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

February 19, 2012

A PUDDLE OF BEES
South of Pisté I took a little dirt road off the main highway, just exploring. About a hundred yards inside the woods honeybees were buzzing. I looked all around and finally saw on the ground below me what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219hh.jpg.

When bees swarm they do so in much greater numbers than that. Sometimes smaller "afterswarms" take place, but they're larger, too. I guessed that here I was seeing drones competing to mate with a new queen on her way into the world to found a new colony.

However, once I was on my belly looking closely, it was apparent that these weren't drones; they were female worker bees. Drones are larger, their middle body section (thorax) is nearly as large as the rear section (abdomen), and their compound eyes are joined. With this discovery I issued an involuntary "Ha!" which apparently I do habitually when I discover something. The little puff of hot air accompanying that "Ha!" was my undoing.

For, instantly several bees darted at my face and one stung me on a cheek. I've done lots of bee watching, though, so I just stayed very still, let them settle down, and watched, trying to figure out what was going on. A few minutes later several bees out of nowhere began circling my head, buzzing more loudly than you'd expect, and even though I remained very still one got me on the forehead. Other bees entangled in my beard until I broke my stillness and combed them out.

For me this was strange behavior so I figured I'd better get away. Calmly I walked a few feet but the swarm followed me, clearly upset. As I've always done in such cases, I draped a bandana over my head, sank to the ground, and just lay there quietly until they went away. They did leave, but only after buzzing around much longer than I'd expected.

In a few minutes I was about to get up when a bigger squadron than before arrived, behaving and buzzing even more threateningly. One got beneath the bandana and stung me behind the ear. Others clustered atop the bandana, sometimes dive-bombing and bumping against it. Eventually I realized that when I exhaled they got angrier. Finally they went away.

Five minutes later another wave came, larger and yet angrier and this time I got it on the arm and, when the bandana slipped off, on the forehead over an eye. I just lay there, the bandana covering my face, gradually realizing that a trend was shaping up in which I was visited by ever larger, ever angrier swarms. My old strategy wasn't working.

And then it occurred to me: These were not the bees I grew up with. These were "Africanized bees," what some call "killer bees." What if I were near hives with thousands of them... ? I peeped from beneath my bandana, looked around and, sure enough, through the scrub the white of painted hives showed up about 30 meters away.

I stood up, was surprised to not be attacked as I walked briskly to the bike, mounted the bike and left as fast as I could, getting stung only twice more as I passed the little cluster still on the ground, and even still I don't know what the ground ones were up to.

*****

STINGERS LEFT BEHIND
When honeybees sting, normally their barbed stingers get caught in the skin harpoon-like, so the bee can only fly away by literally ripping the rear-end of her body apart, which she does. The honeybee then dies.

The bee's rear end remains atop the stinger stuck in the victim's skin. You can see a stinger sticking from my skin (inset at left) and the same stinger extracted and resting on my fingertip (at right) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219hi.jpg.

Part of the white, cellophane-like material atop the extracted stinger is a sac of venom, which continues pumping venom into the sting for about a minute after the bee departs minus her rear end. Therefore, after being stung, the first thing to do is to remove the stinger. I did that easily with my fingernails.

It seems that none of the old bee-sting treatments really work, other than by the placebo effect -- not damp pastes of tobacco, salt, baking soda, papain, toothpaste, clay, garlic, urine, onions, aspirin or even copper coins. Ice might help, but not much. Basically, for most people, if you get stung there's not much you can do about it except cool it off.

*****

CRIMSON-PATCHED LONGWING
While in the Yucatán I've photographed every butterfly species I could, and volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario has identified them. Our "Selected Butterflies of Yucatán, México" page, with over 110 photos, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/.

It's getting hard to find new species, and the ones I do find usually are little brownish or blackish skippers that only truly passionate folks could care about. Therefore, what a treat the other day when a new three-inch-across (8cm) beauty showed up, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219lw.jpg.

I was even granted a view from the side, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219lx.jpg.

Bea quickly IDed this one as a Crimson-patched Longwing, sometimes called Erato Heliconian. It's HELICONIUS ERATO PETIVERANA, rarely straying as far north as southern Texas, but mostly from Mexico to Brazil. Its caterpillars eat passion-vines, or Passifloras.

The above technical name has three parts because petiverana is the subspecies occurring here. About 27 subspecies are recognized and some look very different from ours. For example, in some the red bar is much wider; in others the white streak hardly exists.

Males of this species seem particularly eager to mate, and possessive. Sometimes they mate with females as the females emerge from their chrysalises. After mating, the male daubs a repellent chemical on the female's abdomen to keep other males from mating with her.

*****

COTTON-STAINER NYMPHS GALORE
In late January we documented the many Cotton Stainer Bugs, often joined together mating, on my Tree Cotton plants. You can see them doing their thing at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/stainer.htm.

Now the fruits of their labor -- their abundant offspring -- are crawling all over my Tree Cottons, as at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219cs.jpg.

Those are tiny Cotton Stainer nymphs, a nymph in this case being the immature stage of an insect that does not undergo complete metamorphosis. Remember that in complete metamorphosis you get EGG » LARVA » PUPA » ADULT. In simple metamorphosis it's EGG » NYMPH » ADULT. Nymphs are like small copies of the adult, except with undeveloped wings.

These nymphs don't like sunlight. During the day they tend to stay hidden, but at night they gather in conspicuous clusters as in the photo. If you puff hot breath on them in half a second they scatter. They're fast growing. In just three or four days I'd guess that they about doubled in size.

*****

FRANGIPANI EATER
The other day "Nature Lover" sent me the picture of a caterpillar he'd found near Puerto Morelos over on the Caribbean coast "frantically trying to re-cross the road back to whence it came!" He actually used that word "whence" so I knew instantly that this was no slouch ID request. The unknown was further described as "exactly 11cm long {4-1/3 inches} and about the thickness of my little finger - and heavy!" It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219sf.jpg.

I didn't recognize it but a few seconds with a search engine searching on the keywords "Yucatan caterpillar black white bands" quickly got him. Often he's known as the Frangipani Hornworm. He's the caterpillar of the Tetrio Sphinx Moth, PSEUDOSPHINX TETRIO, a brown and gray moth not nearly as spectacular as its caterpillar. You can see some adults and read about them at http://www.silkmoths.bizland.com/ptetrio.htm.

The caterpillars do eat Frangipani leaves, which may explain why I'm not seeing them here, since our Frangipanis are totally leafless because of the dry season. However, they also feed on other members of the Frangipani's family, the white-latex-bleeding Dogbane Family, or Apocynaceae. In some places Frangipani Hornworms seem pretty common. The toxic white latex of the plants it eats lends toxicity to the caterpillar, thus its striking colors and patterns provide a warning to predators.

The species is distributed from southern Mississippi south to southern Brazil.

*****

GIANT MYSTERY BUSH REVEALED
Ever since I arrived at the Hacienda two and a half years ago one very conspicuous plant next to the fountain has eluded my attempts at identification. It was like a 25-ft-tall, much branching lily (7.5m), but it never flowered or fruited. I'm standing next to it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219pa.jpg.

Inside the plant it's open enough to see that leg- thick stems bearing big leafscars sprout long, semi-stiff blades from their crowns, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219pd.jpg.

I suffered a little getting that last shot because the plant's leaf margins bear tiny, very sharp, outward- pointing teeth that get you as you reach in, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219pc.jpg.

In that picture a blade's darker upper surface is shown at the right, another blade's paler lower surface at the left.

So, what do we have here? I've seen it growing in courtyards and along the big Paseo de Montejo en Mérida, as well as along a beach road near gringo homes on the Caribbean coast. None of those plantings, however, were nearly as large as the Hacienda's. People seem to think that the plant should have all its leaves arising from the ground, and that when a leafless stem starts forming it's "getting leggy" and should be cut back. But, obviously, trunkless ones are just getting started.

This week I visited our plant in one more attempt at IDing it, hoping to see something overlooked before. And I did see something new, though maybe before I'd just overlooked it. The new discovery is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219pb.jpg.

Those are 2½-inch-thick (6.4cm) prop, or stilt, roots. Seeing them, instantly a name popped into mind, and I still don't know how the name got there, but it turned out right. The name is PANDANUS. Pandanuses tend to look like clustered palms with stout prop roots just like these. Pandanuses are sometimes called Screw-Pines, though they have nothing to do with pines (or palms). They belong to the Screw-Pine Family, the Pandanaceae, and occur mostly in tropical Asia, Australia and the Pacific islands. Plants are either male or female; fruits are heavy and pineapple-like.

About 600 Pandanus species are recognized. Based on pictures on the Internet and the fact that it's commonly grown, I'm guessing that maybe we have Pandanus veitchii from Polynesia. Up North that species is best known as a variegated form grown in pots. But those are just babies; ours shows the plant's real potential.

*****

YELLOW DWARF POINCIANA
Dwarf Poincianas, CAESALPINIA PULCHERRIMA, are native to tropical America but are planted worldwide in the tropics because they're so pretty and easy to grow. Most have flowers like the predominantly reddish ones we photographed back in 2006, still shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/caesalfl.jpg.

The other day in backstreet Pisté a cultivar turned up with all-yellow flowers. It was the Yellow Dwarf Poinciana, Caesalpinia pulcherrima 'flava.' You can see the plant's flowers with very long, slender stamens, unopened flower buds, and ferny leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219cp.jpg.

A close-up just so we can admire the two-inch wide flowers (5cm) with their crinkly-margined petals is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219cq.jpg.

These are so frequently planted that they're known by a host of names other than Dwarf Poinciana -- such as Peacock Flower, Barbados Pride, Barbados Flower-fence, Red Bird-of-Paradise, and more.

*****

SASCAB, "WHITE DIRT"
Along the little road south of Pisté, not far from the Municipal Garbage Dump, there's a quarry dug into a special kind of relatively soft, crumbly or even powdery limestone. The whole region is dotted with such quarries; I'm pretty sure the Municipal Dump itself started out as one. Sometimes in low roadcuts this kind of mostly unconsolidated limestone outcrops in layers just inches thick. Often in such places people have dug into the soft material with shovels and carried it away. You can see a quarry wall at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120219lm.jpg.

You can walk up to that wall and in most places scrape chalky powder away with a fingernail. Some spots are harder than others but in no place is there rock so hard you can't slice into it with a pocketknife.

This form of mostly unconsolidated limestone in Maya is called sascab. Chemically it's calcium carbonate, the same as the mineral calcite and hard limestone. The difference is that suscab hasn't undergone the crystallization process that calcite and hard limestone have. Crystallization can be accomplished, for instance, under extreme pressure, or through melting and cooling, or by being dissolved and then precipitated, like salt from evaporating saltwater.

Sascab isn't to be confused with caliche, which is soil crust or a layer of hard subsoil encrusted with calcium-carbonate, occurring in arid and semiarid regions. Nor is it coquina, which is rock composed mostly of fossils and is found above the water table. Nor is it "laja," the word used here for hard limestone rock exposed at the soil's surface or buried immediately below it.

Traditionally sascab was of enormous importance to the Maya. Not only did they use it as filling in their stone-slab-covered buildings and as road material, but also they burnt it in kilns to produce "cal" used in stuccoing their building walls. Cal is also put in water to help soften overnight-soaking corn kernels so they can be ground into masa for baking tortillas.

Nowadays sascab is used almost exclusively for making flat, fairly resilient surfaces, as for roads and house floors. Harder sascab lumps are soon pulverized by vehicles or feet. After a few rains a low grade cementation takes place. Sascab roads in dry areas last longer and are smoother than the gravel roads I grew up with, though with rain they may form potholes faster and deeper.

By the way, the Maya word sascab means "white dirt." Normally for "white" the Maya use sac, as in sacbe, a sacbe being the "white road" often seen interconnecting ancient Maya temples and population centers. The Hacienda property is crisscrossed by vegetation-overgrown sacbes. I asked my Maya friends why in sascab "sas" instead of sac is used for "white." After lengthy discussion they decided that "sas" really isn't a Maya word. It's based on sac, but in Maya it's just too ugly to say "sac-cab," so they say "sas-cab," which sounds better. Also, everyone writes sascab but my friends here pronounce the b so hard that the word sounds like "sascap."

*****

ON BEING STUNG BY BEES
Being stung by seven bees got me thinking about how Nature is organized so that such things happen. Everyone reflects on the fact that the fox eats the rabbit despite the rabbit's big, gentle eyes, cutely twitching nose and cuddly fur. Foxes are nice, too, though, so we just leave the thinking there, mostly siding with the rabbit, but willing to let the fox have his due.

This thing with the seven bee stings was different. For, "normal" honeybees I've known all my life wouldn't have so aggressively attacked me as did these Africanized ones. My stings that day were the result of a feature of Nature much more abstract, nuanced and interesting than something as simple as the predator/prey relationship.

I was attacked so aggressively because new genetic coding is dispersing throughout the honeybee genome, coding compelling it bearers to more energetically defend their colony than "normal" bees. As this updated programming changes the honeybee world, the species is refining itself, becoming more effective at what it does, and presumably enhancing its chances of surviving as a species.

What's pretty about it is that this new aggressiveness is so utterly harmonious with the most fundamental of Nature's impulses: To explode something out of nothing, to rampage forward evolving, struggling, fighting for ever more diversity, ever more breathtaking interconnectedness, ever greater feeling, thinking, imagining and aggressiveness...

But, what's really beautiful about it is that I'm sitting here realizing its prettiness and sharing that insight with you.

For, what we're doing here is Sixth-Miracle stuff -- "thinking and feeling in ways not programmed in our genes." If I were limiting myself to Fifth-Miracle instinctual mentality I'd be angry with the bees, want revenge, want to wipe them out, for anger and the drive for dominance are Fifth-Miracle phenomena, the kind of thinking upset monkeys, raccoons or even snakes might do.

But, I am a disciple of the Six Miracles of Nature aspiring for full membership in the domain of the Sixth Miracle. As such, I do here ceremonially forgive the honeybees their stings, do in fact offer witness to the beauty of having been so honestly and sincerely stung, do thank and pay homage to the little bees who stung me and died because of it, and most deeply I do thank Nature Herself for having so intimately involved me in the singing of Her love song for life and more life in terms of buzz and sting and hurt.

As always, this Six Miracles business is outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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