I’ve spoken often of the wildlife I see on our hill. Recently, on Facebook, I’ve been talking about our six deer: two does, two young bucks with first-year antler growth, and two large, eight-point stags.
Then there are the coyotes who sing us to sleep at night. The little skunk whose entire tail is white, and curls overtop her head. We’ve named her Jackie Kerouac.
In the sky we see red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks. Greedy acorn woodpeckers and scrub jays compete for the acorns just now coming into season. Ravens have entire conversations with us from the branches of our grandmother scrub oak, who towers over our deck.
And of course, Bully Boy, the little Allen’s hummingbird who has steadfastly kept all competitors away from our hummingbird feeder for three years running.
These are a handful of the most obvious denizens of our hill. We see them, or hear them, or smell them, on almost a daily basis.
But there’s another world out there, one that isn’t seen as often, and when it is seen, is enough to send most people screaming into the safety of their houses. A world considered icky, scary, squishy, or otherwise nasty by a lot of people. Laughable, considering, around here, the creatures in this world never get bigger than maybe three inches long.
I’m talking about bugs. Not the butterflies; everyone love butterflies. (Well, I guess that’s not exactly true. I read someplace actress Nicole Kidman is terrified of butterflies.) No, I’m talking about their fellow creatures, scorned and much maligned; those that crawl, bite, sting, smell, pinch or otherwise terrorize. Insects and arachnids, to be precise.
And I love them. Or at least, I appreciate them.
Some are a little harder to love than others. We found this 3-inch long tomato hornworm in one of our tomato plants yesterday.
Usually when we find hornworms, we pick them off and transport them into the ivy or under the oaks. I can’t bring myself to drown them; they’re so beautiful. I don’t know, maybe it would be kinder to drown them. Like all caterpillars, they require specific plants as host foods. In the case of tomato hornworms, they eat the leaves (and occasionally the fruit) of not only tomatoes, but eggplant, peppers, and tobacco as well. They might starve to death in the ivy.
But that’s the only garden pest we’ve found all summer long. Just a few days ago Scott found this little critter hitching a ride on his shoulder:
Praying mantises are one of the most beneficial insects out there. They eat aphids and other insects, and having just a couple of these powerful predators in your garden can protect your plants from being eaten all summer long. And don’t believe those stories you hear about how the praying mantis always bites off the male’s head after they mate. They don’t do that all of the time. Only some of the time. Which I guess means that if you’re a male praying mantis, you take your chances.
And speaking of predators, we have enormous garden spiders who hang around under the eaves of our front entryway/porch and in the ivy that grows under our avocado trees. These gals aren’t afraid to take on prey much, much larger than they are. This moth found out the hard way that size doesn’t matter when you’re dealing with a spider:
Then there are the neighborhood stinkbugs. These inch-long black beetles scurry all over our roads through the hills. When you get too close to them, they stop running and stand on their heads, aiming their backside at you. Persist, and you’ll regret it. They squirt an incredibly foul-smelling substance at anything that gets too close. But usually, they’re just bluffing. This pair was so busy making little stinkbugs they didn’t even notice when I lay down on the pavement and started shooting their picture. Insect porn at its best. These guys never bother our garden plants.
I found this beautiful creature in the Anza-Borrego State Desert Park. It’s called a spider beetle:
Grasshoppers can wreak havoc in a garden, but we are fortunate we don’t get many up on our hill. Although, I did come face-to-face with this guy a few years back:
My favorite bug? The katydid. Yes, they are leaf eaters, but our katies tend to stay in the ivy or the trees. We seldom see them down at our level. This one we photographed at a beautiful park in Independence, CA, a few weeks ago when we were driving up to the Sierras. We don’t see them often, but we hear them at night, singing their katydid, katydidnt; katydid, katydidnt lullaby.
James-Cyrus has encounters with a little chipmunk and an angry mother black bear in The Cabin. Sun Song has a memorable encounter with a rattlesnake in The Storyteller’s Bracelet. These creatures play significant roles in my books; they’re not just asides and afterthoughts. But I realized today not once do I mention so much as a housefly in any of my novels or even my short stories. It’s as if the worlds I create are insect-free.
But in an insect-free world, there would be no pollinators. Obvious pollinators, like bees, but also not-so-obvious pollinators like this tuxedo beetle, crawling from wild flower to wild flower:
Without pollinators, there would be no plants. Without plants, there would be no plant eaters. Without plant eaters, there would be no carnivores. That’s a simplistic explanation, of course. But it’s true to say if humankind disappeared from the face of the planet, very few other species would be affected detrimentally. If insects and spiders disappeared, many species would be affected for the worse.
Insects feed birds, bats, and bears. In parts of the world, insects larvae feed people! Insects are great recyclers, eating nature’s detritus, then eliminating nutrients through their waste. They eat other insects that cause us harm. Yes, they spread disease, but in a perfectly balanced ecosystem, this was a good thing, as it helped control population in the same way predators control a population. The problem today is we don’t have many balanced ecosystems, and insects, admittedly, can kill people, too.
You don’t have to be like me and fall in love with bugs. But you can be certain I’ll no longer be neglectful of these tiny powerhouses in my future books, even if it’s only to have a bat swoop down and eat a moth, or a spider race across the floor of a character’s living room to avoid being stomped upon. We may not always see the good in bugs, but we can learn to accept them as fellow residents on the planet we call Earth, and as so, something—someone—to be respected.
P.S. My friend Malcolm pointed out I didn’t mention ladybugs. He’s right; ladybugs are wonderful beneficial insects who eat aphids like they were popcorn at a Saturday night movie. So Malcolm, here you are–ladybugs on Mt. Baldy: