Category Archives: Butterflies

More clever bees!

More from the lush, flowering bush of Laikipia.

In this particular flower, that I photographed the Amegilla bee on, the flowers are clustered along the stems of the plant, and have an interesting shape – tubular with a slight kink in the tube that is formed by the petals. This design is in place no doubt to limit any would-be nectar robbers. Flowers often go to great (if subtle) lengths to make sure that only legitimate pollinators access the precious nectar that they secrete as a reward.

The kink in the tube is dealt with by gripping the flower, holding on and causing it to bend down. This results in the flower straightening out a bit and allows the bee to access the nectar.

Here are some amazing (and lucky) pictures that show this sequence.

First the bee approaches the flower and hovers before it for a second.

Bee approaching the flower

Bee approaching the flower

Then it lands and grabs the flower.

The bee grabs the flower

The bee grabs the flower

Now the weight of the bee holding on to the flower makes it dip. This straightens the floral tube just enough for the bee to push it’s tongue into the flower and grab a sip of nectar.

The flower is pulled down...

The flower is pulled down...

Then it takes off for the next blossom and does this all over again. The entire visit to single flower takes just 1-2 seconds!

Amegilla-Suyian-LR3

Other insects were also visiting the flowers. The butterflies solved the challenge of the bent tube with their flexible proboscis. This enables them to reach the nectar.

A Pale Ranger butterfly...

A Pale Ranger butterfly...

And this large and handsome Tabanid Fly employs a similar tactic to the bees – he pulls the flower down and reaches into it with his long, stiff proboscis.

Tabanid fly at the flowers

Tabanid fly at the flowers

More from the world of bugs soon! Thanks to everyone for the kind comments.

Flowering Tsavo!

Flowering Tsavo

Hello – have just been visiting Tsavo. We were based at Camp Tsavo (which used to be called the Taita Discovery Centre). It is an amazing location – a former cattle ranch nestled between Tsavo East and Mt Kasigau. It is a fantastic place to be based for anyone wanting to explore a more remote corner of the Tsavo ecosystem – and the added bonus is the cloud forest on Mt Kasigau, which is one of the most remote and beautiful forested massifs of Kenya.

To learn more about Camp Tsavo – you can visit their website here:

http://www.campsinternational.com/gap/tsavo-camp.php

Just after we arrived, we had an interesting visitor come to greet us at the dinner table! She was very friendly…

Visitor to the dinner table at Camp Tsavo!

Visitor to the dinner table at Camp Tsavo!

The entire place was a green as I have ever seen it. A most interesting phenomenon was the carpets of Ipomoea (morning glory flowers) that literally covered everything – bushes, trees and the ground. From a distance in some places it looked like it had snowed. Below are some photos taken by my friend, Wenfei Tong, of the flowers.

giraffe-ipomoeaLR1

Carpets of Ipomoea flowers everywhere!

Carpets of Ipomoea flowers everywhere!

Of course with the rains there were lots and lots of bugs about. We found this stately old gentleman ambling across the road – he is an Armoured Ground Cricket – insects that only appear for a few weeks after it rains.

Armoured ground cricket

Armoured ground cricket

There were lots of butterflies around too. This flock of Pea Blues were busy sipping juices from some fresh lion dung!

Mmmmm - yummy dung!

Mmmmm - yummy dung!

There were a lot of Emperor Butterflies about too – here a tiny blue butterfly is using one as a perch!

"I don't want to get my feet dirty..."

"I don't want to get my feet dirty..."

Other butterflies around included this orange and black ‘Joker’, and lots of whites and yellows – who were all busy mud-puddling.

joker-dungLR1

All over the world, especially in the tropics, butterflies gather daily to ‘mud-puddle’ as it is called, at the edges of savannah and forest pools, rivers, streams or even at damp patches on roads where a passing cow or buffalo has urinated.

They are thirsty and come to quench their thirst in the tropical midday heat. But their real thirst is not just for water or moisture. What they are really after are salts and other nutrients that seep from the earth. As the water evaporates and moves through the sand, pebbles, clay or mud, it carries with it a whole range of dissolved salts and suspended nutrients – minerals and the like from the soil.

Fresh, wet elephant dung - it doesn't get any better!

Fresh, wet elephant dung - it doesn't get any better!

Salt – yes, the plain old sodium chloride (NaCl) we so love to sprinkle on our fish and chips, and add excessively to food of every kind, is something of a rare commodity in nature. Plant material, especially in areas of high rainfall is relatively low in these essential salts, mainly sodium. Herbivores, therefore, need to seek out salts from other sources. In order to obtain enough of this essential nutrient they resort to range of strategies.

The need for salt applies equally to all leaf-eating creatures, both large and small. Butterflies do most of their feeding and growing on leaves as caterpillars. The same leaves that browsing mammals eat and then crave salt. The adult butterflies gather at puddles and streamsides, and at less savoury locations too, to sip the salts dissolved and slightly concentrated in water as it evaporates from the surface of the soil.

It seems pretty straightforward – gather and mud-puddle and get your dose of salt. But with insects nothing is ever so simple. Even something as ordinary as salt has become a cunning card when played by the hand of evolution.

Looking really, really carefully at the butterflies that come and gather to mud-puddle and sip salts, one notices several interesting patterns. Firstly, only males come to mud-puddle. Males of many different species gather and shuffle, jostling for space on the best spots. Since females rarely if ever gather at damp patches – how then do they obtain their much-needed salts?

The answer, of course, is from the males. Mud-puddling out in the open is risky business. Even in a crowd you’re still exposed to dangers from above and below – ravenous ants, insectivorous birds and jumping spiders to name just a few. But male butterflies, despite all the risks, still gather at damp patches in large numbers.

The reason behind this is that without the extra salts and nutrients, they stand little chance of mating and passing on their genes. Natural selection works through an interplay of invisible pressures and forces and pure chance that leads to one behaviour, trait or gene being slightly favoured over others in the endless gamble of life.

When most moths and butterflies mate, the male passes the female a special package known as a spermatophore. This sac, a nuptial gift, contains in addition to his sperm, a whole range of precious substances. The contents of the spermatophore depend on the species of butterfly involved and how much or how little time the male spent mud-puddling or feeding from dung and other such delicious, nutrient-rich substances.

More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

Long-legged Fly!

Dear All – thanks for your kind comments and continued interest in insects.

Have been in the rainforest for a couple of days. On one of the trails I spotted this amazing Long-legged fly patrolling a leafy lane. These flies are predators who hunt other small insects on the wing in the forest…

Long-legged fly in Kakamega Forest

Long-legged fly in Kakamega Forest

There were lots of butterflies about – the rains have been wonderful for the forest which is green and full of life. One of the most interesting butterflies I saw was the Clearwing Acraea (Acraea semivitrea) – as the name suggests, you can actually see right through the wings – they have fine ‘glass’ like windows in them which glint silvery in the sunshine. These clear patches are areas of wing that don’t have any scales or pigmentation on them, just the thin wing material

Clear-wing Acraea

Clear-wing Acraea

Also flitting along the forest paths were a number of African Map butterflies – who have what must be one of the most delicate wing patterns on an insect. More from the world of bugs soon!

African Map Butterfly

African Map Butterfly

Butterfly duos and trios (and more!)

Dear All

Greetings from the sunny plains and bush of Laikipia – have been working here on insects for a week. There were a couple days of heavy unseasonal rains here (it is supposed to be the middle of the dry season, whatever that means anymore), and it seems to have produced an outburst of butterflies everywhere. There are lots of pierids and swallowtails and a few lycaenids mud-puddling at every stream edge. Attached are a couple of pictures of the frenetic activity. They all seemed to be feeding in twos and threes which made for some interesting photographs.

Citrus swallowtail butterflies sipping salts and posing!

Citrus swallowtail butterflies sipping salts and posing!

As I was photographing the butterflies, I was started by a loud snort and on looking up spotted a pair of klipspringer in a tree. These remarkable antelope have hooves that allow them to clamber at will up rocky faces and they live exclusively on rocky outcrops. At first I thought that I was the cause for alarm, and continued watching and photographing the butterflies.

klipspringer-duo-LR1

However, the klipspringer kept up their racket and I looked back up and noticed that they were staring at something in the bush just beyond me. I will let you spot the interloper in the last picture (hint: look for the spotted form)… He paid me no heed and slunk off in a huff, probably I had interrupted his midday nap in the shade by the stream…

More from the world of bugs soon! Thanks to everyone for the kind comments…

The klipspringer were watching the leopard watching me!

The klipspringer were watching the leopard watching me!

Pollinators hard at work!

Pollinators hard at work!

 

“One in three bites of food can be attributed to a pollinator”. This statement is often quoted by biologists around the world when talking about pollinators and their importance to our lives.

 

In Africa pollinators are primarily wild insects that travel between farms and natural habitat, and are extremely vulnerable to habitat loss and destruction.

 

Pollinators intimately link wild species with basic human livelihoods. The relationships between insects and flowers are at once ancient, beautifully intricate and correspondingly fragile.

 

These intricate and essential links between wild species, natural areas and food production were beautifully evident on a recent visit I paid to a farmer in Western Kenya. Lucy Murira grows a wide range of vegetables and fruits for her family. Her farm is located in the Nandi Hills nestled between tea plantations and forest patches. It is these forest patches that provide the pollinators for Lucy’s crops. Below is a short video showing some of the crops and pollinators on Lucy’s farm. (Please forgive the sloppiness of this video – it is my first attempt at doing this!)

 

 [kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.youtube.com/v/xIv6KJCmxEk” width=”425″ height=”350″ wmode=”transparent” /]

 

As mentioned in the video, one of the important and nutritious crops growing on this farm is ‘Njahe’ a local variety of blackbean. It is a verdant climber with lovely pinky-lilac flowers.

 

 njahe-blackbean-lr1.jpg

 

 

The main pollinators of the blackbean here appear to be wild bees, including these lovely, robust and fast-flying carpenter bees.

 

xylocopa-njahe-lr1.jpg 

 

 

Without the pollinating visits of these hardworking bees, there would be no pods to harvest.

 

 njahe-blackbean-lr2.jpg

 

 

One of the other crops growing here that benefits from pollination is the butterbean. As Lucy says, these are really yummy (in fact one of my favourites!). Skipper butterflies and bees were pollinating the butterbeans on this farm. All of them need the patches of forest to survive.

 

 butterbean-flowers-lr1.jpg

butterbean-pod-lr1.jpg

 

Pollinators need a clean, safe and pesticide-free environment to survive. Lucy’s farm is filled with a huge number of different pollinating insects. Not only were pollinating insects thriving on the farm, we even found this little reed frog dozing among the tendrils of the butterbeans!

 

hyperolius-butterbean-lr1.jpg 

 

 

More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

 

Hints of life…

Dear All, thanks for your comments and interest in the world of bugs. Was just down in the Rift Valley at Olorgesailie where it is still so dry, dry, dry. Found one tiny bedraggled Grewia bush in flower, with a couple of tiny lycaenids and an interesting day-flying moth visiting the flowers…lycaenid-olorgeasailie-lr11.jpgmoth-grewia-lr1.jpg

Happy little Buffs…

Hello!

 

Sorry for not posting more often – have been really busy chasing after bugs now that the rains have started and they are popping out all over the place!

 

Many, many thanks to everyone for their kind comments on the blog post ‘Ants in the dust’. I will try and post a link to the BBC piece on it when I can figure out the technical side of it today or tomorrow.

 

A couple of days ago in a tiny forest fragment near Nairobi I spotted these little beauties whirling about some buds. From a distance they looked like tiny little orange flames dancing in the dappled light. On taking a closer look I saw that they were tiny orange and brown lycaenid butterflies.

 

 baliochila-lr2.jpg

 

 

 

Known as ‘Buffs’, these tiny jewels are part of a large and diverse group of butterflies in the family Lycaenidae. This species is Baliochila fragilis – an apt name for their delicate build. The caterpillars of these butterflies feed on lichens, often high up in the forest trees, so it was interesting to find them hovering about near the ground.

 

Looking closely at the butterflies perching on the buds of the Chlorophytum, I noticed that there were a lot of ants running up and down the buds too. And then I noticed that the butterflies had their tiny proboscis unfurled and were feeding from in between the young buds. These buds secrete extra-floral nectar which is intended to attract ants that then patrol the buds and protect them from would-be nibblers of the insect-kind. However, as the butterflies posed no threat the flowers, the ants seemed to tolerate them.

 

baliochila-lr1.jpg 

 

 

In fact, the butterflies were so relaxed that quite a few of the males were courting the females. The pair in the video clip below show the typical interaction. The male sidles up to the female. She rejects him with a flick of her wings and moves on trying to keep feeding. He follows her and flicks his own wings at her trying to win her over… She rejects him and keeps on moving… the cycle is repeated over and over again. I guess eventually some of the most perseverant males win one of the females over!

 

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.youtube.com/v/Az_bNs8cewg” width=”425″ height=”350″ wmode=”transparent” /]

 

 

More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

 

More butterfly eyes!

Dear AllSorry for not posting more – have been travelling – lots to share, just working on getting it all sorted. In the mean time here are some more close-ups of butterfly eyes – enjoy – the Emperor Butterflies below are particularly striking! The first one is a close-up of the Green-Veined Emperor, and the second is of a Black-and-White Charaxes. These are both fast-flying denizens that sweep through the forest canopy at high speeds and rarely venture down close to us mere mortals unless drawn by the scent of some rotting fruit or something even more appetizing like carrion!charaxes_candiope-lr11.jpgcharaxes_brutus-lr11.jpgcharaxes_brutus-lr2.jpg

Butterfly eyes…

Dear All, thanks for your kind comments about the Butterflion. If you are in Nairobi please go and visit him at the Sarit Centre outside the Text Book Centre. Here are some close-up pictures of butterflies that I took over the last couple of days. The pictures show their amazing compound eyes and mouthparts – which consist of a long tubular proboscis. More soon – enjoy the weekend!calotropis-eyes-lr1.jpgdardanus-close-uplr2.jpgdardanus-close-uplr1.jpgjunonia-close-uplr1.jpg 

‘Robber’ attacks the Butterflion

As I was putting the final touches to the Butterflion a few days ago before he was picked up by the people from Born Free, I noticed that there was a strange fellow hanging around the lion’s painted mane.

 

butteflion-manelr1.jpg 

 

He swished back and forth in a very suspicious manner. I decided to stand as still as possible and watch to see who this interloper was. After several tense seconds, he showed himself, pouncing on one of the butterflies painted on the lion’s mane!

 robber-fly-butterflionlr2.jpg

 

Stunned, as this butterfly was not a juicy piece of prey but a layer of acrylic pigment on some rather hard fibre-glass, the attacker sat there and obligingly let me take his picture. This is a Robber-Fly, a common predatory insect that often seizes butterflies from the air and when they perch. However, this time he was fooled!

 robber-fly-butterflionlr1.jpg

 

 

More soon – the launch of the lions takes place tomorrow morning and I will be there. Many thanks to everyone for their kind comments especially Dana, Christine, Tonee and Sheryl.