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Bees at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences

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What we go through for a few good photos!

by Buzzy & Bee

(Ed. note: The highlighted words in the article are linked to photographs. Photographs are repeated in the gallery at the bottom of the page.)

Sting-dodging, like barbed wire hurdling, will probably never be a popular sport, but sometimes nature takes over and sting-dodging becomes the order of the day. So it was Thursday morning, November 15, as we went on an unofficial and unsanctioned ENHG outing, to view and photograph a large pendulous nest of Apis florea in an unusual and far too accessible location here in Al Ain.

Geraldine Kershaw first noticed the nest and e-mailed Brigitte who suggested that Jerry become involved. The nest is on a large window in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences building in Tawam. Geraldine told us that the nest appeared suddenly and was growing very rapidly. She felt it was important it be recorded before officialdom take note and have it removed. Jerry checked it out and agreed; Thursday morning was chosen as the time for the expedition because no students and few staff would be around.

The expedition members, with camera gear, met at 9 o'clock Thursday morning and proceeded to the site of the nest. It was, as described, large and pendulous. Apis florea (an Asian honeybee) was Brigitte's immediate reckoning. This nest is accessible, unlike another couple of nests, now removed, which appeared on Faculty windows last winter and spring. The nest is on one pane of a large double-paned window, of which each pane opens fully into the corridor. Venetian blinds hide the nest from casual examination. The window is recessed about 20 cm from an outside iron grill which renders it nearly invisible from that direction.

The nest is attached to the glass, over an oval area, about 30 cm long and 20 cm wide.

We examined the situation and assembled our camera gear. We were well aware that bees sting. Jerry has been stung a few times in the past (once after trying to photograph one of the other nests) and usually reacts mildly, with some swelling of the stung part. Brigitte had never been stung by a bee. (She was stung by a wasp once, in "embarrassing circumstances.") Therefore, we felt that the danger to life and limb was minimal, as neither of us appears to be hypersensitive.

Our approach to the nest was first to raise the venetian blinds fully, then to open the un-nested window. Jerry then got up on the window ledge. The adjacent window (with the nest) was opened slowly so that Jerry could photograph the nest itself. He used his Canon camera with 35-80mm zoom lens and Kodak Ultra Gold print film. Then he got down and Brigitte replaced him, taking pictures with her Pentax and 72 mm lens and Fujichrome slide film.

The nest is about 5 cm thick. From the front, it appears as a large oval pancake, with the left side lifted off the window and extending at about a 120° angle, for about another 30 cm. Bees, constantly moving, cover the surface of the nest; their movement (the dance) conveys information about the location of flowers. Hexagonal cells and areas of pollen can be seen wherever there is a temporary absence of bees. Along its bottom edge are small cones of waxy material, which are queen cells.

When Brigitte finished, we closed both windows and prepared our equipment for close-up photography. Jerry attached 2x and 4x close-up filters to his lens (giving a potential enlargement of 8-times) and engaged his built-in flash. Brigitte attached her 50 mm lens and an extension ring to get closer and hooked her ring-flash unit to her camera. Then they prepared for phase 2.

Again, Jerry went first. Non-nested window opened, up onto the window ledge, nested window slowly opened. Sidled past the upright and approached the nest. Maximal zoom and focus at about 3 inches. Flash. Another point. Flash. Again. Again. Again - "That bee looks different; I wonder if it's the queen." Flash.

The bees are about 1 cm long, with black head and thorax edged by thick mats of grey hairs, shiny transparent wings, and a conspicuous striped abdomen, with a proximal wide brownish-orange stripe, and narrow stripes (white, brown, white, black, white, black, white, black) behind, with the terminal white area at the stinging end.

The different bee is probably a drone, not a queen. The drones are larger than the workers by half, with a wide head and black thorax and abdomen (no stripes) edged with grey hairs.

Then - "Ouch!" Sting on his finger. Another! Back off. Another! Down off the ledge and close the windows. Some bees inside - "Kill them!" Can't have bees buzzing around students on Saturday! Brigitte - "Let me collect one!", which she did. Then it was time to reassess the situation.

Jerry pulled the stingers out of his wounds and reckoned he'd taken all the pictures he needed. Brigitte, on the other hand, wanted to take some herself. After about five minutes, the bees appeared to have settled back to their normal placid state, so we re-opened the unnested window, Brigitte climbed up onto the ledge, snuck over to the nest, positioned camera and ring-flash, and click. No flash. Backed off, readjusted things. Advanced her film. Back to the nest. Click. Flash this time. Again.

Then it was her turn. "Ouch!" Hands fly up to her face! Jerry shouts firmly "Get down!" Quickly back and off. Head-shaking. Jerry swatting bees when he could see them. "They're in my hair! I can hear them!" Jerry looking in Brigitte's hair while she listened to them buzzing and pretends to dry-wash it to shake out the bees. Finally, the buzzing stopped. Uncertain whether to laugh or cry. Where's the damage? A couple of stings on her face and a couple on her back. Jerry pulled out the stingers. Then a final photo of the weal under her left eye.

We agreed that this ended the excursion to photograph these bees - at least for the time being! The final score of the sting-dodging exercise would be: Apis florea 2, ENHG 0. But we did get some good photos!

Jerry Buzz(y)ell and B(ee)rigitte Howarth

P.S. Ten days later. The nest is still there, but with many fewer bees. We're uncertain whether it is being abandoned or whether it has been sprayed.

Brigitte has been investigating the identity and distribution of different species of Asian honeybees. A. florea is still the most likely species, but some of our observations do not mesh with published descriptions. We'll continue to work on the problem; it may merit a note to Tribulus.

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Bees at FMHS Gallery

Pictures from a wild beehive at the UAE University Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences

  • Context: the hallway where the window is located
  • Window with nest
  • Nest from the front
  • Next from side showing area lifted off window
  • Hexagonal cells
  • Areas of pollen
  • Queen cells
  • Worker bees are about 1 cm long
  • Drones are about 1.5 cm long, larger then workers
  • Weal under Brigitte's left eye from bee sting

Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan