03 February 2010

Hooked on Hymenopterans! (Part 1)

Why enjoy life on one island, if you can do so on two? That's what John Lee, a self-taught entomologist specialising in bees and wasps has been doing since his teens. In this interview, posted in two parts, John shares how he got hooked on hymenopterans (click here for a quick introduction to these insects), the hazards of the hive and the discoveries that keep him coming back for more, in both Hong Kong and Singapore.

You’d expect the prospect of getting stung and other jungle hazards to be part of the package for one who studies bees and wasps. But who would have thought that the pursuit of new hymenopterans could involve getting chased by angry villagers unused to snooping strangers?

That’s what John Lee, a young Singaporean based in Hong Kong, has to deal with at times as he explores the northern New Territories. These rural parts are some of the most productive places to observe wasps, with high concentrations of rare species. “But the villagers are often highly suspicious, close-minded and can get violent,” he notes. Other risks in the field include unpredictable weather, particularly sudden thunderstorms in Singapore, and dogs. “I have learnt how to stand my ground and force them to retreat,” John remarks.

Through his website, www.vespa-bicolor.net, John shares his observations on the bees and wasps of both Singapore and Hong Kong. The 25-year old has been mesmerized by these insects since he was a teenager, and repeated warnings by his family, who “felt that I was courting trouble,” he recalls, “only served to further fuel my fascination.”

The trouble with these bugs…

Many people who dip their toes in natural history would be familiar with a frustrating lack of local information, especially on major invertebrate groups. Some probably give up and turn to more productive activities such as spooning. But as John grew to realise that available references were lagging behind the true diversity he was observing, he started to document the insects in earnest.

"I particularly like studying bees and wasps as they are readily accessible even out of nature reserves," he shares, "In Singapore and Hong Kong at least, there is so much new ground for me to break, so many discoveries to make."

John’s choice of study subjects certainly comes with its share of pain. “I do get stung often,” he reveals. “But on hindsight, most of the stings I received were the result of careless mistakes which could have been avoided, such as getting too close to a nest or not bothering to wear my protective suit, which is very uncomfortable.” He maintains that with the right precautions, “it is perfectly possible to research bees and wasps and never get stung.”

Compared to stings, which he has received so often to know that he is not allergic to them, John feels that a greater challenge is finding information about the animals. As a child growing up in Hong Kong, he found few English-language books that covered Asian species. Local guidebooks were inaccurate and outdated in their classification. Even a book by the Hong Kong park authorities contained fallacies such as “honeybees are gentle, but wasps will attack without provocation.”

“I knew I couldn’t rely on the books – instead I went out, photographed the insects in their feeding, nesting and mating activities, taking notes in the process.” John was able to make his own observations on behaviour and nesting habits, but identifying species required the help of experts. Most references provided identification keys only for common social wasps and bees. Not having access to museum collections for reference and comparison, John usually approaches overseas entomologists for help with more obscure solitary species.

“Some of the researchers have been extremely kind and I have kept up correspondence with them over the years,” he says. “They have shared lots of information and advised me what to look out for. In turn, I send them specimens which they do not have but are commonly available in Singapore or Hong Kong.”

An embryo nest of the hornet Vespa affinis cooperatively started by three queens.

Singapore’s a Hymenopteran hub!

Hong Kong is a much larger country than Singapore, but the latter, according to John, boasts a greater diversity of wasps and bees.

“I have so far documented more than 150 species,” he reveals, “and this is largely without even touching the nature reserves!” What’s more, John only spends short bouts lasting between two weeks and three months in Singapore each year. In comparison, seven years of collecting in Hong Kong, including authorised surveys in nature reserves, have yielded only around 120 species.

“The flow of new species has already stopped for me in Hong Kong,” he states, “but with each visit to Singapore, I am constantly finding new species – imagine how much more is lurking in the nature reserves and the few remaining patches of primary forest!” During one recent survey on Semakau Landfill, John says he heard the distinctive buzz of Vespa bicolor, a hornet found in Northern Asia but unknown in Southeast Asia. If confirmed with specimens, this would be a remarkable record for the region!

John is amazed at how rich Singapore’s hymenopteran diversity is despite the loss of much rainforest to development. “I cannot describe my shock when I saw certain uncommon species of potter wasps (Vespinae, Eumenidae) and hover wasps (Vespinae, Stenogastrinae), which are to my knowledge shy forest species, frequenting ornamental flowers in the outdoor areas of Marina Square and Suntec City!”

It helps, explains John, that most local species of social wasps and bees are not restricted to primary forest. The greatest threat they face, however, is deliberate destruction of their nests by people who perceive the insects as harmful. While the populations of common species of honeybees and hornets may be relatively unaffected by the occasional removal of hives from the urban environment, John is concerned that indiscriminate nest destruction could threaten other rarer species.

A nest of Polistes tenebricosus under a roof on Pulau Ubin.

“For instance, Polistes tenebricosus (pictured above) is a large, fearsome-looking paper wasp which I have so far only found on Pulau Ubin, with isolated sightings in Sentosa and Pasir Ris,” he states. “On Pulau Ubin, it often nests under the shelters and on roofs of houses, and nest are often destroyed, despite the fact that this species will certainly not fly down and attack people moving around the area.” John has observed that populations of this wasp have shrunk in recent years. “It would be a pity if this little-studied species were to be wiped out locally before we have a chance to study its feeding, nesting and reproductive habits,” he says.

Bembix sp., a bee-like solitary wasp that digs burrows in sandy beaches.

As a group, solitary wasps adapted to a limited range of habitats or food sources are most at risk from extinction. Sandy flats that do not experience tidal inundation, for instance, are vital to a very large, all-black species of digger wasp (Sphex sp.) and two species of bee-like wasps (Bembix spp.) with iridescent blue and grey markings. Agile hunters of smaller insects, these wasps dig burrows in which captured prey is stored as food for their larva. Found on beaches at Changi and Pulau Ubin, the population of these understudied wasps would suffer considerable damage if their habitats are lost or disturbed.

Also of great interest to John are the tiny paper wasps in the genus Ropalidia. Singapore has at least 10 species, and some of these insects build long and delicate nests that can be found in odd places such as on traffic lights and signposts. Others construct nests that resemble miniature hornet nests. And like their larger cousins, the little wasps are effective controllers of flies, caterpillars and other insects.

John is also intrigued by intra-specific diversity in Singapore’s wasps. For one, the paper wasp Polistes stigma exhibits two forms locally: one with red, black and yellow patterns and usually found in mangroves or swamps, and the other mainly black and yellow and living in dryer, inland habitats. The lesser-banded hornet (Vespa affinis) also has a rare colour form that resembles the larger greater-banded hornet (Vespa tropica).

Part 2 will be published on Friday, 5 Feb 2010!

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