By Danae Frier 

Flowers in Brazil
Flowers around  Lençóis, Brazil.

With the cold weather plaguing the prairies at this time of year, it’s nice to be reminded that the whole world isn’t a frozen wasteland. As a University of Regina graduate student under the RSM’s curator of Invertebrate Biology, Dr. Cory Sheffield, I was given the opportunity this past December to participate in this year’s International Pollination Course, held in Lençóis, Brazil. This course has been held every year for the past 10 years and continues to be a great opportunity for pollination biologists from Canada and South America to learn from each other and form close working relationships. I was very fortunate and excited to have been a part of this year’s session.

The area around Lençóis, known as the Chapada Diamantina, includes Cerrado (savannah) and Caatinga (desert) ecosystems as well as forests and rocky fields, and is an area of incredibly high diversity and endemism of plant and animal life. December, when the course was held, is the beginning of their summer. Temperatures consistently in the +30’s and the beginning of the rains mean flowers were beginning to bloom across the landscape; and with flowers, come bees!

Brazil has two particularly interesting groups of bees that are native to Central and South America; the social stingless bees from the tribe Meliponini and the orchid bees of the tribe Euglossini. Both these groups are in the family Apidae and are closely related to the bumble bees and honey bees we’re familiar with here in Saskatchewan. The stingless bees are highly social and live in colonies similar to honey bees; you can find the turret openings to their nests, made of a mixture of wax and resin, in walls, on trees, or even old termite mounds. Though they actually do have stingers, they’re too small to be used in defense. Some species of these bees are domesticated and kept in artificial hives and their honey is collected for human consumption. Orchid bees, on the other hand, are solitary. Most come in bright metallic colours, while others are large with yellow and black markings, similar to our bumblebees. The males of this species are unique in that they collect scents, mainly from orchids, and store them in their modified hind legs. Presumably they use these compounds to attract mates, but this has been difficult to prove. The males are so strongly driven to collect these scents that scent traps can be used to draw in and capture these bees from a long distance away.


Bee on flower bee
Two species of Meliponine bees at a natural nest (left) and on a flower (center); the orchid bee Eulaema cingulata in flight (right).  Click on the images to enlarge.

While I won’t encounter any of these species back home, the pollination biology techniques I learned on this course can be directly applied to my work on fruit crops back in Saskatchewan, or to any plant-pollinator interaction the world over. Furthermore, an important aspect of any research is collaboration on the part of many people, often on a global scale; courses like these provide exciting opportunities for partnerships between Saskatchewan, Brazil, and the rest of the world.