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Desert in Northern Kenya Filled With Bees!

My name is Dino J. Martins, I am a Kenyan entomologist and I love insects. The Kiswahili word for insect is dudu and if you didn’t know already, insects rule the world! Thanks to the amazing efforts of the ‘little things that run the world’ I was humbled to be selected as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. This blog is a virtual dudu safari through the fascinating world of bugs. Enjoy, leave a comment and send any questions or comments to me through: insects.eanhs@gmail.com
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. This is an amazing research centre established through the efforts of the Leakeys to promote research and conservation in the area.

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

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 - parasite of the Leafcutter bee above 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:



  1. Caleb maloba
    April 23, 10:03 am

    Hello, thanks for your good work your doing, I have a farm in Lukenya machakos county in Kenya which is arid area please I read some where indigofera is a good fodder crop in Manila phillipine , please how can I get the seeds from you as in our area and Nairobi there is none who knows the plant or seeds.thanks in advance my phone number is +254732352020, and my email calebsasson@gmail.com

  2. loanemu
    October 18, 2015, 2:02 pm

    Thanks so much for the article post.Really thank you!

  3. jo
    April 27, 2012, 5:33 pm

    hello, when a bee wants to be a queen what if they both die from stinging each other

  4. jo
    April 25, 2012, 8:37 pm

    what eats bees and wasp and hornets

  5. jo
    April 25, 2012, 8:35 pm

    what is stronger a bee hornet or wasp

  6. Mika
    March 16, 2012, 10:19 pm

    Dave,I just returned from my prbloem hive @ which we moved to remote location, the queen is out and the bees are building a 4 inch comb on her box. They don’t seem t be working the frames. There are a hundred or so bees left in that colony and there were big black ants at the entrance to hive. The strong hive overflowing with bees which makes hard to even open the top cover without killing a number of bee when you close it. They were in a pyramid cluster on the bottom of the top cover early this morning. I don’t think they are entering the brood frames either.Is there some way you could come inspect my hives and see what I’m doing wrong. Nothing has seemed to go right with this whole process. I really need some on site help!Chuck Gazlay

  7. Tom
    October 5, 2011, 4:26 am

    Hi, just wondering, is it possible to catch those tiny bees in the bags without getting stung?

    • Dino Martins
      October 5, 2011, 4:35 am

      Hi Tom – Thanks for your comment. Yes, the bees are tiny and reluctant to sting, and some of the tiniest bees we find here are actually stingless bees!

  8. Gerard Pennards
    Europe, Netherlands
    October 4, 2011, 8:22 am

    How about Syrphidae? This family is also renown as pollinators, I wonder wether there are also many Syrphid species around visiting flowers. They can look very much like bees or wasps by the way…

    • Dino Martins
      October 5, 2011, 4:36 am

      Hi – Thanks for your comment. Yes, the hoverflies are important too. We haven’t seen that many of them in the desert but they are more common in mountains and savannahs south of here…

  9. Laura
    October 4, 2011, 4:00 am

    This is interesting. I didnt know there were many other bees, that is apart from the honey and bumble bees. Is there any other place with as many bees?

    • Dino Martins
      October 4, 2011, 5:35 am

      Hi – thanks for your note, yes, there are many dryland areas with high bee diversity including most of East Africa, Southern Africa, the south-west US and the Negev Desert in Israel…

  10. David Ndago
    October 4, 2011, 2:19 am

    The ground looks amazing unlike when we were there in Feb. Keep up the good work.

  11. Andrew Boku
    Chalbi Desert
    October 4, 2011, 12:38 am

    Thanks for the discovery and pliz tell us more on the economic viability of these bees for the desert people who normally are endowed but they don’t know.

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