05 February 2010

Hooked on Hymenopterans! (part 2)

Visit John's website, www.vespa-bicolor.net, for insights into these hornets and other hymenopterans!

Amateur hymenopterist, John Lee, talks about the bees and wasps of Hong Kong, their similarities and differences with Singapore's species, and his work to share about these fascinating insects with the public in both countries. Read Part 1 here!

Wasp’s up in Hong Kong

Hong Kong shares many species of bees and wasps with Singapore. But the territory’s subtropical climate, with distinct seasons, means that the same species exhibits different habits. Hornet queens, for instance, establish nests between March and May in Hong Kong, while they do so at anytime of the year in Singapore.

Unlike in Hong Kong, wasps and bees seldom nest indoors in Singapore. John attributes this to the availability of dense trees in HDB estates. “It is very common for hornets to nest within an occupied house in Hong Kong,” he reveals. “The smallest and most common species, Vespa bicolor, will nest in almost any kind of environment – I have found nests in abandoned computer speakers, buckets and oil barrels!”

John also observes that some wasps like Polistes olivaceus and Parapolybia varia, while common in Hong Kong, are very rare in Singapore. “I can only think of one reason – the great banded hornet, Vespa tropica, is a major predator on paper wasp nests and colonies in Singapore can reach ten times the size of those in Hong Kong.”

Both countries have a surprisingly rich biodiversity, but Hong Kong shares with Singapore the problem of a population used to urban life and as John puts it, “somewhat alienated from wildlife.” Hong Kong does has a greater domestic hinterland with many different habitats and diverse terrain, but John bemoans how these areas are under constant threat of development for highways and landfills, even in designated nature reserves.

“I feel that Singapore has done a better job in managing the reserves in that aspect – the department equivalent to NParks in Hong Kong does not have the power to stop other departments from approving such projects.” In the meantime, John notes that many people in Hong Kong are starting to take up wildlife photography and picking up an interest in conservation in the process.

Whereas all his friends during school days were terrified of bees and wasps, John now has regular companions in Hong Kong who join his surveys. “One is a French architect in his forties, and the other is a local teenager who grew up in a rural village,” he remarked. “In Singapore, no-one I know is interested in bees and wasps, but I often join people from various nature-related groups such as the ButterflyCircle on outings.”

Sharing the buzz

With like-minded enthusiasts, John helped found the Hong Kong Entomological Society in 2008 and has published a couple of papers recording his observations of wasp behaviour. His latest project, released in November 2009, is a book called Potentially Dangerous Bees and Wasps of Hong Kong, which describes about 30 species of Hong Kong bees and wasps that the public are likely to encounter, explains how they are helpful and harmful, how to react to an attack and how to treat stings.

Describing it as a “difficult, but immensely satisfying” challenge, John made his book bilingual to reach out to non-English speaking readers. He reveals that he wrote the original text in Chinese, as it was easier to translate that into English.

“I enjoyed the field trips much more than the writing, but made enormous sacrifices in the process,” he states. “My social life came to a near halt as I forsook the city and my friends.” He also had to survive on his savings as he stopped work and stayed at a rural village while writing the book.

Now that the book is finished, John plans to set up a pest control company specialising in wasp nest removal, which would allow him to earn a living as well as gather research material. Further research papers, as well as a book in Singapore hymenopterans are in the pipeline.

Honey bees (Apis sp.) living in a private bathroom in Phuket.

“People in Singapore are not used to living with bees and wasps, despite their great local abundance and biodiversity, and carry the same misconceptions and misunderstandings towards them that Hong Kong people do.” Thus, John hopes to provide in his book in depth information about the diversity of local species, their habitats, conservation and human interaction.

The ability of bees and wasps to sting is perhaps why other animals such as butterflies, birds, fish and mammals tend to be better studied, John suggests. He estimates that nearly 60 percent of his observations on bees and wasps in Hong Kong and Singapore have not been published. “I have made so many observations, but I am only one individual – much more can be learned if people start to observe them and share observations and records.”

That’s just what he hopes to encourage through his writing, as he settles into a more “normal life” after months in isolation. “Beside raising awareness about how bees and wasps are actually not as harmful as we think, any book I write for the general public has another aim – to get people interested in them and to start observing them.”

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