It was another safe takeoff with a happy ending at the Juan Santamaría International Airport, only without aircraft. This time, it was other winged prodigies: some 4,000 bees that made hives in an approach tower at that terminal. The lights on those towers guide the pilots on the last leg to the runway and play a crucial role for navigation in difficult weather conditions.
The insects were at a height of 30 meters in two bee hives, in the trunk of one of the towers in the south of the runway, explained Juan Belliard, Director of Operations of Aeris Holding, manager in charge of the airport. They had to be removed for the safety of that facility, but without damaging them for environmental reasons, given their importance in food production.
National Day of Bees and other Pollinators
So valuable are they that the Government declared on that every May 20th will be the National Day of Bees and other Pollinators in Costa Rica, to promote their conservation, after centuries of benefiting humans and the environment. By transporting pollen from flower to flower, pollinating insects allow the reproduction of plants and with this the production of fruits, nuts and seeds for human consumption.
As long as bees and other species are in good shape, so will food security and nutrition, since 75% of world crops of fruits or seeds for human consumption and a variety of medicines derived from plants depend on these species, says the Organization of the United Nations for Food and Agriculture.
In optimal conditions, a healthy colony will divide and each part will fly off to establish a new home. On their way, they stop to rest on the first solid object in their path. This happens to the airport three or four times a year; Belliard explained.
The terminal has ideal conditions for its reproductive cycles (especially in the dry season) and to establish beehives, due to the heat, the type of surrounding vegetation and because it is a wide open area. In recent years, swarms or hives have been found under aircraft wings, on ground equipment or over bridges. In Costa Rica alone it is estimated that there are 650 native species of bees.
Their appearances at the terminal are handled quickly to avoid extra costs due to flight departure delays, while protecting the safety of personnel on the ground due to stings and the enormous risk of some entering the cargo compartment of an aircraft.
In North America and Europe, any insects from abroad in these compartments can compromise the entire load of the trip due to phytosanitary regulations. That can escalate to a number of additional expenses and a string of complications; Belliard explained. The bees had to go, but safely and with the absolute certainty that they would continue their laborious lives in perfect condition.
The Queen rules
A beekeeping ruse allowed the queen to be removed from these hives and led to a box along with the rest of her colony; explained the beekeeper María Elena Naranjo, from the Naranjo del Prado apiary (in San Ignacio de Acosta, San José), from whom Aeris asked for advice. Marvin Sojo, Aeris Wildlife coordinator, also participated in the process.
Their task began in April with the first inspections of the towers when they estimated the number of individuals at 4,000 and it was confirmed that it was impossible to remove the hive as it was inside the metal structure.
Naranjo thus opted for the “funnel” technique, which consists of forcing the worker bees (those that go for honey and pollen) to leave the entrance to the hive through a long curved funnel made with aluminum mesh. which is secured at the honeycomb access point.
The funnel allows them to go out, but not to go back in. Simultaneously, wooden boxes were firmly placed next to the funnel outlet. After attending to their daily work, the bees returned home without being able to enter.
And, when they felt the scent of their queen inside their house, tired from the task, they were forced to rest in the box attracted by an infallible bait: sheets of honey and wax from the apiary. That’s when the queen entered the scene; the only fertile female that lays fertilized eggs and on whom the population health of the colony depends.
“The queen bee will detect that food is scarce and has less population in its colony. Then, it will stop the egg laying and it will go out through the funnel towards the box where it will run into the rest of its colony and abundant honey and wax,” Naranjo explained.
When she enters the box, as leader of the bees it will attract the rest of her colony to the new chamber, in a process of 10 to 12 days (the queen leaves on the fifth or sixth) that ensured a 100% successful move.
It was time to set fire to some rosemary, thyme or eucalyptus leaves for removal from the boxes. In this case, eucalyptus. “The first thing we did was go very early, like 7:30 in the morning, when the bees have not gone out into the field and the temperature has not risen,” he explained.
To remove the boxes, a smoker fed with green eucalyptus leaves was used. This produces puffs of the aromatic low-temperature white smoke that kept the bees calm in handling the containers on the journey to their new destination in San Ignacio de Acosta.
When bees perceive danger, they release an alarm pheromone, called isopentyl acetate, from a gland near their stingers, but the smoke helps mask it, allowing the beekeeper to conduct inspections or, in this case, safe transport.
Boxed insects now live in those containers in the apiary under optimal conditions. For Naranjo, all the experience with Aeris helps to pay attention to the “small landings” of insects in general, in case professional rescues are needed and because of the bond that unites them with our own safety as a species.