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A Beeline Through Kakamega Rainforest

By Jeff Kerby and Zach Fuller

Honeybees are famously in trouble, but not all populations are showing signs of stress. Hives in East Africa—where honeybees are critical pollinators for coffee, cacao, and cashews—seem more resilient than their American and European counterparts, even when faced with similar pathogens.

The buzzing question is, Why?

We teamed up with local and international collaborators and set off for Kenya in the summer of 2015 to take the first step: collecting a diverse set of bees and bee viruses. Read all about the beginning of our journey.

While travelling in search of stingless bees the team made a stop in Kakamega Rainforest, the last remnant of a lush landscape that used to cover most of the region.

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Kakamega Forest is the last remaining remnant of a lush tropical rainforest that used to stretch across Kenya. (Photo by Jeff Kerby)

Kakamega was larger than most of her sisters, and had a distinctive black spot near her eye.  I still remember her grumpy personality, though she’s long since succumbed to old age.

This was 9 years ago when I used to live with a herd of monkeys in the highlands of Ethiopia (see April feature story in magazine here). The researchers I was assisting had named all the monkeys, but it wasn’t until after a few months working alongside Kakamega and the rest of the “K” family that I learned all were named after places in Kenya (where both project founders had done their PhDs).  Since then, I’d always be curious to learn more about Kakamega the place.

Fortunately, Kakamega forest played a central role in the Beenomics project for several days. Located in the northwest of Kenya near Uganda, this stretch of rainforest covers about twice the area of Pittsburgh, but is a small relic of a vast tropical forest that once stretched across the continent. The climate here differs from the other sites we sampled so far, most clearly in its rainfall patterns. Downpours are intense and predictable, with a heavy drenching each afternoon. More importantly for our collecting objectives, Kakamega is also home to an immense store of biological diversity, though on our first day we hardly saw any hymenoptera.

Logistics are the bane of most fieldwork, and a last minute scheduling change brought us to the region a day earlier than we were able to access proper bee collecting areas. We made the most of the situation and decided to take a walk through the forest to track down legendary Kakamega ranger and naturalist, Wilberforce Okeka (backstory on this first name here).

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Wilberforce Okeka is a forest ranger at Kakamega and expert of the regions wildlife. He served as the teams guide in search of elusive stingless bees in the forest. (Photo by Zach Fuller)

We thought it would be more of a quest, but everyone we bumped into seemed to know him and shortly thereafter we found ourselves sitting down and trading stories with Wilberforce about shared acquaintances that had previously done work in the forest.

It’s a strange sensation being in a place that one has often imagined or heard others describe. In some ways it’s like seeing a movie after reading the book that inspired it. The experience can go many ways, but in this instance I’d use the old fallback: ‘they were quite different, but equally enjoyable’.

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Kakamega is home to an immense store of biological diversity. However, stingless bees and other pollinators were hard to come by below the forest canopy. (Photo by Jeff Kerby)

The rainforest, at least in the parts we stumbled through, is not ideal bee-collecting habitat: few flowers and not much edge. It was however, packed with more butterflies than I’ve ever seen in one place, birds that mimicked every whistle, and numerous blue monkeys and black-and-white colobus monkeys.

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Black-and-white colobus monkeys are prevalent in Kakamega. The team spotted many lounging on low-hanging branches in the forest. (Photo by Jeff Kerby)

We finished our hike on a ridge overlooking the forest then scrambled down before the afternoon rains were unleashed.  Besides some serious sunburn (yes, I still managed to get sunburned in a mostly dark rainforest), our afternoon hike equipped us with a good sense of the area and plan for the following days collections.  Perhaps the bee diversity we were in search of was to be found at the forest’s edges?

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Blue monkeys are another one of the primate species native to Kakamega. (Photo by Jeff Kerby)

Zach Fuller is a National Geographic Young Explorer and a biologist at Columbia University.

Jeff Kerby is a photographer, an ecologist at Dartmouth College, and a National Geographic Expeditions Council grantee.