Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Bugs

Alongside the birds fly the bugs. From the public point of view, bugs are the birds’ dark side. Not flashy, mostly invisible, mostly annoying, sometimes downright nasty. You have to be a special kind of scientist to specialize in bugs. And an indefatigable one: there are some 1 million species of insects and spiders in the world, with many more to discover; if you were a beetle specialist, you’d have 25,000 species from which to choose in North America alone. I expect we know very little of the ways that their world is crucial to ours, besides the obvious (pollinating bees, food for birds, scavenging, and clean-up); we seem to care only about those with pestilential qualities. Don’t you wonder if concerted study of the insect world will give us the strongest evidence yet of the mess we’ve made? Or don’t we want to know how they will inherit the earth after we’re done and gone?
     Maine’s bugs, however, are good at getting attention. The spruce budworm can lay waste to thousands of acres of forest, and the insecticide programs to contain it are very controversial, perhaps worse than the cure. A mosquito swarm can be so thick as to be comical. The deer fly must be the most useless creature on the face of the earth. Even in biotic terms I'm hard pressed to understand where the thing fits in except as a chance mutation, an evolutionary dead-end that happens to bedevil mammals in the woods. And the black fly? Well, it’s so bad that the only defense is to stick your tongue firmly in your cheek: call it “Maine’s state bird” and “Defender of the Wilderness”; join the Maine Blackfly Breeder’s Association (whose motto is “We breed ‘em, you feed ‘em”). In some places between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day you need to duct-tape your pant legs and don headgear with netting just to be outside. Unlike mosquitoes, who sample your blood with a dainty proboscis, the black fly scrapes away at your skin until it gets enough blood to be happy. Significant itching and pain ensue.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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