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In a desert environment such as the UAE has, most of the flowering plants are pollinated by the wind. The flowers do not need to attract pollinating insects and therefore can be small and insignificant. The butterflies that take care of pollination in other regions do not have such an important role to play here, so it is not surprising that the number of species is limited to less than forty.

    It could also be the other way around: because the climate is hard to cope with for a plant, it stays small with small leaves and flowers, so as not to need too much energy to complete a life-cycle and to expose too much of its surface to the heat of the sun. Because the flowers are so insignificant, they do not attract butterflies and rely on the wind for their pollination.

    Surprisingly, over 350 night-flying moths have been identified in the UAE - almost all by amateur enthusiasts. Not enough study has been done to establish the role of these insects in the ecology of the desert. Of some it is known that their caterpillars can be harmful to agricultural or horticultural developments. Many may be essential in pollinating wild plants as well as agricultural crops. Only about half a dozen of the moths are day-flying, and these are the ones we can encounter in gardens, plantations or fields with wild vegetation. At least one of these inconspicuous small moths has a caterpillar that has an unusual defense strategy. It gathers little pieces of straw and builds a little house around its body. From the safety of this unusual armour it crawls around the bushes on which it feeds.

    By far the most spectacular of the moths are the Death Head Hawkmoth (Acherontos styx) and the Oleander Hawkmoth. (Daphnis nerii). Both have a wingspan of up to 10 cm. The Death Head Hawkmoth gets its name from a peculiar marking on the back of its brown thorax in the form of a pale yellow skull. The wings are velvety brown but the abdomen is striped in yellow and brown.  It has a sweet tooth and likes to raid the honeycombs of the local bees for honey. In order to get to the honey without being murdered by the defending bees, it has learned to make the same sound that honey-carrying bees make when they return to the hive. This noise means: "I am not an enemy, do not attack me". Most of the time the moth get away with this ruse, but sometimes the bees are not fooled and dead Death Head Hawkmoths can be found on the ground underneath a beehive.

    The Oleander Hawkmoth gets its name from the fact that its caterpillars feed on oleander leaves. The moth is beautifully marked with "camouflage" colours and shapes, in olive green, pink and greyish-brown. The caterpillar is also quite spectacular: a finger-thick, fleshy larva, bright green with yellow spots on its sides. When the caterpillar is startled by a would-be attacker, it bends its head down quickly, exposing two large shimmering blue eyes on the back of its neck. The enormous eyes scare off the attacker by their size and sudden appearance. You can evoke this threat posture by touching the branch on which the caterpillar is feeding.

    Although most of the moths are rarely seen, since they only fly at night, their caterpillars are found more easily and these are often spectacular in their colour. They can always be recognised as hawkmoth caterpillars by the horn on the back of their bodies.

    The most common day-flying moth in the UAE is a small, fast-flying insect that I called the "Polkadot moth" when I first saw it, but its proper English name is "Crimson-speckled footman" (Utetheisa pulchella). The caterpillar is incredibly beautiful: a silver-coloured body with black, red and white stripes and spots. These black and red colours also appear as spots on the moth's white wings. Even though these spots are very bright, they serve as camouflage. As soon as the moth settles on sand or vegetation, it seems to disappear, and if you did not see where it settled, you will never spot it again.

    Several smaller species of Hawkmoths occur in the UAE. They all have rather wonderful caterpillars, each with a large "horn" on the rear end of their bodies. My personal favourite is the Hummingbird hawkmoth, that hovers in front of flowers, "standing still" in the air with its tongue protruding to get nectar. It is a rather rare insect, recorded from Wadi Bih.

    Moths can be distinguished from butterflies by the way they hold their wings. In moths the wings are folded against the body when resting. In butterflies the wings are either spread out sideways or folded above their backs.

    The largest butterflies that are commonly seen are the Swallowtails. There are two species of representing the Papilio genus here: the common Papilio demoleus and the somewhat the more rare Papilio machaon. Both can be found flying around in city gardens and in palm groves that have citrus trees among the undergrowth. Often butterflies like the Swallowtails (and also the smaller Monarchs) can be found on patches of damp soil, where they appear to be drinking. But if you observe them carefully, you can see that they loose drops of moisture from the back of their abdomen quite steadily. They are not actually drinking but filtering water to take out minerals and trace elements that they need.

    Smaller butterflies that are found commonly, both in gardens and in the desert are the Painted Lady (Vanessa or Cynthia cardui) and the Plain Tiger (Danaus chrisyppus). The Painted Lady is a delicately marked butterfly that can be found often on flowering Ochradenus aucheri bushes. The latter genus - also called the Monarch - is one that is widespread throughout the world.  It is a strong migrant and can cover enormous distances each year. One of the Monarch species (Danaus plexipus) is very famous because it migrates each year from North America to one patch of forest in Mexico, where millions of the butterflies spend the winter hanging on the branches of the trees, sometimes breaking them under the weight of their numerous bodies! This patch of woods has recently been made into a world heritage nature reserve, and rightly so!

    Danaus chrysippus is one of the most common butterflies in the UAE. Its caterpillars feed on plants that exude poisonous milky saps, the Asclepediaceae, such as the Pergularia tomentosa, Calotropis procera and others. As a result of the poisonous sap that the larva ingests, the butterfly becomes unpalatable to birds. Its bright orange black and white colouring serves as a warning to the birds: "Don't eat me, I taste horrible" Another food plant is the wild carrot. The caterpillars that feed on these plants have an interesting defense mechanism. When disturbed or attacked, they bend their heads in the threat posture and quickly extend two yellow appendages that emit a strong smell of carrot.

    Again, there is something interesting here. Another butterfly, common in East Coast plantations, is the Diadem. It has developed a defense mechanism against becoming the prey for birds. While the male Diadem is conspicuously black with white patches, ringed with iridescent blue, the female does not resemble its male at all. In fact, it is almost identical to the Plain Tiger. The only difference is that it is slightly larger and that it has only one black spot on its hind wings, instead of four. By taking on the colouration of the Plain Tiger, it advertises to birds that it is unpalatable, while in fact it does not taste bad at all. The Diadem butterfly is much more rare than the Plain Tiger, so most orange/black/white butterflies that you see will be the latter.

    Some butterflies that are true desert insects are the Desert White (Anaphis aurota), the Blue Pansy (Junonia orithiya) and the White-edged Rock Brown (Hipparchia parisatis). The Desert White is a common visitor of the spring ephemeral flowers, while the Blue Pansy can be found throughout the cooler months. Interestingly, the White-edged Rock Brown even stays around in the hot months of summer, finding refuge from the high temperatures in caves and under overhanging rocks, where at times they will roost by the hundreds.

    Some plants attract butterflies more than others. One small butterfly, the Blue-spotted Arab  (Colotis phisadia), can be found in large swarms feeding on the flowers of the toothbrush bush Salvadora persica, and of Dipterigium glaucum, a member of the Caper family.

    The smallest butterflies belong to the family of the Little Blues. There are many different species in this family, with lovely names like Mediterranean Pierrot and Small Cupid. Though they are small, they are quite spectacular when seen through the macrolens. The upper side is bright sky-blue, while the underside is usually gray with a number of iridescent rings along the edges of the lower wings. Many have small appendages on the lower wings.

    The very rare Fig Blue butterfly has very long appendages on its lower wings. This much larger butterfly can sometimes be found on Oleander bushes in the wadis.

   The smallest of the small butterflies is the Grass Jewel, a tiny brown insect, common in plantations and vegetated wadis. Its wingspan is less than 1 cm.

    There have been new "imports" into the country; one noticeably has made its way to the UAE from as far as America. It is a very small, but very beautiful butterfly that can be observed in large numbers around the Sesuvium verrucosum plants that grow profusely on the dumpsite near the American University of Sharjah. With the vegetation in the UAE ever increasing and international transport inadvertently importing insects from other parts of the world, new species may well be added to the ones recorded for the UAE so far.



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