JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the woods a few miles east of
NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI, USA

July 1, 2012

RED WASPS
Last weekend with my nature-photographer friend Jerry from Jackson I camped overnight at what's left of the abandoned campground at Pipes Lake in nearby Homochitto National Forest. A rusty pipe served as the campground's gate and the pipe had holes in just large enough to permit the entry of wasps, who apparently had built a nest inside. Several wasps clustered around the holes in defensive stance. One is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701wp.jpg.

I was tickled to get such a good picture of this wasp species because they've stung me so often, and I've always wondered who they are. Throughout this area these "red wasps" are famous for being so aggressive and inflicting such painful stings. In my whole life the only time I've been stung while asleep was by a red wasp.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Canada quickly came up with an ID. Its usual English name is Red Wasp, but two species are involved, which can only be distinguished from one another with certainty by looking at microscopic characters. They are POLISTES CAROLINA and POLISTES PERPLEXUS. Polistes perplexus seems to be a bit more southern in distribution, plus it tends to nest in more sheltered areas -- and inside that metal pipe was very sheltered -- while P. carolina is more likely to nest in the open, as under the eaves of a house.

Therefore, I'm guessing that the individual shown in the picture is most likely Polistes perlexus, but probably some of my more memorable stingings have been perpetrated by Polistes carolina. Both species occur throughout the US southeastern states and a bit beyond. A page with distribution maps and a general discussion of their similarities and differences is at http://www.whyistheanswer.com/red_wasp/.

Thanks to help from a genuine wasp specialist, on the Internet one of the best discussions of the complex and interesting Polistes wasp life cycle and behavior is found on our own Backyard Nature Wasp page at http://www.backyardnature.net/wasps.htm.

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CATERPILLAR HUNTER
One morning this week a 1½-inch-long (4cm) beetle with shiny, green wing covers with strawberry-pink borders, and an almost-black, deep metallic blue back, or pronotum, with a golden margin -- in other words an unusually big and pretty bug -- was rescued from my rainwater tub. You can see how pretty he was at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701bt.jpg.

Bea in Ontario had no trouble figuring out that this was a member of the Ground Beetle Family, the Carabidae, and the Caterpillar Hunter genus, Calosoma. However, not having measurements it was hard to say which species. Since Bea got back to me before the beetle in the picture had finished drying, I returned to the twig, took measurements, and decided he could be no-one else but CALOSOMA SCRUTATOR, which most people seem to call Caterpillar Hunter, but others Fiery Searcher. The species is commonly distributed throughout most of the continental United States and southern Canada. At BugGuide.net his habitat is described as open areas such as fields, gardens, and orchards, but often near deciduous forests, which is precisely the situation of my woods-edge trailer with an orchard before it.

Caterpillar Hunters are important ecologically because they hunt caterpillars; they climb trees feeding on caterpillars, keeping their numbers under control. Adults survive the winter, living up to three years. From eggs laid in soil, larvae emerge, climb into trees and shrubs and also search for prey. When the larvae are ready to pupate they return to the ground and metamorphose in earthen cells.

A close-up of our beetle's pincer-like mouthparts is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701bu.jpg.

Something interesting about that picture is the appearance of so many tiny, brown, slender bristles on the inner, cutting-edge side of the pincers. A little Internet sleuthing came up with suggestions as to what purpose the hairs probably serve. Technical works accessed through Google Books describe members of the Caterpillar Hunter genus Calosoma as "strict fluid-feeding entomophagous" species. In other words, the beetle clamps down on a caterpillar, the caterpillar's juices spill out, and the beetle feeds on the juices. Therefore, those bristles surely enable the beetle to assay by smelling/tasting a caterpillar's chemical composition before and during the flowing of the caterpillar's juices into the beetle's intestinal tract. We know that some caterpillars, such as those of Monarch butterflies, are filled with toxins that beetles might not want to deal with.

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CYPRESS TWIG GALL
Nowadays the ferny twigs of many Baldcypresses in the swamps of St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge just south of Natchez are conspicuously adorned with what at a distance looks like thousands of white mothballs. A few -- which are spongy and succulent inside -- are shown up close at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701ga.jpg.

Searching on the keywords "Baldcypress gall" with the image search feature of a search engine it was easy enough to learn that what we're seeing here is Cypress Twig Galls caused by tiny, transparent-winged flies known as Cypress Twig Gall Midges, TAXODIOMYIA CUPRESSIANANASSA, found where Baldcypresses occur from northern Illinois and Indiana to Florida and western Louisiana.

Galls fallen onto the ground at the end of the growing season provide stable and protective environments as well as food for the midge's overwintering larvae. Large galls may contain 15 or so larvae. Larvae pupate inside the galls in the spring and a few weeks later after feeding on the galls' tissue emerge as winged adults. The adults mate, then on Baldcypress trees the females lays, or "oviposits," an average of 120 brightly orange, translucent eggs, in clusters of about 15 eggs each, during her one- or two-day life span.

The eggs hatch, producing larvae that induce gall formation where they feed on the Baldcypress's branchlets. A gall expands rapidly and the larvae burrow into it, making small chambers for themselves. In our area probably two generations are formed each year. Thus the larva in its chamber may pupate and begin the life cycle all over again, or stay inside the gall as it matures, turns dark and hard, and falls onto the ground, where the larva will emerge the following spring.

A mature gall is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701gb.jpg.

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SAND HICKORY
Among the hickories -- genus Carya in the Walnut Family -- there's a grouping of species producing slender stems and smallish nuts with thin shells. These species are known as pignuts. Pignut hickories are common in our woods, the species nearly always encountered being a taxonomically ambiguous one we call "the Carya glabra-ovalis complex," as discussed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/pignut-h.htm.

At the abandoned Pipes Lake Campground in Homochitto National Forest near here we came upon some smallish trees that were clearly pignuts, but even at a distance they clearly were not part of the Carya glabra-ovalis complex. Mainly, their immature nuts were too large, or "bulbous," and they had a golden hue. Also, the undersurfaces of their leaves were too silvery-pale, to be "normal" pignuts. You can see this, my hand twisting a leaf so its leaflets' pale undersides contrast starkly with the much darker leaflets below them, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701hk.jpg.

The thin, leathery shell of our usual pignut splits only to about halfway down the nut, but the shells on this tree showed split lines all the way to the nut's base, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701hm.jpg.

Realizing that this was a species uncommonly found in our area, and remembering that bud, stem, and petiole features can be important in hickory identification, I got a picture showing those details, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701ho.jpg.

The tree's bark is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701hl.jpg.

Also, something struck me as peculiar about the leaflets' undersides, so I got the close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701hn.jpg.

That picture turned out to be important, for it shows critical features used when "keying out the species" with the online Flora of North America Carya page. A "key feature" is that the silvery zones on the leaflet's underside are not merely silvery leaf epidermis exposed between the leaflet's ultimate veins, but rather are silvery "peltate scales." The term "peltate" means "attached at its center," as an umbrella's top is attached to its handle in the center. Also, sparsely scattered among the ocean of large, silvery, peltate scales are occasional smaller, tan-colored scales of various shapes, including four-sided ones. Also notice that the undersurface is practically hairless.

The abundant silvery scales on the leaflets' undersides are this species' main field mark, and give it its technical name. This is CARYA PALLIDA, "pallida" referring to the "pale" leaf undersurfaces. It's the Sand Hickory, endemic to the US Southeastern states. Flora of North America describes its habitat as "Well-drained sandy or rocky soils on bluffs, ridges, rolling hills, and dry woods." At Pipes Lake there were no sand or rocks, just a dry ridge of deep loess.

Though regular pignut nuts can be eaten by humans, usually they're thought of as too small to fool with and not particularly good. However, Sand Hickory nuts are both larger and sweet. As with other hickories and oaks, the inner bark with its tannin is astringent so extracts of it can be used to clean wounds, pucker minor cuts, to wash sore mouths, etc.

*****

SLENDER-LEAFED IRONWEED
On the same dry, open, savanna-like loess ridge the Sand Hickories occupied, and just a few feet from them, a slender, purple-blossomed, Composite Family wildflower caught my attention, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701ve.jpg.

Up close, the heads' individual flowers were exceptionally ornate, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701vf.jpg.

In that picture you can see that each purple corolla bears long, slender lobes -- very long compared to most other Composite Family disk flowers -- and that the flowers arise amidst dense tufts of very slender, stiff, brownish hairs encircling the base of each corolla and crowning each achene -- achenes being dry, one-seeded fruits. The collection of such hairs (or scales, bristles, crown, etc.) atop a composite flower's achene is known as the pappus.

Because of the flower color, the corollas' long lobes, and the dry habitat, at first I thought we had one of several species of blazing stars, genus Liatris. However, blazing stars generally cluster their flowers in slender spikes or spike-like heads, not in widely separated heads as with this plant. The long, brown pappus bristles reminded me of the ironweeds, genus Vernonia, so I checked to see if in this area we have an ironweed species looking like our find.

And, sure enough, there it was: Our plant is VERNONIA ANGUSTIFOLIA, which doesn't seem to have a commonly accepted English name. Most books and the USDA appear to call it Tall Ironweed, though our plant was only about a yard (meter) tall, and another much larger and more common ironweed species already is known as Tall Ironweed. At least one authority calls it Narrow-leafed Ironweed, so we'll call it that.

Narrow-leafed Ironweeds are endemic to the US Southeast, from North Carolina mostly along the Coastal Plain to Louisiana. It's not found as far inland and north as Tennessee and Kentucky.

*****

HALBERDLEAF ROSEMALLOW
In sun-drenched mud and shallow water in the glorious swamps of St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge just south of Natchez, nowadays a head-high, native species of Hibiscus is spectacularly flowering with pinkish-white, dark-centered, four-inch broad (10cm) flowers, and distinctive "halberd-shaped" leaves -- with sharp lobes at their bases projecting perpendicularly from the blades' main midveins -- as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701hs.jpg.

A flower close-up, with the flower bud at the left showing ten or so slender "bractlets" neatly arising at the bud's base and almost enclosing it in a little cage, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701ht.jpg.

If you've been with me in the Yucatan you recognize the white, fuzzy structures projecting from the blossom's "eye" as five stigmas atop a slender style (female sexual parts) encircled at its base by a cylinder from which many match-stick-shaped stamens (pollen-producing male parts) bristle like teeth on a bottlebrush. A flower with such anatomy could only belong to the Hibiscus Family, and any flower of such general appearance and beauty could only be a hibiscus flower. This is HIBISCUS LAEVIS, most commonly referred to as the Halberdleaf Rosemallow, which seems like an overkill kind of name when "Swamp Hibiscus" would be more appropriate. However, I don't get to do the naming here.

Halberdleaf Rosemallows are spectacular native species that do well when transplanted into non-swampy soil. In fact, horticulturalists have developed several popular cultivars from it, including a crimson-flowered 'Lord Baltimore,' a pink-flowered 'Pyrenees Pink,' a more purely white 'Everest White,' and a slightly pink 'Sweet Caroline.' They survive in somewhat dry soils but only thrive in moist places.

The species occurs naturally throughout most of the eastern and central US and adjacent Canada.

*****

MOUNTAIN-MINT TEA
Along an isolated gravel road in nearby Homochitto National Forest grew a dense, knee-high, car-tire-size clump of white-flowered, slender-leafed wildflowers, a few branches of which are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701mm.jpg.

A close-up of the purple-spotted flowers arising from dense heads is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701mn.jpg.

An even closer look at the hairy, bilaterally symmetrical blossoms is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701mo.jpg.

In that picture notice that each flower bears four brown and shriveling stamens, which obviously are well past their pollen-producing stage. However, in each flower, arising amidst the no-longer-useful stamens, is a white style tipped with a Y-shaped stigma, clearly at the peak of their receptivity for pollen.

That's a fine picture showing how this plant avoids having its flowers pollinate themselves -- by shedding their pollen well before their female parts mature. Flowers with male parts maturing before their female parts mature are said to be "protandrous." When female parts mature first the flowers are "protogynous." Protandry and protogyny occur in many flowering plants and it's always fun to check if a certain flower practices one or the other.

Anyway, this is Narrowleaf Mountain Mint, PYCNANTHEMUM TENUIFOLIUM, the narrow leaves separating the species from other mountain mints, of which there are about 20 species, all native to North America. Our Narrowleaf species may be the most commonly occurring, since ecologically it's flexible enough to make use of disturbed soils. It's distributed throughout the eastern and central US and much of eastern Canada. With such flowers, opposite leaves and stems that are square in cross-section, mountain mints are obviously true members of the Mint Family.

Crushed mountain-mint leaves smell minty enough to rouse thoughts of mint tea, so the day I came across this population I picked a little wad of leaves and stems, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701mp.jpg.

The next morning I poured about a cup and a half of boiling water onto them. In three or four minutes the water hadn't acquired much flavor, so I waited about ten minutes, and then I had a nice, fresh-tasting tea with a flavor that struck me as something between that of steeped pine needles and dill. It wasn't a sweet flavor, but a pleasant one, one that complemented well the hot cornbread the tea was served with.

*****

AN OVERABUNDANCE OF SWAMP SMARTWEED
The little beaver-dam lake into which the abandoned, peninsular Pipes Lake Campground extends in nearby Homochitto National Forest is home to beaver, alligators, Anhingas, soft-shelled turtles and other interesting critters, and it's filling with silt. Most of its shoreline is fringed by dense mats of aquatic vegetation, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701pg.jpg.

At first glimpse I thought that the aquatic plant creating the mats was invasive Alligator Weed, because it can look just like that. However, up close the plant was clearly something else, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701ph.jpg.

That's Swamp Smartweed, sometimes called Mild Waterpepper, POLYGONUM HYDROPIPEROIDES, a member of the Buckwheat Family, the Polygonaceae. Polygonum is a big genus, including between 65 and 300 species, depending on your expert. And the experts don't much agree. The online Flora of North America, normally thought of the final authority on these matters, assigns the species to the genus Persicaria (Persicaria hydropiperoides), though most other experts don't seem to accept that. Species in this group are known variously as smartweeds, knotweeds, knotgrass, etc.

A flower close-up is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701pi.jpg.

Those flowers show features typical of the genus. First, instead of having the typical colored corolla subtended by a green calyx, the corolla is just one thing looking like a corolla, in which case it's called a perianth, and the lobes are known as tepals. There are eight stamens. You can see how the blossoms arise from bristle-fringed sheaths, called ocreolae, surrounding the stems. Those ocreolae are diagnostic for this family, something important to notice when you're trying to identify things.

Swamp Smartweed produces an abundance of tiny, hard seeds (belonging to the Buckwheat Family, you can imagine what they look like) much appreciated by ducks and other grain-eating birds. However, when the plant creates single-species communities as we see in Pipes Lake, it can reduce overall availability of resources to wildlife needing food and shelter throughout the year, not just when Swamp Smartweed happens to be supplying it.

Despite Swamp Smartweed's weediness, it's a native American species, occurring throughout the US and much of Canada, except in some drier states and provinces in the central area. It also extends through Mexico and Central America into South America, exhibiting many taxonomically confusing variations throughout its vast distribution area.

*****

A SMALLER DUCKWEED
Last week we looked at a relatively large, thumbnail-sized duckweed, Spirodela polyrrhiza, whose page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/duckwee2.htm.

This week we have a much smaller species, with bodies, or fronds, averaging only about 5mm long (3/16ths inch). Last week's Spirodela formed a green carpet atop the water of a stagnant bottomland drainage ditch. This week's duckweeds constituted only about a dozen budding individuals in water that for months has been running across an abandoned dirt road next to a Baldcypress swamp in St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge just south of Natchez. The water running across the road issued from maybe a quarter of an acre (0.1ha) of standing swamp water in which not a single duckweed of any species could be seen, so I figured that these few individuals on the road might be a special species. You can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701dw.jpg.

In the top half of that picture notice the white, threadlike items tangling in the water. Those are the duckweeds' roots, which are very much longer than last week's Spirodela, and longer than many, maybe most, duckweed species. A close-up of some fronds adhering to my fingertips is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701dx.jpg.

In the top, right corner of that picture a duckweed frond presents itself edge-on. This is an important view because some of the species this might possibly be develop very substantial bulges on their fronds' undersurfaces -- they're "gibbous." You can see that this species is only slightly gibbous. Another view emphasizing the exceedingly long roots is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701dy.jpg.

A close-up of some frond's undersurfaces showing only one root arising from each frond is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120701dz.jpg.

Without their rarely encountered flowers and fruits, duckweeds can be hard to identify. Fortunately the online but incomplete Flora of North America has a duckweed page -- a treatment of the genus Lemna -- so I was able to identify this species with a little, but not complete, certainty.

On the basis of this species' small size, long roots, its tops bearing no low protuberances, or "papillae," its bottom surfaces being almost flat instead of "gibbous," and there being little or no reddish color anyplace on the fronds, I'm calling this LEMNA MINOR, most commonly called Common Duckweed or Lesser Duckweed, and found nearly worldwide, except in the polar regions. During my fieldwork days in Kentucky, my impression was that Lemna minor was the most commonly encountered species up there.

As with last week's Spirodela, Lemna minor is an important food source for many kinds of fish and birds, especially ducks. The fronds are rich in protein and fats. Birds disperse the species when the fronds stick to their bodies just as they stick to my fingers in the pictures. I'll bet the tiny population there on the road was planted there this spring when a duck landed to see what was going on in the adjacent swamp.

In homeopathy, Lemna minor is regarded as working especially well on the nose's mucous membrane -- good for stopped-up and runny sinuses.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Nosegay" from the November 19, 2007 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/071119.htm.

"Anti-Nuke Spirituality" from the December 22, 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/081222.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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

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