Category Archives: Beetles

A few wonderful ‘Dudus’…

In honour of World Environment Day, here are a few amazing insects from the rainforest in Western Kenya to remind us of the incredible and wonderful creatures that we share this planet with…

I’ve been travelling around Kenya for the past few weeks, and here are some of the strange and fascinating creatures I came across.

One of the most beautiful of all African insects are the jewel damselflies, such as this Dancing Jewel found along the banks of the Yala River:

Dancing Jewel Damsefly

Dancing Jewel Damsefly

 

Among the many gorgeous butterflies in the rain forests of Western Kenya are the Charaxes, or Emperor Butterflies. They fly high and fast through the forest canopy, but can’t resist the lure of fresh dung to feast on! Many Charaxes butterflies have the most beautifully intricate patterns on the undersides of their wings, like this Giant Charaxes (Charaxes castor).

King Charaxes butterfly feasting on fresh dung!

Giant Charaxes butterfly feasting on fresh dung!

 

Some Charaxes species have the most intense colours on their wings, as can be seen here in this Blue-Spotted Charaxes, flashing its wings in the sunlight:

Blue-Spotted Charaxes Butterfly

Blue-Spotted Charaxes Butterfly

 

Even the fruit flies in the forest are colourful, as can be seen here with these Drosophila on some rotting fruit:

Feisty fiery-eyed Fruit Flies!

Feisty fiery-eyed Fruit Flies!

 

The beetles are not to be outdone with this amazing metallic tortoise beetle:

 

Silver Tortoise Beetle

Silver Tortoise Beetle

 

More from the wonderful world of bugs soon! Happy World Environment Day!

 

 

Celebrating Pollinators: Pollinator Conservation Handbook Launched!

Dear All

Many greetings.

Am very pleased to share with you a book featuring and celebrating pollinator diversity in East Africa.

You can download the book through link by clicking on the cover image below:

Our Friends The Pollinators!

Click on image above to go to the page where you can download the book

 

To whet your appetite here’s a sneak preview of some of the pages from the book:

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Pages from 'Our Friends The Pollinators: A Handbook of Pollinator Diversity and Conservation in East Africa'

Pages from ‘Our Friends The Pollinators: A Handbook of Pollinator Diversity and Conservation in East Africa’

You can download the book freely from this link:

http://discoverpollinators.org/pollinators/pollinator-handbook/

Please share this link and enjoy the beauty and wonder of East Africa’s pollinators!

(PS – if you are unable to download it from the link, please send an email to insects.eanhs@gmail.com, and we will send you a soft copy).

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!

Can you spot the interloper?

Dear All

More from my travels in the bush. At a spiny succulent euphorbia in Laikipia the other day I was looking at some Groove-winged Flower Beetles. These are tiny beetles who feed on flowers, often in groups. Here are a couple pictures of the beetles – and what I took to be a happily visiting fly as well. On peering closer I noticed the fly wasn’t really moving even when I accidentally bumped the plant. Then I looked closer (as one always should with insects) and guess who was sitting there !?

Can you spot the interloper in the pictures below?

Groove-winged Flower Beetles and someone else - can you see her?

Groove-winged Flower Beetles and someone else - can you see her?

Here's a closer view - now can you see her?

Here's a closer view - now can you see her?

Yes – this was an amazing flower spider beautifully camouflaged to look just LIKE the  euphorbia flowers!

The flower spider with her lunch!

The flower spider with her lunch!

Even more amazing – the fat yellow one is the female, she is much larger than the male, who rides around on her back – you can see him here – the reddish brown one sitting on her! This difference in sizes is not unusual in spiders where females are typically the big beefy ones and males are tiny and weak…

Close-up: you can see the tiny male sitting on her back!

Close-up: you can see the tiny male sitting on her back!

More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

Life from death…

Life from death…

 

 

As many of you will have read and heard on this site – there’s been a serious drought in Kenya and this has lead to lots of cattle dying. Out here on the plains we finally got some rain, and this means that there is a lot of green grass and wildflowers sprouting everywhere.

 

 

The herds of cattle that have survived (mainly from accessing grazing in the park) can be seen moving around a bit more happily now.

 

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There are also a lot of trees and shrubs flowering at the moment. Many of these are pollinated by flies.

 

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Over the past few days I’ve noticed large numbers of flies visiting these flowers that are fly-pollinated. Species of plants with flowers that are open pollinated by flies tend to have greenish-yellow flowers with a musty scent and nectar.

 

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One of the most abundant fly pollinators is known as the Big-Headed Fly (Lucilia sp.). This fly has a distinctive red head (actually the eyes). And there are literally thousands upon thousands of these flies now pollinating a variety of trees and shrubs on the plains.

 

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The reason for the abundance of fly pollinators is due to the abundance of dead cows.

 

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The flies lay their eggs in the carcasses where their larvae, the maggots, develop. In the process the flies help clean up the carcasses as they speed up their decomposition and break-down, and this also results in lots of flies to act as pollinators and as food for other creatures.

 

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On the same bush the flies are pollinating I found this smug-looking little reed frog. Hmmm – I wonder why he looks so satisfied?

 

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It is not only the flies that are benefitting from the surfeit of food. Several beetles that also visit flowers, like the lovely Rose Chafer shown below, breed in the deep piles of cow manure.

 

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So from death and waste comes life again – thanks to the efficient re-cycling of Mother Nature! More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

Primeval bugs…

Hello – many thanks to Dana and Uwe for the kind comments.Here are a couple of insects from one of the most amazing habitats in East Africa – the alkaline lakes in the Rift Valley. These lakes are fed by volcanic activity and steamy, alkaline pools that support large flocks of flamingoes. But it is not only flamingoes that these lakes support. If you look closely at the edges of the water where a salty crust has formed, you will see lots of insects running about. They need to keep moving as it is so hot and alkaline they constantly need to avoid either being cooked or dessicated. The brine flies breed on decaying matter at the edges and the tiger beetles, are aptly-named, the little ‘tigers’ who are the major predators of the water’s edge. It was interesting to see the female tiger beetles have to hunt as they carry the males around on their backs. The males are mate guarding – preventing the female from being hijacked by another male. They do this by holding on to her with their sharp mandibles!More from the world of bugs soon…lake_bogoria-lr1.jpglake_nakuru-lr1.jpgbrine-tigerbeetle-lr1.jpgcincinellids-nakuru-lr1.jpgbrine_fly-nakuru-lr1.jpg

And more pollinator diversity…

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Cool Click Beetle…

Hello – on the road here – but thought I’d share these photos of a very cool beetle. This is a Click Beetle, who is named for the sharp clicking noise they make by snapping their wing-cases against their thorax (mid-section). It is meant to alarm and scare off any would be predators. This lovely chap was photographed at Kakamega Forest – the incredible comb-like antennae enable them to locate members of the opposite sex…More soon!elateridae-kakamega-lr1.jpgelateridae-kakamegalr2.jpg

More cute dung beetles…

Not so long ago on one of my early morning walks across the plains I came across a dung beetle sunning itself on the path. He was very obliging and allowed me to inspect him closely from a variety of angles. He also posed very smartly when I pulled out the camera and clicked away. Here are his very fashionable portrait shots. I’m sure that you will agree that he is very handsome. Dung beetles are beautiful from all angles! A few minutes later I found another beetle already hard at work at a fresh cowpat. Well the early ‘bird’… as they say! Thanks to Will and Faye for your kind comments, more soon… dung-beetle-sqlr3.jpgdung-beetle-sqlr1.jpgdung-beetle-sqlr2.jpgdung-beetle-hlr1.jpg 

More on dung beetles

Hello – Many thanks to Faye and Paula for your kind comments. This post is in response to the question about dung beetle’s and why they have such fantastic ornaments on their heads. Firstly, much of the head structure serves a very practical purpose – the toothed, curved edges serve as an effective shovel with which to push under, burrow through and even help loosen dung for scooping up with those remarkable front legs.

 

In some species, the males have some elaborate horns and other structures on the heads. These are used to impress would-be females, as well as to fend off the competition: i.e. other males intent on stealing a hard-won ball of dung after a hard day’s work of packing it together and rolling it along. The horns also help the male of species where he is made to stand guard by the female in the tunnel that leads to the chamber where they raise their offspring. What’s even more amazing is in some cases the male dung beetles have to make rather awkward trade-offs. Basically, the larger and more elaborate their horns, the smaller and more useless their eyes! Imagine having to ‘choose’ between being able to see or looking sexy for your mate!

 

To most people, the toiling dung beetle, diligently rolling its ball of dung across the path, struggling over rocks and through clumps of grass, represents a hard-working insect, to be admired for its ‘Protestant’ work ethic.

 

Human cultures through history have noticed the dung beetle. The most devoted of the dung beetles fans were without question the ancient Egyptians. The scarab (dung beetle), seen rolling its ball across the ground, burying it, and coming back to life, was interpreted as a symbolic of the ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ of the sun each day. Therefore, just as the scarab returned each day with the ball of dung, the scarab-god Khepri, rolled the sun across the heavens during the day, buried it in the evening and dragged it out again at dawn the next day. Since the scarab and the sun both emerged from the ground after being buried, this belief is also thought to have influenced the construction of the pyramids, from whose entombing depths, the deceased could also resurrect. The dung beetle continues to be honoured today by the scarab epithet in that their beetle family is known as the Scarabaeidae and an entire genus bears the name Kheper.

 

The rolling of dung, however symbolic, is just the beginning of many a dung beetle’s labours. Dung beetles, converging on a fresh pat of dung, have different approaches and life-cycles. Dung rollers, those who actually make balls and roll them away, are one group. Others excavate tunnels beneath or next to the fresh dung and roll dung into them. Yet others, tiny and often overlooked, simply feed and breed in the pile of dung.

 

Within each group of dung beetles, the roller-aways, tunnel-beneaths or stay-putters, different and complex behaviours have evolved. Those species who tunnel under the dung often work in pairs. The males, armed with horns, as in the genus Copris, stand guard in the tunnel. They do this to block other males and potential dung-thieves from harassing the female who is busy beneath, preparing the dung for egg-laying. Species that simply breed in the dung are tiny, known as dung chafers, and develop rapidly. Some of them also use dung stashed by other beetles to breed in.

 

More honest and hardworking, are the rollers. The efforts devoted to roll the dung away from the source are primarily aimed at limiting competition. It is usually the males who converge and make the balls. Using their specially-adapted forelegs, armed with special ‘teeth’, they deftly and quickly sculpt the fresh dung into a sphere. Amazingly, the same fore-legs serve both as industrious spades and fine sculpting tools.

 

Access to fresh dung is crucial for dung rollers. And the competition can be stiff. Watching a group of dung beetles on fresh buffalo dung in Nairobi National Park, some time ago, I learnt just how determined dung beetles can be:

 

A herd of buffalo have just passed through. Marking their passage, in large, fresh steaming pats, are piles of dung. Within minutes, the dung beetles arrive. There are at least five different species, some tiny, commonly known as dung chafers, one small but bright green and typical blackish rollers – Scarabaeus.

 

The rollers settle down to work and soon there are several nice round balls ready. The males are the ones who sculpt the balls in this species- the first ball made is the nuptial ball. A female approaches him and he immediately tries to copulate. He is rejected at once and put to work. The male now grasps the ball with his elongate hindlegs, and head pointed down, begins to push. The female, perched on top of the ball, rides piggy-back. Struggling over exposed roots and around stones, the male furiously rolls the ball of dung away from the pile. It is essential to get away from the madding crowd, and would-be competitors, as quickly as possible.

 

Just as he gets the dung-ball and the female to the edge of a clump of grass, another male spots them. The interloper speeds towards the rolling pair. Her grabs the ball and tries to climb on. The first male, sensing the presence of a challenger, stops rolling and climbs on to the ball. The interloper grasps the ball hard and pushes himself under the ball’s creator. The fight begins. Using their hard, toothed heads, the two tussle and attempt to push each other off the ball. Meanwhile the female remains calmly seated on the side of the ball, she even takes a small nibble while the males tussle.

 

Back and forth the ball rocks as the two males ‘lock horns’. After half a minute of wrestling, the interloper has been forced onto the side of the ball. Distracted perhaps by the female, he raises his head slightly. The other male seizes the moment and thrusts his armoured head underneath his opponent. With a quick powerful flick, he tosses the interloper from the ball. The interloper lands on his back and waves his legs trying to right himself.

 

The victor gloats, standing atop his ball and surveying the area, as if to say “ would anyone else like to take me on!” The ball meanwhile, has been damaged in the tussle and the male quickly repairs it, gently combing the dung back into place. The female stays put through all of this. They resume their journey. He pushes and pushes, and finally the ball comes up against a twig (mischievously placed by yours truly) across their path. How will they overcome this obstacle, the dung beetle equivalent of a fallen tree blocking a road, I wonder?

 

The edge of the ball comes to rest against the twig. The male, unaware of the obstacle, continues pushing. He tries for a couple of minutes then realising that they are going nowhere pauses. He shuffles sideways and tries again, he manages to move the ball about an inch, but then it wedges fast. I watch with some guilt, as he pushes again, from another angle, to no avail.

 

Just as I reach down to move the twig, the female dismounts. She positions herself next to the male and with an antennal twitch to egg him on, begins pushing. Their combined efforts easily roll the ball over the twig. They pause, the male takes a moment to scan the area. The female climbs back on and they carry on with their journey. A snort in the near-distance reminds me that I should not become too absorbed in the dung beetles. I look up. It’s just a warthog. Phew! I look back down, the beetles and their dung ball have rolled off into the grass.

 

The dung beetles will take their ball into a specially excavated burrow. Here the business of egg-laying and brood rearing will take place. Depending on the species, the male is expelled, made to stand guard in the tunnel, or allowed to watch- sometimes he helps. The female meanwhile prepares the balls. This involves coating the balls with so
il and layers of semi-liquid faeces. This is essential to keep the fermentation in the dung going.

 

After a number of days, when the dung is well-ripened, she breaks off pieces and sculpts ‘brood balls’ from these. Within each an egg is laid and then covered up. For the next weeks or even months, she remains on her brood balls. Endlessly licking and cleaning them, removing larval wastes. Without this attention the larvae would soon succumb to attack by mould and bacteria. In some species the eggs and larvae are left to their own devices, but in this case they are carefully tended and have high survival rate. They are also fewer in number- 1-2 or 2-4, given the greater investment in survival. Species who don’t tend their young lay many more eggs to increase their chances of survival.

 

The actions of dung beetles burying dung do more than just provide food and secure new generations of dung beetles. In habitats typified by large herbivores, were the dung not removed from the surface, it would accumulate to unhealthy levels. Dung that is buried breaks down faster than that on the surface, as any composting gardener can tell you.

 

An example of the subtle ways that dung beetles shaped habitats comes from western Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable forest. Forest-dwelling primates, including chimps, are primarily fruit-eaters (frugivores). Their dung, correspondingly, is often laden with the seeds of fruiting trees. As they travel through the forest, they disperse the seeds far and wide. However, most seeds land on the forest floor and are soon gobbled up by rodents.

 

This is where the dung beetle comes in. Certain dung beetles in Bwindi, and throughout tropical African forests, specialise in frugivore dung. They quickly locate and bury fresh, seed-filled dung. As a result, the primate-dispersed and softened seeds are safely planted, away from scrounging rodents, at just the right depth. For some large-seeded tree species, including Monodora myristica, the survival/germination rate is many-fold higher when buried by dung beetles. Monodora, a member of the Annonaceae, is pollinated by beetles. Therefore, this tree relies on beetles for both producing and planting it fruit!

 

Dung beetles, like so many other insects, play an essential and integral role in the continued health of ecosytems, as well as human ranching and pastoralism, across the world. They provide an efficient (and free!) waste-disposal service. The species that engage in elaborate brooding behaviour and care for their young represent a highly evolved system. They help keep habitats healthy and indirectly, us too! Think of the many roles filled by their singular task when you next spot one rolling its ball down the road!

Below are a couple of sketches showing the life-cycle of a typical dung beetle in East Africa. And a chimp feasting on a juicy fig – little does he know that his meal is thanks in part to the humble dung beetle!

  

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