Category Archives: Pollination

Weeds and Wildflowers = More Avocados!

One of my favourite plants (after cacao that produces chocolate!) is the avocado. They are one of the most delicious and nutritious fruits around…

Mmmmm… tasty avocado!

Mmmmm… tasty avocado!

Avocado trees are one of the many different crops that depend on wild insects pollinators. I recently spent some time in the Kerio Valley looking at the insects visiting the avocado flowers.

Here are what the avocado flowers look like:

Avocado flowers awaiting their appointment with a pollinator...

Avocado flowers awaiting their appointment with a pollinator…

The pollinators of avocado on this small farm in northwestern Kenya were mainly different kinds of flies and honeybees.

An unidentified fly visits some avocado flowers

An unidentified fly visits some avocado flowers

House flies and some smaller flies on Avocado flowers

House flies and some smaller flies on Avocado flowers

Copper-tailed Blowfly on avocado flowers (a major pollinator at this site)

Copper-tailed Blowfly on avocado flowers (a major pollinator at this site)

After pollinating visits by several different flies, the avocado flower is pollinated and a young fruit begins to form.

Newly pollinated flower with ovary swelling to form young fruit

Newly pollinated flower with ovary swelling to form young fruit

They develop over several months into the wonderful fruits that we so enjoy:

Developing avocado fruit - they stay on the trees for quite a long time.

Developing avocado fruit – they stay on the trees for quite a long time.

Honeybees were also visiting the avocado flowers and pollinating them too:

Hard-working honeybee on avocado flower

Hard-working honeybee on avocado flower

One of the key things we’ve learned about pollinators is that they depend on a wide range of plants for their own survival.

While crops are only in flower for a short period of time, bees and flies need to eat from a wide range of different wildflowers. Without these plants, the bees, flies and other pollinators would not be able to survive. This would result in far fewer avocados and poor or low yields on the crops that depend on pollinators. Some of the plants that the bees and flies depend on at this site are considered weeds. These weeds, including the infamous ‘Black-Jack’ (Bidens pilosa) are actually an important resource for wild insects pollinators.

Honeybee sips nectar from a 'Black-Jack' flower

Honeybee sips nectar from a ‘Black-Jack’ flower

Weeds can be an important resource for bees...

Weeds can be an important resource for bees…

Weeds and wildflowers growing around the farm are essential in order to support healthy wild insect pollinators.

At this small farm near Iten, there were lots of different flowers growing along the edges of the farm, including this lovely, scrambling yellow-flowered creeper in the Daisy Family (Asteraceae). Several of the avocado pollinators could be found visiting the flowering creeper later in the day after they had been pollinating the avocado flowers.

Wildflowers are important for wild insect pollinators

Wildflowers are important for wild insect pollinators

Honeybee visiting the flowering creeper

Honeybee visiting the flowering creeper

This is why it is important to have diversity in the farming landscape, like here in Kenya’s beautiful Kerio Valley.

More wildflowers and weeds around the farm support more pollinators that produce higher yields!

Wildflowers are important for pollinators

Wildflowers are important for pollinators

More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

Please think of the pollinators when you next enjoy an avocado!

Celebrating Pollinators: Pollinator Conservation Handbook Launched!

Dear All

Many greetings.

Am very pleased to share with you a book featuring and celebrating pollinator diversity in East Africa.

You can download the book through link by clicking on the cover image below:

Our Friends The Pollinators!

Click on image above to go to the page where you can download the book

 

To whet your appetite here’s a sneak preview of some of the pages from the book:

pollinator-handbook-preview1

 

Pages from 'Our Friends The Pollinators: A Handbook of Pollinator Diversity and Conservation in East Africa'

Pages from ‘Our Friends The Pollinators: A Handbook of Pollinator Diversity and Conservation in East Africa’

You can download the book freely from this link:

http://discoverpollinators.org/pollinators/pollinator-handbook/

Please share this link and enjoy the beauty and wonder of East Africa’s pollinators!

(PS – if you are unable to download it from the link, please send an email to insects.eanhs@gmail.com, and we will send you a soft copy).

Rainforest Birds and Bees…

Dear All

I have been exploring the Kakamega Forest in Western Kenya over the last few days. The forest is sparkling with life after the heavy rains from earlier this month. It has been wonderful taking long quiet walks in the forest to look at insects and birds and ponder the meaning of life.

Here are a few of the weird and wonderful creatures that I came across…

Arriving at the forest in late afternoon, these gorgeous Blue-Headed Bee Eaters were sunning themselves after bathing in a rainforest pool:

A pair of Blue-Headed Bee Eaters

A pair of Blue-Headed Bee Eaters

Bees and butterflies were visiting flowers along the trails in the forest.

Brown Pansy Butterfly

Brown Pansy Butterfly

 

There were a lot of bees around, including this strange wasp-like bee (I think that it is a species of bee in the family Colletidae):

Wasp or Wasp-like Bee?

Wasp or Wasp-like Bee?

 

Predators also lay in wait on the flowers in the forest.

This Stingless Bee was one of the unlucky ones…

Plebeina Stingless Bee falls victim to a spider

Plebeina Stingless Bee falls victim to a spider

 

Further down the path troop of monkeys crashed through the treetops leaving behind a ‘gift’ that immediately attracted some wonderful flies. One of the first contenders to appear was this striking Flesh Fly (Sarcophagidae)…

Flesh Fly feasts on fresh dung

Flesh Fly feasts on fresh dung

 

The scent of the fresh dung wafted through the forest air drawing different kinds of flies close. A Black Scavenger Fly perched on a leaf nearby:

Black Scavenger Fly

Black Scavenger Fly

 

While some came for the prospect of a meal, others were drawn to the area with different hopes. The female Black Scavenger Fly was soon joined by a smaller male on the same leaf. At first she ignored him, but he waved his wings with passion at her:

Black Scavenger Flies (male on top left)

Black Scavenger Flies (male on top left)

 

No surprises as to what he tried to do next:

"Do you think I'm sexy?"

“Do you think I’m sexy?”

He met with some, albeit brief, success:

Black Scavenger Flies

Black Scavenger Flies

 

The antics were watched by other flies, like this ‘Zebra Fly’ (actually a Root Maggot Fly), from nearby leaves:

"Zebra Fly" (Root Maggot Fly)

“Zebra Fly” (Root Maggot Fly)

 

Further along the trail was one of the most incredible fly-mimics that live in this forest. Resting on a fallen tree trunk I spotted a large black ‘bee’, that turned out to be a rarely-encountered Mydas Fly!

Robber Fly that mimics a Carpenter Bee

The marvelous Mydas Fly

Mydas Flies are rarely see as adults as they live only a few days in this stage but spend most of their lives as larvae preying on other insect larvae. It is simply amazing that no matter how many times I walk through the rainforest, I always find something new and interesting.

I walked back down along a road through the forest and found this lovely Clear-wing Acraea Butterfly basking in the evening sunshine:

Clear-wing Acraea Butterfly

Clear-wing Acraea Butterfly

 

Here’s to a New Year filled with joy and wonder…

Remember to spend a few minutes in the company of insects and other creatures when you can!

On the summit of Lirandha Hill, Kakamega Forest

On the summit of Lirandha Hill, Kakamega Forest

More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

Honeybees Pollinating Passionfruit!

Dear All

Greetings from the Kerio Valley in Northwestern Kenya. This beautiful valley, an extension of the magnificent Great Rift Valley, is one of my favorite places. It is a veritable paradise for bees and other insects that live in the valleys’ forests, acacia-woodlands and rugged escarpments.

The Kerio Valley is also home to thousands of small-scale farmers. One of the crops grown here is Passionfruit. This delicious fruit comes from a creeper that bears spectacular and complex flowers that require insect pollination in order to produce yields.

Passionfruit Farm: Kerio Valley

Passionfruit Farm: Kerio Valley

 

At this particular site I found lots of honeybees visiting the passionfruit flowers:

Honeybee approaches a passionfruit flower...

Honeybee approaches a passionfruit flower…

 

Large numbers of honeybees were present on this sunny morning at the passionfruit flowers:

Jostling for room on a flower!

Jostling for room on a flower!

The bees were working hard collecting pollen by scraping it from the flowers’ anthers and then combing it into their pollen baskets (the yellow blobs on their hind-legs). In so doing, they transfer pollen between plants and pollinate the flowers, producing the delicious passion fruits that we so love. Here is a video of them hard at work:

These farms have bumper yields of passionfruits thanks to the bees.

But what helps make the bees visit the farms? The crop is only in flower occasionally, and bees need food year round at this site. The answer to this is simple: the abundant weeds and wildflowers in the fallow maize fields that surround the passionfruit farms.

 

Wonderful weeds at the edge of the farm

Wonderful weeds at the edge of the farm

 

Weeds are often seen as ‘the enemy’ by farmers, but they are important for supporting useful insects like honeybees and other pollinators.

Wildflowers help support the passionfruit farms!

Wildflowers help support the passionfruit farms!

 

The yellow wildflowers at this site were visited by the honeybees after they were done working on the passionfruit flowers…

Mmmm… yummy says the bee!

Mmmm… yummy says the bee!

 

Next time you enjoy a passionfruit – remember who to thank!

More from the wonderful world of dudus soon!

Celebrating with Bees!

Dear All

Today Kenya marks 50 years of independence…

We have so much to celebrate as Kenya remains one of the most blessed places on the planet in terms of biodiversity. While there are many challenges facing conservation in this beautiful country of ours, one thing that I can’t emphasize enough is how inspiring it is to live and work here among creatures who have evolved over hundreds of millions of years and today form an essential part of the ecosystems that support our lives and livelihoods. And we still have SO MUCH to learn about our country in terms of its biodiversity: many regions remain little-explored.

One of the most incredible patterns that is emerging is how localized our biodiversity is in terms of species distribution. For example, around Kakamega Forest there are about 250 different species of bees, while around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya there are about 400-500 species. But, when you compare the two sites, there is only ONE species that occurs at both locations! The honeybee (Apis mellifera scutellata) is the only species that overlaps between the two regions. This highlights the importance of conserving, studying and celebrating biodiversity wherever we are in this wonderful country.

I’ve been busy with the bees in Western Kenya and finished up this poster of the Bees of Kakamega Forest recently (one of my favourite places in Kenya, and one of the most important areas for biodiversity). Please click on the poster image for a larger version.

My humble contribution on this auspicious day… A little inspiration to keep us looking at dudus for the next 50 years!

Please enjoy and share!

Please click on image for a larger version

Please click on image for a larger version

More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

A bee that spins it’s nest!

On a recent visit to Kakamega Forest in Western Kenya I noticed one of my favourite bees (a bee called Pseudoanthidium, also known as Carder Bees for their nesting habits) buzzing about near the windows. It was flying back and forth from the edge of the forest.

This pretty bee is marked in black and yellow and flies about fast furiously visiting flowers.

 

Carder Bee visiting Ocimum Flowers

Carder Bee visiting Ocimum Flowers

 

Flowers are an important resource for wild solitary bees as they depend entirely on the pollen and nectar for their own energy and food as well as for their larvae. Most solitary bees collect pollen and store it in their nests for their larvae to feed on.

Pseudanthidium_Ocimum-LR12

Carder Bee working hard at an Ocimum Flower

While bees need wildflowers, they also need safe and sheltered places to nest and store their hard-earned pollen. This bee is one of those that constructs its nest from woolly plant fibres that it gathers specially for this.

Following the tiny bee back and forth I noticed that it disappeared behind a window.

On closer inspection I was delighted to find that there was a tiny nest that the bee was provisioning:

Bee at her delicately spun nest

Bee at her delicately spun nest

 

I enjoyed watching the bee coming and going and marvelled at the beautifully spun nest.

A work of art in a nest!

A work of art in a nest!

 

More from the world of bugs soon!

Giant Carpenter Bee!

Dear All

On a recent hike in southern Tanzania at the edge of the Uluguru Mountains I came across one of East Africa’s largest bee: the Giant Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa nigrita).

Female Giant Carpenter Bee approaching Crotolaria flowers

Female Giant Carpenter Bee approaching Crotolaria flowers

This is a striking bee where the males and females are sexually dimorphic: meaning that they look very different. The females are boldly marked in black and white, while the males are covered in bright golden hairs that glisten in the sunlight.

Females visit flowers of many different species, and on this day they were feeding on flowers of legumes (a Crotolaria sp.) and also the flowers of pigeonpea (Cajanus cajan), which they are responsible for pollinating. Working the legume flowers requires a lot of skill and dexterity from the bees. The flowers need to be ‘tripped’ so as to expose the pollen from the anthers that slide out of the keel of the lower petals. The carpenter bees are experts at doing this:

 

Female bee grappling with Crotolaria flowers

Female bee grappling with Crotolaria flowers

 

While the females are busy visit flowers the males set up territories that they patrol during the day. These are usually near patches of habitat that females frequent. Male carpenter bees spend many hours flying back and forth around their territorial patch marking landmarks with scent and watching for females.

Golden male Giant Carpenter Bee!

Golden male Giant Carpenter Bee!

 

After a hard days’ work, they too visit the flowers for some refreshment in the form of nectar.

Male Giant Carpenter Bee grappling with Crotolaria flowers

Male Giant Carpenter Bee grappling with Crotolaria flowers

 

Several people have asked me how exactly I take these photos of bees. The key thing is patience and waiting at the flowers, with some understanding of the movements and behaviour of the bees. It took me over an hour of watching and waiting to get these photos of the Giant Carpenter Bees.

Patience is key to capturing bees in action!

Patience is key to capturing bees in action!

 

More from the wonderful world of insects soon!

 

Bees pollinating cucumbers in Turkana

Hello – greetings from Turkana in Northern Kenya…

Up here checking in on my lab at the Turkana Basin Institute and spent half a day looking at bees pollinating the cucumbers being cultivated at the institute. Cucumbers are one of my favourite salad items and make a refreshing snack up here in the desert at lunchtime. Cucumbers are yet another example of a food item that we enjoy thanks to pollinators.

Cucumbers are in the family of plants called Cucurbits (Curcubitaceae), that includes watermelons, pumpkins, squashes and gourds.

Most members of this plant family are dependent on pollinators, and many of them have separate male and female flowers (though these can occur on the same individual plant).

It has rained up here in Turkana about a week a ago and the ground is delicately painted with flowers and the air filled with bees and butterflies.

Here are some of the bees and their antics on the cucumber flowers.

One of the first bees to arrive was the lovely Macrogalea bee, who also spent time sunning themselves on the flowers:

Macrogalea bee

Macrogalea Bee on Cucumber Flower

After warming themselves on the cucumber flowers, the Macrogalea bees dove into the flowers and as you can see were soon coated with pollen and moving it around the flowers:

Macrogalea bee hard at work

Macrogalea bee hard at work

They were also visiting the flowers of a different cucurbit (a butternut squash variety), nearby:

Macrogalea crawling out of Squash flower

Macrogalea crawling out of Squash flower loaded with pollen.

 

As the morning grew hotter, the next bee-shift appeared and these guys whizzed about the cucumber patch with dizzying speed. One of my favourite bees, known as Amegilla:

Amegilla Bee pollinating cucumber flower

Amegilla Bee pollinating cucumber flower

 

The Amegilla bees moved speedily between the different patches of cucumber plants, this makes them efficient pollinators as they transport pollen between different individual plants.

Busy Bees! Amegilla at work.

Busy Bees! Amegilla at work.

 

There were at least two different species of Amegilla present, the beige-grey one and this brightly coloured orange one visiting the cucumber flowers:

Another Amegilla bee hard at work!

Another Amegilla bee hard at work!

Bees were not the only insects visiting the flowers, a Grass Yellow butterfly (Eurema sp.) also stopped by. Although it was a faithful visitor, it didn’t seem to be carrying much pollen around.

Grass Yellow Butterfly sips nectar

Grass Yellow Butterfly sips nectar

 

The bees kept coming and going throughout the morning and we enjoyed some of the cucumbers at lunch!

Please click on image for larger version

Please click on image for larger version

More from the wonderful world (and work!) of insects soon…

 

Kerio Valley Bees (and a fly)

Hello – just spent a lovely day looking at bees in the Kerio Valley (one of my favourite parts of the world!). An extension of the Great Rift Valley in northwestern Kenya, the Kerio Valley is a beautiful and diverse landscape that is especially rich in bees.

The Kerio Valley is also home to a large number of small-scale farmers who rely on subsistence agriculture to support their families. Many of the crops grown in the region are dependent on pollinators and it is an area where I have been looking at pollinator diversity and the interface of agriculture and biodiversity for some years.

View from Iten looking down into the Kerio Valley

View from Iten looking down into the Kerio Valley

 

Here are a few of the bees that I encountered while walking around the farms on the floor of the valley near Biretwo.

Early in the morning the Morning Glories (Ipomoea) were in full bloom and peering into one of their deep dark hearts I found a Macrogalea bee hiding in the bottom of the floral tube.

Macrogalea bee in an Ipomoea flower

Macrogalea bee in an Ipomoea flower

The bee seemed to be struggling and as it emerged into the sunlight I could see why: it was overloaded with the flowers’ sticky pollen and could barely move!

Macrogalea_Ipomoea-LR12

 

Overloaded with pollen!

Overloaded with pollen!

 

Nearby there were some yellow flowers blooming and they were being thoroughly ‘worked’ by a small bee in the Leafcutter Bee family (Megachilidae). Each bee landed on the flower and then circled it in an anti-clockwise direction while packing pollen into the special ‘scopa’ (pollen carrying region) on the underside of its’ abdomen.

Combing pollen from its' face!

Combing pollen from its’ face!

 

Not to be outdone were the Amegilla bees who zipped about between the flowers. Here is one sizing some some Gynandropsis:

Amegilla bee in action

Amegilla bee in action

 

Some smaller bees were also working the Gynandropsis flowers. They clung to the anthers while simultaneously trying to pull off the pollen:

Collecting Gynandropsis pollen

Collecting Gynandropsis pollen

 

Sunning itself demurely on a leaf was a beautiful bee known as Crocisaspidia:

Handsome Crocisaspidia bee

Handsome Crocisaspidia bee

One of the most common bees visiting the flowers were the Seladonia, who are tiny but beautiful metallic bees that often look like they are made from gold:

Seladonia bee hard at work.

Seladonia bee hard at work.

 

Among all the different bees were some interesting flies, including this lovely Hoverfly (Syrphidae) that is an exquisite mimic of a wild bee.

Do I look like a bee?

Do I look like a bee?

More from the wonderful world of insects soon!

 

Pollinator Breakfast…

Hello – Pollinators are responsible for about ONE IN THREE bites of food that we consume.

Some two-thirds of all flowering plants on the planet are dependent on pollinators, most of them are wild insects and many of those are bees.

Here’s the contribution of pollinators to my breakfast yesterday: I had a bowl of oatmeal with almonds, raspberries and some papaya (paw paw).

The raspberries and almonds are both pollinated by bees. Raspberries have composite flowers and need repeated visits by different bee species as well as honeybees to produce nicely-shaped and flavoured fruits. Almonds are pollinated by bees and there is a veritable industry of mobile beekeepers who truck around their bees to help pollinate commercial almond orchards. Papaya is an interesting tropical fruit tree and the varieties we grow in Kenya typically have separate male and female trees (this is known as being dioecious by botanists), and depend on wild hawkmoths to pollinate the female flowers by transferring pollen from the male flowers.

The oats are not dependent on pollinators. They, like most cereals, are wind-pollinated. However, without pollinators our food would be really plain and boring and much less nutritious!

Please click on the poster below for a larger version:

pollinator_breakfast-July05-2013_LR1