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Orchid bees are endangered by deforestation in the Amazon

A survey of orchid bees in the Brazilian Amazon state of Rondônia, conducted in the 1990s, is casting new light on the effects of deforestation on these important pollinators, which are considered indicators of biodiversity in the neotropics. 

The latest study, led by the University of Kansas, highlights the resilience and vulnerability of these scent-collecting bees amidst environmental change.

Collecting orchid bees 

“This study on orchid bees was an add-on to previous research on stingless bees. Orchid bees are so easy to collect, so we added them to our broader survey of bee biodiversity across this rapidly developing region in the Amazon,” said study lead author J. Christopher Brown, a geography & atmospheric science professor at the University of Kansas. 

“We’ve known for decades that particular fragrances like eucalyptus oil, for example, attract male orchid bees, which naturally collect similar fragrances from orchids to use in mating. All you do is dip cotton balls into a variety of chemical attractants and hang these on a string in the open air.”

“The bees start arriving in minutes, hovering around the baits and displaying their often metallic-hued blue and green colors. They were among the first types of organisms studied to understand the impact of that deforestation on the general biology and ecology of an area.” 

Significance of the study

The experts pinpointed specific orchid bee species that thrive in both degraded and preserved environments, offering insight into how deforestation influences local ecosystems.

“I had previously seen orchid bees in museum collections, but seeing them in the field was a wholly different experience. It’s breathtaking seeing these bees appear at the baits out of nowhere,” Brown added. 

This fieldwork, conducted in collaboration with Marcio Oliveira of the National Institute for Amazonian Research, led to the collection of significant data on orchid bees across Rondônia, utilizing a unique method that diverged from traditional yearlong studies focused on forest fragments.

Comprehensive look at orchid bee diversity

Despite the historical nature of the data, its value remains intact, offering a comprehensive look at orchid bee diversity across a broad geographic area. This work serves as a critical baseline for future biodiversity studies in the region. 

“While conventional studies involve yearlong collection efforts in a handful of forest fragments, we sampled the bee population in 130 locations across the state in just an hour at each location. This unconventional approach revealed a wealth of bee diversity previously undocumented by others.”

Hope for lower deforestation rates

However, the findings also highlighted the detrimental effects of agricultural colonization on bee populations. Brown suggested that conservation efforts might hinge on Brazil’s internal politics and economics but also mentioned market-oriented strategies that have shown promise in reducing deforestation.

“We are optimistic that stricter enforcement of environmental laws under Brazil’s new administration will lead to lower deforestation rates in the Amazon,” said Brown. “Our research highlighted the substantial reduction in deforestation resulting from these agreements.”

“In light of this, the question arises: What actions can consumers take? Many of these initiatives are led by prominent environmental organizations that wield influence with both industry and government. When these organizations yield tangible results, individuals may consider contributing to support their endeavors, particularly if the cause aligns with their interests and is scientifically backed. Such contributions can make a discernible impact.”

More about orchid bees

Orchid bees are a fascinating group of bees, known scientifically as Euglossini, that are native to the Americas. These bees are known for their striking metallic colors, which can range from vibrant greens and blues to purples and reds.


Unlike many other bee species, orchid bees are solitary, meaning that they do not live in colonies. Each female bee lives and nests independently, constructing her nest in various natural cavities or in the ground.

Mating secrets

The male orchid bees are particularly known for their unique behavior of collecting fragrant compounds from orchids and other sources. They store these scents in specialized pouches in their hind legs, and it is believed that these scents play a crucial role in attracting mates, although the exact mechanisms are still a subject of research.


One of the most remarkable aspects of orchid bees is their relationship with orchids. Many species of orchids rely exclusively on these bees for pollination. 

Orchid bees have long, coiled tongues, adapted for accessing nectar from the deep chambers of certain orchids. This mutualistic relationship highlights a fascinating example of co-evolution, where the bees and the orchids have evolved in tandem to meet each other’s needs. The bees get food and fragrance compounds, while the orchids receive the benefit of specialized pollinators that ensure their reproduction.


Conservation efforts are vital for orchid bees, as they face threats from habitat destruction and fragmentation, which affect their food sources and nesting sites. Preserving tropical and subtropical forests, where these bees are predominantly found, is crucial for maintaining the ecological balance and ensuring the survival of these unique pollinators and the diverse plant life they support.

The study is published in the journal Biological Conservation.


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