JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort
adjoining Chichén Itzá Ruins in
YUCATÁN, MÉXICO

November 14, 2010

JOCH THE PANTHER ANT
Joch (pronounched HOCH, rhyming with poach) first caught my attention soon after I'd arrived here when one day I leaned against a Cedro tree, and thought that a scorpion had stung me. It turned out to be a half-inch long (13mm), hairy, black ant like one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114an.jpg.

A couple of days later, as I was putting on a shirt -- which must have had one or more ants in it -- I got a couple more bites. The stings weren't as painful as a wasp's but it was much worse than that of a fire-ant. That's when I began asking the fellows about this big, black, solitary-wandering ant with a powerful sting.

They knew exactly which ant I was talking about, and showed me that they'd walk a good bit out of their way just to stomp one. They called it "Joch," and assured me that Joches climb high into palm trees where they turn into wasps, which eventually beneath the palm fronds build paper nests holding wasp larvae, and those larvae make great eating with a little chili, sour orange and salt...

Well, science says that ants don't turn into wasps that build paper nests, so I just filed that information. I figured I'd never find out the Joch's technical name, which I'd need if I were to look it up and see what the Joch's real story was.

I did, however, find reference to what only could have been Joches in Friar Diego de Landa's book Relación de las cosas de Yucatan, written in 1566 soon after the Conquest. He writes:

There is a kind of large ant whose bite is very bad, and which pains and suppurates more than that of the scorpions, and lasts twice as long, as I know by experience.

Though my bites never suppurated, they did hurt like the dickens, and stay red much longer than a bee or wasp sting would have.

And then this week on the Internet I had the luck to blunder upon a forum for German-speaking ant enthusiasts, at http://www.ameisenforum.de -- "Ameise" being German for "ant." I uploaded the above photo to the forum and by the next day I had a verdict: It's a queen of the genus Pachycondyla. Elsewhere I read that PACHYCONDYLA VILLOSA is common in the Yucatán, and pictures of that species match ours, so tentatively that's what I'm calling it. A common name in English for Pachycondyla villosa is Hairy Panther Ant.

Hairy Panther Ants are widely distributed in lowlands from southern Texas to northern Argentina. They're described as generalized arboreal predators, preying on many kinds of arthropods. I've seen them enter and leave small cavities in dead tree limbs and trunks, and I read that they'll nest in almost any cavity, including hollow Cecropia trunks. J.B. Heinze and others write in the Journal of Insect Behavior:

Workers in queenless groups of the ant Pachycondyla villosa engage in antennal boxing and biting and by these interactions establish social dominance hierarchies, in which several high-ranking individuals may lay eggs. We observed egg cannibalism by dominant workers.

Often I've noted Joches carrying clear droplets of liquid in their mandibles as they roamed about. Now I read that workers of this species harvest nectar and carry it exactly as I've seen, later to share it with other workers, and larvae.

*****

ORCHARD WEAVER
For the last month or so the top branches of many tall weeds and bushes in and around the Hacienda have borne horizontally deployed orb webs two feet or so across (60 cm). The spider hangs upside down beneath the webs' spiraling threads. Two shots of one of these spiders, the image on the left displayed vertically instead of its original horizontal position, are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114sp.jpg.

We have lots of fascinating spider species here that I never mention because I can't identify them and therefore can't find out what's interesting about them. However, this species is so ubiquitous that I hoped it might occur in southern Florida, in which case someone at a spider forum might recognize it. Having enjoyed such success with the German ant forum, I searched for an active spider forum and came up with "Arachnoboards," sponsored by the British Tarantula Society, at http://www.arachnoboards.com.

Two days after posting my picture I was astonished to find that several people -- one in Rome, Italy, two in Florida, and one each in Maryland, Louisiana and Michigan, had left comments. The spider is the Venusta Orchard Weaver, LEUCAUGE VENUSTA, a long-jawed orbweaver distributed from southern Canada to Panama, along the eastern US coast, extending into the central US.

Forum user "davisfam" in central Florida, who calls young spiders "spidiies," wrote:

Leucauge venusta is extremely abundant during the rainy season in coffee plantations in Chiapas State and other areas of Mexico. The web of this species is made in semi-open sites generally between weeds or between adjacent bushes. Young L. venusta spidiies build webs close to the ground, but as sexual development proceeds, the specimen increases the height at which the web is built. The sexual maturity of females induces migration to places where prey is more abundant. It's quite possible that immature spidiies are abundant right now along with the adult specimens. No worries, these beautiful spidiies are harmless and extremely docile... just pretty to look at and take pictures of!

Another user in Florida added that "The neon yellow, orange or red spots on the rear of the abdomen are variable in size among individuals and sometimes absent."

And "This species is parasitized by a wasp larva which attaches itself externally at the junction of the cephalothorax and abdomen."

So, again, how about that for the power of the Internet? Already just by noon on the Wednesday I visited Arachnoboards, 599 visits had been registered at the forum. That's a lot of people interested in arachnids on a Wednesday morning!

****I

INDIAN CORAL TREE
On Pisté's north side, beside the soccer field and on the highway to the toll road between Mérida and Cancún, there stands the singular-looking tree shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114er.jpg.

Though I've seen this ornamental species planted throughout Mexico, I've put off introducing it here because I've been waiting for its flowers. However, somehow I've missed the flowers, despite their being described as brilliantly orange-red and forming spectacular inflorescences. A close-up of a cluster of the highly variegated leaves is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114es.jpg.

The leaves are trifoliate, like clover leaves. A single leaf with three leaflets at the end of a long petiole occupies the center of the last picture, though seeing it is like trying to make out a zebra in a closely packed herd of many zebras.

This is the Indian Coral Tree, ERYTHRINA VARIEGATA, so called because it's native to an area rom India to western China, and because species of the genus Erythrina generally are known as Coral-Trees. They're members of the Bean Family. In Querétaro we had a more typical, flowering coral-tree with easy-to-see leaves. You might enjoy comparing our current species with that at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/erythrin.htm.

Besides being pretty and easy-to-grow, in many cultures Indian Coral Trees are regarded as useful. In southern Florida they're often planted as hedges. In India they're used to support vine crops such as black pepper, vanilla, yam and betel. During the hottest months their leaves shade the vines, keeping them moist. When it gets cooler the leaves fall and the vines receive more direct sunlight, which is what they need at that time. Indian Coral Trees are popular shade trees in many places, and make excellent living fenceposts. Their leaves make good feed for most livestock, containing 16-18% crude protein.

In Asia, juice from the tree's leaves is mixed with honey to kill tapeworms, roundworms and threadworms. Women take the juice to stimulate lactation and menstruation. A warm poultice of its leaves relieves rheumatic joints. The bark is used as a laxative, diuretic and expectorant.

The Maya I've talked to don't seem to know about these uses, which is to be expected, since the species isn't a native American plant.

*****

BLADDER MALLOW
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114bm.jpg you see a yellow-flowered weed with green, ribbed, inflated, Chinese-lantern-like fruits next to my hut door two weeks ago. I've delayed introducing the little plant because it's taken me two weeks of hard internetting to identify it. At first glance it looks like any number of weedy, yellow-flowered herbs blossoming these days, but a closer look reveals lots of curious features, especially those Chinese-lantern fruits.

Obviously it's a member of the Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae, because of how the many stamens join at the bases of their filaments into a cylinder around the ovary's style. Two views of a flower are shown -- the view on the left showing the tree-like collection of stamens on their "staminal column" overtopped by ±7 filament divisions topped by blunt stigmas -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114bn.jpg.

A 2/3-inch-wide (17 mm) fruit pod -- the view at the left showing a head with its nine hairy segments intact while the view at the right shows the segments open, exposing the seeds -- is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114bo.jpg.

You can see what the segments look like when they open and fall from the head at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114bp.jpg.

Those open segments clarify why the plant goes to all the trouble of making those Chinese-lantern heads: Each segment ends up equipped with two wings capable of catching the wind and carrying the seeds downwind.

The plant finally has revealed itself to be what's sometimes called Bladder Mallow in English. It's HERISSANTIA CRISPA, Herissantia being a genus I'd never even heard of.

In fact, this whole two-week exercise in identifying this plant has mightily impressed me with regard to the size and diversity of the Hibiscus Family, which in its traditional sense embraces over 200 genera and about 2300 species. Recent genetic studies have caused most experts to lump several families formerly regarded as distinct into the Hibiscus Family, including the Basswood, Sterculia and the Bombax Families, which makes the family even much larger.

If you want to sensitize yourself so the general features and the enormous diversity of the Hibiscus Family, go to http://www.malvaceae.info/ and just browse around.

*****

GIANT MEXICAN SUNFLOWERS
Biking Pisté's backstreets I came upon the tallest member of the Composite or Sunflower Family I can recall seeing. At least 15 feet tall (4.5m), its lanky stems are shown next to a cinderblock house at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114ti.jpg.

A close-up of a sunflower-like flower head consisting of many small, tubular "disk flowers" in the "eye" and several much larger, flat "ray flowers" suggesting petals on a real flower, and its deeply lobed leaves is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114tj.jpg.

In that picture an important field mark helping to identify the genus is how the flower head's stem, or peduncle, thickens markedly at its top. That's a feature of the genus Tithonia, which embraces maybe ten species in Mexico and Central America. It's closely related to the Sunflower genus, Helianthus.

This is TITHONIA DIVERSIFOLIA, native to Mexico and Central America, but planted throughout the world's tropics. As such, it's known by many English names, including Mexican Sunflower, Tree Marigold, and Mexican Tournesol. A feature distinguishing it from some other Tithonias is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114tk.jpg.

These are the "involucral bracts" -- modified leaves typically forming a green, cuplike affair out of which the disk and ray flowers arise. Notice that the bracts are rounded at their tops. In other Tithonia species they may gradually come to a sharp point -- be "acute" or "acuminate."

It's worth planting Mexican Sunflower if only to have such a big, prettily flowering shrub. However, I read that African farmers use it many ways, especially as an organic fertilizer for vegetable crops in either compost or tea form. Elsewhere it's considered to have important medicinal properties.

In China it's used for skin diseases, night sweats, as a diuretic, for hepatitis, jaundice and cystitis. In Taiwan tea made from it is supposed to improve liver function. This native Mexican plant is so well established in Thailand that it's the provincial flower of Mae Hong Son Province, and in Vietnam it's the unofficial symbol of La Lat city.

I asked my shaman friend José about it. He said:

"Because it grows so fast and so big beneath the sun, in the wind and rain, it soaks up these strong influences. Therefore, when a person has worked outside too much, the body absorbing so much energy from so many sources that you ache and feel bad, you can soak seven leaves from this plant, with some Rue (Ruta graveolens), and wash yourself with that water, letting it drain over your head, and it'll absorb those excess energies inside you, bring your energies back into balance, letting you feel good again... "

*****

GIANT AIRPLANT
Bromeliads, members of the Bromeliad Family, the Bromeliaceae, are tufted plants normally growing epiphytically on tree limbs, though Pineapple plants are a notable terrestrial member of the family. They're not parasites, for they rob nothing from their host plants. When it rains they store water in their leathery blades, and take their nutrients from dust, detritus and the like accumulating on tree branches. Sometimes orchids and aroids are confused with bromeliads, but those plants have completely different flowers and belong to their own plant families.

In general, if you're in the American tropics, the more humid the air is, the more bromeliads there'll be. That means that in the Yucatan the farther southeast you go, the more bromeliads you'll see. Here in the central Yucatan older trees often bear a good number, but not as many as they'd have farther to the southeast, closer to Belize.

We've already looked at our most common bromeliad here, Tillandsia fasciculata, which you can review at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/tilland1.htm.

Another common bromeliad species in our area is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114tl.jpg.

That's TILLANDSIA ELONGATA. In North America all bromeliads like this tend to be called airplants, though I think calling them bromeliads would be much more appropriate.

Tillandsia elongata, occurs in southern Mexico south into northern North America. The one in the picture is yellowing because now that it's flowered and fruited it'll die -- which is normal for most bromeliad species. They may live up to 20 years before they flower. Tillandsia elongata's bowl-like shape catches leaves and rainwater, providing good habitat for many kinds of invertebrates.

A picture of a brown, curved fruit-capsule opening like the beak of a toucan, revealing numerous white-parachuted seeds inside ready for wind dispersal is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114tm.jpg.

*****

"NORTHERN GARDENING" IN THE YUCATAN
We've seen that the kind of gardening done in North America and Europe, using seeds developed in those places, fails here during the hot, wet rainy season, which is from about May to October. Maybe that kind of gardening could be done using greenhouses, Bacillus thurengiensis to control caterpillars, sulfur powder to control fungal diseases, and such, but we didn't have those things.

Milpa, or traditional cornfield, gardening using local races of corn, bean, squash and other kinds of plants, does succeed, however.

Now that it's quit raining and dramatically cooled off, the question has become, "Does Northern-type gardening work during the cooler dry season?"

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101114ea.jpg you see evidence that maybe it does. There you see radishes, lettuce, cilantro, garlic and turnip plants thriving, with -- so far -- no evidence of diseases. They must be watered regularly and they grow slower now that it's cooler, but the plants look and taste good, so far.

Stay tuned for further updates.

*****

A TREE NOT FAR AWAY
In the Hacienda's take-one-leave-one library for guests someone left a translated republication of Friar Diego de Landa's 1566 book Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, in English entitled Yucatan Before and After the Conquest. de Landa burned all Maya books he could find, cheating us of many insights into the ancient Mayas' minds, but then he authored this book, which now is the most important eyewitness account of the Mayas' ancient ways, and how the Spanish Conquest was conducted.

Remarking on some of the violence the Spaniards committed on the Maya, de Landa writes: "... I saw a great tree near the village upon the branches of which a captain had hung many women, with their infant children hung from their feet." He goes on describing other violence equally abhorrent. The event de Landa describes took place in the ancient Maya chiefdom of Cupul, which incorporated the Chichén Itzá area.

This week it's been surprisingly cool and sunny here. Monday morning at dawn it was actually 38° F (3.3°C), though by the afternoon it was warm and the sky was filled with dazzling sunlight. How pleasant it was to sit warming in the sun as a dry breeze blew. But, that's when I thought about those women and their children hanging in the tree, not far from here.

In the 1530s during the first clashes between Spanish soldiers and the Maya, the Spaniards habitually won because they had access to superior warring technology and resources. The Maya didn't know how to make metal swords and guns, and here in limestone-bedrock Yucatán they didn't have mineral-bearing rock needed for smelting metal. Nor did they have horses. This disparity in resources and technical information resulted in centuries of atrocities.

Warming in the sunshine reflecting on these and other great currents of history, not far from where the tree once stood de Landa talked about, this insight arises:

Social violence, treacheries, and atrocities are nearly always rooted in disparities of resources and/or information. The geography of the world with its uneven distribution of resources ensures that always some communities will possess more resources than others. Human nature being what it is, there'll always be conflict between haves and have-nots.

However, information can be freely shared. By sharing information we can reduce the likelihood of more of de Landa's trees.

Blessed be the sharers of information among us, and may knowledge always be free for the taking.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim