Category Archives: Insects

Reading With Fakename: Lifeblood

Subtitled:  How To Change The World One Dead Mosquito At A Time.  Naturally, since it’s the middle of the summer in Tallahassee, Florida, this is a title I could not resist.  As you know, normally I am all for the survival of Nature’s creatures, and I recognize that some species I may consider odious have their place in the food chain, and are remarkable in their adaptation…Well, Whatever.  I would have a party if we could make mosquitos extinct.  As one friend said to me, fish eat mosquito larvae.  And I said, then the fish will have to eat something else.

But I digress.  The book is about malaria, which the author says is the oldest known disease.  In the beginning of the book, it was killing a million people a year.  If you survive it, it isn’t as if you’re done.  You will continue to have flare-ups for the rest of your life.

On a personal note, l will mention that my ex-husband (who was a very brief husband) had contracted it in Vietnam.  I didn’t believe him, since he was prone to exaggeration and self-aggrandizement.  It turned out he was actually telling the truth most of the time, but who knew?  So I didn’t believe it until we actually got married, and one of the presents we got from one of his friends was a certificate for a pint of blood in “Skip’s” name.  It was the best wedding present we got, and then I believed him.

Only the first two chapters of the book are devoted to the disease of malaria and the science of it.  The rest of the book is devoted to the business of eliminating it.  This part may have turned off some people, but not me.

So most of the book is devoted to following around one guy, Ray Chambers.  Described as a Wall Street genius and gajillionaire, he got bored.  And wanted to do something “good”. So he studied it with a sort of cold eye, trying to determine where he could do the most good for the least money.

The answer was:  malaria.  It wasn’t going to take 20 years of research.  It wasn’t elusive, like cancer.  They already knew what worked: bed nets.  Even better, bed nets treated with insecticide.  And spraying insecticide to kill mosquitos.  The reason bed nets worked so well all by themselves is that mosquitos are most active when people are sleeping.  It seems so obvious.  It was a low-tech solution.  So why wasn’t it being done already?

The answer lies partly in the culture of “aid”.  Aid organizations have poured money into various causes without much of an impact.  So Chambers looked at it as a business.  You have to show results.  How many bed nets did we distribute, and how much did the death and infection rate decline?

You get an insight into the whole aid process, reading this book.  It has become a sort of juggernaut.  It reminds me of college sociology, when studying organizations whose main focus turns into the survival of the organization, rather than the mission they started with.

There is a place in Uganda which is Ground Zero for malaria…Lake Kwania.  Specifically, a town called Apac.  When the author first visits, the only people he sees on the streets are two naked men mumbling to themselves. The doctor in the local clinc explains that they have brain damage  from having malaria as babies.

The next time the author visits, after the Chambers campaign, they are having parties in the streets.  Outdoor cafes.  The town has come to life again.  It was a beautiful scene.

Reading With Fakename: A Land Remembered

This is a book recommended to me by a business associate. (Book recommendations sometimes come from unexpected places.)  It’s the story of three generations of a family in Florida from the Civil War years to 1968.  It may resonate more fully with lifetime residents of Florida, or those who have at least spent most of their lives here.  (I’m a “recent” transplant, since I’ve only been here 12 years.  I was originally from Tennessee, which makes me practically a Yankee.)

But it’s my guess that anyone from anywhere would love this book.  Especially when you consider that the author, Patrick D. Smith, was nominated three times for a Pulitzer Prize and once for the Nobel Prize in literature.  Those nominations are not made lightly, and there has to be a broader appeal than what a local or regional work could provide.

What keeps you glued to your seat is wondering what disaster the family will face next.  And there are many.  Many if not most of them are weather-related, but there are also cattle rustlers and various other kinds of bandits.

The original patriarch, Tobias,is struggling terribly, until he meets with a small band (three individuals) of Seminoles.  He is kind to them, and in gratitude, they send him a marshtackie.  A small, nimble horse able to negotiate around trees and slog through marshes.  Tobias already has a horse, but it can only run in a straight line, and will actually run right into trees.

Tobias becomes a “cracker”, short for whipcracker.  They use whips to control and drive cattle, and also to kill small game, like rabbits, for food.  Whips also come in handy for control of villains.

The disasters they face are too numerous to count, but there is one that completely resonates with me.  Tobias eventually accumulates a sizable herd, and is driving them west to market, even though he doesn’t really know where he’s going.  It’s during a drought, but one night, a blinding rainstorm takes place.  They resume driving the cattle the next morning, and in the distance, they see a black cloud coming toward them from the land, not from the sky.  The rain had animated all the dormant mosquito larvae, so what they had was a giant black cloud of mosquitos (the unofficial State Bird of Florida).

They had nowhere to run.  The mosquitos killed 72 of their cattle by clogging up their mouths and nostrils so they couldn’t breathe.  The description is quite vivid.  The cow’s eyes were bugging out when they couldn’t breathe.

If this seems like something from a fantasy novel.  it isn’t.  As I know firsthand from a visit Fakesister and I took to the Everglades (what’s left of them, anyway).  We attempted to go down a trail.  I regret we didn’t see much of it, because it was fascinating.  The creek was literally a brilliant red-orange from the tannins from all the tree leaves that had fallen into it.

As Fakesister put it, we were protected from mosquitos by all the power modern chemistry could provide, in the form of repellents, and it wasn’t enough.  It was kind of like a riot, or a Rolling Stones concert, where the pressure of the people (mosquitos) behind those in the back propels the people (mosquitos) in front of them forward.  We had to flee, and by flee, I mean, we ran.  I think I coughed up mosquitos for a week.   Then I understood why they sold hats with mosquito netting draping down to the shoulders in the gift shop.

For more about Patrick D. Smith:

Fakename’s Animal Planet: Caterpillars

Actually, just one caterpillar at the moment.

Yesterday I came home early from work.  I had no choice.  They were cleaning the carpet in my office.  I had no idea how much noise this makes.  I felt like my head was going to explode.

I am bizarrely sensitive to sounds.  Like some people are to scents.  But just to give one small example, at work my Assistant Manager uses the scroll wheel on the computer mouse and it drives me insane.  I ask her to use the arrows instead, but she forgets.  Needless to say, I drive her nuts too.

But all the noise, big and small, is why I so value my backyard picnic table-sitting time when I come home.  Yesterday was just perfect.  Little birds were hopping and chirping (quietly).  I was listening to Joshua Bell perform Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto on the Kindle (quietly), and reading my stress-free book, Run With The Horsemen by Ferrol Sams.  Then I noticed a caterpillar on the table.

I like caterpillars in general, and this one was the loveliest I had ever seen.

Because I get sort of wrapped up when I’m reading, and didn’t want it to crawl on me (I don’t like them quite that much), I coaxed it onto a twig.  I carefully set the twig on the ground amidst the leaf litter, away from the path into the house where neither I nor the dogs would step on it.  I went inside briefly.  When I returned, it was back.  This time on my bench.  I got another twig.  Repeat.

When I came in for the evening, I Googled it and identified it instantly.  (Side note:  I bet Google and Fed Ex are ecstatic that their names have now become verbs. To blog friend Tim:  watch them show up in the next OED, in case they aren’t there already.)  So by Googling moth identification in Florida or something like that, I discovered they’re poisonous.

From what I can tell, they don’t kill you, they just produce an allergic reaction which includes skin rash, hives, eye inflammation, and bronchitis.  Behold the White-marked tussock moth caterpillar:

So the white little fluffy feathery things are actually called “spines”, and if they touch your skin, or you get one in your eye, or inhale one, that seems to be the problem.  And there I was being so careful with it.  If I had known, I still wouldn’t have killed it, I would have just put its twig in the neighbor’s yard.

Ah, Florida, land of flowers, land of light (from the official state anthem “Florida, Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky”).  Also land of poisonous toads, fire ants, and poisonous caterpillars.  They kind of left that part out.

WHAT Is That Noise?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m either blessed or cursed with very acute hearing, depending on how you look at it.  I try to think of it as “blessed”, as if at least one sense got special attention while the others fall apart as expected.

So the occasion in this case is that last weekend, I settled down for a nice nap on the couch.  The lights were off.  The TV was on, but muted.  In other words, it was dark and quiet.  About the time I got comfortable, I heard this annoying clicking sound.

At first I thought it must be one of my toomanytocount electronic devices trying to send me a message I hadn’t heard before.  They do that, you know. Sooner or later, besides the normal messaages of “My battery is low” or “I’m fine now, disconnect me from the charger”, they will get all urgent about it and say things like “Help!  I detect a solar flare on the way and unless you disconnect me now, I will fry.  If you love me, please don’t let me fry!”  That kind of thing.

So, I raised myself up on one elbow, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.  No, I’m kidding.  What I saw was a cockroach.  Lurking just in front of the TV.   This roach was at least as big as the Empire State Building, possibly larger.  Perhaps I’m exaggerating.  But you could have at least put a leash around it and taken it for a walk.

Apparently my noticing it disturbed its ambiance, and it scurried–no, lumbered–from its position in front of the TV to somewhere under the coffee table.  And then the clicking stopped. I thought, You must be kidding me.  Cockroaches click?

Sadly, yes they do.  I was distressed to learn this.  By doing some Googling, I found out that in addition to the famous Madagascar Hissing Roach, some other roaches are able to make sounds, which Wikipedia describes as a chirp.  They should ask me.  It isn’t a chirp.  It’s a click.  And one of these operatically inclined chirper/clickers is the Florida Wood Roach.

Since I moved to Florida about 12 years ago, I learned that these roaches are called wood roaches, but who knew that was its real name?  Or that it is its own species?   (Eurycotis floridana).

I apologize in advance if you find yourself becoming nauseated.  Yeah, me too.  Normally I let the cat handle these kinds of issues, but even the cat will not tangle with one of these things.  So I had to go to Plan B, which is the Scarlett O’Hara option.

Allow me to introduce you.  I especially picked this particular photo with a person holding it, for perspective.  See what I mean?  It may not be the size of the Empire State Building, but it’s at least as big as King Kong.

Mothra Visits Fakename

Don't worry, I am your friend

Just in case you thought there was nothing else going on in my life. 

Last night a creature flew into the room that I couldn’t identify, except it was gigantic.  Once I got over the shock, I thought it might be a bat.  Then I decided it was too big to be a bat, plus, its wings were flapping too slowly.  Its wings were flapping very fast, but not fast enough to be a bat.  Bat wings flap so fast they’re almost invisible. 

Then I thought, bird.  But no, its wings were flapping too fast to be a bird.  I finally realized it was a moth, but the largest moth I’ve ever seen in my life.  It may have been a Cecropia moth, which is the largest moth in North America and has a wingspan of 5-7 inches. 

In a perfect world, it would have been a bat.  Bats have sonar. 

Technically speaking, there is nothing to fear from a moth.  It can’t bite you or sting you.  But what it can do is fly around hysterically and run into you without regard to your personal space.  They have no senses to speak of. 

Finally, with the help of a glass of wine (a Valium would have been nice) and a broom, I was able to persuade it to fly off into the night from whence it came.  Whew! 

Then this morning, when I woke up before full daylight, she came back.  And as God is my witness (as Scarlett O’Hara would say), I swear this moth was following me.  No matter what room I escaped to, there she would be. 

Finally after about an hour, silence descended.  She had exhausted herself for sure batting against the walls, and her behavior was a bit abnormal anyway, I think, so it could have been that she was dying anyway.  It also could be that the cat got her. 

But that’s how it goes here in Wild Kingdom.  Like they say in The Lion King, it’s the circle of life.  It’s dog-eat-dog, and cat-eat-moth.  What can you do?

Sleeping Late…and Mosquitoes

Sleeping late is a very hard thing to do around here.  First, the dogs wake up and start scratching and chewing on themselves in pursuit of imaginary fleas.  It’s the dog equivalent of having a cup of coffee.  Once they’re done, they want to go outside and are very insistent about it. 

But when the dogs wake up, the cat wakes up (she would be fine with sleeping late herself).  But once the cat wakes up, she remembers that she’s hungry and starts biting me.  I know.  It’s a miracle she’s still alive, since this happens before I personally have had a chance to scratch my imaginary fleas.  I mean, have a cup of coffee. 

And if that wasn’t enough, there are the birds.  Since I live on the very edge of an urban forest, I must have fifty gazillion species of birds here, all singing and chirping and calling and trilling to themselves and each other in the early morning.  But I’m like, could you shut the hell UP? 

But really, I love my birds, even though they refuse to adhere to my schedule.  And they do serve a very useful purpose.  They are like my fail-safe alarm clock.  If I wake up in the morning and the birds are singing, I know I’m late. 

So among the other insects I mentioned, Yard Guy and I discussed mosquitoes yesterday.  He said, do they bother you much?  I’m like, I guess you haven’t noticed the six empty cans of insect repellent sitting on my picnic table?  Yes, they bother me…all day, every day, assuming it’s warm enough for me to be at the picnic table. 

He said, they don’t bother me that much in the spring, just in the summer.  I said, that’s because you are moving around, mowing.  I am at the picnic table reading a book.  I’m just food waiting to happen.  I might as well put myself on a dinner plate and provide a napkin. 

I never, ever go out without insect repellent, but inevitably I forget to spray some exposed area and get nailed.  But mostly I am as religious about insect repellent as Fakesister is about sunblock. 

Which reminds me of the time that Fakesister and I went to Everglades National Park.  We attempted to walk to the water’s edge from our room at the lodge, and also tried to walk a trail, and were driven into hiding by the mosquitoes.  It’s quite indescribable.  They form great black clouds.  No amount of insect repellent will work…there are just too many of them. 

Sitting in the screened-in porch dining area of the lodge, you can see millions of them batting against the screens.  It’s like being in the middle of a science fiction movie.  I said, “It should have told me something when I saw those hats with mosquito veils in the gift shop”.

And Now for the Occasional Insect

I’ll let you take this journey with me, from ignorance to enlightenment.  For the last couple of weeks or so, I’ve noticed that every time I open my mailbox I seem to be disturbing some sort of wasp looking thing.  I have a rural style mailbox, in other words, it’s a box on a post at the end of the driveway.  The waspamathing is solid black, and while sitting still, it constantly flutters its wings, like a mud dauber (which I grew up calling a dirt dauber), but it’s a little smaller. 

So Thursday or so, I came home from work, turned into the drive, stopped the car, got out leaving the driver’s side door open, and proceeded to check the mailbox like I do every day.  As soon as I opened the flap of the mailbox, I stirred up a veritable swarm of waspamathings.  They were everywhere.  I jumped back and started waving my arms to scare them away, and cried “Eek!” (or possibly something worse).  Then I began to peer under the box itself, and about that time, a car stops on the street behind me.  A woman I don’t know, in a very nice SUV, rolls down the passenger side window and says, “Um, are you okay?”  At that moment you have to ask yourself what I must have looked like to her–probably like I was having a seizure at the least, and possibly a psychotic episode.  “I said, Yes!  I’m fine!  It’s just that some sort of bee has built a nest in my mailbox post!  But thanks for asking!”  Looking back, I can imagine how that sounded.  Looking very doubtful, she reluctantly drove away. 

I continued my inspection of the mailbox post, and found, just underneath where the flap hangs, a series of tiny holes drilled into the wood.  The holes are way too small for the waspamathings to come and go inside the post.  Anyway, I knew it couldn’t be mud daubers, because they build nests on the outsides of things.  Of, er, mud.  I also knew it wasn’t carpenter bees because I’ve seen them at a neighbor’s house. 

So today, the guy who takes care of my yard was over mowing, and I decided to ask him.  Not like he’s an expert in entomology or anything, but he’s outdoors a good bit, and I thought he might have encountered them.  I say, “Something has built a nest in my mailbox post, and I want to show you–but stand back when I open the flap”.  I open the flap, and…nothing.  For all the activity we saw, there must not have been a flying insect within a hundred miles.  They had disappeared, like the lost colony of Roanoke.  At that point I was hoping he didn’t know the woman in the SUV, because if they got together I might seriously have had to be on guard for the men in white coats. 

But there were still, lucky for me, the tiny holes in the post.  He said, “I dunno.  Maybe they were hatching and all flew away?”  Sheesh.  As an anthropology student, we studied linguistics to an extent, and how complex it is in some societies and how simplistic in others.  The Inuit have dozens of words for snow, for example, whereas in some African (or was it South American?) tribes, there are only two words for plants, which mean “edible” and “inedible”.  Men remind me of that tribe sometimes.  In this case it was, Insect in post–problem.  Flew away–no problem. 

But without further ado, let me say that they turn out to be (drum roll) wood wasps.  These wasps lay eggs in holes in wood.  When the egg hatches and becomes a larva, it eats its way through the wood until it exits, leaving a 3/4 inch hole.  This can take from one to five years (!).  I initially said, this can’t be them either…”my” holes are way smaller.  And then, and then (the suspense builds…) I found an article about them here, a website from the University of California Davis. 

The other name for the wood wasp is “horntail”, because the female’s ovipositor is like a horn, and she uses it to drill holes in wood to lay her eggs.  So what I had was a bunch of females laying eggs.  They’re done now, and that’s why they’re gone. 

Just another day in Florida.  It’s a little creepy to think there are eventually going to be big fat wasp larvae eating my mailbox post from the inside out, but if it takes from one to five years, I’m going to take the Scarlett O’Hara approach.

Flea Control and Other Illusions

On Friday, I bought flea control products for my dogs and my cat from the grocery store.    These products are made by Sargeant’s, as opposed to Hartz.  There was some controversy concerning the Hartz products…I think it involved killing some animals or allergic reactions or something…but my experience with Hartz products was that they simply didn’t work.  So I have forever bought flea control medications from the vet, but financial considerations have rendered that impossible.  So I’m ready to try anything.  We’re in a desperate situation here in the Fakename household. 

For the non-pet owners among you, this medication comes in a squeezable tube.  You apply it by cutting off the tip, then squeezing onto to the top of the pet’s body, starting with the neck and moving downward.  This is where the fun begins. 

I’m pacing myself with this, treating one animal per day (one cat, three dogs).  I started with the cat, which reminds me of a Time Management course I once took.  The instructor had a tip for priortizing to-do lists, which was “Always do the shitty thing first”.  I’ve never gotten better advice.  Once you’ve gotten through that thing, the rest of your day is cake.  Thus, the cat.  More fun, however, than trying to apply this stuff to a cat, is reading the package directions. 

First it tells you to open the tube (holding it away from your face and body), by tearing or cutting off the tip “at the notches”.  This turns out to be impossible.  The tube has a sort of nozzle, and the concept is to cut off the tip, but in this case, the notches don’t correspond to the point where the nozzle is open.  So I found myself cutting further and further down, until finally I am at the very body of the tube.  This creates a situation sort of like picking up a salt shaker in a restaurant, and just as you invert it over your food, the cap comes off.  So now I am faced with pouring this stuff over my cat as opposed to squeezing it. 

This actually is a kind of blessing.  The squeezing part apparently generates a very unpleasant sensation for the cat, and as it gradually empties, it begins to make a sort of sucking sound.  This is an indication to the cat that there are dragons inside the tube and they are about to eat him or her.  It becomes clear to the cat that you are trying to kill it and are in cahoots with the dragons, all previous indications of love and care aside.  When you’re a cat, your motto is the same as Agent Mulder on the X-Files “Trust No One”.  When you’re a cat, you can never be too careful. 

Part 2 of “How to Apply” says, “Holding the animal with one hand…”  Wait.  Animal?  The package clearly states this product should only be used on cats, so what did they think I would be holding?  A hedgehog?  A goldfish?  Could they have said, “Holding the cat with one hand…”?  And they left out a step.  That’s the step where you first dress in chain mail prior to attempting to hold a cat in one hand.  The alternative to dressing in chain mail is administering anesthesia to the cat first. 

I’m happy to report that we made it through the procedure just fine, no doubt due to the absence of sucking sounds and to the fact that my cat is a gentler and more trusting soul than most of her kind.  I’m also happy to report that it worked, immediately.  So one tiny little warm-blooded mammal body in the universe is temporarily flea-free. 

But out there in the real world, there are armies of fleas and mosquitos lurking.  May evolution (and chemistry) be unkind to them.

Fakesister and the Spider

Long, long ago, and far away…specifically, in our grandparents’  farmhouse outside Trenton, Tennessee, Fakesister, at age 5, was entertaining herself by rearranging shoes in a closet, when suddenly she said something along the lines of “Ouch!”  And started to cry.  I thought this was a marvelous development.  I was 10, and had been trying to figure out how to get rid of her since the day she was born.  I had been completely unsuccessful and had resigned myself to it, but this was a welcome situation.  I might not be able to disappear her, but “hurt”, especially when I had nothing to do with it, was a gift of the universe. 

Of course, our mother and grandmother rushed to her side.  (Fakename does the 10-year old version of eye-rolling.  I could have been half-kicked to death by the mule, and both of them would have said, “What are you whining about?”)

To make part of the story short, Fakesister had been bitten by a Brown Recluse spider on the upper arm.  It was Sunday, because we always visited our grandparents after church, and Fakesister and I were dressed in our Sunday best.  She was wearing a little dress with puffy sleeves that fit tightly on the arm.  Before our very eyes, Fakesister’s arm swelled up to the point that they could not get her dress off.  That’s when my mother cut the sleeve with a pair of scissors, and that’s when I knew it was serious. 

We were too poor for my mother to destroy a dress unless it was an emergency.  Also she said that Fakesister had to go to the hospital, but that didn’t have nearly the impact on me as the destruction of the dress.  Then I burst into tears also.  I realized I didn’t want Fakesister to die.  I was so scared for her. It may be that very moment that I developed “empathy”.  I was hysterical, so our grandmother had to stay behind with me while our mother took Fakesister to the hospital.  We couldn’t all go, because of me. 

Most everything else is a blur.  Fakesister was saved, but neither she nor I remember the details of her being in the hospital or coming home, or any of the aftermath, really.  I in fact remember more of the details of the moment of the bite than she does.  She was, after all, 5 years old.  But she has retained a fear of spiders that is…I don’t know what to call it.  Pre-cognitive, maybe. 

So yesterday, she reached for a towel in her bathroom and what she thought was a moth flew onto the mirror above the sink.  She couldn’t see since she didn’t have her glasses on, so she called for her husband to come help with the whatever it was (classic husband duty) and to hand her glasses to her.  Once he did, she saw it was a spider the size of a quarter. 

Today, she recovered enough to discover that it was a Parson spider:

It’s pretty brave of Fakesister to even research it.  Even pictures of spiders make her nauseous.  But also today she feels shaky, jumping at shadows she says.  She says she thinks that’s irrational.  Well…

We are all only rational to a point.  The rest…we can’t help.  I’m not that good with spiders myself, but I’ve learned to disregard the fact that some of them may try to hurt me.  However, if you’re a spider and you want to bite my sister, you will have to come through me first.