Bees in Sinai

“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…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. ” ~ Gardens of a Sacred Landscape: Bedouin Heritage and Natural History in the High Mountains of Sinai by Samy Zalat and Francis Gilbert

Bees in Sinai

Pictured here:
Top Right: Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa sp), which you can learn more about in this post.
Bottom Right: Leafcutter Bee (Coelioxys sp), which you can learn more about in this post.

There have been several reports in the past year of hives of social bees in Dahab and Nuweiba. After reading the book quoted above, I have been fascinated about their possible impact on the native solitary bees and plants, so I did a bit of research and found two very interesting articles:

Human interference in the natural order of our ecosystems is not always a good thing. I’ll be thinking twice now about buying honey from St. Katherine’s…

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!