from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
April 20, 2003
Monday morning as the sun shone with brilliance and the temperature stood at about 75° (24°C), I was transplanting pepper plants in the garden when I became aware of a persistent buzzing. I'd heard that sound before, so immediately I set off looking for swarming honeybees.
I found them busy around a hole about 30 feet up (9 m) in an old Pecan tree. Years ago someone had cut a large branch there, the center of the cut had rotted out, and probably the rot had extended into the trunk forming a cavity perfect for a beehive.
For about five minutes I watched as a diffuse, smudgy cloud of swirling bees hung around the hole. Then the smudge expanded ameba-like toward the top of an American Elm about 40 feet away, and finally it separated from its Pecan-hole home. Now it began coalescing into a churning, compact sphere at the elm's very top, where the whole dark blur paused for several minutes, as if snagged there. Though the morning was breezeless, the elm's topmost leaves fluttered in drafts made by the bees' wings.
Now during about 20 minutes as the bee cloud settled among the elm's topmost branches, a grainy black and yellow stain began forming on a particular branch about two inches thick (5 cm) and some 10 feet below the elm's top leaves. The stain consisted of thousands of bee bodies massing together. In half an hour the bees hung on the branch like a three-foot-long, yellow-and-black beard. The swarm had moved only about 40 feet, but I'd witnessed the birth of a new honeybee colony, and it had been an amazing thing to see.
Much work had preceded this birth. When a honeybee colony becomes too crowded with adult bees, worker bees select a dozen or so tiny larvae already in the hive. Normally these larvae would develop into worker bees, but now they are fed generous amounts of "royal jelly," a substance produced by certain brood-food glands in the heads of worker bees. The cells in which the chosen larvae are developing are enlarged, for these larvae will develop into queens.
Shortly before these new queens emerge, the hive's original mother queen departs from the hive with about half of her worker bees (usually from 15,000 to 25,000), and this is what I witnessed Monday. After a brief flight the queen alights, usually on a branch of a tree but sometimes on a roof, a parked car, or just about anything. All the bees settle into a tight cluster around the queen while several scout bees go looking for a new place in which to live. When the scouts find a new location, the swarm goes there and begins a new colony.
I returned to the trailer and sat at the computer writing the above words. When finished, I looked out the screen door and for a moment I thought my outside kitchen was on fire. What I saw was hundreds of winged termites lifting into the air, with sunlight glistening in their fluttering wings.
They were emerging from beneath a pile of firewood in a corner of my kitchen. On the pile a Green Anole (green "chameleon" lizard) was rushing from termite to termite, wings and other termite body parts dangling from his chomping jaws. Members of the lizard family have trouble looking excited, but somehow this lizard gave the clear impression of being overjoyed.
Nor was the Green Anole the only creature benefiting from this outbreak of termites. Inside my kitchen the ground is dry and dusty, perfect for Antlions, or "Doodlebugs," the little insect larvae that make conical pits in dust and sand, lie beneath the pits with their jaws open, and wait for something to slide into their pit. I watched one termite having problems getting airborne wander into the Doodlebug zone. Right according to script he slid into a pit and instantly tiny pincers from below grabbed him around the abdomen and dragged him into the dust, to be sucked dry.
I also was tickled about this infestation because I've been needing a scanned winged termite to add to my termite page on the Internet so I could point out the differences between a winged termite and a winged ant, for often the two are confused.
You can read how to distinguish them and see my new termite scanning at www.backyardnature.net/isoptera.htm
I've also added a picture at my nature site the likes of which you probably won't find at many other Web sites. It's a nice shot of a fresh pile of chicken poop, sent to me by Newsletter subscriber and Kingston neighbor Karen Wise, because she knew I was looking for just such a picture. You can see that interesting shot at www.backyardnature.net/birdpee.htm
The main thing I like about this dropping is that it is nicely topped with white paste. The white paste is uric acid, and that's what I wanted to talk about at my site. I explain how animals have a problem getting rid of the poisonous ammonia resulting from the natural breakdown of protein and nucleic acid in their bodies. Bodies of mammals like us humans deal with the ammonia by converting it to less-toxic urea, which is flushed from the body when we pee.
Needless to say, peeing requires a lot of water. If you think of it, you just don't see reptiles and birds peeing as much as average mammals do. This is because the bodies of reptiles and birds, instead of converting their ammonia to urea, convert it to uric acid -- the white paste on the dropping -- the excretion of which obviously wastes much less water.
So here's one instance when reptiles and birds have evolved a more sophisticated system than mammals. It's not surprising that this could happen, since certain birds have eyes far superior to ours for seeing details of distant objects, and other animals have superior hearing and smelling.
Anyway, if our kidneys had evolved to produce uric acid instead of urea, we'd need to drink much less, and hardly ever need to go pee!
NEW "JIM'S LIFE" PAGE
I've added a "Jim's Life" page at my nature site. The idea is to suggest to others the possibility of experimenting with life, to explore new living strategies that on the one hand provide an enriched existence, but on the other enable one to contribute to society, keep life simple and inexpensive, and go relatively easy on the environment. The page pictures my outside kitchen, my sleeping platform, and the Newsweek picture of me in the trailer. The page is at www.backyardnature.net/j/jimslife.htm
COURTSHIP BIRD SHENANIGANS
Newsletter subscriber Paty Buck Wolf in Connecticut writes about the problem her robins are having nesting. They bring straw to a certain spot, then when they leave for more, Purple Finches rob the straw for their own nest not far away.
As bird hormones skyrocket, I'm not surprised to hear any such story, for during courtship times birds can be as comical as humans.
The other day I focused my binoculars on a pair of Cardinals foraging at the edge of the lawn at the hunters' camp. The very instant the bright male found something in the grass and tilted forward to retrieve it, the female swooped to beside him, squatted low, quivered her wings and gaped her beak wide open exactly as a nestling might. The male then fed her what he had found. This went on for several minutes, the male constantly dropping this and that into her gaping gullet.
Finally there came a moment when the begging female bumped up against him almost aggressively, but this time the male just sort of threw up his wings as if his nervous system had short-circuited and he unceremoniously flew away. The female must have had her eyes closed because she remained crouching, wing- quivering and gaping for a second or two before she shut her mouth, stood erect, looked around... and in her body language I could read volumes.
THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
In this week when the Yellow Poplars (Tulip Poplars) and Black Locusts flowered, and in the forest Jack-in- the-pulpit and its close relative the Green Dragon flowered -- on Friday, April 18, I spotted the following migratory birds:
WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE
2 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
11 Cedar Waxwing
18 White-throated Sparrow
SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED
1 Mississippi Kite
5 Chimney Swift
1 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
7 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
4 Great-crested Flycatcher
10 Acadian Flycatcher
1 Eastern Wood Pewee
1 Wood Thrush
17 White-eyed Vireo
8 Yellow-throated Vireo
13 Northern Parula
5 American Redstart
10 Hooded Warbler
2 Kentucky Warbler
2 Prothonotary Warbler
2 Tennessee Warbler
2 Yellow-breasted Chat
2 Orchard Oriole
10 Summer Tanager
14 Indigo Bunting
TRANSIENTS (just passing through)
PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)
2 Wood Duck
6 Brown Thrasher
6 Eastern Towhee
1 Brown-headed Cowbird
This week newly arrived species include the American Redstart, Indigo Bunting, Kentucky and Tennessee Warblers, Orchard Oriole, and the Veery.
The nicest moment of Friday's walk was at the very beginning. Standing beside the outside kitchen I scanned the branches of the big Pecans above me and found five Indigo Buntings. What a picture that was, their dark blue color exploding in dawn's crimson glow! The buntings must have just arrived, for I'd not previously heard or seen them, yet on Friday I found two nice flocks.
One surprise of the walk was coming upon an enormous male Wild Turkey with his ponytail "beard" dangling like a medal from his chest. Now, a Wild Turkey is to a domestic turkey approximately what a Greyhound is to a St. Bernhard, but this Wild Turkey's chest was nearly the size of a barnyard turkey's. He was so huge that he didn't even try to fly, though I found him in a hayfield and stood no more than a hundred feet away. Moreover, he actually seemed scared of entering the woods. Surely he was a released tom, possibly from the adjoining St. Catherine Wildlife Refuge. Whoever he was, he might as well have worn a sign around his neck reading "I am free Coyote food."
Along the paths around my trailer and along trails and roadsides throughout the plantation, right now an abundance of Philadelphia Fleabanes, ERIGERON PHILADELPHICUS, are flowering. The blossoms are very similar to fall's aster flowers. You can see them at www.lter.umn.edu/pjslides/erigeron-philadelphicus.jpg
I can't see this plant without recalling summer days on the Kentucky farm, for the weedy shoulders of the gravel road passing by our farm at this time of year were always spectacular with millions of flowering fleabanes. Crushed fleabanes produce a not unpleasant odor, one like I'd imagine warm, soft yellow-greenness to smell. When I was a kid on the gravel road, sometimes the whole world smelled of fleabane. Those of you who have seen my online book "Walks with Red Dog" at www.backyardnature.net/r/reddog00.htm know how important to me those walks were.
The fleabanes' pungent odor suggests that they bear interesting chemicals. The word "fleabane" itself describes something able to "drive away fleas." On the Internet I find that "The whole-plant tea was used as a diuretic and an astringent. Folk uses include treatment of diarrhea, "gravel" (kidney stones), diabetes, and painful urination. It was also used to stop hemorrhages of the stomach, bowels, bladder, kidneys, and nose. Additional historic uses include treatment of fevers, bronchitis, tumors, hemorrhoids, and coughs. Contact dermatitis may result from handling this plant. Caution is advised." I found this information at an interesting but very slowly loading site called "Medicinal and Edible Plants of The University of Mississippi Field Station," at baysprings.olemiss.edu/publications/umfs-jeanne.html
Since fleabanes are members of the Composite Family, the blossoms' yellow "eyes" are composed of dozens of yellow "disc flowers." Radiating from these "eyes" are 75 to a hundred slender white "ray flowers." If you need refreshing about the unique anatomy of Composite blossoms, take a look at my Composite Flower Page at www.backyardnature.net/fl_comps.htm.
The next time you see a fleabane, pluck off a flower, break it apart, smell its evocative odor, and see how elegantly each tiny flower is formed.
ON THINGS OTHER THAN MEDIUM SIZE
The pleasure I've experienced this week visiting the fleabanes reminded me of an interesting thought once expressed by a famous astrophysicist, whose name I've forgotten, though his idea has long informed my world view. He said that when you take into account the enormity of the cosmos, and the unbelievable complexity present at the microscopic level and even lower, in subatomic realms, we humans, in terms of size, find ourselves about midway the two worlds.
The fleabanes reminded me of this because usually they go unappreciated until someone makes an effort to relate to their tiny details. To delight in fleabanes, one must shift mental gears so that miniscule things become relevant.
I once heard a mentally ill person describing being in a state of euphoria while walking the streets of Manhattan. Though intellectually he knew he was dwarfed by skyscrapers, he actually felt as if he was taller than they, looking down on them. By the same token, I have heard people describing states of depression during which they felt they were so small that they hardly existed. A speck of dust was more substantial than they. Of course, moments of craziness are just extreme expressions of states of mind possible for all of us.
So, we humans possess an enormous flexibility when it comes to defining which parts of the world around us are worthy of attention. We like to think that we are flexible enough to enjoy all things great and small, but in reality most of us surely get stuck looking at a very narrow sliver of reality -- the part that coincides with our human size -- day after day, year after year, and we grow jaded in the process.
So, today with a handlens I admire the fleabane's tiny tuft of silvery hairs atop immature future fruits, and tonight I shall gaze into the sky visualizing the swirl of our own galaxy, and the place our galaxy occupies in the broad Universe.
And later, in my dreams, maybe I'll squint into space only to find in the furthest corner a burst of yellow and white light, for all the world looking just like a little fleabane flower.