Category Archives: Forests

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!

 

 

Rainforest Xmas Jewels!

Dear All

I have been very lucky to spend the xmas holidays in the Kakamega Forest in Western Kenya. After a busy year of looking at bugs, studying bees, writing and research in many remote places, what better way to spend the holidays than sitting quietly by a stream deep in the heart of the forest…

As I waited by the stream, watching the coming and going of countless marvelous insects, two exceptionally beautiful damselflies made a special appearance. The first was a Red Jewel. This rare creature is found along forested streams in Western Kenya and Uganda. It lays its eggs in the clear, flowing waters where oxygen levels are high and the water pure and sweet. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful of Africa’s insects.

 

The gorgeous Red Jewel deep in the heart of Kakamega Forest, Western Kenya.

 

The Red Jewel spent most of its time chasing off other damselflies and even the much larger dragonflies from its special vantage point in the sun along the stream. Occasionally it swept out and grabbed a snack in form of a passing mosquito or hapless flies that became trapped on the waters’ surface.

I watched the Red Jewel flashing about and perched, carefully recording when it captured prey. As I followed its behaviour keenly, a leaf rustled beside me and I looked up to find myself eye-to-eye with another beauty. This one was watching as much as I was watching it. It was draped in the dappled light gazing out at the world, its tongue flicking in and out.

Yes, I flinched when I first spotted it, and it responded with the same and a warning hiss. Then, as I realised that it was not the least bit interested in my, but merely enjoying the warm, liquid golden sunshine that flowed down through the canopy far overhead, we both relaxed and shared the view of the stream and its myriad inhabitants. (Yes, you might have guessed already that this creature was a snake – a lovely little Green Bush Viper)…

 

The elegant Green Bush Viper

 

As the Green Bush Viper and I both relaxed again, my attention wandered back to the flashes of colour moving around the stream. And then on a leaf right in front of me appeared another of the forests’ jewels – The incredible Sapphire, another of East Africa’s loveliest damselflies…

 

The elegant, exquisite Sapphire Damselfly, Kakamega Forest

 

When one is honored, inspired and awed by beauty such as this – I can’t help but think of how special and precious all our forests and all our biodiversity is on this planet. I feel that in witnessing and exploring the wonders of nature, I also have to point out that we need to conserve it for its beauty and interest as much as its utility and practical contributions to our daily lives. What a joy to be able to find spaces wherever they may be, that are filled with species who have come about through millions of years of evolution and share with us their home and our home on this lonely little planet.

 

Stream in rainforest, Kakamega Forest, Western Kenya

Please keep the ‘little creatures that run the world’ in your thoughts during the holidays…

More from the world of bugs soon!

Dino

Moth decorates trees in Nairobi…

The forests and woodlands of Nairobi have been looking particularly lush and green for the last couple of months. This is all thanks to the more-than-generous ‘short rains’ that we experienced late last year. Nairobi is an interesting city for wildlife and nature as it has both forests and savannahs right next to traffic jams and high-rise buildings!

For those who have had the pleasure of visiting any forest or wooded area in Central Kenya over the past few weeks, a strange and beautiful phenomenon is on display.

Scattered here and there in the forests are isolated trees that are draped with shimmering silk. The trees marked in this distinctive way are Elaeodendron buchananii, a common tree of the dry evergreen highland forest and riverine woodland. This species also occurs in the Mara region and parts of Western Kenya.

Elaeodendron tree covered in silk

Elaeodendron tree covered in silk

What makes them stand out at present are the beautiful sheets of silk that drape the trees, which can also be mostly defoliated. The silken sheets stretch over the entire tree, typically covering the trunk as well as the branches and what leaves/twigs are left.

The silk is spun by a veritable army of gregarious caterpillars of a group of insects know as ‘Tent Moths’. These moths, in the genus Yponomeuta, have their own Family within the Lepidoptera: the Yponomeutidae.

A view of the caterpillars enjoying their silk tent

A view of the caterpillars enjoying their silk tent

The Tent Moths are distinctive in that they live in social aggregations and often completely cover the Elaeodendron trees in Eastern Africa. The caterpillars spin the silk from special glands and move about the tree within its protective confines. Elaeodendron trees are also poisonous and this no doubt confers some added advantage to the caterpillars.

The caterpillars are present on the trees for a few weeks and will then pupate in an aggregation, often sheltered by a branch or on trunk. Occasionally they may enter leaf-litter or shrubbery close to the tree. From these pupae a smallish grey moth with spots on its wings will eventually emerge and start the whole process over again by mating and laying eggs on the host trees.

Adult Tent Moth (Yponomeuta)

Adult Tent Moth (Yponomeuta) (Photo by Martha N. Mutiso)

This phenomenon is really impressive and represents a massive investment made through the efforts of many tiny individual insects working together. Insects may be small, but working together they can have a big impact on the world!

More from the world of insects soon!

Bees and Wannabees!

Dear All

Many thanks for your kind comments. I have just been in the rainforest in Western Kenya talking about pollinators with farmers and schoolchildren. The beautiful Tithonia were blooming all along the roads through the forest and absolutely covered in stingless bees, honeybees and other creatures.

Here are some of the interesting creatures we came across:

Honeybee hard at work at the forest's edge

Honeybee hard at work at the forest's edge

There were also some creatures pretending to be honeybees – here is a hovevfly (with the stripey-eyes) and a honeybee feeding from the same flower. The hoverfly is a mimic of the honeybee, which can sting and is hence avoided by some birds, etc.

Hoverfly and Honeybee - can you tell them apart?

Hoverfly and Honeybee - can you tell them apart?

Several different kinds of stingless bees – including these tiny black ones, were frantically packing pollen into the special ‘pollen baskets’ on their hind-legs.

Stingless bee with full pollen-baskets!

Stingless bee with full pollen-baskets!

Later on while taking some schoolchildren for a walk, we came across this honeybee who had fallen victim to a flower spider. The spider captures the honeybee and subdues it with its venom then holds on to it and even waves it about to attract other bees to the same flower!

Flower spider with captured honeybee

Flower spider with captured honeybee

More from the world of bugs 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!

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

Borneo Butterflies…

Dear All

Hello – many thanks for the kind comments. Here are some pictures of a few of the butterflies that I encountered in the forests of Borneo…

Cethosia butterfly - what an intricate pattern!

Cethosia butterfly - what an intricate pattern!

An unidentified Lycaenid with mysterious green eyes...

An unidentified Lycaenid with mysterious green eyes...

This gorgeous butterfly is called 'The Clipper' (Parthenos sylvia)

This gorgeous butterfly is called 'The Clipper' (Parthenos sylvia)

A Birdwing - one of the largest butterflies in the world!

A Birdwing - one of the largest butterflies in the world!

Stingless Bees, Ant and Scales!

Dear All – Hello many greetings and thanks to everyone for the kind comments.

I was just in the Kakamega forest where I spent part of the day climbing Lirhanda Hill. At the top of the hill as I paused to catch my breath and cool down in the shade of a Combretum tree, I was startled by a loud cloud of buzzing bees.

At first I flinched, then I saw that they were stingless bees. These are amazing little bees, who live in colonies and make honey, just like the typical honeybees that we are all familiar with. However, the don’t sting and can be watched closely and enjoyed less nervously.

The bees settled down and perched on the lower branches of the tree. I peered closer and was amazed by what I saw. The bees were greedily feeding from small brown lumps on the bark of the young branch. Looking really close revealed that they were licking the brown lumps – which turned out to be scale insects!

Stingless bees gathering on the branch!

Stingless bees gathering on the branch!

The stingless bees were frantically crawling all over the branch imbibing sugary rewards from the scale insects. Stingless bees are important pollinators in the rainforest, but here they were simply a mob of thieves!

Stingless bees licking the scale insects.

Stingless bees licking the scale insects.

The scale insects are actually a carefully tended herd belonging to some Polyrachis ants who were also on the trees. The ants lovingly tend the scale insects and milk them for honeydew, much like we keep cows for milk.

Amazingly, the ants were oblivious to the plundering of their ‘cows’ by the stingless bees. They both fed from the scale insects side-by-side.

Stingless bee and Polyrachis ant feeding side-by-side

Stingless bee and Polyrachis ant feeding side-by-side

The ants were far outnumbered by the stingless bees – that may be why they didn’t try to chase them off!

The ants were out-numbered by the stingless bees

The ants were out-numbered by the stingless bees

The many wily ways of insects making a living are truly amazing. You can learn so much from just watching bugs for even a few minutes! More from the wonderful world of insects soon!

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!

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…

mango-fruits-LR2

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:

mango-flowerfruitLR1

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

mango-diptera-LR2

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!

mango-farmer-LR1