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

MAY 15, 2016

*****

"EATING WASP"
During their lunchtime the white-uniformed folks who clean rooms and wash laundry called to me from their table beneath the Grapefruit tree. "¿Quieres comer avispa?," they asked, smiling grandly. "Avispa" means "wasp," so they seemed to be asking if I wanted to "eat wasp." Some here speak Spanish with a Maya accent that sometimes throws me for a loop, so I asked them to repeat, but sure enough they were saying "avispa." Don Cresencio opened a blue, plastic container on the table and then I understood. They were offering wasp larvae with scrambled eggs, a dish much appreciated in many parts of the world. You can see what the white-bodied, dark-headed grubs looked like scrambled with eggs at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515av.jpg

Someone at the table pointed to a nest like the one that had been robbed to get the larvae they were eating, hanging nearby about 20 feet up (6m) among branches of a newly leafed-out Ceiba tree, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515aw.jpg

When I was a child in Kentucky back in the 1950s it was common to see hornet nests similar the one in the picture, though our Kentucky ones may have been a little larger. Nowadays up North they're almost never seen, probably because of habitat destruction and pesticide use. In this part of the Yucatan a somewhat smaller, narrower nest than is shown in the picture is much more common, so I asked if larvae from those nests also were good to eat. They are, but they're smaller and available in such small amounts that seldom bother with them, especially not when these big, round ones are handy.

The Maya call the small, black wasps constructing these nests ek, which means "black," and sometimes say that they're eating ek. The ek's roundish hives contain combs in which each cell contains honey, an egg or a grub-type larva. Combs containing grubs are sometimes removed from nests and lain atop a fire's glowing embers. Once the grubs are scorched, they're removed from the comb's remains and eaten.

I didn't eat the portion they'd saved for me, explaining once again that I'm a vegetarian and that for me that means I don't eat animals. Here many people think that vegetarians merely avoid eating larger animals -- and that they eat them, too, if they feel like it -- and can hardly believe that I won't eat fish or chickens, much less "avispas," ever.

But, already I was feeling sorry for the colony of wasps that had been destroyed just to add a little different flavor and a certain crunchiness to the fried eggs.

*****

GRAY-HEADED TANAGER
In late afternoon on a hot, humid April 14th, when I was in the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve in extreme southeastern Mexico, two birds silently and keeping to the shadows worked their way through dense cover to near my tent, where they perched less than a meter off the ground (3ft). For several minutes they watched me watching them, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515tb.jpg

With the large, black bill and a fairly distinct eye ring, the bird on the left looks a female Red-throated Ant-Tanager. The one on the right, however, with an all-gray head, yellow chest, and bushy crest is a Gray-headed Tanager, EUCOMETIS PENICILLATA. Among Gray-headed Tanagers the sexes are similar. After the picture was taken the ant-tanager sneaked away, but the Gray-headed Tanager was nice enough to turn sideways and provide a better view -- though in such deep shadows that I had to overexpose the background to bring out the bird's colors -- shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515ta.jpg

Red-throated Ant-Tanagers extend as far north as the central Yucatan, but Gray-headed Tanagers need lusher, taller forest than we have in the central Yucatan. Therefore, here was a bird I don't normally see in the Yucatan, and that was a treat.

Gray-headed Tanagers are distributed from southern Mexico, including the southeastern Yucatan Peninsula, south through Central America to Brazil in South America. They don't like open, disturbed places, so their habitat is disappearing. Within the forest they tend to keep low to the ground, just as ours was doing, and they're known to attend ant swarms. As army ants surge across the forest floor looking for prey, small insects and other invertebrates bolt from concealment, trying to escape the ants, but Gray-headed Tanagers are watching, and might catch them. Red-throated Ant-Tanagers also follow ant swarms and also typically stay close to the forest floor, so the two birds of different species in our little "mixed flock" probably knew one another very well, and might regularly find themselves sharing a perch.

In the American tropics the tanagers form a large, colorful group. In Chiapas, 15 tanager species can be looked for. That number includes migrants and winter visitors, such as the north's Scarlet and Summer Tanagers.

*****

ANGEL WING BEGONIA BUSH
In mid April when I was in the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve in extreme southeastern Mexico, beside the informal little family campground where I pitched my tent, the matriarch of the family kept a shady little spot where she hang orchids among tree limbs and planted colorful ornamentals. One of those ornamentals was the tallest begonia I'd ever seen -- about eight feet tall (2.4m). You could call it a spindly bush or even a small tree, for its branches seemed to be at least semi-woody. Usually we think of begonias as herbs. You can see a branch of this giant one loaded with clusters of pink flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515be.jpg

Closer up you see the shrubs very asymmetrical leaves and a cluster of female flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515bf.jpg

With the unusual leaf shape this was clearly one of numerous cultivars and species known as an angel wing begonia, but I hoped to figure out exactly which species it was, or its cultivar name, so I took more pictures. A close-up of a dangling female flower with its three-winged ovary at the picture's top, beneath which four pink, petal-like "tepals" expand, from the center of which three styles bearing yellow, curly stigmas arise, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515bg.jpg

A male flower also with four pink tepals but with one pair much smaller and narrower than the other, subtending a cluster of yellow stamens, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515bd.jpg

And some dry, bladdery, three-winged, capsular fruits ready to fall are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515bc.jpg

No native Mexican species of the genus Begonia looks like this, so it's an introduced plant. With its large size and other striking features, it was relatively easy to figure out, approximately, what to call the plant.

I say "approximately," because with nearly 1800 recognized species -- depending on who is counting -- the genus Begonia is considered by some as constituting the fifth-largest genus of all flowering plants, so there are many species to choose from. Also, begonia species have been hybridized and otherwise had their genes manipulated for so long that often it's hard to determine whether a plant is a wild species or a cultivar with genes from who-know-how-many wild ancestors.

Our Chiapas plant comes closest to BEGONIA COCCINEA, usually known as Angel Wing Begonia, though sometimes as Dragon Wing or Cane Begonia. It's native to southern Brazil, and many important cultivars have been developed from it, one reason for its popularity being that it tends to bloom all year. Some cultivars look herbaceous and have so lost their leggy, semi-woody feature that they're used in hanging baskets. Information I find says that they reach three or four feet high, but ours were at least twice that tall. Some cultivars based on Begonia coccinea have leaves with silvery spots on them, and/or intensely red blossoms.

*****

A TREE-SIZED RUBBER PLANT
Last week I accompanied some guests to Valladolid about 45 minutes east of the Hacienda, where we visited the historic Convent of San Bernardino. At the edge of the plaza in front of the convent a fair-sized tree bore many woody, rootlike growths dangling from its limbs. These aerial roots had been cut so people could walk beneath the tree. You can see what this looked like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515fg.jpg

The tree was clearly a kind of strangler or banyan fig -- a fig tree whose seeds often germinate on branches of other trees, the resulting fig plant grows as an epiphyte on its host tree while sending adventitious roots toward the ground as it grows upward, where eventually it overtops the host tree. Below, as its roots enclose the host tree's trunk, with time it "strangles" or "out-competes" the host for resources, killing the host, leaving the fig standing in its place, becoming a regular, respectable-looking tree, like the one in the picture.

Humid American tropical forests are full of fig species with vegetative parts so similar that usually if the trees aren't fruiting I don't even try to figure out their species. The tree in our photo wasn't fruiting, but when I looked at the leaves, I figured I knew which species it was without even "doing the botany." You may recognize it yourself at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515fh.jpg

A closer look at its thick stem and long, pinkish terminal bud is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515fi.jpg

You, like me, may have coexisted with several individuals of this species doing houseplant duty up north, for cut stems of this species easily root and grow, and the resulting potted plants tolerate shade and drought, and can grow in almost any type of soil as long as it's well-drained. It's weakness is strong winds, for it tends to break apart during storms.

This is FICUS ELASTICA, often called Rubber Plant, though one must avoid calling it the Rubber Tree, because that name is more properly claimed by other species. Still, such copious amounts of milky latex pours from the species' wounds that in the past it has been used for making rubber. Often its binomial name is used as a common name, people just calling it Ficus Elastica

Ficus Elastica is native to southeastern Asia, but it's been introduced in much of the world's tropics and semi-tropics, where it's "gone wild," including in Florida. In fact, Randall's 2014 "Global Compendium of Weeds characterizes it as an “environmental weed, garden thug, naturalised, weed.” A while back some guests from southern California told me that in their area strangler figs are outlawed because their roots cause sidewalks and pavement to buckle.

Ficus Elastica's weediness it mitigated by the fact that, like other figs, its reproduction requires a specific wasp pollinator species, and in most places where the plant has appeared its pollinating wasp species has not, so Ficus Elastica can't reproduce by seeds in these places.

I can't find information about whether the wasp pollinator for Ficus Elastica has been introduced into Mexico, so I assume that the tree in our pictures was planted by someone.

Whatever its history, on that hot afternoon last week, the tree provided delicious shade, and a nice bouquet of dark greenness at the edge of a sizzling open area, and I don't begrudge anyone who might have planted it there.

*****

ERECT SPIDERLING
When each morning's first light breaks onto the space before the hut, a certain weed catches my attention during the few minutes when sunlight highlights it against a shadowy background. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515bh.jpg

This annual weed has benefited from my daily waterings of the flowerbed beside it. I've not pulled it up because it wasn't hurting anything, and I wanted to see what it'd develop into. In the above picture you can see that it consists of several broad basal leaves issuing a diffuse head of tiny, white flowers. A close-up of the amaranth-like leaves is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515bi.jpg

In plant identification, however, leaves can fool you. For identification usually you need flowers and/or fruits. A cluster of three slightly pink-tinged, 1.5mm long (1/16th inch), bell-shaped (campanulate), corolla-like structures is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515bj.jpg

Each of these flowers seems to have two stamens with yellow anthers, and one plump, white stigma atop a style, and the lobes appear to be irregular in number, maybe ten, or maybe some would interpret five, with each lobe deeply indented at its tip making it look like two lobes. I referred to corolla-like "structures" instead of using the word corolla because of what's apparent if you look at the flowers from the side, as is done at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515bl.jpg

The corolla-like thing at the picture's left -- this one with three stamens instead of two -- sits atop the ovary, or future fruit, with no calyx beneath it. Therefore, the corolla-like thing is neither a proper corolla nor a calyx, but rather a single in-between structure known as a perianth. Since the perianth arises atop the ovary, the ovary is "inferior" in a world where most ovaries are "superior" -- the corolla and calyx arising below the ovary. The large, green item at the picture's right is an achene-type, one-seeded fruit. More fruits are seen crowned with low "teeth" at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515bk.jpg

The inferior ovary and single, bell-shaped perianth instead of a calyx and corolla, and achene-type fruit all are good field marks pointing us toward the Four-O'Clock Family, the Nyctaginaceae. Once the family was recognized, it was easy to see which of the species of that family listed for the Yucatan look like our plant.

Our plant is BOERHAVIA ERECTA, sometimes known as the Erect Spiderling. It has an English name because it occurs from the US Southeastern states west to New Mexico, then southward through all warmer parts of the Americas, plus it's been introduced into warm countries all over the world.

Erect Spiderling turns up in many kinds of disturbed, weedy habitats. In Mexico's traditional medicine it's been used in nervous disorders, from calming people down to treating spasms and epilepsy.

****

SCARLET SPIDERLING
The day after the Erect Spiderling, Boerhavia erecta, was identified, while accompanying visitors to historic San Bernardino Convent in Valladolid about 45 minutes east of the Hacienda, at the base of a weathered, hardly legible historical marker, the sprawling weed showed up seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515b2.jpg

Its vegetative parts were similar to those of the Erect Spiderling, though its flowers were bright red, not white. The herb's basal leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515b6.jpg

Moreover, despite being red instead of white, up close the blossoms also were very similar to those of the Erect Spiderling, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515b3.jpg

A close-up of just the flowers shows even more structural similarities, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515b4.jpg

However, unlike the Erect Spiderling, the herb's achene-type fruits bore hairs tipped with glands and were shaped a bit different, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160515b5.jpg

Besides the interesting, unidentified bug at the picture's right, notice the reddish, immature perianth forming atop the inferior ovary -- exactly as with the Erect Spiderling.

So, at this point one wants to ask whether in the Yucatan we have another Boerhavia species, one with scarlet flowers.

We have several Boerhavia species here, and one is named BOERHAVIA COCCINEA, "coccinea" meaning "scarlet." That's what our historical-marker plant is, sometimes known as the Scarlet Spiderling. It's native to the arid southwestern US and much of Mexico, plus it's invading new territory in various parts of the world, in some places being declared a noxious weed.

*****

THE MIDDLE PATH & PLATO
The other day a friend sent an article by Andrew Sullivan, appearing in New York Magazine, entitled "America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny." It's freely available at http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/04/america-tyranny-donald-trump.html

The article often drew from Plato's Republic," as when it recalled that Plato believed that when a democracy is so successful that everyone does pretty much what he or she wants, and nobody raises a fuss about it, people get disoriented. In such societies, people lose respect for authority and many get frustrated when other people's different ways of thinking and doing things messes up their lives. Exactly then is when a "tyrant" can arise, offering relief from pure democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. "And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself," Sullivan writes.

Something interesting is that Plato and Sullivan seem to visualize pure democracy as an extreme state, with absolute dictatorship as its opposite. The implication is that a certain in-between form of democracy works best. That's why the framers of the US Constitution set up barriers against pure democracy, it's suggested, such as the Electoral Collage and the Senate's structure granting disproportional power to less populated states. As Sullivan writes, "...the Founding Fathers had read their Plato."

So, maybe it's like this: Democracy has its Middle Path, as well as two states of extreme deviance, and when extremely deviating paths are taken, disaster normally results.

In fact, sometimes it seems to me that all conditions and behaviors have their their Middle Paths and extreme states. If that turns out to be true, and it's true that extreme deviations from the Middle Path normally lead to disaster, then we have another thinking tool like the Six Miracles of Nature (http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/ ).

Moreover, if all things have a Middle Path, and extreme deviance from the Middle Path leads to disaster, then we humans need to spend more time meditating on Middle Paths.

Nature is the best teacher about Middle Paths.

For example, in Nature if a species is narrowly adapted to a specific environment, when global warming changes its limited living space, it may go extinct. However, if a species is too much of a generalist, it must compete with many other generalist species, and experience shows that when many species compete for the same resources, eventually most species disappear from that environment because they're not the most efficient exploiters of that environment. This situation teaches a Middle Path in which a certain degree of specialization is good, but not such specialization that you're too dependent on any one thing.

Here's another example: Any ecosystem composed of many species is much more stable and resilient than any monoculture. Here Nature's teaching at first glance might appear a little self-contradictory. It's OK for a Sugar Maple to share similarities with other Sugar Maples, but the forest itself should have maples, oaks, ash and more. Is the teaching here that for human urban planning the Middle Path is to encourage a mosaic of ethnic and/or racial communities? If so, how many mosaic types is best in a given area, how big should the mosaics be, and should their locations be planned or random?

Human communities have been bumping up against one another for thousands of years, but still we haven't reached consensuses on these elemental and absolutely important-to-answer questions, and many other questions just as crucial. There's not even a named discipline for the process of teasing from Nature's time-proven paradigms the insights humans need for wisely and sustainably living on Earth.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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