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

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!
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

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
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
In the Mororot Hills taking a break from chasing bugs

For more information about Turkana, please visit the Turkana Basin Institute website:

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