A beeline through Kakamega Forest

KEN_0452I once knew a monkey named Kakamega. She was larger than most of her sisters, and had a distinctive black spot near her eye that made her easy to identify. More importantly, she had attitude.

This was seven years ago when I spent a year studying gelada monkeys in the highlands of Ethiopia. A few months into following the “K” family, it dawned on me that “Kenya” might not be the only geographically influenced monkey name in the group (especially when both project PIs had worked on their PhDs in Kenya…). Since then I’ve always wondered about Kakamega (the place)…and Kisii, and Kisumu, etc.KEN_0585Kakamega the monkey is now long gone, but Kakamega the forest has played a central role in our past few days here on the Beenomics project. Located in the northwest of Kenya near Uganda, this stretch of rainforest covers about twice the area of Pittsburg, 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’ve sampled so far, most obviously 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. We’ll get into bee diversity shortly, but this post will reflect our first day in the forest, a day when we saw hardly a 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 most bee collecting areas. Pursuing lemonade, we decided to scope things out as tourists, and in my own case, as a scientific historian. Via a convoluted personal history as a primate ecologist, I’ve gotten to know many monkey researchers who have put in their time at Kakamega, and by extension, many of the names of park rangers and guides they’ve worked with.

With a few half-memories to go on, Zach and I set off for the ranger station to find Wilberforce, a legendary Kakamega naturalist and colleague of a colleague (backstory on this interesting name here).

KEN_1369 I 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 with him at the rangers office. We quickly organized a long walk through the forest with another available guide (Wilberforce was already booked!) and we soon set off into the densely layered 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 good’.

KEN_1300The 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(!).

KEN_1471 KEN_0749We finished our hike on a ridge overlooking the forest then scrambled down before the afternoon onslaught of precipitation began. Besides some serious sunburn (yes, I got sunburned in a mostly dark rainforest), our afternoon hike equipped us with the knowledge that the diverse suite of bees we we’re looking for were not to be found deep in the forest…but hopefully on its edge?

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