Sunday, April 02, 2006

My insect friends

The day before yesterday I was poking around my bookshelf looking for my next victim (having recently finished Candide, great little book if you like sarcasm) and noticed an ominous black line stuck to the top of Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. I pulled it out with a sinking feeling and saw that my fears were justified; the termites had built a little termite highway into the book and had destroyed the last 1/4 of it, which basically renders the whole thing useless. I really liked that book. This finally roused my fury up against the termites that have inhabited my house since Day 1 (we fumigated the place, but what do you do to completely evict something that builds tunnels deep into wooden beams?) and pretty much have free rein. There isn´t a whole lot I can do about them so I try to ignore them. Destroying my books, however, is totally unacceptable. I ripped their nest down with a broom and bitched at Isaí for awhile to do something about this like he´s said he would for the last....oh, 7 months? Isaí s usually a man of his word, but he hasn´t made the least effort to fix the roof or get rid of the little wood-eaters. arg.

I co-exist with a whole menagerie of other insects, most of which are a lot more interesting and less damaging. The only ones that might compete with termites in terms of sheer annoyance are the little black fire ants that live in burrows around the walls and floor and are unbelievably aggressive. I´m eventually going to go look for a set of plastic containers for any kind of food that they attack (corn flour, oatmeal, sugar, dried milk, beans, rice, etc).

I´ve also seen a lot of ¨zompopos¨ lately (leaf cutter ants) because there are a couple trees near my house that are dropping a sweet, fragrant fruit that they like even more than leaves. They´ve made a road through my outhouse, but there´s still space for my feet and you have to harass leaf-cutter ants a lot for them to attack. So they don´t bother me, but this year for some reason they´re especially numerous and have destroyed a couple sections of Isaí´s little coffe plantation.

Last week, when I got up in the morning I saw a seething mass of army ants coming from the general direction of my outhouse and stayed to watch them. They spread out and move in a carpet, and it looks like the earth is crawling. Every once in awhile you see some doomed cockroach running to escape and be overwhelmed by the swarming horde. They kept advancing towards my house and I finally realized they were going to get to it, but the only thing I could do at that point was hope they didn´t find anything interesting about my food. They coated the walls for a few minutes but I guess they didn´t find anything else intersting because they left without advancing much beyond the first room.

Another time, also in the morning, Isaí and myself and his two daughters saw a small strike team of army ants infiltrate a burrow of leaf-cutter ants right at the base of Isaí´s porch, and come out carrying all the eggs. They were pursued by leaf-cutter ants, and a battle ensued. The army ants at one point dropped their cargo and retreated back to make a barrier againts the leaf cutter ants, until their pursuers had given up, then they went back and picked up all the eggs and continued on in a perfect line back to their burrow. Army ants are really cool.

Another interesting bug that I´ve seen a lot of around the house is this kind of spider that looks sort of like a crab, moves very fast, and gets pretty big (like hand-sized maybe). For those of you who have seen the latest Harry Potter movie, it is that spider that Defense Against the Dark Arts professor uses to demonstrate the pain curse. The spider in the movie is an enlarged, computer-animated version, but other than its size it absolutely the exact same thing as what I have in my house. Well, real life is creepier than fiction, and the way those things speed across the walls is a lot more creepy than the computerized representation in that movie. I´ve gotten used to em though, they don´t bother me at all and I figure they won´t since they are clearly a predatory spider and apparently smart enough to know that I´m not food. Plus they must keep the cockroaches under control because I´ve seen maybe 2 in the house since I moved in.

The last interesting bug story has to do with something I saw the first day I moved into the house. There were some mud cocoons formed into the corners of the windows, and I pulled one off to open it up. Inside were three or four perfectly square cavities that were absolutely stuffed with spiders. I was perplexed. All different kinds and sizes of spiders; what were they doing in there? Furthermore they seemed to be alive but incapacitated. In a couple of the little cells also was an inert white grub that I didn´t think too much of at first, until it finally occurred to me that the spiders were its food cache. Wicked! According to my friend Josh the entomologist, it is a big wasp that does this. Can you imagine what it would be like if a bigger animal did something like that? Once again, real life is proven to be creepier than fiction.

On the work front, still not much has happened but it looks pretty definte that we are going to send in the project proposal, finally and for good, on Tuesday. We have been pushed back so much waiting for this opportunity that we probably will not have time to start much in the way of tree-planting this year, but there are lots of other activities to do and the project is set to run for two years. We should still be able to work things out but I must admit I am somewhat worried. Isaí however seems totally unconcerned and he has told me he´s ready to work full-time on this project. We´re definitely committed to it.

The most significant thing I have been doing is the math class for the Maestro en Casa program, which has turned out to be pretty rough going. I have 7 students, all girls, and they entered the class so poorly prepared for it that I will be impressed if 4 of them pass. I can only blame the teachers from previous classes that have passed them on when they clearly did not learn the basics, and to some extent myself and the students for not managing to have a line of communication about what they understood and didn´t understand in class. These girls are so completely afraid to ask questions and provide feedback that it´s really a struggle for me to know if they are a). Paying attention or just staring at the board and spacing out, and b). understanding anything coming out of my mouth. If I ask the entire class a question, it is practically guaranteed nobody will answer. If I ask one of them a direct question and even use their name, I´m still lucky to get anything other than a blank stare; I can´t even get them to say ¨I don´t know¨. It´s very frustrating. I have to change my strategy and figure something else out for the next subject (natural sciences) because I can´t handle this and will probably go crazy. It´s like lecturing a pile of rocks.

Hope everyone out there in USA-land is doing well. It´s really, really hot here now.



At 9:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Daya & I were finally getting someplace in making plans for the trip down there in August. I even started looking for airline schedules online this AM. However, since reading this last blog posting, Daya is having 2nd thoughts! Back to escuero uno.

We just drove to Moses Lake today to see a guy with a 5-acre orchard of 12-year old chestnut trees...the are already yielding about 1100 lbs/acre. It is pretty inspiring. He has a lot of homemade processing equipment he uses for shelling, drying, roasting, etc & is working on a variety of chestnut-related products. Including a gluten-free chestnut beer. I am currently on fire about chestnuts! I came home with some to plant in the garden to start some seedlings for next year. And a bottle of the beer!


At 10:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm now wondering why you didn't become an entomologist. Do you remember how, like, half of the pictures you took in Costa Rica were of the leaf cutter ants? OK, I know this is an exaggeration, but that is my job and your job is to question my exaggerations! I was surprised at how your interest in leaf cutter ants seemed to take precedence over what I considered to be some pretty enticing other plant and animal species.
Yer very own mom

At 8:22 AM, Blogger pineconeboy said...

Why didn´t I become an entomologist? Well, why didn´t I become a botanist, or a forester, or an ecologist, or a wildlife biologist, or a meteorologist, or...

I had to choose one! But I´ve always studied all the other natural sciences of course. And within entomology, ants have always been my absolute favorite.

Dad, are those American Chestnuts? Can´t be, right, since the species is either extinct or on the brink of it....?

At 8:41 AM, Blogger pineconeboy said...

Oh, and Dad, is Daya having second thoughts because of the bugs? Believe me, that is one of the least reasons to have them. Witness the fact that the entire 7 months I have been here I´ve only been bitten by fire ants, mosquitos, and sand flies (and not too awfully much by them). I have never had bugs in my bed or my clothing (well, I left a pile of damp laundry on the floor for too long and the fire ants started making a nest, but it took them over a week to move in).

If you guys are going to stress about something, stress about the crime. :P

At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The chestnuts are a cross between the asian and european species. American Chestnuts are not extinct but very scarce because of the introduction of chestnut blight from Europe about 100 years ago. :(

At 11:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Gabe:
I've read some of your other postings, but this one about insects was sufficiently fascinating to pry a response out of me. Your observations of the crab-spider scuttling across your wall and the army ants marching through your house caught my attention, as I am sure I would not be able to manage the same level of amused detachment your descriptions you convey. And I hope you keep trying with those stone-faced children, as I bet it means a lot to them even though there is a cultural chasm between you and them. Cheers,

At 1:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Gabe,

Your account of your insect friends brought back to me in a very vivid way my own experience in Guatemala as a PCV - the crab spiders, the army ants, the fire ants, the tarantulas (okay I know I know they're not insects - I'm talking creepy crawlies in general, then)... the zompopos - the zompopos were quite the delicacy in Jacaltenango... they were toasted and peopl ate 'em up like popcorn. (I resisted all attempts to get me to try them, though)

The army ants were the most amazing - I only saw them a couple of times. They came through the tree nursery where my counterpart Efrain and I were working. Each time (as we each climbed on top of a chair) they went through spread out all over the ground in tha same carpet formation you describe, completely covering the nursery area, for five or ten minutes as they all passed by. There were thousands of them. Then a while later they came back in the opposite direction in several columns, single file, many of them carrying an insect or leaf or twig or other object in their jaws.

And I remember how the tarantulas would suddenly bolt from between from the tree seedlings, when were moving them about - they always seemed to run right straight at me. Never Efrain, though. He thought it was unspeakably funny the way they'd run up my arm before I had a chance to react...

I'm posting this with apologies to Daya - sorry Daya :^)

I had some of those chestnuts over at your Dad's when I was over there a couple weeks back - they were yummy!



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