Central America - Part 2: The Journey to San Vito

The sun was up and burning by 6 AM. We were sweating by the time we arrived at the bus station. I always over-pack. Always. My backpack was loaded with extra clothes and camera gear. Luckily we were in store for a 6 + hour bus ride. The night before didn't do much in the way of helping me catch up on sleep. Alajuela is a loud city. It seemed like none of the cars had mufflers. Every passing hour came complete with multiple car alarms as well. Despite our exhaustion, we were excited to be catching the bus to San Vito. 

We first had to catch a bus into San Jose. It was an interesting process. It was a weekday morning and we quickly got caught up in rush hour traffic. Walking was easy. It would seem that driving in this country takes a whole new set of skills that I simply do not have. There are no street signs and everyone seems to follow some unwritten Darwinian traffic code - only the strongest survive. Trucks and buses move in and out of tiny, crowded streets without hitting the cars sandwiched in between them. Motorcycles and mopeds weave their way through what little space remains. Watching this unfold was an experience unlike anything I had ever encountered. I would surely crumble under these conditions. My pampered American ways had no place on these roads. 

We managed to find the first bus. What should have been a 15 minute commute from Alajuela to San Jose was actually going to be about an hour. Luckily I found myself sitting next to a man names Carlos. His English was perfect, probably better and more formal than my own. Carlos could certainly sense how out of place I was and was kind enough to strike up a conversation. As it turns out, Carlos is a plant scientist working at an agricultural research institute in San Jose. His work centers around making Costa Rican farming more sustainable. His current project involved introducing new potato varieties from Peru into the mix to help transition away from monocultures. 

We talked for a while about his approach to this but his concerns seemed daunting. Like everywhere else in the world, Costa Rica is facing an uncertain future with climate change. Areas that once sustained certain types of farming are no longer able to do so. He made sure to point out every farm along our rout and explain to me what was obviously wrong - huge, chemical-laden coffee plantations, timber lots chock full of invasive eucalyptus trees, and almost no erosion control anywhere, which is clogging up tropical streams with an endless supply of runoff and sediments. 

I could have talked to Carlos all day, however, we had to part ways. I was lucky to have met him. We grabbed a cab to the next bus station. Yet another awkward ride ensued as the kind cab driver did his best to speak in slow, easy Spanish. Within an hour our bus had arrived. We boarded with only a handful of other people. From what I have come to understand, there are two main routs from San Jose to San Vito - one takes you through the mountains and the other takes you down the coast. With my face glued to the window, it soon became apparent that our driver was taking us through the mountains. 

Like a kid in a candy shop, the scenery had my complete attention. The combination of the size of the bus and the elevation that we had to climb meant that the ride was slow enough that I could actually do some botanizing from the window. Again, I had almost no idea what I was seeing. The only plants I was remotely able to recognize were some sort of Dicranopteris fern that covered exposed roadsides and plenty of bamboo orchids (Arundina graminifolia), a species that has naturalized throughout the tropics but was originally native to parts of Asia. The rest quickly became a green blur of tree ferns, palms, and other tropical looking trees. I couldn't wait to explore with someone who knows a thing or two about Costa Rican flora.

We actually made good time considering the length of the trip. In just under 6 hours we were walking down the main path at the Wilson Botanical Garden. Here we were to meet our friend Dave. We found him watering some cacti. Though this was technically the rainy season, they had not received any rain in over a week. Some of the plants didn't quite know what to do. We found our sleeping arrangements for the next few days and were anxious to start exploring. The main grounds of the garden were jaw droppingly gorgeous. There was more plant diversity within a stones throw than anywhere else I have ever been. Dave had some work to finish up so he gave us a map of the grounds and sent us on our way. 

Being completely new to this area, I was a bit wary of what I might encounter. Does Costa Rica have its own tropical version of poison ivy? Was I going to brush up against or touch something that would result in a rash? I asked Dave if there was anything I should avoid and he had only one response, caterpillars. "Don't touch any of the caterpillars. Some can totally ruin your day." Noted. 

Being much closer to the equator than New York, we had to get used to the sun schedule. It starts getting dark around 6 during this time of year and we didn't want to be out unsupervised after dark. We kept our musings to the immediate area near our cabin. A friend joked that going to a botanical garden in a rainforest is kind of like going to a zoo in Africa. Though it was a funny comparison, it couldn't be farther from the truth. The beauty of the Wilson Botanical Garden is that it allows you an up-close and personal look at the flora. Sure, there are paths and labels but these are a great place to familiarize yourself with some of the local species before setting off blindly into the jungle. Begonias and gesneriads carpet walls and rocks, Palms offer shade for ferns and orchids alike. Countless endemic bird, insects, and amphibians haunt these grounds. We even saw our first wild agouti. I was both overjoyed and overwhelmed. 

As if on cue, it happened. We rounded a bend and dangling off the side of a tree was an orchid in full bloom. It was Gongora armeniaca. I never really understood what it meant to be speechless until this moment. In fact, I don't think my brain could fully comprehend what it was seeing. The long inflorescence was in full bloom. Each of its strange flowers were perfect. I have seen Gongoras before as curiosities tucked in the back of orchids rooms at various botanical gardens. However, nothing comes close to seeing a species like this in situ. I was going to have to pay a lot of attention to trunks and branches if I was going to see more botanical wonders like this. 

The Amazing Orchid Bees

Bees are some of the most common organisms recruited by flowers to achieve sexual reproduction. Even the least plant savvy among us can tell you that. Individual species of flowering plants go to great lengths to stand out among the background of countless other flowering plants to ensure that bees (and other pollinators) visit their own kind. Some plants get very specific in this way, only attracting a few or even a single pollinator species to do their bidding. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the orchids. There are some orchids that have taken this specificity to the next level. Orchids in the subtribes Stanhopeinae and Catasetinae have turned the tables so that bees require their flowers for their own reproduction, a truly unique strategy for both plants and animals alike.

Decked out in metallic greens, blues, and reds, male Euglossine or orchid bees are a site for sore eyes. However, their behavior may be even more amazing. Before mating, male bees seek out special volatile compounds that they store in special pouches on their back legs. Just as teenage boys utilize various colognes, the male bees are using these scents to attract females. These compounds are not produced by the bees. Instead, they obtain them from the flowers of various species of orchid. Some of the most commonly encountered orchids that offer this service are those belonging to genera such as Stanhopea, Gongora, and Catasetum.

The male bees go to great lengths to track these flowers down. A single blooming orchid can come alive with the buzz of male bees vying for access to the scented compounds. They land on the flowers and begin scraping at the petals with special hairs on their legs. In the process, pollen sacs called "pollinia" get stuck to the backs of the bees. The next time a bee visits a flower it will brush some of the pollen off and reproduction for the orchid is achieved.

Specific species of bee require specific scents to attract females. Because of this, each orchid species often caters to only one species of bee, thus guaranteeing that those bees will only visit orchids of that species. In this way, precious pollen is not wasted. What's more, the influence these orchids have goes far beyond just helping male bees get laid. Euglossine bees are important pollinators throughout the rain forests that they live. Species like the Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa) rely on large bees such as Euglossines for pollination and will not produce seeds without them.

Photo Credit: Billtacular (http://bit.ly/1LuTn2Q), USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab (http://bit.ly/1AFD4G0), Ian Morton (http://bit.ly/1924m1R), barloventomagico (http://bit.ly/1xeYPAM), Quimbaya (http://bit.ly/1GXLr3D)

Further Reading:
http://books.google.com/books…

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1021932131526