Tag Archives: Dino Martins

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

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!

Serengeti Insects (and yoga!)

Dear All

Hello – many thanks for the kind comments. I am just back in Kenya after 10 amazing days in the Grumeti Reserve in Serengeti. I was training guides and exploring the insect life in the area with them…

Thanks to the rains, the Serengeti Plains were a sea of rippling green-and-gold, with the grass as high as an elephant’s eye (literally!)…

Beautiful grass after the rains

Beautiful grass after the rains

We spent time learning some of the common butterflies, like this striking Round-winged Orange tip. There were lots of butterflies around thanks to the lovely rains that had brought the Gutenbergia into flower. Here are just a few of the hundreds that we saw visiting the purple flowers…

Round-winged Orange Tip Butterfly

Round-winged Orange Tip Butterfly

African Golden Arab Butterfly

African Golden Arab Butterfly

One of the most interesting butterflies that we saw was a small, shy creature who darted about like a nervous spirit. She finally settled down and I managed to snap this picture of this very intriguing butterfly, a type of Skipper called the Netted Sylph…

The enigmatic and aptly-named Netted Sylph

The enigmatic and aptly-named Netted Sylph

The gorgeous Zebra Butterfly

The gorgeous Zebra Butterfly

Edward meets a Female African Mocker Swallowtail

Edward meets a Female African Mocker Swallowtail

We spent time watching many different kinds of insects. Here are a few of those who were both friendly and fascinating:

Mishi meets a Blister Beetle - note the bright warning colours!

Mishi meets a Blister Beetle - note the bright warning colours!

We also found this lovely Armoured Ground Cricket who was riding along in the car with us. Despite their formidable appearance, they are gentle creatures and harmless to humans…

Agnes meets the Armoured Ground Cricket

Agnes meets the Armoured Ground Cricket

We ended some of the long field days with a yoga session on the plains…

Yoga after a long day of looking at bugs...

Yoga after a long day of looking at bugs...

More from the world of bugs soon!

Ant in the evening…

Ant in the evening…

 

A few weeks ago while visiting a forest at the coast I took a stroll in the evening. One of the most common kinds of ants along the East African coast are members of the genus Polyrachis. These are fairly large (as ants go!), over 1 cm long, and can commonly be found clambering around houses and trees.

 

 polyrachis-watamu-lr1.jpg

 

 

This particular ant was wandering up a twig of a tangled shrub at the edge of the path. It walked up and down the stem several times before climbing onto a leaf. These ants are famous for tending other insects – primarily bugs of various kinds that suck plant juices and reward the ants with treats of honeydew. I found this bug lying against the stem where the ant was walking up and down.

 

 fulgorid-watamu-lr1.jpg

 

After a few minutes, the ant clambered on to a leaf in the sunshine. There it sat sunning itself for a few minutes before wandering off.

 

 polyrachis-watamu-lr2.jpg

polyrachis-watamu-lr3.jpg

 

 

 

I wonder what it was thinking of – perhaps ‘How do I get home to my colony?’, Or was it, just like I was, enjoying the evening sunshine streaming through the forest… It seems that even ants need a moment to themselves sometimes.

 

 

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 

‘Robber’ attacks the Butterflion

As I was putting the final touches to the Butterflion a few days ago before he was picked up by the people from Born Free, I noticed that there was a strange fellow hanging around the lion’s painted mane.

 

butteflion-manelr1.jpg 

 

He swished back and forth in a very suspicious manner. I decided to stand as still as possible and watch to see who this interloper was. After several tense seconds, he showed himself, pouncing on one of the butterflies painted on the lion’s mane!

 robber-fly-butterflionlr2.jpg

 

Stunned, as this butterfly was not a juicy piece of prey but a layer of acrylic pigment on some rather hard fibre-glass, the attacker sat there and obligingly let me take his picture. This is a Robber-Fly, a common predatory insect that often seizes butterflies from the air and when they perch. However, this time he was fooled!

 robber-fly-butterflionlr1.jpg

 

 

More soon – the launch of the lions takes place tomorrow morning and I will be there. Many thanks to everyone for their kind comments especially Dana, Christine, Tonee and Sheryl.

Meet the Butterflion!!

Hello!I’ve been meaning to share what I’ve been up to over the past few days. I have been painting a lion for the Pride of Kenya event, which is being organised by the Born Free foundation to raise awareness about the plight of Kenya’s lions and the need for their conservation.butteflionlr5.jpgOf course as an insect-lover you can guess what I painted on my lion…butterflionlr1.jpgbutterflionlr6.jpgThe entire surface of the lion is covered in details from Kenyan butterflies and a few other bugs. There are a couple of pollinators – who are some of my favourite organisms and so important to farming and the survival of ecosystems.butterflionlr2.jpgbutterflionlr4.jpgThere are also a few ticks and ants hidden here and there on the lion. This will be a small fun activity for children to locate all the ticks and ants that are on the lion.Painting one of the butterflies was done in honour of George Adamson and his incredible work for lion conservation throughout his life. The small, humble blue butterfly in the middle of the picture below is of a species that was found at Kora, where George Adamson lived his last years. This butterfly had been named in honour of him, Leptotes adamsoni.butterflion-adamsonlr1.jpgI’ve gotten several requests for better views of the lion. Therefore, here is my amateur attempt at this by taking a video while walking around the lion and the result is below. Please enjoy the Butterflion and in appreciating the beauty and intricacy of these creatures spare a thought for all the wonderful animals and plants that we share the planet with and who need all the help they can get today to survive. And remember, without them our own survival on this fragile planet is tenuous.[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.youtube.com/v/3fuBnL7YVP4″ width=”425″ height=”350″ wmode=”transparent” /]