“You are one of the forces of nature.”
Jules Michelet, quoted in the comic “Mutts”
The other day I inadvertently stepped on one, thus proving that X-bugs are more mortal than X-Men. Every spring the boxelder beetles swarm out from the two boxelder trees at the back of the yard, coating various surfaces with their red and black X-ed bodies. They seems to linger all summer at a lower density that makes them easier to avoid.
I’m not sure exactly what it is they do. As near as I can tell, they don’t seem to be destructive to the trees or any plants. Unlike the wasps or bees, they don’t bite and seem completely unconcerned with my presence. No specific predators show up when the X-bugs do, and the birds don’t seem to bother them.
Years ago when I volunteered for a historic museum housed in a 1860’s hotel, the curator became completely obsessed with the X-bugs that crept into the structure through leaky upstairs windows next to the ancient apple tree at the back of the house. Bug sprays and sweeping frenzies seemed ineffective against the spring X-Bug onslaught, and we had to override the curator’s plan to cut down the huge tree just to get rid of the bugs.
As with the X-bugs, there seem to be a huge array of critters that exist in parallel with us, neither of us interacting with the other except incidentally. In thinking about the community that includes my yard and house, I know the niche for many critters, but believe there is just a whole lot going on that I don’t know about.
I have tried to utilize native and legacy plants wherever it makes sense. The chokecherries and lilacs have been tended in place or replanted along the fence to build a screen. I’ve planted currant, sand cherry and butterfly bush whose flowers smell nice and look pretty. The fir, crab apple, oak and linden trees we planted compliment the existing boxelder, green ash and pear and provide shade. In addition to the vegetable and flower gardens, we’ve added a variety of herbs that smell nice, can be used herbally, and/or look pretty.
Most of these plants also provide something for the birds and sometimes, squirrels. Obviously, the fruit is eaten, usually in the late summer or fall; the nectar provides sustenance for hummers and all kinds of insects, which in turn get eaten by other insects and birds. The bird feeders provide directly for some birds and indirectly for the squirrels and other critters (mice, bugs, worms?) that scavenge the ground underneath. The flicker, nuthatch and downy woodpecker scour the branches for bugs, and squirrels and some birds use the trees for nesting. In bad winters, the squirrels have eaten bark off of the dying apple tree. The small birds haunt the shrubs, and the flickers, doves, grackles and, sometimes, ravens work the lawn for insects and miscellaneous goodies.
My compost pile is relatively untended, receives my and a neighbor’s food scraps and yard waste, and is taken apart every couple of years to feed the vegetable gardens. It is a home to large numbers of worms and bugs and a family of mice, and draws squirrels, birds and the occasional fox or raccoon. Garter snakes inhabit various bunches of vegetation and the pile of rocks from an earlier excavation that provide protection from the neighborhood cats and lawnmowers. They thrive, I believe, on the various bugs that inhabit the yard, and presumably the worms in the garden. Raccoons troll the neighborhood at night, visiting likely food and water sources, and creating havoc if given the opportunity.
Our contribution to this community seems to be tending the plants, keeping the feeders and water pan full, mowing not-too-frequently, and avoiding the use of harmful chemicals. We enjoy immensely being able to watch the birds, following the antics of the squirrels and the squirrel-cat interactions, and bathe in the sights and smells of the yard and garden. We try to avoid disrupting the other creatures’ activities, but sometimes have to deal with a poorly-located (from our point of view) plant (a weed is a plant in the wrong place), nest or burrow. Aphids and ants have a continuous battle among the roses and snowball bush, so we generally let them be.
But, occasionally we stumble upon something we don’t really know, like the X-bugs. We’ve found nematodes and slugs in the garden soil. I think nematodes are good, but the slugs get tossed onto pavement as a treat for the birds or ants. There have been several kinds of ant colonies springing up from nowhere that get left alone unless they interfere with something else. The bear scat in the alley was full of chokecherry seeds and put the neighborhood on full alert, but the bear was not sighted. The noises in the attic led us to find a wood rat that we trapped and released at the nearby creek. There are strange webs and small mud nests in the eaves, and the (probably hundred year-old) trumpet vine crawls its way up the brick walls and onto the roof, clogging the gutters. I don’t know how the earwigs get into the birdseed on the feeder, but they seems to attract the flickers that normally don’t eat the birdseed. Small green caterpillars and tiny black seeds fall off the green ash and land on the patio and the table, chairs and guests on it. The tree seems okay either because of or in spite of them, so we just flick the small crawlers away and sweep up the seeds.
Other yards in the neighborhood are more closely tended with regular borders, well-cropped lawns and shrubs, and orderly flower and garden beds. Sometimes neighbors use pesticides or weed killer (a grape vine on an adjoining fence was eradicated by drifting spray), but mostly things here are chemical-minimal, if not -free. We’re upwind, so the puffs of dandelion seeds infiltrate better-kept lawns, but so far everybody seems not to get too perturbed about it.
The community extends across property lines, and dandelion seeds and nature honor no human boundaries. In fact, we are a part of nature; we co-exist with the plants and bugs and birds and other critters. However, we have big feet, and have to be careful where we step, or we’ll lose all the things that make up our wonderful community.
Just ask that ex-X-bug I stepped on.