JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the valley of the Dry Frio River on the
southern slope of the Edwards Plateau, northern
Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, USA

November 3, 2013

A FIREFLY-MIMICKING JEWELL BEETLE
A firefly-size, black beetle conspicuously occupied the center of a flattish, hubcap-size cluster of yellow Goldenbush flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103is.jpg.

Up close, the beetle turned out to be one of those wrong-headed ones, with markings at the rear causing predators to attack that end instead of the more vulnerable head end. In the following picture, notice the antennae and eyes on the drab head end at the right: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103bu.jpg.

If you're familiar with the daytime appearance of fireflies or lightning bugs, you'll recognize that this beetle is mimicking one of those. The red blotch across the beetle's rear end is very similar to such patches on the front ends of fireflies. The beetle viewed from the side shows yet another similarity with fireflies, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103bv.jpg.

The beetle's yellow side streaks imitate the yellow, flashing abdomen of a firefly.

Volunteer bug identifier Bea in Ontario quickly pegged this impersonator beetle as ACMAEODERA FLAVOMARGINATA, often listed in books as the Yellow-bordered Flower Buprestid, the term buprestid designating the beetle family to which it belongs, the Buprestidae. Some 15,000 buprestid species are commonly known as jewel beetles or metallic wood-boring beetles. Those names reflect the fact that members of this family often are spectacularly colored and frequently iridescent. They are prized by collectors, and in certain Asian countries even are used traditionally in "beetlewing jewelry."

Why should a beetle want to look like a firefly? It's because fireflies contain compounds called lucibufagins that apparently make them very bitter to potential predators. American Toads have been observed spitting out fireflies.

Our Yellow-bordered Flower Buprestid is mostly a tropical American species, found from Brazil north through Mexico, and extending into the US only in central and western Texas.

*****

INDIAN MEAL MOTH
A couple of weeks ago we looked at Rice Weevils in my stored rice. About the same time they were noticed, a jar of rye flour turned up tunneled through and through by some kind of small critter. When the jar was opened, a 3/8th-inch long (9mm), slender moth rested just below the lid, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103mo.jpg.

The moth is so tiny that it doesn't display a lot of field marks, other than its smallness, narrowness, a pale band across its otherwise dark back, and a fringe of hairs at the wings' back margin. When the jar was emptied of flour, however, another detail helpful for identification emerged, which was that apparently the moth's tunneling larvae produce silk, for, dangling on silk threads from the empty jar's walls were the untidy gobs seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103mn.jpg.

With the picture and these clues Bea in Ontario made quick work of figuring out that we had the Indian Meal Moth, PLODIA INTERPUNCTELLA. The "Indian" part of the common name doesn't refer to Indian folks, except indirectly. Back in the 1850s, New York entomologist Asa Fitch introduced the moth to his readers, and back then cornmeal was referred to as Indian meal. That name cues us to the fact that Indian Meal Moths eat much more than rye flour. Pies, cookies, cakes, breads, cereal, seeds, spices, nuts, pet food, candy bars... just about everything in a kitchen cabinet is food for the Indian Meal Moth.

So, little white caterpillars -- sometimes called waxworms, though other caterpillar types share that name -- hatch from eggs in the flour or whatever, and spin silken galleries from which they sally forth to eat. As they feed and grow, the larvae trail a silken thread which binds food, fecal pellets (poop) and cast-off skins into general messes such as those shown dangling from threads in the last photo.

Indian Meal Moths can pass through their entire life cycle in as few as 30 days, or as many as 300, mostly depending on temperature. Female moths lay between 60 and 400 not-sticky eggs, which hatch in two to fourteen days. The larval stage lasts from two to 41 weeks, depending on temperature. Adults, as moths, are little more than ephemeral sex machines, living only a few days and not even being equipped with mouthparts enabling them to eat.

Indian Meal Moths are native to Asia but now are found in stored food products worldwide.

*****

BLACK SWALLOWTAIL CATERPILLAR UPDATE 
In our October 20th Newsletter we saw a tiny egg deposited on a Parsley plant's leaflet, apparently by a Black Swallowtail butterfly. That egg picture resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131020eg.jpg.

This week a 5/8ths-inch long (15mm), second or third instar caterpillar turned up, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103ca.jpg.

Bea in Ontario assures us that this is indeed a Black Swallowtail caterpillar, despite it being so much smaller and different looking from the more developed, much larger, plumper and whiter one we photographed earlier, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/b-s-cat.htm.

*****

GOLDENBUSH
From a rocky roadcut grew what was obviously a species of belly-high goldenrod I hadn't seen before, except that I'd never seen a goldenrod this woody. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103is.jpg.

Up close the composite-type flowering heads showed themselves as arranged in flat-topped, cyme-type clusters, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103it.jpg.

Even closer, however, something turned up that I'd never seen in a goldenrod. See if you can spot the disconcerting feature, too, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103iu.jpg.

The goldenrod species I've known had yellow, petal-like ray flowers around the margins of their flowering heads, with cylindrical disc flowers in the center, but the heads in the last picture consist only of disc flowers. Also, it's unusual how disc flowers about to open rise above the open flowers, looking almost like praying hands.

So, our plant isn't a goldenrod, but rather it's a goldenbush or goldenweed, sometimes called a Jimmyweed, genus Isocoma of the Composite or Sunflower Family. Isocoma species occur only in arid zones of the US southwestern states and Mexico.

Our roadside Goldenbush is ISOCOMA CORONOPIFOLIA, described as occupying alkaline sandy flats and shrublands in arid northeastern Mexico and adjacent southwestern Texas.

Not much literature is available on this species. It's just a pretty bush that ought to be in front of people's houses in lands where it's too dry for grassy lawns.

*****

BRICKELLBUSH #2
Back East I would have ignored as just another Bush Lespedeza or Horseweed the slender, waist-high plant leaning out over the gravel road, but I've not seen those plants here, plus, a second look disclosed that the plant arose from a woody base, while those other ones are herbaceous. You can see a couple of our roadside plants at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103bk.jpg.

Up close, the blossoms were of the eupatorium type, meaning that tiny flowers, or florets, were grouped into heads of the kind found in the Composite or Sunflower Family, and that all the florets were of the slender, cylindrical kind or "disc flowers." There were no petal-like "ray flowers" issuing around the heads' margins. You can see these eupatorium-type flowering heads at the tip of a stem, a little past their prime and with fruit-forming heads below them, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103bl.jpg.

In that picture the stiff, white hairs jutting from lower heads comprise parachute-like pappi atop the cypsela-type fruits. A mature head broken open to show the brown cypselae stacked next to one another, each cypsela crowned with a feathery pappus, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103bm.jpg.

The plant's alternating, hairless, tooth-margined leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103bn.jpg.

Once I focused on the above details it occurred to me that in our October 13 Newsletter we looked at a woody-based, slender, waist-high bush with eupatorium-like flowers very much like this. That was the Brickellbush, Brickellia cylindracea, endemic only to a few counties in central Texas. At that time we took note that about a hundred species of the genus Brickellia are recognized, living in Central America, Mexico, and the US. In the US 32 species are known, mostly in the desert Southwest. In our area, besides October's Brickellbush, two other Brickellia species are to be expected.

In fact, this turns out to be one of those two other species. Sometimes called the Gravelbar Brickellbush, it's BRICKELLIA DENTATA, in general a more robust, woodier and more compactly leafy bush than our previous Brickellbush, plus the former one lived on dry limestone hillsides, while the Flora of North America describes Gravelbar Brickellbush as living on gravel of limestone streambeds. Also, like our previous Brickellbush, in the whole world Gravelbar Brickellbush is found only in a few counties in central and western Texas. Our plants weren't on gravel in a streambed, but they were in roadside gravel in the floodplain of the Dry Frio River, and only a stone's throw from the stream itself.

*****

WHITE MISTFLOWER
The road edged up to a rocky cliff on which a much branched, shoulder high, somewhat sprawling and leggy looking shrub was loaded with clusters of white, eupatorium-type flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103ag.jpg.

Up close, the composite-type flowering heads consisted only of cylindrical disc flowers, with no petal-like ray flowers radiating from the heads' "eyes," also very eupatorium-like, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103ah.jpg.

A side view of the pretty flowers with their style arms snaking out of the white but faintly pinkish corollas is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103ai.jpg.

The shrub's opposite leaves, also looking eupatorium-like, appear at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103aj.jpg.

In the old days this pretty plant was indeed regarded as a member of the Composite or Sunflower Family's genus Eupatorium, but some years back somebody broke up that ±800-species-large, easily recognizable and worthy genus into a passel of wishy-washy genera with forgettable names like Flyriella and Hebeclinium, and our plant was kicked to one such genus.

Our rocky-cliff plant goes by several common names, including White Mistflower, White Shrub Mistflower, Shrubby Boneset and Havana Snakeroot. It's AGERATINA HAVANENSIS, and it has all those common names and others because it's so pretty and appropriate for arid-land gardens that it's sold in nurseries for that purpose. It's native to arid northern Mexico, Cuba, Hispaniola and Bermuda, and, curiously, in the US, a handful of counties in southwestern and central Texas. It's described as occupying limestone outcrops and slopes, ledges along streams, and often in oak-juniper woodlands, which is exactly where we found it.

This is a magnificent plant and I'm glad certain nurseries are providing it to the general public.

*****

OHIO BUCKEYES DROPPING
Back in May we looked at our local Ohio Buckeyes, which at that time displayed pretty pyramids of yellowish-white flowers among dark green, palmately compound leaves, still shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/obuckeye.htm.

Nowadays, despite our having had no frost so far, our area's buckeye trees are leafless. However, at the tips of some branches you see very eye-catching, spherical, splitting-open, golf-ball-size fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103ae.jpg.

In that image, notice the two brown, scaly lateral buds arising opposite one another on the twig above the fruit. If you handle a fruit, the husks easily fall away, revealing brown, shiny seeds, the buckeye fruits that as a kid I kept in my pocket to ward off rheumatism. You can see two buckeyes, the top one displaying its "buck's eye," at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103ad.jpg.

Last May I remarked that Native Americans slow-roasted, peeled and mashed buckeye fruits to get a nutritious meal for making porridge. The roasting was important because otherwise the fruit and other parts of the tree are toxic, containing saponins. Still, traditionally minute doses of the seed were used internally in the treatment of coughs and asthma, and externally as tea or ointment for arthritis and hemorrhoids.

*****

SWEET, JUICY WILD GRAPES
In steamy June we looked at our local wild grape, the Sweet Mountain Grape, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/mtngrape.htm.

Back then flowers were just beginning to form and it was hard to guess whether the grapes they'd produce would be worth eating or not. Now the grapes are ripening, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103gp.jpg.

Both leaves and fruits of this species are small, so to give you a better idea of the grapes' size, you can see some in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103gq.jpg.

I still don't know why the word "mountain" is in their name, but I can tell you that the "sweet" is there because these little grapes are deliciously sweet, with their own special, sweet-nutty flavor. Just rake a cluster through your fingers, remove bugs from the resulting crop in your hand, and eat. Of course the grapes have their share of seeds, but the seeds are so tiny and soft that I just chew them up and don't bother with spitting.

Earlier I mentioned that though our Sweet Mountain Grapes occur naturally only in a handful of counties in Texas, the species is an important one to the worldwide grape-growing industry because it's especially drought tolerant. Thus it's much used by viticulturists to impart drought resistance to hybrid and grafted stock.

*****

DRUMMOND'S OXALIS
Because of the aridness, wildflowers here tend to be less fleshy and delicate looking than many species back East. Therefore, when I spotted some especially tender looking, violet-colored flowers down in the grass, sheltered by a log lying next to it, I was tickled, and I took special satisfaction in parting the coarse grass blades to reveal the delicate little plant shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103ox.jpg.

A side view of the ¾-inch (20mm) flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103oy.jpg.

Wildflower enthusiasts and gardeners will recognize this as an oxalis, especially because a couple of popular oxalis species produce large, violet blossoms like these. In the first picture, notice that the flowers arise on slender stems, or pedicels, from among a tuft of large, trifoliate, clover-like leaves. This oxalis's leaflets are much more deeply notched than those on the better known species.

This is the Drummond's Oxalis or Drummond's Woodsorrel, OXALIS DRUMMONDII, found mostly in arid northern Mexico but extending into the US from southern Arizona and New Mexico to central Texas, where it favors sand or limestone soils of woodlands and prairies.

As with other oxalises, the Drummond's Oxalis's leaves are rich in vitamin C, and very sour to the taste, containing oxalic acid, thus making good nibblings or salad additions. However, the species grows alone or in small colonies, so it'd be a shame to eat them if you don't have to.

Drumond's Oxalis arises from a bulb. It's a good species to plant in arid-land short-grass/ wildflower-mix gardens.

*****

WINDMILL GRASS
One of the most striking features of the landscape nowadays is that ranch pastures and roadsides are dominated by a single grass species, the invasive King Ranch Bluestem. Though the grass's knee-high inflorescences make pretty waves in the wind, they're an Old-World species that the Flora of North Central Texas refers to as "A pernicious weed crowding out native species."

Still, our native grasses do prevail in places, such as in prairie patches on Juniper House's thin-soiled, limestone hill, where native Little Bluestem grows thickly. Occasionally, even along weedy, mowed and sprayed roadsides, native grasses do turn up, such as the one shown back-lighted by early morning sunlight right next to the pavement at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103cl.jpg.

The manner by which several slender spikes radiate from the tip of a long stem, or peduncle, reminds us of such common backyard weeds as Bermudagrass, Crabgrass and Goosegrass. The spikelets even grow only on the underside of each spike's ribbon-like rachis, same as with those grasses, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103cm.jpg.

However, that picture also shows us that the individual spikelets look very different from the spikelets of those invasive backyard grasses. A close-up of two of this grass's spikelets appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103cn.jpg.

Each spikelet contains one fertile, grain-producing floret and one or more smaller, sterile florets above the fertile one. The above picture shows that the scales beneath each floret -- the "lemmas" -- bear hairy "cilia" along their margins. Mature grains -- caryopsis-type fruits -- are dark, shiny and about 1.3mm long (1/16th inch), and conspicuously emerge from the widely gaping glumes, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103co.jpg.

This interesting grass is a member of the genus Chloris, whose species often are called windmill-grasses. It's CHLORIS CUCULLATA, in books known as Hooded Windmill-grass. It occurs in arid northern Mexico and extends into the US from southern Arizona to Texas and Oklahoma.

Windmill-grasses are found mostly in the world's tropics, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, though some species occasionally show up in the eastern US as invasives. In southwestern Texas we might possibly see nine or ten species. Our Hooded Windmill-grass differs from other species by its small number of flowering spikes and their shortness, by the small size of its flowers and grains, and, especially, by the shortness of the needle-like "awns" tipping the florets' lemmas. You might enjoy comparing our Chloris cucullata with the Chloris virgata we saw in the Yucatan at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/chloris.htm.

Hooded Windmill-grass is regarded as providing fair grazing for wildlife and livestock, and of course small, seed-eating birds relish its easy-to-spot grains.

*****

KEEP OUT PRIVATE
The Dry Frio Valley is great for birding and flower sniffing, but there's just one road into the valley, and not far north of Juniper House that one road ends at the gate shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131103_-.jpg.

I'm told that earlier this was a county road connecting with towns to the north, but here it's typical for such little-used thoroughfares to be abandoned by the county, then large landowners -- and most land here belongs to a few very large ranches -- stop traffic on them. Between here and Uvalde 35 miles to the south there's not a single place to get off the road and walk around, but plenty of signs forbidding you to leave the highway. We are surrounded by beautiful, interesting hills, but I can't wander from the road farther than I can spit.

But, land owners have a point: If everyday folks were allowed entry, they'd shoot the animals, cause fires and leave an ocean of trash. Even when most visitors are respectful, that's the way it works out for landowners. Moreover, some of this area's large landowners practice good conservation techniques.

I don't take sides when it comes to gates across what once were public roads. However, standing at the above gate inspired a train of thought that lead to what at first seemed a completely unrelated insight: That, after 3.8 billion years of evolution of Life on Earth, Nature finds strength and sustainability in mosaics. We see forests here, deserts there, grasslands elsewhere, oceans, lakes and the occasional icecap and savannah here and there.

Moreover, the history of biological evolution teaches that whenever any living thing or biological system grows too large it fractures into a mosaic, the parts of which often end up competing with one another for resources.

For example, European House Sparrows introduced into the US in the 1850s spread across North America, becoming abundant coast-to-coast. Already House Sparrows are fracturing into subspecies. In North America, northern birds are larger than southern ones, and birds in arid areas are paler than those in rainy parts. If allowed to continue evolving, eventually a mosaic of House-Sparrow-like species will appear, possibly competing with one another. Similarly, when humans spread across the Earth, we fractured into races and later would have separated into subspecies, then distinct species, but in recent times that evolutionary process has reversed. Now it's our intellect that evolves... evolves, and fractures into a mosaic of sometimes competing and mutually antagonistic social and belief systems.

Standing at the "We shoot all trespassers" gate, the notion forms that maybe this gate, or at least the attitude behind the sign, is part of a stress fracture in a big system that once had at its heart a thriving American Middle Class, but now that system is fracturing into a mosaic of competing and mutually antagonistic parts. Actually there are overlapping mosaics, among the easiest to distinguish being the mosaic of blood-red Red States and bluer-than-blue Blue States, and the mosaic of haves and have-nots.

The hopeful thing about all this is that the history of Life on Earth teaches that though sometimes certain patches of Nature's mosaics vanish forever, something always fills the voids, while the mosaics themselves keep evolving forward steadily, ever more diverse, ever stronger and ever more beautiful.

Problems only arise when you have an emotional or some other kind of attachment to a mosaic's patch that's disappearing as you stand there looking at it.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Mountaintop Removal, Rage & the Human Character" from the August 3, 2006 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/060803.htm  

"Sea-Garbage Spirituality" from the January 5, 2009 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/090105.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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