JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills
somewhat east of Placerville, Califnornia, USA

August 28, 2005

ANT-EATING YELLOWJACKETS
The other day Fred and I were supervising dusk when I thought I saw a yellowjacket swoop down on a line of fairly large, black ants, nab an ant, and fly away with it. Fred didn't see it so I figured I'd made a mistake, for who has ever heard of an insect preying on formic- acid filled ants? I went away without more ado, but then a bit later Fred called me back saying he'd seen a yellowjacket land on an ant with wings, break off the wings, sting the ant, and fly off with it. Then we sat and watched as several times a yellowjacket came buzzing the ant-lines, being very persnickety about which ants were chosen, and occasionally carrying off an ant. You can review what a yellowjacket looks like at http://bugguide.net/node/view/14144.

I'm still astonished to find that yellowjackets prey on ants but, now that I'm convinced they do, I figure that this is the very best time of year for it. That's because right now yellowjacket nests are filled with larvae needing to be fed, and yellowjacket larvae are carnivorous. Adult yellowjackets eat food rich in sugars and other carbohydrates, such as flower nectar, tree sap and fruit juice (that's why they buzz sodas and watermelon slices), but the fast-growing, immobile larvae crave protein. Therefore adult yellowjackets hunt a wide variety of insects, spiders and the like, chew them up, and then feed the nest-bound larvae with the chewed stuff. In return the larvae secrete a sweet substance relished by the adults. The technical name for this regurgitation-based, "community-stomach" form of food exchange is "trophallaxis."

On my backpacking hike this week I saw lots of yellowjackets buzzing around spider webs and combing the forest floor, so clearly nowadays yellowjackets are after a lot more than ants.

The yellowjacket life cycle is something to think about. You start out in spring with a single female who has been impregnated the previous fall, and who has spent the winter in a protected spot -- anything from beneath a piece of loose bark to the inner walls of a house. In early spring this lone female builds a paper nest, which may be outside in a protected place, or in a cavity in the ground, depending on the species, for there are several kinds of yellowjacket. This nest has 30-50 brood cells and the mother yellowjacket hustles to provide for them all. When the larvae pupate and emerge as adults they are all infertile females, known as workers.

At this point the mother yellowjacket's life changes drastically. The new workers start taking care of all her needs while she concentrates on producing more eggs, and the new workers do all the nursery duty. By late summer and early fall a yellowjacket nest can have up to 15,000 cells producing new yellowjackets. You can see a five-foot-long nest built by invasive German Yellowjackets in a Nebraska porch ceiling at http://entomology.unl.edu/entpeopl/yelljack.htm.

As cold weather approaches, the workers start creating cells that produce fertile females and males. The resulting adults mate, the females wander off and choose a place in which to ride out the winter... and all the poor workers and the males simply die.

I have often thought that one direction of evolution is to get rid of males, who tend to be unpleasantly war- mongering, status-hungry and politically extreme. When I see the family structures of such recently evolved, very sophisticated beings as yellowjackets, where males are restricted to a very limited timeframe and a single well defined, simple task, after which they die, I think I may have glimpsed the shape of things to come.

You can read much more about yellowjackets at http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/2000/2075.html.

By the way, the yellowjackets' ant prey were "Pavement Ants," members of the Myrmicinae, probably TETRAMORIUM CAESPITUM, as identified with the picture-based Ant Identification Key at the University of California at http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/TOOLS/ANTKEY/index.html.

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CALIFORNIA GOLDENRODS
The problem with this week's hike in the mountains was that at the lower elevations goldenrods blossomed along the roads. They were knee-high, slender, pretty things, with elegant elliptical leaves spiraling up unbranching stalks, the leaves indented just enough to be elegant, but not ostentatious, and of course at the top of each plant flamed a narrow panicle of small, yellow composite flowers. They were California Goldenrods, SOLIDAGO CALIFORNICA, which you can see at http://www.coestatepark.com/solidago_californica_coe.htm.

The problem with those goldenrods was that they told me how late in the year it's become. I have been able to repress the implications of the rapidly shortening and gradually cooling days, even the ever louder crashes of the ever larger acorns falling on my trailer roof, and keep my mind blissfully in the long-continuing-summer mode, but those goldenrods told me the plain truth: It's so late that goldenrods are blossoming.

Actually I hadn't been sure that I'd see any goldenrods out here at all, for goldenrods are much more an Eastern North America thing than a Western one. The "Vascular Flora of the Southeastern United States," for instance, lists 53 goldenrod species for the US Southeast, but California's Jepson Manual lists only ten for the whole state, and some of those species are restricted to the coast, the high alpine regions, or other such areas of limited extent.

It was amazing how, once the goldenrods had spoken, the whole texture of my hike suddenly changed. From that moment on, the hike mostly concerned itself with recognizing the fallish feeling in the air, the fallish way shadows so sharply defined themselves, the fallishly quiet, subdued manner of the birds...

Thanks to the goldenrods, this last hike was for me a solemn ceremony marking the beginning of the end of summer.

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MONKEYFLOWERS
If California is relatively weak in goldenrods, it is relatively rich in monkeyflowers. Monkeyflowers are members of the genus MIMULUS. In Mississippi we had only two monkeyflower species, the common one, growing throughout the East, being the Winged Monkeyflower, MIMULUS ALATUS, which you can see at http://www.toadshade.com/MimuluAl_im1.html.

Well, for California the Jepson Manual lists about 64 species of monkeyflower!

Most monkeyflower plants bear rather pretty blossoms, sometimes simply bodacious ones. This week in the mountains along a stream in a deep valley with gigantic Douglas-firs all around I came upon a cluster of wildflowers with large, bright-red blossoms and I wasn't at all surprised to see that they were monkeyflowers.

Monkeyflower plants are distinguished by bearing opposite leaves and flower calices that are tubular and 5-angled or 5-winged (clearly visible at the above link). The snapdragonlike blossoms present bilateral symmetry, not radial, four stamens, and a capsular fruit. Some species are woody and some are herbaceous, and blossoms come in every bright color.

On my hikes one of the most commonly seen species, especially along streams, has been the Scarlet Monkeyflower, MIMULUS CARDINALIS, on display at http://www.wildscaping.com/plants/plantprofiles/Mimulus_cardinalis.htm.

Also along streams and often forming large carpets around cool seeps, has been the Yellow Monkeyflower, MIMULUS GUTTATUS, which you can admire here.

Common in dry, disturbed places has been the Torrey's Monkeyflower, MIMULUS TORREYI, to be seen at http://plants.usda.gov/cgi_bin/topics.cgi?earl=plant_profile.cgi&symbol=MITO.

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THE FIGWORT FAMILY ON HARD TIMES
All my old manuals, floras and wildflower books are in agreement that the genus Mimulus and therefore all monkeyflowers belong to the Figwort Family, the SCROPHULARIACEAE. All my life I've regarded the Scrophulariaceae as a big family incorporating such noble species as snapdragons, paintbrushes, foxglove, mullein, the penstemons or beard-tongues, wood-betony, veronica, toadflax, Paulownia trees, our rainbow of monkeyflowers, and much, much more -- some 200 genera and 3000 species.

But now genetic sequencing is revealing that in the past taxonomists have dumped a lot of fairly unrelated plant groups into the Figwort Family. Today's taxonomists, paying much less attention to what organisms look like than to their genetic structure -- and assuming that the more genetic material two organisms share the closer related they are -- are reassigning vast regions of the Figwort Family to other families. This great family is being reduced to a mere shadow of what it once was. To see a rather technical paper from the distinguished American Journal of Botany entitled "Disintegration of the Scrophulariacea," go to http://www.amjbot.org/cgi/content/full/88/2/348.

The above paper suggests that monkeyflowers may be as closely related to the Mint Family as to the old Figwort Family. However, it admits that it's simply unclear as to what family monkeyflowers do belong. More recent work has placed monkeyflowers into the rather obscure Phrymaceae, ingloriously named in English "the Lopseed Family."

Seeing how far the great Figwort Family has fallen, I think I know how the Torries must have felt when told that the King no longer was king, long live the King.

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TURKEY VULTURES OVER THE CANYON
Most any moment of most any day I can look out over the canyon next to the house and see one or more Turkey Vultures circling about. Consequently at least once a day this question crosses my mind: How on Earth can there be enough carrion out there to keep so many vultures alive?

On my hikes I seldom encounter dead animals, and most of the ones I do find lie along roads. Often when I pass down those roads a day or two later the roadkill is still there, so the mystery only increases.

This week my curiosity finally reached the Googling stage, and I think I may have part of the answer.

For one thing, vultures eat a lot of small dead animals you'd not expect them to find many of -- shrews, voles and moles, for instance. Then they also eat insects and other invertebrates, and not necessarily just dead ones. In fact, vultures have been seen eating living specimens of everything from newly born pigs to baby herons and ibises. Finally, vultures do eat a fair amount of plant material. There's at least one report of 62 vultures attacking some frost-softened pumpkins.

While looking for the above information I ran into some other interesting facts about vultures. For example:

The "Turkey Vulture Society," dedicated strictly to Turkey Vultures, produces a fine website with pages dealing with such topics as how to "adopt" a vulture, and what to do if you find an injured one. You can visit it at http://vulturesociety.homestead.com.

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PRAYING MANTIS ON THE PEACH-TREE NETTING
Wandering through the orchard this week I came upon a vividly green, 3.5-inch-long Praying Mantis. The two features that always make such an encounter interesting are, first: It's unusual to see such a large insect, and; second, when you draw near, the critter turns his head and looks up at you with apparently the same curiosity that causes you to look down at him.

Actually the name Praying Mantis is a bit ambiguous because in North America alone we have about 20 mantis species and they all more or less pray. Of course the praying is actually their holding their spiny front legs in a position enabling them to shoot forward, grab prey, and hold the prey while it is being nibbled away.

My orchard species was the introduced Chinese Mantid, TENODERA ARIDIFOLIA, which you can see at http://troyb.com/photo/gallery/00007739.htm. In the Northeast the common one is the introduced European Mantid, MANTIS RELIGIOSA. The one I most commonly saw in Mississippi was the Carolina Mantis, STAGMOMANTIS CAROLINA, and of course there's also a California Mantis, STAGMOMANTIS CALIFORNICA

Mantises are spectacular predators. Stories are told about females eating their males while still copulating...

If you enjoy such details of wild nature, you'll love my page on insect behavior, where I relate a story told by the famous French naturalist J. Henri Fabre. In that little drama the stars are a wasp, a bee, and a mantis. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/bugbhav.htm.

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TODAY'S MAIDU
Last week I mentioned the Maidu people, the Native Americans of this area pushed aside by invading people with recent European roots. As I mentioned then, some Maidu survive today, though not on their native lands.

You may be interested in browsing the website of one Maidu band, see what they are doing now, what their concerns are, and what they look like. Their site is at http://www.maidu.com/maidu/index.html.

*****

ON THE ECOLOGY OF HUMAN DIVERSITY
As with everyone, the more I know and experience, the more I evolve. During recent years I think the single most transfixing insight that has matured in me is this: That we humans are programmed genetically and socially to entertain a much more diverse set of basic assumptions about life than I ever dreamed possible.

The only way I can explain it is that maybe in the realm of human thoughts and belief systems there is a yet-undiscovered natural law at work. This law would oblige a diversity in mankind's mental milieu analogous to the diversity seen among the plants and animals of our forests and fields, and the Universe at large -- a diversity not only as rambunctious as Nature's but, significantly, also structured like it.

In the forest a vine takes advantage of an oak's steady, hard-won growth, overtops the oak, and the oak suffers from its shading. I can think of people and cultures who behave just like that vine, and who suffer just like that oak. In the forest there are parasites who rob plants who ploddingly photosynthesize their own food, and saprophytes who get along on the garbage of the forest floor. The forest has hawks and vultures, hummingbirds and owls, all vital to the integrity of the Web of Life, and every species follows a strategy of survival that on one level or another is precisely mirrored by the manners of this or that human or human culture. The trick that has helped me grasp this has been trying to see my fellow humans with the same detached clarity with which I see vines and mushrooms.

What does it all mean?

One is tempted to say that it doesn't "mean" anything, that it's just beautiful the way the expression of any natural law, or the actualization of any symmetrical event, is beautiful, and maybe that's even the right way to see it.

However, I'm compelled to say that this analogous situation between organic, evolving nature and the abstract, evolving mentality of human communities means that we humans, so new upon the face of the Earth, can benefit from the study of eternal nature.

In fact, I'd say that "happiness" or at least "wisdom" is a consequence of living in harmony with the paradigms integral to evolving Nature. Recycling, living simply and within one's means, everyday unostentatious artfulness, a flowing kind of flexibility, evolution... Especially in the mental world, evolution more than anything, for our ideas needn't be structured upon and therefore held captive by brittle, redundant strands of DNA... Though at this stage of our evolution all of us most of the time no more exercise our freedoms than we face our responsibilities with regard to being living parts of the Earth Ecosystem...

The Nature Bible speaks directly to our human condition. The Nature Bible plainly offers us freedoms and responsibilities few of us accept.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net