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Chasing Bees in Costa Rica

WaNBS Board member Aidan Hersh travels afar to observe extraordinary bees


An iridescent green and orange bee hovers near a leaf
A male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) lands on a leaf baited with eucalyptus oil

Ever since I began practicing macrophotography and seeing the incredible biodiversity being shared online by some of the top photographers, I knew, one day, I would have to go to the tropics. Professionals based in Australia, Indonesia, and Costa Rica were among those putting out some of the most stunning shots of organisms I could scarcely believe existed. 


Don’t get me wrong, the biodiversity of Washington is stunning, and with a macro lens even more fascinating creatures are revealed. In fact, I owe all of my photography (and bee) knowledge to the Pacific Northwest. And yet the prospect of photographing an iridescent blue orchid bee or a venomously yellow viper was always in the back of my mind, brought to the forefront each time I would open Instagram. 



A pathwy through a tripical forest of tall trees with direct sunlight shining through the crowns
One of the many trails found at La Selva Biological station in Sarapiqui, Costa Rica


In October of 2023 the urge became unshakeable and less than two months later I was on a plane to San José, the capital of Costa Rica. While I could write for hours about all the animals I witnessed, for now I’ll just be focusing on those nestled within the taxonomic clade Anthophila, the vegetarian relatives of wasps, separated by 120 million years of evolution: the bees.


Stingless bees


For many people, unfortunately, the word “bee” quickly evokes thoughts of a painful sting, making bees an insect to avoid. This is just one of a plethora of misconceptions about bees and this apiphobia (fear of bees) has given the 20,000 species of bee around the world a bad name. Fortunately, there is a tribe of social bees (Meliponini) called the stingless bees that may be able to get some people back on their side.


As their name suggests, stingless bees lack the ability to sting. They do, in fact, have stingers, but they are so reduced that they are essentially impossible to be used for defensive purposes. 


Like the familiar European honey bee (Apis mellifera), stingless bees are eusocial, meaning they have overlapping generations in the hive, division of labor (reproductive and non-reproductive groups), and collective brood care. They also produce relatively large amounts of honey, which people living in Central and South America harvest for its nutritional value. All the benefits of a honey bee without the sting, pretty good deal eh?



Stingless bees gathered at a next structure appearing like a tube
The entrance to a hive of stingless bees (Tetragonisca angustula) being guarded by soldiers

Bees wear cologne too


My most sought-after animal of the whole trip was the orchid bee (genus Euglossa), a metallic, brightly colored bee known for a variety of unique behaviors. Of the minimal items I squeezed into my backpack, one was specifically included for exploiting one of these fascinating behaviors.



An iridescent copper and green bee gathering scents on a forest floor
A male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collects fragrances from a research site at La Selva Biological Station

Male orchid bees do not look or behave like most bees, much less the ones you would find in our temperate ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest. As with any male bee, their primary purpose in life is to mate (some may say the same about males of our own species). In order to show their reproductive fitness to potential mates, however, they spend their life collecting a wide array of fragrances, largely in the form of oils from orchids. This concoction is stored in their abnormally large hind leg, which you see in the photo above, and released into the air when they are ready to mate. The complexity of fragrances collected by an individual male, it is thought, demonstrates the fitness of that individual and is thus more likely to be chosen by a female.


A structure of wooden beams in a heavily forested area
The envronment surrounding Bolita Hostel in Dos Brazos, Costa Rica, where I captured the cover picture in this post

After being told by some other hostel guests that they had spotted orchid bees that morning, I decided it was time to break out the item I had nearly forgotten about: a vial of eucalyptus oil. I spread a few drops on the leaves of a nearby plant and waited, not expecting anything to happen. Within minutes, about a dozen male orchid bees showed up, enthralled by the concentrated scent of the oil. Using the specialized hairs on their forelegs, they lapped up the fragrant oils, transferring them to their modified hind leg, then flew off to find the next ingredient for their seductive perfume.



An iridescent green orchid bee visits a cluster of small, purple flowers
A female orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) showig her extremely long tongue as she forages at La Selva Biological Station

These two types of bees are just a glimpse into the incredible tropical bee diversity that can be found in equatorial ecosystems, but unique bees are not exclusive to these areas. The desert ecosystems of the southwestern United States and even eastern Washington are hotspots for bee diversity, hosting a variety of bees that specialize on specific plant families or even single species. These bees range from as small as 2 millimeters to over 3 centimeters long! I encourage you to pay attention to flower patches this Spring through Fall and see if you can start recognizing some of the hundreds of bee species we have in Washington. 


My photography can be found on Instagram @photo.by.aidan and online at www.aidanhershphotography.com.











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