Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Musings About Bees in Termite Nests: Stingless Bees on a Sunday Morning



Sometimes my Sunday activities includes hopping on the scooter in the morning and heading up the highway to one of the fruit stands to get a bunch of bananas and maybe pacaya or pineapple. It also includes stopping at a little cafeteria for a cup (or two) of coffee. It’s up in the mountains above my town in Honduras, next to a little river, with lots of trees and an agreeable climate—nice, relaxing, enjoyable.

While sitting outside on the porch sipping my coffee I noticed a termite nest built up around the post of the gate. That would make kind of a neat photo, I thought, with this big round structure on the post and the plants winding around it.


A couple weekends later I went back up the highway to get more bananas and remembered to take my camera with me. I stopped for my coffee and then began snapping some photos of the river and vegetation. I finally made my way over to the termite nest. Right away I noticed the odd tube coming off the side of the structure. 



The termite nest.


That part wasn’t made by termites, I thought, but by bees. Stingless bees! Sure enough, looking closer at it I could see all these little black bees crowded around the rim of the tube.


To call them bees, from looking at their appearance, is kind of a stretch. They appear to be more fly like. But they’re bees—one of many different species of stingless bees that are native to Honduras and Central America.


Specifically these are part of the genus trigona. My wife calls them “magwas” or “zacarrias.”  The lady at the cafeteria, however, called them “suntecos.” The name, obviously, varies from one area to another.

They will make honey but people in Honduras don’t usually try to rob it from them. I’ve heard people say that they like to visit garbage (looking for something sweet, I imagine) so the honey isn’t good. 
  

They don’t have a sting but they will bite, sort of like an ant does. It actually doesn’t hurt. What’s worse is that they also like to attack your head if you mess with their nest, getting tangled up in your hair (luckily I don’t have that much anymore). This I learned again when I tapped the side of the termite nest (just lightly) to feel the material of which the termites built it. The lady of the house started chuckling as they came out to get me.


This has happened before. I’ve seen other magwas in termite tests—and have had them tangle in my hair when I start to tap on the nest itself or the tree. I should have known better.


Jamaican bees in termite nests


Bees like to set up shop in termite nests in Jamaica also. Duck ant nests they call them. These have always been the normal apis mellifera species of honey bees. 


Apparently parakeets like to make cavities in the termite nest to lay their eggs. After they leave, swarms will sometimes move into the hollow to start a new colony. 


Bee colonies in duck ant nests seem to be quite common in Jamaica. When starting up the apiary at Yerba Buena Farm we removed several of them. Some we could reach from the ground. Others we had to cut the tree down first. Once it is accessible, it is just a matter of cutting it apart using a small hatchet. The material is crumbly.


There are stingless bees in Jamaica also, but unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to see them. And on the other hand, I’ve never found a colony of normal honey bees in a termite nest in Honduras, only stingless.

--Tom


Chopping open the termites nest, this time just using a hammer. This one was high up in a tree. When it hit the ground the bees came out at everyone. The chainsaw guy unfortunately didn’t wait for us to get on our equipment—everyone went running. But the bees settled down fairly quickly and we got on with their removal.

A small two-foot top bar hive was used install the colony from the termite nest. The queen was found, put into a cage and set inside among the combs. All the bees went marching in after her. The top bar hive box was set right on top of the remains of the termite nest to help facilitate them finding and then adapting to their new home.



This duck ant nest colony broke off the branch when the tree hit the ground. I just had to pick it up and move it off to the side so we could open it up to remove the bees. Behind me Kwao, the owner of Yerba Buena Farm, checks for the queen among the bees left on the branch. The nest doesn’t weigh that much, the material is light weight. On the right, another duck ant nest with a colony inside of it.




Termites co-existing with the bees. Usually the termites had abandoned the nests but once in a while we found one that was still populated with them.


A bee colony in a duck ant nest.


This colony was transferred into a Langstroth box. The frames are set up with string and the combs are tied into them. The box is kept next to the nest to help facilitate the transfer. After several days it can be moved to the apiary.

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