Another Stinky Subject

Somethings look good and smell bad. Some look bad and smell good. This little critter is the exception. It looks bad and smells bad.

On January 16, 2008 I posted Part 1 of What’s That Smell not knowing there would be a Part  2.  Part 1 was about our encounters with members of the Pepe LaPew family who were keeping house under our manse at the farm.  Subsequently I’ve written about June Bugs, stinkbait eating dogs, goat head stickers, and dragonflies copulating in mid-air.  As you can see, I have a very low standard when it comes to selecting topics for my attention, but I am always alert to the eccentricities of the natural world.  I do this, of course, on your behalf.

Recently my attention was drawn to a member of the Pentatomidae family (for those of you not in the know,that’s in the insect world) by none other than the Dirt Doctor, Howard Garrett.  I read the good Doctor’s on-line newsletter religiously (well, not religiously, because as you may have surmised from past postings, I am not so inclined….but I read all his stuff).  In his recent addition, he posted what I can only call a Stink Bug Alert.  As you might imagine, it immediately caught my attention.  The aforementioned critter is not simply a stink bug, it is a Brown Mamorated Stink Bug; called a BMSB by those in the trade.  It is of the family Pentatomidae, but more particularly it is a Halymorpha Halys of phylum and order respectively.

The stink bug goes by many other names as well, but none so aptly descriptive.  Some refer to it a “the shield bug” because of it’s shape.  Others say it is a “bark beetle” for obvious reasons.  In Mexico it is called Chinche de Monte (among other names) where it is said to have the faint taste of cinnamon.  In Viet Nam it is Bo Xit, and in Laos it’s pulverized into a paste and mixed with spices and chiles into a concoction called Cheo, and is considered a delicacy.  Strike Laos off my list of culinary destinations.

I won’t go in to anatomical details except to say that it’s malodorous scent is held in a gland in the thorax which is positioned on the abdomen between its two sets of legs.  Huh?  Why would a bug even have a thorax, and why would it be in it’s crotch, so to speak.  Go figure.  When disturbed t is said to secrete a viscous fume which contains small bits of cyanide and is thought to smell like “a rancid almond scent” or “old burning rubber coated with rotten cheese and decaying garbage”.  That pretty much covers it.

The really bad thing is that these guys aren’t even natives.  They are illegal immigrants of the lowest order.  They evidently originated in Asian countries and were very happy sucking on fruits and vegetables far, far away until they were snuck in to the United States by an unsuspecting tourist in the early 1990’s.

Whoever this tourist was, he somehow got them to Pennsylvania where they found succor and began to prosper in the sweet glow of democracy and local peach orchards.  Until recently, they were more or less contained to the mid-Atlantic states.  Due to the absence of any natural predator enemies, they became more than a nuisance.  They became an economic threat to farmers of the area.  Indeed the nabobs of higher learning in Pennsylvania even called a “stink bug summit” for interested parties of the region.  I’ve yet to uncover the results of this summit, but I’m waiting.

Now it’s getting really serious.  According to the Good Doctor, they are now in Texas and growing amok.  Our own agricultural think tankers at A&M have figured out two ways to fight this pestilence of pests.  The first is to introduce squadrons of Trichogramma Wasps who were discovered to have an intense desire to insert their little stingers in the eggs of the BMSB’s and thereby kill the eggs.  Voila, over time, no eggs no BMSB’s.  At least one problem occurs to me with this solution…many of us are suspicious of unloosing another pest to fight an existing pest.  Plus, who among you really would like to have a lot of wasps around.  The second, and my favorite, is to step on them whenever you see one.  The simplicity of this solution is elegant, and I rather like the thought of all of us uniting in an effort to improve society.  So I’m urging you to join with me in stomping down to step up our war on stink bugs in Texas.  We can do this.  We are not going to let some illegal immigrant of a bug suck the juice of our fruit and stink up our beautiful state.  We’ve already got Rick Perry here, and he’s pesky enough.

Ok.  So your shoes might smell a little like decaying garbage and rotten cheese for awhile, but it’s a small price to pay.

Springtime: It’s Not All a Bed of Roses

In a previous posting (In the Springtime an Old Man’s Fancy Turns To…10 Mar 2007) I wrote a paean to the virtues of Spring.  The birds chirping and cavorting, flowers blossoming, trees abudding and that sort of thing.  But like every thing good, beautiful, and pure in life there is a dark side that we don’t like to recognize, or if we do, we wrap our thoughts in words like   “on the other hands” and “howevers”.

There can be no denying that Spring has it’s own special baggage that we ordinarily do not discuss in polite company.  For example, June Bugs.  There I’ve said it.  My most recent encounter with these most distasteful of critters was yesterday morning as I crept from my bedroom in the predawn heading for the kitchen and my early morning potion of coffee.  As I stepped through my bedroom door feet unshod, I felt a crunch and then felt an oozing of unknown matter.  Regaining my equilibrium, I flipped the light switch only to find the tile floor of the dogtrot littered with detritus of smashed, dead and dying June Bugs.  It was as if they had massed for a final charge at the dimly lit hallway inside the door and had died or been wounded in stubborn attempts to gain access to  the light source.  June Bugs (Coleoptera Scarabaeide) are one of the many accidents of nature that continue to live and proliferate in the face of the fact that there is no discernable reason for them to have survived the millenia.

For those of you who don’t know June Bugs, or May Beetles, as they are called in some parts of the deep south, they bury their larvae in the late fall, encasing the eggs in a round tomb of dirt and matter only to  morph into small, pot bellied white grubs in the very early spring.  These grubs are highly prized by rooting pigs and scavenging crows, so I suspect we could avoid our spring confrontation by importing a suitable stock of both and letting them have at these precursor insect vermin.  That strategy, however, falls asunder on several obvious points.  These grubs do their thing, which is rooting around and eating matter farther down the food chain and lying there and letting nature take it’s course for another week or two until the temperature, humidity, and for all I know, the phase of the moon converge on that magical moment when grubs erupt into the shiny, yellowish brown  creatures that are doomed to live a very short life lusting after light that they will never possess.

In searching for the positive aspects of these troublesome bits of matter, I ran across some  medicinal lore that suggested a value that I’m not likely to prove.  My source indicated that the June Bug, at it’s essence, was nothing more than a compilation of edible fats and protein.  To unlock these essential nutrients, all one need do is toast them in ashes, pull away the scabrous parts (the shell and the six prickly little legs), and a small mass is congealed into a “nugget of pure, golden nutrition.  Some brave soul has reported a “sweet delightful taste”.  Better yet, I’m informed that toasting the critters (in a pop corn basket? a dutch oven?) will create a palliative for anemia or “female troubles” when crushed and mixed with warm water then drunk before bedtime.   Who woulda thought it?

June Bugs fade into insignificance as a nuisance when compared to the Fire Ants ( Solenipsis Invictus) which prevail year round, but get particularly troublesome come springtime.  The extraordinary efforts that we country folk will expend in trying to rid ourselves of these pests calls to mind Bill Murray and his futile efforts to de-gopher his golf course domain.  We have no gophers here, thank the lord, but the fire ant is king, and in spite of our best efforts, lots of money and every remedy that can be dreamed up, cannot be vanquished.

As you know fire ants are a fairly recent phenomenon and were unknown, at least by me, as recently as ten years ago.  Certainly they were not a part of my West Texas upbringing, and in any case could not have held a candle to the two ants of youth.  We referred to them simply as red ants and pissants, but actually pronounced them as “rehd aintz” and passaintz”.  Both of them loom large in my memories of idle late spring and early summer days in the Concho River valley.

These red ants of my memory are actually Red Harvester Ants (Pogonomyrmex Barbatus) which are the very same as the ones that your elementary school teacher made you study in the ant colonies sought out for school field trips.  They are much larger (1/4 to 1/2 inches long) than their deadly enemies, the imported South American Fire Ants, and while they are less aggressive, their sting is much more painful and potentially debilitating than that of the Fire Ant.  This I know because of one of the many tests of impending manhood my fellow twelve year olds and I invented in the vacant lots of San Angelo.  In this particular test, two boys stood one on each side of a large Red Ant bed sans shoes with pant legs rolled up to mid calf.  At the count of three, a judge, usually one of the brighter kids, stirred the ant bed with a stick and waited for events to take their course.  Oh, I forgot to say that each contestant had only a strip of inner tube which, which by popping accurately, he could effectively and painfully divert the ants from their main line of attack.  Of course, as the ants got more and more riled, it became impossible to snap the inner tube strip fast enough to keep them from encroaching on ones bare feet and legs.  The object, you can see, was to be the last to abandon his stance astride the ant bed…..therefore proving conclusively who was the most manly.

As a sad afterward, I note that Red Harvester Ants are going the way of many other icons of my youth.  They are vanishing…victims of pesticide technology, fire ants and habitat destruction.  As the tide of Red Ants recedes there are other consequences.  As the Red Harvester was the primary food source of the famous West Texas Horned Toad ( or as we gigglingly said “Horny Toads”), they too are in a Darwinian retreat.  It won’t be long before they will exist only in my memory.

The other ant of note in the environs of San Angelo was the less famous and less understood  pissant (Formica Rufa).  Some say that the term pissant refers to any specie of small ant while some sources cite the old english “pissmire” as the derivation of a class of wood ants in continental forests.  Others would contend that the word pissant doesn’t even necessarily refer to a critter, but to any bothersome creature or entity that is derogatively referred to, as in LBJ’s famous dictum, “I’m not gonna let that pissant little country cost me the presidency”.  Referring of course to Viet Nam.

Personally I choose to believe that pissants are so named because when you crush them, they tend to smell like, well piss.  Actually there is some scientific merit to my thesis as this class of ant has a very high content of formic acid, which is. as you know, a colorless liquid which has a vile odor and is present in a certain human by-product.

So there you are, there is bad with the good and even various levels of bad in nature.  You’ll never think of springtime or June Bugs or fire ants in the same way again.