The true nature of bees
Honey is an original source of sweetener, known by Stone Age man long before the discovery of sugar in beets (Beta vulgaris, Chenopodiaceae) in the early 19th century and before the Asians discovered sugarcane in New Guinea. Many people still harvest the honey from wild bees. In Thailand that is done at night with a flame, which means the harvester kills the nest.
A beehive, a man-made house to keep bees, was used already in the Mediterranean 2000 years ago. Such hives were usually upside down clay pots. Beautiful hives made by straw were common in the 18th century (skeps). Essentially these were upside down baskets. In modern Thailand the hives are usually wooden constructions painted white.
The most common bee kept in such beehives is the domesticated honey bee, Apis mellifera, native to the old world.
A common misunderstanding is that the domesticated honey bee is the sole pollinator of flowers, and that their disappearance would mean the death of all flowers and fruits. A concern was raised about the decline of domesticated honey bees in some parts of USA, a theme used in Jerry Seinfeld’s “Bee Movie”. In reality, bees are not important to the flowers, they emerge anyhow, the bees are important for the pollination and subsequent fruiting. Although the presence of honey bees undoubtedly increases the fruit harvest in an orchard, it is an introduced species to America so other native pollinators exist too. Unfortunately, in the DVD “Bee Movie” there is a quiz for children, where a photograph of a honey bee actually depicts a striped fly.
At Dokmai Garden in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand we have in addition to the visiting domesticated honey bees, also the native red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea) pollinating the bananas, moths pollinating orchids, carrion flies pollinating bignay trees, beetles pollinating Amorphophallus, nectar bats pollinating the midnight horror (Oroxylum indicum, Bignoniaceae), sun birds pollinating the rain tree (Samanea saman, Fabaceae) and the red kapok tree (Bombax ceiba, Malvaceae) and numerous butterflies pollinating many wild flowers.
The Thai red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea) builds a nest hanging down from a tree branch, in this case in a longan fruit tree (Dimocarpus longan, Sapindaceae). We welcome these bees and make sure they do not die from poisoned water. Usually these nests get so heavy they fall down by their own weight. The honey is very tasty, and the wax useful too. This species has occasionally also nested in the black waste bins when the lid has not been closed. Although often lacking in the manicured and pesticide-intensive city gardens, it is a common species on the countryside. If you just want bees for enhanced pollination, rearing them is not difficult; leave them alone and do not use any poisons. I have pruned branches straight underneath a nest without any bee attack, but if you hit the nest, well, then it is your own fault…
Nobody would read a blog about a wingless hymenopteran (the order of bees, ants and wasps), so I take the opportunity of showing this odd creature here while blogging about more adorable and familiar insects. This solitary hymenopteran has no wings, but it is not an ant, and it has small jaws! Does anyone know what it is? I do not. August 3, 2011.
Update August 9, 2011: Graham Brown from Australia reports that this is a female velvet wasp (Mutillidae). Protected by a thick armour of chitin, they avoid the stings of guardians and lay their eggs inside the larvae of other bees or wasps. The wingless female can deliver a very painful sting, and so the wingless female is also called ‘cow killer’ or ‘cow ant’. The colours are supposed to warn you from handling it, and so I did with caution. The males have wings and look so different you would not realize they were of the same species unless found mating
Update August 11, 2011: The entomologist Dr Arkady Lelej from Vladivostok identifies this velvet wasp as Trogaspidia sp.
Text and Photo: Eric Danell