Archive for June, 2011

All That Frass

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Olivia-next-door came dancing through my yard last week, dressed like an exotic parrot in bright green Little League shirt and shorts and even brighter yellow leggings. She had come to show me a baseball keychain onto which she someday planned to put her car keys. When I asked her when she thought that would be, she did a quick calculation in her head. “Eight and a half years.”

That she already had that milestone marker in her mind made me think our bug safari partnership might be coming to an end, but, when I showed her the odd little black specks that had rained down on my car, she didn’t miss a beat: “Caterpillar poo,” she told me. “Here, I’ll show you.” She went directly to a nearby bush and tore open a miniature green taco made of leaves. “Caterpillars,” she pointed to the pale creatures who were writhing in the unexpected light. “And there’s their frass.” Like many properly reared children, she has a number of useful euphemisms in her vocabulary, including the correct one for insect excrement.

As Olivia could tell you, not all frass is treated equally by the frassmakers. Some insects, like weevils and Japanese beetles, seem oblivious to theirs. They crawl around on it like frat boys on the beer cans and fast food wrappers of drunken evenings past. The much more fastidious cockroaches carry theirs away from their living quarters. Tent caterpillars keep expanding their gauzy domiciles in order to escape the products of their common latrines. Thanks to a symbiotic bacteria in termite guts, theirs is so clean they can use it as building blocks. But my favorite form of disposal belongs to the honey bee. Bee babies do not sully their hives like human infants do. All the frass of a bee’s larval life accumulates in a blind gut and is discharged in one gigantic frassbomb on her first flight from the hive.

Given the number of insects in the world, a large percentage of the unseen and barely seen world around us is most likely composed of frass. Happily, it’s a fabulous fertilizer, enriching forest floors and gardens and providing food for fish when it washes into streams. In the Orient, some believe that sleeping on a pillow filled with silkworm frass eases arthritis pain, and a good hot cup of frass tea will cure a myriad of ailments, starting, I suspect, with the habit of complaining about one’s ailments.  — Sharron Cohen


Sunday, June 5th, 2011


     They’re back. The insects, certainly, but right now I’m talking about those who make moral judgements about the insects that are hatching daily. “Ladybugs are good insects,” someone said to me yesterday. “And dragonflies. And bees. They pollinate flowers, so bees are good insects, too.”
     “Flies pollinate flowers,” I countered, then waited a long four seconds for the logical “Then flies must be good insects, too,” that, you already know, did not follow. “Maybe if we could eat their highly condensed vomited nectar we’d think more highly of them,” I added. I had already told one of the women in my neighborhood trail cleaning group that ticks could be considered as much the victims of Lyme Disease as people, so even I knew it might be time to change the subject.
     Those creatures that add to our comfort are good, those that harm or annoy us are bad. The human race has settled its fanny firmly on the high-horse throne, pronouncing its judgements with caveman-like simplicity: Bees-Good-Keep. Aphids-Bad-Kill. Oh sure, some of us are more enlightened. But our conviction that we live in an elegantly complicated world of intertwined life, the importance of whose individual components are often beyond our ability to understand, is less firmly held when the price of a quick foray into the yard is a constellation of itchy welts behind our ears or our children return from the park festooned with ticks.

     I am not the insect world’s version of St Francis of Assisi. I slap and swat as much as anybody else. But I also understand that there is nothing personal, and certainly nothing moral, in the behavior of insects. They all do what they need to do in order to survive, both individually and as a species. Those that please us and those we fear are alike in being fascinating creatures. Let’s start the summer season welcoming both.

– Sharron Cohen