Tag Archives: Bees

Students learn about bees…

Dear All. Many greetings. One of the truly wonderful things about teaching as a scientist is working with students. Good students can help catch more bugs, run around in the sun and ask new questions that help further both science and conservation. While working in Turkana recently, I had three students from Hillcrest Secondary School (Elleni, Nekesa and Tashi) visit and volunteer with me in the field for a few days. Here are their thoughts and first impressions of bees and the environment in northern Kenya…

Setting off on an adventure

Setting off on an adventure

First Glimpses of Bees…

By Elleni Stephanou, Nekesa Morey and Tashi.

Students from Hillcrest Secondary School in Nairobi, Kenya.

What comes to mind when most people think about bees? Probably swarms of the common black and yellow striped honey bee that one finds on the pots of honey in a supermarket or perhaps the buzzing bumble bees seen flying around the garden or illustrated in many children’s books. In fact, this is a common misconception as there are over 20,000 different types of bees. It was only when we, three Hillcrest Secondary School students, Elleni, Tashi and Nekesa, spent a week up at Turkana Basin Institute with entomologist Dr. Dino Martins, that we discovered the truth about bees.

Tashi and Elleni working in the hot sun - this was the first lesson - being patient!

Tashi and Elleni working in the hot sun - this was the first lesson - being patient!

Nekesa poised ready for a bee to visit the tiny flowers on the ground

Nekesa poised ready for a bee to visit the tiny flowers on the ground

Our first glance into the world of bees began on a farm developed by Ikal Angelei of the Friends of Lake Turkana and Turkana Basin Institute on the day of our arrival, where we encountered a variety of species ranging from the tiny stingless bees (Hypotrigona sp) who were attracted to our sweat, to the large bulky Carpenter bees (Xylocopa spp.) that were buzz pollinating the aubergine crops and the Leafcutter bees we saw slicing circles of capsicum leaves  for their hives. So far, around twenty different species have been sighted on the farm, none of which die after their first sting. After this unfortunate enlightenment, we tentatively attempted to catch and transfer them from net to vials for closer inspection in the lab.

A tiny stingless bee hovering near a flower

A tiny stingless bee hovering near a flower

We were also surprised to discover that female bees of most species, unlike the males, are diploid, and only lay eggs of female gender if they happen to have mated with a male. The female bees that were most common on the eggplant flowers live in burrows up to 10 cm deep in the ground, while their male counterparts never return to a burrow once they have hatched from it.

A Ceratina bee visiting a desert flower

A Ceratina bee visiting a desert flower

On our second day in Turkana, we were lucky enough to witness the second rainfall in over a year and a half. Although it only lasted about ten minutes, it led to a phenomenal influx in insect life. Our next challenge was to catch a few of the freshly hatched butterflies to add to Dino’s ever growing database.  We followed this up by catching butterflies on another site about an hour from the institute the next day, where we caught the same species for future cross referencing and DNA comparison.

Chasing butterflies is good exercise

Chasing butterflies is good exercise

Colotis butterfly visiting Cadaba flowers that blossomed after the rain

Colotis butterfly visiting Cadaba flowers that blossomed after the rain

We thoroughly enjoyed this trip and look forward to future expeditions with Dino to different parts of Kenya where we will further develop our new interest in insect life. We would like to thank Dino and the entire team at TBI for hosting us and making this an exceptional experience. The one thing we learned is that Kenya is blessed with amazing insect diversity, even in the desert.

An Amegilla bee approaches a Cadaba flower

An Amegilla bee approaches a Cadaba flower

In the Mororot Hills taking a break from chasing bugs

In the Mororot Hills taking a break from chasing bugs

For more information about Turkana, please visit the Turkana Basin Institute website:

www.turkanabasin.net

Desert filled with bees

A recent rainstorm has brought out the flowers in the desert of northern Kenya where I am currently based at the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI). I am here teaching an ecology module for the Turkana Basin Field School. A single rainstorm that fell a few weeks ago has also brought out a large number of insects. Like many of the plants, the insects are active and taking opportunity of the greenery to forage and breed. And like the plants they are all under intense pressure to complete their life-cycles. For insects this often involves several stages as eggs, larvae, pupae and finally adults.

Deserts and drylands are often mistakenly thought to be places of low diversity. However, they are rich in insect life, but most of this is hidden away awaiting the brief periods of flowering. As this time is now upon us, it has been very exciting for the students to glimpse some of the incredible bee diversity in this habitat. One of the groups of insects that are more diverse in drylands, especially in Africa, are the bees. These are wild bee species. Many people are surprised to learn that there are more than just honeybees. Bee diversity in this area is largely unexplored and no doubt many exciting new species and biology remains to be discovered.

A tiny bee, Nomioides, visiting a Tribulus flower at TBI

We started out watching and collecting bees on the Indigofera spinosa bushes within the TBI compound. A number of bees have been frantically visiting the tiny pink flowers. The students have collected several different bee species on the Indigofera. These include some large leafcutter bees who carry pollen on their bellies, which turns them bright yellow. Another common bee visiting the flower was a Pseudapis. Also visiting the flowers was a striking parasitic cuckoo bee species (Coelioxys) that is a brood parasite of the leafcutter bees. Just like the cuckoo bird, it lays its eggs in the nests made by the hardworking leafcutter bees!

Pseudapis - one of the most efficient pollinators of the Indigofera bushes

Leafcutter bee with its belly covered in pollen!

Cuckoo Bee (Coelioxys) visiting the Indigofera flowers.

We then travelled to a site in the open desert plains where a carpet of miniature flowers pressed close to the ground was busy with bee activity.

Students search for bees on the open semi-desert plains

Here we found several different bees that we hadn’t seen nearer TBI. These included a beautiful halictid or sweat bee with a bright orange abdomen.

Tiny, gorgeous halictid Nomiine bee

We also spent time catching parasitic wasps and bees that were tiny. These are so tiny that we had to use small bags and slip them quickly over the bees as they were foraging, as they could wriggle through the holes in the nets! The students worked hard and learnt a lot about bee diversity and how much work it is to study them!

Students hard at work looking for tiny bees and wasps

Student Hui poised ready to catch one of the zippy bees...

The students also collected data on visitation rates to flowers on the Indigofera bushes. This species is really important as it is the main browse for goats and camels which are the livestock species that people depend on in the drylands of Turkana. We found that solitary wild bee species are both the most abundant and the most efficient pollinators as they carry pollen between many different individual plants resulting in effective cross-pollination. The Indigofera bushes establish new plants from the seeds that only come about as a result of pollination by the wild bee species. So the bees feed the goats and camels indirectly!

Camel browsing on Indigofera from seeds made by bees

More from the world of bees and bugs soon.

To learn more about the Turkana Basin Institute, please visit their website:

http://www.turkanabasin.org/

Leaf-cutter bees in action!

Hello! While watching the eggplant flowers for pollinators in Turkana I noticed that some of the leaves of several nearby bell-pepper plants had neat circular pieces cut out from them…

Who is responsible for these missing circles?

Who is responsible for these missing circles?

I sat down to watch the plants, suspecting that the perpetrator would be back soon. A few minutes later an fervent buzzing zipped up to the plants and settled on one of the leaves. It was a leaf-cutter bee!

Leaf-cutter bee sinks it teeth into a leaf

Leaf-cutter bee sinks it teeth into a leaf

The bee works rapidly to cut through the leaf in a near-perfect circle…

Leaf-cutter bee rapidly chews the leaf off

Leaf-cutter bee rapidly chews the leaf off

Then the bee takes off for its nest with the piece of the leaf held under it. It will use this to line the walls of the tubular next that it constructs for its larva. As these bees are also very good and efficient pollinators, they are welcome to use some of the crops’ leaves for their nests.

Leaf-cutter bee carries off the leaf to its nest!

Leaf-cutter bee carries off the leaf to its nest!

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

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!

Bees make Raspberries!

Dear All

A few days ago I visited a friend of mine who runs a farm on the outskirts of Nairobi. Su Kahumbu is an organic farmer who does amazing work with farmers across Kenya promoting sustainable agriculture and innovation…

Farmer Su Kahumbu with her raspberry bushes

Farmer Su Kahumbu with her raspberry bushes

One of the crops growing at her beautiful model farm are raspberries.

These delicious fruits are one of my favourite desserts… And of course in order to have raspberries on the table you need to have raspberry bushes. The raspberry bushes have flowers that need to be pollinated in order for the beautiful and yummy fruit to develop…

Raspberry flowers are composite flowers – which means that they are actually made up of many tiny individual flowers all joined together.

Freshly opened raspberry flower

Freshly opened raspberry flower

In order for a flower to set fruit, it needs to be pollinated. On Su’s farm these free services are provided to her raspberry bushes by several different kinds of bees. One of the most common pollinators is the honeybee.

A honeybee grapples with a raspberry flower

A honeybee grapples with a raspberry flower

The honeybees move swiftly between the flowers and visit in large numbers.

Honeybees drink nectar and gather pollen at the flowers

Honeybees drink nectar and gather pollen at the flowers

As these are composite flowers, every single tiny individual flower, called a floret, needs to be visited and gently dusted with pollen by a bee. Otherwise there will be no fruits produced.

Recently pollinated young raspberry fruits

Recently pollinated young raspberry fruits

Honeybees are not the only bees visiting the flowers. There are also some wild solitary bees. These are even more efficient in some cases as they spend longer times on the flowers and manipulate them more thoroughly. The quality, shape, flavour and size of the raspberry fruit are all directly tied to the efficiency of the pollinators. Too little pollen and the fruit is pale, small and not very sweet. It takes many visits by many bees to make a fruit round and sweet..

Solitary wild bee on raspberry flower

Solitary wild bee on raspberry flower

It is the actions of all these bees who make the delicious raspberries happen!

Yummy raspberry thanks to the hard-working bees!

Yummy raspberry thanks to the hard-working bees!

Please think of the bees that put the food on your table next time you enjoy some raspberries for breakfast or dessert. More from the wonderful world of insects 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

Carpenter bee…

Dear All – sorry for not posting more often. Have been on the road with limited access to the internet. Here is a picture of a carpenter bee visiting some Thunbergia flowers in the evening light. These are one of the bees tha often feed late in the day even well into the dusk…More about incredible insects to follow soon!xylocopa-thunbergia-lr1.jpg

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.

 

 njahe-blackbean-lr1.jpg

 

 

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

 

xylocopa-njahe-lr1.jpg 

 

 

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

 

 njahe-blackbean-lr2.jpg

 

 

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.

 

 butterbean-flowers-lr1.jpg

butterbean-pod-lr1.jpg

 

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!

 

hyperolius-butterbean-lr1.jpg 

 

 

More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

 

Male bees on patrol…

Male bees keeping watch on their patch of bush….

 

Dear All, Hello – have just been travelling through Western Kenya working on pollinators at various sites with groups of farmers. Its been amazing and I look forward to sharing some of the discoveries and photographs with you all over the next few days.

 

Yesterday I spent the day looking at insects in some mango farms in the Kerio Valley. During the hottest part of the day we decided to take a break and shelter in the shade while eating our lunch of (you guessed it!) mangoes.

 

As I settled down to the mango feast I noticed a loud buzzing sound drawing closer. Then a flash of yellow and black whirred by. A few seconds later it returned. At first I though, hmmm, this is someone after a piece of my mango. However, it kept circling the bush and showed no interest in the fruit.

 

 As I watched it closely, I realised that it was a male carpenter bee patrolling its territory. Looking out over the dappled bush I realised that there were literally hundreds of male bees doing the same thing – endlessly circling some prime spot in the hope of a female wandering by…

 

 xylocopa-kerio-hoverlr2.jpg

 

 

 

Every ten seconds or so it returned to hover in a sunspot in front of me.

 

 xylocopa-kerio-hoverlr1.jpg

 

 

It kept this up for the entire half-hour break that we took for lunch. Four hours later as I prepared to call it a day, the same male bees were still at it, endlessly circling their little patches of bush in the hopes of wooing a lady carpenter bees’ heart…

 

xylocopa-kerio-hoverlr4.jpg