Tag Archives: insects

Rainforest Xmas Jewels!

Dear All

I have been very lucky to spend the xmas holidays in the Kakamega Forest in Western Kenya. After a busy year of looking at bugs, studying bees, writing and research in many remote places, what better way to spend the holidays than sitting quietly by a stream deep in the heart of the forest…

As I waited by the stream, watching the coming and going of countless marvelous insects, two exceptionally beautiful damselflies made a special appearance. The first was a Red Jewel. This rare creature is found along forested streams in Western Kenya and Uganda. It lays its eggs in the clear, flowing waters where oxygen levels are high and the water pure and sweet. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful of Africa’s insects.


The gorgeous Red Jewel deep in the heart of Kakamega Forest, Western Kenya.


The Red Jewel spent most of its time chasing off other damselflies and even the much larger dragonflies from its special vantage point in the sun along the stream. Occasionally it swept out and grabbed a snack in form of a passing mosquito or hapless flies that became trapped on the waters’ surface.

I watched the Red Jewel flashing about and perched, carefully recording when it captured prey. As I followed its behaviour keenly, a leaf rustled beside me and I looked up to find myself eye-to-eye with another beauty. This one was watching as much as I was watching it. It was draped in the dappled light gazing out at the world, its tongue flicking in and out.

Yes, I flinched when I first spotted it, and it responded with the same and a warning hiss. Then, as I realised that it was not the least bit interested in my, but merely enjoying the warm, liquid golden sunshine that flowed down through the canopy far overhead, we both relaxed and shared the view of the stream and its myriad inhabitants. (Yes, you might have guessed already that this creature was a snake – a lovely little Green Bush Viper)…


The elegant Green Bush Viper


As the Green Bush Viper and I both relaxed again, my attention wandered back to the flashes of colour moving around the stream. And then on a leaf right in front of me appeared another of the forests’ jewels – The incredible Sapphire, another of East Africa’s loveliest damselflies…


The elegant, exquisite Sapphire Damselfly, Kakamega Forest


When one is honored, inspired and awed by beauty such as this – I can’t help but think of how special and precious all our forests and all our biodiversity is on this planet. I feel that in witnessing and exploring the wonders of nature, I also have to point out that we need to conserve it for its beauty and interest as much as its utility and practical contributions to our daily lives. What a joy to be able to find spaces wherever they may be, that are filled with species who have come about through millions of years of evolution and share with us their home and our home on this lonely little planet.


Stream in rainforest, Kakamega Forest, Western Kenya

Please keep the ‘little creatures that run the world’ in your thoughts during the holidays…

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!

Big female, tiny male…

Big female, tiny male!

On a recent walk through one of the coastal forests I came across this amazing example of ‘sexual dimorphism’. This is where there are striking differences in size, shape, colour and other features between males and females of the same species. In this case it is a striking example of size-based sexual dimorphism with a gigantic female and a puny dwarf male.

Orb-weaving spiders are common in the coastal forests – among the more striking are these magnificent Nephila, who hang their massive webs, often over a metre in diameter, along forest paths. These spiders are incredible creatures. They are not just large and colourful (this one here was about 7 inches from toe to toe!), but also highly intelligent.

I have actually seen some of them gather up their webs when they see a person or a large animal approaching. After you’ve passed, they drop the web back down into place. This means that the spider doesn’t have its web snagged every time some large bumbling mammal walks by.

While taking a closer look at the spider’s magnificent web and beautiful colours, I noticed that there was another creature clinging to the web beneath her. On closer inspection I realised that this was a male. These Nephila spiders have really tiny stunted males in many species.


The reason behind this is thought to be female aggression. The female Nephila are famously aggressive (even as I watched her from a safe distance she rotated her fangs at me like a pair of macabre bicycle pedals!). Males have gotten smaller and smaller through evolution so that they can sneak into the webs and mate with the females without getting eaten.

Males do compete for access to females, and therefore there is a trade-off: you need to be big enough to fend off the other boys, but not too big or else the female will notice you and take you for an intruder and despatch you before you can mate with her!


In many cases the males still get eaten after they mate with the female. In fact in some spiders the males actually somersault onto the females jaws after mating with her! Notice how in this pair of would-be lovers the male is keeping to the opposite side of the web until the female yields to his charms. Just in case he needs to make a quick escape! Talk about living life in the fast lane!


Many thanks to everyone for the kind comments. More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!

More Gorilla bugs (and gorillas)

After meeting the giant earthworms and the flying caterpillar we emerged from the dark, damp tangled bamboo forest into a thick morass of vegetation made up of herbs, wildflowers, high-altitude grasses and most noticeable of all – stinging nettles. Some of the wildflowers in this zone of vegetation are lovely gems. Many are endemic to the area. Below are some pictures of them.






The nettles were everywhere along the path. Each leaf and stem of the nettles is dotted with sharp glass-like hairs. These are actually tiny hypodermic needles each one connected to a poison gland that pumps out their venom when the sharp end of the ‘needle’ punctures your skin! It burns for hours on end – especially if you accidentally brush against one of the giant stinging nettles with their extra-large needles.




Despite their formidable armature, the smaller species of nettle are actually edible. They are in fact one of the Mountain Gorilla’s foodplants, alongside some 200 other species of plants that grow on these lush mountains. They can also be cooked as a vegetable and are quite delicious when prepared in milk with a dash of butter – I’ve had them in Western Kenya and Uganda. Clover also grows here – in lush carpets with purple flowers. It provided a nice relief to the spikes and stings on the other plants!



We continued along the path, which continued to climb, but less steeply than through the bamboo. Progress was steady, punctuated by muttered cries of pain, as every now and then one of us made contact with the stinging nettles. And it was not just the nettles who were out to get us. Some of the other plants were also armed with sharp spiny leaves, such as the Acanthus and thistles which grew into miniature trees up here closer to the sun and watered by abundant rain.



Not all the plants were on the attack, and I spent a few minutes adoring some of the giant lobelias. These incredible plants are related to common wildflowers that everywhere else grow just a couple of inches tall, but here on East Africa’s high mountains they are magically transformed into floral giants.



Finally, after a solid two-hour hike through nettles and their friends, we caught up with the trackers who were waiting in the shade of a young rosewood tree. They told us that the gorillas were just ahead, feeding on a flank of the mountain, Bisoke (also called Visoke) that we were on.



We left our bags and walking sticks behind and followed Francis, our amazing guide, up the slope. Within minutes we saw the bushes moving and saw fuzzy black forms darting in and out of view.


My heart was pounding as we got closer and closer. And then, suddenly, we were right there, among them! The first individual I got a good look at was the grand old Silverback (the alpha male gorilla), who leads the family group. Below is the view that we had of him. He continued feeding ignoring us completely. We were stunned and awed by his presence, but I’m not sure that he was even the slightest bit impressed with us! If he did think anything of us, he certainly didn’t show it, only turning his massive head towards us once before returning to peeling nettles.



Francis beckoned us to follow him, which was easier said than done, as we were on a tangled slope in the thick of nettles. There was no solid ground underfoot either, we walked on a springy mass of vines and nettle-stems, trying to keep our balance and respectful distance from the gorillas (who were not as observant of this rule).



We stood quietly among the gorillas, watching them feed. Imagine living in a giant field of your favourite foods – that basically sums up the gorilla habitat. Here’s a close-up of the seeding part of the wild celery that they love to eat.


They move about slowly and gently break off branches and twigs to nibble on. The wild celery is one of their favourites, and they carefully peel its pithy skin off the juicy stems, before munching it. I watched one individual sitting in a patch of wild celery, feeding for several minutes.





It is so moving to see them feeding and moving about so carefree and peaceful. The fact that these incredible creatures are still on this planet is something that none of us can take for granted. Looking into their eyes I felt more human and more aware that we are but one species on a planet with millions of other wonderful creatures who all deserve to live and thrive, and to whom we are intricately and inextricably linked.


How improbably wonderful that we as humans, despite all our blundering and madness, still have our dear cousins, the gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos here with us in the world today. Somehow, despite all the odds against them, they too have survived and we must do everything that we can to make sure that they, and all the other species too, are here for future generations to marvel at. If you meet a fellow great ape you will realise that without them we would be very lonely, for in them one sees so much of ourselves: compassion, friendship, family, kindness, playfulness, unbridled joy and even curiosity.



A short time later, parts of the family settled down around their ‘daddy’ the silverback for a short snooze. Again I was struck by the peaceful sense of family and shared group bond that they had. In fact, it makes one wonder which species, ours or theirs, has a more developed sense of family? In their interactions there is little posturing, just pure gentleness and love between the family members. Even the massive silverback tolerated the playful youngsters jumping all over him as he tried to take a nap.


This family is known as the Amahoro group, which means ‘peaceful’ as Francis our ranger informed us. They were so named because of all they gorilla groups habituated for human visitation, they were the most calm and peaceful (There was a slight lapse in this when one of the gorillas gently cuffed one of our party, Craig Hatkoff, and the same individual also took a playful swipe at one of the guides).

One of the most intimate moments with these incredible creatures was when watching them snooze under a green umbrella of vines and leaves, Francis grabbed my arm and said: “Look, there is the mother with the young baby!”


Moving my gaze from the bright sunshine into the shadows, it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. And there before me was one of the most moving scenes of the entire visit. A mother gorilla cradled her young infant in her arms as he nursed at her breast. Her hands were so massive, with callused black palms, but they held the tiny infant with such gentle tenderness. She looked up at me gently as I fumbled with the camera. I felt very much like a voyeur. All the other gorillas did was roll over and grunt as if to say “There they go again, those silly humans clicking away…”



I sat down nearby and continued to watch them. The baby gorilla soon fell asleep, though he did cough a little bit (you can hear the recording of this and other amazing gorilla sounds on Paula’s outstanding podcast about the trip on the WildlifeDirect Baraza blog).


Of course, being a scientist, my feelings of adulation and awe were spiced with curiosity and I kept looking around at the bugs. Yes, even in the presence of gorillas I will look for insects – I am a true insect-lover! It was especially amazing to see the many different kinds of flies that settled on and around the gorillas.




There were so many different kinds, many of them difficult to get pictures of, but here are some of the species that were closest to the gorillas.




The commonest flies were ‘Green-bottles’ and their relatives, who settled both on the massive hairy bodies and the fresh dung. Most of these looked like they were in the genus Chrysomya.


There were also a number of blood-sucking flies, similar to Horse-flies, that are likely to be sucking blood from the gorillas. These flies may not just be pests of the gorillas, they visit flowers in large numbers too and are pollinating some of the plants that the gorillas feed on. There is so much to learn from the other incredible creatures, no matter how tiny, obscure or even ‘gross’, as they too are part of the ecosystem that the gorillas live in. And so, if there’s one lesson from this incredible meeting that I would like to share, it is that we cannot undervalue even a single species with whom we are privileged to share the earth. They all matter. We need them all, and we should love, and care about them all, from giant gorillas to tiny flies.



One thing I must do is thank all the wonderful people who made this trip possible. First a big Asante to Craig Hatkoff for the kind invitation, and to the rest of the amazing team: Juliana, Ben, Noah, Joe, Bill, Brian; Beth, Eric and Jennifer for being such good organisers, and especially to our great ranger-guide Francis (in the picture below), and all of the people in Rwanda involved in protecting the mountain gorillas, and to Paula (on the left in the second picture below!), for her patience with me stopping to look at insects all the time!




More soon – currently in Mwanza, Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria looking at ant-acacias and other amazing creatures.

PS-Sorry for not posting this sooner. It’s taken me some time to get all the pictures and other stuff sorted. And many thanks to everyone who reads and sends comments. Please forgive me if I don’t respond immediately – I am still learning how to use the blogging software and all the different aspects of the blog that I need to manage.