Social Sciences Panama , Panamá, Tuesday, January 14 of 2020, 11:48

A bee’s-eye-view of Panama in the late 1800’s

Bees and their pollen reveal the environment of the first Cathedral on the American mainland, as do photos by preeminent landscape photographer, Eadweard Muybridge

STRI/DICYT In anticipation of Pope Francis’ 2018 visit to Panama, restoration workers discovered brittle, brown clusters—miniature chambers covered with gold leaf and paint—above the columns in the altarpiece of Santa Maria la Antigua Basilica Cathedral. Scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) identified the clusters as orchid bee nests. Pollen from the nests, and 19th century photos of the city from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, provide complementary views of the crossroads of the continent just after the California gold rush and before the building of the Panama Canal.


The Cathedral is the first on the American mainland—at least according to official papal documents. In 1513, Pope Adrian VI decreed the first Catholic diocese on the American mainland in Santa Maria de la Antigua, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The same papal bulletin authorized the first Cathedral: a thatch-roofed structure belonging to the indigenous chief, Cémaco. In 1524, the papal mandate and church relics were transferred to the first Spanish settlement on the Pacific coast. And after pirate Henry Morgan sacked the old city in 1671, the mandate and the relics passed to Panama City’s Santa Maria la Antigua Basilica Cathedral, built starting in 1688 and consecrated in 1796.

A fire burned parts of the Cathedral in 1870. During the minor restoration that followed, workers painted the capitals of the columns with gold paint—without removing bee nests from the upper part of the reredos (the altarpiece). So, the bee nests discovered by workers of the Italian company, Dalmática Conservaçao e Restauro, in 2018 are more than 150 years old.


Museologist and journalist, Wendy Tribaldos, who was working with the Comité Arquidiocesano Amigos Iglesias Casco Antiguo and Consorcio la Antigua, brought the nests to the Smithsonian, hoping to find out more.


After staff scientists Bill Wcislo and David Roubik identified the nests as home to the orchid bee species, Eufriesea surinamensis, based on the shape of the nests, parts of an adult bee and several pupae, they came into lab manager Paola Galgani’s hands. She took the nests to STRI's Center for Tropical Paleontology and Archaeology where tropical pollen expert, Enrique Moreno, identified the pollen grains inside the cells of the nest—the first study of pollen in brood cells of this species—providing the team with an unexpected opportunity to describe vegetation in late 19th-century Panama.

“The bee nests contained pollen from 48 plant species from 23 plant families,” Moreno said. “The pollen is mostly from trees in secondary forest and open areas, from Costus, a common understory and ornamental herb, but also from Pseudobombax, a tree locally known as “barrigon,” typical of more mature forests.” There was also pollen from coastal forests including a species of tea mangrove (Pelliciera rhizophorae), which is now very rare near the city.


“I was amazed that they found such old nests,” Galgani said, “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 they used to make their nests and pollen in the wax on the walls of the cells.”


Meanwhile, Wcislo got in touch with John Jacob, photography curator, and Richard Sorensen, museum specialist, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to obtain permission to use Eadweard Muybridge’s original, 1875 landscape photos of the city.


“Almost every day, I walked past faded, low-res copies of the Muybridge photos that had been hanging on the sixth floor of the Tupper Center [STRI headquarters in Panama City] for at least 25 years,” Wcislo said. “Knowing that Muybridge was an exceptional photographer and wondering if it would be possible to find the originals, I discovered that Muybridge worked as a U.S. government employee, and therefore his work should be in the public domain. I eventually found out that the Smithsonian has the originals.”

When Muybridge came to Panama as a photographer with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, he may have been celebrating newfound recognition after a San Francisco showing of his dramatic photographs of Yosemite National Park, or he may have been avoiding infamy, after a California court handed down a verdict of “justifiable homicide” for murdering of his wife’s lover. Today Muybridge is most often remembered for his pioneering photography of animal locomotion and his invention of an early motion picture projector.


The plant life in the Muybridge photos echoes the findings of the bee biologists: mostly shrubby and secondary vegetation with some patches of more mature forest. Wcislo, who notes that the bees were “quite catholic in their pollen preferences," said “It was timely that the Pope’s visit to Panama resulted in this discovery.” He added: “I am in complete agreement with the general idea expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si, that societies benefit from investment in scientific research to better understand how natural ecosystems function, how they are being perturbed by human activities, and how they may be restored. Both believers and non-believers have much to gain from more scientific work on orchid bees and other creatures."

“The Cathedral bee findings are unique,” Roubik said. “Enrique and I studied the same species and nest pollen at STRI’s research station on Barro Colorado Island in 1996, and I have collected further material from Sherman [near the Caribbean coast] in 1997. In the future, we hope to do a ‘then and now’ comparison.”




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