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. 🙂

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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

Amicta Bagworm Moth

One of the most fascinating things that I have come across while wandering through wadis is the case of the Amicta Bagworm Moth (Amicta quadrangularis).

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The first time I spotted one, there were several hanging on stems of a White Broom (Retama raetam) plant in Wadi Arada. I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at. I was simply amazed by the precision of the architecture! Thanks to members of Project Noah and my own further research, I was able to identify the creature behind this masterpiece – a bagworm moth.

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Bagworm moths, a name given to those in the Psychidae family, go through a 4-stage metamorphosis typical of moths, from egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (cocoon) to adult. As soon as the egg of a bagworm moth hatches, however, the larva begins to build a protective case to hide in. The “bag” or case is constructed out of silk and items found in the environment – sand, soil, and plant material. As it grows, the caterpillar continues to add material to the front of their case. The hungry caterpillar extends its head and thorax through the opening at the front in order to eat leaves. There is an opening at the back through which it excretes waste. And the caterpillar moves around, carrying its case with it.

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When the caterpillar is ready to pupate, it attaches the case to a rock, tree, or fence. As adults, the female Amicta moth does not have wings and she does not leave the case. The male moths will come to her. She lays her eggs in her case and then dies.

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Each species of bagworm moth creates a unique case, specific to its own species. The cases, therefore, are often very useful when trying to identify these moths. I have never seen, as far as I know, the caterpillars or the moths of this species, but I love the design of their homes! Have you ever spotted these fascinating creations in the wadis?

References:

Bagworm moth – Wikipedia

Green Lynx Spider

And another critter who occasionally calls my caper bush home – the Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia arabica)!

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These spiders are bright green, often with white and red markings on the body. The legs are covered in large bristles, which most likely helps them catch and keep hold of their prey. They have keen eyesight and a unique arrangements of their 8 eyes: six of them are arranged in a hexagonal pattern and two smaller eyes are below and in front of these.

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They are ambush hunters and do not use webs. Instead, they live on the plants and wait, hidden by their camouflage, for their prey and then attack.

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Green Lynx Spiders eat a variety of insects – flies, bees, wasps, and butterflies.

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As you can see, they often eat pollinators, so I was not always happy to have these spiders in my garden, where they were content to live on a number of the local plants, as well as my pepper and basil plants. If you look closely as you wander through the wadis, you might spot them on Iphiona plants or Cleome herbs (samwa). Often, it will be the spider’s prey that you spot first. Or an egg sac.

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Each of their egg sacs can contain hundreds of eggs that hatch into cute little spiderlings.

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Like all spiders, the Green Lynx has an exoskeleton that, although flexible, does not grow. As the spiders get bigger, they must grow a new exoskeleton and shed, or molt, the old one. The old skin gets left behind, like the one shown below.

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There is not a lot of information about this species of spider available on the Internet, at least not in English. So, I couldn’t find out more about this last photo – a female Green Lynx Spider apparently eating her mate!

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Have you spotted this spider on your wadi wanderings?

Large Salmon Arab Butterfly

Of the nearly 19,000 butterfly species in the world, only 63 occur in Egypt. And this beauty – a Large Salmon Arab (Colotis fausta) – has been fluttering about my garden lately!

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We are lucky here in South Sinai, as the mountainous region is one of the hotspots of butterfly diversity in Egypt, home to 2/3 of the butterflies found in Egypt. The Salmon Arab is a member of the Pieridae family of butterflies, or Whites, as they are commonly called. Like most butterflies, they go through a 4-stage metamorphosis: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult. The eggs are laid on and the caterpillar feed on the leaves of caper bushes (Capparis sp.), which is why I find these butterflies in my garden and where you’ll usually spot them in the wadis. The caterpillars are light green, hairy, and have a pale-colored stripe through their body.

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The larva continue to eat, grow, and molt (shed their skins) until they are ready to form their chrysalis (a hard skin) and start to pupate. The chrysalis is attached, usually to a leaf, by silk threads.

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After about a week, the adult butterfly emerges.

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The upperside of the wings are a salmon-pink to an orange-yellow color and the forewings have dark scales and black spots along the edges. In the dry season, they are smaller and lighter-colored. You can find these butterflies in flight between April and November.

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As a curious nature-lover as well as a teacher, I will occasionally raise caterpillars indoors to learn more about them. Check out the proboscis (sucking mouth part) on the newly-emerged butterfly below!

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Although the weather is getting a bit too hot to be wandering through wadis these days, you might just spot these butterflies near the caper bushes around town!

References:

Butterflies of Egypt: Atlas, Red Data Listing, & Conservation

Francis Gilbert & Samy Zalat

PDF version of the book is FREE to download here.

Black Cone-headed Grasshopper

Unlike the Egyptian Flower Mantis, the Black Cone-headed Grasshopper (Poekilocerus bufonius), with its large black body and slow movement, is easy to spot!  Especially when they are resting on the rocks.

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But these grasshoppers feed on plants in the milkweed family, which produce toxic chemicals. Ingesting these plants make the grasshoppers poisonous and distasteful to predators. When they are attacked, Black Cone-headed Grasshoppers spray a toxic fluid in defense. In Arabic, they are called zagat, meaning “the one who sprays toxins onto girls’ faces”.

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You’ll most often find these grasshoppers on Pergularia tomentosa plants. Many Bedouin, before sitting down near one of these plants, will throw stones at the bush to scare off any grasshoppers. Sometimes these plants will be home to many grasshoppers. How many can you count in the picture below?

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I’ve also spotted Black Cone-headed Grasshoppers on ajram (Anabasis sp.), harjal (Solenostemma arghel), reseda  (Reseda sp.), broom (Retama raetam) and other plants.

The adults that I’ve seen have been between 6 – 10 cm in length. They are black or dark-colored, sometimes with yellow spots. I’ve noticed orange underwings on several.

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Females are substantially larger the males, as you can see in the photo of the mating pair below.

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As is typical of this order of insects (Orthoptera), the grasshoppers go through incomplete metamorphosis. The young nymphs resemble the adults but have no wings and can have extremely different colors. Look at these beautiful yellow ones!

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As they age, they will shed their exoskeletons several times, growing wings until their final molt into a mature adult with fully-developed wings.

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I’ve spotted Black Cone-headed Grasshoppers from late fall through spring in many of the wadis around Dahab, as well as higher up near Wadi Arada (on the way to St. Katherine’s). They are one of the first critters we came across on our early wadi wanderings and I always enjoy seeing them. And photographing them! They stay so still for so long, making excellent models. 🙂

References:

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

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.