Tag Archives: Bees

Belize, here we come

The day after tomorrow we fly to Belize! I’m pretty pumped.

I expect to learn about a huge variety of rainforest and reef organisms, both from lectures and in person. Reading the book beforehand was unquestionably valuable, but I think that I will learn so much more by being in the ecosystems of Belize.

I hope to improve my snorkeling skills, and I hope to correctly identify some sponges and bees! I’ve been researching both taxa for some weeks now, and I am crossing my fingers for some orchid bees (Euglossini tribe) and a chicken liver sponge (Chondrilla caribensis). I also hope to get to know everyone on the trip and learn how to work together as a team.

I am most nervous, and also excited, about snorkeling on the reef. I am especially excited to see, in person, some of the species we talked about in Coral Reef Ecosystems. All semester I have been looking forward to seeing the coral reef, in all of its glory, in real life. I hope I’ll be able to identify some of the coral species that we learned this past semester. I am especially nervous about the reef slope, which is heaven for coral but maybe will require deeper diving than I have practiced/done before. Hopefully, I can keep up with the experienced snorkelers!

I don’t have much experience in the tropics, especially not related to tropical ecology. I am approaching this experience with an open mind, ready to soak up as much knowledge as I can. Like, say, a sponge. This is a really cool opportunity, and I am glad that I am able to take this course during my time at Rice.


The rainforest and the reef are similar and dissimilar in several ways. Both ecosystems hold incredible biodiversity, experience similar negative anthropogenic impacts, and exist in oligotrophic surroundings. The reason biodiversity is high for each has to do with the location of rainforests and reefs. Both are found low latitudes, where weather and temperature are more constant than at higher latitudes and the impact of the sun is at its fullest. The structural complexity of each provides a wide array of niches to be filled by different organisms. Both habitats are under severe threat from human activities, even if those activities are different. Though, the goal is the same, to extract resources. The soils of tropical rainforests are nutrient and nitrogen poor and the same goes for reefs. The turnover rate in both ecosystems is so large that these nutrients are almost instantly ingested by the organisms living on the forest floor or in the benthos, where it is recycled in a microbial loop.

There are differences also in the environment, types of life, and in the effects of humans. As terrestrial organisms, we are built for living on land and can be quite awkward and clumsy in the sea. The ocean is an entirely different medium, made up of salty water. To fully explore the reefs, a human must strap on fake fins and be able to hold their breath for long periods of time, or utilize scuba. Land is a remarkably easier place to do field work for most people. The types of life found in each area are also different. Insects do not inhabit the oceans but are found on every single continent. While marine fish make up a great portion of the species in the sea, as do marine mammals, most if not all are absent from the rainforest’s rivers. Reefs are probably the more fragile ecosystem, since a large part of the functionality of a reef is dependent upon the health of its main reef builders, stony corals. The forests of the Chiquibul face a number of anthropogenic threats, such as selective and indiscriminate logging, harvesting of Xate, hunting, poaching, and mining. While these forests do face some threat from global warming, its main threat is extraction. But for reefs, human extraction, pollution, as well as global warming are likely all equally threatening. Stony corals live in symbiosis with tiny dinoflagellate algae, and this symbiosis is fragile and easily susceptible to stressors in the environment. If the stony corals are unhealthy, this can cause huge changes to this ecosystem, such as a loss of architectural complexity, harms to reef fish populations and dynamics, and erosion along coastlines. The ocean also serves as a dumpster for humanity’s trash and it seems that even a place like Glover’s can be affected, whereas trash cannot just drift into the Chiquibul.

Overall I observed all of these similarities and differences between these two ecosystems. The forests may stand taller than much of the reef landscape, but it is wise not to be fooled. The outer reef contains multitudes of boulders and nooks and crannies, creating this complex and diverse habitat. We were fortunate enough to see several colonies of Acropora palmata, a beautiful, large branching coral that was nearly wiped out by White Band Disease. Once, this species formed a zone that mimicked the forest, but now, these corals are dispersed across the outer reef. Noise is another factor to consider. The forest was never still and never silent. From crickets to cicadas, from howler monkeys to the sounds of the wind blowing through the trees, there was never a time when anything stopped. In the sea however, noises were harder to hear, and were occasionally absent. Down in the depths of the outer reef, an eerie but calming silence envelops you and nearly makes you forget that you have to go back to the surface in order to draw another breath.

I am quite biased towards the reef and must say that was my favorite week. I love the ocean, and the challenges that it presents to a land creature like myself. I enjoyed every aspect of the entire trip however, and found that hiking 13.25 miles in rain boots isn’t so bad as long as you have a chipper attitude and an amazing group of people surrounding you. Michael and Sam, in their enthusiasm for insects, and Adrienne’s funny antics towards them, made me more fully appreciate their existence. While I will never pick up a cockroach, I still have a newly found respect for them. I also think that monkey hoppers are actually pretty cute. My baseline for ant size has definitely been shifted to a larger perspective. I’m excited to go home and see tiny ants and be thankful they aren’t the large soldier ants we so lovingly harassed. The reef though, is where I think I am the happiest. The large colorful and beautiful birds of the Chiquibul morph into colorful reef fishes. The large trees turn to acroporas and boulder mounds. Predatory jaguars and other cats turn into the sharks and barracudas that silently cut through the water. In the end though, I love both places, and would never turn down an opportunity to explore both even more.

A few things surprised me. Hiking 13.25 miles in one day in rain boots wasn’t so bad after all. I learned that trying to count intersect points of a quadrat in five feet of water is extremely difficult, even in the slightest of waves. I can never un-see Michael putting that bee larvae in his mouth. I also learned I am definitely not a morning person. I would tell myself literally every night that I would get up early to go bird watching or to write my blogs, but I always got up at the last second, threw on some clothes, and headed to breakfast. Cold showers are necessary and will make you wonder why you ever took a hot shower. Bees are really cool and are diverse and variable in form, and I’ll never forget that little metallic green orchid bee. I may never see one again. I shall never forget our friend Clivus. Most of all, what will definitely stick with me over the years is the awesome group of people I got to explore Belize with. This group was amazing and every person played a part in making the dynamic fantastic and crazy. Throughout my time in Belize, I met some amazing people, from Lauren and Boris at Las Cuevas, to Javier and Herbie at Glover’s Reef. I wouldn’t change anything about this course (even though the transportation was definitely not on par, our group made the best of it!) because each activity is meant to challenge our perceptions of nature and how to turn observations and experiments into usable data. I will look back on this trip with fond memories.

Postcards from Randy. See me. Pupae. Where is she (Batman voiceover). Mrrph.

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Stumbling through the dark, Day 6

Today we retrieved our vials and performed our largest experiment yet, which involved sorting through specimens and separating them into morphospecies. After presenting our findings to Adrienne and Scott, we realized that there are a ton of ways to analyze data and that we definitely didn’t use the best methods to present our findings. Another day, another learning experience.

After that, we had quite a few lectures lasting into the afternoon. We heard from Lauren, a graduate student that has been living at Las Cuevas since January. She is here trying to answer the question of why carnivores are present in the Chiquibul and thinks that human made trails and roads act as corridors for these species. She’s also one of those people that you instantly admire.

After our lectures, we went out on a night hike. It was quite entertaining. We were seeing insects and arachnids left and right. I could hear Adrienne and Michael screaming and yelling in the dark. We saw a lot of monkey hoppers, a few tarantulas, the largest spider I have ever seen, leaf cutter ants, massive walking sticks, a green caterpillar, and a coral snake (venomous!). Overall it was an exciting hike.

No bees again today, most likely because we were in the classroom all day. But I did set out some scents in a little cup near the forest edge. Maybe I’ll see something tomorrow.


Cave Las Cuevas, Day 5

Today was interesting. I woke up early to the sounds of the other group that is here. I also did not fall asleep as early as I would have liked because the other group was being loud past 11 pm and I am a light sleeper. So I am kind of grumpy.

Today we wrapped up our trumpet tree projects and then we all peed into two vials. I am impressed by how clear everyone’s urine is. We are a healthy crew. After lunch, we took our helmets and headlamps to the Las Cuevas cave! I’ve been caving before in Idaho as well as Belize. I’ve also been cave diving, which is something I think I much prefer. The added level of danger is quite exciting. Anyway, we met a few bats in the cave and saw a few scorpions. We also encountered a chamber with low oxygen levels, which I definitely felt.

After exiting the caves, we went out onto a trail right near the station and used our urine for an experiment by placing vials of urine and water in trees and on the forest floor. If I haven’t already mentioned, an ancient Mayan site lies right outside the clearing of Las Cuevas. It is believed that the site had been used for ceremonial purposes.

We had a guest lecturer named Boris from FCD, a non-governmental organization that works in this area of Belize. His talk centered on the illegal extraction of resources from the Chiquibul, the research he does, and the social and political conflicts that have arisen from border disputes with Guatemala.

I didn’t see any bees today, probably due to the fact that we spent a large part of the day in the classroom. Tomorrow I will try to attract some bees, if time allows.

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Cave Las Cuevas
Cave Las Cuevas

Bootcamp Las Cuevas, Day 3

I am dead.

I’ve been on some intense hikes in my life, but I doubt I have ever walked as far as I did today, while wearing rubber boots. 13.25 miles in the final count. I do not have blisters. I do not have sunburn. I did not receive any mosquito bites. I can finally join club “I Found a Tick.”  I don’t believe I have ever sweated so much in my life. Today I swam through the slicks of perspiration drenching my body.

I did all of this to set up our 12 camera traps. Hopefully we capture some interesting Belizean animals. Even though I am tired and lying in my bed wanting a good night’s sleep I know I wont get because Mandy snore, I enjoyed my day. After a few miles hiking through the humid forests, I began to acclimate myself to the environment and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the Chiquibul. This is an amazing place for sure. Also, no bees. Sorry.

I am writing a shorter blog than usual but I will be back tomorrow!

P.S. To my family: I am not actually dead. I’m okay. As my mother would say to me “Buck up kid!”

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The 319 crew trekked to each green and red sticky note, accumulating 13.25 miles of hiking.
Randy is reading out the GPS coordinates of one of our last camera traps.

Caracol and things that went wrong, Day 2

The day started bright and early with a cornucopia of fried dough, syrup, and coffee at 6 am. I had only received about five and a half hours of sleep but I did not wake up or stir at all during the night. I found myself sleepy for nearly the entire day, but we get a break tonight to catch up on our sleep.

I saw my first bee today! There were a number of dark bees feeding from the nectar feeders at Crystal Paradise. They appeared to be bees belonging to the tribe Euglossini. The only thing that confused was the fact that they did not appear iridescent or metallic. That is one of the characteristics that define the Euglossini genus. However, it could be entirely possible that these bees belonged to the genus Eufrasia, which is another genus that belongs to the Euglossini tribe. Those bees tend to be darker and black, with any metallic coloring located on their heads. The other distinguishing feature of the Euglossini tribe is the enlarged hind tibias that male bees have to store and carry nectar. I took a few photos that showed exactly this.

After we packed up all of our things, we headed out in our van. I fell asleep instantaneously and missed most of the drive. I only woke up a few times and was lucky that I got to see a coati walking along the road. We arrived at Caracol, an ancient Mayan archaeological site, and headed out to the ruins. We climbed the tallest man-made structure in Belize, and it was built about 1500 years ago! Everyone was sweating a lot under the hot sun and the strong humidity. That was when I noticed these tiny little black insects hovering around and landing on people’s skin. When I got a closer look, I saw that they were sweat bees. Sweat bees belong to the Halictidae family and are attracted to human perspiration. The ones I saw were also very tiny, but very distinctly bee.

After we ate lunch at the ruins, we packed up the van yet again with the plan of going swimming in some pools. Of course, this was never meant to happen. Our van broke down and we had to be rescued by those residing at Las Cuevas. We packed our people and gear onto two pickup trucks and endured a bumpy 45-minute ride to the research station. Upon arrival, I was immersed in the sounds of the forest. Currently I am writing this blog outside on the porch as we wait for dinner and am listening to the myriad bird sounds emanating from the trees. I may be dirty, but I am content.

I can’t promise any photos. Cross your fingers that the Ethernet will load them!

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A black species of Euglossini bee. Taken at Crystal Paradise.
Africanized honey bees
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The 319 crew minus Scott at Caracol. PC: Scott Solomon

Hungry and sad, Day 1

Today I felt helpless as I stared into the eyes of the cashier at Subway, as she told me they weren’t making or selling sandwiches. I had skipped breakfast that morning thinking I would grab a large lunch at the airport but when we arrived at Hobby, we learned that the water had shut off. Consequently, all the restaurants could no longer serve food, as not washing hands was a health code violation. Alas, I settled on two bags of potato chips and entertained myself at Subway for half an hour watching hangry passengers walk up to the Subway cashier only to be told the horrifying news.

While I was hangry today in the airport, it largely didn’t bother me too much. I think over the years I have come to accept the not-so-great things that happen to me because there is no sense in working myself up over something I have no ability to change. Plus, I was about to board a plane to Belize! As I expected, it was quite humid and warm as we descended from the aircraft onto Belizean territory. Once we went through customs and left the airport, we all boarded ourselves into a van and made a two-hour trek to Crystal Paradise, a hotel outside of San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border.

Dinner tasted particularly wonderful and right afterword, Mandy, Sasha, and Sam gave their presentations. While I tried to stay interested, I must say that I was exhausted and it took a lot for me to keep my eyes open. We were released for bed at 11 pm. I ran back to my room but was stopped by Lucrecia and Ella. They had found a trail of leafcutter ants outside of our rooms!

I ran inside to grab my camera and headlamp and we all proceeded to follow the ant trail to find its nest. My friend Mandy loudly exclaimed that the ant trail looked like an actual trail, and indeed, the ants had been travelling back and forth so many times that there was a clear path cut through the understory. I was amazed at how everything was kept so orderly. A two-way direction of ants travelled back and forth from one place to another. We found the nest at the base of some small palm tree. After we found this, we wanted to find the “home tree” or the place the ants were collecting these leaves. We followed the trail backwards and found the tree. It was pretty far away as far as ants are concerned. Needless to say, the ants captured my attention tonight and were cool enough to keep a sleep-deprived person like myself from collapsing into bed.

Sadly, I saw no bees today but I am not worried since it is only our first day. Other creatures we saw today included a dog that Adrienne mistook for a deer, a few chickens, a large cicada that joined us for dinner, and a cockroach that scared the bejesus out of Adrienne. Photos of the ant parade are below!