Category Archives: Culture

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.

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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.

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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!

Thank you for the mangoes!

Dear All – here are some pictures to share of some very important and yet overlooked insects. Mangoes are one of the most delicious and widely grown tropical fruits. In Kenya we are very lucky to have lots of mangoes available at the moment – absolutely luscious and so tasty. As we all enjoy our mangoes, perhaps we don’t spare much thought about how the mangoes came into being…

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On a recent visit to a farm in Western Kenya, the mango trees were flowering and the flowers were being visited by a wide range of pollinators. Without these hard-working insects there would be no mangoes to eat.

Here is a detailed view of a mango flower and a recently pollinated one with a very young fruit next to it:

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Here are some of the pollinators of the mango flowers – they include flies, wasps, tiny bees and ants!

Blue-bottle fly pollinating mango flower

Blue-bottle fly pollinating mango flower

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There were lots of different flies on the mango flowers

There were lots of different flies on the mango flowers

Another tiny fly on the mango flowers

Another tiny fly on the mango flowers

There were a few wasps and bees around too:

This is a tiny singless bee - very important group of pollinators

This is a tiny singless bee - very important group of pollinators

An unidentified wasp on the flowers

An unidentified wasp on the flowers

Even ants were working on the flowers:

Busy ants on the mango flowers

Busy ants on the mango flowers

The farmers in this area have a lot to be grateful for towards the wonderful diversity of insect pollinators who ensure that there are lots of yummy mangoes to harvest! More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

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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

Happy bees in northern Kenya!

Dear All – thanks for the kind comments. The rains we have had in Kenya have meant that a lot of bees are out and about pollinating. On a recent visit to Mt Nyiru, I managed to photograph some very interesting bees visiting the flowers of a succulent tree euphorbia…

Here are some of the pictures. More from the world of bugs soon!

This is a tiny stingless bee - these bees are very important pollinators in the forests and drylands of Africa

This is a tiny stingless bee - these bees are very important pollinators in the forests and drylands of Africa

A solitary wild bee species approaching the euphorbia flowers

A solitary wild bee species approaching the euphorbia flowers

A happy honeybee combing pollen into its fully-loaded pollen baskets!

A happy honeybee combing pollen into its fully-loaded pollen baskets!

Hawkmoth heaven!

With recent rains on the plains, the bush has sprung back to life and there are flowers and insects everywhere. On a recent evening walk I noticed a lot of hawkmoths whirring about a flowering Turraea bush. They were feeding on the nectar with their long tongues – the proboscis – which can be uncoiled and is used like a long flexible straw by the hawkmoths.

Here is a video of them in action – it was a real fluke to get this as they fly very fast and only feed for a short time just around and after sunset!

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/WyA1GnNqnd4" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Hawkmoths are fast-flying, long-lived and feed actively from many different kinds of flowers, a fair number of which they alone can pollinate.

Some 260 different species of hawkmoths are found across Africa. About two-thirds of these occur in East Africa, and a hundred species have been recorded in Kenya alone. Despite this relatively high diversity, little is known about their actual role as pollinators and especially as specialised pollinators of highly-adapted plants.

Convolvulus hawkmoth visiting the Turraea bush

Convolvulus hawkmoth visiting the Turraea bush

On a many-flowered shrub, like the Turraea, not all the flowers contain nectar. Even the ones with nectar, have only small quantities. This forces the feeding hawkmoth to move from flower to flower, plant to plant in search of adequate sustenance.

Watching for hawkmoths is a study in patience with brief interludes of intense excitement as I found out when watching these remarkable creatures in action.

Common Nephele hawkmoth pollinating Turraea

Common Nephele hawkmoth pollinating Turraea

Hawkmoths feeding from flowers give us a glimpse (literally!) of the long, complex evolutionary processes that shape our living world. The incredible adaptations of specialised flowers to their hawkmoth pollinators are some of the most amazing examples and evidence of co-evolution. If ever you find yourself near fragrant flowers at dusk keep an eye out for these swift, elusive phantoms!

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.

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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!

Ant nanny!

Dear All – Thanks for the kind comments and sparing a moment to consider the world of insects.

 

Here is a another snippet from the rainforest. Climbed a hill on Christmas day so that I could telephone friends and family and wish them well. On the way down I noticed large black ants clambering about the stems of some grasses. As I brushed past them, they did not scurry away as most ants do.

 

I peered closer to one of them to see what they were up to. I flicked the grass with my fingers, and still the ant stood her ground. Then I noticed that she was standing guard over a small ‘herd’ of scale insects.

 

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In a set-up similar to humans herding cattle and other livestock, many different kinds of ants lovingly tend scale insects, aphids and other plant-feeding bugs. In return the ants get to milk their charges for honeydew. The bugs get a veritable army of protectors, and in some cases even get carried around by their ant nannies!

 

The Ruby and the Sapphire…

Dear All, 

Hello – greetings from the rainforest. I was very lucky to spend the xmas holidays in the Kakamega forest in Western Kenya. After a dry spell, the rains arrived with a vengeance and it rained and rained and rained. This was simply wonderful and I truly hope that it heralds a good year ahead.

 

Thanks to the rain the bugs in the rainforest were incredible. Day before yesterday I took a long hike through the forest towards the Yala river.

 

In one section of primary forest by a stream I noticed a flash of pure angry red zipping by. A few seconds later it returned and settled on a leaf. To my utter amazement and joy it was a Ruby Jewel (aka the Uganda Red Jewel)!

 

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This is one of our less-common damselflies and has only been spotted a handful of times in Western Kenya. It was cooperative enough to let me take a few pictures, including of its flicking its abdomen in a sun-spot to woo females.

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Unlike me, they seemed to be totally unimpressed by his efforts as none showed up during the entire time I spent watching him.

 

Later in the day yesterday, walking by myself along another stream I noticed a blur of incandescent neon blue-green. It floated by, darting in and out of the shadows. I followed it, hoping that it would settle. After several minutes of searching, it seemed to have vanished and I gave up. I returned to look at the bees on some flowers, soon losing myself in a daydream… then looking up I saw that the apparition was sitting right in front of me on a leaf, watching me with its beady black eyes!

 

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This was another of the most beautiful of damselflies – called the Sapphire. It is simply one of the most amazing sights to see – a smouldering neon flame flashing in the dappled sunlight. Again, this fellow cooperated and I managed to get some pictures.

 

This rainforest, Kakamega Forest in Western Kenya, was once mined for gold and searched for precious stones. However, I think that you will agree with me that the forest and her damselfly children are the true jewels of the this beautiful place.

 

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

Happy bees…

Dear All

 

Greetings from Western Kenya and many thanks to Rebecca and Dana for the kind comments. I feel very honoured that there are people out there who read this blog and care about the little creatures of the world! Just back from the Nandi Hills, and was in the Kerio Valley and West Pokot before that (more on that amazing trip soon).

Here are some pictures of honeybees and other insects visiting flowers at the edge of the forest in the Nandi Hills.

The honeybees were busy frantically gathering pollen and nectar from virtually every flower in sight. There has been some more rain in Western Kenya and it is good to see the bees and flowers are happy and healthy after the long drought!

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There were also a few butterflies around, including this lovely orange Acraea visiting the flowers. Despite it’s fragile appearance, this butterfly is rarely bothered by predators thanks to its toxic nature advertised with the bright warning colours!

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I also found some tiny bees sitting inside the hearts of the Thunbergia flowers – (also called Black-eyed Susans) – they seemed to spend most of their time day-dreaming inside the flower, unlike the honeybees who were working tirelessly. I guess that if you are a bee needing a nap, the inside of a flower is the perfect place to take one!

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More from the world of bugs soon!

A fungus with eyes!

The Fungus with ‘eyes’….

 

A couple of weeks ago in northern Kenya I was out in the bush one morning poking through a pile of rhino dung. Black rhinos deposit their dung in large middens at regular intervals. This serves as an olfactory calling card to other rhinos in the area. It is also a magnet for many kinds of insects such as dung-flies and dung-beetles.

 

As I stood by the midden watching the coming and going of insects, I kept feeling something wet and sticky landing on me. I peered up into the branches of the fever trees above, but there were no culprits there.

 

I resumed watching the insects, and as I moved, the bombardment of wet globs grew ever more intense. Puzzled I looked around and then realised that it was coming FROM THE DUNG!

 

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Peering close revealed the source of the drops. It was one of the most remarkable organisms on the planet – called Pilobolus. This is a kind of dung-fungus, which has the most bizarre and amazing strategy for dispersing itself.

 

The head of the reproductive structure – which includes the clear glass-like ball in the pictures below, uses the light as it swells to ‘focus’ just like a lens and point towards the light. This makes it function similar to that of our own eyes.

 

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Eventually the pressure builds and the black spore mass (called the sporangiophore) is shot out at a fantastic speed. Even though all this action is taking place on a minute scale, the force with which the spore mass is ejected is one of the fastest movements in nature.

 

This action projects the spores onto the surrounding vegetation and even flies and other insects on the dung. This helps the fungus to disperse more widely. The spore mass that lands on vegetation is consumed by another browsing or grazing large mammal and dispersed in its dung, and the cycle continues. Even standing 2-3 metres from the dung midden I was still getting hit by the spore mass projectiles! This is an incredible feat given how tiny the fungus is – it would be like us jumping over 200 times our own height.

 

You can see some of the flies that were landing on the rhino dung around the fungus in this picture:

 

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This phenomenon has been studied by scientists and even filmed using high-speed cameras. You can watch the projection of the fungus as it explodes the spore mass out in the video below made by scientists:

 

 [kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.youtube.com/v/TrKJAojmB1Y” width=”425″ height=”350″ wmode=”transparent” /]