As the dry days of April dragged on there were few flowers to be seen, and many hungry bees and birds.
One of the native trees blooming in early April was the Caribbean Dogwood (Piscidia carthagenensis), though the pale pinkish flowers were hard to spot on the tree’s high, bare branches. It drops its leaves before flowering.
When I stopped along the road to get a photo of one of these trees, I noticed that there were some bees that had also found the flowers. I easily recognized the native female carpenter bees (Xylocopa mordax) because they are large, black, and shiny. After some research I concluded that the smaller one nearby was probably a type of Centris bee, which would be in the same family as the carpenter bees.
Not too far down the road, there was another tree with light purple flowers, an ornamental pea tree, Gliricidia sepium. There were a few large carpenter bees on this one too, including a male one, which is a surprising burnt orange color, not black.
It was exciting to see the male carpenter bee – a first for me. They are not around very much because they die quite soon after hatching and mating. The females are more visible as they go around collecting pollen and nectar. They put a mash of pollen and nectar into small holes they make in trees as nests for their eggs. Then when the larvae develop, they will have the pollen mash for food before they break out of their tiny nesting spaces.
Carpenter bees are important pollinators for open-faced flowers, but some flowers hide their nectar and pollen deep inside, where the big carpenter bees don’t fit. A hungry carpenter bee will sometimes slit open the bottom of a tubular flower and ‘steal’ the nectar, bypassing the pollen and reducing the flower’s pollination possibilities.
A few carpenter bees (and some hungry ants) also found flower buds on a Morinda citrifolia, which is originally from Asia and known locally as painkiller tree. The leaves are reportedly useful for easing muscle aches. In some places it is called ‘noni’, and the green fruits are valued for their health benefits. Here they are called ‘starvation fruit’, maybe because the trees grow quickly and produce fruit even under adverse conditions, like after hurricanes. Another idea about the name is that the pale, ripe fruits are stinky and unappetizing, something no one would eat unless they were starving. Or a fruit bat.
The native bees looking for nectar have to compete with the European honeybees, which were introduced to the islands by colonists. In some situations, honeybees can become so numerous that they dominate the available nectar supplies.
Carpenter bees are solitary, while honeybees live in hives, and communicate with each other about where to find nectar and pollen. Also, local bees tend to have special relationships with a few trees that they pollinate, and may not go to just any flower. Honeybees are not so discriminating.
Honeybees can also be quite aggressive. One morning when I put out sugar water for the bananaquits, a bunch of honeybees came by and tried to take over the feeder. The next day there were even more. I put out several bowls and tried to get the birds and bees to use different ones, but there was still conflict.
At the end of April, enough showers came to encourage a few of the lovely lavender wattapama trees (Poitea florida) to bloom. These trees are special because they are native only in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, their flowers last only for a few days.
When I went to take some photos, I found honeybees visiting the flowers, as well as attractive native Centris lapines bees.
When the islands are parched, it’s nice to help the bees and birds by offering them bowls of water, or sugar water. But it’s also important to keep the bowls clean, so they don’t spread germs, especially as some of the birds might decide to use the water for a quick bath.
Gail Karlsson is an environmental lawyer, writer and photographer – author of The Wild Life in an Island House, plus the guide book Learning About Trees and Plants – A Project of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John. See uufstjohn.com/treeproject and gvkarlsson.blogspot.com. Follow her on Instagram @gailkarlsson