Archive for the ‘Insects’ Category

Even Bugs Die

August 31st, 2012

I’m at nature a gentle sort, so much so that in the frenzy of the Vietnam-war draft, my beloved grandfather unbidden handed me a conscientious-objector reference letter. While he had sneaked away from the farm to enlist in the WWI American Expeditionary Forces to fight the Hun, he knew that I would never be one to kill another person.

Yet at a much lower level, he and I had teamed for years to slay insect pests. He had long farmed “patches” as he called them. These one-acre farms, one or two every summer were wide, deep expanses of vegetables and fruits, 150 running feet each. He’d plant, and from my elementary school time, I’d weed, water, train to trellis, cull, harvest, and more. Inherent in this was the elimination of bugs.

Many years later in my master-gardener course, I learned nifty terms such as integrated pest management. I already knew that part of the curriculum.

Early on, he used nasty chemicals, like DDT. He’d strap big spraying drums to his shoulder and squirt the toxins. Yet, also early on he somehow ran across the Rodale pub, Organic Gardening and quickly converted. We were out there with the pyrethrum (fundamentally a natural, harmless-to-humans insecticide made from marigolds) and with our eyes and hands. Destructive bugs did not like and died in innocuous baths of soapy water, beer, or water that had soaked the juice from a nickel cigar. I’d knock the hornworms, Japanese beetles, potato beetles and their ilk into my coffee cans of to-them toxins. While time-consuming, it killed them, did not hurt me, and did not poison the veggies and fruits.

With that background, I was a bit amused when my wife called to look at this thing on the back deck plants. Asked, she agreed it might be a bug but she was not sure.

What we had, and what had been ruining my wee, grown-from-seed tomato fruits was a tomato hornworm. What it had was parasites. The white thingummies festooned on its back were the growing offspring of a parasitic moth. It was infested and near death with wasp babies eating it from the inside.

There’s a conflict for the gentle guy.

This dreadful caterpillar has been destroying my tomatoes, fruit and plant. These wasps were gnawing at it en masse. Shortly the hornworm will die, the wasps will grow and fly off to create more parasites.

Who should feel sorry for whom?

Truth be told, as a gardener from childhood and by avocation and certification, I have little use for insects that live to eat my crops. Yet a small part of me empathizes with the reality of being eaten alive from the inside by nasties.

I think we could well do without the hornworm. Some versions of it munch on tobacco, which distresses me far less. I don’t have tobacco salads and sandwiches. I also think we could do well without mosquitoes, even though many bats and birds consume them as main parts of their diets.

My wife is very unhappy at the sight and thought of of the besieged caterpillar. I had no problem clipping the leaf and tossing the mess aside. I know that the wasps will finish their business and thrive. I might even hum The Circle of Life.


Goofing With The Bees

June 25th, 2012

My scream, I was told, would have curdled milk. Until that defining moment, I had a serious fear of bees…apparently a common phobia.

At around 7 or maybe 8, my very intimate, in-the-shirt encounter with what I recall as a huge bee changed all of that. Previously, bees and like critters such as yellow jacket wasps hurt me physically a bit and emotionally substantially. While an outdoorsy, tent-camping, walk the woods, leas and cow pastures, garden in my grandfather’s one-acre “patches”  kind of little guy, I dreaded the next sting. I’d walked barefoot on bees, which in retrospect understandably stung me. Sitting at family picnics dripping watermelon juice, I’d get attacked by a bee or yellow jacket for no reason I could fathom. In short, the pain, itching and swelling came on me suddenly and with no malice on my part.

Then came the gigantic bee in my shirt.

My grandparents’ backyard in their house where I summered, abutted the Mytinger place (apparently the oldest house in the state and at the time very neglected property). With my family’s carefully planted and cultivated flowers, and the neighboring overgrowth, there were flowers galore. In particularly right on the border, my grandfather had planted hollyhocks, which were basketball-player height and jammed with blossoms that bees loved.

Several of us kids where playing right there when a huge bumblebee flew down the back neck of my tee-shirt and scampered way down inside.

My grandmother loved slapstick and to her the essence of humor was schadenfreude, not surprise. That evening, she said how sorry she was that she missed the event. She added immediately that the neighbors who did hear me thought I was being killed. Apparently I let out a loud, enthusiastic and, as it turned out cathartic, bellow of terror. Then I literally tore my shirt off, shredding it.

To this day, the humor to me is that not only did the normally benign (just ask a country kid) bumblebee did not sting me. Rather, the incident with its scream exorcised the fear. From that moment, I’ve had no dread of any critter in that family. I keep a judicious eye on the unpredictable bad actors, such as hornets, but bees and wasps are just other insects to me.

If I’m sitting outside and a bee or two land on my arm. Well, a bee or two landed on my arm. I might let them crawl or just blow them away. No foul.

Thus recently, I have been taking a few snaps of bees making love to flowers (as above). Those are not telephoto, rather with the lens an inch or two from the subjects. When people ask if I am afraid of being with the bees, I just tell them no. Rarely, I’ll add my tale of tee-shirt release.

The bee interplay does remind me of that charming The Point! album by Harry Nilsson. Its bee scene has the protagonists hiding in a hollow log from a bee swarm, when the log rolls downhill into the Rock Man. He looked at them and said, “Say – what’s happening with you boys . . . it looks like you’re pretty shook up, been goofing with the bees?”

I can relate.


Taking a Pass…Twice

November 21st, 2011

Flat out, I don’t have a personal story of childhood sexual abuse. To those of us who don’t, the number we read or hear directly is stunning. With the infamy of the Penn State cases, more moving, inevitably confessional tales broadcast, such as the poignant one by a Notre Dame law professor in today’s Slate.

An oddment is the very brief moment of jealousy in not having a story, very similar to the feeling of us boomer men who did not get thrown into jungle warfare in Vietnam. It is all too human to want to share in the zeitgeist of your various eras. Something seems amiss and missing when you don’t, like those moments when you feel your soul is off somewhere else.

Dispassionately, of course, there’s no reason to visit horrors on yourself. Yet, we want to feel both that we are a part of our times and that we are the sturdy stuff of heroes.

As a very mild expression of these needs, many people I knew in high school, college and my 20s embroidered their shared experience samplers. They were hippies, they smoked pot and hash, they tripped on acid and more, they were sexually profligate, and of course, they protested and rioted on their campuses. All gross exaggerations and outright lies…in the name of shared experience.


Many of my male chums past and current did go to Vietnam. Some sat on ships or in offices, while others fought, including some who died and others physically and emotionally maimed. Much like those of my father’s generation who killed and who saw the horrors of war, those who did don’t talk about it and if pressed say those who did not were much better off.

There was that pesky military draft, in which I had a very low number. My draft board made a relentless effort to get me, but finally seemed to give up, going for easier pickings.

While in Cambridge on a grant to look at a couple of underground newspapers, I found my board decided I wasn’t technically a full-time college student, so they had a place for me to go. I replied that I would not carry a gun, but I would go as medic, photog or reporter if they needed me in Viet Nam. They responded with CO papers and a notice that I could not pick what I’d do. I sent back that under their absurdly tight CO definition, I didn’t fit, but they could take my deal or send me to jail. They sent another batch of CO applications.

Eventually, they sent me a deferment they gave to fathers of multiple children. Eh? Some vets are positive there must have been someone  at the board looking out for me. A more likely story was through a friend whose father was on the board. He said in such cases, they went after guys who didn’t cause so much trouble and paperwork.


Nearly all my best friends and quite a few women I’d kept company with in my single years have tales of being fondled or raped as small or teen kids. A few times, it was strangers they had just met, but more typically, it was a father, brother, cleric, teacher or camp counselor.

The stats sexual abuse prima facie don’t see so terrible, until you read deeper. Start for example from the Wikipedia entry and follow the references to places like Health and Human Services reports to first see that 15% to 25% of girls and 5% to 15% of boys were physically molested. From what I have heard directly and from learning that many of these stats are reported cases, and those percentages are very low.

In retrospect, I wonder whether our itinerant life protected me. We moved every couple years throughout my childhood. It seems that those I know who were abused either were in situations where the perpetrator had gained trust of the family and child, or in which they were in stereotypical abuse hells like boarding schools. It probably helped that my sister and I were not physically abused at all at home by beatings as most of my peers said they were. We were not taught to be submissive. The atmosphere of child as chattel was not part of my life. I also surmise that my willful personality may have acted as a shield.

Motivation for sexual abusers seem clear enough. These tend to be crimes of opportunity. The children are younger, smaller, weaker and often under the older child or adult’s control. Also, there is a strong correlation between having been abused and abusing.

If my second-hand knowledge is accurate, such abuse is never something simply gotten over. There seems to be a spectrum from those who live in victimhood perpetually to those who discuss it was friends or shrinks to those who sometimes shock into recollection to those who sublimate. Yet to those of us who lucked through childhood without being sexually abused, what is astonishing most is how common such behavior is.

This area is another good pointer to humans as not being all that evolved.

After it all, where is evidence of our better nature if we prey on the weakest of us as wild mammals, raptors and even insects do? Where is our alleged striving to be like angels or our god? If the cliché that character is what we are in the dark is true, what does it mean if so many of us even create the figurative dark for our evils?

What Milton Showed Me Today

September 5th, 2011

When my digital camera died a week and change ago, I ordered a new one. Taking it for a spin today, I looked for varied lighting and color to see what it could do. Here’s what I found in Milton on a walk.

Pix clix: Click a thumbnail for a larger view. If it opens in the same window, use your browser’s back button or command to return.

License note: All pix are Creative Commons-Attribution. Do what you want with them. Just give Mike Ball credit once.

Just South of Mattapan Square on Rte. 138, I’ve been biking by a big new sign. Today walking, I read it all and took this shot. What was a Jewish temple and what looks for all the world like a middle school will apparently become (ta da) a worship edifice. Oddly enough, I know the outside of the Concord Baptist Church in the South End. To most of us, that grand old building that used to be a Presbyterian church would seem much more like an edifice. I find it hard to believe that the CBC people could spend all that money for Milton real estate and immediately tear down the low brick thingummy, but stranger things have happened in religious history. TBD. edifice
temples In contrast to the aspirations and pretension of the CBC sign, the old one from Temple Shalom remains for the moment. It is much more in keeping with the stereotypical Jewish lack of ostentation in things religious.
The camo worked. The only reason I noticed this huge katydid was because I had bent to photograph the flowers. miltonkatydid
birchshadows Pope’s Pond is a small, hidden Milton treasure. This particular birch is in the wonderful canopied path beside the pond.
Not all in Milton is jolly. At least one person also doesn’t seem to get the hang of threats. This sign by the entrance to a fancy home is reminiscent of the French invaders in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy GrailNow go away or I shall taunt you a second time! welcometomilton
loomingsumac The sumac by Pope’s Pond is prolific. This one could be in Dune as a sandworm.
Along Brush Hill Road are numerous delightful weeds, this one like a yellow waterfall. weedwaterfall
pokeweed Pokeberries also abound. Birds love the sweet fruit, which are moderately toxic to mammals. Supposedly the juice cooked and without any seeds is edible.
I’m not sure what this little gem beside Pine Tree Brook. It seemed to sing. pathdiva
nocharlotte Here is a house on Cheever Street in serious need of the spider Charlotte. The house number sign has gone and the spiders were left to spin on the frame, but have not gotten to numbers.
I’ll be thumbing through my hort books to find these berries. yberries

Wild Indoors

July 13th, 2008

Weasels are less cute on their backs with a tire tread pressing them to the asphalt than whizzing through the brush. I biked around a flat one on Neponset Valley Parkway this morning.

Back home in the wilds of JP, we have outdoors in or nearly so frequently. Today it was spiders and birds. Our yard frequently gets skunks, opossums, raccoons and other furries. I wish the squirrels and crows would have their own Ragnarök, leaving us beset by just one devilish species.

Pic Trick: Click on small images to see larger versions.

Today, it was eight legs and two legs though. For the latter, our adopted always-a-housecat Chi wants birds. She has never eaten one or even gotten one in paw and claw. Yet, she’s ready.

Chi huntingOur window with the bird feeder outside is kind of her television. Perhaps a peep show booth would be more accurate. In cold weather, she watches the birds — one to six at a time on the feeder and sometimes dozen in the rhodies below — through a glass storm window. Most of year, she is tantalizing inches away, separated by a screen.

It didn’t take the birds long to realize she was no threat because of the barriers. We get lots of bite-sized visitors, wrens, sparrows, tits, chickadees and such. The feeder does not let big birds or squirrels get to the seed, but a few colorful types, like cardinals and migrating fancies, such as red-wing blackbirds and orioles drop in for a meal.

birds feedingIn general, Chi is sensible. She’ll rest her chin on the sill as in this accompanying image, looking through the gauzy screen view of the feeder. She’s not cool though. Her ears and back twitch in excitement. Sometimes, she makes guttural hunting noises reserved to the locale.

Alas she can’t fully accept the feeder as entertainment. A few times a month, she leaps and lunges. In the winter, it must be a shock, slamming forehead first into the storm window in full flight herself. Then the birds leave, to return within a minutes. I am convinced cats know no humiliation.

kitchen spiderIf it’s the screen, she generally ends up plucking her claws out of the mesh and goes back to her post. Once or twice a month though, she blows it. In her blood lust, she’ll spring with fully open claws, getting one or both front paws caught. The inner and next claw of a paw will simultaneously catch on the screen and Chi is stuck. She doesn’t have the geometric savvy to open her paw more and push up to release the paw(s), even after watching with great concern as I undo her.

crab-like spiderA room away, we seldom get insect or arachnid beasties. However, a crab-like spider (see bottom pic) apparently wanted to lay claim to our new electric skillet. We’re about to get new cabinets, which means a month or so with no access to our stove or the rest of the kitchen. The skillet is part of our minimalist cuisine for that period. I’m aiming to use cold foods, and cook with the grill, microwave and toaster.

Is there a new-skillet smell? What attracted a good sized spider?

My uxorial unit is no fonder of spiders than mice. Fortunately, as with our recent rodent episode, she was not the one to discover the critter.

The spider had managed to hang its web over great distances from each breakfast-nook wall to the handle of the skillet lid and to the other wall. Unfortunately, we had plans for the spaces and removed the old web artist to the outside.

Weasel, birds, cat and spider…what shall the morrow deliver?

Boston Bees…Crikey!

September 16th, 2007

Bees in Mattapan SquareMy potential Steve Irwin moment never happened. The incessant drizzle and low 60s air kept all but a few brave girl bees in the Mattapan hives today. As part of the Boston Natural Areas Network Fall Harvest Festival & Perennial Divide, I had been promised a chance to wear the goofy hat and netting, with instructions on handling the bees and frames with honey. Crikey!

Instead, I know quite a bit more about urban beekeeping. My tutor was Mike Graney, who lives just a few blocks from me at the very bottom of Jamaica Plain. He keeps a local hive of what he calls his pets, little furry pets. His heavy-duty honey factory is down at the bottom of Mattapan on the Neponset River.

Apiarist Mike GraneyActually, there was another beekeeper there, but I didn’t meet Judy Lierberman until I was on the way out. She just started and keeps her bees at the Brookwood Community Farm in the Blue Hills. I bike by all the time and she said I need to stop and see what they’re up to. Just when Allendale Farm would have you believe they are the only game in town, Milton is dueling with Brookline for the bucolic title.

Meanwhile, Mike’s my guy. He lives a few blocks away and keeps a hive in the Forest Hills area of JP. Actually, for those of us who think that rural is a walk in the Public Garden, we need to be aware that cartoon and historic give that looks sort of like a point Bib the Michelin man is not what modern apiarists use.

There’s a local-ish connection to that too. In 1852 an Andover minister, Lorenzo L. Langstroth, developed the frame system that slides grids into slots in wooden boxes. The bees leave their honey and they create the nooks for the larvae the queen lays.

The hive systems look like those below in the Mattapan gardens. Mike owns most of those, but all are pretty much the same, stacked boxes (called supers) where the bees live, breed and make honey. The bees are free to come and go, as in the picture at the top.

Hives in Mattapan Square

Bees don’t like being out and about in cool or wet weather, both of which it was Saturday. A few flew, but not enough to open the hives for giggles, even to please somene eager to put on the netting.

Yet, Mike seemed happy enough to stand in the drizzle chatting up one group of gawkers after another, likely answering the same questions for each set of ignorami. He can be disarming too in admitting, “There’s a lot of book learning about bees out there, stuff I don’t know.”

He knows plenty though, including how honey changes seasonally, week to week. He can smell and taste the differences, starting with the sweeter, lighter spring honey bees make with nectar from fruit blossoms. It changes with the April rains and again around Mother’s day, when the spring flowers produce “a light, pale, delicate honey”.

He pointed to some of the garden’s aging annual flowers that September afternoon. “Later the blooms tighten up,” he said, which leads to darker, more powerfully flavored honey.

Inside a frame, the bees seal (cap off) the current honey. “This really is much like a snapshot of what they bring back, a time capsule of what was blooming,” Mike says.

He says like a vertical beer tasting, comparing honeys from the same place or distant ones is a real pleasure. He collects jars from his travels and will pick up and taste unusual ones from places like Italy as a novelty. Personally though, he likes his pets’ output. “I don’t care for the clover, hay or bulk honey from the Midwest,” he says. He finds those bland and without complexity or variety.

On a note that may seem yucky to some, bees partially digest the nectar to make honey. In effect, they take the runny flower nectar and extract the water, outputting the good stuff back in the frame at home. Ideally, they’ll cap off the honey with 15% water. Any more will mildly ferment the honey, which makes the bees who consume it sick.

Local plug: If you just have to try Mike’s bees’ output, you can pick it jars locally, including at Gadgets, Centre Street, JP, yards south of JP Licks.

For his own hives, he faces the same die-off situation all beekeepers do. Last year, for example, he lost three of his nine hives’ residents. This is not the same situation as in the widely publicized situation for large commercial apiarists. Those businesses have hundreds or thousands of hives. Many of them migrate with crops for six months a year, stopping to rent them to fruit and vegetable growers from Florida to Maine, and returning to their home base.

For these guys, honey is “almost a waste product,” Mike says. They’ll keep enough in the hives to give the workers and queen food, particularly for winter, but many don’t care much whether they sell any. Their business is renting pollinators. Sometimes this can lead to staggering numbers. Although he has not visited when the trucks finish their year in the blueberry barrens of Maine, he says they have up to 30,000 hives Downeast before the trucks return to home base. That sight might be worth a road trip.

Mike’s been at this for several years, starting with one hive and now up to nine. The bulk of his commercial honey output comes from the Mattapan towers.

He’s not as cold a capitalist as the pollinator renters, but he has gotten used to his annual losses. Non-carnivorous bees are much less likely to sting a human than wasps and hornets. Yet, despite his calling bees his pets, Mike knows that 20% or more of his colonies will die annually. The pollinator truck guys lose much more and their losses are the basis for the current articles. Mike notes that some other local apiarists scoff at the stories and say that they lose a third every year and have for decades, with no media coverage.

The bulk of the problem seems to be from two varieties of mites that infest a hive and weaken the bees so that they do not produce enough honey and become asthenic from blood loss.

While you can’t exactly go to Stop & Shop to replace bees, they are sold by the pound. When Mike loses a hive, he orders a 3-pound box for $75 with a queen, cleans out the old supers and restocks.

For the majority of colonies that live, he leaves them with about 50 pounds of honey each for the winter. They kind of hang around in cold weather when many bees die of old age, but most are ready come the spring warmth.

Maybe I’m too much of a city kid, but I wondered about security. Down in Mattapan Square, largely hidden from sight at night, you’d think that hives might be a target from kids with too much time. Mike says that isn’t a problem. Not only are the gardens enclosed in a chain link fence and padlock, he notes that the joves are pretty plain boxes. Most people don’t know what they are. Besides, messing with thousands of bees at a time doesn’t seem like a good idea.