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.

Foraging with Friends

A memory popped up on my Facebook page today and it’s one of my favorites, so I thought I’d share it here. This post was originally published on May 6, 2014 on Bedouin History Desert Safari’s blog.


It’s spring – my favorite time of year in Sinai! Especially after a particularly wet winter since that means our desert plants are thriving and the goats and sheep have plenty to graze. Recently, we met Freyj, one of Bedouin History’s drivers and guides, at his daughter’s springtime camp in the desert. We were welcomed with smiles and a light lunch of fresh bread and goat milk. It didn’t take long for the children to wander over to see their grandfather and his foreign friends. Freyj knows well my passion for plants and photography and knew I would be eager to explore the surrounding desert. Recalling our failed attempts last year to locate one of the edible plants, Zeinab, one of Freyj’s young granddaughters, eagerly offered to get her digging tools and lead our exploration. So we set off with Zeinab, Farah, Mohamed, and Omar to forage for tummayr (تِمِّير), the Bedouin name for Erodium crassifolium.

Zeinab with her digging tool.
Zeinab with her digging tool.

Known in English as Desert Storks-bill or Hoary-leaved Heron’s-bill, this plant has an edible tuber that grows deep in the ground. But there are eight different Erodium species growing in Sinai so finding the right one involves a knowledge of what tummayr leaves look like and where they grow. All Erodiums have fruit that look like long bird beaks, hence their common English name, but each species has distinct leaves. 

Erodium fruit
Erodium fruit

Zeinab and the other children are a wealth of information about the local plants, especially the edible ones, as foraging for these are a favorite past time of the Bedouin children who live in the desert for a few months of the year.

Erodium crassifolium, (tummayr)
Erodium crassifolium, (tummayr)

I followed Zeinab through the wadi, trying to keep up with her quick steps and even quicker digging abilities. I try to figure out which Storks-bills are the ones we are looking for and was cheered on by Zeinab when I correctly point out a large tummayr plant. 

Zeinab digging for tubers.
Zeinab digging for tubers.

Zeinab dug quickly, scanning the area to check on the progress of the boys, who are leading their own expedition with my husband. It seems that this had turned into a contest to see which “team” could find the most. But we are all successful and end up with handfuls of edible tubers! The children remove the skins with their fingernails and hand them to us to eat. The small potato-like tubers are sweet and crunchy. 

Foraging with friends
Foraging with friends

Along the way, the children have also spotted sweet desert onions. They are so quick to dig these up that I never see what the plant looks like when it is still rooted in the earth. The onions, possibly an Allium species, are sweeter and juicier than the tummayr. And easier to reach as they are not buried so deep in the rocky ground.

Handful of collected onions and tubers.
Handful of collected onions and tubers.

We returned to camp to share our foraged goodies with the other adults at camp, but they showed little interest in eating our treats. It seems foraging with friends is a childhood habit, something to entertain them during the long days in the desert. How lucky I am to have such amazing young friends!

Flowers of Erodium crassifolium.
Flowers of Erodium crassifolium.

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

Bosc’s Fringe-toed Lizard

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Fringe-toed Lizards are Egypt’s most prominent reptiles and this species, the Bosc’s Fringe-toed Lizard (Acanthodactylus boskianus), is the most common diurnal reptile in Sinai. Diurnal means “active during the day” and these guys start to venture out of their burrows at mid-morning, on the lookout for insects like flies, beetles, and grasshoppers, or perhaps some spiders, to munch on.

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There is a lot of variation when it comes to the number of scales, size, shape of head, pattern, and color of Bosc’s Fringe-toed Lizards. They can range in color from dark or olive grey to reddish brown and their scales are keeled, or ridged. There are five dark-colored stripes on their backs, but these fade with age. Males are generally larger than females and juveniles often have blue tails. During breeding season, the tails of females turn red.

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These fringe-toed lizards inhabit deserts and semi-deserts. The lateral fringes on their toes are a special adaptation to help them move across loose sand. When wandering through wadis, you will often see these lizards scuttle ahead of you when they hear you coming, often darting beneath the nearest plant. If you look closely, you can also spot their tracks in the soft sand.

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While on safari two years ago, I was packing up my tent one morning and was surprised to turn around and see mating fringe-toed lizards! I took dozens of photos of them and they did not seem to mind my presence. According to ARKive, “During courtship the male approaches the female with a bent neck, and then runs in semi-circles, whilst probing the female’s body with its tongue.” Probing? Looked more like biting to me, but I’m no lizard!

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El Fuqeyya (14)

If the female is receptive to these advances, she will lift her tail, allowing the male to make contact.

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Looking quite satisfied there, isn’t he? (Yes, I’m projecting.)

References:

Baha El-Din, Sherif. (2006).  A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Bosc’s fringe-toed lizard (Acanthodactylus boskianus) on ARKive.org.

 

 

 

 

 

Hyena’s Fart ~ Desert Mushroom

Podaxis pistillaris

The Bedouin of Sinai call this desert mushroom (Podaxis pistillaris) “hyena’s fart” in Arabic because they seem to appear out of nowhere, just like the hyenas (used to) do. And they do indeed pop up suddenly! But their spores, which can live for many years without water, have been there all along, under the desert sands, waiting for rain.

It was the Spring of 2014, after a very wet winter, that we spotted scores of these mushrooms dotting the sandy desert plains. A relative of the puffballs, this mushroom, sometimes called a Black Powderpuff, can grow up to 15 – 20 cm high. It has a large white cap that protects the inner blackish tissue. This tissue contains the spores, and when the mushroom reaches maturity, the cap will split open and fall away, allowing the spores to be dispersed by the wind.

Other common names in English for this mushroom include Desert Shaggy Mane and False Shaggy Mane.

Sinai Rosefinch

Although the national bird of Jordan, this finch is named after Egypt’s Sinai and lives in our dry, rocky desert areas. The male Sinai Rosefinch (Carpodacus synoicus) is easily identified by its crimson-pink plumage. Females and juveniles are a greyish brown color.

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Sinai Rosefinch
Sinai Rosefinch by Alastair Rae, CC via Flickr

Sinai Rosefinches eat seeds and are often seen in groups. I spotted this group on top of Jebel Musa.
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These finches grow to about 14 – 16 cm and breed in a small area of Sinai, southern Israel, and southern Jordan.

As I’ve mentioned before, photographing birds is not one of my talents, so check out this page with some beautiful images of Sinai Rosefinches and the video below.

Desert Thumb

Desert Thumb (Cynomorium coccineum), aka Red Thumb or Tarthuth in Arabic, is not a common plant in Sinai. Growing in the spring only after a wet winter, this rare plant makes for a special spotting! I was intrigued when I came across these for the first time in 2014. I mistakenly thought they were mushrooms (so did the Maltese back in the 1600s so I’m not the only one!). With the help of my fellow nature lovers at Project Noah, I learned that these thumbs of the desert were actually plants.

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But they are no ordinary plants! They are parasitic; they have no chlorophyll and cannot photosynthesize. Instead, they live most of their lives underground as a rhizome, attached to the roots of another plant. In Sinai, Desert Thumbs most likely parasitize salt bushes (Atriplex spp.), but they are also known to live off the roots of Amaranthus and Tamarix species.

The stalk emerges in the spring, covered by clusters of tiny dark red to purplish flowers. The flowers are pollinated by flies that are attracted to their cabbage-like aroma. Once pollinated and mature, the spike turns black and produces small, black, nut-like fruit.

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Desert Thumbs are edible and are believed, throughout the region where they grow, to have an array of medicinal properties. In fact, Arab physicians during the Middle Ages referred to Desert Thumbs as “the treasure of drugs” because it was used to treat a range of problems from blood disorders to digestive and reproductive ailments. In Sinai, Bedouin have traditionally used these plants to cure colic.

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Bedouin in Saudi Arabia have been harvesting tarthuth for thousands of years as food for themselves and their camels. Tarthuth has been especially useful during long caravan treks through the desert as well as during times of famine. The spikes are cleaned and the outer skin is peeled off. The inner white flesh is reported to be like an apple – sweet, crisp, and juicy.

If I had known that three years ago, I definitely would have tasted this plant! We’ve had a relatively wet winter this year, so maybe I’ll get lucky and have another chance to sample a Desert Thumb this spring. I’ll be sure to let you know. 🙂

References and Further Reading:

Cynomorioum – Wikipedia

Cynomorium coccineum – Flora of Qatar

The Matelse Mushroom (Cynomorium coccineum): An Epic History of the Rise and Fall of the Treasure of Drugs

The Treasure of Tarthuth by Robert W. Lebling Jr. – Saudi Aramco World

Schokari Sand Racer

This past weekend we decided to wander along one of our usual routes, and I was treated to an unusual spotting – a sand snake! As we were walking, we passed a large dark boulder where I often spot agama lizards. I was just about to mention this to my friend when I looked down at the rock I was about to step on, suddenly realized that is what not a branch laying across it, and quickly had to swing around to avoid stomping on a snake. Eeek! I’m not completely comfortable with snakes apparently. But he was beautiful! A gorgeous golden-brown color with dark brown patterns. I wish I could share a picture of him, but I guess he was just as scared as me because he slithered away and hid beneath a rock.

We have spotted these sand snakes before, maybe three or four other times, in wadis near Dahab. The first time we saw one, in 2010, it was my husband who almost stepped on the snake. That time though, the snake stayed still long enough for us to take a few photos. And we were able to identify it as a Schokari Sand Racer (Psammophis schokari).

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These snakes are long and slender; they can grow to a length of about 1.5 meters. The patterns and colors of Schokari Sand Racers can vary a lot, ranging from a light sandy-gray with pale patterns to strong, dark contrasting colors.

Since my collection of snake photos is limited (and I’m okay with that!), I turned to Flickr for more images of this desert reptile.

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Psammophis schokari, Morocco – photo by Alexandre Roux, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Notice the dark stripe that runs from the snout, past the eyes, to the back of the head.

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Schokari sand racer in Morocco – photo by Alexandre Roux, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Schokari Sand Racers live in sandy and rocky deserts and prefer places with good vegetation. They are most common in coastal areas. During times of bird migration, these snakes might be found on nearby trees and bushes. Here they wait to feed on the small songbirds that are flying through.

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Psammophis schokari, Israel – photo by Alex Slavenko, CC BY-NC 2.0

Schokari Sand Racers are found throughout the Sinai peninsula and are actually one of the most common snakes in Egypt.

And there’s a reason they’re called Sand Racers – they can reach speeds up to 16 kph when chasing prey! The snakes typically eat lizards, small birds, rodents, and other snakes. After grabbing their prey, they release a venom that immobilizes the animal before swallowing them head first. Despite being venomous, Schokari Sand Racers are generally not a threat to humans as their main defense is their speed. I’m grateful for that. 🙂

Have you come across snakes during any of your wadi wanders? How did you – or  how would you – feel about such an encounter?

References:

Baha El-Din, Sherif. (2006).  A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Schokari sand racer (Psammophis schokari) on ARKive.org

Arghel

This is one of my favorite times of year to wander through the wadis of Sinai. For many reasons. Because of recent rains, the wadis are bursting with tiny green baby plants right now. I always enjoy stopping to discover what plants come up first after the rains, and what they look like when they’re so young. Fascinating! For me. 🙂 Another reason I love this time of year is that the arghel plants are in bloom – and they give off such a delightful fragrance!

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Some wadis, like Wadi Kid, are lined with arghel plants (Solenostemma arghel), called harjal in Arabic. If you are lucky enough to walk through one of these wadis in November, it will be a joy for your senses! Often you will smell the flowers before you turn a corner and see the plant.

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Harjal is an evergreen shrub in the dogbane family. The plants grow up to 1 meter high and 10 meters in diameter. They live in gravelly, sandy, and rocky soils usually at the edge of wadi beds. Here’s a picture of a large harjal plant growing near Wadi Connection in Dahab:

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The leaves are greyish-green and their white flowers grow in bunches. The fruits are purplish-green, oval shaped, and can grow up to 5 cm in length.

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When they are ripe, they turn yellow and dry to a light brown. They split open, releasing dozens of tufted seeds that are blown by the wind.

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Bedouin in Sinai use this plant for medical reasons, as do many people throughout Egypt. Sadly, this plant is endangered due to over-collection for sale at herb shops dealing in medicinal herbs. Locally, the stem and leaves are used to treat a variety of ailments – infected sores and cuts, coughs and colic.

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I’m not the only one attracted to these fragrant blooms! Butterflies, bees, and other pollinators are drawn to the flowers’ sweet nectar. In the picture below you can see two orange Painted Lady butterflies – the species I see most often on the harjal flowers – and a Brown-veined White butterfly.

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Painted Lady Butterfly (Vanessa cardui)