Rainforest bees

Large bumblebee 3,000m up in the Andes

Large bumblebee 2,500 to 3,000m up in the Andes in a garden. A normal European honeybee was just out of shot. I was surprised to see them so high up.

I recently visited the Amazon rainforest, here are my bee-related snaps. Not related to our local Oxfordshire bees at all, of course, but interesting.

I saw two types of bees – stinging and stingless. One type seems to live in hollow trees, the other in teardrop-shaped wasp-like external nests made of chewed wood. Both were half the size of European honeybees. They were completely uninterested in humans and very safe to be around. In over a week, I saw about 10 nests but never saw Africanised “killer” bees.

Bee nest. 4 to 5 feet from top to bottom

Bee nest. 4 to 5 feet from top to bottom

It helps to understand something about the ecology of the area. It is always at least 32C in the daytime, but despite some huge nests, bee activity at their entrances was generally very low while we were there, probably because August was “dry” season (no floods, just rain) and has few flowers. What flowers there are, tend to be in the canopy.

At any time you can see, typically, three termite nests on the sides of trees around you. (Rarely on the ground – they build above the flood level.) Many, many trees have been chewed by the termites and are hollow. So there are masses of potential nest sites for honeybees.

Bee nest entrance at waist level in tre. About 3 inches top to bottom.

Bee nest entrance at waist level in tree. About 3 inches top to bottom.

To the left, you can see the other type of nest’s entrance – one built into a tree with a curious tube like entrance (perhaps a hollowed branch? But flat ended). They use propolis like our bees to reduce entrances.

This fascinating video shows bees using their pollen baskets to collect crumbly wood for nests!





Local beekeeping

A local beekeeper kept two hives under his house. He told us he found the bees in a tree deep in the forest, sealed the entrance, cut the entire nest out of the tree and took the entire section of wood home. He then transferred the bees to a rectangular plank-built hive and caulked the gaps with mud, to prevent parasitic flies getting into the nest. Apparently wasps are not a problem for Amazonian bees. There are plenty of wasps; one of the guides accidentally swung her machete into a wasp nest and got stung 17 times in the head and shoulder. She laughed it off and seemed fine (no swelling etc) half a day later.

The second hive is a daughter of the first, the bees are surviving and thriving.

Frames? We don’t need no frames

To get honey, he opens the hive twice a year and, rather than extract comb, he sticks a syringe in and sucks honey out directly, getting a half dozen jars twice a year. He has never been stung, even when taking honey. He has no problems with melting comb. His protective equipment consists of a T shirt.

Carpentry in the area looks crude at first, but on closer examination you realise the people here are very skilled and, due to river banks moving, there is no point over-engineering houses which may not be there in a few years. They don’t have the money for paint so wood is its natural colour; they have an immense knowledge of which woods are appropriate for different jobs. Floorboards have zero splinters. Roofs don’t leak. There is an elegant yet robust minimalism to construction. Despite the humidity, straight planks stay straight, though there are gaps between them in places.

 Fragile ecosystem

Due to thin soil, roots grow sideways, not down, as can be seen on this fallen tree

Due to thin soil, roots grow sideways, not down, as can be seen on this fallen tree

I’d like to diverge off topic and just mention, the Amazon rainforest is not a dense reservoir of life. Floods wash away soil and leaves every year, leaving just one inch of soil above clay. On a typical half day’s walk looking for (among other things)monkeys, we might encounter just two troupes – they need a huge territory to sustain themselves, the trees don’t produce huge crops of fruit. Imagine what a jaguar needs! So when people say “the Amazon forest covers 2 million square miles”, that’s not as many animals as you assume. Many of the animals are under pressure from growing populations of human hunters, of course.

There is also the issue of logging. We were in a protected region. When we mentioned sustainably harvested lumber the locals burst out laughing. “Look around you. How many really big, old trees do you see?” None. The area had been logged up to the 1960’s and no tree was over a century old. (In 9 days we saw about 3 really big ancient ones  – missed by the loggers.) “There is no such thing as sustainably harvested hardwood. The logging ‘farms’ have an area about as big as you can see here, they are just a front for stuff cut further back in the forest. The only way to protect the forest is to not buy any tropical hardwood.” Like ivory.

Edit: I have written a related article on tropical bees – see Bees and Beekeeping in Borneo.

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One Response to Rainforest bees

  1. Pingback: Bees and beekeeping in Borneo | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

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