JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Rancho Regenesis
in the woods near Ek Balam Ruins north of Valladolid in
Yucatán, MÉXICO

August 20, 2017

PAPER WASPS NEIGHBORS
Several species of paper wasp live in and around the hut. Even without getting close to the wasps themselves, it's clear that more than one species is involved because their nests are so different. Most are ┬▒egg-shaped hives the size of apples and cantaloupes, and covered with a grayish paper skin. The one that visitors to the hut notice first, though, dangles from a tree about ten feet up (3m), exactly above the hut's entrance. It consists of an elongated wafer with no covering, other than the wasps tending their brood cells, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170820wp.jpg

The above picture mainly shows one face of the nest. A distinguishing feature of the nest's form is shown when viewed from its side, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170820wo.jpg

The nest diminishes in thickness from top to bottom. This has been noted on all the nests of this species I've seen.

Most of the time this nest is in the shade, but when a shaft of sunlight hits it, wasps rush into the light and begin fanning. Apparently the cells' brooding larvae are vulnerable to overheating. A close-up of wasps ventilating with their wings the brood cells beneath them is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170820wq.jpg

A close-up of a single wasp, her wings a blur as she fans cells below her, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170820wr.jpg

The Wasp "Superfamily" embracing everything from paper wasps and hornets to potter and pollen wasps, the Vespoidea, is a vast one, with the often-hard-to-identify species producing a wide range of nests. You might enjoy our wasp page providing an overview of the most commonly noticed wasp families at http://www.backyardnature.net/wasps.htm

Our hut wasps were identified by searching for images of paper wasp nests displaying our nest's peculiar slender-wedge shape, present in Mexico. Several pictures resulted, nearly all taken in Florida. Those nests were produced by MISCHOCYTTARUS MEXICANUS, a species occurring not only in Florida but throughout Mexico and much of Central America. There's a nice Wikipedia page on the species, describing interesting details of its natural history, at least as observed in Florida.

Mischocyttarus mexicanus wasps shown on the Internet seem to exhibit slight differences from our wasps. For example, on the Wikipedia page the wasp's rear segment, its abdomen, appears to bear three slender, ill-defined yellow bands, while the abdomens of ours display four clearly demarcated ones. However, the species includes at least two subspecies, so it exhibits variation over its distribution, and I wonder whether our wasps are one of its variations. Though the species is much more widely distributed in tropical America than in Florida, the tropical ones are little represented on the Internet, and I just can't say for sure that ours are a variation of Mischocyttarus mexicanus

The Maya workers here tell me that these wasps are bad stingers, though I've never had trouble with them as I pass right below them several times each day. Also I'm told that this is one species of which no one bothers to eat the larvae roasted inside their chambers, as happens with some other paper-wasp species.

Whatever the case, I hope that by filing our pictures here under Mischocyttarus mexicanus, someday a wasp-impassioned graduate student will be happy to see them, and maybe confirm or deny our guess as to its identity.

*****

MATING CHECKERSPOTS
The rainy season's lush vegetation engenders a glory of small arthropods, especially insects, that feed on the herbage, sneak around, beneath and inside it, hunt for prey or nectar and pollen in it -- and generally provide a mind-boggling rainbow of living things that can be watched, thought about and cohabited with.

Among the most conspicuous and pleasurable to watch are the butterflies, who animate and ornament the fields, forest edges and roadsides the way musical notes form a musical score that can enhance a movie, and give it greater meaning.

And that build-up sets the stage for presenting a mating pair of Theona Checkerspots, CHLOSYNE THEONA, on a weed in the garden, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170820bq.jpg

Note the difference in size between the sexes. A close-up portrait of one individual in which we can better admire the wings' patterns and colors is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170820bp.jpg

Theona Checkerspots occur from the southcentral US south through Mexico, into northern South Americ. Up North the caterpillars feed on members of the Snapdragon or Figwort Family, the Scrophulariaceae. Around here the most commonly encountered member of that family is the Goatweed, Capraria biflora.

*****

CARIBBEAN GRAPES
Along trails in the woods here occasionally you come across woody vines looking very much like grapevines commonly seen in North American forests. But one thinks of grapevines as Temperate Zone plants, not tropical. Still, leaves on our local vines look exactly like some of those in the North, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170820vi.jpg

In that picture the top leaf displays its silvery undersurface. The vines are fruiting nowadays, and their fruits are clustered like grapes, but they ripen to a very un-grapelike red, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170820vj.jpg

In that picture notice that a forking tendril emerges from the fruit cluster's peduncle. A close-up of a fruit, a transitional whitish one between the green and red stage, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170820vk.jpg

Well, despite the grapes' red skin color, this is a genuine wild grape, a tropical one. Often it's known as the Caribbean Grape. It's VITIS TILIIFOLIA, found in most of Mexico, south to northern South America, as well as in the Caribbean.

The Wikipedia page for the species says that the Maya use the grapes for food and drink, but the Maya around me say they don't bother. To them it's just a vine they occasionally cut for livestock feed.

*****

A TROPICAL GREENBRIAR
Yet another woody vine looking familiar to any Northern woodsperson, but out of place here in the forest, is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170820sm.jpg

What could that be but a greenbriar, one of those stickery vines that leave bloody cuts across your ankles and legs if you're not watching as you walk along forest trails up north? Greenbriars are members of the genus Smilax, and this is SMILAX SPINOSA, without any good English name beyond the general one of greenbriar. It's distributed from southern Mexico into Central America. A picture showing a spine arising from the stem is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170820sn.jpg

In that picture the spine is mostly enclosed within a papery, dirty-gray sheath; it's the object pointed upward in the picture's lower, left quarter. And that spine is woody and as sharp as its Northern counterparts.

In much of Mexico -- where often it's called Zarzaparrilla, though in Yucatan Maya it's Koke' -- the vine is believed to possess medicinal value. Especially it's appreciated for treating syphilis and general inflammation of the gentiles, as well as for menstrual disorders. During childbirth tit canincrease the rate of uterine contractions. The whole plant is used, either alone or in combination with Epazote and mint. The plant also is used for stomach and intestinal problems, skin wounds, rheumatism, as a stimulant, and several other ailments.

This information on the greenbriar's medicinal use, as well as many other pages dealing with many Mexican medicinal plants, is freely available, in Spanish, in the Atlas de las Plantas de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana at http://www.medicinatradicionalmexicana.unam.mx

*****

GOETHE'S "TRAVELS IN ITALY"
I've been reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Italienische Reise, or "Travels in Italy," chronicling the writer's wanderings during 1786 and '87, when he was in his 30s. I like Goethe's descriptions of life in Italy over 200 years ago, and I like his approach to traveling, and living life in general.

Goethe always struggled to see things clearly, and to form opinions independently from commonly accepted opinions. Standing before architecture or paintings the world may have regarded as the most perfect representatives of what they were, sometimes he wasn't too impressed. Conversely, he'd get excited about works the rest of the world ignored. First he got general impressions from books, and then he went to see for himself, and either agreed or disagreed with what others were saying.

Balancing this confidence in his own judgment , he paid close attention to his own deficiencies for making such judgments. Often he admitted that he just didn't have enough understanding about something to form his own opinion. During his travels in Italy he critically studied himself as rigorously as he did the world around him,and where he felt himself lacking, he set to work studying.

And he believed that understanding basic principles of Nature was necessary before mastering more abstract or ethereal notions. His familiarity with marble's geological formation and its physical properties greatly enhanced his appreciation of Italy's classic ruins and statues, and knowing about human anatomy informed his appreciation for carvings of the human form.

Goethe also recognized that he himself constantly changed in lockstep with his learning. In Rome he gained so many new insights into so many new fields that he declared himself as reborn. Rome enlarged him and elevated him to a higher level of aesthetic and philosophical development.

To me, here are the main features of Goethe's strategy for dealing with new experiences:

And, why are these notions appropriate for a Naturalist Newsletter? It's because the Earth's natural environment, its biosphere, is being destroyed by humanity at an ever-increasing rate, plus in many places enormous social and political changes are happening. Humans everywhere need to be thinking more clearly about the issues at hand. Goethe's approach to thinking and experiencing is worth considering.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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