Ants and Mosquitoes and Ticks, oh my!
This morning I stepped barefoot across the stone floor, moving out of the bedroom to greet the new day, and what did my wandering feet behold? A pile of grit in the doorway, grit that wasn't there when I went to bed. I looked up to see a new hole in my star-vault stone ceiling, a hole made by ants chomping through the stones. I didn't actually see any ants this morning, but I saw them last summer, marching across the ceiling and chewing the stone, and far too frequently falling into bed with me! No one told me about this when I expressed my romantic fantasy of living in an old European stone farmhouse. And now I find myself wondering why there is a "yuck factor" to ants falling into my bed that I don't feel when my three little dogs burrow between the sheets!
Lions, tigers, and bears have been gone from western Europe for a long time, though they still decorate coats of arms, a kind of testament to the fact that they once lived here. Historically, wherever Homo sapiens has gone, other alpha predators have soon gone extinct. But I have had the good fortune to live most of my adult life in the presence of cougars, bears, coyotes, raccoons, possums, squirrels, birds of all kinds, reptiles of many kinds. I miss the animal abundance terribly. What I’ve got in place of all these animals is bugs (and occasional hedgehogs and foxes, a few reptiles, and many birds—though the birds are strikingly absent each August). On my newly acquired small organic farm, I’ve got an abundance of bugs whom I am not free to ignore and not free to destroy. Did I really just say “whom?” Yes, bugs are animals too, and bugs are essential to ecosystems, and now it’s the bugs who are in danger. Now it is the bottom of the food chain that’s threatening to collapse. So I don’t get to just “off” the bugs from my world. I have to figure out how to support them without letting them destroy me.
According to a new research article, “Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services. . . . Our analysis estimates a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82% in flying insect biomass over the 27 years of study. . . . This yet unrecognized loss of insect biomass must be taken into account in evaluating declines in abundance of species depending on insects as a food source, and ecosystem functioning in the European landscape.”
And I find it is the bugs—the bugs in all their great abundance and variety. . . the bugs in all their splendorous beauty. . . the bugs in their vigorous industry. . . the bugs in their ingenious creepitude—with whom I must now contend on this farm, in the midst of this European landscape. I have long been one to carry bugs outside rather than kill them, a deed that is more easily done when there are one or two who survive the insecticides of urban and suburban environments than when the bugs are many and walking through the walls at night!
It’s almost summer and they’re back: swarming bees, rock-chewing ants, disease-bearing ticks and mosquitoes, crop-destroying moths, irritating flies. Ants and bees, ticks and flies, mosquitoes and snails are intimate members of my new landscape, and I know nothing virtually about them. I have to learn how to live with these little animals, while realistically protecting myself, my family, and the crops from harm.
What is it like to be a house fly or a spider? What does a mosquito contribute to the common good, as evolutionary theory predicts it must do? Do honey bees have feelings? Do they like humans?
And so I begin a new blog series, exploring the intersection of human living and bug living. Stay tuned for the buzz.