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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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).

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.

[UPDATE] Since writing this post, I’ve encountered more Sand Racers and, not being as startled, was able to get some new pics.

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.

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

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

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

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

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?

Shrikes

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Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis) near Ras Sudr

Great Grey Shrike

Black patch over beady eye,

Fearsome pirate perched up high,

Marauder at your lookout post,

Smaller birds fear you the most.

You squeak and chatter, call and trill

And imitate with cunning skill.

You wait, your victim to impale,

Just like the Vlad of fairy tale,

Then stab each one on thorny spike,

Cruel and vicious, Great Grey Shrike.

(Poem by Julia Johnson)

Six species of shrikes occur in Egypt, including the Great Grey Shrike, and I’ve spotted three of them in South Sinai. Like all shrikes (Lanius sp.), they feed on insects, lizards, small rodents and even birds. Using their sharp claws, they catch their prey and then impale the corpse on thorns, spikes, barbed wire fencing, or anything sharp that’s around. This has earned them a reputation of being “cruel and vicious”, as well as nicknames such as butcherbirds and jacky hangmen.

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Female Red-Backed Shrike (L. collurio) in Ras Mohamed National Park

Impaling their prey helps the shrikes to hold it in place as they tear apart the flesh with their strong bills. It also serves as a way to save the food until a later time, acting like a larder.

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Lesser Grey Shrike (L. minor) in Ras Mohamed National Park

Shrikes can often be spotted sitting on top of signs, bushes, fence posts – anywhere that gives them a good vantage point to look for prey.

Of the six species of shrikes in Egypt, only one – the Southern Grey Shrike – is a breeding bird here. The other five species – Great Grey Shrike (L. excubitor), Lesser Grey Shrike (L. minor), Red-backed Shrike (L. collurio), Woodchat Shrike (L. senator), and Masked Shrike (L. nubicus) – are migrants, passing through Egypt in spring and autumn.

It was late August, the start of the autumn migration season, that I spotted my first shrike. We were in Ras Mohamed National Park and there were dozens of shrikes perched on the bushes right next to the road, which made for easy bird-watching from the car. And I do love to watch birds! But I am not all that skilled at photographing them. (I prefer to have the macro lens on my camera.) When I can, I’ll try to snap a shot to help me identify the bird later for documentation purposes. My point is that, unfortunately, I won’t be sharing too many posts about birds and, even when I do, the photos won’t be my best. Lucky for us, many other photographers do take amazing shots of birds! Check out the links below for more information and images of birds in Egypt:

Birding Egypt FB Group

Birding in Egypt – Ornithological Exploration Project and related FB Group

References:

Johnson, Julia. (2007). A Bird’s Eye View. Dubai: Jerboa Books.

Porter, R. & Cottridge, D. (2001). A Photographic Guide to Birds of Egypt and the Middle East. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

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.