Trip to Singapore: May - July 2005

The following is an account of the six weeks I spent in Singapore this year, and the observations I made. The locations I described would be familiar to anyone from Singapore. For non-Singapore readers, it would be helpful to know that most of the locations I visited were quite well-vegetated, clean and unpolluted, but at the same time still not far from urban areas.

I returned to Singapore this year on May 27, and stayed till July 10. The purpose of this trip was mainly to visit family and friends, and also to watch, photograph and collect bees and wasps. I had roughly 3 weeks of free time, during which I roamed every place I thought might turn up something interesting. I spent virtually all this free time armed with my trusty Nikon D100 in my right hand and a crude net in the other.

Locations I visited included much of the popular holiday island Sentosa, the Boardwalk linking Changi Beach Club to the nearby Changi Sailing Club, Pasir Ris Park, the Botanic Gardens, some deserted forests near Portsdown Road and the neighbourhoods of several condominiums where my relatives live. Please pardon me for refraining from giving exact names or listing exact locations in certain cases. Perhaps, you may wonder why; it is understandable if I refrain from describing a location known to sustain beautiful and rare species of butterflies, fish, reptiles and so on, but bees and hornets are not something that people would generally chase and collect. The reason for this is due to the fear many people have of these insects. If the locations were known, one who is afraid might call the relevant government departments such as the NEA (National Environment Agency) or NParks (National Parks Board) to ensure the removal of such nests. While this may be done with good intentions in mind, this is not necessary; the nests I noticed were all out of view and not in areas where people were likely to pass. It would be unfortunate to see nests which do not pose danger destroyed; in fact, as I highlight throughout this site, the helpful aspects of bees and wasps far outweigh the harmful.

I had five important goals in mind. Firstly, I intended to collect specimens of all species I could find (in moderation, of course), to build a reference collection for Singapore species. The second was to establish the presence of all hornets in Singapore, especially the yellow vented hornet Vespa analis, which I haven't seen before, and another species which I can't find info about, Vespa multimaculata. This species is reputed to have been found from Singapore. I was keen to find out if these species were present and also observe their behaviour and habits locally. The third was to find new species (meaning species which I haven't found before, NOT species which haven't been described). I had a feeling that this wouldn't be very difficult, since a year of practice in Hong Kong had made me good at finding bees and wasps. Furthermore, I was now able to recognize and identify many more families or genera. The fourth was to find the giant honeybee, Apis dorsata. The fifth and final one was to photograph and observe some unusual and beautiful Sphecid wasps I had found at a beach some years back.

On the whole, this trip was immensely enjoyable and very fruitful, and the things I found far exceeded my expectations. Despite Singapore’s policy of constant fumigation and cutting of plants in urban areas, many species still abound. Even downstairs my apartment block, there were several potter wasps and Sphecids. In several condominiums around the island, I noticed the presence of Polistes sagittarius; I even found two colonies in a large condominium in Tanjong Rhu district, which were unfortunately killed by fumigation. (The mosquitoes, the original targets of this fumigation, were hardly affected and continued to bite me.) There were still several individuals of a bright metallic blue-green wasp, probably Ampulex compressa. This species is distributed throughout many parts of the world, and came along with the species it preys on, the pestiferous American cockroach Periplaneta americana (yes, the typical large household type). This was probably the reason why these wasps were near the barbecue pit, seemingly trying to flush out prey from dark crevices.

The photo below is of my estate, taken from my window (I live on the fifth floor). This estate is completely urban but yet well-vegetated. The other photos are of two Polistes sagittarius nests I found, and of Ampulex compressa.

On the very first visit to an urban park, I found 12 different species in the short span of an hour! These included some blue banded bees (Amegilla sp.), which are common throughout Asia, 3 different species of Megachiliid (leafcutter) bees, three other types of small bees which I couldn’t identify, Xylocopa confusa, which is the smaller of the two common local carpenter bees, Polistes sagittarius, two species of Sphecid wasps and a species of Scoliid which was rather abundant among the shelter of some dense creeping foliage growing over a man-made shelter. The photos below show Amegilla sp., Xylocopa confusa and the above-mentioned Scoliid wasp.

Later, I had dinner with relatives at the Changi Village Hotel (formerly Changi Meridien), at the far east end of Singapore. This hotel is situated in an area which has several small shops, hawker centers and old housing estates, but is otherwise mainly quiet and close to nature, with several small buildings, chalets, army camps and country clubs around. There were several caterpillars munching away on the ornamental plants grown all around the restaurant’s outdoor seating area. These caterpillars are probably poisonous; black with brilliant green and orange markings and formidable-looking tufts of hair. To my shock, an individual of Polistes sagittarius suddenly came cruising round these plants, and upon spotting a caterpillar, smacked right into it. It proceeded to bite and chew it up, spilling dark green juice all over the leaf in the process. I was busy with my dinner and couldn’t get out and assemble my camera, so unfortunately I don’t have a photo of this. It was fascinating though. Some people would have lost their appetites upon watching this. But for me, it was a pleasant reminder about how close wildlife (yes, insects can be considered wildlife!) can actually be to us wherever we are. This happened merely 3 feet from the dining table.

I made a trip to some grassland near Portsdown Road several days later. This area looked promising; I saw lots of different species flying near some flowering shrubs, though when I approached, I only found the large brown potter wasp (Delta sp.) which is quite common in Singapore. I believe there would be many more interesting species further in, but I didn’t have the time to explore further. I spent an hour trying to photograph these potters, but I just wasn’t equipped. I did not bring my 90 mm 1:2 macro lens, so I had to switch to my 400 mm, which can also produce 1:2 shots but from a distance of 7 feet! However, the reduction of lighting had to make me lower the aperture, which in turn produced very poor depth of field, and the lighting just wasn’t enough since it was already evening. In short, I couldn’t get good photos of this species. The photos below show a female feeding from flowers and a male being restrained in my hand.

This is the species in question; the colour is a lot more lifelike in this photo (copyright and courtesy of E-Trails (Singapore).

I paid a visit to some beach area near the Changi Boardwalk. One of the most important goals I had set for this trip was to find out more about some unusual Sphecid wasps I had seen years ago. Upon reaching the area, there was totally no sign of the presence of such wasps. This was probably because the surrounding area had been cleaned up (formerly, the area contained lots of unused nets and round objects joined to them (to form shark nets?), and was wet and provided shelter. Now the area is totally clean and dry. I did, however, find miniature versions of these wasps further down. Now that was interesting!

As previously mentioned, another goal was to establish the presence of different Vespa (hornets) in Singapore, and to observe them further. Near this same location, I found several individuals of the lesser banded hornet Vespa affinis foraging in the grass. During this time, I saw three of them catch prey; two caught some medium-sized, grey flies, and one caught a grasshopper. This foraging behaviour is similar to the way this species behaves in Hong Kong. However, there is a marked difference in colour. The variety or subspecies found in Singapore has a jet black head and thorax, as opposed to a reddish head and pronotum (outer edges of the thorax) in the variety found in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. The band, instead of being light yellow, is a striking orange. Polistes sagittarius in Singapore look different too; they are considerably larger than their Hong Kong counterparts, and the first abdominal segment is black, as opposed to light brown in the Hong Kong form.

This fly (probably a type of hoverfly, family Syrphidae) was one of the species hunted by Vespa affinis in the grassy fields.

I fulfilled another wish during this trip too: I found the giant honeybee Apis dorsata. This is a large insect, smaller than a hornet but much bigger than a common honeybee; it is known to nest high in trees and is aggressively defensive when provoked, but not much other info could be found. I first saw a live specimen at Pasir Ris Park; it was foraging among some flowering shrubs. At this same location, I also saw a possible Euaspis, a bright red parasitic bee in the leafcutter family, and many other solitary bees which I couldn’t identify. Later, at the restaurant in a country club at Dover Road, I found numerous dead Apis dorsata. This is one phenomenon which continues to puzzle me. At certain times in a year, lots of giant honeybees die in large numbers. I would definitely like to try to find out the reason for this in future. However, at that moment, I couldn’t find any hint of a nest or swarm anywhere. The bees were freshly dead, and I collected several to make specimens. I later collected another six freshly dead individuals on my second visit to Sentosa.

The Botanic Gardens lived up to my expectations. On my first visit, confining myself to the area near the central core, the visitor’s center and symphony lake (the most frequented and popular areas), I found 3 species of Ropalidia in total. These small paper wasps are surprisingly common, although I have not been able to find out much about their habits. This is another important goal to keep in mind for the future. I also found 2 species of small potter wasps, and found many solitary wasp nests. The photos below show the two more common species of Ropalidia.

Stingless bees were also in abundance, feeding from both morning glory and flowers of Heliconia plants. There are three common species, ranging from around 7mm (the largest species, brownish-black with conspicuous white edges on the wings) to a tiny species merely 3mm or so. For the first time, I also found Stenogastrine wasps. These are small primitively social wasps about which little is known. They seem to like dark, damp areas, and also feed from Heliconia flowers. Xylocopa latipes is also exceedingly common at this location. Finally, I found a large and robust orange and black Scoliid wasp among leaf litter. The photos below show the largest species of stingless bee, the giant carpenter bee Xylocopa latipes and one of the Stenogastrine wasps.

The popular tourist island of Sentosa is a real treasure trove in terms of insect fauna. On my first visit (out of 3), I saw the first Vespa tropica in Singapore, but was unable to catch it. Again, it looks different from the form in Hong Kong; it is larger, with a mainly black head and thorax and brighter orange band. While here, I also found Polistes sagittarius, Xylocopa confusa, Xylocopa latipes, the blue-banded bee (Amegilla sp.) and numerous Vespa affinis.

I encountered something strange at Sentosa too. The minute I stepped out of a bus, I was aware of a hornet hovering in front of me. Not a large species. I could not see her full colour and pattern, since she was staring at me head on. However, the front of her face was orange, and her legs yellow. Vespa velutina! I am dead sure I saw this species. The colouration can vary greatly according to locality; in fact, there are as many as 12 different colour forms throughout its range. However, the orange face and yellow legs are diagnostic. It fits too, because Vespa velutina frequently hovers and also displays a weird fondness for flying around, circling and hovering near people, seemingly “curious”. Vespa velutina is not recorded from Singapore. It is found in both Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries in close proximity to Singapore, but usually in high altitudes. Unfortunately, she flew away the minute I raised my net.

On one occasion, I was at the airport. Taking a walk around, I was attracted to some movement at a rather quiet corner. It was a Sphecid, a small blue mud dauber type (probably Chalybion sp.) that is common throughout Asia. Even in one of the cleanest, nicest, most efficient airports in the world, wasps still can be found!

I discovered a small field right in the most urban part of Singapore. Near the well-known ultra-urban shopping and tourist district of Orchard Road, this field was overgrown with grass and had several overturned trees. In this area, I discovered several small, starting colonies of Stenogastrine wasps! I couldn’t identify them as yet; I have so far found two different species in Singapore. These slender and primitively social wasps make nests which are attached directly to thin, downward hanging projections such as roots of overturned trees. I was able to collect a new nest with a single wasp; they do not seem aggressive, instead fleeing when I approach the nest. To my surprise, I found that the nest is made of mud and coarse material; it is brittle, unlike the fine, tough “paper” of other species. I also observed this species preying on mosquitoes in the area! They catch them in nearly the same way as hornets catch flies; despite their seemingly delicate appearance they fly fast and can even hover or move backwards in flight. This is obviously a beneficial species.

At this same location, I found a male Delta (potter wasp). This is probably Delta campaniforme, a species with an extremely wide distribution, from Australia to Arabia and most parts of Asia. There are many subspecies of this; I have found similar types in Hong Kong.

On my third visit to the Botanic Gardens, I ventured further out into the Bukit Timah Core. (For some reason, it seems to be always raining here.) It was here that I found a more established colony of Stenogastrine wasps. There were close to ten on a nest which was much larger than the rest I had seen so far. It was a pity I was not able to get better photographs of them or to observe them longer; seconds after I got this shot, it started pouring! I visited the same spot twice more on separate occasions but I couldn’t reach this site again, due to the rain! I did, however, find a nest of the yellow and brown Ropalidia species. This species looks quite similar to Hong Kong’s Ropalidia hongkongensis, and its nest is similar too,at least in the early stages. Ropalidia wasps are quite varied in their nesting habits.

The most spectacular, bizarre and mysterious find occurred during my second visit to Sentosa. Near the dolphin lagoon, I was busy photographing some Vespa affinis and Amegilla when I heard some loud buzzing at the flowers to my left. Through the corner of my eye, I saw a large, black insect. Assuming it was the common Xylocopa latipes, I ignored it and continued photographing. When I finished, I turned up and saw something truly weird, truly magnificent, truly unforgettable. It was not a carpenter bee but a VERY LARGE HORNET!

A few people I talked to think what I saw could have been a Scoliid or some other type of solitary wasp. I am certain it isn’t; it isn’t just a Vespid wasp, but is almost certainly a true hornet of the genus Vespa. It was the same size as a Vespa soror queen, that is more than 40 mm! It had a fully yellow-orange head, very large and wide (like Vespa soror and Vespa mandarinia, the only species known to have this enlarged head structure), and the rest of the body was totally black, from the thorax down to the last abdominal segment. The legs were black. It was a real beauty, and I stood still for a moment, not knowing whether to catch it or photograph it first. Finally, I decided that I should catch it, but as I reached for my net, it flew away. I cursed my indecisiveness. This species is one of the main goals for all future trips back to Singapore; I must find it, photograph it, collect specimens and get it identified, and if possible, find out more about its life.

The wasp in the photo above is, of course, not a photo of what I saw. It is a photo of Vespa soror I edited to show what the mystery hornet I saw looked like.

I saw two individuals of Vespa tropica on this day, and caught a new species of Scoliid; it looks like the common small black and yellow species but is twice the size.

Unfortunately, I never caught a single specimen of Vespa tropica. I later saw one at the Eco-Garden of the Singapore Science Centre. It flew low near my head very enticingly, but I did not have my net and anyway catching anything there was probably prohibited. That’s the way things always seem to be with these insects; the most interesting specimens which I need most appear whenever I’m not prepared!

Neither did I find any specimens of Vespa analis. This remains an important goal during any future trips to Singapore. However, I got acquainted with a pest control operator who showed me photos of a nest he destroyed, on residential property in low bushes. The dead hornets were all black with a yellow-orange sixth abdominal segment. I believe they could have been this species, and the location description also matches their habits.

I had about given up hope of finding the unusual beach wasps. The area was totally cleaned up and nearly deserted. However, I stumbled onto a new population at a new location! Thankfully there are still places where they nest. I managed to find both species; one has more steely-gray-blue than black on the abdomen, while the other is predominantly black with narrow green-blue markings. I only managed to photograph the first species. Later, one of my contacts identified them as Bembix or related species, which are relatively stout-bodied Sphecid wasps. These particular species in Singapore frequently catch various small flies; I have even seen them using the common housefly or other pest species.

I also found an individual of a large black Sphecid which I had observed many years ago. It was quite by accident. I was walking along the boardwalk in Changi and put my hand on a rope which was probably used to cordon off certain areas near the sea. I felt a sharp, stabbing pain on one of my fingers, and saw this huge creature fly nervously before landing roughly six feet away. The sting was quite painful, although not as bad as some of the hornets. I did not photograph this individual alive, as my priority was to catch it, since I don’t have a good specimen. I had learned my lesson from the mystery giant hornet at Sentosa! Later, several of my contacts agreed that it was probably a Sphex species, but were unable to say for certain without a spare specimen.

I caught a specimen of a stout, colourful potter wasp (probably Rhynchium haemorrhoidale) at the Botanic Gardens. I only have one deformed specimen of this in my collection, so I was quite pleased with my find. However, before I could get home, it bit a hole in the plastic bag and flew away. An unfortunate lesson learnt; it is not only the hornets which can bite out of a bag. I now use two plastic bags if I have to bag them, but I have since switched to plastic containers. They can be reused and are more environmentally friendly.

Outcome of this trip, and other observations: Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the six weeks in Singapore. Besides catching up with family and old friends, meeting new friends and visiting new places, this trip was indeed productive in terms of my observations, specimen collection and photography.

I managed to get some reasonably good photographs. Of course, hunting and photographing at the same time wasn’t easy. I carried my heavy camera in one hand and net in the other much of the time. I have been doing this for some time. However, after such a long period away from Singapore, the heat and humidity proved extremely uncomfortable. I actually felt that the weather was far worse than Hong Kong’s hottest summer days! I was perpetually sweating and finding it hard to hold the camera firmly without shaking, and my strength was sapped. I drank close to 3 bottles of water each day I spent outdoors.

I found the best method was to find a shady spot, stake it out and take my time to photograph the insects. It was cooler and easier this way. Interestingly, I noticed that many wasps in Singapore emerge only after 5 p.m., when the sun is no longer as strong and hot. The bees were not so affected by the weather, although they constantly searched for water when it got too hot.

I collected a total of 72 specimens, with close to 40 species. Some of them were sent to my contacts in museums abroad. Hopefully I will be able to learn the identities of some of the unknown types soon. The number of specimens I took may seem a lot, but the populations of these are mostly still going strong, far stronger than I expected, since people I know are always talking about how sterile and unnatural Singapore has become. In fact, Singapore is still a paradise for many species! All I can say at this point is that I have collected, in five weeks (three actually if I only consider time spent in the field), half of what I have spent two and a half years to obtain in Hong Kong! (I have roughly 79 species from Hong Kong at this time) And I have seen many others which I haven't been able to collect. It is remarkable.

From what I observed, the giant carpenter bees Xylocopa confusa and latipes are still common. These bees may be pests in that they make holes in wooden structures, but the majority I saw nested in wooded areas. Furthermore, these bees are good pollinators, being able to reach certain flowers that honeybees or other local bees can’t. In Singapore, they are also commonly called hornets, by both English and Chinese speaking people. This is the biggest misconception. Many people seem to think that they are deadly stingers. In actual fact, these, despite their large, fearsome appearance, are about the most harmless and inoffensive stinging insects. Still, it was comical to see some of my friends flinch in terror when one appeared! Unfortunately, I only managed to find one male of X. confusa on this trip. The bright yellow male usually flies around ornamental trees without landing, defending his territory against all other flying insects and mating with any female who enters the area.

Male of Xylocopa confusa

Nest of Xylocopa confusa in a wooden pole used as tree support

The common honeybee locally is probably Apis scerana, the Asian honeybee. June and July seem to be swarming months. I saw several swarms on trees in forested parts of Sentosa. There were also many of them flying in large numbers around wooded structures such as the roofs of shelters in parks; they appear to be trying to build nests there. These honeybees, like in most parts of the world, are virtually everywhere, and can be seen feeding from many different flowers. They frequently visit flowering coconut trees. These trees produce bunches of numerous tiny flowers prior to fruiting. Vespa affinis is also fond of coconut flowers. It is common to see countless tiny stingless bees, dozens of the common honeybee and several Vespa affinis in a single tree. Every so often, one of the hornets will suddenly grab a honeybee and carry it off. Hornets are quite versatile; even when visiting flowers or fruits to feed themselves, they will most readily capture a suitable prey insect if they stumble upon one.

Vespa affinis killing a honeybee

Vespa affinis is fairly common in grassy fields, beaches and other areas close to nature. At certain parts along Changi, green mussels are sometimes washed ashore and left stranded; they then die and many flies (mostly “greenbottles”, Calliphoridae) feed on them. I noticed many individuals of Vespa affinis foraging among the mussels too. This was strange, because most hornets only take what they catch and kill themselves, or, in certain cases, only freshly killed insect carcasses. However, on closer inspection, it became apparent that the hornets were not eating the mussels, but instead were trying to catch the flies that frequent them. They would wait around and then lunge at the flies in turn, or suddenly dart inside the shell and catch an unsuspecting fly which was eating the flesh inside. However, their success rate was not very high.

It wasn't easy getting these photos in this area. This was mainly because the place was filthy. The smell of the rotting mussels was nothing compared to the rubbish scattered all over the area! In the last photo, the hornet has pounced, but missed; the fly can be seen in flight.

I tried feeding the wild hornets here for the first time. I tied a mealworm to a fishing line, and then dangled it, jerking the line and making the mealworm jump up and down around the ground near the mussel. The sharp-eyed hornet immediately pounced and carried the mealworm away, line and all. It then stopped and cut the worm in half to get rid of the line! Finally, it chewed the mealworm into a ball and carried it away. Upon my return to Hong Kong, I have since fed hornets many more times. I bought small grasshoppers from a bird shop (many bird shops in Asia sell grasshoppers which many people use to feed certain birds), and brought them to an area where hornets feed on rotten food. I have handfed numerous individuals of Vespa affinis and Vespa velutina, and the hornets take the prey right out of my hand! The experience is indescribably unique and fun. On my next visit to Singapore, I shall buy some grasshoppers from a bird shop and try feeding these hornets too.

Polistes sagittarius was also a rather common species. I did not manage to find a live nest, although I did find several nests which were apparently killed off by fumigation. There were still pupae inside the cells, but these pupae had long dried up. I also found an old, abandoned nest under an equally old, abandoned building roof at the Asian Village in Sentosa. I have seen photos from a Singapore nature gallery of a small red, yellow and black Polistes, which were taken in the Seletar and Kranji forested region. I did not manage to find them. Part of the trouble was that I was not prepared to enter the forest at this time. I made up my mind to be adequately prepared on the next trip.

I found males of both Polistes sagittarius and Vespa affinis. I did not manage to capture the Vespa affinis males. It is unusual for social wasps to produce males right in the middle of the year. But again, in tropical climates, they probably breed and found colonies all year round. Pleometrosis (founding of a new nest by multiple queens/foundresses) and even swarm founding (a queen or group of queens and a group of workers starting a new nest) is quite common in the tropics too. Unlike in Hong Kong or other temperate localities, foraging hornet workers can be seen throughout the whole year.

There were three interesting Ropalidia wasps in Singapore. I only found the nest of the common brown and yellow species. The other common species, which could be Ropalidia sumatrae, possibly has a different nest structure. I have seen photos of similar wasps from Thailand, and they build an enclosed nest, unlike the previous species or Hong Kong’s Ropalidia hongkongensis. The photo I saw showed a tiny replica of a hornet nest! The third species I only saw once; it appears to be quite rare.

This is the third (smallest and rarest) species of Ropalidia I found.

I still have many unanswered questions and missed the chance to collect specimens or take photos of certain species. For instance, I have not either found, seen or photographed Vespa analis. I have not been able to get a photograph or specimen of Vespa tropica either. I also saw what was probably Vespa velutina but could not catch it for a closer look. Most importantly, I could not find out anything about the giant hornet with the black body and yellow head. There are also many other species of solitary types which I wasn’t able to photograph, such as the huge black Sphecid. There are probably many more weird and wonderful species waiting to be found. But these are all goals for the future…

More photos taken on this trip