Sleeping and Eating, Insect Style

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

By now you know that I believe a garden should be more than just a place with pretty flowers, right? Since I’ve planted mine with a majority of native plants, it’s now essential habitat for many insects who form an important part of the food web on our planet. And so I care very much about making it a healthy place for them to live. Their lives, like ours, require a diversity of food and water sources, places to raise their young, and places to sleep.

Well, “sort of sleep.” Insects can appear to be sleeping, but their sleep isn’t exactly the same as ours. The scientific details of insect sleep are above my pay grade, but I do know that many of them enter a state of torpor (a type of dormancy) when temperatures are too cold for them to move. And to me, that qualifies as sleep. So when I find a live insect sitting motionless on a plant (and it’s not a predator waiting for prey), I consider it to be sleeping.

Bumble bee sleeping on Virginia mountain mint – taken in my garden one evening just before dark

One of my favorite pastimes is to walk around in the garden in the evening to see how many sleeping bugs I can find. Male bumble bees are easy to find slumbering, either on top of flowers or gripping the underside of a petal or leaf as they rest. As I understand it, the females of solitary bee species (like bumble bees) sleep in their nests, and the males are left to find other shelter each night. When bees are in torpor, they’re very slow to respond to external stimuli, and some people take advantage of this to pet their little furry bodies. I’ve not done that because I know I wouldn’t want anyone bothering me when I’m trying to sleep.

Bumble bee napping under a leaf on joe-pye weed – Kim’s garden

The other night I was pleased to find this red milkweed beetle tucking in for some rest among the leaves of Sullivant’s milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii, also known as Prairie milkweed). These red beetles have become a new favorite of mine this year, with their long antennae that sit right in the middle of their eyes, something that would seem to be quite annoying.

Red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetropthalmus) resting on Sullivant’s milkweed – Kim’s garden

Here’s a 15-second video of a bumble bee resting in a coreopsis bloom in my garden recently. If you have your volume on, you’ll get a few auditory treats too:

I also mentioned “eating insect style,” so let’s talk about that too. Some bees and wasps need nectar but their tongues are too short to reach inside of tubular flowers to get it. So they resort to what’s called “nectar robbing” behavior, which involves poking or chewing a hole in the tube at the base of the flower for access that way. I think that’s pretty darn smart, and I’ve watched bees do it many times. But the other day I looked out the window and saw something I’d never seen before. A bumble bee was methodically nectar robbing the flowers in my hosta patch (non-native plants that came with the house). I wasn’t fast enough to get the camera on the bumble bee, but I did get photos of what happened next: a honey bee was following the bumble bee around, and feeding in the little slits the bumble had just poked!

Honey bee using holes made by bumble bee to feed on nectar in hosta flowers – Kim’s garden

The arrow marks one of the holes made moments earlier by the bumble bee, and you can see the honey bee is already drinking from another one. I took some video as the honey bee continued to feed, but then it started struggling and I could see that one foot was stuck in the hole. Just as I considered going out to help free that leg, the bee managed it and flew off. I’m pretty sure a honey bee could easily get to the nectar by going inside the tubular flower, but this opportunistic technique sure seems easier. The downside to this behavior is that the flowers don’t get pollinated because the bee isn’t going inside where it would normally pick up some of the pollen to transport to another flower. But of course the bee doesn’t know or care about that — pollination is purely accidental to the bee’s goal of feeding itself and its offspring.

Isn’t it fascinating to learn little details like this about insect lives? I still marvel over the knowledge that I lived so much of my life in complete ignorance about how our food web functions. There are so many amazing little creatures are around us every day, mostly unnoticed unless they “get in the way” of our all-important human activities.

Predatory insects are always fun to watch, and I just found one today as I was inspecting my woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus). This is an ambush bug drinking a “greenbottle fly slushie.” Yum. If you look closely you can see the strawlike mouthpart of the ambush bug sticking in the fly’s abdomen. I wrote an entire post about ambush bugs if you want to go there and see a little video I made (it doesn’t show any prey captures, just a cute little ambush bug feeding on goldenrod nectar). As I was photographing this one today, a bumble bee stopped by the same flower and the ambush bug didn’t seem to be bothered at all. He was probably drunk on greenbottle fly.

Ambush bug (Phymata species) feeding on presumed greenbottle fly – Kim’s garden
And a bumble bee visitor doesn’t even interrupt his meal!

Okay, now that you’ve been patient with my insect ramblings, you get to see some prettier photos. Thanks for stopping by!

Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on New England aster – coming in September!
Common buckeye butterfly on asters – another scene I look forward to in the Fall

17 comments

  1. Great post! I love bumble bees. So much so I’m monitoring which of my flowers they routinely go to, with hopes of adding more native species of their choice!

    • Thanks, Teresa! If you don’t already have it, you should get a copy of Heather Holm’s book “Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide.” She includes detailed info on a variety of bee species, with a list of the native plants they feed from. (There’s a full-page list of the plants for bumble bees.)

      I just read this interesting tidbit from Heather about bumble bees: “Their large body size and abundant hairs allow them to fly in cool morning temperatures when few other bees are active, providing them with opportunities for extracting more pollen or nectar produced or replenished overnight by flowers.” Every morning my partridge pea patch is absolutely loaded with bumble bees — I highly recommend this plant!

      • Thanks for the book recommendation! I have the book the Bees in your bmBackyard by Olivia Carril. It is great but I’ll check into Heather homes book as well. Thanks!

  2. I love insects too and it’s hard to find people who really want to talk about them! Nice captures!

    • Yes, it sure is, Sara. And most of the people who want to talk about them tend to be men, so I’m always thrilled to find another female bug lover! (Not that there’s anything wrong with guys, LOL.)

  3. You now need to get some little insect brain monitors so you can tell when they go into rem sleep patterns.

    Good luck placing them on the heads.

    Interesting and enjoyable article. Great pictures; you must have a lot of patients and a good macro lens.

  4. Lots of info I did not know about bees and the pictures are pretty. All the work you have done to plant native plants has paid off! Enjoyed.

  5. You light up my day when I see an email from you. I love insects too. I have learned so much from you. Todays post was so educational, full of fun filled facts. Oh my! Thank you Kim!

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