Over the past couple weeks, I have been visiting Stebbins Cold Canyon to see what insects and other critters were out in the area. I wasn’t expecting much since there wasn’t much out around this time last year, but I was hopeful nonetheless. When my buddy Alex and I visited the canyon in early March, we came across a buckbrush bush (Ceanothus cuneatus) that was in full bloom right next to the parking lot. It was very cold that morning and not much was moving around on the flowers, except for some Western Boxelder bugs and a few flies. However, once the sun broke through the clouds and the temperatures began to rise, other insects began to appear and in greater numbers. We were shocked to see the number of insects, especially flies, culminating on this one bush’s flowers. Let’s just say we never made it past the parking lot that day.

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The Insecta-palooza

During this “insectapalooza” we tried to take as many photographs of everything new we could find. There were some insects we were unable to acquire usable photos of, but that didn’t discourage us from trying our best anyway. The larger insects like the Western Boxelder bug (Boisea rubrolineata) and the Spotted Cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata) were much easier subjects to work with than the smaller, more skittish tachinid flies and sweat bees (Halictidae)

While I was snapping photos of the “larger” insects, Alex was looking for much smaller, more uncommon subjects to add to his portfolio. He managed to find some strange-looking flies that had long and pointed mouthparts, which were later identified as Empidids, also known as balloon or dagger flies. After finding both the male and female Empidids, we realized they were all over the bush and that a select few of the males we saw were holding nuptial balloons. The males of these flies will capture prey and encapsulate it in a nuptial balloon made of silk that will hopefully be accepted by a female. I attempted to take some photos of these flies but I ended up being too distracted by the small pollen covered sweat bees and tachinids buzzing around the flowers.

Near mid-day we had seen at least ten different species of flies on this bush and roughly double that with all the other orders combined. I only saw one butterfly and it was most likely the Echo azure butterfly (Celastrina echo), because they emerge fairly early in the spring. I ended this day with some photos of another sweat bee that was moving slowly across the flowers, which was odd because that wasn’t usual bee behavior, but my guess was that it was “too full” of nectar to fly. Alex and I were surprised at what we found this early in the year, but the unusually warm February most likely played a role in this abundance of insects.

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These Western boxelder bugs are closely related to the Eastern box elder bug, except they are found in the western US and have distinct color markings.

Back Again For More

The second time we ventured over to Cold Canyon around mid-March the buckbrush bush was still there but the flowers were noticeably starting to lose their luster. Despite the flowers nearing the end of their season, the insects were buzzing around the bush and in greater numbers this time around. The day was much warmer than our previous visit and a plethora of new insects had made an appearance that neither of us had seen a few weeks prior.

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A small katydid nymph that was attempting to hide among the leaves.

On the mid-March visit to the canyon, my friend Alex and I had planned to head straight for the buckbrush bush after arriving and stay there for the duration of the day. Thankfully for us, the insects on the bush were already buzzing around and collecting nectar and/or pollen. Once again, the flies were the dominant group on the flowers but that didn’t stay true for long. Many of the insects we saw previously were either not present anymore or were there in very few numbers, which was to be expected. A few of the dance flies (Empididae) were still around and some of the males we found still had their nuptial balloons ready for any females, so Alex focused in on attempting to photograph them again. While he was on a mission to photograph those flies, I came across many different subjects I decided to take pictures of, including flower crab spiders (Thomisidae), small longhorn beetles (Cerembycidae), a variety of hover flies (Syrphidae) and some more small native bees (Halictidae/Andrenidae).

After about close to three and a half hours we both decided it was time to call it quits and stop for the day. I had almost maxed out my memory card and the insects were at this point moving too quickly to even get close to obtaining a photo of them. We quickly went up the trail just to see if anything else was blooming or ready to bloom, but unfortunately there was nothing to be seen. I did manage to see quite a few Sara orange-tip (Anthocharis sara) butterflies casually flying overhead as we went up and back down the trail. These butterflies are similar to the Echo azure, in that they tend to emerge and fly very early in the season.

Thankfully Alex and I went to visit the canyon when we did, because it wasn’t long after that the weather decided to be winter again with very cold and wet conditions over the following weeks. Once the rains and snow finish their rounds across the state, conditions for the coming spring and summer seasons should be fantastic. I am looking forward to what my next adventures in the next few months will have in store for me.

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Ceriana tridens, a beautiful wasp mimicking syrphid!