Tag Archives: Butterflies

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…

 

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!

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

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!

 

Happy little Buffs…

Hello!

 

Sorry for not posting more often – have been really busy chasing after bugs now that the rains have started and they are popping out all over the place!

 

Many, many thanks to everyone for their kind comments on the blog post ‘Ants in the dust’. I will try and post a link to the BBC piece on it when I can figure out the technical side of it today or tomorrow.

 

A couple of days ago in a tiny forest fragment near Nairobi I spotted these little beauties whirling about some buds. From a distance they looked like tiny little orange flames dancing in the dappled light. On taking a closer look I saw that they were tiny orange and brown lycaenid butterflies.

 

 baliochila-lr2.jpg

 

 

 

Known as ‘Buffs’, these tiny jewels are part of a large and diverse group of butterflies in the family Lycaenidae. This species is Baliochila fragilis – an apt name for their delicate build. The caterpillars of these butterflies feed on lichens, often high up in the forest trees, so it was interesting to find them hovering about near the ground.

 

Looking closely at the butterflies perching on the buds of the Chlorophytum, I noticed that there were a lot of ants running up and down the buds too. And then I noticed that the butterflies had their tiny proboscis unfurled and were feeding from in between the young buds. These buds secrete extra-floral nectar which is intended to attract ants that then patrol the buds and protect them from would-be nibblers of the insect-kind. However, as the butterflies posed no threat the flowers, the ants seemed to tolerate them.

 

baliochila-lr1.jpg 

 

 

In fact, the butterflies were so relaxed that quite a few of the males were courting the females. The pair in the video clip below show the typical interaction. The male sidles up to the female. She rejects him with a flick of her wings and moves on trying to keep feeding. He follows her and flicks his own wings at her trying to win her over… She rejects him and keeps on moving… the cycle is repeated over and over again. I guess eventually some of the most perseverant males win one of the females over!

 

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.youtube.com/v/Az_bNs8cewg” width=”425″ height=”350″ wmode=”transparent” /]

 

 

More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

 

More butterfly eyes!

Dear AllSorry for not posting more – have been travelling – lots to share, just working on getting it all sorted. In the mean time here are some more close-ups of butterfly eyes – enjoy – the Emperor Butterflies below are particularly striking! The first one is a close-up of the Green-Veined Emperor, and the second is of a Black-and-White Charaxes. These are both fast-flying denizens that sweep through the forest canopy at high speeds and rarely venture down close to us mere mortals unless drawn by the scent of some rotting fruit or something even more appetizing like carrion!charaxes_candiope-lr11.jpgcharaxes_brutus-lr11.jpgcharaxes_brutus-lr2.jpg

Butterfly eyes…

Dear All, thanks for your kind comments about the Butterflion. If you are in Nairobi please go and visit him at the Sarit Centre outside the Text Book Centre. Here are some close-up pictures of butterflies that I took over the last couple of days. The pictures show their amazing compound eyes and mouthparts – which consist of a long tubular proboscis. More soon – enjoy the weekend!calotropis-eyes-lr1.jpgdardanus-close-uplr2.jpgdardanus-close-uplr1.jpgjunonia-close-uplr1.jpg