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

October 1, 2017

PAPER WASP NEST UPDATE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/wasp1.htm we're keeping track of a big paper wasp nest dangling exactly over the hut's door. Last week we saw that as the nest enlarges and gets heavier, it dangles closer to the ground. This week it lowered until it was less than a foot above my bald head. Despite the wasps having never attacked me, I figured I'd better do something before they did.

I found a pole about 20ft long, forking at the top. One morning right before the sun rose, but when there was already enough light to see, I lifted the branch holding the nest, and secured the pole in place beneath it. Now the nest's bottom resides about six feet above my head, and I feel safe passing beneath it.

For the first hour after the nest was raised, several wasps circled in empty space where the nest had been. They did that until they got tired, then gathered on the branch nearest the nest's former location.

Two hours later, wasps still circled where the nest had been, but now they'd learned to explore upward, until the nest was found. The wasps displayed an uncanny sense of where the nest "should" be, but couldn't identify the nest in plain view just a few feet above. After about six hours, most wasps had adjusted to the new location, and life continued as before.

While the nest had dangled so low, I noticed that throughout the day wasps arrived from the woods carrying small balls of something yellowish. With the nest so low, I could take the interesting photo shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001pw.jpg

That picture shows the heads of two wasps, both holding yellow balls in their mandibles. The picture makes sense when we read that the species is suspected to prey on arthropod larvae. I write "suspected," because studies haven't been published yet. We may be providing useful information and pictures here for a future researcher.

I'm guessing that the yellow balls are "meatballs" consisting of compacted caterpillar sections. I'm further guessing, especially because of their size, that the meatballs are to be inserted into the nest's cells, where they'll be eaten by developing wasp larvae. Judging from the number of wasps arriving at the nest carrying these balls, the wasps must be affecting the caterpillar population on nearby trees. Since the caterpillars probably are eating the trees' leaves, this wasp nest may be of great service to the forest surrounding it.

And the nest will grow heavier and heavier, so probably this story isn't finished yet.

*****

WILD TAMARIND AS AN ECOLOGICAL PIONEER
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/leucaena.htm we look at what's probably the most commonly occurring tree in the Yucatan, as well as one of the most useful. A member of the Bean Family, one of its many names is Wild Tamarind; here the Maya call it Uaxim. It's Leucaena leucocephala. The other day I climbed atop the rancho's new cement water tower and was mightily impressed by this tree. In every direction, over 360°, I saw approximately what shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001hu.jpg

In the photo, the paler, yellowish-green trees up front are Wild Tamarinds. The darker trees in the back are larger trees of other species. The above picture shows where the rancho's property ends -- it ends with the Wild Tamarinds -- and other properties begin. Wild Tamarinds dominate on the rancho's property because about 15 years ago cattle roamed the ranch's grassy, scrubby fields. Once the ranch became unproductive, the land was allowed to "go wild." And, ecologically, Wild Tamarinds are "pioneer species," meaning that when such land is abandoned to Nature, Wild Tamarind is in the first wave of invading trees.

One reason Wild Tamarind is such a successful pioneer species is suggested in a picture taken of the top of a Wild Tamarind tree just below the tank, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001hv.jpg

The trees are just loaded with legume-type fruits filled with numerous seeds. And even as legumes below the branches' tips are maturing, nearer the tips vigorous new flowering heads are forming. The tree floods the landscape with prodigious numbers of seeds.

Mature seeds are similar to lentils, but bone-hard. I'm unsure whether the main dispersal agent is birds, or the legumes themselves. Conceivably, when wind shakes the dry, split-open legumes, the legumes' movements might toss the seeds a fair distance.

Being members of the Bean Family, Wild Tamarind's roots put usable nitrogen into the soil. Once Wild Tamarind has grown in a spot for several years, its decaying leaves will have introduced organic matter into the soil, enabling the soil to better hold both water and nutrients. The newly enriched soil will be attractive to other tree species, which will invade Wild Tamarind strongholds. Wild Tamarind, despite its aggressive invasion of abandoned land, doesn't compete well with such invading species, and gradually is replaced by them.

Though for a year I've been walking through the rancho's young forest, it hadn't occurred to me that Wild Tamarind so dominated the forest's structure. That's because the forest understory here is home to a large number of invading trees, bushes and vines, and not many Wild Tamarinds.

*****

UNCOPPICING THE MAYA
This March I reported on seeing large plots of forest that Maya farmers had just cleared, leaving chopped-off, waist-tall stems of Wild Tamarind rising through the slash. You can see what that looked like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170319cq.jpg

Later I saw farmers cutting off soft, fresh growth from the stem, perfect for feeding to the cattle. I considered this was a great example of "coppicing," which is the process of cutting back certain easily sprouting woody plants so they'll keep producing young growth palatable for livestock. Coppicing is practiced in much of Africa, Asia and elsewhere, and often is considered an enlightened agroforestry practice.

After posting the coppicing piece, I began noticing that most Maya farmers were burning their fields before the waist-tall, cut stems could produce sprouts. This killed the stems, making coppicing impossible.

Now I realize that the local Maya are not coppicing at all. They leave those Wild Tamarind stems cut off at waist height just because it's easiest to do so with a chainsaw. Even the farmers I saw cutting fresh growth didn't collect the cut stems and feed them to their livestock but rather let them lie on the ground, where they dried up and were burned later along with all other cut-down trees and bushes. I suppose the thinking is that Wild Tamarind is so ubiquitous along roadsides, that if a farmer wants livestock feed from the tree, it's easiest to stand on the road's pavement and with a machete hack and bundle what they want.

Coppicing is still an important practice. On wasteland or semi-desert land, when sprout-producing trees like Wild Tamarind are planted, not only is the soil stabilized and enriched, but the cut trunks' sprouts make great animal fodder.

It's just that the local Maya don't do it.

*****

APHELANDRA'S BRILLIANT FLOWERS
Every season has its special flowering plants and every flowering plant has a special season when it's prettiest. Nowadays, alongside roads and trails through the woods, you often see the very handsome, head-high bush shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001ap.jpg

A close-up of an open corolla's "mouth" is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001as.jpg

Notice that the corolla's top lip juts straight out, that the pollen-receiving stigma extends just a tiny bit beyond that lip, and that four stamens with red anthers are held close against the lip. Such a strongly 2-lipped, or bilaterally symmetrical, corolla narrows down quite a bit the number of plant families we might have here. The possibilities are narrowed down even more by what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001aq.jpg

In the bottom half of that picture you see where pollinated flowers have dropped their corollas, leaving curling styles, and below where the corollas were are honey-colored, hairy, sharp-pointed bracts, or modified leaves. A conspicuous bract subtends every flower. When you see such bracts, especially in conjunction with such persistent styles, you need to think Acanthus Family, the Acanthaceae.

This pretty plant is APHELANDRA SCABRA, found from southern Mexico through Central America to northern South America. In Spanish it's often called Cola de Gallo, or Rooster Tail.

One interesting feature of the flowers is that they bear nectar-producing lands. The glands are a little hard to make out in a picture, but most flowering heads bear ants supping nectar from the glands, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001ar.jpg

*****

ECHEANDIA FLOWERING
Another wildflower flowering nowadays, especially along forest trails, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001ec.jpg

Note the lily-like rosette of leaves at the base, and the large head of widely spaced flowers reaching out over the trail, seeking light. Up close, a flower reveals a particularly elegant design, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001ee.jpg

Notice how the stamens' yellow anthers are fused with one another along their sides, forming a cylinder held aloft on five pale, somewhat flattened filaments. The filament bases are narrowed so that an open space forms between them, and you can see through those spaces the green, spherical ovary in the flower's center. Notice how the pale style extends its pollen-collecting stigma beyond the yellow anthers. This is really a graceful blossom.

The plant is ECHEANDIA LUTEOLA, in the Agave Family, the Agavaceae. It has no good English or Spanish name. It's endemic just to the Yucatan Peninsula, probably including Belize and northern Guatemala, so if you want to see it, you just have to come here.

*****

EATING AIR POTATOES
At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/air-pot.htm we look at a cultivated yam from tropical Asia that thrives at the rancho. On that page you can see that the peculiar feature about the vine is that it produces potato-like "bulbils" along its twining stem, not in the ground like most other members of the Yam Family.

Last year our vines' aerial potatoes weren't so impressive, because they hadn't been taken care of. This year I planted last year's small bulbils in soil into which I'd mixed composted manure, and I watered the vines regularly.

Now the vines are 20ft long (6m), still growing fast, and already producing angular, aerial bulbils much larger than the ones photographed last year. One of this year's air potatoes is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001ym.jpg

This bulbil was harder than a regular potato -- so hard I wondered whether it would be edible after a fair boiling. To encourage the softening process I cut the bulbil into sections about finger thick, before boiling them in water for about 20 minutes.

The pieces turned out as soft as a well boiled potato. However, it didn't taste like a potato, or anything else; it was basically tasteless carbohydrate, but its "empty calories" were filling. The Maya workers here say they like to eat it with honey, or salt. The salt is understood to be mixed with dried hot chili pepper. A Northerner probably would like it with butter or yogurt.

In terms of gardening, the vines take up a lot of space to produce a fairly modest crop of air potatoes. If you have a place at the edge of the garden where the vines can climb high into trees or run along or cross the fence and scramble among bushes, that might work. Otherwise, I think of Air Potato vines as mainly a novelty. Other crops produce a lot more food while taking up less space.

*****

GROWING PURSLANE UPDATE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/purslane.htm we meet Wild Purslane, which is a succulent, abundant, edible weed possessed with remarkable levels of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Growing Purslane is very easy most of the year, though during the hotter months, beginning around March, the plants get "leggy" -- more tough stems than crunchy leaves and stem tips.

Now I can add that when the rainy season began in May I thought that lush beds of Purslane might be possible again, but when I went looking for wild plants to transplant into my beds, I couldn't find any. In the old Purslane beds where I knew the soil to be occupied with untold thousands of viable Purslane seeds, none were coming up.

Now as October begins, though it's even rainier now than in May, small Purslane seedlings are starting to emerge, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001pt.jpg

To me it's a mystery why so many seeds, both of local plants and those brought from the North, may germinate prolifically most of the year, but refuse to do so from about June until October. Even Cilantro, or Coriander, which is one of the easiest of plants to germinate under many conditions, at that time just doesn't come up for me. I'm guessing that during the early rainy season pathogenic microbes undergo a population explosion and overwhelm most young plants, but by October -- though it's rainier than ever -- the soil ecosystem has had time to reach an equilibrium at which pathogens are equally matched by organisms favoring plant growth. That's just a guess.

Whatever the case, it's a pleasure to see the brave new crop of Purslanes volunteering in my garden, and I'm looking forward to scrambling them along with onions, chili and tomatoes into my eggs.

*****

USING ROOTING HORMONE
A while back, at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/basella.htm I described how I'd caused cut-off sections of Climbing Spinach stems to produce roots for transplanting, and I mentioned that it might be easier if we had root-grow powder. Newsletter reader Elvira here in the Yucatan wrote to ask if she could have some Climbing Spinach starters, she visited, and generously provided me with the container of rooting hormone, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001rh.jpg

To use it, you just daub a freshly cut stem into the powder, shake off the excess, and plant the stem. To cut down on stress by having water transpire from the planted stem's large leaves, I break them off before planting the stem. In doing so, I make sure that the buds from which new leaves and branches will arise are not damaged. You can see what my ready-to-plant stem with white root-grow powder on its bottom looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001ri.jpg

This and several stems like it were planted in loose, moist soil, taking care to not knock off the powder. The soil was kept moist, and now a week later new leaves and stems are arising from what look like fine future Climbing Spinach plants.

The compound causing rooting to take place is indole-3-butyric acid, a synthetic crystalline solid with the molecular formula of C12H13NO2. It's not well understood why the compound causes roots to form. Wikipedia's page describing what's known about it is at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indole-3-butyric_acid.

*****

CLIMBING SPINACH UPDATE

You can see Climbing Spinach plants rooted about three weeks ago -- not using root-grow hormone -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/171001sp.jpg

*****

SPACESHIP ME
Not only does Spaceship Earth majestically and mysteriously sail through space and time toward an unknown destination but also I am a spaceship doing the same.

I needed seventy years to realize that I am a spaceship. As a child I felt as if I were bound with a thousand umbilicus cords that not only nurtured but also engorged me, by their own agendas. Coddled as an only child, already by First Grade I was so fat, lazy and out of shape that doctors put me on diets, but I just got fatter and softer, weighing ±340 pounds (154kg) when I left the farm for college. I felt bad physically and was depressed and ashamed of my body, but couldn't seem to change how things were going.

In about the third year of working toward a degree in Biology, for the first time certain elementary biological facts began making belated impressions on me. Probably in high school I'd learned that we breathe air in order to take in oxygen, which is necessary for deriving energy from the oxidation of complex organic substances we eat, but only now, in a vivid flash of insight, did I truly grasp the implications.

It meant that I as a human was constructed along the same lines as a machine. All these biochemical reactions kicking into gear when I breathe and eat can as well take place in test tubes as in the gut and circulating blood. Veins are plumbing; bones constitute a chassis; the heart is a pump; kidneys are filters... on and on...

This realization was like a sword that violently cut me free from all my umbilicuses.

For, if I was an awareness residing inside a machine, then I alone was responsible for my machine's maintenance and mission. This concept co-evolved with my attitude toward the old car I was driving. By my last semester as an undergraduate I owned not only How to Keep your Volkswagen running, for the Complete Idiot, but also my weight had been reduced to what it should have been for my height. I'm sure this metamorphose saved my life, if not from an early heart attack, then from suicide.

Years later, when home computers came along programmed with code just like human-forming information is encoded in our genes, it further became clear that I was an awareness mysteriously residing within the electro-physical circuity of my body-vessel's onboard brain/computer.

Now, at age 70, like a good mechanic with his oil can, toolbox and manual of engine specifications, I monitor my body's performance and keep it running smoothly. I choose the course my vessel takes, and though it could as well have been a car or a boat, I declare that my vessel is a spaceship, a spaceship voyaging on missions its captain chooses. And here's Spaceship Me's mission:

To explore and experience Spaceship Earth as alertly as I possibly can, leaving the least possible negative impact behind me. And to conduct these wanderings in a way that feels harmonious with what seems to be the flow of the rest of the Universe.

*****

TRAVELING
I need to travel awhile. You'll learn about it later. I may or may not have to skip a week or two.

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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