Darkling Beetles

Even if you spot no other critter while wandering through wadis, you are almost guaranteed to see at least one darkling beetle, likely scurrying across the sand to find safety under a desert plant.

Darkling beetles are what we commonly call the beetles that make up the Tenebrionidae family of beetles (Order Coleoptera). There are more than 20,000 species of darkling beetles worldwide. In Egypt, there are about 400 different species, around 120 of those can be found in Sinai. I believe most of the darkling beetles that I have photographed belong to the Adesmia genus, but I have not been able to narrow down the identification any further.

Though most darkling beetles are dark in color, they are actually named for their nocturnal habits. A few beetles are colored or patterned, sometimes with red. Many of the larger species, like the ones pictured here, are flightless. The elytra (the rigid, forewings) are fused.

The domed shape of these darkling beetles, particularly those in the Adesmia genus, remind the Jebeliya Bedouin of donkeys. They refer to them as ‘uwir al banat, or “newborn donkey for girls”. 1

Darkling beetles are common in desert areas, where they fill an ecological niche as plant scavengers. They are generalist omnivores though, meaning they can feed on a wide variety of plants and animals. As both larvae and adults, they feed on fresh or decaying plant matter like leaves or rotting wood. They will also eat fungi, dead insects and larvae. You will find darkling beetles living under logs and stones, in termite and ant nests, in plant debris, and in the dry dung of animals.

I always enjoy coming across these beetles while I’m wandering. They are entertaining to watch as they scuttle out of the way or over rocks. They are a good reminder that I am not alone out there, that there is a variety of wildlife surviving in our desert wadis.

On a lunch break in Wadi Lebba a few years ago, a darkling beetle was brave enough to approach our picnic spot so I shared a bite of orange with him.

If you’ve not spotted a darkling beetle on your wanders yet, watch the ground a few meters in front of you on your next hike. Or stop for a break near some plants. If you’re quiet, you might even hear them scrambling around.

References:

1- Zalat, S., & Gilbert, F. (2008). Gardens of a Sacred Landscape: Bedouin Heritage and Natural History in the High Mountains of Sinai. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Camel Spider

Camel spiders, sun spiders, barrel spiders, wind scorpions – all of these common names for Galeodes arabs are misleading as these fascinating critters are neither spiders nor scorpions but rather solpugids, a group of arachnids in the order Solifugae. More appropriately, they are also commonly known as Egyptian Giant Solpugids.

You may have heard of them; camel spiders have been the subject of many urban legends about their size, speed, and appetite. Despite knowing that they posed no threat to me – they are not venomous but can inflict a painful bite – seeing my first one last weekend in Wadi Kid still kind of creeped me out, partly because it was as big as my hand!

Camel spiders can grow up to 15 cm long. They have eight legs, as do most arachnids, plus two large pedipalps, or sensory appendages, in the front that look like legs. (The one I spotted was missing its front right leg.) These pedipalps have a “friction-based adhesive quality” that allows the them to grasp their prey and climb smooth surfaces.1 Camel spiders have one pair of small eyes on the top of their heads and, with their eight legs, can move quite quickly – up to 16 kph!

These solpugids are voracious predators and eat insects, rodents, lizards, and even small birds. Their favorite prey are grasshoppers though. Camel spiders have two powerful chelicerae, or jaws, that they use to chop or saw their prey into a pulp. They begin by partially severing the neck, using one pair of chelicerae to hold the prey and the other to cut. Alternating the movements quickly between the two pairs of chelicerae, they continue along the whole body. At the same time, they use regurgitated digestive fluids to liquefy the flesh and suck up the nutrients. (And if this doesn’t sound too horrifying to you, visit the first link in the resources given below to read about their mating practices!)

These two distinctive jaws give rise to the name used by the Jebeliya Bedouin for camel spiders – abu hanakain, the father of two mouths.

Solifugae, the order these camel spiders belong to, means those who flee from the sun in Latin. These solpugids often seek shade from the intense desert sun in a person’s shadow and may seem to be “chasing” a person, but really all they want is a break from the heat.

Have you spotted any Egyptian Giant Solpugids during your wanders through South Sinai?

Resources:

1 – Bittel, J. (2017, August 9). Camel Spiders are Fast, Furious, and Horrifically Fascinating. Smithsonian Magazine.

National Geographic – Camel Spider

Aly, D. & Khalil, R. (2011). Wildlife in South Sinai. Cairo. Funded by the E.U. in cooperation with G.O.S.S.

Sand Wasp

It’s springtime and the air is full of the sweet scent of flowers and the sound of buzzing insects. Some of the buzzers I’ve spotted recently in my garden are strikingly-colored sand wasps (Bembix sp.).

Sand wasps are solitary hunting wasps that build their nests in the ground. Worldwide, there are over 350 different species in the Bembix genus. They are typically yellow and black and are reported to be particularly diverse in dry habitats. Bedouin in Sinai call all wasps dabra.

Adult sand wasps feed on nectar, but the females are skilled hunters, capturing prey to feed their larvae. The females dig nests in the ground using their mandibles and front legs. The nests are simple burrows with an enlarged chamber at the bottom, the brood cell, which they keep stocked with fresh prey for their developing larvae. It is not uncommon for several females to dig their nests in a common area, but they are not social; they do not cooperate or share the labor.

Flies are the most common type of prey hunted, but sand wasps have also been observed preying on damselflies, grasshoppers, mantids, bugs, antlions, lacewings, butterflies, bees and wasps – but not beetles or spiders. The adult sand wasps catch the prey in mid-air, paralyze them with venom, and then carry them back to the waiting larvae.

After they have had their fill, the larvae spin silk cocoons and enter a prepupal stage. Pupation may not occur until the following spring, and then male wasps will emerge before female ones. Adult sand wasps probably live from several weeks to several months and spend much of their time sleeping. They spend this inactive time within their nests or in temporary sleeping burrows. The adult sand wasps may be prey themselves – to birds, lizards, robber flies, antlions, and velvet ants.

One source I consulted reports that these solitary wasps do not attack and sting humans, but another says they can deliver a painful sting if their nest is disturbed. So, like all stinging insects, it is best just to leave them in peace.

Have you spotted sand wasps on your wadi wanders or in your garden?

Resources:

Evans, H. & O’Neill, K. (2007). The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Pantropical Jumping Spider

Over the past several years, I have really come to enjoy watching the jumping spiders in my garden and, of course, while wandering through wadis. The Pantropical Jumping Spider (Plexippus paykulli) is one of the more common – and dramatically-colored – ones that I can see close to home.

I was not surprised, then, to learn that this species is often associated with buildings and man-made structures and may be found near light sources.

Both sexes of this species have a high carapace (upper section of the cephalothorax, the front part of the body where the legs are attached) and are covered in short grayish hairs.

Males, pictured above, have a black carapace and abdomen with a broad white stripe running through the center. There are also broad white stripes along the sides and a pair of white spots towards the rear end of the abdomen. The face appears to have three white stripes, which you can see clearly in the close-up photo below.

Immature spiders, as well as females like the one pictured below, are brownish-gray in color with a broad tan stripe through the center of the carapace and abdomen. Towards the end of the abdomen, the stripe breaks into chevrons, v-shaped marks.

Like all jumping spiders in the family Salticidae, Pantropical Jumping Spiders have incredibly acute eyesight. They have four pairs of eyes, with the middle pair in the front quite a bit larger than the others.

“Hoppeedderkopp” by hornet81 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

These jumping spiders do not spin webs. Instead they use their silk to build ‘retreats’ in high-up places where they can rest safely when not hunting. Once they have spotted potential prey with those amazing eyes of theirs, the spiders go into stealth mode and approach, leaping only when they are close enough, but not before attaching a dragline. And these spiders can jump! They can cover many times their body length in a single leap.

These aptly-named spiders will pounce on and eat flies, bugs, bees and wasps, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers and other spiders. They can reportedly kill prey that is twice their size. They do this by first injecting the prey with venom and then overpowering them by brute force while the prey is still mobile.

Desert Mantis

Camouflaged against the stones and gravel, desert mantises (Eremiaphila spp.) are so cryptic that they are difficult to spot unless they are moving.

They are well-adapted to arid habitats, and there are 31 different Eremiaphila species recorded in Egypt.

Desert mantises are voracious ambush predators, waiting patiently until their prey is spotted and then pursuing their victims quickly and grasping them with their spiked forelegs. Because their hunting relies heavily on vision, desert mantises are diurnal, or active during the day. They are very flexible, able to move their heads without moving their whole bodies, allowing a large field of vision.

Although flightless, adult desert mantises have small wings, as seen in the magnified inset below.

Have you spotted desert mantises on your wadi wanderings?

Huntsman Spider

I have not been able to photograph a huntsman spider yet, but a friend in St. Katherine has and generously shared her pictures so I could write a post about this beauty!

This is a spider in the huntsman family of spiders (Sparassidae), specifically Eusparassus walckenaeri. There are 33 spiders in the Eusparassus genus, and they can be found in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Peru. Huntsman spiders are known for their incredible speed. In fact, it’s because of their lightning speed that the Jebeleya Bedouin call them beraira.

These huntsman spiders are large with flat bodies that are dark brown to orange-brown in color, with a pattern of spots and chevrons. The bodies can be from 1 to 2.5 cm in length, with the females being larger. The legs have dark bands of color and, although the legs of most spiders are perpendicular to their bodies, the legs of huntsman spiders are not. Their legs are angled and twisted in such a way that they move with a sideways crab-like motion. (Huntsman spiders are sometimes called giant crab spiders.)

Huntsman spiders are nocturnal hunters and feed on small and large insects, especially cockroaches, so a spider would be a welcome find in your home! And there’s no reason to be afraid of them; their venom won’t hurt you.

While these spiders may be imposing hunters, they are, of course, prey to other animals, especially to a family of wasps known as “spider wasps” (Pompilidae). A female spider wasp uses its venomous sting to paralyze a spider and then drags the spider to her nest or burrow. There, she lays an egg on the spider, which is anesthetized but alive. The wasp larva hatches and proceeds to feed on the spider, saving the vital organs for last, until it finally spins a cocoon and eventually emerges as an adult wasp.

These huntsman spiders can be found in open ground, but I have never spotted one in the wadis. They can also be found indoors and I’m pretty sure I have seen (some species of) huntsman spiders scuttle through the communal seating area of a camp in Ras Sidr. Have you spotted these huntsman spiders in South Sinai?

Resources:
Aly, D. & Khalil, R. (2011). Wildlife in South Sinai. Cairo. Funded by the E.U. in cooperation with G.O.S.S.

Giant African Mantis

While you’re more likely to come across an Egyptian Flower Mantis in the wadis of South Sinai, Giant African Mantises are more often spotted in cultivated gardens.

Also called African Mantis or Bush Mantis, this species (Sphodromantis viridis) is a popular pet around the world. They are native to West Africa, south of the Sahara, so are an introduced species here in Sinai.

I am always so excited to find them in my desert garden. And while I don’t keep them as pets, I have been known to hand-feed them flies that I have swatted inside my house.

Like all mantises, they have a triangular head and forward facing eyes that give them binocular vision, a great advantage in catching prey. Their color can range from bright green to dull brown and are often cryptically-colored to match the background of their habitat. Females can grow up to 10 cm in length and males are always smaller. As adults, both have distinctive white spots on their wings, which you can see in the photo below if you look closely.

Males will frequently become victims of sexual cannibalism, being eaten by the females prior to, during, or after copulation. A few days after mating, the female will produce one – or several – ootheca, or egg mass.

The eggs are laid on a twig in a frothy, foam-like substance that then hardens. After three to six months, up to 300 nymphs can hatch from a single ootheca.

Mantises develop by gradual metamorphosis, molting six to nine times or more. Each time they molt, their hard exoskeleton splits and a soft-skinned mantis pushes itself out. This allow for a larger exoskeleton to grow. As they wait for their new skin to harden, they hang upside down and are quite vulnerable to predators, particularly birds. The time range between molts is usually nine to fifteen days and the mantises will eventually become adults and develop wings.

Besides lacking wings, the abdomens of nymphs are folded, but they are still skillful ambush predators, waiting quietly for prey to approach.

They are general predators, eating all types of arthropods – mosquitoes and gnats when the mantises are small and moving on to larger critters like bees, moths, grasshoppers, and crickets as they grow. They will even eat other mantises.

They have grasping front legs to catch and hold their prey and extremely strong mouth parts.

An interesting side note: praying mantises may have had religious significance in Ancient Egypt. It might have been believed that the mantises served as guides to the deceased on their journey to the afterlife. And in one excavation in Luxor, a small clay coffin was found that held the remains of a praying mantis wrapped in linen.

Have you spotted a Giant African Mantis in Sinai?

Blister Beetles

Blister beetles, in the Meloidae family of beetles, earned their name from their defense system. They secrete a caustic chemical, cantharidin, which is an effective repellent for predators and can cause blisters on the skin when the beetles are handled.

The bodies of blister beetles are usually long and slender and often bi-colored. Their antennae are threadlike or beadlike.

Blister beetles use their strong jaws to chew the flowers and foliage that they feed on.

Mylabris sp.

The bright red and black pattern on the blister beetle pictured above is a warning sign of their toxicity to predators.

Mylabris sp.

Flower Crab Spider

Crab spiders are abundant in my desert garden at home and can also be spotted out in the wadis. Belonging to the Thomisidae family of spiders, they earned their common name from the way they extend their front pairs of legs in a crab-like fashion.

Female Flower Crab Spider (Thomisus citrinellus) on a flower bud of a caper bush.

Flower crab spiders belong to the genus Thomisus and there are about 150 species worldwide. They earned their name from the fact that they are ambush predators, sitting and waiting motionlessly in or nearby flowers for prey to approach. Today, I will introduce you to the Flower Crab Spider Thomisus citrinellus.

Female Flower Crab Spider (Thomisus citrinellus) on horsemint (habaq) flowers.

Like all crab spiders, the males are much smaller and differently-colored than the females. Female spiders can vary in color – I’ve seen both yellow and white – and the color may depend or change according to the surrounding vegetation. They range from 5 – 7.3 mm in size, whereas males grow from 2.1 – 2.6 mm long. Females usually have dark spots on the points of their abdomens. The first two pairs of legs are longer and thicker and have spines. On the first pair of legs, there are four distinctive dark bristles, often seen as dots in the field. These dark bristles distinguish this from other similar Thomisus species.

Female Flower Crab Spider with a male riding piggyback.
Male Flower Crab Spider (Thomisus citrinellus) on a caper flower.

Flower Crab Spiders prey on a variety of insects – flies, hoverflies, bees, and sometimes other spiders.

Thomisus citrinellus with prey (hoverfly).
Thomisus citrinellus with prey (fly).
A white female, with a male riding piggyback, preying on a yellow female.

Flower Crab Spiders do not build webs, but they will spin silk thread to use as a drop line or to fold leaves into a tent-like structure where they can hide in ambush. Eggs are also laid in a silk dish covered with a lid.

Thomisus citrinellus with silk folding a leaf of a caper bush.
Thomisus citrinellus with its silk drop line visible.
A baby Flower Crab Spider (Thomisus citrinellus)

Common Black Scorpion

In all my time in the deserts and wadis of South Sinai, I have encountered scorpions only twice. And that’s okay with me. They kind of creep me out, just like their arachnid cousins, spiders, used to. But I’ve learned to love spiders and so maybe one day I’ll feel differently about scorpions too. Indeed, I was simultaneously freaked out and fascinated when we encountered this Common Black Scorpion (Nebo hierichonticus) in a wadi last spring.

Common Black Scorpions can grow up to 11 cm in length, not including the tail. Their color ranges from light or reddish brown to dark brown with their legs and large pincers being slightly lighter in color.

I was relieved, once I was able to identify this scorpion, to learn that while their venom is quite toxic, causing hemorrhage and necrosis to small prey, their stings are generally harmless to humans, being compared to the sting of a honeybee. The scorpions prey mainly on big insects and spiders and sometimes on small vertebrates like geckos.

Common Black Scorpions live in and under big stones and rocks or in cracks and burrows in deserts and arid mountainous regions.

Sinai is home to a variety of scorpion species, including two of the most dangerous in the world – the Arabian Fat-tailed Scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda) and the Death Stalker (Leiurus quinquestriatus). You can also find Egyptian Pillar-tailed Scorpions, Egyptian Sand Scorpions, and Large-clawed Scorpions in Sinai, although this list is not exhaustive.

The Bedouin of South Sinai “have devised their own version of a primitive vaccine that is believed to provide their children with immunity against venomous stings of scorpions and wasps.” The process of immunization differs among tribes, but for the Jebaliya tribe, it involves collecting, roasting, and grinding a spider wasp and a young Death Stalker scorpion along with a bit of sugar. To this powder, spit from someone believed capable of passing on their immunity is added. This mixture is then given to a child sometime before they eat their first solid food.*

References:

*Aly, D. & Khalil, R. (2011). Wildlife in South Sinai. Cairo.Funded by the E.U. in cooperation with G.O.S.S.

Jericho Scorpion – Nebo hierichonticus – Mahmiyat.ps