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Bee With No Stripes Discovered in Kenya

Beauty is in the eye of the bee holder. Behold Samba turkana, the worlds newest known bee. Photo by Dino J. Martins)
Beauty is in the eye of the bee holder. Behold Samba turkana, the world’s newest known bee. (Photo by Dino J. Martins)

It has a black head and a bright orange body, and velociraptor-like claws on its hind legs.

It lives underground, not in a hive.

And it lives by itself, instead of in the huge colonies we’re used to.

Here’s the story of the discovery of the world’s newest-known bee.

Bee-ing There

The hot, dusty bush and deserts of Turkana in Northern Kenya are one of our planet’s most remote and exciting regions to explore. This harsh landscape is famous for its long record of human and vertebrate evolution – as part of the work of the Leakey family. The Turkana Basin holds the shimmering Lake Turkana that lies in the middle of the African Great Rift Valley.

Turkana is also a region with unique biodiversity, that has adapted to the hot, dry conditions. At first look deserts and drylands may appear bleak and devoid of life. However, nothing could be further from the truth: these regions are teeming with life, but living things here have adapted to the extreme conditions, and often stay hidden or dormant for long periods of time. After brief rains life erupts with an unrivaled exuberance to make the most of the flowers and opportunity.

Dino J. Martins searching for bees in the hot, remote region of Turkana. Photo by D. Green.
Dino J. Martins searches for bees in the hot, remote region of Turkana. (Photo by D. Green)

I’ve been privileged to explore and chase after insects in this part of the world for the past few years as part of my research with the Turkana Basin Institute founded by Dr. Richard Leakey. We have made lots of discoveries including some new species and revealed that this part of the world is particularly rich in different kinds of bees.

Here is a poster showing some of the bee diversity from this part of the world:

A few of the amazing bees found in Turkana
We put together this poster to show a few of the amazing bees found in Turkana. (Photos/Illustrations by Dino J. Martins)

Where Bees Come From

Some of the most amazing bees we have been lucky to find are those in the Family Melittidae, commonly known as Melittids. These bees are thought to be among the most ancient group of bees. Both bees and ants evolved from wasps, and have become two of the most successful, widespread, and ecologically important groups of insects.

These bees, like most wild bees, are solitary with each female working alone to excavate and provision her own nest. The well known hive full of honeybees is actually very unusual!

The Discovery

We first found the new bee when collecting after rains in May 2012, and were very excited to see it. However, we only found a couple of bees, and then despite searching for many months, none reappeared. But last year in September following some rains, the bees reappeared!

This time I was able to track them carefully and watch some of their behavior as they visited the flowers. This allowed us to work out what one of the most remarkable and distinctive features of this genus is used for in females: the long, curved dagger-like spurs on their hind legs appear to be involved in assisting with foraging on the flowers of legumes. The bee grips the flower and presses down separating the wing petals and the pressure on the keel of the flower exposes the flowers’ anthers which then are rapidly and furiously combed through the curved spur and the inner surface of the hind legs to strip them of pollen.

Samba turkana foraging on Crotolaria flowers. Photo by Dino J. Martins
The newly discovered Samba turkana forages largely on Crotolaria flowers. (Photo by Dino J. Martins)

Being bright orange, they are easy to spot at they zip about the low-growing flowers that appear after the rains. These solitary bees start their day early in the morning racing to the flowers to gather pollen. As things dry up really quickly in the Turkana heat, they only have a couple of days to gather enough pollen for their larvae.

The females nest in the ground, digging tunnels in the sand, where they make small cells that hold the stores of pollen and their young. Each female collects food for her own larvae and cares for her own nest individually—there’s no sharing and cooperation like in the more familiar honeybees. The female Samba bees lay eggs on the stored pollen.

If you’re wondering what the males are doing, so are we! We haven’t found any yet, but they are likely just focused on mating—we can already see that they don’t help at the nest or collect pollen.

The eggs eventually hatch into larvae and grow and develop into pupae. Although we still don’t know what happens underground fully, it is most likely these pupae that survive the long droughts in a state of suspended animation called aestivation, then emerging as adult bees when the rains finally come.

Here are detail photos taken in the lab showing some of the features, including the long curved spurs on the hind legs:

Detail of Samba turkana. Photo by Dino J. Martins
The black head and bright orange body make Samba turkana easy to spot among the flowers. (Photo by Dino J. Martins)
This close-up reveals the distinctive claw  on the rear legs that help Samba turkana collect pollen. (Photo by Dino J. Martins)
This close-up reveals the distinctive claw that helps Samba turkana collect pollen. (Photo by Dino J. Martins)

Once we had a few specimens, the bee then went on a worldwide journey so as to be described by scientists. Working with Professor Laurence Packer of York University (one of the world’s leading experts on bee taxonomy and biology) a description was prepared and I was able to add information on the behavior and ecology to this from field observations in Turkana. The description was published in the scientific journal ZooTaxa earlier this month (read the full paper).

Professor Packer and other bee taxonomists have joined me in Kenya before to search for bees. Here’s a photo from an earlier field trip:

Professor Laurence Packer of York University crossing a bridge in Kenya. Photo by Dino J. Martins
Professor Laurence Packer of York University crosses a bridge in Kenya. (Photo by Dino J. Martins)

Our Hopes for the Future

We named the new bee Samba turkana, choosing to honour the region, its cultures, and biodiversity. It is my hope that this discovery will also inspire more Kenyan students to work in the sciences and go out into the world and make discoveries around them—there is so much to be explored in terms of biodiversity and insects. For more information on research and discovery in Turkana, please visit the Turkana Basin Institute website. My research and exploration of this part of the world has been supported by the National Geographic Society and the Whitley Fund for Nature.

More from the wonderful world of bees and other bugs soon!

[Updated 2/26/2015]

Read All Posts by Dino Martins

 

Comments

  1. Kibon
    Mogotio
    July 7, 2015, 12:42 pm

    Kudos for affirming this.
    There is a type of bee which lives underground and make clear honey. It makes a narrow tiny tunnel smeared with wax ending to a pot-like furrow where honey is deposited.
    The tunnel protruding outside of the ground is seen by, like a 1 cm high waxy tube. The honey is famously known in Tugen a sub tribe of Kalenjin in Kenya as “kesumyiot”.
    Enlighten us more on this.

  2. Kibon
    Mogtio
    July 7, 2015, 12:41 pm

    Kudos for affirming this.
    There is a type of bee which lives underground and make clear honey. It makes a narrow tiny tunnel smeared with wax ending to a pot-like furrow where honey is deposited.
    The tunnel protruding outside of the ground is seen by, like a 1 cm high waxy tube. The honey is famously known in Tugen a sub tribe of Kalenjin in Kenya as “kesumyiot”.
    Enlighten us more on this.

  3. Ima Ryma
    March 2, 2015, 6:34 am

    A brand new bee is bee-ing found,
    Named Samba turkana to bee
    The area of Kenyan ground,
    Where I let humans beehold me.
    Bee a black head, bee an orange bod,
    Bee claws on legs, and bee no stripes.
    Bee no hive, but bee under sod.
    Bee a loner, bee social? – yipes!
    Bee-ing a gal, I need a guy
    To buzz around for just one thing.
    He beegat that, then he bee die,
    The only use for he bee-ing.

    So what will bee will bee becuz
    What bee beefore, already wuz.

  4. Darlene West
    February 28, 2015, 5:15 pm

    Is it a clone

  5. Rich Godfrey
    Fremont California
    February 28, 2015, 10:17 am

    As many have pointed out, Africa is not one country but many, and this discovery reaffirms the fascinating diversity of the bee family! Is this an example of divergent evolution from wasp to bee? Will the genome of this bee undergo careful study? Kudos to Dino Martins and Lawrence Packer for exploring new vistas in hot weather!

  6. Kelly Lemuya
    Lodwar
    February 27, 2015, 12:11 am

    I love your discovery – Samba Turkana. Congratulations for the good works and Inspiration.

  7. Johana Ekwam
    Mogotio
    February 26, 2015, 11:50 pm

    This is wonderful ; i am not sure how related the bee is to the others found in parts of Baringo(Radad area) to be specific that stays below the ground:

  8. Marianne Sunderland
    New York
    February 26, 2015, 8:00 am

    Congratulations on your new find! My daughter, Katie Stevens was one of your students a year ago from Stony Brook! Life changing!! We are starting a beekeeping project here at home this Spring. Wish us luck in spreading the bee-love!

  9. IKAAL MAURICE
    Lodwar
    February 26, 2015, 7:57 am

    i applaud the discovery. i am a local with knowledge on apiculture. As far as i know the Turkana beekeepers harvest honey not only in the hives but on ground. And the product is always blackish in color unlike honey harvested in the beehives which has a variety of colors depending on the nectar collected and flowers visited by bees. i am fascinated by the anatomical appearance of the beehive, it seems that the queen is not lazy unlike other queens in the hive that are fed by workers. this is extremely awesome. keep up Dino!

  10. Obadiah
    Eldoret
    February 25, 2015, 12:06 pm

    I Love this.

  11. Susie Allan
    Nairobi, Kenya
    February 25, 2015, 8:32 am

    Dino, how amazing to have a Turkana bee! Congratulations! and I hope that you are not baking there on the lake – so hot here in Nairobi!