Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hate/Love Relationship–The Love Bug

Florida is currently experiencing the worst outbreak of Love Bugs in 50 years. The astute naturalist will recall last year’s crop was also the worst in 50 years. In fact every year seems to herald a never-before-seen airborne apocalypse of amorous insects.
For most of the year, Love Bugs (Plecia nearctica) go unnoticed in their larval form, living in the soil just under a layer of decaying vegetation. At this stage they’re quite beneficial, as they chew up the leaf litter and process it into soil.
Despite the fact that they neither sting nor bite, they are considered an absolute nuisance when the adults emerge from their pupal stage and take flight. It doesn’t help that they’re in the fly family and related to gnats and mosquitoes. For several weeks at a time one can not walk, drive or fly anywhere in the state without enduring a face or windshield barraged by slow-flying, conjoined, copulating Love Bugs. It’s as if someone shook a snow globe full of bugs. It’s disgusting.
What’s curious to those not swatting them out of their face or washing them off of their windshield is the romantic bond formed by a pair of adult Love Bugs. The larger female will seek out a swarm of males. A couple is literally formed end to end and for hours and often days the female will drag the male around shopping for a place to find nectar and lay the eggs the male has graciously been helping to produce.
My cousin asked me to explain to her son why he shouldn’t be freaked out by these affectionate insects. I relayed a story from my childhood when I had to get out of the car and open the gate at our farm. By the time I had reached the gate I was covered by hundreds of the black-bodied, orange-thoraxed flies. I screamed and carried on as if they were eating my flesh.
My story didn’t help.
If I recall correctly, that year was the worst outbreak of Love Bugs in 50 years.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Allergic Reaction to Suspense

If you’re the kind of person that has to peek under the Christmas tree before the day has arrived, go ahead and skip to the end. If you read the last page of a novel first or if you fast forward through the movie because you have to know “what is in the box!”, go ahead and skip to the end. I wouldn't want the suspense to kill you.

What is the fine specimen we have before us? It is a caterpillar entering the pupal stage before it becomes a butterfly. It has crawled up under a metal guardrail on a desolate road in the Everglades. Here it remains suspended, awaiting a transformative process that will entirely change its way of life. But which species will it become?

Brightly colored insects, reptiles and snakes are usually warning signs for predators to stay away. The caterpillars of this specie feed on passion flowers which cause them to be toxic.

While some predators ignore the warnings and suffer the consequences, others have adapted to the poison and can enjoy what most others can not. Will the fly on the bottom right of the caterpillar be one of those predators?

If the color wasn’t enough of a deterrent, the well-fortified exterior should repel the hungriest of predators. Surprisingly, the fierce looking spines are innocuous, flexible ornamentation that rounds out the repulsive costume.

Within a few days, the metamorphic process will conclude, the pupal casing will cleave and a beautiful butterfly will fly off, but which species?

If you skipped ahead from the opening paragraph, you’ve ruined it for everyone and now I won’t tell you what it is. But hey, what’s the fun of me telling you what is wrapped up in the package when it’s more fun to find out yourself. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Twisted Nickers - The Knicker Bean

“Watch this magic trick” a friend said as he took a marble-sized nickerbean and rubbed it on a rough surface. I watched as he placed it on my skin. The burning sensation caused by that brief amount of friction, reminded me of a searing hot branding iron scorched on a cattle’s hide. I jerked my arm away. ‘We used to do that to each other when we were kids” he said with glee.

Never mind that the bark of the tree has been used to treat malaria and venereal diseases or that new leaves can alleviate tooth pain, this plant can be used to inflict mild harm on others! “Don’t do that again” I groused with fiery irritation.

The Nickerbean (Caesalpinia bonducella), aka Gray Nicker or Nicker Nut Tree is a thorny, shrub that grows along the sandy coastline of South Florida. It is native to Florida but can be found along coastal habitats around the world.

The spiny-limb and leaved shrub can grow to nearly five feet before sagging branches droop towards well-drained sandy soils. They can take root and grow from there. It’s a bushwhacker’s nightmare to clamber through a twisted, tangled jumble of vegetation.

Canary-yellow blooms grow on tall stalks year round and give way to a well-armored, clam-shaped seed pods. As they mature, the pods open and two gray seeds are released.

Seeds are washed from shore by tides and floods before the sea returns them to potentially suitable, sun-drenched, sandy soils. As the seeds float about, scarification, or “nicking” occurs. The seed casing is chipped away by sand, insects and animals. Once water enters the seed it germinates and can begin to grow.

Beans don’t always get nicked and I’ll pick up whole ones when I find them. Who can resist magic beans? If someone performs a “magic nickerbean trick” for you someday don’t get your nickers in a twist. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Purple and Orange - The Royal Poinciana

Few trees are as showy as the Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia). Native to Madagascar, the Poinciana is a beautiful shade tree that was introduced to Florida decades ago. It’s a nice enough tree throughout the year, but as the rainy season kicks into full gear this month, the Poinciana – also known as the “Flamboyant Tree”, bursts with showy orange blossoms and gives color to a generally green landscape here in South Florida.
Cruising around the island of Everglades City, this particular tree was unanimously voted the most beautiful Poinciana around. The flaming-red spoon-shaped blooms will last for a few weeks into summer. The downside is it has a shallow root system that spreads out wide and wandering, preventing natives from growing and upending sidewalks and roughing up building foundations.
In addition to the flowery fireworks this month we also have many of the local residents putting on a spectacular air show. Purple Martins (Progne subis) ducked in and out of their condo and gourd-shaped homes, taking to the air to feast on unsuspecting insects or bringing in nesting material for their clutch of all white eggs.
The largest member of the Swallow family, the Purple Martins spend the winter in South America before returning to North America for the breeding season. Scouts arrive in January in south Florida and conclude nesting later in the month before heading south.
White apparently is the most attractive color to paint a Purple Martin house. I would assume they don’t mind Orange either.