150-Year-Old Beehives Found in Cathedral

150-Year-Old Beehives

A Colony’s Cathedral

In 1875, following the devastation of a fire that ravaged part of the building, the altarpiece of the Catedral Basílica Santa María la Antigua of Panama City underwent an extensive restoration project. However, something was being trapped within the structure as the architects and tradesmen worked.

Reportedly, the restoration work done at the time was subpar, and since then, the cathedral has been in a state of disrepair. Cathedral chronicler and journalist Wendy Tribaldos commented that, “[the] cathedral is quite poor by cathedral standards. Before the [newest] restoration started, the church had broken windows, so pigeons made their nests inside the cathedral.”

During the latest restoration (completed in 2018), restorer Soria Lobo happened upon something peculiar in the god leaf moldings of the twenty-foot-tall altarpiece. Upon further investigation, it became apparent that Lobo had uncovered the mummified remains of intricate bees’ nests.

Image Credit: Paola Galgani-Barraza et al. 

Figure A: The black arrows point to where the collections of nests were discovered. Figure B: The nests within the golden scroll decorations. 

Identifying the Nest

Ove four months of work, Lobo managed to find not just 1, but 120 different nests easily camouflaged within the altarpiece. She quickly informed Tribaldos of the discovery, who contacted the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) for assistance identifying the nest. STRI scientists Bill Wcislo and David Roubik were able to confirm that the beehive dated back into the 19th century. Furthermore, they uncovered the mummified remains of bees and pupae within the hives, allowing them to identify the bees as Eufriesea surinamensis, also known as orchid bees.

Image Credit: Paola Galgani-Barraza et al. 

Mummified Bees and Info on Trees

This was both an extraordinary entomological and ecological find. The lab manager and research assistant at the STRI labs, Paola Galgani-Barraza commented on the discovery, stating, “I was amazed that they found such old nests – to have the opportunity to discover the vegetation that these bees collected from in that time and to find a species that is no longer in this area. The pollen comes from different sources – what they were eating, what was trapped in the resin that the used to make their nests and pollen that in the was on the walls of the cells.” STRI’s tropical pollen expert, Enrique Moreno was able to identify forty-eight different plant series from these samples, some of which are no longer present in the Panama City area.

The findings from this amazing discovery are projected to be crucial in future studies regarding the changing ecological landscape as well as the behaviors of orchid bees. Orchid bees are currently known for being very sensitive of their environments, so it was quite a shock to discover that they had once actively coinhabited with humans. Only time will tell what other findings will be uncovered from this incredible 150-year-old discovery.

Image Credit: Paola Galgani-Barraza et al. 

Figure A: The mummified bees. Figure B: A drawing of the Eufriesea surinamensis and a photograph of a modern-day bee curtesy of photographer David Roubik

Citations

Galgani-Barraza, P., Moreno, J.E., Lobo, S., et al. 2019. Flower use by late nineteenth-century orchid bees (Eufriesea surinamensis, L.; Hymenoptera: Apidae) nesting in the Cathedral Basílica Santa María la Antigua de Panamá. Journal of Hymenoptera Research

Machemer, T. (2020) 150-Year-Old Mummified Bee Nests Found in Panama City CathedralSmithsonian Magazine. The Smithsonian Institute. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/150-year-old-mummified-bee-nests-found-panama-city-cathedral-180974142/ (Accessed: August 2020).