River’s gory and fascinating secrets exposed

A paper wasp nest, which can be found on the Liesbeeck River, is made from saw dust and wasp saliva which forms a paste for the structure.

As the water rushed downstream and the wind whistled through the leaves, young and old came together on Thursday October 5 to discover the life on the banks of the Liesbeeck River.

Here botanist Phil Mclean, also known as Fynbos Phil, opened his small box to reveal what he had found on the river bank. Many of us have encountered these natural treasures but don’t know anything about them.

Fynbos Phil said the river is not just a catchment for rain but is full of life.

“There is a long history of urbanisation in this area, but (the river) is still full of life. When we go on safari, we see the big animals, but we should look at the small stuff which is just as fascinating,” said Fynbos Phil, before reaching into his box to pull out his first discovery.

Children and adults listened eagerly as Mr Mclean exhibited a leaf from the wild peach tree. He said early botanists named the tree according to what it looked like to them, but the tree has no relation to the peach. It plays host to spiny caterpillars who eat the leaves and move the cyanide toxin from the leaves into its spines.

“It’s not lethal, but it’s poisonous. This becomes the batling glider butterfly which has colour in its wings advertising that it’s poisonous. Black, red, white and yellow, this aposemetic colouration means it’s poisonous. Other butterflies mimic these colours and appear poisonous. You won’t hurt yourself if you squash it.

“Another cool thing about them is that they have a relationship in nature that’s very rare called hyper parasitism. The caterpillar walks around the tree and a parasitic wasp comes and lays an egg in it and that wasp larva hatches in the caterpillar and eats it from the inside.

“It’s quite gruesome. They eat it and leave its legs functioning so the caterpillar can walk around while the rest of its non vital organs get eaten inside,”said Mr Mclean.

He also showed off a leaf wilter, an insect which resembles a wilting leaf, when it feeds off of new shoots.

The insect has a long mouthpiece which is jammed into the stem of a new developing twig and this is used to suck out nutrients of the plant. It’s part of the stink bug family and exudes a nasty smell when in danger.

The star of the show for many was the chameleon and children rushed forward to touch it, but Mr Mclean explained that these colourful beauties don’t like to be touched and although many believe that they change colour to blend into their surroundings, they actually do this to communicate their feelings.

“Chameleon’s have delicate skin and turn black when they’re going to die. The main reason they change colour is to communicate. They become dark because it’s cold and they want to absorb
heat.

“They’re ovoviviparous, which means the eggs hatch within the female and they give live birth,”said Mr Mclean.

Another interesting natural creation showcased was the paper wasp nest which is created in the same hexagonal shape as bees nests, but is made using saw dust.

Mr Mclean explained that bees have glands under their abdomen which produce the wax used to make their nest, while wasps find scraped saw dust and build a paste with their saliva to make paper wasp nests.

Formula One vehicles use the same honey comb design to construct their carbon-based vehicles, making it as strong as steel.