Category Archives: Flies

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” /]

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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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

‘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.

 

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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!

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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!

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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.

Mites on a fly…

There is a poem by Jonathan Swift (1733) that goes:

 So, naturalists observe, a flea

 

Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;

 

And these have smaller still to bite ’em,

 

And so proceed ad infinitum.

 

Thus, every poet, in his kind,

Is bit by him that comes behind.Which has been recently re-hashed as:

 Big fleas have little fleas

 

Upon their backs to bite &em;

 

And little fleas have lesser fleas

And so, ad infinitum.Whichever version you prefer – I think that you will agree it aptly sums up what is happening to this poor fly that I found hanging out on a Euphorbia a few days ago… More soon and thanks to everyone for the kind comments!mites_fly_kitlr1.jpg

And more pollinator diversity…

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More pollinator diversity…

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Vanishing bees?

Hello – here is a response to the recent question about the disappearance of honeybees in Europe and North America. This phenomenon has been called Colony Collapse Disorder, also known as CCD, is a mysterious and widespread phenomenon of the sudden disappearance of entire colonies of honeybees from their hives and the environment.

 

CAUSES

No single cause of CCD that has been identified by scientists, and speculation as to the ultimate reason for this dramatic loss of honeybees is rife. Many scientists seem to be moving towards a consensus that this may not be the result of a single factor, but more due to the cumulative effects of a number of things, including:

 

Nosema – this is a vicious little parasite that infects the honeybee gut. It is related to fungi-like organisms and similarly to the human gut pathogen Giardia, and has an equally debilitating effect on honeybees. Infection leaves honeybee colonies weakened and vulnerable to other parasites. Scientists have tracked its spread through honeybee colonies in Asia, Europe and North America over the last few years.

 

Pesticides – a number of pesticides are especially toxic to bees, even in very low doses. They are designed after all to kill insects, and honeybees are insects just like the pests the chemicals target. Some pesticides impair the honeybees’ learning ability and others affect their orientation and navigation leading to a breakdown of the colony over time through repeated exposure.

 

Mites and viruses – The mite, Varroa destructor, and the many associated viruses it transmits to honeybee colonies are one likely cause of the demise. Some farmers have resorted to treating mite infestations with chemicals that have also accumulated to levels that affect the honeybees.

 

Electromagnetic radiation – there is little evidence for this apart from one study that embedded receivers inside hives. Emanating from cellular-phone and other telecommunication devices these waves are thought to disorient bees.

 

Genetically-modified crops – again here there are no direct studies. A number of GMO crops produce toxins engineered from bacteria and if these are present in the pollen it could affect foraging honeybees.

 

Bad beekeeping – one characteristic of the modern honeybee industry in the developed world is the trucking around of thousands upon thousand of colonies. These are often mixed and housed in close proximity allowing for the transmission of diseases.

 

Climate change – again here there’s no direct evidence. Colonies that were overwintering now run out of food stores as erratic weather patterns play havoc with flowering cycles and nectar flows.

 

EFFECTS

The full effects of the disappearance of honeybees are yet to come. Bees and other pollinating insects are responsible for one in three bites of food. Some of the effects witnessed so far include:

 

Loss of almond pollination ‘services’ in the Western United States. Some 90 % of the world’s almonds are grown in California. The almond trees flower early in spring and require pollination by honeybees trucked in from far and wide. Due to the lack of honeybees for commercial pollination of the crops, the production of almonds has dropped significantly.

 

The 100 million sterling-pound plus contribution made by honeybees to the UK’s economy was dented severely this past Christmas season as there was virtually no British honey on supermarket shelves. The UK has seen some two-thirds of its honeybee colonies vanish and the remaining ones are stressed and weak. Frighteningly there’s evidence emerging now that bumblebees too are starting to go the same way as honeybees!

 

Honeybees have featured recently in the politics of economic recovery as both the Europeans and the Americans have included honeybees and pollination services as part of their studies and strategies towards overcoming the current financial global crisis. While this has attracted ridicule of the Obama administration by political opportunists, who are laughing at this as ‘frivolous’, many people, including some of the world’s leading scientists are begging politicians and decision-makers to take an interest in solving this problem.

 

Is there hope?

Yes – there is evidence that with help some honeybee colonies can recover. Also, a little known fact is that there are thousands upon thousands of other pollinators available and working hard on our farms. We need to understand and protect these overlooked creatures as we work towards a solution for the current honeybee crisis.

Fabulous flies…

Have been watching flies coming and going from a flowering Rhus natalensis bush – you may think of them as just pesky insects, but take a closer look and you will see what marvelous forms they are… kit-calliphoridlr1.jpg  kit-flylr1.jpg kit-flylr2.jpg kit-flylr3.jpg  kit-flylr4.jpg kit-scatophagidlr1.jpg