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

July 13, 2014

CHIMNEY BEE
The screened-in veranda of the house I was painting had its doors off, so insects flew in, then for hours bumped against the screens trying to get out. Mostly it was moths but also some bees, who often turned up dead at the screens' bases, apparently having run out energy. One bee was still alive, however, and when I looked closely I realized the body was too short and stubby for a regular honeybee of Eurasian in origen. Also, pollen on the back leg was carried differently from how honeybees do it. This was a native American bee, which you can see on a rag used to clean up red paint I'd made a mess with at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713be.jpg.

A shot from above is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713bg.jpg.

A close-up emphasizing the short antenna and mottled eyes surrounded by dense hairiness is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713bf.jpg.

And a close-up showing how pollen is carried on the back leg is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713bh.jpg.

With help from Dr. John Ascher, an entomologist at  the National University of Singapore and Associate with the American Museum of Natural History, corresponding via BugGuide.Net, our bee has been identified as a member of the genus ANTHOPHORA, known as Chimney or Miner Bees. In our part of the country the most commons Anthophora species by far seems to Anthophora abrupta, so I'm guessing that that's what we have, though I can't be sure.

A webpage on Anthophora abrupta provided by North Carolina State University says that they are solitary bees that do not collect honey and do not sting, though they could bite if handled roughly. They are garden pollinators and serve an increasingly important role as honey bee populations decline.

The bees nest in colonies of separate tunnels excavated in hard clay. Females construct the nest, softening the hard with regurgitated water and removing clay particles with their mandibles.

The illustrated North Carolina web page with much information on the bee's life history is at http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/ent/notes/Other/note114/note114.html

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WESTERN SPOTTED ORBWEAVER VARIATIONS
Soon after arriving here in September, 2012, we looked at the very pretty Western Spotted Orbweaver spider, still presented at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/neoscona.htm.

I had trouble identifying that individual and needed help from BugGuide.Net. My problem had been that the Western Spotted Orbweaver is a very variable-looking species. In fact, this week I came upon the same species looking very different. Before examening it closely, though, it's worth admiring how nicely this week's spider was camouflaged in a dead flowering head of a tuft of last season's Sawgrass, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713sp.jpg.

Even close up the hunkering spider could be overlooked, as you can see in a view from its side at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713sq.jpg.

However, once the little critter has been spooked from its shelter and we have a view of the body's top, you see the abdomen's amazing arabesques, which are very different from abdomen designs of our first spider, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713sr.jpg.

On the Internet there's plenty of talk about whether these extreme variations represent different races, or ages, or what. All I'm sure of is that the variations can occur in the same general locality.

*****

SPOTTED BEET WEBWORM MOTH
A moth was found in the veranda of the Red Cabin in the valley, banging against the screen wire trying to get out. It was a small one (wingspan 20mm, 15/18ths inch), shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713mo.jpg.

With such bold markings, volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario wasn't long in pegging it as the Spotted Beet Webworm Moth, HYMENIA PERSPECTALIS, found from Maine to Florida, and Iowa to Texas. Its larvae feed on beets, chard, potatoes, amaranth, and various greenhouse plants.

Bea had the ID confirmed by experts at the ButterfliesandMoths.Org website, and when that happens a dot is placed on a map showing where the species has been identified. Often our IDs turn out to be at an extreme boundary of the species' distribution area. As of now, our spotting is the westernmost one represented at the ButterfliesandMoths.Org website, as you can see on the map down the page at http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Hymenia-perspectalis.

It's gratifying when our sightings and IDs help fill in gaps in what's known about these species.

*****

PINK MIMOSA FRUITING
At about belly height, leaning from a bushy fencerow in Cooks Slough Nature Park on the south side of Uvalde, down on the Coastal Plain, some unusual fruit pods caught my attention because of their paleness against a dark green background of leaves, and because they were shaped so unusually, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713mm.jpg.

These being flattish bean pods, and the compound leaves consisting of small leaflets, I figured we had a member of the Mimosa Tribe of the big Bean Family. Notice how the pods dangle in clusters. The really unusual feature, though, is how few beans were contained in each pod -- only two or three per pods -- and how deep are the sinuses between the bean-bearing segments. The temperature was in the mid 90s and I was blinded by sweat and cataracts, so I managed to photograph an apparently drought-stunted leaf not displaying the neat symmetry such twice-compound leaves should. Still, it displays the leaflets' shape and venation as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713mn.jpg.

With such unusual but well formed pods, or legumes, the bush or small tree revealed itself as one of several woody species going by the name of Pink Mimosa, because of its pink flowers. It's MIMOSA BOREALIS, which we've already profiled when it was prettily in flower, in April, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/mimosa-b.htm.

Maybe because Mimosa borealis isn't often encountered, some websites confuse it with other species. However, the University of Texas provides a special page comparing Mimosa borealis to closely related species. That page is at http://www.biosci.utexas.edu/prc/digflora/mimosa/mimosa-dif.html.

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SUNFLOWERS GALORE
Much less among the limestone hills of the upper Dry Frio Valley than down on the Coastal Plain where Uvalde sits, nowadays Common Sunflowers, HELIANTHUS ANNUUS, are abundant. They're up against fences where roadside mowers miss them, sometimes turning whole abandoned fields yellow with their pretty heads, and in town they grace almost every spot where people have for awhile held off with the mowing and herbicides. You can see a handsome community about shoulder high next to a garbage bin behind a shopping center in Uvalde at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713hl.jpg.

Of North America's 52 sunflower species -- sunflowers being species of the genus Helianthus -- maybe half a dozen might turn up in Uvalde Count. Our Common Sunflower is tremendously variable in appearance, so how do we distinguish it from other species?

Common Sunflower leaves normally consist of blades that are broad at the bottom but narrowing to a point, and the blades arise from a well formed petiole, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713ho.jpg.

The pictures shows that both the stem and petioles bear stiff, straight hairs -- they're "hirsute." Another field mark is that the eye of the flower head is not yellow as in some sunflower species, but dark, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713hp.jpg.

In that picture, the yellow "petals" are flat corollas of "ray flowers" while the dark eye consists of many closely packed "disc flowers" whose corollas, at least toward their tops, are purplish. A broken-open head showing this, as well as how the disc flowers suddenly inflate bladder-like at their bases, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713hn.jpg.

In that picture, the wedge-shaped, shiny, white object below the fully exposed disc flower at the right is the future cypsela-type fruit. It will mature into the item we think of as the sunflower seed, despite its being a one-seeded fruit.

The scaly, green "involucre" cupping the flowering head below consists of broad scales, or "phyllaries," that narrow suddenly to sharp slender tips. Notice that the phyllaries bear short, white hairs, or "cilia," along their edges, for many sunflower phyllaries lack such cilia. You can see the phyllaries at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713hm.jpg.

To practice using how these field marks distinguish Common Sunflowers from other sunflower species in our area, you might enjoy comparing our Common Sunflower with the Maximilian Sunflower we profiled earlier, found at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/maxi-sun.htm.

One last picture of our Common Sunflower shows its mature fruit in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713hq.jpg.

Compare the fruits' sizes to the width of my finger above them. It's hard to believe that from such tiny grains occurring in wild Common Sunflowers, human selective breeding has brought fourth the "sunflower seeds" in our bird feeders and in the grocery store. But, as the Flora of North America says of the Common Sunflower, "It is the only native North American species to become a major agronomic crop." Corn, or Maize, arose in Mexico.

Wild, native Common Sunflower occurs all across North America and through most of Mexico, plus it's been introduced into many countries nearly worldwide.

*****

FOGFRUIT
Fogfruit "weeds" are abundant along roads and other disturbed areas in the upper Dry Frio River Valley. You can see the species common there at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/fogfruit.htm.

On low, frequently walked-upon levees between ponds in Cooks Slough Nature Park on the south side of Uvalde, fogfruits also are abundant, forming dense, green carpets that nowadays are pretty with whitish flowering heads. However, these levee fogfruits somehow struck me as different from those in the Dry Frio Valley. You can see the levee ones to compare with those of the Dry Frio Valley at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713ff.jpg.

I can't see much difference between flowers of the two species. Flowers of this week's levee species are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713fg.jpg.

One interesting feature of fogfruit flowers is that when the blossoms are ready to be pollinated their centers are yellow but once the flowers are pollinated the centers turn reddish. That's because the spectrum of colors visible to insects is a little higher in frequency than what humans see. The lowest frequency of color we see, red, is invisible to insects. Therefore, when fogfruit's flower center turns red, it becomes darker and less attractive to insects, who then pay more attention to the yellow-centered flowers needing their pollination services.

Though the flowers aren't much different between the two species, the leaves are. The levee species leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713fh.jpg.

The levee species' leaves are broadest at their outer ends, instead of at or below their middles. Also, the levee species' leaves have margin teeth restricted to their outer end, while leaves of fogfruit in the Upper Dry Frio Valley have teeth below their middles.

Our levee species is PHYLA NODIFLORA, in the US commonly occurring from coast to coast in the southern half of the country, plus it often grows weedily in nearly all the rest of the warmer countries of the world.

We have two common fogfruit species in our area, and two more might possibly turn up. Phyla nodiflora is separated from all of them by having this combination of features: The shape of its leaves is broadest and toothed only at the blade's outer half, and; the flower heads are held on stems, or peduncles, two or more times longer than the leaves below them.

This name "fogfruit" is a bit clumsy to use. For one thing, the terms fogfruit and frogfruit are almost equally recognized, and both names are a little silly since the plants' fruits have nothing to do with either fog or frogs. The name "fogfruit" is said to have appeared in print some years before "frogfruit" so I use that here. Phyla nodiflora also is known as Turkey Tangle Frogfruit, Sawtooth Fogfruit, Frogsbit, Licorice Verbena, Capeweed, Creeping Lip Plant, and many other names. But this is one case in which technical binomial names don't instantly save us, for even specialists can't agree on one name, some calling it Phyla nodiflora while others use Lippia nodiflora.

Happily, this pretty little plant doesn't need a name humans are content with to do its ecological service of providing nectar to pollinators, forage for certain grazers, and creating a pretty carpet that keeps down soil erosion in places where the soil has been disturbed.

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INSIGHTS INTO FLAMING KATY
Back in the Yucatan one of the favorite ornamental plants in tourist areas was a red-flowered, succulent or fleshy-leaved plant generally known in books as Flaming Katy. It's Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, and it's shown gracing a large pot on the Hacienda Chichén grounds at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100124kh.jpg.

Scarlet blossoms atop tallish peduncles held well above the plant's thick, oval leaves is what I have fixed in my head that a Flaming Katy looks like. Therefore, I wasn't sure whether a similar but much shorter and more compact plant on my neighbor Phred's porch also was a Flaming Katy. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713kh.jpg.

A broken apart flower showing a cluster of green pistils inside the blossom instead of the single pistil found in most similar flowers is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140713ki.jpg.

To figure out if Phred's short plant was the same as the Hacienda's tall ones, I had to "do the botany."

So, whenever you have a plant with succulent leaves and four or five pistils in a flower, just think "Stonecrop Family, Crassulaceae," because those are easy-to-see field marks of that family, and of course Flaming Katy belongs to it.

Within the Stonecrop Family several genera produce important garden plants, especially in dry areas. In that family, if you have a plant whose flowers bear twice as many stamens as petals, the petals unite at their bases to form corolla tubes, and the corolla bears four (not five) petals or lobes, then you have the genus Kalanchoe. In our flower picture we have four stamens and two corolla lobes, but we're looking at only half of a corolla. Thus the flower's eight stamens and yellow corolla tube definitely make it a Kalanchoe. Both Phred's porch plant and the plants in the Yucatan meet those criteria, so we know they're both members of Kalanchoe.

Within the genus Kalanchoe, about half of the several species seen in cultivation have inflated calyxes, a little like balloons surrounding the pistils. Our plants' calyxes aren't balloon-like -- and neither where they on flowers of Yucatan plants -- so we cut down on the possibilities right there. At this point in the identification process, if the flowers are red instead of white yellow or reddish-orange, and if they're no wider than half an inch across, then we have the Flaming Katy. And both Phred's plant and those at the Hacienda satisfy that description. Therefore, despite the big difference in how they flowers are disposed, they're the same plant,  KALANCHOE BLOSSFELDIANA, a native of Madagascar. 

Looking into why Phred's plants are so short and compact while the Hacienda's were tall and open, I find that during the history of Flaming Katy breeding, a lot of effort has gone into creating short, compact plants like Phred's. I'm guessing that the Hacienda's plants are from stock introduced into the area long before many of the newer cultivars were developed.

Plant providers hustle to keep their Flaming Katy's short and compact. Auburn University produces a webpage with detailed information on how to accomplish this at http://www.ag.auburn.edu/hort/landscape/Kalanchoe.htm.

The main way to guarantee that plants stay short and compact is to buy from specialists propagators known to have short, compact stock. Since the plants' leaves grow closer at branch tips, sometimes these tips are snipped off, rooted and sold in pots. Pinching of stem tips can make plants grow denser. And many greenhouse operators who sell to the public use chemical growth retardants, especially one called B-Nine, to keep potted plants short and dense.

Poor Flaming Katy. I'm glad the ones in the Yucatan are allowed to grow as they want.

******

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Morning-glory Morning" from the November 20, 2011 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/111120.htm

"Biodiversity Important for Health & Sanity" from the May 26, 2007 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/070526.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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