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Saturday, 21 January 2012

Wake up and smell the Banksias!

Yesterday was Friday. It was cloudy, getting sunny later, so we took off for a walk in the bush, not too far from home. Today, the rain has been pouring down, and we feel smug, because we took our week-end on the right day. This is a Banksia, a very Australian tree in a genus found only in Australia, one of the Proteaceae, which have a largely southern distribution.

A Banksia flower head. Each of those
spikes is a single flower.
A Banksia flower which is still
developing: note the bee on the
 flower head, which tells us that
nectar is being produced.
The flowers have a sort of eerie beauty, but few Australians realise just how often the plant is to be found on the Australian map.

All over the place, there are swamps called Honeysuckle Swamp, and creeks called Honeysuckle Creek, but very few people are aware that the Banksia flower was used by Aborigines as a source of sweetness for drinks.

Unidentified robber fly, Diptera, Asilidae
They are equally unaware that the early white settlers learned this trick and used it as well, but this is why the name "Honeysuckle" turns up so often on the old maps. People cared about it back then.  Anyhow, we happened to be in an area with lots of Banksia bushes and trees, and we introduced two friends to the sweet smell of the flowers.

The bees were busy, and I managed to spot, chase and snap a robber fly that was supping on a bee which it had captured. Three times it flew to a new tree, carrying its prey with it—which is why I had to chase it.

As near as I could see, the prey was a large bee, so I guess the robber fly was getting a nice sugar hit.  I was pleased, because even though I know what they look like from drawings, this was the first time I had seen one in the wild.

Our friends were good enough to take us out on a track that ends in a cliff, and then show us a narrow foot pad that disappeared off through the trees, snaking its way down and under the cliff to the sea.

It also passed a fascinating mystery sight, which you can see here in its most mysterious form.  Let me just say that this is a really weird angle, and I only knew what it was for certain from where it fell in the sequence of my photos.

This was in the open air, more or less, not in a cave, and this is not a microscopic shot.  The photo covers an area about 4 metres by 3, and there is no faking going on.

This is really what it looks like, but here's another view that may help you believe this.

This is a closer view of the mystery object in the middle. It is hanging on the underside of a sandstone ledge, and the sandstone shows a very aptly-named form of weathering.

There are lots of theories about honeycomb weathering that put the blame on salt spray, but this was about 100 vertical metres above calm sea water, and you can see this same weathering 50 km from the ocean.

In short, I'm not buying those theories, but here is another view, and now you can see a bit of the area outside the overhang, but it's still a bit hard to work out what that dangling thing is.

Think about my theme of honeysuckle, think about the kind of weathering.

If you do that, you might just get it, but probably not,

So look at the fourth picture, where you can see a close-up of the dangling object.  Look at the patterns in it.

Do you see the hexagons?  In all of nature, those things are so distinctive that their name is even given to patterns in weathered stone that imitate the shapes.

Yup!  Honeycomb!  This is an old and by the looks of it, a long-abandoned bees' nest.

I don't know what happened to the bees, but there was a rather emaciated robber fly buzzing around, that made me wonder if I should have taken it in for questioning.

I have no idea at this stage how I will use that material in some future book, but it was definitely a day not to be missed, even if I never get to write about it at all.  Still, knowing me, it will pop up somewhere!

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