Category Archives: Bees

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!

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!

Turkana Bees

Dear All

Greetings – have been travelling with limited email access (and time!). A few weeks ago I was in northern Kenya at the Turkana Basin Institute looking at bees.

A yellow-flowered legume, Crotolaria, was blooming in one site near the river and it was covered in some of the most amazing bees… Here are a few of them.

We started looking for bees early in the morning. In a sheltered area in a glade I found these beautiful orange Lipotriches bees collecting pollen from Cenchrus grasses. Most bees are solitary and gather pollen from plants to provision a nest where they lay eggs. This is what the Lipotriches were doing.

A pair of Lipotriches bees foraging on pollen from Cenchrus grass

 

The most striking bee we found was this Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa sp.) that had the most incredible bright blue eyes! It flew around quite aggressively occasionally chasing off other Carpenter Bees that ventured too close to its patch of flowers.

Blue-eyed Carpenter Bee!

 

The most common bees visiting the flowers were various species of Leafcutter Bees (Megachilidae). These are bees that cut circles from leaves and use them to construct their nests by joining them up and lining a tube. They are also among the most elegant and beautiful of bees… They also fly very fast and zip about nervously from flower to flower so I had to be both patient and fast so as to capture some photos of them.

A Leafcutter Bee approaching the flowers

 

There were several different kinds of Leafcutter Bees around, including this large grey species:

Leafcutter Bee - note the yellow underside of the abdomen - that's where these bees carry pollen.

 

Another smaller Leafcutter Bee species

 

Leafcutter Bees are good at "tripping" flowers - bending them down to get more nectar out...

 

There were hundreds of bees flying about at the same time. Some of the bees chased each other away, but some of them were happy to share the flowers…

Leafcutter Bee (above) and Macrogalea bee (below) feeding near each other.

Feeding from flowers lower down was this interesting solitary bee species in the Halictidae family… beautiful with its black-and-white stripes…

A Halictid Bee weaving about the Crotolaria flowers.

 

More from the world of bugs soon!

 

 

Coriander (Cilantro) Pollinators…

Greetings from Turkana in Northern Kenya. I recently visited one of the farms that I work with up here and was very pleased to find the coriander (cilantro) flowering. This plant is a common and delicious herb that is widely used in the cuisines of many different parts of the world…

Coriander flowers close-up

Coriander flowers close-up

Many of us are aware of the role played by pollinators in producing fruits and other crops like beans, tomatoes, etc. However, even many of the spices that we grow are dependent on pollinators – and without them would not produce the seeds that are the basis of a valuable trade and make the food we eat much tastier and more nutritious!

The flowers of the coriander plant (called cilantro in America) are open and lay in flat heads called umbels. This means that they can be accessed by a wide range of pollinator species. Here are some of the insects that we found visiting and pollinating the cilantro flowers in Turkana.

A lycaenid butterfly and a cuckoo-wasp at the coriander flowers

A lycaenid butterfly and a cuckoo-wasp at the coriander flowers

The lycaenids are tiny butterflies, many of which are common in the drylands of Kenya. They can often be found visiting flowers where they sip nectar and check each other out…

Two lycaenid butterflies enjoying the cilantro flowers

Two lycaenid butterflies enjoying the cilantro flowers

Many different wasps were visiting the flowers. The Cuckoo Wasp was among the most striking with its bright green iridescent sheen…

Beautiful Cuckoo Wasp

Beautiful Cuckoo Wasp

Cuckoo wasps are named after their behaviour where (like the cuckoo birds) they lay their eggs in other wasps’ nests – they are parasites.

Of course the bees were among the most common and efficient pollinators visitors to the coriander flowers…

Braunsapis bee at the coriander flowers

Braunsapis bee at the coriander flowers

The Braunsapis bees were the most common visitors to the flowers among the bees. They moved about a lot and we found them carrying lots of pollen too.

Happy Braunsapis busy on the flowers

Happy Braunsapis busy on the flowers

A number of tiny Stingless Bees were also active – collecting pollen and nectar…

Stingless Bee at work...

Stingless Bee at work...

All the hard work by the pollinators produces these beautiful seeds that we can flavour our food with!

Yummy coriander seeds thanks to the pollinators

Yummy coriander seeds thanks to the pollinators

More from the world of insects soon!

Honeybee + sunflower

Dear All
Greetings – just back in Kenya after various travels. There is a sunflower on the breakfast table and I watched a honeybee visited it this morning in the dreamy African sunshine…

Sunflower in morning light

Sunflower in morning light

Honeybees love sunflowers!

Honeybees love sunflowers!

The honeybee was after pollen – here is a close up of the anthers:

Anthers - the part of the flower that bear pollen

Anthers - the part of the flower that bear pollen

The honeybee lifts itself into the air and hovers, gently combing the pollen from it’s body into the pollen baskets on it’s legs.

Honeybee combing pollen into it's pollen baskets while hovering.

Honeybee combing pollen into it's pollen baskets while hovering.

Without honeybees, the sunflowers would not be well pollinated and would not produce the sunflower seeds that are made into oil and many other useful and delicious things. The honeybees on the sunflowers are both beautiful to watch and also to know that they are making the sunflower seeds happen through pollination.

The honeybees collect the pollen for their own use. They feed it to their larvae, which helps them grow into healthy strong bees. The sunflower produces lots of pollen, and the honeybees spill it and rub it around as they move about the flower. This results in pollination. Both honeybees and sunflowers benefit from this arrangement. A truly balanced partnership (or love affair!) from Nature.

More from the world of bugs soon!

Students learn about bees…

Dear All. Many greetings. One of the truly wonderful things about teaching as a scientist is working with students. Good students can help catch more bugs, run around in the sun and ask new questions that help further both science and conservation. While working in Turkana recently, I had three students from Hillcrest Secondary School (Elleni, Nekesa and Tashi) visit and volunteer with me in the field for a few days. Here are their thoughts and first impressions of bees and the environment in northern Kenya…

Setting off on an adventure

Setting off on an adventure

First Glimpses of Bees…

By Elleni Stephanou, Nekesa Morey and Tashi.

Students from Hillcrest Secondary School in Nairobi, Kenya.

What comes to mind when most people think about bees? Probably swarms of the common black and yellow striped honey bee that one finds on the pots of honey in a supermarket or perhaps the buzzing bumble bees seen flying around the garden or illustrated in many children’s books. In fact, this is a common misconception as there are over 20,000 different types of bees. It was only when we, three Hillcrest Secondary School students, Elleni, Tashi and Nekesa, spent a week up at Turkana Basin Institute with entomologist Dr. Dino Martins, that we discovered the truth about bees.

Tashi and Elleni working in the hot sun - this was the first lesson - being patient!

Tashi and Elleni working in the hot sun - this was the first lesson - being patient!

Nekesa poised ready for a bee to visit the tiny flowers on the ground

Nekesa poised ready for a bee to visit the tiny flowers on the ground

Our first glance into the world of bees began on a farm developed by Ikal Angelei of the Friends of Lake Turkana and Turkana Basin Institute on the day of our arrival, where we encountered a variety of species ranging from the tiny stingless bees (Hypotrigona sp) who were attracted to our sweat, to the large bulky Carpenter bees (Xylocopa spp.) that were buzz pollinating the aubergine crops and the Leafcutter bees we saw slicing circles of capsicum leaves  for their hives. So far, around twenty different species have been sighted on the farm, none of which die after their first sting. After this unfortunate enlightenment, we tentatively attempted to catch and transfer them from net to vials for closer inspection in the lab.

A tiny stingless bee hovering near a flower

A tiny stingless bee hovering near a flower

We were also surprised to discover that female bees of most species, unlike the males, are diploid, and only lay eggs of female gender if they happen to have mated with a male. The female bees that were most common on the eggplant flowers live in burrows up to 10 cm deep in the ground, while their male counterparts never return to a burrow once they have hatched from it.

A Ceratina bee visiting a desert flower

A Ceratina bee visiting a desert flower

On our second day in Turkana, we were lucky enough to witness the second rainfall in over a year and a half. Although it only lasted about ten minutes, it led to a phenomenal influx in insect life. Our next challenge was to catch a few of the freshly hatched butterflies to add to Dino’s ever growing database.  We followed this up by catching butterflies on another site about an hour from the institute the next day, where we caught the same species for future cross referencing and DNA comparison.

Chasing butterflies is good exercise

Chasing butterflies is good exercise

Colotis butterfly visiting Cadaba flowers that blossomed after the rain

Colotis butterfly visiting Cadaba flowers that blossomed after the rain

We thoroughly enjoyed this trip and look forward to future expeditions with Dino to different parts of Kenya where we will further develop our new interest in insect life. We would like to thank Dino and the entire team at TBI for hosting us and making this an exceptional experience. The one thing we learned is that Kenya is blessed with amazing insect diversity, even in the desert.

An Amegilla bee approaches a Cadaba flower

An Amegilla bee approaches a Cadaba flower

In the Mororot Hills taking a break from chasing bugs

In the Mororot Hills taking a break from chasing bugs

For more information about Turkana, please visit the Turkana Basin Institute website:

www.turkanabasin.net

Birds and bees in the Kerio Delta

Greetings from the remote reaches of Turkana in northern Kenya…

The Lake Turkana Basin, while being a hot and dry area, includes several river systems and the 6,000 km2 + Lake Turkana. Three rivers feed into the lake: The Turwel, Kerio and Omo. The Omo, from the highlands of Ethiopia contributes about 90 % of the lakes’ waters. The Kerio River comes from the south, from streams originating in parts of the Cherangani Hills and north-western Kenyan Highlands. The rivers and deltas close to the Turkana Basin Institute are home to a rich diversity of insect and bird life.

Pied Kingfisher preparing to dive into the water after a fish!

After a long journey through the dry country the Kerio reaches the lake. We visited the Kerio Delta to look at some of the freshwater ecology issues and biodiversity. To get to the water we had to walk through a thick green tangle of prickly Prosopis bushes.

A channel in the Kerio Delta where we took a boat ride

This is an invasive species that was first introduced to the area some 25-30 years ago. Prosopis, more commonly known as mesquite. A short tree/shrub, not striking in any aspect, has swiftly and silently colonized vast stands of Kenya, and indeed East Africa’s arid rangelands. Eight species are currently placed in the genus Prosopis, originating primarily from Central and South America (Prosopis alba, P. chilensis, P. glandulosa, P. juliflora, P. tamarugo), with P. africana native to the Sahelian margins and P. cineraria found in parts of Afghanistan, India, Iran and Pakistan. Several of the above species have been introduced and managed in different parts of Kenya over the last few decades. Of these, the main villain has proved to be Prosopis juliflora, originating in the drylands of the Americas. It is exceptionally drought tolerant, can live on the most marginal of soils, and tolerates strongly saline conditions as well as seasonal waterlogging. It is Prosopis juliflora that has taken over vast areas of the Kerio Delta at Lake Turkana.

Invasive Prosopis growing into the water

We found that the Prosopis is in the process of swamping the natural beds of Typha bulrushes and aquatic grasses that normally serve as nurseries for fish and help oxygenate the water. Beneath the Prosopis little survives as the trees rot and the bitter tannin-filled leaves fill the water. Managing the Prosopis will be a big challenge in the future especially as it spreads through larger and larger areas. Total eradication is not really feasible. Prosopis spreads rapidly into areas that have been overgrazed, a sad reality over much of Kenya’s drylands. Seed dispersal, an oft-overlooked aspect, is rapidly effected by browsing goats, other wild ruminants and hares. The thicket-forming growth habit and deep-roots make it extremely difficult to remove once established even over a few square metres.

Prosopis pods - seeds are dispersed by goats

The one thing that Prosopis does do is provide forage for many different bee species, including both wild bees and honeybees

Wild Ceratina bee visiting the Prosopis flowers

Where the Prosopis opened up to more natural rushes and reeds we started seeing interesting birds and insects. The most dramatic sighting was of a large, majestic Goliath Heron.

Goliath Heron, largest of the herons, takes to the air...

One of the most interesting insect behaviours that we were able to watch was mate-guarding by damselflies. We had discussed this in class and it was exciting to see how diligently the male Cherry-eyed Damselflies held on to their mates to keep them from taking off and mating with other males!

A pair of Cherry-eyed Damselflies - the male holds on to the female firmly!

More from the world of bugs soon, thanks to everyone for the kind comments!