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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!

 

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!

Stalk-Eyed Flies (and best wishes for 2012)

Dear All – many greetings from the hot, remote desert in Northern Kenya…

Lots to catch up on here but firstly I would like to thank everyone for reading this blog and sending in your kind comments.

A few days ago I visited the Kerio Valley in northwestern Kenya. It was a hot, sunny day so I decided to stop and rest in the shade of some giant fig trees by a stream…

A cool stream flows through the Kerio Valley

A cool stream flows through the Kerio Valley

As I was sitting by the stream I noticed some of the rocks were covered with what appeared to be insects…

Who are these mysterious bugs gathered on the rocks?

Who are these mysterious bugs gathered on the rocks?

Hmmm... What are all those little red knobs?

Hmmm... What are all those little red knobs?

I took a closer look and was blown away by what I found – one of the most bizarre and wonderful insects in the world – the Stalk-Eyed Fly!

Bizarre and wonderful - The Stalk-Eyed Fly!

Bizarre and wonderful - The Stalk-Eyed Fly!

Yes, those are the flies EYES on the ends of stalks. This bizarre and wonderful arrangement is thought to be the result of sexual selection. Basically female flies chose males based on the width of their eyes. The wider the eyes, the sexier the fly seems. As a result, this amazing structure has come to be.

I watched the Stalk-Eyed Flies gathering on the rocks and leaves by the stream. There was a lot of jostling and showing off by the males…

"My eyes are bigger than yours..."

"My eyes are bigger than yours..."

One of the Stalk-Eyed Flies eyed me as I was photographing it and rubbed it’s front legs together… (you can guess what happened next!)

Hmmm... you look tasty!

Hmmm... you look tasty!

It landed on my knee and started licking the sweat off me! You can see it’s amazing mouthparts extended in the photograph below:

Oooh - that tickles!

Oooh - that tickles!

It was joined a few minutes later by a larger fly (that did more than tickle) so I had to shoo them away…

A larger fly on my knee...

A larger fly on my knee...

The fly returned to its perch on a leaf and posed obligingly for more photos…

Bizarre and beautiful Stalk-Eyed Fly!

Bizarre and beautiful Stalk-Eyed Fly!

Best wishes to all for the New Year and more from the wonderful world of bugs in 2012!

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!

The Spider and the Ant

Dear All – having been weighing and counting ants on the Whistling Thorns for some research work related to my PhD. There are a few alates around – these are the winged reproductive forms of ants… Each colony produces many hundreds, even thousands of alates that take off into the sky as part of a synchronised mating flight. Female alates become future queens, they are larger than the males. Male alates only live for the day of the mating flight – they have one chance to mate. They can never return to their colony once they depart. All of them will die within a day of departing on the mating flight…

Here is an illustration of the alates of the three common ant species on the Whistling Thorn trees in East Africa:

Alates - winged queens and males of the Whistling Thorn ants

Alates - winged queens and males of the Whistling Thorn ants (the black bar is for scale - it represents 1 cm or 1o mm)

Most of the them don’t make it and end up as food for birds, other ants and spiders.

I found this Jumping Spider eating a freshly captured young foundress queen…

Jumping Spider with Acacia-ant alate (winged queen)

Jumping Spider with Acacia-ant alate (winged queen)

The spider lives among the ants and dodges them by constantly keeping on the move, occasionally nabbing one of the hapless ants for a snack! Jumping Spiders are ambush predators that use their athletic skills and fantastic vision to capture prey. They have more than two pairs of eyes (in fact 4 pairs in total, with two pairs facing forward that are very well developed…)

How many eyes can you see on the spider?

How many eyes can you see on the spider?

Serengeti Swallowtail!

Dear All
Many greetings – have been in the Western Serengeti for 10 days training guides… Heavy rains and amazing insects everywhere. Watched these incredible Swallowtails soaring about a hilltop… This is the Citrus Swallowtail, one of the most common and beautiful of East African insects…

Citrus Swallowtail in flight!

Citrus Swallowtail in flight!

The butterflies gathering at the tops of hills are engaging in ‘Hill-topping’ a behaviour that allows males to compete, check out and chase off competitors and court any passing females…

Soaring Citrus Swallowtail...

Soaring Citrus Swallowtail...

Patrolling over the grassland

Patrolling over the grassland

New Year Dragon!

Dear All
Attempted to start the New Year with a morning run and came across this remarkable little person crossing the road. He was so full of character that I just had to sketch him… He obliged by sitting still on a twig – one of the most cooperative subjects I have ever had! Let him go on a bush by the river with lots of bugs on it…

Mini 'dragon' found crossing the road

Mini 'dragon' found crossing the road

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!

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

Happy bees…

Dear All

 

Greetings from Western Kenya and many thanks to Rebecca and Dana for the kind comments. I feel very honoured that there are people out there who read this blog and care about the little creatures of the world! Just back from the Nandi Hills, and was in the Kerio Valley and West Pokot before that (more on that amazing trip soon).

Here are some pictures of honeybees and other insects visiting flowers at the edge of the forest in the Nandi Hills.

The honeybees were busy frantically gathering pollen and nectar from virtually every flower in sight. There has been some more rain in Western Kenya and it is good to see the bees and flowers are happy and healthy after the long drought!

 honeybee-nandi-lr2.jpg

honeybee-nandi-lr1.jpg

honeybee-nandi-lr3.jpg

 

There were also a few butterflies around, including this lovely orange Acraea visiting the flowers. Despite it’s fragile appearance, this butterfly is rarely bothered by predators thanks to its toxic nature advertised with the bright warning colours!

 acraea-nandi-lr1.jpg

I also found some tiny bees sitting inside the hearts of the Thunbergia flowers – (also called Black-eyed Susans) – they seemed to spend most of their time day-dreaming inside the flower, unlike the honeybees who were working tirelessly. I guess that if you are a bee needing a nap, the inside of a flower is the perfect place to take one!

 thunbergia-bee-lr1.jpg

 

 thunbergia-bee-lr2.jpg

 

 

 

More from the world of bugs soon!