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More insects, fewer pests February 20th, 2022 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

It’s one of the great secrets of ecology that few insect species are pests. Most insects help us, by pollinating our crops, making honey, or silk and by killing pest insects, either by hunting them or by parasitizing them. I was in Ecuador recently with Paul and Marcella from Agro-Insight, along with Ecuadorian colleagues Carmen Castillo, Mayra Coro and Diego Mina, to make a video on the insects that help us.

Our first stop was the home of Emma Román and her husband, Luis Plazarte, in Aláquez, a parish near the city of Latacunga, in the central Andes. On a small field behind their house, Emma explained that all flowering plants (trees, ornamentals or crops) attract insects, which feed on the pollen and nectar in the flowers. She has seen many beneficial insects: the bee fly, and the hairy fly, beetles (like the lady bird beetle), and true bugs. She adds “And there is a new one, the soldier fly.”

I was puzzled about new insect. Perhaps an introduced one? Then I realized that since doña Emma has received training in insect ecology from Mayra and Diego, and has planted more flowering plants, she has begun to notice more kinds of insects, which are also becoming more abundant, because of the flowers she plants. For example, she planted a row of lantana flowers to mark the boundary of her field. On the ground nearby, she pointed out some tiny spiders which we had not even noticed. “You can see this one is carrying her eggs with her,” she said, pointing to a whitish spider the size of a grain of rice. The family’s small field of oats is surrounded by pullilli shrubs, and other plants like chilca and the Andean cherry, which are visited by pollinating insects and others attracted by the plants’ flowers.

As doña Emma’s farm becomes insect-friendly, she notices more helpful insects. The larva of the bee fly hunts and eats small, soft insects. The hairy fly lays its eggs in other insects. The hairy fly larva hatches inside the victim, eating it from the inside out. That’s why doña Emma has few pests, even as she has more insects.

For doña Emma the big advantage is that she can produce maize, blackberries, and several kinds of vegetables with no pesticides. She says this means that she has tastier food that is healthier for her and for her family. And the diverse flowers around her house give her a sense of tranquility and harmony.

As doña Emma put it, “We plant a variety of plants for all kinds of insects, so that all the birds come, and they help us to conserve this ecosystem … to teach our children that there are these good insects and birds.”

Scientific names

Pullilli (familia Solanaceae)

Chilca is Baccharis latifolia

The Andean Cherry (Spanish: capulí) is Prunus serotina

The bee fly (Spanish: moscabeja) is Eristalis spp. (Syrphidae)

The hairy fly is the family Tachinidae.

The soldier fly (Spanish: mosca sapito) is Hedriodiscus spp.

Related video

The wasp that protects our crops

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Diego Mina and Mayra Coro for introducing us to doña Emma, and for identifying the plants and insects. Thanks also to Mayra and Diego for their valuable comments on a previous version of this blog. Diego and Mayra work for IRD (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement). Our work was funded by the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP)

MÁS INSECTOS, MENOS PLAGAS

Por Jeff Bentley, 20 de febrero del 2022

Uno de los grandes secretos de la ecología es que pocas especies de insectos son plagas. La mayoría de los insectos nos ayudan polinizando nuestros cultivos, haciendo miel y matando a los insectos plaga, ya sea cazándolos o parasitándolos. Hace poco estuve en Ecuador con Paul y Marcella, de Agro-Insight, y los colegas ecuatorianos Carmen Castillo, Mayra Coro y Diego Mina, para hacer un video sobre los insectos que nos ayudan.

Primero, visitamos la casa de Emma Román y su marido, Luis Plazarte, en Aláquez, una parroquia cercana a la ciudad de Latacunga, en los Andes centrales. En un pequeño sembrío detrás de su casa, doña Emma nos explicó que todas las plantas con flores (árboles, plantas ornamentales o cultivos) atraen a los insectos, que se alimentan del polen y néctar. Ella ha visto muchos insectos que le ayudan: la moscabeja, la mosca peluda y escarabajos (como la mariquita) y algunos de los chinches. Y añade: “Y hay uno nuevo, la mosca sapito”.

Me quedé perplejo ante la idea de un nuevo insecto. ¿Quizás uno introducido? Entonces me di cuenta de que desde que doña Emma ha recibido capacitación en la ecología de los insectos de parte de Mayra y Diego, y ha plantado más plantas con flores, ella ha empezado a fijarse en más tipos de insectos. Por ejemplo, también plantó una hilera de flores de lantana para marcar el límite de su campo. En el suelo, debajo de los arbustos, señala unas arañas diminutas en las que no habíamos reparado. “Puedes ver que esta lleva sus huevos”, dice, señalando una araña blanquecina del tamaño de un grano de arroz. Su pequeño campo de avena está rodeado de arbustos de pullilli, chilca y capulí a donde llegan los insectos polinizadores, y además otros insectos son atraídos por las flores de estas plantas.

A medida que la granja de doña Emma se convierte en un lugar acogedor para los insectos, se da cuenta de que hay más insectos útiles. La larva de la mosca abeja caza y come insectos pequeños y blandos. Mientras que la mosca peluda pone sus huevos dentro de otros insectos, y las larvas de la mosca peluda nacen dentro de la víctima, comiéndola de adentro hacia afuera. Por eso doña Emma tiene pocas plagas, aunque tenga más insectos.

Para doña Emma, la gran ventaja es que puede producir maíz, moras y varios tipos de hortalizas sin plaguicidas. Dice que esto significa que tiene alimentos más sabrosos y saludables para ella y su familia. Y las diversas flores que rodean su casa le dan una sensación de tranquilidad y armonía.

Como dice doña Emma: “Sembramos variedades de plantas para que todo insecto, todo pájaro venga, y esté allí, nos ayudan a conservar este ecosistema, la naturaleza que es bien bonita para nosotros, para enseñar a nuestros hijos que tales insectos hay, tales pájaros existen.”

Nombres científicos

Pullilli (familia Solanaceae)

Chilca es Baccharis latifolia

Capulí es Prunus serotina

La moscabeja es Eristalis spp. (Syrphidae)

La mosca peluda es familia Tachinidae.

La mosca sapito es Hedriodiscus spp.

Video relacionado

La avispa que protege nuestros cultivos

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Diego Mina y Mayra Coro por presentarnos a doña Emma, y por identificar las plantas e insectos. Gracias a Mayra y Diego por sus valiosos comentarios sobre una versión previa de este blog. Diego y Mayra trabajan para IRD (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement). Nuestro trabajo fue financiado por Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight.

 

Leave the moss, save the forest November 14th, 2021 by

There’s no more dramatic way to release lots of carbon into the atmosphere than to let a forest burn down. I wrote a story in 2016 (Save the trees) explaining how citizens in Cochabamba, Bolivia, have taken ownership of a large forest planted over 30 years earlier as part of a Swiss project. Back then, the project was criticized for not having enough local “participation.”

But the people came to love the forest and volunteers risk their lives to put out fires there. Recently, on 24 October, a 600-hectare fire torched the mountainside just above the city. My daughter, Vera, and I visited one of the local volunteer fire departments (SAR). We were both moved to see the young women and men in orange jump suits, lined up in formation, before getting into pickup trucks to ride to battle at the fire front.

On the north side of the city the fire was so close that ash fell like snowflakes, and the sky turned grey with smoke. Townspeople drove past the station, delivering drinking water, food, and first aid supplies to the citizen firefighters. Fortunately, it rained hard that night, and put out the fire.

But the left hand doesn’t always know what the right hand is up to. The same city that fights so hard to protect the forest is partly to blame for burning it. Every year, people from Cochabamba use moss from the mountains in Christmas decorations. Like people all over Bolivia, folks in Cochabamba make a nativity scene at home or at the office. Besides the Holy Family, shepherds and wisemen, other figurines are included, ranging from Barbie dolls, to plastic dinosaurs, to the Donkey from Shrek, all arranged on a green bed of moss. It’s a riot of fun.

Poor people can make some extra money in December, harvesting moss in the forest, to sell it in the markets or on the street. But it’s not just poor people. One year I took a group of agronomists to see a high, native forest in Santa Cruz, and was dismayed when several came back to the bus with large slabs of moss to take home.

Last year, Ana Gonzáles wrote an article explaining how moss is a primitive plant, without roots, that absorbs up to 20 times its weight in water. Moss acts as a wet blanket in the forest, covering the trees and sheltering them from fire. She urged people not to buy moss at Christmas time. The idea is starting to get across, but some people still like to include moss in the nativity scenes.

In colonial times the idea of the mossy nativity scene was imported from Spain, and in parts of Europe, plants are still taken from the forest at Christmas time. A hundred years ago, moss Christmas decorations may have been sustainable. But now there are a lot more people, more roads, and more pressure on the forest. It’s time to invent new traditions that don’t celebrate Christmas by stripping the forest.

A forest is so much more than trees. The moss and other small plants living on the ground and in the branches of the trees are also part of the forest. Removing some of them can leave a forest dry and vulnerable to burning, which is the last thing our warming planet needs.

Related videos

Managed regeneration

Parkland agroforestry

DEJAR EL MUSGO, PARA DAR VIDA AL BOSQUE

Por Jeff Bentley, 14 de noviembre de 2021

No hay forma más dramática de liberar mucho carbono a la atmósfera que dejar que un bosque se queme. Escribí un artículo en 2016 (Save the trees) en el que explicaba cómo los ciudadanos de Cochabamba, Bolivia, se han adueñado de un gran bosque plantado más de 30 años antes como parte de un proyecto suizo. En aquel entonces, el proyecto fue criticado por no tener suficiente “participación” local.

Pero la gente llegó a amar el bosque y los voluntarios arriesgan sus vidas para apagar los incendios allí. Recientemente, el 24 de octubre, un incendio de 600 hectáreas calcinó la falda del cerro justo por encima de la ciudad. Mi hija, Vera, y yo visitamos uno de los cuerpos de bomberos voluntarios locales (SAR). Nos conmovió ver a las mujeres y hombres jóvenes con trajes de salto color naranja, alineados en formación, antes de subir a las camionetas para ir a luchar al frente del incendio.

En el lado norte de la ciudad el fuego estaba tan cerca que la ceniza caía como copos de nieve, y el cielo se volvía gris por el humo. La gente del pueblo pasó por delante de la estación, entregando botellas de agua, comida y artículos de primeros auxilios a los bomberos ciudadanos. Afortunadamente, esa noche una gran lluvia apagó el fuego.

Pero la mano izquierda no siempre sabe lo que hace la derecha. La misma ciudad que lucha con tanto esmero por proteger el bosque tiene parte de culpa en su quema. Todos los años, los cochabambinos usan el musgo de las montañas en los adornos navideños. Como en toda Bolivia, los cochabambinos hacen un nacimiento en casa o en la oficina. Además de la Sagrada Familia, los pastores y los reyes magos, se incluyen otras figuras, desde muñecas Barbie, pasando por dinosaurios de plástico, hasta el burro de Shrek, todo puesto sobre un lecho verde de musgo. Es súper divertido.

Los pobres pueden ganar dinero extra en diciembre, cosechando musgo en el bosque, para venderlo en los mercados o en la calle. Pero no se trata sólo de gente pobre. Un año llevé a un grupo de agrónomos a ver un bosque alto y nativo en Santa Cruz, y me quedé consternado cuando varios volvieron al autobús con grandes bultos de musgo para llevarse a casa.

El año pasado, Ana Gonzáles escribió un artículo explicando que el musgo es una planta primitiva, sin raíces, que absorbe hasta 20 veces su peso en agua. El musgo actúa como una manta húmeda en el bosque, cubriendo los árboles y protegiéndolos del fuego. Ella ha instado a la gente a no comprar musgo en Navidad. La idea empieza a ser aceptada, pero a algunas personas les sigue gustando incluir el musgo en los nacimientos.

En la época colonial, la idea del nacimiento de musgo se importó de España, y en algunas partes de Europa se siguen sacando plantas del bosque en Navidad. Tal vez hace cien años, los adornos navideños de musgo eran sostenibles. Pero ahora hay mucha más gente, más caminos que penetran al bosque y más presión sobre ello. Es hora de inventar nuevas tradiciones que no celebren la Navidad despojando al bosque.

Un bosque es mucho más que árboles. El musgo y otras pequeñas plantas que viven en el suelo y en las ramas de los árboles también forman parte del bosque. Eliminar algunas de ellas puede dejar un bosque seco y vulnerable a los incendios, que es lo último que necesita nuestro planeta, que se está calentando.

Videos sobre el manejo del bosque

Regeneración manejada

Agroforestería del bosque ralo

Monkeys in the sacred forest May 31st, 2020 by

Of all the possible ways to save a primate species from extinction, the least expected is voodoo. It is known as vodun in Benin, West Africa, where Swiss ecologist Peter Neuenschwander began his conservation efforts.

I have written before how Peter first acquired, in 1995, a little group of red-bellied monkeys, a critically endangered species that lives only in the dwindling coastal forests of Benin. Later, Peter started to buy tracts of forest to keep the monkeys. At first, he kept them in cages. But after the monkeys began to mate, the half-grown babies would slip out of the cages and forage in the forest, where they were also fed on cucumbers and bananas, to make sure they got enough to eat.

Peter told me his story when I visited him at his Sanctuaire des Singes (Monkey Sanctuary) in the village of Drabo Gbo, near Cotonou, 12 years ago. Now he’s published a novel, based on his experience, in which he gives more details about how he slowly acquired his 14-hectare forest, buying small plots of about a hectare at a time.

Although Peter enjoyed his research in entomology, and loved living and working in Africa, he swore he would never buy land there. Or at least until a friend took him to Drabo Gbo, a small area near the research station where Peter worked. A large extended family owned a piece of land that had once been natural forest, but was now mainly planted with teak trees. A small area of sacred forest still remained, dominated by a massive cola tree. It was love at first sight. Peter arranged to buy the land with the cola tree, and an adjacent plot recently cleared for maize.

The sale helped the villagers of Drabo Gabo out of an impasse, for they had split into two groups, one of evangelical Christians and one of believers in vodun. The evangelicals wanted to cut down the forest and sell the wood. They also wanted to stop the vodun worshipers holding their rituals beneath the cola tree on moonless nights.

Peter bought the sacred forest from the evangelical faction, which held the title to the land. They got their money and Peter got his land. He then told the vodun group that they could continue to hold their rituals in the forest, but only if they would protect it.

Peter offered more than moral support to the vodun group. He joined in their sessions and, as he acquired more land, he was eventually initiated into two vodun groups, Zan-Gbeto, and Oro. In return, the Zan-Gbeto assigned a young man to be Peter’s guardian. Peter built a house on the deforested land, and with his guardian began to reforest the maize and fallow fields. Fortunately, the land had only recently been cleared from forest. Some trees grew up from the stumps left in the field. Other saplings sprouted from seeds that were still in the soil. Peter’s guardian would also bring in rare tree seedlings that he had found in neighbor’s fields.

As Peter describes in his book, it hasn’t always been easy. The villagers often ask him for cash to pay for school fees, funerals and medical expenses. He feels that he has to pay or they will turn on the forest, since they think that it would be better used for farming. There has also been violence, including a machete fight fueled by alcohol at a vodun meeting, and even murder.

Yet the villagers essentially held up their end of the bargain. The vodun men kept the hunters and woodcutters out of the forest. Peter could not have protected the forest by himself. There have been other benefits besides providing a home for the monkeys. By 2015 about half of the endangered plants in Benin were to be found in this sacred forest. Some animals, like the royal pythons, have become rare, but the red-bellied monkeys are reproducing. Peter has managed to pass his sanctuary forest on to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), where he still works on a voluntary basis. IITA will use the forest as a place to study insects, which are essential for biological pest control, which is Peter’s specialty.

The sacred forest is now recognized as a reference forest. Botanists can visit and see trees that they may have never seen before, because the forests that still harbor them are too remote.

Many northern scientists who work and live the tropics have done important research. Few have made a home for endangered monkeys in a sacred forest, and by doing so, saved both. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. Peter is nothing if not honest about his experiences. “There are times when I hate myself for being here, and detest the entire village.” But he also writes: “After years of travelling throughout Africa in a quest to improve sustainable farming, this attraction culminated in a boy’s dream come true: living in a real forest, tending rare plants, and raising endangered monkeys.”

Further reading

Bentley, Jeff 2008 Red-Bellied Monkeys.

Neuenschwander, Peter 2020 Death in Benin: Science Meets Voodoo. Just Fiction! Editions, Omni Scriptum Publ., Beau Basin, Mauritius.

Neuenschwander, P., & Adomou, A. 2017.  Reconstituting a rainforest patch in southern Benin for the protection of threatened plants. Nature Conservation 21: 57-82.

Neuenschwander, Peter, Brice Sinsin and Georg Goergen (editors) 2011 Nature Conservation in West Africa: Red List for Benin. Cotonou: IITA.

Neuenschwander, P., Bown, D., Hèdégbètan, G. C., & Adomou, A. 2015 Long-term conservation and rehabilitation of threatened rain forest patches under different human population pressures in West Africa. Nature Conservation 13: 21–46.

Scientific names

Cola tree, Cola gigantea

Royal Python, Python regius

Red- bellied monkey, Cercopithecus erythrogaster

Acknowledgements

A warm thanks to Peter Neuenschwander for comments on a previous draft, and for kindly allowing me to use his excellent photographs. And to Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa, your help on these stories is always appreciated, even if I don’t always say so.

American bees March 1st, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

When the Spanish conquered the New World, the colonists who followed them brought honey bees. These European bees carried out their own version of the conquest, displacing a wide variety of stingless, native American bees. The native American people had known about these stingless bees and used their honey for centuries. Some, such as the Maya, kept bees for their honey, and many other peoples gathered honey from the wild.

The European honey bee is more aggressive and bigger than the American bees. The African honey bee and the European honey bee are sub-species of the same species, Apis mellifera. The European bee lives in large colonies of some 80,000 individuals, while the native bees live in smaller hives, of 3,000 or so. The American bees have suffered from the loss of forest habitat, and from competition with the European bees, which gather nectar from the same sources that the native bees need.

But the native American bees are making a comeback, as I learned recently on a course taught by two biologists who are experts in native American bees: Marcia Adler Yáñez from the Gabriel René Moreno Museum of Natural History in Bolivia and Oscar “Rupa” Amaya, who is Colombian, but a long-time resident of Brazil.

The American honey bees are a diverse lot, of at least 400 species. Some of the larger ones are as big as European honey bees, while some of the smaller ones are the size of a grain of rice.

The native American bees are gentle (some more than others) and although they do not have stingers, some species will bite to defend their nests. Unlike European bees, which put their honey in combs, native American bees keep their honey and pollen in little wax pots. The American bees have a complex nest structure. The queen lays her eggs in cells in a horizontal comb (unlike the vertical ones the European bees make). The combs of native bees can be disk shaped, or spiral or amorphous. The brood chambers, full of eggs in cells, are surrounded by a wax labyrinth, the involucrum, made to discourage ants and other predators. The pots of honey and pollen are placed around the involucrum.

One species of bee, called señorita, is known from Mexico to Argentina for its fine honey, widely regarded to be an eye ointment. A drop in each eye relieves pain and irritation.

Rupa and Marcia teach their students various techniques to care for native American bees. While keepers of European honey bees have made wooden boxes, or hives, for bee colonies, this was not a common practice for native American bees. In the past 30 years, bee experts in Brazil have adapted bee boxes for native American bees. These bee hives are smaller than those for European bees, but the boxes have thicker walls to keep the bees warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Rupa and Marcia also teach the use of a simple trap for capturing wild colonies. A plastic soda pop bottle, two-liters or larger, is covered in newspaper (to keep the nest warm) and black plastic (to keep it dark). A tube is placed in a small opening in the side of the bottle, making an inviting door to entice a young queen to set up her nest in the bottle. The bottle is hung on a tree in a forest with bees. In good bee habitat, bees may colonize the bottle within weeks. A skilled beekeeper can later transfer the colony to a proper, wooden hive.

Struggling colonies can be encouraged with an extra food supply. On the bee course, we learned how to make wax pots and fill them with honey or pollen gathered by European honey bees, which you can buy in the store. The native bees will eat the honey and convert the pollen to “bee bread” by using special enzymes. They will also use the wax from the pots to make their own brood cells and food pots.

Bees make wax with an organ in their abdomen, but wax is expensive. The bees need six or eight grams of honey to make a gram of wax. So, putting wax in the nests gives the bees a head-start and lets them start a colony faster.

Brazilian universities have been studying native American bees since the 1950s, and the techniques for keeping these bees are slowly spreading to other Latin American countries. There are also native bees in Australia, where some quite keen beekeepers use bee boxes similar to the Brazilian ones.

Native honey is thin, but sweet and it has a fine flavor. The larger species of native bees can make up to eight liters of honey a year, but the small species can only make about one liter, so this honey is expensive, but it is starting to appear in specialty shops.

We also met a Bolivian forester, Juan Carlos Aruquipa, who works on a project to teach women in the rainforest (the Yungas) to manage native bees, and to sell the honey. This is important, because many of the small flowers of tropical American trees must be pollinated by bees to set seed. And the bees feed on the nectar from the trees. So, without bees there are no trees, and without trees there are no bees.

This is a case where agriculture is moving forward in an imaginative direction, learning to care for wild bees, and to produce valuable honey. Bees need a lot of care, so they are difficult to handle on a massive, corporate scale. But they are perfect for smallholders, especially for women, who find the smaller hives and the gentle bees easier to handle. The little hives are ideal to keep at home. Native American bees are a new, creative direction for agroecological farming.

Scientific names

All bees, American, European, and others, belong to the family Apidae. The European, African and Asian bees with stingers belong to the genus Apis. The stingless, American, Australian and African bees belong to the tribe Meliponini. The large native bees are in the genus Melipona and the small ones are grouped into several genera, including Trigona, Scaptotrigona, Nannotrigona, and Tetratrigonisca. The señorita is Tetragonisca angustula. All of these bees are social. In the Americas and elsewhere there are many other bee species that are solitary, such as bumble bees.

Further reading

I have been interested in Native American bees for a long time, and give a short account of them in:

Bentley, Jeffery, W. and Gonzalo Rodríguez 2001 “Honduran Folk Entomology.” Current Anthropology,42(2):285-300.

LAS ABEJAS AMERICANAS

Por Jeff Bentley, el primero de marzo del 2020

Cuando los españoles conquistaron el Nuevo Mundo, los colonos que los siguieron trajeron abejas. Estas abejas europeas hicieron su propia versión de la conquista, desplazando a una gran variedad de abejas nativas americanas sin aguijón. Los indígenas conocían a estas abejas nativas y usaron su miel durante siglos. Algunos, como los mayas, guardaban abejas para su miel, y muchos otros pueblos recolectaban miel de la naturaleza.

La abeja europea es más agresiva y más grande que las abejas americanas. La abeja africana y la abeja europea son subespecies de la misma especie, Apis mellifera. La abeja europea vive en grandes colonias de unos 80.000 individuos, mientras que las abejas nativas viven en colmenas más pequeñas, de unos 3.000. Las abejas americanas han sufrido la pérdida de su hábitat forestal, y la competencia con las abejas europeas, que recogen el néctar de las mismas flores que las abejas nativas.

Pero hay nueva esperanza para las abejas nativas americanas, como aprendí recientemente en un curso impartido por dos biólogos expertos en abejas nativas americanas: Marcia Adler Yáñez del Museo de Historia Natural Gabriel René Moreno de Bolivia y Oscar “Rupa” Amaya, que es colombiano pero residente en Brasil desde hace mucho tiempo.

La abeja americana es un grupo muy diverso, de al menos 400 especies. Algunas de las más grandes son del tamaño de las abejas europeas, mientras que algunas de las más chicas son tan pequeñas como un grano de arroz.

Las abejas nativas americanas son relativamente mansos y a pesar de que no tienen aguijones, algunas especies muerden para defender sus nidos. A diferencia de las abejas europeas, que ponen su miel en panales, las abejas nativas americanas guardan su miel y polen en pequeños potes de cera. Las abejas americanas tienen un nido con estructura complicada. La reina pone sus huevos en celdas en un panal horizontal (a diferencia de los verticales que hacen las abejas europeas). Los panales de las abejas nativas pueden tener forma de disco, o de espiral o amorfo. Las celdas de las crías (huevos y larvas), están rodeadas por un laberinto de cera, llamado el involucre, hecho para confundir a las hormigas y otros depredadores. Los potes de miel y polen están fuera y alrededor del involucre.

Una especie de abeja, llamada la señorita, es conocida desde México hasta Argentina por su fina miel, ampliamente considerada como un ungüento para los ojos. Una gota en cada ojo alivia el dolor y la irritación.

Rupa y Marcia enseñan a sus estudiantes varias técnicas para cuidar a las abejas nativas americanas. Mientras que los guardianes de las abejas europeas han hecho cajas de madera, o colmenas, para las colonias de abejas, esta no era una práctica común para las abejas nativas americanas. En los últimos 30 años, los expertos en abejas de Brasil han adaptado colmenas para las abejas nativas. Estas colmenas son más pequeñas que las de las abejas europeas, pero las cajas tienen paredes más gruesas para mantener a las abejas calientes en el invierno y frescas en el verano.

Rupa y Marcia también enseñan el uso de una simple trampa para capturar colonias salvajes. Una botella de refresco de plástico, de dos litros o más grande, se cubre con papel de periódico (para mantener el nido tibio) y plástico negro (para mantenerlo oscuro). Se coloca un tubo en una pequeña apertura en el costado de la botella, haciendo una puerta atractiva para atraer a una joven reina a establecer su nido en la botella. La botella se cuelga de un árbol en un bosque con abejas; en un buen hábitat para las abejas, la botella puede albergar abejas en unas semanas. Un hábil apicultor puede más tarde transferir la colonia a una colmena de madera adecuada.

Las colonias débiles pueden ser fortalecidas con comida extra. En el curso de las abejas nativas, aprendimos a hacer potes de cera y llenarlas con miel o polen recolectado por las abejas europeas, que se puede comprar en la tienda. Las abejas nativas comerán la miel y convertirán el polen en “pan de abeja” usando enzimas especiales. También usarán la cera de los potes para hacer sus propias celdas de cría y ollas de comida.

Las abejas hacen cera con un órgano en su abdomen, pero la cera es cara de hacer. Las abejas necesitan seis u ocho gramos de miel para hacer un gramo de cera. Por lo tanto, poner cera en los nidos ayuda a las abejas a establecer una colonia más fuerte, más rápido.

Las universidades brasileñas han estudiado las abejas nativas americanas desde la década de los 1950, y las técnicas para mantener estas abejas se están extendiendo lentamente a otros países de América Latina. También hay abejas nativas de Australia, donde unos ávidos apicultores hacen cajas parecidas a las brasileñas, para criar abejas.

La miel nativa es menos espesa, pero dulce y tiene un sabor fino. Las especies más grandes de abejas nativas pueden hacer hasta ocho litros de miel al año, pero las especies pequeñas sólo pueden hacer un litro, por lo que esta miel es cara, pero está empezando a aparecer en tiendas especializadas.

También conocimos a un ingeniero forestal boliviano, Juan Carlos Aruquipa, que trabaja en un proyecto para enseñar a las mujeres del bosque lluvioso (los Yungas) a manejar las abejas nativas y vender la miel. Esto es importante, porque muchas de las pequeñas flores de los árboles tropicales americanos deben ser polinizados por las abejas para que formen semilla. Y las abejas se alimentan del néctar de los árboles. Así que sin abejas no hay árboles, y sin árboles no hay abejas.

Este es un caso en el que la agricultura avanza en una dirección imaginativa, aprendiendo a cuidar a las abejas silvestres, y a producir una valiosa miel. Las abejas necesitan cierto cuidado, por lo que son perfectas para los pequeños agricultores, especialmente para las mujeres. Las colmenas más pequeñas y las abejas más mansas son más fáciles de manejar. Sería difícil que las empresas grandes las manejan, pero las colmenas pequeñas son ideales para tener en casa. Las abejas nativas americanas son una nueva y creativa dirección para la agricultura agroecológica.

Nombres científicos

Todas las abejas, americanas y europeas, pertenecen a la familia Apidae. Las abejas europeas, africanas y asiáticas con aguijón pertenecen al género Apis. Las abejas americanas, australianas, y africanas sin aguijón pertenecen a la tribu Meliponini. Las abejas nativas grandes pertenecen al género Melipona y las pequeñas se agrupan en varios géneros, entre ellos Trigona, Scaptotrigona, Nannotrigona y Tetratrigonisca. La señorita es Tetragonisca angustula. Además de estas abejas sociales, en las Américas y en otros continentes hay muchas otras especies que son solitarias, como los abejorros.

Más información

Me han interesado las abejas nativas americanas por mucho tiempo, y doy una breve reseña de ellas en: Bentley, Jeffery, W. and Gonzalo Rodríguez 2001 “Honduran Folk Entomology.” Current Anthropology,42(2):285-300.

The wolf comes calling December 8th, 2019 by

After moving to a Flemish farm village two years ago, we settled three sheep into the small pasture by our house to keep the grass short under our newly planted fruit and nut trees. The sheep weren’t pets, but they would come to meet us when we took them the kitchen waste or gave them a handful of acorns. So imagine my shock when I found one killed by a wolf last week.

In the thin blueish winter light, I saw our sheep in a pool of blood, its belly opened, intestines oozing out and half of its ribs eaten. Around the sheep I could see a circle of around 3 meters diameter where the frozen morning dew had disappeared. A little overwhelmed by emotions I woke up Marcella. We had heard a wolf had been spotted some 10 kilometres away, but there are so many fields with sheep, that I found it hard to believe it had come all the way to our house, just to kill our sheep. Perhaps it was a renegade dog, I wondered. But whatever had killed the sheep must have been really strong, I thought, as it has dragged the poor animal around while finishing it off.

Marcella quickly found out on the internet what to do when one believes one has been the victim of a wolf. This top predator had arrived in Flanders just a few years ago, and as a protected species, government had quickly established various services, including an information platform. In less than two hours, two government officials from the Nature and Forestry Agency arrived. As with crop pests, when one can only see the damage and the causal agent is no longer present, one needs to rely on knowledge and diagnostic tools.

The two men looked at the bite in the neck of the dead sheep, and took DNA samples to confirm that it was killed by a wolf. We have a solid fence 1.30 meters high around the pasture. One of the men went around and quickly found 4 places where the animal had tried to dig an entry under the fence. Obviously with the night frost the soil was hard, but the wolf had managed to dig at least one place to get in. “We need to confirm with a DNA test,” one of the men said, but in all our cases we have never seen a wolf jump over a fence. If it had managed to make a bigger entry, it would have bitten the spine of the sheep in half, and taken the hind part to a quiet place in the forest, to eat it without the risk of being disturbed.”

As the men shared their knowledge of the wolf’s behaviour, my first emotions of unbelief and sadness over the loss of our favourite of the 3 sheep, gradually mixed with a certain level of admiration for this clever top predator. Wild pigs are a main problem for farmers and hunters fail to keep their population down. “Wolves prey on wildlife, but to catch wild pigs wolves need to be in a pack. As there is now just one wolf in Flanders, sheep are an easy prey,” the official continued.

Wolves were exterminated from most of Europe in early modern times, but they have recently been making a comeback. When visiting a wolf exhibition in a nearby nature centre, we learned that in Europe (mainly Eastern Europe, including Poland) there are currently an estimated 12,000 wolves. Some are starting to make their way back to the more populated part of Western Europe.

In tropical countries, farmers who live near wildlife refuges sometimes complain about elephants eating their banana plants, and similar problems. Such conflicts now start to play out in Western Europe as well.

This wolf issue is highly controversial. Conservationists point out that humans have driven wild animals to the edge of extinction, and it is only right to provide habitat for them. On the other hand, farmers say that wild predators are a risk to livestock.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to this potential conflict, but since this is Belgium, our government has quickly come up with a range of measures. Farmers and even people like us who have just a few sheep, can get 80% subsidies to make their fences wolf-proof. Also, a financial compensation scheme for sheep killed has been put in place.

At the same time, nature conservation organisations are trying their best to change public opinion in favour of the wolf through exhibitions, radio and TV talks, and so on.

The wolf stirs up such powerful emotions that it was recalled in European popular culture for generations after most people had lost all personal contact with the animal.

In European folklore the bear is a strong, kindly character, like the three bears that frightened Goldilocks, but did not harm her. In contrast, the wolf is not only cruel, but devious, like the one that ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. And even now we guard against metaphorical “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

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