Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


Tuesday, April 17th, 2012



I’ve heard, from one of those more-or-less reliable internet sources, that J.K. Rowling had Bombus, of the family Apidae, in mind when she named one of her Harry Potter characters. I would have guessed Hagrid, the half-giant, whose profile on flying motorcycle resembles the large bumblebees that are now buzzing their way around my lawn at a respectable speed of 33 miles an hour.

Like Hagrid, the bombus likes a little less commotion than his relative, the honeybee. Still social, bumblebees live in colonies that can fit into the palm of one’s hand (though I recommend testing that idea with caution), often underground. Their diet is the same as that of honeybees — nectar (carbohydrates) and pollen (protein), but they stockpile little of either in their messy and disorganized nests. Those bumblebees that make honey produce a very small amount, and it generally lacks the sugar content needed to prevent fermentation. For that reason, most bumblebee hives can not overwinter. (Several queens are created, fertilized and fattened up before the hives die, and those queens overwinter in protected, solitary places. Each queen singlehandedly rebuilds a hive the following spring.)

While seemingly less useful to man because of that lack of honey production, all of the estimated 250 species of Bombus pollinate plants, and some do it by a method — buzz pollination — that is beyond the ability of most honeybees. The big hulking bumble grabs hold of a flower, revs up her flight muscles and shakes the hell out of the anthers until they release their pollen. Tomatoes, potatoes and blueberries are among the crops most dependent on the bumblebee’s brute strength.

While the bumblebee will defend the hive if it is threatened, the insect is a gentle non-aggressor, with a cultural approval rate matched only by ladybugs and butterflies. Strong, helpful, loyal, well-liked, capable of both group and solitary living — sounds more like Hagrid all the time.

But J.K. Rowling knew something of the etymology of entomology when she set out to weave a thousand different strands of inspiration into the story of the boy who did not die at the hands of he-who-must-not-be-named. The genus name Bombus comes from the Latin word for a buzzing or humming sound. (That motorcycle drone is not the sound made by the bumblebee’s wings, by the way. It is the vibration of the flight muscles in the bee’s thorax — think about strumming a taut rubber band on a homemade banjo — which, because they also serve to raise the bee’s body temperature, produce that sound even when the wings do not move.) Rowling had in mind a character who had such a passion for music “I imagined him walking around humming to himself.” Bombus wasn’t quite the right name for that figure, so she reached back, past “bumblebee,” past the Shakespearean term “humble bee” which had succumbed to linguistic extinction by the end of World War II, to an even more archaic colloquialism for large humming insects — the “dumbledor.”
– Sharron Cohen


Monday, October 3rd, 2011

With perfect luck, one female aphid could be the ancestress of 5 billion offspring in a single summer season, but aphids never have that kind of luck. These chickens of the insect world are the most popular entree on an all-you-can-eat buffet for a wide range of other six-legged critters. Ladybugs have been known to polish off 40 in an hour. Assassin bugs and lacewings suck them dry, and braconid wasps lay eggs inside their soft and luscious bodies. Less threateningly, ants follow them around to slurp up the honeydew that leaks from their nether orifices.

It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there, with only a few ways to go, evolutionarily speaking — hide, fight back, or outbreed the level of destruction — and no other creature has perfected the breed-early-and-often formula as well as the mild-mannered, plant-sucking aphid. First of all, almost all of them are female, and, unlike honeybees, every female aphid propagates. They are, in fact, born pregnant and ready to beget another round of daughters as few as six days after they are squeezed live from their mother aphids’ loins. Each baby aphid is a clone of a clone of a clone until the community is population-stressed enough to require emmigration. Then winged aphids are miraculously produced. When the flyers are established on a fresh river of flowing sap, those brave settlers produce another round or two (or twenty or one hundred) of wingless daughters, sisters and cousins. Only when the waning autumnal light signals the approach of winter do the last of the season’s aphidoidae give birth to males. Then, for the first time in approximately twenty virginal generations, female aphids engage in sexual reproduction and lay eggs capable of over-wintering in plant litter.

Who wouldn’t love an insect with a story like that? Lots of people, it turns out, are not fans of sap-sucking insects with an almost unstoppable ability to breed. Never mind that a cluster of aphids is sure to bring a host of other interesting characters to the garden, the prospect of propagation run amok is a real and understandable fear. That’s what makes what happened to my golden glow aphids such a strange mystery. They disappeared. After years of colonizing here and there among my heliopsis plants, they were gone for no discernible reason. So, too, were the ladybugs and lacewings that frequented their Honeydew Cafes. I don’t suspect foul play. My neighbors may have looked askance at my fondness for creatures they were more inclined to call plant lice, but relatively harmless eccentricity is well-tolerated in my part of town. I suspect one tiny variable — a want of one thing or a plethora of something else — tipped a balance that sent them elsewhere, like tenants who move on with no forwarding address. The disappearance of my golden glows has joined the list of unsolved questions (What happened to Amelia Earhart? Where is Jimmy Hoffa? Was Lizzie Borden guilty?) that rattle like autumnal seed pods somewhere in the itchy background of my brain.  — Sharron Cohen

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


Monday, January 31st, 2011

I came down with a minor something last week: light-headedness with an undercurrent of nausea, generalized joint ache, chills enough to pull the lavendar crotcheted couch blanket down around my supine form, and malaise enough to invite daytime television to lull me into a not-quite-sleep interlude of rest.

And when I rose, I wanted honey. I tried it first drizzled across a little schmear of peanut butter on crackers. Then on the biscuits my husband made for supper. And on one of those same biscuits the next morning. And, finally, straight off the spoon.

It was an exercise in listening to my body, which is not something I always do. My body has a primary nutritional demand (“Bring me cheese. All kinds of cheese. Great quantities of cheese.”) that I find best to listen to in the same way that parents listen to their two-year-olds. (“Yes, I hear what you are saying and I love you, but, no, you cannot shove your sister off the balcony and take all her toys.”) But, in this instance, the message was so clear, and the effect — the sudden boost of energy — so immediate, I felt the rightness of my body’s logic.

But let’s not talk about honey’s tonic effects. Let’s talk pleasure.

The snow is to the top of my hubcaps, and more is on the way. The world is indisputably beautiful: virgin white spaces barcoded in violet-blue, revealing a bit of history in the tracks of the small creatures who have traversed my yard. The breadth of possible optic sensation has been narrowed to the point where pattern recognition predominates — black trees outlined by snow, the pickets of the neighbor’s fence, the peace sign markings of avian footsteps at the feeder. It seems enough to occupy my visual cortex until a cardinal lands and flashes RED. I am sometimes startled in the same way when I see summer’s photographs and suddenly feel the visceral effect of primary colors.

That was the effect of the honey I was licking off the spoon. It was Southwark/Queen’s Village honey, by the way. (I have a range of supermarket honeys I use for a range of purposes, but it was this particular honey I craved when I got off the couch.) This amazing syrup was reduced from a vaguely grassy-tasting floral nectar by an extraordinary collective — thousands of honey bees repeatedly regurgitating and reingesting it until it was ready to be poured into wax storage cells. Even then, the effort wasn’t over. More bees fanned their wings across the open cells to further evaporate the water and increase the sugar content of the food that would keep the hive extant through winter.

What I wondered when it rolled across my taste buds was: Do they take pleasure in it, too? In the depth of winter, when they huddle in the hive and shiver themselves warm, is their fructose/glucose ration merely a quick hit of life-saving calories, or does something in their deepest ganglia remember summer flowers, too?

Sharron Cohen


Thursday, November 4th, 2010

We are flirting with the edge of frost. The air chills noticeably as soon as the sun dips low behind the spindly ten-leaf trees. Perhaps the dew has already frozen on our patch of garden, presenting us with a transient coverlet of lace as harbinger of what’s to come. And, still, some bees are flying. A last few honeybees fly in and out of the brilliant whiskered mouths of the last nasturtium caves. Huge ground bees stand stunned on aster centers like locomotives rolling to a stop halfway across a prairie.

It would be foolish to anthropomorphize bees. (Anthropomorphism being the act of believing that one’s dog really does feel fashionable in the cardigan that matches his owner’s holiday outfit.) In his book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, anthrozoologist Hal Herzog describes the attitude of two arachnid research colleagues. One felt that spiders were little more than tiny living robots, reacting in the narrow range of ways they had been programmed by nature and evolution. The other had been discovered crouching in the middle of an elaborate web of flexible tubing he had constructed in his office, trying to feel what spiders feel. (I’d rather party with the second researcher, though I would hesitate to marry him.) Between those two approaches there is middle ground — living creatures, no matter how simple their neural ganglia, are not machines. But their minds, if that’s an appropriate word to use, are not translateable to me. Researchers are just beginning to study (and disagree about) the ability of a wide range of creatures to feel pain, let alone more subtle emotions like joy and fear and purpose. So, I am forced to accept that my communion with insects, no matter how focused and well-meant, is a matter of saying “flower” to a creature who replies “xchditn.”

However, that doesn’t prevent me from anthropometaphorizing insects. These bees are bound to die. As am I. But these tiny engines of life, slowing in the cold, continue to perform the tasks that were their life’s work through their warmer days. I have no way of knowing whether the last drops of nectar are sweet to the bee that ends her life sipping them, but I am stirred by the sight of her relentless quest. Nothing seems as beautiful as the last flowers of fall and no insight more important to me than that we are alive every moment until the moment we are not.

– Sharron Cohen


Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Lists of Top Ten Things People Fear vary a bit from source to source. Fear of vomiting (who knew?) shows up on some. Fear of death shows up on far fewer lists than public speaking. (I guess that’s good news, since public speaking is the more avoidable of the two activities.) A fair number of people fear dogs. More fear snakes. But one fear shows up on almost every list: Arachnophobia.

I suppose every kind of spider engenders unease among those made anxious by the eight-legged, from the gorgeous pastel flower spiders that lurk between the layered skirts of zinnia petals to the ridiculously marionette-like Daddy-Long-Legs that aren’t actually spiders at all. (And, while we’re at it, spiders aren’t insects. It’s the season of deception all around.) But the dark and hairy ones (we’re talking tarantula!) are clearly the hang-in-the-window Halloween fearmongering favorites.

We don’t have indigenous tarantulas up here in the BosNYWash corridor. We have crab spiders and orb weavers and wolf spiders. We have spiders that spin silk funnels in the hostas and spiders that set up housekeeping in the corners of our bedrooms, spiders so small they escape our notice and spiders so richly colored and robustly shaped we can’t fail to notice them clinging to their web sails in the garden. But they all have one important thing in common: they want nothing to do with us. NOTHING. They wrap their prey in silk and hang them up like country hams to dry. They pierce them with their vampire fangs, inject them with enzymes that liquify their innards, and suck them up like smoothies. They are frighteningly effective predators. But they don’t want US.

There are creatures that want us. Mosquitoes want us. While the males happily feed on nectar, the females’ biological drives set the 72 types of odor detectors on their antennae twitching. When they find us, they inject a cocktail of anaesthesia and anticoagulants and sip our body sap like Bloody Marys. Black flies, midges, fleas and no-see-ums leave calling cards of itchy welts behind their hematophagous feasts. Bedbugs want to get far too close to us while we sleep, and a variety of head and body lice want to hang with us night and day. Chiggers dig their way into our flesh in order to nibble on the inner layer of our skin. Eye gnats are crazy about our lachrymal secretions. And let’s not even discuss the human botfly.

You know what we need to protect us from the creatures that prey on us like this?

– Sharron Cohen

Woodsman, Spare That Bug!

Sunday, October 10th, 2010


Several years ago, I made a set of insect CDs for my then-8th-grade niece’s science teacher. I had been enticed into helping her collect insects for a start-of-the-school-year science project, and, while I found many aspects of the project admirable, I was put off by the need to kill what we collected. Let me stop right here to point out that I’m not a vegetarian. I have no high horse from which to decry the sacrifice of wasps and walking sticks for the good of a middle-school education. I did take exception with the teacher’s defense of the lethal demands of the project: “The insects are through producing young, so their deaths will make no difference in the scheme of the universe.” (That logic was a bit too close to the menopausal bone for me.)

My objection was aesthetic. Beautiful creatures were being transformed into far less beautiful creatures. Asphixiated and pinned, their colors faded, their bodies stiffened, and they lost the infinite varieties of behaviors that made them such fascinating objects of scrutiny. I made the CDs in an attempt to convince Julianna’s teacher to allow at least some of his students to capture insects photographically. The teacher was surprised and grateful, but, before my nephew could follow his slightly-older sister into the class, the teacher had retired and been replaced, alas, by someone who “can’t stand bugs.”

Julianna’s 8th-grade year left me with an abiding love for photographing insects (prowling my yard for insects is a form of going on safari), a collection of insect guidebooks (and a frustratingly clear understanding of how difficult it is to identify any one specific insect with those guidebooks), and a sobering look (via internet) at the prevailing cultural view of the class Insecta. In one word: ENEMY. Oh, sure, we have our happy little honey bees and our cute little lady bugs and even the generally well-respected praying mantis (there’s a Utube video of a mantis killing hummingbirds that might give some people pause), but, in general, all insects tend to be painted with one brush, and that brush has usually been dipped in poison.

I understand the desire to bring tomatoes to unblighted fullness and to avoid the filth of Japanese Beetle excrement on one’s beans. But a garden without insects is a stage set without actors. Bring on the hard-working shepherd ants minding nurseries of planthopper babies, matriarchal aphids popping out live-birth clones of themselves, and marauding ladybugs looking for a meal. Give me Lady Macbeth-like spiders hidden in the zinnias and sexton beetles burying the dead. Send in the high-flyers and the low crawlers, the rapaciously predatory and the lasciviously sexual. I’ll trade a bit of broccoli for the show.

– Sharron Cohen

The Carrot from Hell

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

This summer I grew the ugliest carrots you’ve ever seen.  They had multiple forks and lots of bumps like little tumors.  The carrot in this picture is handsome compared to mine, but it clearly represents my problem:  Root knot nematodes.    Nematodes are not insects.  They are microscopic animals that look like little worms, and many live in the soil.  Some kinds help the gardener by destroying grubs and maggots. [Some kinds are parasites on humans, like pinworms, hookworms, trichinosis, and whipworms.]

The nematodes that are parasites on plants can do a lot of damage to almost any part of the plant.  The root knot nematod lives in the roots and causes knot-like swellings on the root system.  In addition to carrots, they can infect many other plants.

Control of root knot nematodes is done by many of the good-gardening habits that we hear about from garden friends:  Keeping garden beds clean and free of dying plant matter, applying compost, rotating planting, mulching.   If you suspect nematodes in your plants, you should remove and destroy the infected plants. Letting the land lie fallow for a year is not reasonable in our garden, but buying resistant varieties of plants would help. Stone and I plan to try two more drastic measures:

  1. Sterilization:  After removing dead plant material and turning the soil over, cover it with clear plastic, weighing the sides down with bricks.  Four to six weeks of this solar treatment should sterilize the soil of most of the nematodes, but also of the good fungi and bacteria too.
  2. Using marigolds as a cover crop:  After the sterilization, we will plow under our marigolds in the area concerned.  The chemicals released into the soil by the marigolds cannot be tolerated by the nematodes.

Then mulching should help introduce new good organisms to the soil.


    References:  Picture from Flint, M L. Pests of the Garden and Small Farm, 2nd ed.  Los Angeles, CA: U of CA Press, 1998

    Info abt. nematodes from Deardorff, D & Wadsworth K.  What’s Wrong With My Plant? (And How Do I Fix It?) A Visual Guide to Easy Diagnosis and Organic Remedies.  Portland:Timber Press,2009.

    Orb-Weaver Spider

    Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

    Gardeners say they are seeing fewer of these Orb-Weaver Spiders this year. Maybe it is too hot & dry for them?

    An interesting Wikipedia article says researchers think the heavy cross-stitching on the web helps hide it from prey — something I’ve wondered about ever since one showed up in my garden a few years ago.
    [Pauline's pix, Irene's plot, BarbM's post]