Emerging

“Where are the bees and butterflies?”

This is a question that has come up in August for at least the past couple of years. It comes from friends and colleagues who spend time outdoors, especially those who garden. It used to be that we would discuss the overabundance of pests – explosions of brown marmorated stinkbugs, flea beetles, and aphids. Those may still be problems, but now they seem overshadowed by the absence of pollinators, specifically honeybees and monarchs. The question catches me off guard every time, and I find myself quickly riffling through a mental catalog of recent images to see if bees and butterflies really have declined there. I realize as I do this that my catalog – my awareness of this particular sector of biodiversity – probably does not give an accurate reckoning. Just looking at the photographs I’ve taken confirms it. I love photographing pollinators, but honeybees account for a tiny proportion of my images. Instead, there are other types of bees, syrphid flies, ichneumon wasps, moths, ants, and myriad other bugs. Butterflies are certainly a favorite focus, but among these prevail the tiny hairstreaks and blues, the buckeyes and fritillaries. Honeybees and monarchs do get their share of attention, but only in certain quintessential moments: the first honeybee with loaded pollen sacs, delving into the first spring blossoms, the striped monarch caterpillar munching on milkweed, its black antennae waving wildly, or an adult’s orange wings a bold beacon flashing among meadow grasses.

monarchs
People who study pollinators will tell you that honeybees and monarch butterflies are not the most critical for sustaining the biodiversity of flowering plants. But as commonly cultivated species, they have become charismatic pollinator poster children. This fall, a family that raises butterflies at their home brought in several monarch caterpillars in a rearing chamber so that students could watch their metamorphosis. They performed beautifully, eating their milkweed and then climbing to the top of the chamber to affix themselves into dangling J-shapes before almost instantly transforming into lovely jade-green chrysalises. A week or so later, again in the blink of an eye, they popped out of those cases to pump and spread their wings. It is a privileged and wondrous moment to behold. Watching the faces of children who witness this transformation, who let the butterfly step onto their finger and feel that nearly weightless being lift into first flight, is to see an indelible impression being made.

Is the captive rearing of species such as honeybees and monarchs a best practice for sustaining biodiversity? Is it any different from celebrating the recent birth of a giant panda in the National Zoo? To me, the question is less about the well-being of these species, and more about whether the attention they receive detracts from others that are permonarch0730151haps less appealing, but are vital pieces of a larger puzzle whose full picture is still being described. What about the striking saddleback caterpillar with venomous spines that we watch out for in the woods? What about the plump orange milkweed bug nymphs huddling on the milkweed leaves?

When the last of the donated monarch butterflies had emerged and flown, the parent who had loaned us the rearing setup came to retrieve it. She saw that one chrysalis still hung there, mostly green, but with one dark blotch. “Oh, that one will produce a parasitic grub,” she said. “You should just destroy it.” I thanked her and asked to keep it a few days longer. That puzzle isn’t finished quite yet.

Whose home

rbhaistreakvfrit1A day off from school.  I stayed home for most of it, wandering around the yard and gardens with my camera.  Each observed movement of an animal felt like a gift, each moment held still enough to photograph, additional bounty.  A red-banded  hairstreak in the grass slowly rubbing its tails together, a variegated fritillary basking on an apple leaf – these I managed to capture.  I am struck today by how many lives I am privileged to witness playing out here that I am never able to photograph.  This is their home in ways that I can barely fathom.  The phoebe swooping in a perfect arc from dead spruce branch to insect and back, the groundhog lumbering along the edge of the woods, the deer wandering casually into the yard munching apples, the robberfly perched on the top wire of the fence, eyes seeing in every direction. The young squirrel creeps along the stone wall, just a few feet from where I sit, carrying an acorn in its mouth.  It bounds out into the grass, pausing and sniffing until it finally begins to dig at the dirt, stuffs its acorn into the hole, and then pats the small mound down with its paws.  Before it bounds away, it moves a few stray leaves, tidies the grass.

This is my hobby, to watch, to enjoy the watching, to document it when I can.  These creatures, along with the seeds floating on the breeze, and the maple leaves shadowed against dappled sycamore bark, are part of what I consider my home. When the woodpecker taps seeds into the siding, or the deer eat the hosta, the burn weed invades the flower bed, and the groundhog pushes her way under the fence and into the garden, they make themselves at home with an imperative that is hard to deny.

Itching to go


mon3It’s been a week, and I am still scratching the chigger bites that I got hiking around Soldiers Delight NEA last week.  Throughout the broiling summer, I would head out to this favorite spot clothed head to toe in tick and chigger-proof gear, spray my ankles and shoes with repellent, and jump into the shower as soon as I returned.  For the most part, I survived these outings unscathed, but I detested being out in the woods wearing chemical armor and didn’t feel like lingering to look around. So last week, I went out sleeveless in shorts and sandals.  The butterflies popped out of the bluestem, lit on boneset and ironweed, nectaring long enough for me to slowly approach through waist-high grasses.  I spent hours out there relishing the solitude, the slight breeze that picked up a lone monarch and carried it to a patch of bright purple blazing star.  The scent of joe-pye weed rose along a grassy stream where I crouched, lifting rocks one by one – here a young dusky salamander, there a tiny coiled water snake.

The chiggers accepted my invitation to dine.  Their bites, swaths of vivid red welts against my pale midsection, will slowly fade. Chiggers are invisible to me when I am out photographing butterflies. I am searching for the bold, the lovely, the striking, the remarkable, while being consumed by creatures tinier than a pinhead.  Also consumed by the need to know more, I have just learned that only the juveniles feast on me, and that at this stage their legs number 6 rather than 8. Their digestive enzymes dissolve my flesh while forming a feeding tube in it.  No animal remains in or on me – only the rankling itch.

My skin still holds the faint scars of last year’s chigger feasts, etched by the elders of this year’s youngsters. I am tattooed with reminders to pay attention, to keep watch for what I haven’t yet learned to see.