A REVIEW OF 2018

The statistics provided for our blogs make interesting reading, particularly as I look back on another year of posting about this or that. That most of my viewers are from South Africa pleases me, for it is my home audience after all. The United States of America and the United Kingdom provide the next most viewers – although the spectrum of viewers from all over the world is exciting, for it is good to know that what I post has a broad appeal.

I am intrigued that the top search term remains black jack plant.

It is thus not surprising that the most popular post is Weeds with a History, which was first published in 2015. It received seven views then and 323 views this year! This post came about as a result of a trip we did through the Free State at a time when the Cosmos flowers were blooming; we had walked through the veld to view military graves and returned covered in Black Jack seeds; and had inadvertently crushed Khakibos underfoot, which released a particularly fragrant aroma I have always associated with my childhood in the Lowveld.

All three of these weeds came to this country as a result of feed brought in for the British horses during the Anglo-Boer War.

The next most popular post is War Horses: the role of horses in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). This was posted in 2016 after a trip to KwaZuluNatal during which we visited the horse memorial at the Weston Agricultural College. Even though I was familiar with the well-known horse memorial in Port Elizabeth, I found this a particularly moving experience and felt compelled to research and write about the role horses played during this war.

It was viewed 49 times in 2016 and 297 times this year, which encouraged me to conduct further research and to write about this topic in greater detail to present as a talk to three very different audiences.

What has taken me by surprise though is the popularity of the post on Flying Ants, which was also published in 2016, gaining an initial nine views then and garnering 233 this year – simply an observation of what was happening in my garden!

What about the posts published in 2018 then? Blackjacks tops the list – this is a more in-depth exploration of these weeds which came about as a result of the popularity of the search term. My short story, Poor Uncle Kevin couldn’t go to the party – based on my son’s dog which died this year – came second, with National Bird of South Africa – the Blue Crane – coming third.

Thank you to everyone who has taken time to read my posts, to those who have become followers, and especially to those who have liked and commented on my posts. This has been a wonderful way to connect with readers and has enriched my blogging experience enormously.

I hope you will all enjoy a happy festive season.

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CAMOUFLAGE MOTH

This tiny moth – compare with the winder of my wristwatch – came to keep me company last night:

Along with the onset of summer will come a variety of flying creatures attracted indoors by the lights at night. The mosquitoes have already begun to haunt the cooler evenings as we sit outdoors to enjoy a respite from the heat.

COCHINEAL INSECTS: A TALE OF TWO IMPORTS

Most species of cacti were introduced to this country in the 1900s – or even before. They have become so prolific, however, that cochineal insects (Dactylopius austrinus) that feed on the sap of cactus species were introduced to South Africa, firstly in 1935 and again during the 1970s, as a biological control for these invasive cacti species, including the jointed cactus and prickly pear. These insects usually live together in colonies seen on the surface of cactus plants.

The jointed cactus, (Opuntia aurantiaca), originally from Argentina and Paraguay, has invaded pastoral lands, threatening indigenous plants as well as the health of livestock – and is a particular pest in the Eastern Cape. I pointed out in a post on jointed cactus (February 2018) that they not only compete for resources such as water, sunlight, and nutrients but their viciously sharp spines prevent animals from grazing and can cause considerable harm to livestock.

By all accounts, the introduction of a variety of the various varieties of cochineal insects has not been as successful as might have been hoped. Nonetheless, should you spot white masses on prickly pears, know that one import is doing its bit to get rid of another import!

FLIGHTLESS DUNG BEETLES

One does not have to drive very far in the Addo Elephant National Park before coming across signs warning one to watch out for the dung beetles.

These flightless dung beetles are among the largest in the world and have come to be known as the Addo Flightless Dung Beetle (Circellium bacchus) on account of there being a large population of the species in this national park. Here they play an important role in the ecosystem by helping to decompose the piles of dung deposited by wild animals, especially that of elephant, buffalo and kudu, although outside of the park they utilise the dung of stock animals such as sheep and cattle. Another important aspect of their activity is that the beetles assist in fertilising the ground by breaking up and burying the dung.

Dung beetles are reliant on dung both for their own nutrition and that of their larvae. Quite understandably, they prefer fresh dung from which to form their brood balls. This is done by the female, which moves it away using her powerful hind legs, while the male follows behind. His only role is to mate once the brood ball has been pushed into a suitable hole.

It is amazing to watch these beetles at work, for they often push a ball around far greater than their own weight using only their back legs – convert the size ratio to human terms and one realises that the flightless dung beetle must be extremely strong!

As you can see from the pictures below, dung beetles encounter a number of obstacles whilst rolling their dung balls off the roads in order to bury their balls in the surrounding soil. These include the corrugated surfaces of the dirt roads as well as rocks, stones and lumps of soil.

Several of the tourist roads have been tarred over the years, which must make this onerous task a little easier – especially that of getting the balls off the road.

We need to heed the signs, heed the piles of dung in the road, and be particularly careful to heed the presence of these rare species on the road: every beetle needlessly crushed under the wheels of vehicles means a life cycle that cannot be completed!

THE BOLL WEEVIL SONG

There was a time when my father grew dryland cotton on his farm in the De Kaap Valley. He eschewed spraying the cotton in favour of allowing Helmeted Guineafowl to roam freely through the cotton fields to feed on the pests.

I remember anxious times waiting for the rain; checking the flowers on the cotton plants; walking through the rows looking at the swelling cotton bolls; cotton pickers moving through the lands; heaps of cotton piling up in the shed; and large sacks being filled with cotton before being loaded on the back of the truck to be taken to the cotton gin in Barberton. There even used to be an annual Cotton Festival in that town.

This picture shows the start of this process, when the first pickings of cotton were loaded onto an old wagon in the shed prior to being bagged. I am standing in it together with my eldest brother.

Growing cotton had its moments and the boll weevil is a particularly nasty pest to be reckoned with – which is why we couldn’t resist giving my father the 78 rpm record of The Boll Weevil Song by Brook Benton. The introduction seems innocuous:

Let me tell ya a story about a boll weevil
Now, some of you may not know, but a boll weevil is an insect
And he’s found mostly where cotton grows
Now, where he comes from, hmm, nobody really knows
But this is the way the story goes

To the horror of the farmer, the boll weevil sounds delighted to have found a home for his whole darn family. Then comes the desperation: The farmer said to the boll weevil “Say, why do you pick my farm?” This is aggravated by the response of the boll weevil:

And the boll weevil called the farmer, ‘n’ he said
“Ya better sell your old machines
‘Cause when I’m through with your cotton, heh
You can’t even buy gasoline.”
(I’m gonna stake me a home, gotta have a home)

Cotton is no longer grown there. The cotton gin closed down decades ago. There is no longer any reason to hold a Cotton Festival. Life moves on – imports grow …

PAINTED LADY

I was trying to photograph a False Gerbera (Haplocarpha scaposa) next to the road when this Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) alighted in front of my lens!

This is probably the most well-known and widespread butterfly in the world and occurs all over South Africa. I rather like the Afrikaans name for it, Sondagsrokkie, meaning Sunday’s Dress, a tribute to the pretty pattern of colours on the wings, which are a rich tawny colour with black markings and white spots.

The underside of the wings are mottled with yellow, white and brown.

The males and females are similar and can grow to between 40 and 50 mm. It has a characteristic flap-gliding flight pattern that draws one’s attention to it.

ALOE FEROX (2)

The main reason for our drive out of town yesterday was to admire some of the many aloes that are still blooming in the veld at this time of the year.

The most dominant of these are the beautiful Aloe ferox (also known as Bitter Aloe), some of which can grow up to five meters. In the picture below you can see younger plants in the foreground with older ones behind – easily recognised not only by their height, but by the dry leaves that remain on the stem as the aloe grows.

This one has the beginning of a potentially large termite mound developing at its base.

Although their spiky leaves are usually a dullish green, they can turn a reddish colour during drought conditions.

Seen close up, one can appreciate how beautiful their flowers are.

Aloe ferox are widely distributed throughout the drier parts of South Africa and provide an abundant source of food for insects and birds during the colder months of the year. We saw Black-eyed Bulbuls and Streaky-headed Seedeaters feeding on them next to the road, as well as these bees.