over Christmas ornament on the sidewalk: A foot-long, cheap plastic Santa with a creepy smile on his face. Nothing and no one around it. (I was laughing too hard to take a picture.)

5. Rotisserie chickens spinning humorously and amazingly fast on a spit in a shop window. Maybe it’s a special cooking trick.

The train has arrived in Valencia! What beauties and oddities await us here?

Small friends, school, and survival 

Last weekend at the cottage I found my little half-tail friend! And like no time had passed, s/he took peanuts straight from my hand again.

Half Tail is back! And s/he took the biggest peanut.
I think Half Tail is going to take the biggest one again…
It had been over a year since I’d seen Half Tail, since this summer was rather cold, buggy, and rainy. But on the very last day before we went home we found each other. Amazing that s/he remembered after so long. 

The meeting was bittersweet. For me it marked the end of another summer. The next day would be a flurry of back-to-school. Well, back-to-school for my 7-year-old son, and the very first day of school for my 4-year-old daughter. Nervous prickles started to line my skull and my stomach.

My own very first day of kindergarten is my earliest vivid memory. I remember thinking that my mom was going to stay with me, so when she turned to leave I flew into a panic. I chased her down the school’s hallway, howling with tears streaming down my face. Bless Ms. Loveland, my kindergarten teacher, for having patience and for calming me down.

I like to think that I couldn’t have been too traumatized since I ended up staying in school long enough to get my PhD…

So on my own kids’ first day of school when I saw the tears well up in their eyes, I understood. And it all came rushing back to me. I tried to think: what eventually calmed me down? I honestly can’t remember. My husband and I tried to soothe our kids but to no avail. I told them how I used to cry, too, but I learned that everything is okay. We eventually had to leave them, tear-streaked and stressed. 

Oh, what a long day at work that was…

I picked them up as early as possible. My son was just fine, chattering away about who is in his class, how his teacher changed the seating arrangment because my son was talking too much (!!!)… Is this the same kid I dropped off this morning?

My daughter, on the other hand, looked haggered. She apparently cried for an hour after drop-off and cried again during the transition to the after-school program. Oh, my heart broke to see her looking so sad! Cortisol rushing through her body all day….she must have been exhausted. I gathered her in my arms and gave her the biggest hug possible. “You made it through your very first day of school,” I whispered proudly. She just buried her face deeper into my neck.

I was a full week of tears. And the beginning of this week, too. 

I know my daughter is in good hands. Her teacher is a tiny willow of a woman who always wears bright, happy-coloured head scarves, and who is not afraid of giving a hug when one is needed.

I know my daughter will survive. But I want more than just survival for her. I want her to enjoy school. To love school. To look forward to it every day.

Maybe one day she will. And maybe she won’t.

For now my husband and I will do our best. To reassure her. To comfort her. To love her. 

School is a big transition. It will get better. It will get better, it will get better…

Saturday mornings need lop-sided pigtails

The bedroom door is flung open with a burst of hallway light blasting my eyes.

“Momma, can you get up now?”

I squint at the clock. 6:09 a.m. On a Saturday.

My sleepy brain groans. My body feels like a bag of bricks. “Wait until the clock says seven-zero-zero,” I mumble.

“Okay!” And she slams the door.

What feels like thirty seconds pass when the door is flung open again. “Momma,” she calls in a loud-ish, raspy whisper, “It’s time to get up!” 

Before I launch into a restrained adult-tantrum about the necessity of older people sleeping in on weekends, I open my eyes and see her standing there, with three lop-sided pigtails in her hair and dressed in her ballet outfit. I can’t help but smirk. In her own way she knows how to celebrate a Saturday.

My daughter’s self-styled hair and outfit choice…

It is now 8:27 and we’ve ploughed through a plate of pancakes, a page in a colouring book, two episodes of Paw Patrol, a mini-dance party, and a funny-face competition. 

Suddenly it is eerily quiet. I peek into the living room.

The child is asleep on the couch…

Darth Vader’s Guide to Bumblebees

Greetings, to whoever is reading this record of my discovery of this planet called…Earth

I am the almighty Darth Vader, and I have been seeking to destroy the Jedi across the universe. I have been in search of Jedi on this planet Earth and I believe I have finally found them.

They are very small, these Jedi. And covered in fur, like Ewoks or Wookies. (I hate Ewoks and Wookies…) 

They fly, these small Jedi. And make a BZZZzzzZZZzzz sound. Quite annoying, actually. (But then again, all Jedi are annoying…)

The Force is strong with them. Their navigational skills are impressive. And they wield a weapon that strikes like a compact Lightsaber, searing and burning the skin upon impact. 

Like any cowardly Jedi they only strike on the defensive, never on the offensive. Although they are quite stealthy: one of these small Jedi flew up inside one of my Stormtrooper’s uniforms. He died a painful, arm-flailing death.

My scientists tell me these small Jedi have a weakness for colours and fragrances. Rather odd. But then again I have a weakness for JiffyPop, so who am I to judge?

In the meantime, while on Earth, I guess I will stay out of my Hawaiian shirts and lay off the Chanel No. 5.

Looking back on 40

Happy Birthday to me! I’ve been 40 for a year now. I didn’t mind turning 40, and I don’t mind turning 41. But I’ve made a few observations over the past year…

  1. People refer to me as “Ma’am” more often.
  2. Each time I look in the mirror I find more white hairs.
  3. Wine makes cleaning more tolerable.
  4. I miss watching the howler monkeys in Costa Rica.
  5. Sometimes you have to make your own luck.
  6. Having patience is hard. Really hard. But it always seems to pay off.
  7. You can get a lot done in 10 minutes when you know you only have 10 minutes.
  8. I just can’t eat a bag of Doritos anymore.
  9. It hurts too much to overeat, period.
  10. Sleep is a glorious thing.
  11. So is a good cup of coffee.
  12. And fresh air.
  13. Aches and pains where I never had aches and pains before. For instance, I hurt my calf muscle running a little while ago. I’ve been running for years! What’s up with that??
  14. I need more motivation to exercise these days. But like patience, exercise always seems to pay off.
  15. Opportunities will sometimes come racing up to stare you in the face. Seize them, even though your fears might try to convince you otherwise. 
  16. I have come to appreciate shoes and a good tube of lipstick.
  17. Hearing my kids laugh is a precious thing and also one of my favourite things.
  18. If you stop caring about what other people think it’s amazing how much lighter you feel.
  19. Did I mention wine?
  20. I know I must be getting old when the hairstyles youngsters have these days seem stranger and stranger…
  21. If I don’t have time to squeeze in meditation, I can make other things a meditation. It’s not quite the same, but close.
  22. Kayaking on a lake is a real treat.
  23. I can’t fit into my favourite old pair of jeans from a few years ago. And that’s okay.
  24. Family is truly a precious, precious thing.
  25. Kids won’t be kids forever. It’s easy to forget that when you’re racing to get to work on time. Or when you’re woken up at 6:34 am on a Saturday…
    Me walking our dog, Spirit.