Much of this post was originally written as an email on June 5, 2012
Recently I spoke about some of the insects and birds we have been observing at close range here from our patio. Today I thought I would write about a few observations I have made of bees and wasps. (I realize that does not sound very intriguing, but that is what is on my mind.)
As I said last time, we put in a bird bath mounted on four pieces of bamboo to attract birds to our yard. We also put out bird seeds and chose flowers that hopefully will draw hummingbirds to our garden. The bird bath has been working like a charm. Two days ago we watched an Ecuadorian Ground Dove take a three minute long bath complete with preening his wings by reaching first the left wing all the way over and to the water on his right side, spreading the feathers out like fingers, and then doing the same with his right wing. He splashed around and groomed his entire body while we sat three feet away and marveled at his agility and care. So far we have seen at least five different species of birds bathe in our bird bath and have had as many as eight or ten birds drinking and eating seeds at the same time.
That said, by far, the most frequent visitors to our bird bath are wasps and bees!
I have seen at least five different types of wasps and bees visit our water source.
They creep down the edge to the water and suck up water for minutes at a time. We have long-winged dark wasps with the traditional wasp body shape (very narrow connections between their body parts) come and wasps as small as ½ inch long come as well. If a wasp slips down too far he will be stranded in the water until he drowns or I see it and fish him out, but the honey bees are a different story.
The honey bees try to avoid falling into the water, but frequently fail in that effort. When they do fall in though they can (sort of) swim back over to the edge and after repeated attempts to gain a foot hold climb back to safety. I watched one swim around for several minutes and was about to go over and fish him out when he finally got over to the edge and climbed up onto the edge. They have to wait in the sun for a bit for their little wings to dry off before they can fly off to relate the near death experience to their friends at the hive.
There are several bee hives close to our home. We can see one fairly large hive hanging from the water drain spout on our neighbor’s roof. I think we are the closest steady water source for that hive.
There is another hive on the side of our building.
They recently cleared a lot near the beach and exposed this very large bee hive!
I also saw these two hives on ceibo trees near Charapoto. One has exposed honey comb!
The thing I wanted to relate is that bees are not just communal insects in that they live in large groups, but they also help each other when in peril. As I said, these bees can swim by beating their wings in the water as though they were flying. They do not always swim/fly in a straight line and sometimes swim around in circles until they reach the edge. If they tire too soon or if they happen to flip over onto their backs they can end up dying in the water. Often we see bees floating dead on the pool water having suffered just that fate.
I am reminded of a fact that we have probably all heard that says that aeronautic engineers have studied the bee’s anatomy, wing size and structure, muscle strength, and aerodynamics and have concluded that it is impossible for bees to fly. (Presumably, they are also incapable of swimming.) The bees are not aware of the engineer’s study though and continue to fly (and swim) in ignorance. Motivational speakers used to tell that story to motivate us to try hard even when others were telling us it was impossible.
Here is a picture of a bee entering a flower funnel to collect honey.
And here he is backing out with his sweet load and pollen to bring to other flowers.
As proficiently as they fly about and work to pollinate our flowers, it is a scary and possibly life threatening event for a bee to fall into a bird bath. You would think that other bees nearby when one of their kind is fighting for his or her life in the water would not even notice and certainly would not think (or know how) to help. Not so! When one falls into the water, the other bees on the edge start getting excited and jump around in an agitated state until the struggling bee reaches the edge.
Once I saw a bee finally make it to the edge and climb out only to find that one of his wings was plastered and stuck to his back and would not open out to dry so that he could fly. He was walking around on the edge beating his one good wing and did not seem to be able to help himself. After a minute of trying, other bees saw he was in distress and jumped on him. I thought they might be fighting, but as I watched, it was obvious that they were trying to grab the stuck wing and dislodge it. At least three bees took stabs at helping the bee until the wing finally sprung back into position. The other bees visibly calmed down and eventually the waterlogged bee flew off with probably the most exciting story to tell in the hive that night!
Even more incredible to me though, is an event that I have seen happen twice now. As I said, once a bee is on his back in the water he is pretty much doomed – as he cannot swim and will eventually drown or die of exposure. It is also clearly not natural for bees to jump into the water on purpose and they try hard not to fall in when they are drinking. But, I have seen bees willingly jump into the water and risk their lives to help other bees who have floundered onto their backs in the water!
Once again, it looks like the lifesaving bee is fighting with the struggling bee. (Remember, they are kind of clumsy little bugs!) I have watched these rescuing bees fly right onto the struggling bees and forcibly push them under the water. Once submerged the bee has a chance of bobbing back to the surface upright and then has a chance to swim/fly over to the edge and safety. It sometimes takes several bees and multiple forced baptisms before the struggling bee is turned upright and usually one or two of the rescuers become stranded in the water and barely make it to the edge themselves, but both times I witnessed these rescues the first bee and all of the rescuers finally made it over to the edge and dried off to fly away.
We are not really too happy about having bees surround our bird bath, but they really are not aggressive and simply drink and fly off. Most of the bird visitors simply ignore the insects and still come to the bird bath. So, I think we will just let them keep coming and watch them teach us lessons on life, service, and communal living!
Life is good (and “miel” sweet) in Ecuador!
Written by John