Category Archives: Ecology

Buzz! Buzz! Bees make eggplants…

Dear All

Many greetings. I have been up in the hot and dusty reaches of Turkana in northern Kenya. Most people only hear about this region as a place of drought and suffering. Turkana is also a beautiful, biodiversity-rich and potentially productive place…

Field of eggplant and Doum Palms in Turkana

Field of eggplant and Doum Palms in Turkana

I recently visited a pilot farming project in a remote area south of the Turkwel River. This is where the Turkana Basin Institute has been established through the efforts of Dr Leakey and Stony Brook University. Ikal Angelei is an amazing young woman who is involved in many different things related to the environment, human rights and development in the region. Ikal is working with a local women’s group using simple and sustainable irrigation to grow and produce food.

Ikal and freshly picked eggplants from the pilot farm

Ikal and freshly picked eggplants from the pilot farm

One of the crops grown up here is the eggplant or aubergine (Solanum melongena). Eggplants have beautiful pale-purple flowers with fused yellow anthers…

Eggplant is an interesting species in that the flowers require a very special kind of pollination in order to set fruit and produce a yield. It’s called buzz pollination and this short video tells you more about it:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/vYcMQ2G1R1I" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

There were several different wild bee species visiting and pollinating the flowers. Here are some photos of them:

Solitary wild bee grapples with an eggplant flower

Solitary wild bee grapples with an eggplant flower

Wild Nomia bee bites the flower to 'buzz' the flower and release pollen

Wild Nomia bee bites the flower to 'buzz' the flower and release pollen

While most of the bees visiting the flowers were working hard to release the pollen, a few tiny stingless bees were ‘stealing’ pollen where it had been spilled by the efforts of larger bees. It does seem that even in nature there’s always someone ready to take advantage of others’ hard work!

Stingless bee on an eggplant flower - what is it not doing right?

Stingless bee on an eggplant flower - what is it not doing right?

Here are some photos showing the stingless bees taking advantage:

Nomia and Stingless bees come face to face!

Nomia and Stingless bees come face to face!

Macrogalea bee and a stingless bee lurking...

Macrogalea bee and a stingless bee lurking...

Thanks to the hard work of the bees and women up here in the ‘desert’ there are beautiful eggplants to harvest!

Healthy, nutritious eggplant thanks to the wild bees!

Healthy, nutritious eggplant thanks to the wild bees!

More from the world of bugs soon!

The Spider and the Ant

Dear All – having been weighing and counting ants on the Whistling Thorns for some research work related to my PhD. There are a few alates around – these are the winged reproductive forms of ants… Each colony produces many hundreds, even thousands of alates that take off into the sky as part of a synchronised mating flight. Female alates become future queens, they are larger than the males. Male alates only live for the day of the mating flight – they have one chance to mate. They can never return to their colony once they depart. All of them will die within a day of departing on the mating flight…

Here is an illustration of the alates of the three common ant species on the Whistling Thorn trees in East Africa:

Alates - winged queens and males of the Whistling Thorn ants

Alates - winged queens and males of the Whistling Thorn ants (the black bar is for scale - it represents 1 cm or 1o mm)

Most of the them don’t make it and end up as food for birds, other ants and spiders.

I found this Jumping Spider eating a freshly captured young foundress queen…

Jumping Spider with Acacia-ant alate (winged queen)

Jumping Spider with Acacia-ant alate (winged queen)

The spider lives among the ants and dodges them by constantly keeping on the move, occasionally nabbing one of the hapless ants for a snack! Jumping Spiders are ambush predators that use their athletic skills and fantastic vision to capture prey. They have more than two pairs of eyes (in fact 4 pairs in total, with two pairs facing forward that are very well developed…)

How many eyes can you see on the spider?

How many eyes can you see on the spider?

Serengeti Insects (and yoga!)

Dear All

Hello – many thanks for the kind comments. I am just back in Kenya after 10 amazing days in the Grumeti Reserve in Serengeti. I was training guides and exploring the insect life in the area with them…

Thanks to the rains, the Serengeti Plains were a sea of rippling green-and-gold, with the grass as high as an elephant’s eye (literally!)…

Beautiful grass after the rains

Beautiful grass after the rains

We spent time learning some of the common butterflies, like this striking Round-winged Orange tip. There were lots of butterflies around thanks to the lovely rains that had brought the Gutenbergia into flower. Here are just a few of the hundreds that we saw visiting the purple flowers…

Round-winged Orange Tip Butterfly

Round-winged Orange Tip Butterfly

African Golden Arab Butterfly

African Golden Arab Butterfly

One of the most interesting butterflies that we saw was a small, shy creature who darted about like a nervous spirit. She finally settled down and I managed to snap this picture of this very intriguing butterfly, a type of Skipper called the Netted Sylph…

The enigmatic and aptly-named Netted Sylph

The enigmatic and aptly-named Netted Sylph

The gorgeous Zebra Butterfly

The gorgeous Zebra Butterfly

Edward meets a Female African Mocker Swallowtail

Edward meets a Female African Mocker Swallowtail

We spent time watching many different kinds of insects. Here are a few of those who were both friendly and fascinating:

Mishi meets a Blister Beetle - note the bright warning colours!

Mishi meets a Blister Beetle - note the bright warning colours!

We also found this lovely Armoured Ground Cricket who was riding along in the car with us. Despite their formidable appearance, they are gentle creatures and harmless to humans…

Agnes meets the Armoured Ground Cricket

Agnes meets the Armoured Ground Cricket

We ended some of the long field days with a yoga session on the plains…

Yoga after a long day of looking at bugs...

Yoga after a long day of looking at bugs...

More from the world of bugs soon!

Amazing naughty fly!

Dear All

Many greetings – just back in access from a week of fieldwork at Suyian in Laikipia, north of Mt Kenya…

I have been looking at the ant-acacias up here, called Whistling Thorns. The name is especially apt at this time of year as the dry wind sweeps across the plains and plays plaintive music in the hollow thorns that the ants live in.

The Whistling Thorns sing in the dry season

The Whistling Thorns sing in the dry season

While collecting ants and scale insects (more on these fascinating creatures soon), I found myself sheltering from the hot sun and watching the comings and goings of ants on the trees. As it has been really dry, I didn’t expect to see much, but as always Mother Nature had a surprise in store…

The ants were walking up and down the stems and branches. The ants on this tree were Cocktail Ants, and they travel down to the ground to hunt and forage from the tree.

Cocktail Ant walking down a branch

Cocktail Ant walking down a branch

As I watched the ants coming and going, I noticed that one of them was moving in short hops and dancing around at one spot on the trunk. A closer look revealed the most incredible interaction taking place. First of all the errant ant was no ant at all, but a devious little fly that had perched on the trunk of the tree among the ants. It would sidle up to an ant and engage in begging behaviour that included tapping the ants on the head. The hapless ants then proceeded to regurgitate food for the fly. I watched it doing this over and over again (and on other trees later on too).

Fly coaxing ants to feed it!

Fly coaxing ants to feed it!

Ants do share food between each other, so it is this sharing behaviour that the fly is exploiting. While the ants fed the fly, I noticed that it gently rubbed their antennae with its own short stubby antennae to keep them mollified.

Naughty fly tricking another ant

Naughty fly tricking another ant

After tricking about ten ants, the fly then retreated to a shady spot to rest for a much-needed post prandial nap!

Satiated fly resting on the tree's trunk

Satiated fly resting on the tree's trunk

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

Prosopis + bees!

Dear All
Many greetings – I am up at Lake Turkana in a remote site by the Turkwel River in northern Kenya. I have been teaching an ecology course for the last week and there are so many amazing things to talk about…

We spent some time looking at bugs on the invasive Prosopis bushes as part of the course. The Prosopis is a spiny shrub that was introduced from Central America. It is spreading rapidly through the drylands of Kenya.

At Lake Turkana the Prosopis bush is advancing through the deltas of the Kerio and Turkwel Rivers. It is literally a spiny green wall in many places…

Spiny green wall of Prosopis in the Kerio Delta at Lake Turkana

Spiny green wall of Prosopis in the Kerio Delta at Lake Turkana

The plant is so prolific in the Kerio Delta that it has blocked all access to the delta. Women and children have to negotiate their way through the spiny green tangle in order to reach the precious water.

Prosopis grows along the main water courses and blocks access

Prosopis grows along the main water courses and blocks access

Invasive species like Prosopis are a growing issue of concern in many parts of the world. As part of the course we collected insects on the Prosopis. We found a number of different bees using the flowers, including honeybees. This means that even this invasive species may have some potential for supporting beekeeping the area. Here are a couple of photos of one of the more common bees that were visiting the flowers…

Ceratina bee on Prosopis flowers

Ceratina bee on Prosopis flowers

Prosopis flowers have both abundant nectar and pollen

Prosopis flowers have both abundant nectar and pollen

More on the amazing bugs of northern Kenya soon!

Jaws!

I recently went on a walk in a forest in Western Kenya and stumbled into these remarkable beasts. Ants may be tiny, but they swarm in large armies and are also armed with some impressive weapons in the form of ‘jaws’ (mandibles) that can inflict a lot of damage quickly…

Among the most impressive jaws among the Kenyan ants are no doubt those belonging to the dreaded Siafu, or Safari Ants, who swarm through forests and similar habitats feasting on anything and everything they can subdue…

Safari ants swarming along a forest path

Safari ants swarming along a forest path

Here are some close-ups of the ‘soldier’ ants jaws who guard the highways that the ants run along through the forest..

Siafu standing guard!

Siafu standing guard!

Remember all these ‘soldiers’, and in fact all of the ants in the swarm are all females, all sisters and all sterile! And they are also all blind – none of the worker Siafu have eyes!

Jaws built like miniature daggers!

Jaws built like miniature daggers!

Foraging nearby were some other interesting ants with impressive jaws too. These were Trapjaw ants who hunt alone, unlike the Siafu. They walk around with their jaws held wide open, and then snap them shut when they meet a suitable prey item. The shutting of their jaws is one of the fastest movements in nature – close to the speed of sound!

Trapjaw ant on the hunt

Trapjaw ant on the hunt

Trapjaw ant resting

Trapjaw ant resting

More from the world of bugs soon!

The Damselfly with the brilliant red eyes!

Was walking by the Uaso Narok river a few days ago in the evening. As the sun sank below the horizon, there were flocks of Dusk Hawker dragonflies and tiny damselflies feeding on mosquitoes over the water.

I was lucky to find one damselfly perching on some reeds and snuck in for a closer look. They really are the most exquisite creatures…

A damselfly silhouetted against the gathering dusk

A damselfly silhouetted against the gathering dusk

This one was very obliging and allowed me to get closer. You can do this with most insects if you are calm and patient. It turned out to be the aptly-named ‘Maasai Damselfly’, as you can see from the brilliant colours…

Maasai Damselfly with amazing eyes!

Maasai Damselfly with amazing eyes!

More from the world of bugs soon!

Whistling thorn flowering…

Hello – back in Kenya here. The Whistling Thorns are just starting to flower on the plains…

The Whistling Thorn has swollen thorns that ants live in...

The Whistling Thorn has swollen thorns that ants live in...

There are lots of different insects visiting the flowers, including these bees. It seems like the bees are the most efficient pollinators of this acacia’s flowers.

Honeybees visit the flowers in large numbers

Honeybees visit the flowers in large numbers

This is a leafcutter bee - it carries pollen on its belly!

This is a leafcutter bee - it carries pollen on its belly!

Another kind of bee - there were so many different ones!

Another kind of bee - there were so many different ones!

Here is a wild bee hovering near the flowers

Here is a wild bee hovering near the flowers

Butterflies were also visiting the flowers - This is an African Monarch

Butterflies were also visiting the flowers - This is an African Monarch

Spot the Phantom!

One of the most remarkable insects I came across in Borneo was this consummate master of disguise

Can you spot the large insect in the picture below?

Can you spot the insect?

Can you spot the insect?

Ok – here is another picture where it is a little easier…

Now can you see the insect? (It's right in the middle of the picture!)

Now can you see the insect? (It's right in the middle of the picture!)

And here is a view of this amazing ‘phantom’ – this is an unidentified kind of stick insect…

The Master of Disguise!

The Master of Disguise!

More from the wonderful world of insects soon…

Borneo Bees!

The forests and mountains of Borneo are also home to some incredible bees…

The first day in the forests of the Danum Valley I spotted this amazing nest in the arms of a magnificent Koompassia tree (which is over 80 m tall!). These are Giant Asian Honeybees. They construct their combs in the open draped under the branches of these tall trees where they are out of reach of predators (like the Sun Bear, who has trouble climbing up the smooth bark)…

The aptly-named Koompassia excelsa tree - can you spot the Giant Honeybee Nest?

The aptly-named Koompassia excelsa tree - can you spot the Giant Honeybee Nest?

A closer view of the Giant Asian Honeybee nest - on the left side of the Koompassia trunk - the dark shape - it is over 2 metres long!

A closer view of the Giant Asian Honeybee nest - on the left side of the Koompassia trunk - the dark shape - it is over 2 metres long!

There were a lot stingless bees about too. They landed on us whenever we were sweaty (which was most of the time). Here they are peering out of the nest entrance…

Stingless bees peering out of their nest entrance...

Stingless bees peering out of their nest entrance...

Stingless bee about to leave the nest.

Stingless bee about to leave the nest.

There were many other bee species around. On a flowering liana in the shady understorey of the forest I saw this gorgeous Carpenter Bee visiting the flowers. The velvety blue sheen on its back almost glowed in the shadows! The Carpenter bees were slow and deliberate visitors to the flowers. Zipping around them much more madly were some Leaf-cutter bees, with luck I managed to snap a photo of one of them too…

Carpenter Bee feeding from flowering liana

Carpenter Bee feeding from flowering liana

The fast-flying Leaf-cutter bee sipping nectar

The fast-flying Leaf-cutter bee sipping nectar