Tag Archives: insects

Rats and Sparrows, Poplar and Ragweed: Traverse City versus Nature

Close to the railroad trestle across the Boardman River at Eighth Street, a large patch of ragweed grows tall, some plants reaching five feet high. It covers disturbed ground with a dense tangle of leaves and stems, never gracing the landscape with a hint of color. Not particular to good soil or poor, it grows wherever the soil has been disturbed, only reaching gigantic proportions under the best conditions. Though an annual, it comes up year after year unless attention is paid to its control.

Green ragweed, growing near Boardman River and Eighth Street, Traverse City, September 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

Ragweed will eventually go away as other plants move in to squeeze it out, but its retreat is often slow and uneven. Uprooting the plant gets rid of it for a scant year or two, but as long as the ground is bare of other plants, it will come back. The only real solution is to seed an area with something more desirable- grass or shrubs, for example. That, of course, involves a plan, disciplined labor, and money for seed. In the past Traverse City applied a simpler remedy: paying children to eradicate ragweed. While spreading wealth among the youth, it never quite did the job. Ragweed flourishes now as it always has.

With the building of the homes, railroads, farms, docks, and factories that replaced the great pine forests of the Traverse area came the pests that survive and thrive on the leavings of humankind: spilled grain from a mill, garbage left beside a house, a dump sited near residences, the river with its flowing cargo of waste and dead fish, horse manure that nourished clouds of floes. Rat and sparrows, locusts and flies- even unwanted plants like ragweed- arrived in our town and, like their fellow human immigrants, settled down to make decent homes for themselves. Seeing no future in the Old World, Norway rats fled to America, obtaining free transportation aboard boats shipping seed corn and food to the New World. Invited by certain misguided individuals who missed the birds of Europe, house sparrows were set free on the East Coast of the United States in 1852. It did not take them long to find Traverse City for it is noted in a Record-Eagle article of 1923 that a bounty of two cents was offered for every sparrow carcass brought in to the examiners.

Firearm control of animals was not confined to sparrows. Rats brought a richer reward than sparrows to young marksmen: ten cents per rat, the tail being sufficient evidence of a corpse. Of course, a wiser, and less violent approach would have been to make food unavailable to rodents and birds, but that simple idea would require time to take root in people’s consciousness. After all, shooting pests provides a certain satisfaction since success is easily measured by body counts, while eliminating food sources does not carry the same panache. Besides, the hunter’s instinct is never far from the surface in small towns of the American Middle West.

Undeserving of compassion, these hapless creatures were classified as “vermin” and were hated because they spread disease and filth about the city. More than the threat to public health they posed was the appearance of poverty and ugliness. They represented an insult to the civilization of a fine city: Traverse City, Michigan. To affronted townspeople, the only good sparrow was a dead sparrow; the only good rat was a dead rat.

The Record-Eagle joined the battle against vermin in 1924. Fresh from victories over the rat populations of Manistee and Muskegon, one Helen Caldwell became the field general for a local rat extermination campaign. Beneath a picture of Caldwell, the newspaper waxed poetic about the campaign:

Rodents and such were gathering fast,
When through the village street they passed
A youth [Caldwell] whose banner bore that strange device,
“Rat Poison!”

Straightaway unto Bill Hobbs she turned,
And he it was who firstly learned,
The power behind those magic words,
“Rat Poison!”

And he took her to the paper place,
Where the Record-Eagle entered the race
To shout and cry from the top of the page,
“Rat Poison!”

Then to the mayor she hied her way,
And with him also she had her say,
Which was and is and will be, too
“Rat Poison!”

The board of health sat on the case,
And a smile beamed over Doc Holliday’s face,
As he decreed for the city’s pests
“Rat Poison!”

Witherite, Barium carbonate, BaCO3; Hexham, Northumberland, U.K.; Collection of the Institute of Mineralogy, University Tübingen, 2009.

Barium carbonate was the poison of choice. It was to be mixed with meat, cheese, cereals and cake- even fresh fruit like bananas and cantaloupe (apparently, rat insisted on a smorgasbord of delicacies). Care would be taken to keep the poison bait away from pets (and children, one would presume). In case an accident should occur, the sufferer should ingest Rochelle or Epson salts as an emetic.

The mayor of Traverse City, James T. Milliken, issued a proclamation in support of the rat extermination program:

Inasmuch as every person in the city is supporting two rats at a cost of $1.82 each and inasmuch as this expense can be eliminated, it is with considerable enthusiasm that I endorse the rat extermination campaign which is now being waged in Traverse City.

In endorsing this campaign I also designate the dates from July 31 to August 9 as “Rat Killing Week” and urge every citizen, including every boy and every girl, to join this movement and make Traverse City a ratless city.

With such publicity, the campaign could not but succeed. A week into the campaign the Record-Eagle reported, “Traverse City’s rat population has decreased by leaps and bounds almost overnight, the rats in their poison throes, leaping and bounding out into the open air to die by the dozens.” The mayor’s call to the boys and girls had brought in ample evidence of rat slaughter: rat tails by the dozens were turned over to the local Rotary Club and prizes and rewards were distributed to the children. The sales of barium carbonate had gone through the roof at local druggists and there was heavy traffic in rat traps in hardware stores around the area. Everyone agreed that, if the City was not entirely “rat-free,” at lease a dent had been made in the rat population. Miss Caldwell would carve another notch in her belt as she left town.

Rats were not the only pestilence afflicting the City. In some years grasshoppers increased beyond the bounds of human tolerance, their numbers soaring as they fed in scrub land that replaced the pine and hardwood forests that occupied the land in the nineteenth century. Authorities did not mess around in doing them in: Arsenic was the designated poison. To this day, land close to the City is contaminated with arsenic residue, a substance deemed so toxic by the EPA that severe restrictions have been placed upon its use.

Animals seen as predators of game birds and sport fish were dealt with sternly. Crows in particular were targeted as a nuisance since they attached young ruffed grouse whenever opportunity presented itself. Consequently, in one year (1937) 2100 of them were killed by teams of marksmen composed of members of the local Dog and Sportsman Club. Mergansers, (diving ducks) were shot in large numbers on the Bay and inland lakes because of their appetite for fish. Even fish were not immune from human prejudices: it was reported that a half ton of dogfish (bowfin) were speared in Lake Leelanau in 1930. There were called “obnoxious” by the perpetrators, presumably because they were not good to eat and competed with more desirable fish for food.

Tree root destroying underground pipe. Image courtesy of A1 Sewer.

Animals were not alone in suffering punishment for getting in the way of human desires. Poplar trees were condemned within the City limits in the early twenties. Their crime? Their roots readily invaded sewage lines, sometimes causing unsanitary back-ups into people’s basements. Dr. A.G. Holliday, city health officer, insisted on strict enforcement of an existing anti-poplar ordinance after the City was forced to expend 200 to 500 dollars for the clearing of the roots from the sewers, an expense that would not be tolerated. It was noted in the paper that some citizens- in particular certain residents living on Sixth Street- would not suffer gladly this insult to their poplars. It is not known if their trees received a reprieve from the death penalty.

Casual observation about town nowadays reveals a plentiful growth of poplars of several varieties. Perhaps the vicious nature of the plant has cooled- or else city sewer system pipes are impervious to their probing roots. In any case, poplars have gained a small measure of respect- at least from some property owners.

Ragweed was another “planta non grata”. With its abundant pollen, it was known to cause hay fever, a problem back in the twenties as now. Northern Michigan was considered to be haven from the noxious weed. Hay fever sufferers flocked here in summer to find relief from the sneezing and runny nose they experienced in Illinois, Ohio, and Southern Michigan. In 1929 the City quickly went through its ragweed control budget of one hundred dollars in dealing out direct payments to children who would get ten cents for every hundred plants they brought in. Later, in the early fifties, movie tickets were distributed for armloads of ragweed which were carefully weighed to determine the number of tickets earned. On Occassion children who had allowed their plants to dry at home overnight were disappointed at the low weight totals of the wilted plants. It did not take long for them to understand that fresh ragweed weighed more.

The battle agains pests has hardly abated. In recent years Gypsy moths were subjected to airborne application of the bacterial spray Thuricide, that treatment saving the city’s ancient oaks and maples. Skunks invaded one city neighborhood shortly afterwards and began a miniature city of their own. Only a trapping program thwarted their plans for domination.

Invasive plants have marched into town, one species after another. Purple loosestrife was poised to cover every wetland until beetles were brought in to bring it under control. Baby’s breath, an escaped garden dweller, threatened to take over abandoned land especially by the railroad tracks. Autumn olive and buckthorn covered many acres inside and outside the city. Finally, an eight-foot high grass, Phragmites (aka, the common reed), has been recently sentenced to die through applications of topical poison. It cannot be allowed to take root upon the shores of lakes, river, and the Bay or else it will crowd out the natives.

There is a pattern of our responses to Nature’s assaults. At first, we call in the Army, Navy, and Air Force and give the battle all we’ve got. After time and expense, we back off, wondering if we cannot co-exist. Finally, we forget there ever was a problem and regard the pest as another somewhat disreputable member of the neighborhood. Maybe that should have been our approach from the beginning: acceptance of the pest’s right to exist, while denying it free rein to raise havoc. Respect within firmly set bounds. For that matter, it’s not a bad plan for humans. After all, we are an invasive species, too.

“Rats and Sparrows, Poplar and Ragweed: Traverse City versus Nature,” was originally published in Richard Fidler’s book, Gateways to Grand Traverse Past, recently republished under Mission Point Press in July 2017. Gateways is for sale at Horizon Books, Traverse City, and on Amazon.

Midge Swarms

We have all seen them, but we haven’t given them names: a swarm of tiny insects flying in a crowded formation often looking like a column.  Certainly, it is much taller than wide, its width usually not more than a foot or two at most, its height often taller than we are.  Our fear is that the insects will bite us, or, at the very least, we might inhale them.  Unlike birds and bats, we do not relish them either for flavor or for nourishment.  We steer clear of them and go about our business.

Magnified photograph of midge emerging from chrysalis. Image courtesy of http://www.abundantnature.com/

Midge swarms form in summer and early fall.  The insects comprising them do not bite, though that passivity is often not enough to keep humans from spraying poisons on them.  They transform from aquatic larvae, tiny forms resembling segmented worms, ready to mate upon emerging from their pupal cases, but not ready to eat since they do not possess the required mouthparts.  So it is they do not harm us.

Most members of the swarm are male: they seek to mate with females that pass through the mass of flying insects.  Upon being fertilized, the female will set about to lay eggs in the waters of ponds and ditches.  Several broods are produced during the year with the last overwintering in mud underneath the ice.

“Midge Swarm near Cass Street Bridge,” Richard Fidler, pen and ink drawing.

According to Donald W. Stokes, author of A Guide to Observing Insect Lives, midge swarms are often found close to water, often above prominent features called “swarm markers.”  These can be patches of light or dark on the ground, or high points such as the upthrust branches of a shrub or tree—or even the top of your own head!  A shiny black piece of plastic will attract a certain species, if one wishes to try an experiment.

Swarms may form in the morning, evening, or even mid-day, depending on the species.  Considering that the insects do not live for more than a couple of days, the observer cannot count on a week of entertainment.  New broods, though, will prolong the joy of avid midge watchers.

Stokes notes that, in a wind, the midges face in one direction and move forward to the limit of the swarm marker and back, the effect making it look like the entire swarm is dancing.  The resulting shimmy captures the interest of naturalists everywhere.  Unsurprisingly—given their awareness of nature, the Japanese haiku poets have written about the swarms (which they call “mosquito (or midge)) columns:

Across the mosquito columns
Hangs the floating bridge
Of my dreams.

The mosquito columns,
Big and thick
As of a palace

The Capitol
Is visible through a hole
In the pillar of mosquitoes

(translations courtesy of R. H. Blythe)

The poets often portray the fleeting lives of mosquitoes (midges) as emblematic of the fleeting existence of things we imagine to be great and eternal, things like palaces and the Capitol (Kyoto).  That is what we should take away from our experiences with midge swarms: the beauty and wonder of ephemeral things that live out lives unnoticed by us all.

Horsehair worms: A Nightmare of Grasshoppers and Crickets

In late summer in puddles, bird baths, pools, and even wet grass a long, thin writhing worm can sometimes be found, often coiling in extravagant knots, that behavior explaining one of its names, the gordian worm.  As some readers may remember from school, Alexander the Great was confronted with the Gordian knot, having been told whoever untied it would rule the known world.  After a few futile attempts he simply took out his sword and whacked it in two, presumably showing his contempt for that story.  

Horsehair worms are harmless to humans… but not crickets. Image courtesy of Anders Lennver, https://flic.kr/p/56JJfs.

Perhaps not as intricate as the real Gordian knot, the Gordian worm nevertheless displays a formidable tangle, its length sometimes stretching to 36 inches or  more.  It may be iridescent white if it has recently appeared, but rapidly turns a dark brown as time passes.  For this reason—it takes on a more horsey hue–it is given another name, horsehair worm, perhaps in the mistaken belief that it originates from horses come to drink at watering troughs.  In fact, it is associated not with horses  at all, but with beetles, crickets, and grasshoppers.

Horsehair worms are common parasites of those insects.  One summer long ago I participated in an informal survey of the grasshopper population to determine the rate of infection.  Upon examination fully one grasshopper out of twenty harbored the tightly coiled worm, a death sentence for it as sure as the dissecting scissors that exposed its fellow traveler.  

One question about the worm is unanswered: how do the parasites know when the insect is close to water?  If it emerges in a dry hot place, it will surely shrivel in the sun.  Somehow it must induce thirst in the grasshopper, driving it to approach water to drink.  Does it control its host zombie-style, depriving it of its own grasshopper consciousness?  Perhaps—and the image is strangely disturbing.

A single horsehair worm displays its characteristic tangle. Image courtesy of Sara Viernum, https://flic.kr/p/dj6A4M.
A single horsehair worm displays its characteristic tangle. Image courtesy of Sara Viernum, https://flic.kr/p/dj6A4M.

Upon emerging from its host the horsehair worm spends time in or near its body of water, eventually finding a relatively warm place to spend the winter.  As waters warm in spring, the female worm sheds as many as 27 million eggs into the water, many of which are fertilized by the male as he passes over them.  The young larvae creep along the bottom of their watery homes, seeking passage to the body of a cricket, grasshopper or beetle.  The lucky ones hitch a ride in an aquatic insect, a larval cranefly, black fly, or dragonfly, perhaps.  They form cysts within the those insects, wait for them to transform into adult winged forms, and ride out of the aquatic environment to a terrestrial one, a place where their host insects dwell.  Leaving their “transportation host” after a rain or on a dewy morning, they wait for a hapless grasshopper or cricket passer-by.  If good fortune allows them to be taken into the insect’s body, they bore through the animal’s gut and take up residence in the abdomen of its body, thereby completing its life cycle.

We should not hate horsehair worms.  If they destroy one out of every twenty grasshoppers, surely they must save untold numbers of plants from being consumed by voracious insects.  Even if their life cycle is not pretty, they provide a service for us.  Even superficially repulsive wriggling worms have their place in Nature.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

Don’t Kill ‘Em: Nuptial Flights of Ants

The voice on the other end was animated: “Come over now!  They’ve got wings and they are swarming!”

I knew what she was talking about because I had discussed the subject previously.  Ants were beginning their nuptial flights.

“I’ll be right over!  See what you can do to keep them from flying!” I answered with unrestrained emotion.

“A spoonful of sugar?  A dead beetle carcass?  I don’t know what to do!” she wailed, enjoying the conversational gambit.  I took no time to reply and jumped into the car with my camera.

My friend met me in her driveway when I arrived and led me to the scene.  There they were: tens of small winged forms with two or three larger winged ones mingled among them.  Some tiny workers, wingless bit players in the drama, milled around as if uncertain what to do.

My camera is not the best and my skills as a photographer are unremarkable, but I set it on macro, focused, and shot five times without a flash.  The best ones appear in this account.

Can you find two large, winged virgin queens? Image courtesy of the author.
Can you find two large, winged virgin queens? Image courtesy of the author.

The word “nuptial” has to do with marriage, but that term has to be stretched to encompass the nuptial flights of ants.   Males—the drones—finally emerge from the depths after having been taken care of the entire season long.  No doubt some female humans can relate to that scenario.  At the same time, a number of virgin queens were similarly readied for this day, the day they would be inseminated and fly off to found a new colony.  It is a “marriage” in name only.

When the day length is right—late summer as a rule—and when conditions of humidity and sunlight somehow satisfy senses of the colony, the nuptial flight begins. 

One-by-one the females depart, the males flying up with them.  No doubt a chemical exuded by them induce the males to fly upwards, towards the light.  However, the drones do not necessarily inseminate the colony’s virgin queens: after all, that would be incest since all members of the colony have the same DNA.  Under the best scenario, males from another colony would mate with them far away from the home colony.

The mating of ants takes place quickly and without ceremony.  After separating, the “lucky” male flies away to die as his food reserves run out.  He has served his purpose, and no longer receives the attention of his colony.

Activity declines after the queens depart. Image courtesy of the author.
Activity declines after the queens depart. Image courtesy of the author.

Meanwhile, the queen continues her flight, carrying the sperm in an internal packet which she will use over her entire reproductive life (several years to as many as 23).  If she avoids interactions with predacious insects, birds, and car windshields, she will settle down and remove her wings through a deft motion of her body.  Then she will seek to dig a burrow and lay her first eggs.  It is the only “manual labor” she will have to perform because newly hatched workers will take over the mundane tasks of gathering food, carrying out the garbage, and taking care of new workers as well as the new princes and princesses of the next generation. 

By the way, the new potential queens differ not at all from the workers: they only receive special food that grants them royalty.  In a sense, it is like the transformation of a frog into a prince, since in each case a lowly, unprepossessing creature becomes something wonderful.  Males, on the other hand, differ significantly from females: they have only one set of chromosomes (as opposed to two sets in the females).  No doubt they, like human males with only one X chromosome, suffer certain genetic diseases more frequently than the females that surround them.

Winged ants cause psychological trauma in some persons.  They grab insecticides and spray until the ground is littered with insect carcasses.  I don’t know if this account of ant reproduction will score any points with those who regard the only good insect as a dead insect, but I hope it might suggest that the winged forms are temporary and cause no harm.  They do not eat our food, nor do they sting or bite. 

It is not too late to see winged ants.  In their book Journey to the Ants, E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler describe the scene of a common ant that enacts nuptial flights during September:

The slaughter of failed reproductive hopefuls can be seen all over the eastern United States at the end of each summer, when the “Labor Day ant,” Lasius neoniger, attempts colony reproduction.  The species is one of the dominant insects of city sidewalks and lawns, open fields, golf courses, and country roadsides.  The dumpy little brown workers build inconspicuous crater mounds, piles of excavated soil that encircle the entrance holes, causing the nests to look a bit like miniature volcanic calderas.  Emerging from the nests, the workers forage over the ground, in among the grass tussocks, and up onto low grasses and shrubs in search of dead insects and nectar.  For a few hours each year, however, this routine is abandoned  and activity around the anthills changes drastically.  In the last few days of August or the first two weeks of September—around Labor Day—at five o’clock on a sunny afternoon, if rain has recently fallen and if the air is still and warm and humid, vast swarms of virgin queens and males emerge from Lasius neoniger nests and fly upward.  For an hour or two the air is filled with the winged ants, meeting and copulating while still aloft.  Many end up splattered on windshields.  Birds, dragonflies, robber flies, and other airborne predators also scythe through the airborne ranks.  Some individuals stray far out over lakes, doomed to alight on water and drown.  As twilight approaches the orgy ends, and the last of the survivors flutter to the ground.  The queens scrape off their wings and search for a place to dig their earthen nest.  Few will get far on this final journey…

Most winged forms die without our help.  Insecticides are superfluous.  Besides, why would anyone want to do away with a major natural spectacle?

The Earliest Butterfly of Spring: The Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak Butterfly, image courtesy Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wildreturn/.
Mourning Cloak Butterfly, image courtesy Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wildreturn/.

It is a sunny day in March, the temperature hitting close to sixty degrees and I am out hunting for Mourning Cloak butterflies.  The drifts of snow still covering the north slopes and hollows do not discourage me because I know their habits: they emerge early in spring–earlier than any other butterfly–seeking sweetness in damaged trees leaking sap as well as mates to continue their life cycle.  Up ahead among the hardwood trunks of beech and maple I see a dark flutter—Mourning Cloaks, two of them flying in a tight spiral, a mating dance.  I raise my hands to the sky for a moment as an expression of joy at my discovery.  As I do, another Mourning Cloak I had missed in my concentration upon the first pair draws close and boldly lands upon the sleeve of my jacket.  It flexes his wings once or twice and I beam with joy: What an intelligent and friendly animal this is!  We bask in each other’s company.

Mourning Cloaks overwinter as adults, crawling into warm spaces underneath bark or stones, close to soil that remains unfrozen all year long.  Among the earliest wildflowers, the Spring Beauties and the Hepatica, they dance in the sunlight, ready to mate, lay eggs, and die, thereby completing their life cycle within a calendar year.  The eggs, laid upon host plants poplar and willow, hatch into dark spiky caterpillars, creatures one would hardly guess would change into a splendid adult butterfly.

The adult is mostly a uniform purple-black, a muted yellow border on its wings with a row of blue dots inside of that.  Having lived a year already, its wings might appear battered and faded, not furnished with the glowing colors it showed upon its emergence from its pupal case.

This butterfly, like many others, is territorial, males often proclaiming their rights by lighting on the highest object around, understory trees, for example, or hands outstretched in joy at having found Mourning Cloaks in the first days of spring.  Or, then again, with that behavior they might be proving they are especially intelligent and friendly insects!

I have found Mourning Cloaks in Northern Michigan hardwoods–consisting of beech, sugar maple, white ash, black cherry–in the months of March, April, and May.  They disappear for much of the summer as eggs hatch into caterpillars, caterpillars transform into butterflies, and butterflies “sleep” during the hottest summer months, aestivation the term given to this period of dormancy.  In late summer and early fall they appear again, the new adults, seeking nectar and food to get them through our long, cold winters.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica, one of the earliest spring flowers, adored by Mourning Cloak's and people alike. Image courtesy of Jason Sturner, https://www.flickr.com/photos/50352333@N06/.
Sharp-lobed Hepatica, one of the earliest spring flowers, adored by Mourning Cloak’s and people alike. Image courtesy of Jason Sturner, https://www.flickr.com/photos/50352333@N06/.

The Mourning Cloak is the animal equivalent of Spring Beauty, Trailing Arbutus, and Hepatica, the first wildflowers to appear in spring.  We welcome it as we do those flowers, the earliest sign that warmth is returning to the world.  Whether you visit the woods for morels or for wildflowers, keep an eye out for these butterflies.  And if you hold your hands up, you just might get one to land on you.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.