Well, spring has been dancing its way back into the Tehachapi Mountains, bringing warmer weather, green grass and the earliest wildflowers. Higher temperatures also bring about the emergence of insects and other invertebrates, including a colorful but potentially crop-damaging insect called the Harlequin Cabbage Bug (Murgantia histrionica).
These are fairly flat, shielded-shaped bugs that are mostly black with orange markings and some white highlights. Although their bright colors certainly suggest a level of toxicity, like ladybugs, monarch butterflies, milkweed bugs and other orange and black insects whose diet makes them distasteful prey, Harlequin Bugs aren't actually toxic at all, but to discourage predators they mimic creatures that are.
Harlequin Cabbage Bugs, which are also called Calico Bugs or simply Harlequin Bugs, are known to be pests of cruciferous plants like cabbages, broccoli, kale, etc. In our area, however, I find them mostly on Bladderpods (Peritoma arborea), which are extremely drought-tolerant shrubs with attractive yellow flowers. Numerous Bladderpods, typically from two to four feet high, are now blooming in scattered stands alongside Highway 58 west toward Bakersfield, all the way down to the San Joaquin Valley floor.
I like to look for these colorful insects because they are harmless and interesting to watch as they navigate their way around a Bladderpod plant. They don't like to be too exposed, so they try to stay at least partly concealed by foliage. If a Harlequin Bug is on the underside of a small branch, and you twist the twig so that the sun is shining on the Harlequin Bug, it will patiently trudge back down to the underside of the branch.
Harlequin Bugs, like other shield insects, mate by arranging themselves end to end. The female then lays groups of a dozen barrel-like eggs, which look like tiny white kegs with two dark stripes around each one.
When these cylindrical eggs hatch, they emerge as little nymphs who go about growing their way into colorful adults. Interestingly, male Harlequin Bugs give off phermones including one called murgantinol, which not only attracts females, but also lets nymphs know that there is food available, so if they are experiencing a shortage of food, they can follow the phermones to guide them to suitable plant hosts.
While I was photographing the Harlequin Bugs on this page, I also took some photos of a beautiful golden-colored Western Honey Bee that was feeding on Bladderpod flowers. Now, I'm not one to cast aspersions or make accusations, but in examining these bee photos closely, all of them appeared to show this golden bee in the act of nectar robbing.
Nectar robbing is a type of foraging behavior in which some creatures feed on a plant's nectar from holes bitten in the stem end of flowers, rather than entering through the flower's natural opening, like they are supposed to. By avoiding entering the flower, the nectar thief obtains the flower's sweet nectar prize with performing any compensatory pollination services.
Such rude behavior is generally frowned upon by the flower kingdom and looked upon as a sign of poor upbringing. In some of the photos, however, the bee appears to be stepping inside the blossoms, so perhaps it is contributing to some pollination after all.
With March here and April not far behind, more is on the way — more flowers, more insects, more warm weather, and more opportunities to enjoy the natural world. Enjoy.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.