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

June 29, 2014

A WASPY FLY
In a shadowy grove of Texas Liveoaks on the Dry Frio floodplain, a knee-high herb that looked like it might eventually issue daisy-type flowers had a large, black wasp on it. With a bright, reddish warning spot on its wings the wasp rushed about on and beneath leaves, and up and down the stem, exactly as a wasp should when searching for spiders or caterpillars to sting and paralyze, to carry back to a freshly constructed nest to be sealed inside an egg chamber. When a wasp egg hatches next to such immobilized prey, the larva eats it as it develops toward its pupal stage.

It was so dark in the grove that I had to use a slow shutter speed on the camera, and the wasp was moving so fast, that I was sure my pictures were all turning out with the wasp appearing as no more than a blur. I tried an old trick, coaxing the insect onto my hand. Some insects find that so disorienting that they stay still long enough for a good shot. Maybe that's the reason I was able to get the fairly decent picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629my.jpg.

But, something was wrong here. Wasps bear two pairs of wings but on this insect only one pair was apparent. Also, that's a funny head shape for a wasp. Finally the critter sat down and I turned him so as to better see the face, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629mz.jpg.

Wasp mouthparts are designed for chewing, but the mouth on this insect looks like a flat sponge at the end of short stem -- exactly what a fly has, and flies possess only one pair of wings. So what we have is a fly doing a good job mimicking a wasp. Maybe the reason this fly reacted to my nudging by "sitting down" was that when a wasp dips its rear end onto an animal bothering it, normally it's to sting in self defense. I'll bet that in the above picture the fly is mimicking not only a wasp, but a stinging wasp.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario quickly figured out that we a kind Mydas Fly, MYDAS XANTHOPTERUS. Members of the genus Mydas occur worldwide, but most commonly turn up in arid environments. Ours -- Mydas xanthopterus -- is distributed throughout the US southwestern states and adjacent northern Mexico. Among entomologists, mydas flies are a little famous because the largest of all flies is a kind of mydas fly.

I read that mydas flies are infrequently encountered because the adults don't live long. In fact, little is known about their life histories, though larvae of some species are thought to be subterranean predators of ants.

*****

BULIA MOTH
A triangular, boldly patterned moth had settled into a corner of the screened-in veranda of the house I was painting in the valley, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629bu.jpg.

Usually it's hard to see wing undersides of moths holding their wings as flat as this one was but after posing for the above picture our moth abruptly fluttered to another part of the screen, this time angling his wings into a shallow V above his abdomen, and I was able to see that the lower wing surfaces were nothing like the upper, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629bv.jpg.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario pegged this one as a Bulia Moth, genus Bulia, either the species Bulia deducta or Bulia similaris. She didn't feel bad about being unsure which species we had because she also found reference to a 2002 paper by Pogue & Laughlin in which it's stated that these two species, Bulia deducta and similaris, are outwardly indistinguishable and can only be separated by their genitalia and geographic distribution. Both species occur in our area, and I'm not about to cut open our moth looking for genitalia.

Bulia deducta seems to be the best known species. It occurs from central Mexico north to central California, Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska, east to Arkansas and Alabama. Its caterpillar stage feeds on Mesquite trees, which explains why the species isn't found in most of the US southeastern states, since Mesquites don't naturally occur there. The adults sometimes wander northward beyond the Mesquite's range, which explains their presence in Nebraska, were Mesquites don't occur.

Bulia Moths belong to the Owlet Moth Family, the Noctuidae, and generally fly at night, when they are almost invariably attracted to light.

*****

DWARF CICADA
The next morning, in the same veranda corner where the Bulia Moth had been, the smallest cicada I've ever seen was placidly resting on the screen wire. You can see how small it was compared to my finger at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629cd.jpg.

A closer shot showing wing venation and other features to help in identification is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629cc.jpg.

An even closer look at the head is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629cb.jpg.

My experience is that it's very hard to identify cicadas, unless you have a dissecting scope and are willing to dissect them. We have the scope but not the willingness to dissect them. Nearly fifty cicada species are listed for Texas. You can review a list of them, with some names linked to their calls and their BugGuide.Net page at http://www.texasento.net/Cicada_TX.htm.

As I was giving up trying to identify our tiny cicada I noticed that the above page was compiled by Mike Quinn, a freelance etymologist, so I shipped our pictures to him. He bounced them to Valerie Bugh (one wonders at "Bugh"), a collector in Austin and a producer of a bug-oriented website as idiosyncratic as mine and fun to browse, at http://www.austinbug.com.

Despite being unable to do the dissecting -- not that she'd want to -- she wrote, "It looks quite similar to our tiny species here in Austin, and there is a good chance it is the same: Pacarina puella. Not only 1/2 the size of other cicadas, but often the first to emerge each year."

So, that's great. Sometimes PACARINA PUELLA is called the Little Mesquite Cicada, and we have our Mesquites. In the US the species occurs where there are Mesquites -- Arizona to Oklahoma and Louisiana, but this cicada is mostly found in Mexico, where it's found in arid, presumably Mesquite inhabited, scrub-forest zones throughout, and south into Central America.

"A little cicada with a big head," someone said about it.

*****

MESQUITE LEGUMES
Speaking of Mesquites, when we last looked at our local Mesquite trees they were flowering but not fruiting. Our Mesquite page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/mesquite.htm.

Nowadays handsome fruits dangle from our Mesquites, and since Mesquites belong to the big Bean Family, the fruits are legumes, and the seeds inside the legumes are beans. You can see some green-bean-like legumes at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629me.jpg.

Later the legume will ripen into a light tan or brown pod, and in the old days that pod was eaten. The seeds, or beans, become hard when dry but the whole pod -- skin, beans, and material between the beans -- is edible when ground into meal from which biscuits or pancake-like affairs can be made. Remains of Mesquite fruits and beans have been excavated in many archaeological sites. An excellent page on gathering and preparing Mesquite fruits for consumption can be accessed here

The soft matter around the hard seeds -- the seed mesocarp -- contains about 32% sugars and 7% protein. When seeds are included in the grinding, the flour can contain 29-39% protein. But those hard, small seeds are hard to process and are themselves indigestible.

In fact, among folks of the raw food/vegan community, Mesquite flour sometimes is hyped as a "superfood." You can see how it's presented on a commercial webpage selling it for $9.95 per 16-oz. bag here.

*****

SWALLOW-WORT
A dense vine entangled with weeds along the road bore slender, narrow leaves a little less than an inch long, two per stem node, and clusters of mouse-eye-sized white flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629mt.jpg.

The glossy leaves were white-splotched where the vine's milky latex had dripped from wounds. The milky latex and the opposite leaves, quickly direct us to the big Dogbane Family, the Apocynaceae, a mostly tropical family embracing many wonderful ornamentals, plus many temperate species that used to belong to the Milkweed Family before it was sunk into the Dogbane Family. You can see the distinctive flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629ms.jpg.

An even closer look showing how the corolla lobes twist like starfish arms, and are very fuzzy with soft hairs, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629mr.jpg.

We've seen very similar vines like this before, though not with flowers whose corolla lobes were so fuzzy. This little vine is usually listed in books as the Bearded Swallow-wort, or sometimes as the Thicket Threadvine. It's CYNANCHUM BARBIGERUM, native only to southern and central Texas, and across the Rio Grande in adjacent northeastern Mexico.

You might enjoy comparing this with another swallow-wort vine we've found here, the MacCart's Swallow-wort, with similar leaves but with corolla lobes not hairy like this one's, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/swalwort.htm.

*****

JELLY LICHEN
This February when the lack of insects and flowering plants set me to looking at the area's lichens and mosses, I came upon an eye-catching colony of Common Thelia Moss forming a green patch on a liveoak trunk leaning across a shaded arroyo, or usually dry stream. At that time I wondered why such a healthy looking moss population might colonize that particular tree trunk but not others in the area. You an see the patch of Thelia Moss as it appeared in February at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/thelia.htm.

This week I visited the same patch of moss. It was still thriving but now amidst its branching, bark-hugging stems a blackish, warty-looking mass had established itself. My first impression was that the moss colony had developed a disease. You can see the situation at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629je.jpg.

A close-up of a transition zone between green moss stems and "black blight" is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629jf.jpg.

That picture shows that the "blight" begins as a kind of wrinkled jelly that gives way to somewhat flattened little brown balls, and that the balls have some kind of rim surrounding their flattish heads. The balls look like some kind of very tiny, earthball-like mushroom.

The balls' color and the gelatinous nature of other parts of the "blight" inspired me to begin the identification process by searching on the Internet for species of cyanobacteria that might cohabit with mosses. Cyanobacteria came to mind because commonly seen on undisturbed soil around here is a form of gelatinous cyanobacterium sometimes called Witches Butter -- genus Nostoc -- which we've profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/nostoc.htm.

Doing an image search on the keywords "cyanobacterium mosses," soon an image turned up from a website in England showing almost the same thing as our pictures do. It identified the gelatinous "blight" as the genus Collema, the species of which are commonly known as jelly lichens, of the lichen family Collemataceae.

Keeping in mind that lichens are composite organisms composed of photosynthesizing algal and/or cyanobacteria cells enmeshed in fungal hyphae, and that lichen technical names, or binomials, are based on the fungal species, Collema is the name of the fungus in which the photosynthesizing cells are enmeshed. Moreover, the literature tells us that the fungus Collema forms lichens with the cyanobacteria called Nostoc. It's not the same Nostoc species as our Witches Butter but another one.

Learning that the jelly-like part of the lichen is provided by a Nostoc species, I recalled that we have microscopic views of our Witches Butter species, shown on our Nostoc page. Therefore, now I put some of our "blight" jelly below our microscope, and you can see greenish, spherical cells suspended in that gelatinous material at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629jg.jpg.

Some beads of what I assume to be photosynthetic Nostoc cells teased from their jelly matrix are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629jh.jpg.

Just by matching pictures, it looks like to me that our "blight" is the jelly lichen COLLEMA POLYCARPON, known to be found in our area and to often be associated with mosses. However, literature states that it grows on rock, while ours was on a tree. I'm unsure what the deal is, but I'm filing this page on the Internet under the name Collema polycarpon in the hope that someday an expert will clarify the situation.

Meanwhile I am just basking in having discovered a whole new form of life, that of the "jelly lichen." Moreover, I'm happy to know that your blackish jelly wasn't a blight, but rather the cyanobacterium Nostoc, which is known not only to supply photosynthesized food to its fungal partner, but also it fixes nitrogen, which well may explain why last February our tree-trunk colony of Common Thelia Moss was doing so well in such a seemingly exposed habitat.

*****

ANALYSIS OF A MUSHROOM
After long months of no rain, I'd thought that our Memorial Day cloudburst would usher forth a plentitude of mushrooms, but to my amazement they never emerged, except for some small, ephemeral inky-caps of which we've seen a lot. This week, however, clusters of small but handsome ones, with caps about the size of my thumbnail, turned up in a raised bed where I'm growing onions and beets. The bed has a thin layer of dirt atop a healthy stratum of cow manure deposited there about six months ago. I assume that the mushroom was there because of the cow manure, for the soil itself had little organic matter. You can see a cluster of the small mushrooms at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629co.jpg.

This colony hadn't been there the day before. You can see that the caps rose from the soil so fast and concurrently that fragments of soil crust remain atop the caps. Evidence that the mushrooms would fade as quickly as they appeared was nearby where several caps of the same species, and which also hadn't been there the day before, already were turning pale and showing signs of early decay, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629cp.jpg.

I've had problems identifying such small, delicate, brown-capped mushrooms before, so I knew to note all the field marks I could while the species was fresh at hand. You can see a cap's gills at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629cq.jpg.

An important feature to notice is that the gills don't descend the stem, but rather are attached to it so narrowly that at first they don't seem attached at all. This detail turned out later to be of importance. One of the most important field marks, however, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629cr.jpg.

Many of our most common small, fragile, brown-capped mushrooms produce white spores, but this species surprised me with its dark brown ones, so clearly evidenced in the "spore print" made by leaving a spore-producing cap on a piece of paper for about three hours.

Seeing the brown spores was a bit exciting, because certain small, brown-spored mushrooms growing on livestock dung are among the most coveted by those who eat psychotropic mushrooms, such as several species of the genus Psilocybe. I don't eat them, but I'd like to find them.

In fact, as I began the identification process, I was more and more convinced that this was Psilocybe caerulescens, one of the most potently hallucinogenic of all mushrooms. The literature makes clear, however, that there's a whole swarm of species of little brown-capped, brown-spored mushroom species with which Psilocybe caerulescens can be confused.

Several very active online mushroom fora are open to the public, providing message boards where members can upload photos to be identified by others with more experience. Most members of such fora want to talk about eating and growing "magic mushrooms," but some real mushroom experts also monitor what's being uploaded. I uploaded our pictures to the Shroomery.Org website, asking if I really had Psilocybe caerulescens, and twenty minutes later a note appeared from "MidnightCity" saying that it wasn't. Rather, it was a species of the small genus Conocybe. No reasons for the opinion were given but at least now we had another name to work with.

Details distinguishing Conocybe from Psilocybe are largely microscopic, so out came the microscope. You can see our mushrooms' spore shape at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629cs.jpg.

Conocybe spores are fairly similar to Psilocybe ones but according to images on the Internet these look more like Conocybe than Psilocybe -- they're more rounded and less pointy than Psiolocybe spores.

Reading more, I learn of a new microscopic feature to look for -- that of the shape of cells forming the cap's cuticle. Psilocybe cuticle cells are filamentous -- like more or less parallel fibers of squashed cigarette filters -- while Conocybe cells are "composed of inflated round cells resembling cobblestones," as the Shroomery.Org website says. My picture of our mushroom's cap cells is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629ct.jpg.

Despite the image's fuzziness we can make out that the cells are more like cobblestones than fibers in cigarette filters. At this point I begin thinking that "MidnightCity" knew what he or she was talking about. Without saying which Conocybe species we might have, "MidnightCity" had suggested comparing our mushroom with Conocybe tenera, which by far is the most widely distributed and commonly encountered species, so maybe we have that one. Some pictures of Conocybe tenera match ours. However, the genus is poorly understood so I'm just filing our observations under the genus Conocybe, and maybe later an expert can take us further.

Conocybe mushrooms often are called cone caps, dunce caps or cone heads. Some species are hallucinogenic, some are poisonous, and all are so small and ephemeral that no one bothers to eat them for food.

*****

CHARD FLOWERS Last November we looked at the pretty, red-stemmed Swiss Chard growing cozily in our greenhouse. That page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/chard.htm.

Since then I've eaten bushels of chard, but now the leaves are getting tough and bug-eaten, and some plants are "bolting" -- issuing tall, slender flowering heads which later will provide seeds I'll collect for next year -- as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629ch.jpg.

We've seen that chard plants are pretty much the same as beet plants -- they're both Beta vulgaris -- just that humans have selectively bred the species until distinct cultivars have arisen, some producing thickened roots worthy of eating, others with roots producing lots of sweet carbohydrate (sugar beets) , and others with piddling roots, but large, pretty leaves for eating, and this later kind is what chard is.

Therefore, chard flowers and beet flowers are practically the same thing. If you've sown seeds of either you might remember that the seeds are weird looking things, irregularly shaped and bristling with low, blunt knobs. What kind of flower could produce such outlandish-looking seeds?

Part of the answer is that the "seeds" we sow aren't really seeds. They're achene-type fruits, and sometimes the fruits are grown together, adding to the confusion. Maybe you've noticed that when you plant one beet or chard "seed," two plants, sometimes more, emerge. Each fruit consists of a "disk" that in the original flower surrounded the base of the ovary, plus what became of the flower's calyx. After a chard/beet flower's ovary is fertilized, the disk and calyx enlarge and harden, surrounding the seed with their odd, almost woody irregularities.

So, the flowers producing strange-looking beet and chard seeds look fairly normal, except that they do grow in tight little clusters of two or more, so that it's easy to visualize them growing together and eventually producing fused-together fruits. You can see a flower very closely growing with two others at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140629ci.jpg.

Interesting features include the five petal-like appendages being green and scoop-shaped, so that it's hard to say whether they're calyx sepals or corolla petals. They're in-between, in which case we call them tepals or perianth lobes. Note that stamens arise opposite the tepals, not alternating with them. The three curved, powdery, yellowish items in the flower's center are stigmas, which is where pollen lands and germinates. The stigmas stand atop the flattish ovary -- the future fruit -- which is partially embedded in the green, fleshy "disk" around its base. The stamens' filaments arise from this disk.

The beet/chard species, Beta vulgaris, is a member either of the Amaranth Family or the Goosefoot Family, depending on your expert. Recent gene sequencing data show that there's no clear difference in the families, so some experts sink the Goosefoot Family into the Amaranth Family, but other authorities, such as those at the Flora of North America, keep them separate, "awaiting further studies."

*****

LIVE-STREAMING OSPREY NEST IN MONTANA
Bea in Ontario sends us a link providing live streaming views of an Osprey nest with adults caring for young. It's fascinating watching and a bit addictive. It's at http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/27/Hellgate_Ospreys/.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Field Cricket Tintinnabulations" from the September 7, 2006 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/060907a.htm

"The Da Vince Code, Global Warming & Truth" from the November 1, 2009 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/091101.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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