Mantises in Sinai

Mantids in Sinai

Top Left: Giant African Mantis (Sphodromantis viridis)
Top Right: Desert Mantis (Eremiaphilidae sp)
Bottom Left: Cone-headed Mantis (Empusidae family)
Bottom Right: Egyptian Flower Mantis (Blepharopsis mendica)

The bottom two are in their nymph stage.

You can learn more about the Egyptian Flower Mantis in this post.

Beetles in Sinai

Beetles, forming the largest order of insects with nearly 400,000 identified species, account for nearly 40% of all insects. So I guess it’s no surprise that my collection of beetle images is one of my largest!

Beetles in Sinai

Here’s what you can see in this sampling:

Blister Beetle
Carpet Beetle 
Darkling Beetle
Red Palm Weevil
Seven-spotted Ladybug
Hairy Rose Beetle
Jewel Beetle
and a few unidentified beetles (the blue/green ones…can anyone help with an ID?)

Dragonflies in Sinai

A couple of months ago, my external hard drive malfunctioned and I lost thousands of my photos – mostly my pics of Sinai wildlife. Fortunately, my talented husband was able to recover a good chunk of the images. Recently, instead of wandering through wadis shooting new photos, I’ve been sorting and renaming all the recovered images. It’s a bit tedious and overwhelming, so I took breaks to put together different collections, like this one – Dragonflies in Sinai. I’ll be sharing some more of these over the next few weeks so stay tuned. ūüôā

Dragonflies in Sinai

Top Left and Bottom Right: Violet Dropwing (Trithemis annulata)
Middle Left: Desert Skimmer (Orthetrum ransonneti)
Bottom Left: Slim Scarlet-Darter (Crocothemis sanguinolenta)
Top Right: Unknown

Convolvulus Hawkmoth

It’s been almost a year exactly since I shared¬†a photograph of an unknown caterpillar that was devouring the basil plant in my garden. A few months ago, my students and I were able to successfully raise one of those critters indoors and finally identify it as a Convolvulus Hawkmoth (Agrius convolvuli)!

Again, we had found the caterpillar munching my basil plant, but my husband and I have also found eggs on a sweet potato plant at his farm.

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The eggs are smooth, greenish spheres and are laid on the underside of leaves. The larvae will eat a range of plants, including but not limited to daisy, taro, morning glory, sunflower, purslane, and some legumes. And as we’ve learned – basil and sweet potato!

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The young caterpillars are green with a straight horn on their tail ends, but the larvae will go through five instar phases, molting its skin at each stage.

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Later instars develop pale diagonal stripes and their horns curve backward. Even later instars may become dark brown. The caterpillars are quite large, growing up to 8 cm in length.

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Our caterpillar buried a few centimeters under gravel and leaf litter to form its pupa, which was glossy and reddish brown. The moths spend between 5 and 26 days in this stage.

Hawkmoth Pupa

Adults Convolvulus Hawkmoths are grey with light and dark patterns. The abdomen has pink patches on the side of each segment.

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I have never seen these moths flying, but like other hawkmoths, they are able to hover in flight.

I am thrilled that we were able to raise this – my first! – moth and share our discoveries with you! Have you ever raised butterflies or moths at home? It truly is a fascinating experience.

African Caper White Butterfly

I mentioned on my Facebook page the other day that I was raising caterpillars with one of my students and I promised to write a blog post to reveal who would emerge from the chrysalis. This is a butterfly I have raised indoors on several occasions and one that is often found in my garden, so I have been lucky to observe these critters a lot over the years and I have a ton of photographs. It was hard to narrow down the choices, but I am finally ready to introduce you to…the African Caper White Butterfly!

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Also known as the Brown-veined White or the Pioneer White, Belenois aurota¬†butterflies only lay their eggs, in batches of 25 – 30, on the leaves of caper bushes (Capparis sp.) The eggs are tall and ribbed and stuck onto the leaves with a special “glue”.

When the larvae, or caterpillars, hatch, they are olive green in color and have glossy black heads. They live and feed gregariously, or socially in a group. They quickly devour the thick caper leaves as they continue to eat and grow.

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They will molt several times. The larger caterpillars are hairy and have a green stripe along their backs and mottled black stripes along their sides.

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With their last molt, they form their pupa, or chrysalis. It is cream-colored and dashed with black markings and round yellow dots. They attach themselves, again in groups, with a sticky thread to the leaves or stems of the caper bushes.

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The adults emerge in about 7 – 10 days. Their wings, about 4 cm across, are white with black or dark brown veins.

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When they are ready to come out, some segments of the chrysalis become red and will stay this color.

After the butterflies emerge, they will feed and mate.

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And they don’t waste anytime getting started! In the video below, taken in my garden, you can see butterflies trying to mate with one whose wings are still drying.

Leafcutter Bees

Continuing our exploration of the buzzing insects devoured by the bee-eaters, today I am happy to share with you the story of how I discovered Leafcutter Bees (Megachile sp.). Several years ago I was pruning the Sodom Apple tree in my garden, cutting away the dry dead stems, when, in one of the branches that I removed, I noticed this:

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I was fascinated by these bits of bougainvillea tucked so neatly into the branch.  We found two more empty stems sealed this way and left those on the tree. But my curiosity got the better of me and I broke this branch to see what was inside.

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Beautiful pink packages all lined up! Figuring these were nests of some sort, I felt bad about the¬†disturbance I had caused. I tucked the little packages back inside and laid the branch under the tree in the hopes that the young would continue to develop, whatever they were, and headed inside to do some research. Here’s what I learned.

Leafcutter Bees in the Megachile genus are solitary bees that are known for neatly cutting bits of leaves or flower petals to build the cells of their nests. They will sometimes build these nests within a hollow branch, as the ones in my garden did, but more often they build them in burrows in the ground. Wherever they are built, the nests are arranged in a long column of cells. In each cell, the female places an egg and a supply of food, usually pollen. About a week after I found these nests, I discovered a bee busily adding a new cell and cap to one of the hollow branches.

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Once the egg hatches, it eats the food, molts several times, spins a cocoon, and pupates. It takes months before the adult bee emerges. Male Leafcutter Bees die shortly after mating. The females live a few weeks longer, allowing them time to build their nests. While they are alive and buzzing around, they pollinate the local plants. In my garden alone, I have spotted them feeding on Reseda sp., Schouwia purpurea, Capparis sp., and Echinops sp. 

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The authors of Gardens of a Sacred Landscape state, “Recently hives of domesticated social honeybees have been brought in from Egypt, and scientists are worried about their impact on the wild bees, and hence on the efficiency with which native plants are pollinated.” The book was published in 2008 and unfortunately I have not found any other research (in English) about this issue.

Sadly, there is a research study about Leafcutter Bees that are using plastic and other synthetic material to build their nests.

Large Carpenter Bees

If you follow the blog on Facebook, you might recall that a couple of weeks ago I announced the arrival of the bee-eaters, my all-time favorite birds who migrate through Egypt and Sinai in the spring and autumn. After that post, someone asked me what exactly the bee-eaters ate here in Sinai and was surprised to learn about the variety of bees around. I promised I would dedicate my next blog post to one of our local buzzers. So today I am pleased to introduce you to the Large Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa sp.).

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I have a Parkinsonia tree in my garden and it is currently bursting with blooms, which these large buzzers just love! They are usually difficult to catch an image of, but the one pictured above sat on my front door absolutely still for quite some time. Not sure why, but I was happy for the opportunity to get some photos.

According to the authors of Gardens of a Sacred Landscape, “Sinai is one of the very few places in the world (and it may be unique) where no social bees of any kind occur naturally, only solitary bees.” Solitary bees, like the Carpenter Bees, do not build hives and do not produce honey, but they are important pollinators.

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Carpenter Bees are named for their nesting behavior; they burrow into dead wood or other hard plant material, like the old bamboo chair in my garden.

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Large Carpenter Bees are – surprise, surprise – large. They are usually 2 cm or longer, whereas Small Carpenter Bees (Ceratina sp.) are often less than .80¬†cm. Although there is variation between species – and I can find no definitive list on the specific ones found in Sinai – most Carpenter Bees are primarily black, some with white or yellow fuzz. The ones spotted in my garden are quite yellow, but others I’ve seen in the wadis have paler fuzz.

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Their wings produce a loud buzzing sound when they fly and these bees are often confused with bumblebees. To tell the difference, look at the abdomen. Carpenter Bees always have a shiny abdomen while a bumblebee’s will be covered in hair.

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Carpenter Bees¬†are indeed part of a bee-eater’s diet. Shrikes will also feed on these large bees. Both birds have ways to deal with the female bee’s stinger. (Males do not have stingers.) Luckily for us humans, the bees are quite docile and rarely sting unless they are directly provoked.

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I’ll feature some of Sinai’s other buzzers over the next couple of weeks, as I continue with my¬†attempt (in vain?) to catch some photos of the fabulous bee-eaters. I can hear them calling right now!

Ladybird Beetles

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Ladybird Beetles, or Ladybugs as I grew up calling them in North America, are quite well-known beetles, but some people¬†may be surprised to learn that you’ll find these colorful beetles in the deserts of Sinai.

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Ladybirds are red, yellow, or orange colored beetles with small black spots on their wing covers. They have small dome-shaped bodies and six short legs. Contrary to popular belief, the number of spots do not indicate age but rather a specific species. Both of the beetles pictured above are Seven-spotted Ladybird Beetles (Coccinella septempunctata), one of the most common.

I have also seen Eleven-Spotted Ladybirds (Coccinella undecimpunctata), pictured below, on caper plants in the wadis around Dahab.

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Both the larvae and adults feed on aphids, small¬†insects that suck the sap from plants. Ladybirds are therefore quite useful in helping to fight these pests in gardens, especially the ones in the mountains around St. Katherine’s, but also in my own desert garden. ūüôā

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When threatened, adult ladybirds release a yellow substance from a joint on their leg that is distasteful to predators and convinces them to find their next meal somewhere else.

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The Bedouin in Sinai call Ladybird Beetles ‘uwaynat umm sulayman, or “the eyes of Solomon’s mother”.

In traditional folklore in some cultures, Ladybird Beetles are thought to bring good luck. Have ladybirds brought you any luck in the Sinai?

References:

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.

Seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) on ARKive.org

Striped Hawkmoth

I promised¬†– to those of you follow on Facebook – that my next post would be about this magnificent critter that I found on a basil plant in my garden –

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– as he was indeed the inspiration for getting back to work on this blog, and so today is all¬†about…hawkmoths!

Unfortunately, I do not know – yet! – exactly who this bright green caterpillar is, but I do know that he (or she) is in the Sphingidae family of moths. Moths in this family are commonly called hawkmoths, sphinx moths, or hornworms.

There are over 1,450 species of Sphingidae moths. The larvae, or caterpillars, of hawkmoths are hairless and have a “horn” on the posterior end.

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Striped Hawkmoth (Hyles livornica)

And while I do not know which caterpillar was munching on my basil plant, I do know who was bending over backwards to eat the tips of desert lavender. That is a larva of the Striped Hawkmoth, Hyles livornica.

It was early spring 2013 and we had had a wet winter in Dahab. There had even been a hail storm in November. So the desert plants were flourishing in the wadis!

On one early morning wander, we came across an area lush with fresh green asphodel, lavender, and sorrel. And crawling across the sandy wadi were the most amazing caterpillars I had seen in Sinai! Dozens of them. Some of the largest were as long and thick as my index finger. They were happily munching on all the nearby herbs.

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Like all caterpillars, these Striped Hawkmoth larvae go through several stages of development, or instars, and their colors and patterns can change quite dramatically at each stage.

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Hawkmoth caterpillars will burrow into the soil or gravel or hide among the rocks to pupate and I have never seen that stage of development. But about a month after we saw the caterpillars, we discovered the adult Striped Hawkmoths. They were busy feeding on the dhafrah (Iphiona scabra) flowers.

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Sphingidae moths are known for their rapid flight and ability to hover in midair while they feed. They use their long proboscis (mouth parts) to reach the nectar in the flowers. Male moths are typically smaller than females. Both are beige with white stripes. Their hindwings, not seen when the wings are at rest, are pink and edged with black and white.

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a Striped Hawkmoth, attracted to the light in the tent during a spring safari

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Dahab was blessed recently with several good rainstorms and young desert plants are already poking their heads through the sand. Let’s hope the plants start to thrive again and that we have beautiful green wadis to wander through this coming spring. The butterflies and moths would be happy with that, too!

References:

Striped hawkmoth ~ ARKive

Hyles livornica ~ Moth and Butterflies of Europe and North Africa

Hyles livornica ~ Wikipedia

Violet Dropwing Dragonfly

Being some of the largest insects you’ll come across as you wander through the wadis, dragonflies are often¬†spotted. There is not a lot of easily-available¬†information about dragonflies in Egypt, at least not in English. One report from 1980 claims¬†that at least 52 species of dragonflies occur¬†in Egypt. And, like for other flora and fauna, Sinai boasts the most¬†exceptional species.

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Dropwing dragonflies, those in the Trithemis genus, are named for their habit of lowering their wings upon landing.

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This beauty is a female Violet Dropwing (Trithemis annulata). The males of the species appear purple or violet, hence the name, due to a powdery blue substance on top of a bright red body. The males also have red veins in their wings. The females have a yellow-brown body and no red in their wings. Both have a yellow- or amber-colored patch at the base of the hindwing.

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The female Violet Dropwings are the dragonflies that¬†I spot most often, both in my desert garden and out in the wadis. As far as I know, I’ve never seen a male. Like all dragonflies, their life cycle begins when eggs are laid in water, meaning you are most likely to spot them near fresh, still water. Wadi G’Nai is often buzzing with these dragonflies!

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Dragonflies have two sets of wings that they use to fly upwards and downwards, backwards and forwards, and side to side. They can also hover! And see those dark cells in the wings that are circled in the photo above? They are called pterostigmata. They help form a thicker, heavier section of the wing. This helps stop vibrations and allows the dragonflies to glide.  Amazing, right?

I have always loved dragonflies. For their size. For their colors. For their flight. And now I also love them because they visit my desert garden and strike poses on my aloe plants. And they sit still long enough for me to get my camera and¬†take some pics. If you’ve got your own photos of dragonflies in Egypt, consider joining the Biodiversity in Egypt or the¬†Wildlife of the Sinai Peninsula mission on Project Noah. Let’s see how many different species we can document!

References:

Notes on dragonflies in Egypt

Violet Dropwing ~ ARKive