Tag Archives: Turkana

Scorpion mother and her babies!

Dear All – greetings from the Turkana Basin Institute in Northern Kenya.

This afternoon while I was working in my lab I heard a soft rustling noise coming from the waste-paper basket.

At first I thought that yet another careless gecko had gotten itself trapped, but on closer inspection found a small scorpion hiding within.

As I gently eased her out to release her, I noticed there was something odd about her appearance. On looking closer I discovered that she was carrying a precious cargo of babies on her back!

Mama Scorpion with her newborn babies!
Mama Scorpion with her newborn babies!

 

Scorpions are one of many animals, including invertebrates that provide tender, loving maternal care for their offspring. While many of the arthropods simply lay eggs and abandon them to their fate, a few engage in a different strategy of reproduction. Rather than ‘playing a lottery’ by producing umpteen offspring in the hope that a few survive, these creatures produce fewer offspring and protect and nurture them. This greatly increases their chances of survival, especially during the first few days of their lives when they are especially vulnerable…

Scorpion mother and her young
Scorpion mother and her youngsters – how many can you spot?

A lovely example of the tenderness among creatures that many might find a little scary.

More from the wonderful world of creepy crawlies soon!

 

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…

 

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!

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!