JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: Yucatan, Mexico to Mississippi, USA

April 1, 2012

LEAFCUTTER BEES
On my last day in the Yucatán I untied the rope that for so long had been suspending my backpack from the hut's ceiling, hopefully out of mind for nest-seeking rats and mice, and took my old backpack in hand. Ashes from daily campfires had settled all over it so I stepped outside and gave it a good whack. The resulting cloud was half ash and half green tatters of dried, coiled-up leaf-parts stuck together into tube-like affairs. The leaf tatters surprised me.

But, I knew what they were, for back in 2006 during my stay at Genesis Retreat in Ek Balam, Yucatán, the Maya staff there had showed me the same thing. You can read about that encounter and see the leafy, tube-like item at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/jo_olon.htm.

A young Maya woman had told me that the green leaf-tube was a collection of nests stuck end-to-end, and that the tube construction itself was known by a special Maya name, which was pa'ak. The creature inside the cocoon was Jo'olon. I was told that a bee made the nest, but I hardly believed it.

But, now I believe her, for once I had disturbed all those nests in my roof-suspended backpack, hoards of bees came complaining, thumping against me and entangling themselves in my hair but never stinging. And they were surely the most unusual bees I've ever seen, for instead of carrying clumps of pollen on their back-leg "baskets," they transported it on hairs covering the entire bottoms of their abdomens. With their golden-yellow abdomen bottoms they look like dimly lit fireflies. You can the pollen-dusted lower abdomen on a bee entering its pa'ak cocoon, one stuffed into one of my backpack's looped belt-tips, in the hut's dim light, so it's a grainy picture, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401be.jpg.

A rear view of the same bee showing golden pollen stuffed inside a green pa'ak tube is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401bf.jpg.

So, this was my last Yucatán identification challenge for volunteer IDer Bea in Ontario. Here's what she came up with: It's a Leafcutter Bee. Many times we've spoken of leafcutter ants, but this was something new.

Leafcutter Bees, I find, are members of the genus MEGACHILE, and despite my ignorance of its existence that genus is one of the largest among bees, home to well over 500 species and over 50 subgenera. A list of insects of Río Lagartos, Yucatán includes eight species of Megachile leafcutter bees, but I can't say which species is shown here.

Of leafcutter bees I read that, exactly as we see with our pa'ak tubes, Megachile nests typically are composed of single long columns of cells constructed from cut-out leaf sections. Females place pollen or a pollen/nectar mix in each cell as food for the egg laid there, then the cell is capped so that a wall separates that cell from the next one. The larva hatching from the egg eats the food supply and after a few molts and maybe a period of hibernation spins a cocoon and pupates, emerging from the nest as an adult bee. Males are typically smaller than females and emerge before them. Males die shortly after mating but females survive for several weeks, building new nests.

What a fine last discovery to end my Yucatán days!

*****

BROOM PALM ON THE BORDER
Wednesday morning I awoke entering Matamoros, state of Tamaulipas, northern Mexico, the town across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. Lately there'd been drug-gang shooting in the town so I didn't walk around the way I used to, just stayed in the station until my bus across the border left at 9AM. The only naturalizing I did was to admire the palm rising just beyond the tall wall around the bus compound, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401p0.jpg.

That's a fan palm, not a species with fronds pinnately divided, or "featherlike," like a Coconut Palm's fronds. Back in the Yucatán we had two very common fan palms, so was this one of those?

The Yucatán's fan palms can be distinguished from one another by noticing whether the frond petioles abruptly end where they attach to the blade, or continue on up into the blade, diminishing and curling as they go. To see what the petioles of this fan palm did I zoomed in on a spot and got what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401p1.jpg.

In that picture at the top, left you see the bottom of a frond where the petiole for a very short distance slices into the blade, not gradually diminishing and not curling. At the bottom right you see the same but viewed from the top of the frond. There the petiole ends all at once, with two low ridges forming a shallow V between the petiole and the radiating leaflets.

So, this is like the Yucatán's Chit Palm, Thrinax radiata, which similarly has abruptly ending petioles. Our nicely illustrated Chit Palm page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/chitpalm.htm.

But, is this Matamoros palm the Chit? The shallow-V-forming ridges where the petiole attaches to the frond on the upper surface prove that it isn't. In the second picture on our Chit Palm page you can see that that frond has a very prominent, toothlike projection sticking straight up from the frond's surface. That's called the "hastula," and in distinguishing species of the genus Thrinax it's a very helpful field mark because it comes in many shapes and sizes among the species. Our Matamoros palm's hastula is nothing like the Chit's.

Since they might have come from anywhere on Earth, it's hard to identify planted palms. However, largely on the basis of the hastula shape and the fact that the species is listed as growing in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, I'm calling our Matamoros palm THRINAX PARVIFLORA, variously known in English as the Broom Palm, Thatch Palm, and Mountain Thatch Palm.

It's endemic to Jamaica but increasingly planted throughout the tropics.

*****

MEXICAN/TEXAS PALMETTO
Crossing the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Tamaulipas into Brownsville, Texas, after having my passport checked by a chatty former history teacher who found that the Border Patrol paid much better, I had to wait as the bus was "X-rayed" in a special, carwash-like building. Three palms stood at the checkpoint edge with Border Patrol trucks behind them, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401p8.jpg.

An enlargement of part of that picture shows -- especially in a frond in the upper, left corner -- that in this species frond petioles continue up into the blade, diminishing and curling as they go (they're "costapalmate," very different from the above Broom Palm), and its petiole bases split (barely visible in a base at the picture's bottom right) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401p9.jpg.

Back in the Yucatán our Huano, or Thatch Palm, Sabal yapa, was a fan palm with costapalmate blades and with split petiole bases, so are these Brownsville palms the same species? Our well illustrated Huano page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/huano.htm.

Nope, this is a different species. For one thing, in that last picture, note that the inflorescences of the Brownsville tree are much shorter than the fronds, but on Huanos they become much longer.

Though usually it's tricky identifying planted species, since they might come from anywhere, our Brownsville palms look like they're SABAL MEXICANA, known by various English names, including Mexican Palmetto, Texas Palmeto, Texas Sabal Palm, and Rio Grande Palmetto. Its Texas names reflect the fact that earlier Texas populations were regarded as being a distinct Texas species, Sabal texana, but that species now has been lumped into S. mexicana.

So, Brownsville's Mexican Palmettos occur naturally from the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas south along both coasts to Nicaragua. It's one of the most widespread and common palm trees in Mexico, where it grows in drier lowlands, plus it's much planted in places like Brownsville. Historical records report them growing naturally as far north as San Antonio, Texas, but those populations appear to have been destroyed.

*****

LAUGHING GULLS IN A TRUCKSTOP PARKING LOT
To give everyone a rest after all the border-crossing hassle and the long stretch north through endless but beautiful Mesquite, the bus pulled into a big truckstop a few miles south of Kingsville, southern Texas. Seagulls dotted the vast asphalt parking lot, each bird quietly keeping to itself, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401lh.jpg.

It was easy to walk up to a gull for the portrait at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401lg.jpg.

This is a Laughing Gull, which last year down at Marcia's on the Caribbean coast we saw a lot of. The species is well known to favor hanging around urban areas, but I was a little surprised to see these so apparently content on acres asphalt surrounded by an ocean of arid Mesquite.

The birds at mid morning were quiet, only one or two pairs occasionally halfheartedly raising their beaks skywards and calling during brief courtship displays.

*****

PINKLADIES ALONG THE ROAD
The southern Texas landscape was overwhelmingly green and springy looking with green mesquite, green lawns, green roadsides. The roadsides are surprisingly colorful with wildflowers, and one wonders whether this is the effect of Lady Bird Johnson's wildflower initiative, for similar roadsides I know in Mississippi and elsewhere nowadays are so overmowed and drenched in herbicides that such gorgeous displays have long disappeared.

Across the road from the Laughing Gull truckstop I went see what was making such a fine splash of pink against the grassy greenness. You can see it up close at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401oe.jpg.

It was OENOTHERA SPECIOSA, a species so widespread and beloved across southern North America and northern Mexico that it's known by several English names, including Pink Evening Primrose, Pinkladies, Showy Evening Primrose and Mexican Primrose. A close-up of a two-inch wide (5cm) blossom with its four broad petals with pink veins, several stamens with white anthers hovering above a yellow-green eye, and a star-shaped stigma dangling on a threadlike style is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401of.jpg.

A side view showing the typical way Oenothera sepals bend backwards and stick together at their tips is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401og.jpg.

The names containing the words "evening primrose" reflect the fact that members of the genus Oenothera are generally known as evening primroses. Lots of evening primrose species exist but flowers of the vast majority are yellow or white. Pinkladies' pink blossoms are unusual.

I'll always remember my introduction to Pinkladies. Back in 1975 or thereabouts I went on my first botanical expedition for Missouri Botanical Garden to collect evening primroses for genetic studies. I was high in the Argentine Andes with my eyes desperately searching for any evening primrose when my first Pinkladies appeared before me. I'd thought that all Oenothera flowers had to be either yellow or white, so I thought I'd really discovered something. But the expedition leader just laughed and said that it was a common weed in the Andes, and that it was even a native to North America, so there went my credibility as an evening primrose specialist.

But, how pretty those Pinkladies were in that high Andes meadow, and how pretty they were along the road this Wednesday in their south-Texas homeland.

*****

CROW ON A TELEPHONE POLE
Early Thursday morning I stepped from the bus station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, heard a nasal CAWR!, looked across the street, and saw atop a telephone pole a solid black crow quizzically looking down at me, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401fi.jpg.

I'd heard that nasal CAWR! before. Sometimes juvenile American Crows make similar calls, but this wasn't one of those. This was a Fish Crow, CORVUS OSSIFRAGUS, native mostly to the US Deep South. One difference between it and the much more widely distributed American Crow is that Fish Crows, at 15 inches long (38cm), are smaller than American Crows, which average about 17.5 inches (44.5cm). The difference in size is especially apparent when the bird flies -- a bit more quick and jaunty than American Crows.

Fish Crows are enlarging their distribution inland and northward, helped along by their adaptability and omnivorousness, which enable them to exploit urban habitats.

*****

STREET-CORNER SWAMP CHESTNUT OAK
After a six-our layover in Houston I had an eight-hour wait in Baton Rouge, much in contrast to the quick connections and comfortable busing I'd experience all the way up through Mexico. Having all of Wednesday morning to kill in Baton Rouge, I strapped on my backpack, slung my other big bag across a shoulder, and went hiking around the bus station. You can imagine the suspicious, even hostile looks I got wandering around, so this walk was much in contrast to the smiling receptions I always receive when exploring little Maya towns in the Yucatán.

Beside a weedy abandoned lot at a street corner near the bus station there stood a handsome oak tree whose green-topped, silvery bottomed leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401qu.jpg.

With those wavy leaf margins it was obviously one of the chestnut oaks, but which one? Starting to "do the botany," I saw that the pagoda-like catkins with their strung-together male flowers already had matured and been dropped as the leaves expanded. You can see a discarded, dried-up catkin dangling from a stem tip at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401qw.jpg.

The already pollinated female flowers, despite still bearing their three-branched stigmas, were starting to look like tiny acorns on a long peduncle, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401qv.jpg.

Below the tree laid last year's acorns, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401qx.jpg.

This was QUERCUS MICHAUXII, known variously as the Swamp Chestnut Oak, Basket Oak or Cow Oak. It's mostly a southeastern US species. Because of its pretty form, vigorous appearance and big acorns, this was one of my favorite trees in the swamps back in Kentucky, a tree so handsome and substantial that it just felt good looking at it, leaning against it, and especially sleeping beneath it through hoot-owl nights or during too-hot summer afternoons when wind rustled through its leaves.

Its big acorns are bitter with tannin, but that can be leached out with running water, which may take several weeks. Also, acorns can be buried in boggy ground over the winter, then when they germinate in the spring they have lost most of their astringency. Swamp Chestnut Oak acorns also can be roasted, dried, ground into powder and used as a thickening in stews, or mixed with grain meal for making bread. The ground, roasted acorns also make a robust kind of coffee.

Swamp Chestnut Oaks are likely to bear galls, which when soaked in water produce a strongly astringent medicine traditionally used for treating hemorrhages, chronic diarrhea, and dysentery.

What a wonderful tree, and what a delight to find it growing so healthily so near the bus station.

*****

RED BOTTLEBRUSH ABLAZE
Not far from the big oak, overflowing onto a busted sidewalk in front of an abandoned house, grew a dense, much branched, head-high bush with blazing bunches of fuzzy-looking red flowers strangely clustered in the middle of numerous spindly branches, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401ca.jpg.

The fuzzy zones were composed of many closely packed flowers and the fuzz itself was made up of long, red stamens. A close-up of a flower's stamen burst is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120401cb.jpg.

Note the tiny anthers at the tip of each of the stamen's scarlet filaments, each anther splitting to release yellow pollen.

In warm parts of the country this is a commonly planted shrub or small tree known as Bottlebrush. It's a member of the genus CALLISTEMON, which contains about 34 species, all endemic to Australia. Bottlebrushes are members of the Myrtle Family, the Myrtaceae. With so many species to deal with, and so much hybridization and so many cultivars, it's hard to say which bottlebrush this is. However, it matches pictures and descriptions of the commonly planted Callistemon citrinus, known variously as the Lemon Bottlebrush, Crimson Bottlebrush, and Red Bottlebrush. That species is hardier than most bottlebrushes.

Hummingbirds are known to love its flowers.

*****

SHAMAN WITHOUT PORTFOLIO
The moment I stepped from the car carrying me into my camp in the woods near Natchez, I was washed with the odor of crushed herbage, mud, a flower's perfume, there were birdcalls, and I saw more freshly leafed- out greenness than I could digest; green like Ireland in June, but somehow more robust and expansive, like Beethoven is to Debussy.

At that very moment I knew that the Yucatán had changed me. In earlier springtime returns these same sensations had evoked sweet, homey associations with my childhood springs in rural Kentucky, but now those childhood connections no longer were being made. Instead, to my astonishment and fascination, I was seeing things without reference to past or future, things as they were right then, and I'm not sure how this came to pass.

I'd first felt the new mindset at the border, crossing the Rio Grande into Texas. The US's landscape no longer struck me as comfortably organized in the manner of a remembered homeland, but rather after so long in the Yucatán things in the US seemed unnervingly geometrical and simplified, maybe even sterilized with too much obsessive attention, too much busy-ness, a landscape seemingly beat into submission. And the gringos -- of whom I was one but now not entirely so -- were so big, bleached and succulent, slow-moving and slow-talking, but how they walked like kings, every one of them, except for those who didn't.

On my first walk barefoot along the Mississippi woods it seemed that my Maya shaman friend José Tamay walked with me, pinching and smelling leaves, tasting bark-chips, poking a finger beneath herbs to see if tubers were there, chewing this or that twig or leaf, raising eyebrows, smiling, looking with wonderment deeply into things.

At the Hacienda I would tell visitors how the Maya made yellow dye from Mora bark, but now in Mississippi I remembered that yellowness also can be coaxed from the bark of eastern North America's Black Oak. For two and a half years I've been telling people how the Maya craft baskets from woody vines of the genus Cydista, but now I recall baskets just as elegant woven by Appalachian craftsmen from strips of eastern North America's White Oak. And also here along this Mississippi woods edge was Sassafras whose roots brew a good-tasting hot drink that, my Grandfather Conrad always said, "thins the blood," something needing done each spring. And there were Pecan trees promising big, oily nuts in October and November, and wild grapevines and Lambsquarter and blackberry thickets and pokeweed sprouts, all with their own offerings.

Among the Maya, one becomes a shaman by acquiring secret, magical information and insight. I cannot say exactly how it's happened, but at this point here beside the woods in southwestern Mississippi I find myself compeled to declare that I have a shamanistic vision revealing to me this: That exactly as the plants of the Mayan Yucatán are exquisitely adapted to their homeland, and render unto that homeland all forms of magical and mystical bounty and enrichment, these plants around me now, plants of the Eastern North America Biome, are no less exquisitely adapted, and render no less bounty and enrichment, with no less magic and mystical implication.

All magic, all magic, all magic everywhere along the Mississippi woods edge, across fields, along roads, sprouting, greening, blossoming, emitting fragrances, concocting leaf chemicals and secret stores of carbohydrate and protein, all of everything intricately intermeshed, interdependent, surging on and on with life and more life, cycles within cycles, exactly as the Maya say, exactly as my own mind testifies exactly here and now in southwestern Mississippi.

There is this term, "Minister without portfolio," meaning a government minister with no specific responsibilities or one who does not head a particular ministry. Here in the woods of southwestern Mississippi with my new Yucatán shamanistic head I hereby declare my allegiance to the government of Nature as the Maya know it in the Yucatán and as I know it here in Mississippi right now.

Moreover, in this government that admits no ministries I do hereby declare myself Shaman Without Portfolio, stationed for the moment in southwestern Mississippi, and open for business.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim