Flowering full circle

Report written by International Intern, Rachel Dickson

Upon my arrival to the Elephants and Bees Research Center in late October, I was very skeptical that I would be able to carry out the flowering plant project that I had come to accomplish. The reason was simple: there were no flowers. The red Tsavo soil was decorated in dried up bushes and scattered with skeletons of trees. There were no sounds of buzzing, no pollinators in sight, and no flowers to be found.

Photo 1: The dry, red Tsavo soil greeting me upon my arrival.

My research objective was to create a calendar of the blooming frequency and duration of plant species in the area around our beehive fence farms. Specifically, we wanted to understand how the blooming frequency and duration of plant species relates to rainfall. By building this knowledge base, we will be able to more successfully examine which plant species provide forage for honeybees, especially in times of drought. In the future, we plan to use these data to advise farmers on which flowers to keep intact and plant nearby their beehive fences to provide forage for their honeybee colonies. As climate change threatens to make drought a more constant reality for our farmers, it is increasingly critical to understand how plant communities respond to rainfall (or lack thereof), and how this in turn impacts bee forage and survival.

Photo 2 (two photos): Along with all of the flowers, the rains also brought in surprises like cute puffy fungi and giant snails.

Because my internship lasted only 10 weeks, I needed to figure out a way to develop a protocol that would be sustainable into the future and transferable from one person to the next– something I quickly discovered was no easy task. Using some ideas and methods that I gathered from working on past research projects, I decided the best way to measure the blooming frequency and duration of plant species was to tag individual plants and follow their lifespans.

Photo 3: By taking photos and labeling them in the field with Photo ID numbers, I was able to later identify flowers using the herbarium, internet, and plant ID references.

With help from the Elephants and Bees research team, I set up two big plots close by the research center in two different plant communities that were representative of the Mwakoma area’s plant species. I tagged all of the herbs, shrubs, and trees that were flowering at the time of the plot set up. I then visited both plots twice a week to check the progress of all tagged individuals and to tag all new flowering plants throughout the study.

Photo 4: Esther Serem, the research officer was integral to every part of this project– she expertly cut our plot posts with a panga, helped decide where to set up the plots, carried out phenology surveys, and helped with plant ID.

Luckily, the rains came just in time. Right as I got the plots set up and the methods ironed out, the dead mosaic of bushes and trees began to come to life. The rain pulled herbs and shrubs from newly saturated soil. The landscape around me transitioned from dead to dense in a matter of days. The drastic change in the physical appearance of the plots was appalling; plants that were initially surrounded by dry cracked earth became buried in flowering herbs and grasses. Luckily, because we were visiting the plots twice a week, we became so familiar with the plant community composition that our surveys continued smoothly.

Photo 7: Talinum portulacifolium, a common herb that blooms only in the afternoon.

After a few weeks of constantly adding in new plant species, the rains came to a sudden stop. The dense green vegetation and colorful abundant flowers began to rapidly dry up. As quickly as they had been pulled from the saturated soil, they returned to the dried dust. Only several species persevered- certain herbs continued flowering seemingly regardless of rainfall and one type of Grewia shrub thrived through the dry periods.

Photo 6: Hibiscus micranthus, another common topic of conversation, would bloom in intraspecific synchrony every 1-2 weeks for only 1-2 days.

During my time in Tsavo, I went from feeling like a foreigner in a new landscape to recognizing and identifying most of the flowers as I walked around the Mwakoma area. I became friends with the local herbalist and our permaculture gardener, Paul, and he taught me the medicinal and practical uses of the plants passed down from his father and his grandfather. I maintained constant communication with the Mwakoma farmers to ensure that my plots were safe to visit during the times where there were a lot of elephants. I got to see members of the research team go from being frustrated with finding plant tags to happily chatting around the dinner table about the abundance of Justicia diclipteroides and the surprising blooming pattern of Hibiscus micranthus. I learned new things about these plant species every day and was able to leave knowing that this project will continue in my absence.

Photo 5: Justicia diclipteroides, a frequent conversation starter at the dinner table, and an herb that bloomed in high density throughout the entire surveying period.




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