Author Archives: dududiaries

Golden Ground-nesting Bee!

In keeping with the theme of where bees nest…

A few weeks ago walking back in the evening from a day of looking at bees on farms, I noticed something sparkle on the path.

All alone with nowhere to go?

All alone with nowhere to go?

 

Peering closer I discovered that it was a beautiful Seladonia bee and I wondered what she was doing out so late. Watching her for a few minutes, she flew a short distance and landed near the entrance of a tiny hole in the ground. Peeking out from the hole was another individual Seladonia bee.

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

 

She quickly retreated into the nest and the first bee the slipped closer. The reason they were being so shy was so as not to ‘reveal’ to me the location of their nest entrance!

Approaching the nest

Approaching the nest

 

Then she quietly slipped into the safety of her nest.

Goodnight!

Goodnight!

This encounter illustrates one of the many diverse ways that wild bees make their homes. Some, like the honeybees are strictly social, living in families with different castes. The vast majority of bees are solitary, going it alone in the world. But a few, like these lovely Seladonia, appear to have come to compromise of sorts and share their nests, probably with sisters or other relatives. Inside this nest are cells packed with pollen gathered diligently from flowers where the bees will lay their eggs for the larvae to develop with plenty of food and safe from the harsh world…

 

Many different bees nest in the ground especially those in the Family Halictidae. These sites, often at the edges of farms near natural vegetation are important for bees and should be protected as the allow the bees to survive and work as pollinators for us.

 

Seladonia bee gathering pollen

Seladonia bee gathering pollen

So much more to learn about bees!

 

A bee that spins it’s nest!

On a recent visit to Kakamega Forest in Western Kenya I noticed one of my favourite bees (a bee called Pseudoanthidium, also known as Carder Bees for their nesting habits) buzzing about near the windows. It was flying back and forth from the edge of the forest.

This pretty bee is marked in black and yellow and flies about fast furiously visiting flowers.

 

Carder Bee visiting Ocimum Flowers

Carder Bee visiting Ocimum Flowers

 

Flowers are an important resource for wild solitary bees as they depend entirely on the pollen and nectar for their own energy and food as well as for their larvae. Most solitary bees collect pollen and store it in their nests for their larvae to feed on.

Pseudanthidium_Ocimum-LR12

Carder Bee working hard at an Ocimum Flower

While bees need wildflowers, they also need safe and sheltered places to nest and store their hard-earned pollen. This bee is one of those that constructs its nest from woolly plant fibres that it gathers specially for this.

Following the tiny bee back and forth I noticed that it disappeared behind a window.

On closer inspection I was delighted to find that there was a tiny nest that the bee was provisioning:

Bee at her delicately spun nest

Bee at her delicately spun nest

 

I enjoyed watching the bee coming and going and marvelled at the beautifully spun nest.

A work of art in a nest!

A work of art in a nest!

 

More from the world of bugs soon!

Giant Carpenter Bee!

Dear All

On a recent hike in southern Tanzania at the edge of the Uluguru Mountains I came across one of East Africa’s largest bee: the Giant Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa nigrita).

Female Giant Carpenter Bee approaching Crotolaria flowers

Female Giant Carpenter Bee approaching Crotolaria flowers

This is a striking bee where the males and females are sexually dimorphic: meaning that they look very different. The females are boldly marked in black and white, while the males are covered in bright golden hairs that glisten in the sunlight.

Females visit flowers of many different species, and on this day they were feeding on flowers of legumes (a Crotolaria sp.) and also the flowers of pigeonpea (Cajanus cajan), which they are responsible for pollinating. Working the legume flowers requires a lot of skill and dexterity from the bees. The flowers need to be ‘tripped’ so as to expose the pollen from the anthers that slide out of the keel of the lower petals. The carpenter bees are experts at doing this:

 

Female bee grappling with Crotolaria flowers

Female bee grappling with Crotolaria flowers

 

While the females are busy visit flowers the males set up territories that they patrol during the day. These are usually near patches of habitat that females frequent. Male carpenter bees spend many hours flying back and forth around their territorial patch marking landmarks with scent and watching for females.

Golden male Giant Carpenter Bee!

Golden male Giant Carpenter Bee!

 

After a hard days’ work, they too visit the flowers for some refreshment in the form of nectar.

Male Giant Carpenter Bee grappling with Crotolaria flowers

Male Giant Carpenter Bee grappling with Crotolaria flowers

 

Several people have asked me how exactly I take these photos of bees. The key thing is patience and waiting at the flowers, with some understanding of the movements and behaviour of the bees. It took me over an hour of watching and waiting to get these photos of the Giant Carpenter Bees.

Patience is key to capturing bees in action!

Patience is key to capturing bees in action!

 

More from the wonderful world of insects soon!

 

Bees pollinating cucumbers in Turkana

Hello – greetings from Turkana in Northern Kenya…

Up here checking in on my lab at the Turkana Basin Institute and spent half a day looking at bees pollinating the cucumbers being cultivated at the institute. Cucumbers are one of my favourite salad items and make a refreshing snack up here in the desert at lunchtime. Cucumbers are yet another example of a food item that we enjoy thanks to pollinators.

Cucumbers are in the family of plants called Cucurbits (Curcubitaceae), that includes watermelons, pumpkins, squashes and gourds.

Most members of this plant family are dependent on pollinators, and many of them have separate male and female flowers (though these can occur on the same individual plant).

It has rained up here in Turkana about a week a ago and the ground is delicately painted with flowers and the air filled with bees and butterflies.

Here are some of the bees and their antics on the cucumber flowers.

One of the first bees to arrive was the lovely Macrogalea bee, who also spent time sunning themselves on the flowers:

Macrogalea bee

Macrogalea Bee on Cucumber Flower

After warming themselves on the cucumber flowers, the Macrogalea bees dove into the flowers and as you can see were soon coated with pollen and moving it around the flowers:

Macrogalea bee hard at work

Macrogalea bee hard at work

They were also visiting the flowers of a different cucurbit (a butternut squash variety), nearby:

Macrogalea crawling out of Squash flower

Macrogalea crawling out of Squash flower loaded with pollen.

 

As the morning grew hotter, the next bee-shift appeared and these guys whizzed about the cucumber patch with dizzying speed. One of my favourite bees, known as Amegilla:

Amegilla Bee pollinating cucumber flower

Amegilla Bee pollinating cucumber flower

 

The Amegilla bees moved speedily between the different patches of cucumber plants, this makes them efficient pollinators as they transport pollen between different individual plants.

Busy Bees! Amegilla at work.

Busy Bees! Amegilla at work.

 

There were at least two different species of Amegilla present, the beige-grey one and this brightly coloured orange one visiting the cucumber flowers:

Another Amegilla bee hard at work!

Another Amegilla bee hard at work!

Bees were not the only insects visiting the flowers, a Grass Yellow butterfly (Eurema sp.) also stopped by. Although it was a faithful visitor, it didn’t seem to be carrying much pollen around.

Grass Yellow Butterfly sips nectar

Grass Yellow Butterfly sips nectar

 

The bees kept coming and going throughout the morning and we enjoyed some of the cucumbers at lunch!

Please click on image for larger version

Please click on image for larger version

More from the wonderful world (and work!) of insects soon…

 

Kerio Valley Bees (and a fly)

Hello – just spent a lovely day looking at bees in the Kerio Valley (one of my favourite parts of the world!). An extension of the Great Rift Valley in northwestern Kenya, the Kerio Valley is a beautiful and diverse landscape that is especially rich in bees.

The Kerio Valley is also home to a large number of small-scale farmers who rely on subsistence agriculture to support their families. Many of the crops grown in the region are dependent on pollinators and it is an area where I have been looking at pollinator diversity and the interface of agriculture and biodiversity for some years.

View from Iten looking down into the Kerio Valley

View from Iten looking down into the Kerio Valley

 

Here are a few of the bees that I encountered while walking around the farms on the floor of the valley near Biretwo.

Early in the morning the Morning Glories (Ipomoea) were in full bloom and peering into one of their deep dark hearts I found a Macrogalea bee hiding in the bottom of the floral tube.

Macrogalea bee in an Ipomoea flower

Macrogalea bee in an Ipomoea flower

The bee seemed to be struggling and as it emerged into the sunlight I could see why: it was overloaded with the flowers’ sticky pollen and could barely move!

Macrogalea_Ipomoea-LR12

 

Overloaded with pollen!

Overloaded with pollen!

 

Nearby there were some yellow flowers blooming and they were being thoroughly ‘worked’ by a small bee in the Leafcutter Bee family (Megachilidae). Each bee landed on the flower and then circled it in an anti-clockwise direction while packing pollen into the special ‘scopa’ (pollen carrying region) on the underside of its’ abdomen.

Combing pollen from its' face!

Combing pollen from its’ face!

 

Not to be outdone were the Amegilla bees who zipped about between the flowers. Here is one sizing some some Gynandropsis:

Amegilla bee in action

Amegilla bee in action

 

Some smaller bees were also working the Gynandropsis flowers. They clung to the anthers while simultaneously trying to pull off the pollen:

Collecting Gynandropsis pollen

Collecting Gynandropsis pollen

 

Sunning itself demurely on a leaf was a beautiful bee known as Crocisaspidia:

Handsome Crocisaspidia bee

Handsome Crocisaspidia bee

One of the most common bees visiting the flowers were the Seladonia, who are tiny but beautiful metallic bees that often look like they are made from gold:

Seladonia bee hard at work.

Seladonia bee hard at work.

 

Among all the different bees were some interesting flies, including this lovely Hoverfly (Syrphidae) that is an exquisite mimic of a wild bee.

Do I look like a bee?

Do I look like a bee?

More from the wonderful world of insects soon!

 

Pollinator Breakfast…

Hello – Pollinators are responsible for about ONE IN THREE bites of food that we consume.

Some two-thirds of all flowering plants on the planet are dependent on pollinators, most of them are wild insects and many of those are bees.

Here’s the contribution of pollinators to my breakfast yesterday: I had a bowl of oatmeal with almonds, raspberries and some papaya (paw paw).

The raspberries and almonds are both pollinated by bees. Raspberries have composite flowers and need repeated visits by different bee species as well as honeybees to produce nicely-shaped and flavoured fruits. Almonds are pollinated by bees and there is a veritable industry of mobile beekeepers who truck around their bees to help pollinate commercial almond orchards. Papaya is an interesting tropical fruit tree and the varieties we grow in Kenya typically have separate male and female trees (this is known as being dioecious by botanists), and depend on wild hawkmoths to pollinate the female flowers by transferring pollen from the male flowers.

The oats are not dependent on pollinators. They, like most cereals, are wind-pollinated. However, without pollinators our food would be really plain and boring and much less nutritious!

Please click on the poster below for a larger version:

pollinator_breakfast-July05-2013_LR1

 

 

Bees and Butterflies in the Pugu Hills, Tanzania

Dear All

I recently went hiking in the Pugu Hills which are near the port city of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. These hills contain some precious fragments of forests that once covered most of the East African coastal areas. However, today only tiny patches of forest remain. These forests are home to a lot of different species that aren’t found anywhere else in the world including trees, butterflies and other insects.

Here are a few of the remarkable insects that I came across during the walk.

One of the first creatures that we spotted was this remarkable Hairstreak butterfly (Hemiolaus sp.). It flies fast and furiously along the forest trails – but only when it alights can you appreciate its delicate beauty. The elaborate tails on the right are actually a false head that serve to lure would-be predators away from the butterfly’s real head, thereby allowing it to escape. This is a common strategy in this family of butterflies that are known as the ‘blues and coppers’ or lycaenids (Lycaenidae).

Sapphire Butterfly (Hemiolaus sp.)

Hairstreak Butterfly (Hemiolaus sp.) Which is end is the real head?

 

A few minutes later a flash of copper whirled by and stopped to rest in a patch of flowers. This is one of the Scarlets (Axiocerses sp.) another of the interesting members of the lycaenid butterfly family. Here you can see it’s false head in place:

The Scarlet butterfly with it's false head intact.

The Scarlet butterfly with it’s false head intact.

 

And here is one that escaped a predator with the false head missing:

Hmmm... where did my tail go!?

Hmmm… where did my tail go!?

Even though the butterfly is now damaged, it survived the attack and can go on to mate and lay eggs and therefore contribute its genes to the next generation: this is what these amazing adaptations are all about – increasing the chances of survival and reproduction.

At the edges of the forest in the tall grass there were numerous Acraea butterflies basking in the sunshine:

Acraea butterfly sunning itself.

Acraea butterfly sunning itself.

A few minutes later I came across yet another lycaenid butterfly species, this one is known as ‘The Playboy’ (Deudorix sp.):

The gorgeous Playboy Butterfly

The gorgeous Playboy Butterfly

Flying elegantly through the forest were numerous swallowtails, which are large and showy butterflies, including this beautiful Eastern White Lady (Graphium sp.):

Graphium_philonoe-Pugu-LR1

 

Of course the bees were not to be outdone, and as the day grew hotter, they came out in large numbers to visit the different flowers in search of nectar and pollen. Most of the bees were visiting wildflowers at the edge of the forest and along the trails.

There were a lot of bees about, and sometimes it seemed like they needed some air-traffic control as they approached the flowers in droves!

Big bee first... little bee second. Prepare for landing!

Big bee first… little bee second. Prepare for landing!

 

More bee traffic!

More bee traffic!

 

At the forest edge there were lots of Macrogalea bees visiting various wildflowers. Macrogalae means ‘long tongue’, and the bee uses its long tongue to sip nectar from the flower:

Macrogalea bee

Macrogalea bee

 

The carpenter bees were hard at work too, especially on the flowering trees and shrubs in the forest:

Two carpenter bees (Xylocopa) feed side by side

Two carpenter bees (Xylocopa) feed side by side

After a wonderful day walking through the forest, there was yet one more special beauty waiting in the shadows. While this is not the most brightly coloured of butterflies, it is a coastal endemic and flies softly in the shaded groves of the forest: the enigmatic and delightful Spotted Sylph:

The Spotted Sylph

The Spotted Sylph

More from the wonderful world of insects soon!

 

Some bees in the bush…

Dear All

Many greetings, the rains over the last couple of months have brought forth some wonderful flowers out on the plains. Now with the mix of sunshine and abundant flowers, it is a fantastic time for the bees who are out and about in large numbers. Many other insects are also making hay while the sun shines, imbibing nectar, gathering pollen and reproducing while the conditions are good.

Insects and plants have an ancient and beautiful relationship that spans hundreds of millions of years of co-evolution. For every single species of plant, there are many different kinds of insects that live on, in, around and off it.

There is incredible diversity even around just a single species of wildflower as you can see from this series of photos on the humble wildflower Leucas, that is currently flowering on the plains south of Nairobi…

A speedy Amegilla bee who zipped like a maniac between the flowers sipping up the abundant nectar...

A speedy Amegilla bee who zipped like a maniac between the flowers sipping up the abundant nectar…

 

This particular bee was so efficient that it just grabbed the flowers for a second stuck its long tongue in and sucked out the nectar then moved on to the next one...

This particular bee was so efficient that it just grabbed the flowers for a second stuck its long tongue in and sucked out the nectar then moved on to the next one…

The Amegilla bees are fairly diverse and this other species was much more methodical in exploiting the flowers. Notice how it bends the flowers in a special way and rubs against the orange ‘blobs’? Those are the flowers’ anthers that bear pollen which is what the flower expects the bees to transfer between different plants…

Amegilla bee efficiently pollinating the Leucas flower...

Amegilla bee efficiently pollinating the Leucas flower…

 

Amegilla hard at work!

Amegilla hard at work!

 

There were some leafcutter bees working this patch of flowers too:

Leafcutter bee visiting the Leucas flower...

Leafcutter bee visiting the Leucas flower…

 

A few delicate lycaenid butterflies stopped by to sip some nectar (though it didn’t seem like they carried much pollen, so they are basically free-loaders!)

The Pea Blue butterfly has a drink of nectar

The Pea Blue butterfly has a drink of nectar

While I was watching for bees, this gorgeous emerald green chafer beetle flew by distracting me:

"Am I cool or what!?"

“Am I cool or what!?”

Later in the evening the carpenter bees came out to visit the flowers:

Carpenter bee on Leucas flower

Carpenter bee on Leucas flower

 

Of course, not everyone visiting the flowers was behaving themselves. There were  a number of stink bugs and groove-winged flower beetles shamelessly feeding off the flowers and buds:

Stinkbug (on the left) and groove-winged flower beetle  with head buried in blossom.

Stinkbug (on the left) and groove-winged flower beetle with head buried in blossom.

 

My ‘field assistants’ Barabara and Zaza took a break in shade as I was watching the bees…

Barabara and Zaza (hidden lying down)...

Barabara and Zaza (hidden lying down)…

 

What an amazing world all taking place on just ONE species of wildflower. Imagine if we could quantify all of the interactions between insects and flowers in just one patch of natural habitat for one day – I find all these interactions a source of wonder and inspiration…

 

What other mysterious creatures dwell here?

What other mysterious creatures dwell here?

 

More from the wonderful world of insects soon!

Rainforest Xmas Jewels!

Dear All

I have been very lucky to spend the xmas holidays in the Kakamega Forest in Western Kenya. After a busy year of looking at bugs, studying bees, writing and research in many remote places, what better way to spend the holidays than sitting quietly by a stream deep in the heart of the forest…

As I waited by the stream, watching the coming and going of countless marvelous insects, two exceptionally beautiful damselflies made a special appearance. The first was a Red Jewel. This rare creature is found along forested streams in Western Kenya and Uganda. It lays its eggs in the clear, flowing waters where oxygen levels are high and the water pure and sweet. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful of Africa’s insects.

 

The gorgeous Red Jewel deep in the heart of Kakamega Forest, Western Kenya.

 

The Red Jewel spent most of its time chasing off other damselflies and even the much larger dragonflies from its special vantage point in the sun along the stream. Occasionally it swept out and grabbed a snack in form of a passing mosquito or hapless flies that became trapped on the waters’ surface.

I watched the Red Jewel flashing about and perched, carefully recording when it captured prey. As I followed its behaviour keenly, a leaf rustled beside me and I looked up to find myself eye-to-eye with another beauty. This one was watching as much as I was watching it. It was draped in the dappled light gazing out at the world, its tongue flicking in and out.

Yes, I flinched when I first spotted it, and it responded with the same and a warning hiss. Then, as I realised that it was not the least bit interested in my, but merely enjoying the warm, liquid golden sunshine that flowed down through the canopy far overhead, we both relaxed and shared the view of the stream and its myriad inhabitants. (Yes, you might have guessed already that this creature was a snake – a lovely little Green Bush Viper)…

 

The elegant Green Bush Viper

 

As the Green Bush Viper and I both relaxed again, my attention wandered back to the flashes of colour moving around the stream. And then on a leaf right in front of me appeared another of the forests’ jewels – The incredible Sapphire, another of East Africa’s loveliest damselflies…

 

The elegant, exquisite Sapphire Damselfly, Kakamega Forest

 

When one is honored, inspired and awed by beauty such as this – I can’t help but think of how special and precious all our forests and all our biodiversity is on this planet. I feel that in witnessing and exploring the wonders of nature, I also have to point out that we need to conserve it for its beauty and interest as much as its utility and practical contributions to our daily lives. What a joy to be able to find spaces wherever they may be, that are filled with species who have come about through millions of years of evolution and share with us their home and our home on this lonely little planet.

 

Stream in rainforest, Kakamega Forest, Western Kenya

Please keep the ‘little creatures that run the world’ in your thoughts during the holidays…

More from the world of bugs soon!

Dino

Bees sleeping…

Dear All

I recently participated in an expedition through parts of northwestern Kenya to look at different kinds of bees.

The first thing that surprises many people about bees is that there are lots of different kinds of bees – in fact close to 20,000 species have been described! The honeybee, which is familiar to almost everyone, is just one kind of bee (a single species called Apis mellifera).

One of my favourite bees in East Africa are the Amegilla bees. They are beautiful, fast-flying, hard-working creatures that zip about and fly with a characteristic high-pitched buzz that is most evident when the approach flowers. Amegilla are solitary bees. This is another surprising fact about bees: most species are solitary, with females building and caring for a nest on their own. Honeybees are social and live in colonies, as do a few other bees, but for the most part, the bees are loners.

Female solitary bees have their nests to go to at night or when they are not out feeding from flowers. However, males don’t have anywhere to go. They end up having to sleep on stems of plants, grasses being a favorite perch… In some species, such as Amegilla, the males will often gather at particular sleeping areas in the evening. These are often near a stream or edge of a wetland in a sheltered spot – sort of like a male bees’ version of the pub I guess…

We found this aggregation of Amegilla males sleeping at the edge of a swamp near Bogoria recently… They are really charming creatures…

 

Male Amegilla bees lined up in their ‘dormitory’ for the night…

More from the world of bugs soon!