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The remote Caatinga of North East Brazil is the home of the Lear’s Macaw. This large blue macaw is endemic to the state of Bahia and is truly breathtaking when seen flying in formation through the canyons. Only around 1200 exist in the wild. Habitat disturbance, poaching and nest site limitation are the biggest threats. The Lear’s nest exclusively in sandstone cliffs and seem to prefer nesting in the vicinity of their flock mates. Only about 20% of the population attempts to breed each year and nest site limitation may be a major factor.
The breeding biology of the Lear’s Macaw has been monitored since 2008. Biologists observed that the invasive Africanized bees have become more numerous, occupying an increasing number of cavities in the breeding site cliffs. Many of these cavities may be suitable for the macaws to use, but the invasive bees could be excluding them. Additionally, bee colonies located near active nests prevent researchers from safely gaining access. This makes it impossible to monitor and record detailed breeding biology from these nests.
Nest site limitation is often a factor for limiting reproductive success in cavity nesting bird species including endangered parrot species. As secondary cavity nesters, Lear’s Macaws are dependent on suitable pre-existing deep cavities in cliff walls in order to breed. Unfortunately, bees also use these same cavities, often excluding macaws.
Long term success for this project will rely on the involvement of local farmers. We will provide interested farmers with hive boxes, personnel protective equipment, and instruction on how to maintain bee colonies for honey production. By involving local farmers they will have an incentive not to cut down trees to obtain honey, have a new source of sustainable income, and assist with keeping poachers out of the area.
The impact of Africanized honey bees on the Lear’s Macaw recovery efforts
In March of this year, APEC team members traveled to the Caatinga to assist biologist Erica Pacífico and her team with an assessment of how the bees are affecting recovery efforts for the Lear's Macaws. During our two week expedition, we were able to identify four ways that honey bees are impacting the recovery efforts of the Lear's Macaws. These threats are 1) competition for the few available nest cavities; 2) Preventing biologists' from accessing active nests : 3) Poaching of chicks: and 4) Habitat destruction.
Bees are likely occupying cavities that would not be suitable for macaws in addition to ones that are. These colonies, however, are still causing issues. Bee colonies located in the same cliff face wall as a macaw nest, prevent researchers from assessing those nests to gather data. Due to Africanized honey bees’ highly defensive nature, it is unsafe for researchers to repel down cliff walls when bees are nearby. This is a serious issue that is hampering the number of nests that can be evaluated each breeding season, compromising the data quality on genetics, resources and general ecology.
In October of 2016, APEC will join with Brazilian biologists, Erica Pacifico and Thiago Filadelfo, and a team from Explore Trees to begin implementation of an action plan to control Africanized bee colonies in the Lear’s Macaw nesting areas. We will remove bee colonies from nesting walls and implemant our push-pull protocol to prevent bees from reoccupying cliff cavities.
It is common for people in the Caatinga to be honey hunters. They construct stick ladders to reach bee hives located high in cliff walls. We also found some stick ladders leading directly up to active macaw nests. The location of bee colonies may be contributing to chick poaching because people taking honey may also be poaching chicks out of convenience, since they are nearby.