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

January 31, 2016

THE HANDSOME RED-BORDERED STINK BUG
On a chilly, dewy, overcast and somber morning, on a knee-high weed beside the road, a small patch of turquoise ornamented with orange-red caught my eye. Up close, it was bugs, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131ed.jpg.

They're, "true bugs," of the "True Bug Order," the Hemiptera. The orange one at the left is a nymph, a wingless immature stage. A closer look at the nymph, with a honeybee below the nymph's leaf, similarly sheltering from the morning's chill and dew, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131ef.jpg.

Soon after the pictures were sent to volunteer bug identifier Bea in Ontario she quickly shot back, "This was very easy to find, just googled "turquoise stink bug."

Our pretty discoveries are Red-bordered Stink Bugs, EDESSA RUFOMARGINATA, commonly distributed from Mexico south through Central America and South America to Argentina. Sometimes they're serious pests on crops, especially those in the Nightshade Family, the Solanaceae, including potato, tobacco and eggplant. Those in our picture are on a Nightshade Family member, a kind of nightshade itself, the genus Solanum. Because Red-bordered Stink Bugs are important to agriculture, there's plenty of information on the Internet about them.

For example, Daniel Silva and Paulo Oliveira in their 2010 online paper "Field Biology of Edessa rufomarginata (Hemiptera: Pentatomidae): Phenology, Behavior, and Patterns of Host Plant Use," in the journal Environmental Entomology, report that females generally lay 14 eggs in rows of seven each, with the mother not guarding them. The eggs hatch within seven to ten days. Nymphs cluster together until their third instar, when they scatter across the host plant. Our nymph is fairly large so it makes sense that it's alone, being in the scattered stage.

This is one of many "stink bugs" who defend themselves from attackers by secreting chemicals that stink and otherwise repel predators. When threatened they also vigorously shake their antennae, and if that doesn't help may hide among the leaves, or drop to the ground and hide in leaf litter, or simply fly away. Assassin bugs have been seen preying on both nymph and adult Red-bordered Stink Bugs. Certain ants gather nectar from droplets of "honeydew" the nymphs produce at their rear ends.

*****

ROSE-THROATED BECARD
With the dry season beginning and the days growing longer and warmer, our birds grow more and more active, visible and vociferous. A male Rose-throated Becard with his red throat ablaze and crown fluffed up making his big head seem even larger than usual is shown in an almost cocky pose at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131bc.jpg.

Rose-throated Becards are common in various humid habitats throughout Mexico south to Nicaragua.

*****

COFFEE COLUBRINA
At the edge of a narrow gravel road through the woods a woody shrub reached for sunlight, its leaves somewhat leathery and shiny on top, its stems densely covered with short, rusty-colored, velvety hairs, and greenish flowers and fruits, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131cp.jpg.

The flowers were of a type we've looked at before, but those species had different leaves and stems. A flower with a distinctive fleshy disc at its center, a green style emerging from the disc's middle, and with five stamens arising along the disc's perimeter is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131co.jpg.

The shrub's immature capsular fruits are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131cq.jpg.

We've also seen fruits like that, with their bottoms invested with the former calyx. Both flowers and fruits are very similar to what we've identified as Nakedwood and Snakewood in the Yucatan, and Hog Plum in Texas -- Colubrina yucatanensis, Colubrina elliptica, and Colubrina texensis, respectively. Therefore, it was a good bet that this was yet a fourth species of the genus Colubrina, a member of the Buckthorn Family, the Rhamnaceae.

And it is, COLUBRINA ARBORESCENS, which here we'll call Coffee Colubrina. Other species of Colubrina also go by that name, plus they all share such names as Wild Coffee, Nakedwood, Snakebark, Geenheart, Colubrine, Blackbead, and such, so the English names with this group are more useless than usual.

Our Coffee Colubrina, Colubrina arborescens, occurs from southern Florida and the Bahamas south through the Caribbean and southern Mexico to Panama, plus, because of its handsome leaves and stems, it's planted in tropical zones beyond in many tropical lands.

Besides the flowers producing ample nectar, a service appreciated by the Yucatan's bee keepers, it's also used medicinally, in some places a tea being made from its leaves, and its wood being used against "rheumatism." Its wood is hard and heavy, fairly resistant to decay, and thus sought after for use as fence posts and, in the past, marine pilings.

On dry days when the fruits are ripe, the capsules pop open, flinging the seeds a short distance.

*****

CHEWSTICK
In 2010 we profiled a certain woody vine, a member of the Buckthorn Family, or Rhamnaceae, that was common here and conspicuous. At that time, in October, it was adorned with slender racemes of small, brilliantly white flowers. It was Gouania lupuloides, profiled on our page for it at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/gouania.htm.

We called it Chewstick, a name used in Jamaica. Nowadays Chewstick draw attention to itself not with its flowers, but with its prodigious crops of fruits. You can see the brown, branch-trip clusters of one along a weedy roadside at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131g1.jpg.

A closer look, showing leaves bug-eaten and diseased at the growing season's end, and the fruits curiously three-winged, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131g2.jpg.

Up closer, a fruit shows interesting reticulating veins. The fruit's outward appearance is much like that of certain fruits of the Buckwheat Family, the Polygonaceae -- for example, those of the docks and sorrels, genus Rumex -- as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131g3.jpg.

When Chewstick's fruits mature the split into three parts, each with a seed bearing two wings, with each wing consisting of one side of one of the fruit's three wings. You can see what that the winged seeds look like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131g4.jpg.

You might be interested in comparing Chewstick's fruit structure with the outwardly similar fruits of Curly Dock, in the Buckwheat Family, which we photographed back in Texas, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130623ry.jpg.

Though the fruits look much alike, structurally they're very different. In Curly Dock's three-winged fruit , each wing bears one seed, or grain, while each of Chewstick's seeds bears two wing-faces. Such structural differences are big deals in botany, and the Buckthorn and Buckwheat Families are not closely related. It's a matter of convergent evolution -- two unrelated plant groups coming up with the same idea of having small seeds bearing papery wings for wind dispersal.

On our Chewstick web page we mention several medicinal uses for the vine, beside the fact that Jamaicans chew the stick for cleaning their teeth. Now I see that Marianna Kunow in her 2003 book Maya Medicine: Traditional Healing in Yucatan, writes that the Maya also report using the plant for treating mouth sores, pimples, "blood vomit" and "rotten liver."

Apparently there's a market for Chewstick stems to chew on. The IslandHerbsandSpices.Com website sells 3 oz (85g) of sticks for $26.00, assuring us that Chewstick "contributes well to overall dental health by replenishing needed minerals to the teeth and fights against the acid that causes tooth decay." They offer free shipping.

*****

BUCKTHORN FAMILY CLASSIFICATION
The superficial similarity of certain three-winged fruits of the Buckthorn and Buckwheat Families got me wondering about their taxonomic relationships. An interesting paper from 1999 turned up in the online American Journal of Botany, reporting on relationships as revealed by genetic sequencing. The paper is dense and technical, but if you want to see what such works look like and how they present their data you can download the article for free at http://www.amjbot.org/content/87/9/1309.full.

You can see a computer-generated "tree" suggesting how different groupings may have arisen from a common ancestor, with those groupings fragmenting into subgroups, again and again, until today's genera and families become apparent, at http://www.amjbot.org/content/87/9/1309/F1.large.jpg.

One interesting feature of those findings is that the Elaeagnus Family "nests" within the Buckthorn Family, the Rhamnaceae, thus doubtfully qualifying recognition as an independent family.

*****

WHITE CLEMATIS FRUITING
We've already looked at White Clematis's pretty flowers and leaves, our page for the species residing at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/clematis.htm.

Nowadays White Clematis's vines are conspicuous along roadsides because of their pale, fuzzy-looking fruiting heads, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131cl.jpg.

A close-up of several heads blown to one side by the wind is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131cm.jpg.

That blown-to-one-side effect is typical of the clematises. You might compare the above picture with that of a different clematis species on a fence back in Texas at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130728cp.jpg.

The puffball-like affairs are not fruits, but rather clusters or heads of fruits. Each clematis flower bears several pistils and each pistil develops into an achene-type fruit, each with a "tail." You can see two such tailed fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131cn.jpg.

*****

SUNFLOWER GOLDENEYE AT PEAK OF PERFECTION
We've looked at Sunflower Goldeneyes, their page being at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/viguiera.htm.

Last summer on some days as hot and humid as it gets here, you may recall how as we walked the empty highway between Yaxunah and Kancabdzonot I commented on the chest-high super-abundance of Sunflower Goldeneye's green stems and leaves, wistfully looking forward to the cooler, drier days when the plants would make gorgeous, ten-ft-high (3m), flowery walls along the roads. Those days now have come. You can see a detail of a ten-ft-high wall of roadside Sunflower Goldeneye at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131vg.jpg.

*****

WOOD ROSE FLOWER BUDS
We've already looked at the Wood Rose, which is a kind of vining morning-glory whose large, yellow blossoms develop fruits that, just before their capsules split, look like wooden flowers. You can see the whole thing at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/merremia.htm.

I hadn't realized until now how eye-catching the vine's very large flower buds can be, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131wr.jpg.

*****

GOATWEED
Beside the road, two waist-high, slender stems leaned from the brush toward the opening's light, so tangled among stems and leaves of other plants that getting a decent picture of the plant's form wasn't possible. However, you can see one of its small, neatly toothed, warty-hairy leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131gw.jpg.

It wasn't the leaves that caught my attention, however, but rather the small flowers, white with pink markings, and curiously flattened from the top. You can see a head-on view of such a flower, a dew-covered one with long hairs carpeting the corolla's flat-bottomed throat, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131gy.jpg.

The flowers' corollas were so loosely attached that a slight shake of the stem caused them to fall from their calyxes. You can see a corolla that has just fallen onto herbage below it, leaving behind a translucent style tipped with a white stigma, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131gx.jpg.

The bilaterally symmetrical flower shape with four stamens inside -- five is a much more common number for such a corolla -- with the stamens of two different lengths, along with the capsular-type fruits with conspicuous styles remaining atop the ovaries as the ovaries mature, along with the plant's general shape, all suggested to me the Figwort or Snapdragon Family, the Scrophulariaceae. That family is well represented up North but in the tropics is less well known. Recognizing the family, and finding few species in that family listed for the Yucatan, it was easy to figure out the plant's identity.

It's one of several plants known as Goatweed, CAPRARIA FRUTESCENS. Three Capraria species occur in the Yucatan, one only in the southern part beyond us, but the other, Capraria biflora, we profiled in 2011. You might enjoy comparing the two species -- the "variations on a Goatweed theme" thing. That species is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/goatweed.htm.

The other Goatweed's flowers are on longer stems, or pedicels, and not nearly as flattened.

Capraria frutescens is distributed from Texas south through Mexico to the Yucatan and Belize.

I read that Capraria frutescens is used medicinally for coughs and sore wounds.

*****

MOLDY BREAD & CHEESE, AGAIN
At the edge of a narrow gravel road through the woods a woody vine reached for the sunlight, the tips of its branches bearing old flower spikes from which most flowers had dried up and fallen off, but on which a few had produced fruits, which still were green and immature. You can see this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131pa.jpg.

The fruits were 3-angled capsules, a shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131pb.jpg.

The vine's distinctive, twice-pinnately compound leaf is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160131pc.jpg.

In our area the main plant families producing fruits with three carpels are the Euphorbia, Soapberry and Buckthorn Familes -- the Euphorbiaceae, Sapindaceae and Rhamnaceae -- and knowing that helped figure out the vine's identity.

Actually, back in 2010 we met this species, but back then it was adorned with mature, brilliantly red fruits. The fruits on our present vine are immature, only beginning to display the ripe fruit's redness. You can see the brilliantly red fruits on the vine's page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/paullini.htm  

This as PAULLINIA FUSCESCENS, of the Soapberry Family, inexplicably sometimes known as Moldy Bread and Cheese. The species occurs from Mexico through Central America into northern South America.

*****

NATURE STUDY THERAPY
A while back the American Cancer Society designated Hacienda Chichen as a good place for recuperating from cancer. It's peaceful, pretty, set apart from the "the real world," and there's plenty to think about here other than one's health problems. This got me thinking about the matter of "Nature Study Therapy."

The term "therapy" refers to a course of action meant to heal, so what's the illness being addressed by Nature Study Therapy?

Here's a thumbnail answer: The human mind is like a cup filled with water that often is unclear and troubled. Pour in pure, clear water, and the other dribbles out. Keep up the process long enough and you have a cup of pure water. In other words, occupy the mind with birdsong, flower colors and fragrances, the turn of the seasons and the life-confirming influences of understanding ecology, and in the end you feel better. Good thoughts drive out bad ones.

That description serves its purpose and is accurate but of course the human mind isn't a cup of water. Here's a different way of expressing how we can grow alienated from Nature, suffer from it, and be healed by Nature study:

Nature is organized into sets and subsets, and subsets of subsets, on and on. An arbitrarily defined outline of sets and subsets, beginning with the subset of the world of computer key tops, and leading upward, can be written out as shown below:

computer key top --> computer --> office --> human business --> human behavior --> human species --> Life on Earth --> Earth --> Solar System --> the Milky Way Galaxy --> the Universe --> the thing of which about 96% is black matter and black energy, and the human-detectable Universe is the other 4% --> dimensions unknown & unimagined

In the above breakdown, we humans identify most with being "human species" participating in "Life on Earth." At that level we feel most "at home" and we are the most happy there.

When we narrow our daily activities and thoughts to a subset lower down the chain -- as in the cubicle -- or focus too much on realms beyond our everyday lives, we are denying ourselves inputs from nurturing and orienting influences we have evolved to need at the "human species on Earth" level.

In the cubicle as well as among abstractions of the mind, we're no longer subject to seasonal cycles, no longer able to welcome blackberry season and the pleasures of going to pick them. In the cubicle, we miss colors, fragrances, birdsong, glisten of insect wing and interactions with other life forms, all which texture a person's life, help us define our identities, and help us think of ourselves as having a place where we are.

Nature study systematically undertaken over a long period of time obliges us to occupy ourselves with flower design, color and fragrance, cloud patterns, bird diversity, geometry of crystal faces among sandgrains, the changing sky throughout the day and night, interrelationships among Nature's mindbogglingly diverse things... And as these influences are taken into us, negativity and other hurtful, damaging influences dribble away, and we are healed.

Our BackyardNature.Net website was designed to help anyone study Nature, beginning in his or her backyard, and the service is free. Anyone interested in Nature Study Therapy at Hacienda Chichen adjacent to Chichén Itzá ruins in the central Yucatan, is welcome to come, and while you're at the Hacienda I'll gladly open doors to you, to ever greater intimacy with Nature, also for free.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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