Tag Archives: Bees

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!

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!

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

 

 

Bees and Butterflies in the Pugu Hills, Tanzania

Dear All

I recently went hiking in the Pugu Hills which are near the port city of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. These hills contain some precious fragments of forests that once covered most of the East African coastal areas. However, today only tiny patches of forest remain. These forests are home to a lot of different species that aren’t found anywhere else in the world including trees, butterflies and other insects.

Here are a few of the remarkable insects that I came across during the walk.

One of the first creatures that we spotted was this remarkable Hairstreak butterfly (Hemiolaus sp.). It flies fast and furiously along the forest trails – but only when it alights can you appreciate its delicate beauty. The elaborate tails on the right are actually a false head that serve to lure would-be predators away from the butterfly’s real head, thereby allowing it to escape. This is a common strategy in this family of butterflies that are known as the ‘blues and coppers’ or lycaenids (Lycaenidae).

Sapphire Butterfly (Hemiolaus sp.)

Hairstreak Butterfly (Hemiolaus sp.) Which is end is the real head?

 

A few minutes later a flash of copper whirled by and stopped to rest in a patch of flowers. This is one of the Scarlets (Axiocerses sp.) another of the interesting members of the lycaenid butterfly family. Here you can see it’s false head in place:

The Scarlet butterfly with it's false head intact.

The Scarlet butterfly with it’s false head intact.

 

And here is one that escaped a predator with the false head missing:

Hmmm... where did my tail go!?

Hmmm… where did my tail go!?

Even though the butterfly is now damaged, it survived the attack and can go on to mate and lay eggs and therefore contribute its genes to the next generation: this is what these amazing adaptations are all about – increasing the chances of survival and reproduction.

At the edges of the forest in the tall grass there were numerous Acraea butterflies basking in the sunshine:

Acraea butterfly sunning itself.

Acraea butterfly sunning itself.

A few minutes later I came across yet another lycaenid butterfly species, this one is known as ‘The Playboy’ (Deudorix sp.):

The gorgeous Playboy Butterfly

The gorgeous Playboy Butterfly

Flying elegantly through the forest were numerous swallowtails, which are large and showy butterflies, including this beautiful Eastern White Lady (Graphium sp.):

Graphium_philonoe-Pugu-LR1

 

Of course the bees were not to be outdone, and as the day grew hotter, they came out in large numbers to visit the different flowers in search of nectar and pollen. Most of the bees were visiting wildflowers at the edge of the forest and along the trails.

There were a lot of bees about, and sometimes it seemed like they needed some air-traffic control as they approached the flowers in droves!

Big bee first... little bee second. Prepare for landing!

Big bee first… little bee second. Prepare for landing!

 

More bee traffic!

More bee traffic!

 

At the forest edge there were lots of Macrogalea bees visiting various wildflowers. Macrogalae means ‘long tongue’, and the bee uses its long tongue to sip nectar from the flower:

Macrogalea bee

Macrogalea bee

 

The carpenter bees were hard at work too, especially on the flowering trees and shrubs in the forest:

Two carpenter bees (Xylocopa) feed side by side

Two carpenter bees (Xylocopa) feed side by side

After a wonderful day walking through the forest, there was yet one more special beauty waiting in the shadows. While this is not the most brightly coloured of butterflies, it is a coastal endemic and flies softly in the shaded groves of the forest: the enigmatic and delightful Spotted Sylph:

The Spotted Sylph

The Spotted Sylph

More from the wonderful world of insects soon!

 

Some bees in the bush…

Dear All

Many greetings, the rains over the last couple of months have brought forth some wonderful flowers out on the plains. Now with the mix of sunshine and abundant flowers, it is a fantastic time for the bees who are out and about in large numbers. Many other insects are also making hay while the sun shines, imbibing nectar, gathering pollen and reproducing while the conditions are good.

Insects and plants have an ancient and beautiful relationship that spans hundreds of millions of years of co-evolution. For every single species of plant, there are many different kinds of insects that live on, in, around and off it.

There is incredible diversity even around just a single species of wildflower as you can see from this series of photos on the humble wildflower Leucas, that is currently flowering on the plains south of Nairobi…

A speedy Amegilla bee who zipped like a maniac between the flowers sipping up the abundant nectar...

A speedy Amegilla bee who zipped like a maniac between the flowers sipping up the abundant nectar…

 

This particular bee was so efficient that it just grabbed the flowers for a second stuck its long tongue in and sucked out the nectar then moved on to the next one...

This particular bee was so efficient that it just grabbed the flowers for a second stuck its long tongue in and sucked out the nectar then moved on to the next one…

The Amegilla bees are fairly diverse and this other species was much more methodical in exploiting the flowers. Notice how it bends the flowers in a special way and rubs against the orange ‘blobs’? Those are the flowers’ anthers that bear pollen which is what the flower expects the bees to transfer between different plants…

Amegilla bee efficiently pollinating the Leucas flower...

Amegilla bee efficiently pollinating the Leucas flower…

 

Amegilla hard at work!

Amegilla hard at work!

 

There were some leafcutter bees working this patch of flowers too:

Leafcutter bee visiting the Leucas flower...

Leafcutter bee visiting the Leucas flower…

 

A few delicate lycaenid butterflies stopped by to sip some nectar (though it didn’t seem like they carried much pollen, so they are basically free-loaders!)

The Pea Blue butterfly has a drink of nectar

The Pea Blue butterfly has a drink of nectar

While I was watching for bees, this gorgeous emerald green chafer beetle flew by distracting me:

"Am I cool or what!?"

“Am I cool or what!?”

Later in the evening the carpenter bees came out to visit the flowers:

Carpenter bee on Leucas flower

Carpenter bee on Leucas flower

 

Of course, not everyone visiting the flowers was behaving themselves. There were  a number of stink bugs and groove-winged flower beetles shamelessly feeding off the flowers and buds:

Stinkbug (on the left) and groove-winged flower beetle  with head buried in blossom.

Stinkbug (on the left) and groove-winged flower beetle with head buried in blossom.

 

My ‘field assistants’ Barabara and Zaza took a break in shade as I was watching the bees…

Barabara and Zaza (hidden lying down)...

Barabara and Zaza (hidden lying down)…

 

What an amazing world all taking place on just ONE species of wildflower. Imagine if we could quantify all of the interactions between insects and flowers in just one patch of natural habitat for one day – I find all these interactions a source of wonder and inspiration…

 

What other mysterious creatures dwell here?

What other mysterious creatures dwell here?

 

More from the wonderful world of insects soon!

Bees sleeping…

Dear All

I recently participated in an expedition through parts of northwestern Kenya to look at different kinds of bees.

The first thing that surprises many people about bees is that there are lots of different kinds of bees – in fact close to 20,000 species have been described! The honeybee, which is familiar to almost everyone, is just one kind of bee (a single species called Apis mellifera).

One of my favourite bees in East Africa are the Amegilla bees. They are beautiful, fast-flying, hard-working creatures that zip about and fly with a characteristic high-pitched buzz that is most evident when the approach flowers. Amegilla are solitary bees. This is another surprising fact about bees: most species are solitary, with females building and caring for a nest on their own. Honeybees are social and live in colonies, as do a few other bees, but for the most part, the bees are loners.

Female solitary bees have their nests to go to at night or when they are not out feeding from flowers. However, males don’t have anywhere to go. They end up having to sleep on stems of plants, grasses being a favorite perch… In some species, such as Amegilla, the males will often gather at particular sleeping areas in the evening. These are often near a stream or edge of a wetland in a sheltered spot – sort of like a male bees’ version of the pub I guess…

We found this aggregation of Amegilla males sleeping at the edge of a swamp near Bogoria recently… They are really charming creatures…

 

Male Amegilla bees lined up in their ‘dormitory’ for the night…

More from the world of bugs soon!

Coriander (Cilantro) Pollinators…

Greetings from Turkana in Northern Kenya. I recently visited one of the farms that I work with up here and was very pleased to find the coriander (cilantro) flowering. This plant is a common and delicious herb that is widely used in the cuisines of many different parts of the world…

Coriander flowers close-up

Coriander flowers close-up

Many of us are aware of the role played by pollinators in producing fruits and other crops like beans, tomatoes, etc. However, even many of the spices that we grow are dependent on pollinators – and without them would not produce the seeds that are the basis of a valuable trade and make the food we eat much tastier and more nutritious!

The flowers of the coriander plant (called cilantro in America) are open and lay in flat heads called umbels. This means that they can be accessed by a wide range of pollinator species. Here are some of the insects that we found visiting and pollinating the cilantro flowers in Turkana.

A lycaenid butterfly and a cuckoo-wasp at the coriander flowers

A lycaenid butterfly and a cuckoo-wasp at the coriander flowers

The lycaenids are tiny butterflies, many of which are common in the drylands of Kenya. They can often be found visiting flowers where they sip nectar and check each other out…

Two lycaenid butterflies enjoying the cilantro flowers

Two lycaenid butterflies enjoying the cilantro flowers

Many different wasps were visiting the flowers. The Cuckoo Wasp was among the most striking with its bright green iridescent sheen…

Beautiful Cuckoo Wasp

Beautiful Cuckoo Wasp

Cuckoo wasps are named after their behaviour where (like the cuckoo birds) they lay their eggs in other wasps’ nests – they are parasites.

Of course the bees were among the most common and efficient pollinators visitors to the coriander flowers…

Braunsapis bee at the coriander flowers

Braunsapis bee at the coriander flowers

The Braunsapis bees were the most common visitors to the flowers among the bees. They moved about a lot and we found them carrying lots of pollen too.

Happy Braunsapis busy on the flowers

Happy Braunsapis busy on the flowers

A number of tiny Stingless Bees were also active – collecting pollen and nectar…

Stingless Bee at work...

Stingless Bee at work...

All the hard work by the pollinators produces these beautiful seeds that we can flavour our food with!

Yummy coriander seeds thanks to the pollinators

Yummy coriander seeds thanks to the pollinators

More from the world of insects soon!