Scientist in the garden: dragonfly eyes, bees bite flowers, cool tomatoes, & tips

dragon fly zoom eye ommatidium

What’s the deal with dragonfly eyes? They are so huge! We’ll zoom in on them.

Do bees bite? Yes, but not the way you might think.

Growing cool tomatoes? I have some thoughts on that too.

I’m a scientist and a gardener so it’s not surprising I write an occasional series here on The Niche called The Scientist in the Garden, with today’s Memorial Day weekend edition focused on the above questions.

Dragonfly eyes

We get a lot of dragonflies in our backyard and they come in amazing colors. They are flying works of science and art. I always noticed how huge their eyes are compared to the rest of their body and I figured they had amazing vision.

Yesterday I happened to see one resting or sunning itself on the top of an onion stalk as I was working in the garden so I tried to take a picture with my iPhone and zoom lens. My first attempt didn’t go that great as the dragonfly got a little nervous when I tried to zoom in and for a moment it flew off brushing my hand causing me to juggle my phone in the air a moment… and then it relanded close by.

Trying again I capture a few high-resolution shots of this dragon. You can see a montage of different magnifications of the same image at right. The iPhone with zoom lens has such good resolution I could blow up a region just of one eye and you can see the individual structures in one eye called ommatidia. No microscope needed.

I wonder what it’s like for a dragonfly to see the world? You can read more about ommatidia and dragonfly vision in a great piece from GrrlScientist here. According to that article the dragonfly eye can have tens of thousands of facets.

Bee bites?

A couple of weeks ago while out in the garden, a wasp or bee stung me on the head totally out of the blue. I’m still not sure why it happened, but fortunately even though it hurt, I was fine. I remembered someone asking me one time if bees bite…that possibility had never really crossed my mind before they asked, but a few days later after my getting stung the “bees bite” idea came up again in a very different way.

I never see honey bees on my tomato flowers, but I have seen big black, yellow, and orange bees on the flowers at times. Also, I’ve heard over the years that certain bees like bumble bees and carpenter bees do pollinate tomatoes. It’s called “buzz pollination”. While the wind can pollinate tomatoes, if they are buzz pollinated they tend to develop much better fruit.

When I read up on buzz pollination I realized that the process has a surprising step. The big, lovable bumblebees and carpenter bees bite the tomato flowers, then buzz their wings, and gather up the released pollen. Later, I saw a big black and orange bee land on a tomato flower. On closer look I realized I could see the bite marks on the flowers including the one where I just saw the bee land (see right image above from iPhone with zoom lens). This particular flower had been bitten at least 4 times whereas for comparison you can see an image of an unbitten flower at left above.

Brad's Atomic Grape
Brad’s Atomic Grape

Cool tomatoes

I’m admittedly a bit obsessed with growing tomatoes, especially unusual varieties. I’ve written about tomato gardening in the past and you can see more of my thoughts on that here. This year I’m trying some new varieties including Brad’s Atomic Grape from Wild Boar Farms, which is THE supplier of cool tomatoes. These aren’t GMO tomatoes if anyone cares anymore (I don’t), but rather the amazing traits come from spontaneous mutations combined with interesting breeding of different types of tomatoes.

The Brad’s Atomic Grape plants have set tomatoes that already look really unusual with a deep blue-purple color. I’m curious what they’ll look and taste like when ripe. This tomato has gotten a lot of rave reviews by others. I’m also trying a few other tomatoes new to me including Kellogg’s Breakfast and some others from Wild Boar.

I have some other favorite tomato varieties I’ve grown in the past that I’d recommend based on good experiences. Beauty King is a real stunner with stripes of orange and yellow and sometimes gold. Lover’s Lunch is similarly beautiful but smaller. Both are some of my favorites in terms of taste too. Amazing! The only downsides on these varieties are (1) that from my experience at least is that each plant doesn’t produce that many tomatoes and (2) once ripe you better eat them quickly or they get overripe or spoil. Lucid Gem is another favorite tomato around here with a very cool appearance and unique zingy flavor.

Also from Wild Boar, I enjoy Berkeley Tie Dye in original or pink form. I also like Bull’s Heart with has a great shape and meaty texture. In addition, I recommend planting some long-time, reliable varieties including hybrids that crank out tons of tomatoes regardless of weather like Celebrity and Champion.

This year I also planted about half my tomatoes that I grew myself from seed so that’s another experiment.

Happy science and gardening! May both be productive for you.

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