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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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:
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:
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!