Wild Bees

We headed out early into the foothills of Mts Pahia & Otemanu to an isolated area the Americans used for ammunition storage & particularly for water collection during WWII. During those years there were a series of sources that flowed in the area passing legendary sites such as Marae Vaiotaha, the Queen’s Bath & Ofa’i Honu. At that time these sources flowed throughout the year & many were inhabited by succulent prawns & large eels.

The Americans installed large steel water tanks to store water. To my knowledge the one appearing in the background of the photo below is the only one which remains – landowners gave permission to the churches to dismantle the others & sell the steel for scrap metal so as to have funds to construct churches & meeting places:

american-water-storage

The source Vaiati is the only source which now never runs dry & the American system of tapping the water from the source remains intact & functioning as it has since the war. This is how water should taste! It’s a beautiful setting surrounded by Mape (walnut trees):

american-water-storage

vaiati

We were not, however, there for the water; we had come in search of wild bees.

Proof of humans collecting honey stems back around 15,000 years. Jars of honey were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. There are up to 20,000 species of wild bees & up to 100,000 can live in a single colony, though it’s usually 30,000 to 50,000 of which all but about 1,000 are female worker bees – the ones that sting you! The queen bee can live for up to 3 years & produce up to half a million eggs laying around her body weight each day! She mates in a ‘nuptual flight’ with a number of males so as to store enough sperm to be able to fertilise all the eggs she lays, determining the sex of each egg as she lays it.

In the last month bushfires had raced through parts of the area we were visiting, distressing some of the bees whose hives still hid in smouldering trunks. Some trees had been felled to stop the fire from climbing further up the interior of the trees to where the bees still fought to save their hives. In this moment in history where bee populations are under attack worldwide we looked to assist the bees & improve their living conditions:

wild-bee-hive

We had fabricated unsophisticated mobile hives for the exercise & will build more complex hives for the projects development. Gilles, pictured here has been involved with apiculture for over 40 years, the last 22 years intensively:

gilles-payet

The bees from the first hive must have known we were there to assist as they were incredibly passive. Notwithstanding those in attendance remained at a safe distance:

honey-seekers

There were thousands of dead bees & one could see the damage caused by the fires as honey-comb was moved from the wild bee hive to be temporarily stored in the mobile hive:

bee-hive

honey-comb

mobile-hive

Honey-comb is fixed into the removeable honey-comb holders ready to fill the mobile hive:

honey-comb

In the below photo one can see (yellow coloured) pollen stored in the top right & large quantities of eggs that will produce worker bees:

honey-comb

Once the mobile hive is filled with its removeable honey-comb holders, the bees are ‘encouraged’ to enter the mobile home by the subtle use of smoke:

wild-bees

One can tell the move is a success & that the queen bee is inside by the volume of bees around the openings:

full-mobile-hive

The bees in the first hive may well have been passive but it would not be the case the case with the second hive where those not appropriately clothed were chased us up to 200m at a time by bees stinging us consistently on any part of the body they could reach. When a bee stings you they leave an odour which other bees can follow from a distance & continue the assault!  We encircled the fallen hive with fires but the attacks continued; nothing would stop them:

bee-hive-smoke

This was a very healthy hive:

bee-hive

The following photo shows the difference between honeycomb used for the eggs of male bees & those used for female worker bees. As the male bees are bigger than the workers they need bigger holes – as in the honey-comb at the top – into which the eggs that will produce males are laid:

male-female-honey-comb

Eager to learn:

bee-lesson

Exhausted teacher; satisfied students:

bee-hunters

This outing forms part of a project recently undertaken by the Mayor to push Bora Bora to greater fruit & vegetable independence through the development of a substantial 100% natural farm. The aim is to meet the needs of schools first & then the population. Students will be trained in natural farming techniques & be able thereafter to add to the island’s production via their own farms.

It fits well with the Mayor’s overall approach to the environment which has seen the introduction of water treatment plants & the island receiving the prestigeous’Pavillon Bleu” award for the quality of its swimming waters.

Overnight the queen bee in the second mobile hive moved outside & into a nearby tree with around 2/3 of the worker bees. They could be clearly seen lumped together & hanging from a branch. By the time we reached the spot she had fled in search of another place to call home accompanied by around 2/3 of the bees. A number of worker bees who’d departed early in search of pollen & had returned confused to find no-one home! You had to laugh on watching one amongst us climb the tree to check the situation more closely only on this occasion to be hammered by wasps!

We will return in a week to secure the mobile hives, block the entry & exit zones & transport them back to the farm. On using eggs from one or other hive we will be able to induce the production of queen bees as required to increase the size of the operation.

We would find that we were not alone that day – the gendarme arrived looking for paka (marijuana) in the mountians nearby earlier located by helicoptor:

marijuana-bora-bora

Tahiti is taking the world-wide threat to bee populations most seriously. The aim is to install specially selected bee colonies on isolated islands where there are few if any bees, where the environment is as close as possible to it being in its natural state, where the bees can live without human interference without the threats of pesticides & so on – Marlon Brando’s Tetioroa will be the first but Maiao (near Moorea), Maupiti & Tupai (near Bora Bora) are all under consideration. Its a brilliant project to be developing.

Bees are still used today in Tahitian traditional medicine. I recall regularly taking my mother-in-law for bee stings, up to nearly 100 at a time.

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